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I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)

I know... I know... I said no more posts about shitty old bicycles, but apparently I can’t help myself, both in buying shitty bikes and posting on Oppo about them. On the buying front I kinda did the same thing with laptops last year. I bought a bunch of cheapish Thinkpads on eBay to see which ones I liked and which ones I didn’t.

ANYWAY...

How it all went wrong

Almost a month ago I bought a 1960s Schwinn Varsity for $20 and spent about $175 to fix it up. I learned a lot and it was fun and rewarding exercise.

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I also learned old Schwinn’s in general and the Varsity in particular hold a special place in bike people’s hearts as be the bike to hate. Think of them like the Aztek... but before we decided the Aztek was actually kind of cool. Ok think of them like the PT Cruiser! Sold in large volume when new, but quickly became a go-to joke.

Anyway! Unfortunately the $20 Varsity made it about 45 miles before things started to go wrong. Specifically, on my last ride the rear end started making a weird noise. Further investigation revealed it was probably loose spokes. Further further investigation showed the rear wheel was so far out of true I was unlikely to be able to fix it myself.

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Don’t worry though! I grabbed my trusty spoke wrench, gave it a go, and manged to make it so much worse. This was the expected outcome but you know...

Regardless if this was the source of the noise, at this point the rear was bad enough it was time to take it off the road until it could get repaired. This was on a Saturday, so my options for getting it fixed any time soon were slim. I would need to take it to Bike Shop B, the cool one who likes old bikes, and either they’d do it while I waited or, more likely, it would be weeks to get it back. (All bike shops are swamped but that one is especially swamped... I think because they’re very cheap and also very slow.)

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The next three days spent not being able to ride were... surprisingly annoying. I don’t have strong feelings either way about the actual riding itself, but I do enjoy the exercise, something I never though I’d hear myself say, and having an excuse to get out of the house. It is tiring without being frustrating or particularly difficult and I enjoy that. I’ve been losing weight, unrelated, and the biking helped me break a plateau too.

Getting old is weird.

Additionally, my partner had been making grumblings about how he was thinking about a bike because he was needing to back off on his running schedule due to it ruining his body, so I’d already been scoping out bikes on CL before all this.

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So... I say all that to say the pump was primed to try and score another cheap bike to ride. Maybe this time I’ll get one that isn’t universally hated! (Lol we know I won’t... it is right there in the title.)

Unfortunately the pickings were pretty slim locally. Most listings were $500+ bikes I had no interest in, 10 year old WalMart bikes listed for more than original selling price, old mountain bikes for too much money, children’s bikes, and a shocking number of tandem bikes.

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Of the interesting finds, there was a tasty Diamondback that was ready to go but with a shockingly huge 25" frame I didn’t think there was much of a chance of my 6' 1" self fitting. There was also an late 80s Ironman, but at $200 and needing another $200 in work, I didn’t see that as a wallet-friendly option.

There was also a rusty old Schwinn for $50.

Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Screenshot: Craigslist... I guess?
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Oh boy here go again.

The ad was pretty content free, but I could tell it was a Schwinn of approximate shape and size as the Varsity. Also at $50 the price was right.

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After some back and forth with the seller I determined that it was a Schwinn World Sport from the early 80's and had the same frame size as my current bike.

Ok lets take a look.

I arrived at the seller’s place at and took a look. This bike... made the Varsity look to be in good condition. When I bought it the tires on the Varsity were crusty but they still held air. The tires on the World were barely even tires. Just bits of rubber clinging to some mesh. Similarly while the bearings on the Varsity seemed serviceable at first, though ultimately got replaced, the bearings on the World were like that of any given Uber: completely ruined.

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Apparently the seller had restored it about 20 years previous and then stuck it in the attic for reasons that are not immediately apparent. This took a major toll on literally everything.

Still... it was cheap and a bike. Learning from my mistakes with the Varsity, I checked the wheel trueness and found both to be fine. Also inspected the freewheel and crank and both seemed... fine.

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So OK. Lets do it.

Well apparently the seller had been getting some interest since lowering the price to $30, something I wasn’t aware he’d done, so he wasn’t really wanting to move from that figure. I laughed a little because I’d gone in willing to pay that, but ever the craigslister I offered $25 with the justification I was physically present at his house now.

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After more deliberation than seemed strictly necessary, the deal was done and I loaded the bike up.

The build begins

As you might expect I’d sort of anticipated this was going to happen, and I also felt that to justify the purchase I was going to need to get this heap back on the road FAST... also I thought a race to road-worthyness might make for good Oppo.

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To that end, I’d already made a shopping list of 1-day eligible items on amazon. I pulled the trigger on that and quickly had a new chain, brake pads, brake cables, grip tape, and a host of other crap en-route before I left the seller’s place.

Leaving his house, which was in the middle of nowhere, I drove straight to Bike Shop C, whom I’d called earlier and they’d confirmed they had tubes and tires for this bike. The somewhat modest sum of $70 set up with new tubes, tires, and tape... and then in a moment of weakness I paid them to go ahead and install them too. That cost an additional $24 which seemed like robbery but I also hate doing tires so... heh.

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Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of the bike before I started work on it. I won’t post the ones I have because I don’t feel like dealing with the new attribution thing on bad pictures.

Once home, I quickly stripped down the front axle to reveal some mostly still round balls and some very dry grease. The bearings were the same size as on the Varsity, though weirdly there was one more per side which seemed... odd. Or even, as it were. Either way that means I had them in stock and quickly got everything cleaned, replaced, and repacked.

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I’ll advised project meets ill advised project.
I’ll advised project meets ill advised project.
Photo: Akio

Front done I set about the rear and immediately ran into a problem. After not being able to remove the rear freewheel on the Varsity due to not having the tool, I ordered one. Stupidly I assumed the World’s rear freewheel would be the same.

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It was not.

Well crap.

After many failed attempts at removing it, I decided to bring it to the bike shop in the morning and let them deal with it.

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Moving on to the crank....

Double crap. While the Varsity has a one-piece crank, the World has a more modern square crank (axle?) in which you can remove the crank arms from the rear axle.

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Allegedly.

But those suckers were stuck on gooooooood. After much tapping, torching, pulling, and swearing I eventually used a pickle fork to get one side off.

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But alas, the other side wasn’t going to play. I finally resorted to YouTube and found a video going into great details all of the wrong ways to remove the crank arms, most of which I’d already tried. He finally landed on “buy the tool” and showed one of said tools.

Wait a minute... I HAVE that tool!

You see when my partner bought his motorized bike, it came with a sack of bike tools. Just normal bike stuff like flat wrenches and chain breakers, but included in that was several freewheel removal tools (none of which work for me) and several crank removal tools.

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Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Photo: Akio

After wasting an embarrassing amount of time on that, I was rewarded with getting to access some truly crusty bearings and an only lightly bent gear set.

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In another moment of serendipity, turns out I had replacement bearings from when I ordered a bunch of wrong-sized ones for my motorized bike!

Hooray.

At this point it was past my bedtime, but I couldn’t resist taking a look at the pedals. Initially they also looked the same as the rebuildable ones on the Varsity, but on further inspection they appeared to actually be sealed.

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Oh well. For now they’ll do, but I did manage to find some rebuildable ones for under $30, which will be here middle of next week. My first “good enough” of many, I’m sure.

The Next Day

I took lunch early and drive the rear wheel over the Bike Shop B. He quickly pulls the rear off for me, I pet the Varsity on the way out, and that is that.

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With the freewheel off, I pull the rear axle and get much the same result. Roundish bearings with some seriously crusty grease. Like the front, a quick clean, replace, and repack saw these sorted. Before reassembling, I went ahead and ground some of the rust patina off the... guard thingy while it was out.

Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Photo: Akio
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Now to turn my attention back to the crank. Long story short on that, everything got a good clean, new grease, and reassembled. I did run into two snags. The first was that the reverse threaded portion had no interest in threading on. I eventually got it, but it was very frustrating. The second is I noticed some deterioration on one of the cups. It was juuuuuuuuuust below the bearing line, but still something I might inquire about next time I’m at Bike Shop B.

Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Photo: Akio
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That back together, I stuck the crank arms and pedals back on and called that part good.

By this time my Amazon orders had arrived, so I set about replacing the brake cables, housings, and pads. Having done this on the Varsity, I made short work of it.

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Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Photo: Akio

After that I cut the new chain to the correct length and proceeded to put it on.

But it wouldn’t go on.

First problem was the rear derailleur was fully out, so the chain kept wanting to come off the tensioner. Annoying, but dealwithable.

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The second problem was the new slip link (or whatever they’re called) wouldn’t go in, no matter how hard I tried.

I’m going to guess all the bike people know what I did wrong here.

Yeah... I cut the wrong part of the chain. This means the new chain is going to be 1 link shorter than the old one.

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Does that matter?

We’re going to find out!

Where we call it done

At this point I probably need new shift cables, but don’t have them so I’m ignoring it. I also haven’t wrapped the handlebars yet, though I have the tape, so we’re ignoring that.

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Actually the bike is ready to try out? I guess?

So in the last gasp of sunlight I take it for a spin.

And I don’t die.

First Ride Observations

The rear derailleur is completely non-functional. Odd, because it seemed to work when I bought it. That needs to be investigated. The front, however, works fine.

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The brakes are OMG SO MUCH BETTER than the Varsity, likely due to the more mechanically advantageous brake levers. Or better pads. I didn’t do good science there.

I’m still not totally sold on the drop bars. However, these are slightly wider than the ones I removed from the Varsity and with some adjustment I think I can live with them. The improved braking alone makes them worth keeping.

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Also the bike feels more willing than the Varsity, likely due to being 10 pounds lighter and maybe because I used better grease on this build.

The Work Continues

Unfortunately while I can claim a moral victory, the bike wasn’t exactly ready to go far just yet, so I soldiered on into the night.

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First off I took a look at the derailleurs. In hindsight, I realize the rear was just super out of adjustment, but at the time it seemed as if it was binding in the crusty housing. Unfortunately the cable was so frayed, removing it meant replacing it, which would spell game over for rideability until a new one could be acquired. New cables from Amazon wouldn’t make it until the day after next, but I was reasonably confidant I could pick up a new pair at Bike Shop B or C (never A) the next day anyway.

Moving on, I started to adjust the drop bars and hoods and quickly ran into problems. Research indicated the drops should be at about a 5 to 10 degree angle to the ground. Moving the bars such that this is the case puts the top of the drops and hoods in a really odd configuration that doesn’t seem like it would be comfortable. However, adjusting the bars such that the top was reasonably flat and I could get fairly good fit on the hoods, meant the drops seemed like now they’d be uncomfortable.

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At this point what I need to do is ride around some and determine what works for me, but I’m doing the best I can with the information I have available because I really don’t want to have to re-wrap the bars if I can help it.

I imagine it is actually unavoidable, but getting it close the first try is my goal.

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Eventually I settled on a 12 degree on the drops and a fairly high set for the hoods, which seemed like it gave a comfortable position on both positions, plus good access to the secondary brake levers when riding on the tops. I’m going to attempt to fill in the gap between the hoods and the tops with a little extra tape.

Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Photo: Akio
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Speaking of, with that completed I could now go ahead and apply new grip tape to the bars...

Or could I?

See... this is where my inner manic came out to play.

Initially I’d chosen blue for the new brake cable housings and grip tape. As this bike was silver I thought it would look nice and give a decent look, but I wasn’t loving it. It just didn’t POP or compliment the bike in any way. Honestly really any color would have done better. White... black... red...

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What it really needed was orange.

Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Image: Amazon
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Ok fine.

Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Photo: Amazon (Fair Use)
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Then what color for the grip tape? Blue would look... interesting, but no. Orange would look fine but might be TOO MUCH orange all in one place. Black would be trivial, but maybe not the look I am going for. Red would look good in concept, but in practice likely look like I’d just failed to match colors properly. White could look good, but I can’t imagine that wouldn’t IMMEDIATELY look gross... So... Orange?

Ok.... so am I really willing to delay getting this thing on the road by two days just so I can have a different color scheme?

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Yes, yes I am.

Am I confidant I’ll like it?

Oh hell no.

Am I aware that worrying about aesthetics on a bike like this is a little silly?

I mean... yes... and no. I like the mix of genuine patina and ultra modern bits. Kinda a rat rod look... but on a bike.

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Two Days Later

Alright so I blew the whole “36 hour” thing waiting on a new color scheme.

Totally worth it though!

Friday afternoon I set to work replacing the cable guides for both the brakes and the derailleurs with the new orange stuff.

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I will say I almost left some blue to give it the whole Gulf Racing colors vibe... and reserve the right to at a later date.... but for now I’m digging the orange.

Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Photo: AKio
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With that done, I set about wrapping a bar for the first time. The black and orange stuff doesn’t come in for a couple days, but I got some straight orange stuff now that I figure is worth a shot.

The YouTubes informed me of the correct method, wrapping with the hand rotation and reversing when you get to the brake levers, and after a few tries I had something I was happy with.

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And suddenly a bike appears!

Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Photo: Akio
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Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Photo: Akio

Cost Breakdown

Ugh... I guess I should break that down huh?

  • Bike - $25
  • Tubes, Tires, and Tape - 2x$8, x2$25, 2x$2 + tax = $76
  • Install (optional) - $24
  • Brake Cables - $10
  • Chain - $14
  • Pedals - $29
  • Grip tape - $20
  • Shift cables - $16 (+8 extra)
  • Brake Pads - $10
  • Bearings and grease - $0
  • Approximate Total: $222
Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Image: enemyhideout
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Well I’d budgeted $200 for this project, so I’m a little bummed I didn’t hit that. If the pedals had been rebuildable (or I’d opted for cheap $8 nylon ones) and if I hadn’t sprung for the tire install, I would have hit it.

“Wait, Akio! Didn’t this bike cost you MORE than the Varsity!?” You may ask.

Well... sort of. Yes. The Varsity didn’t need new pedals, the tires were cheaper, and I didn’t pay for install of said tires. With the install cost removed the World cost $198 all in and the Varsity cost $173 all in, a difference of $25.

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“WAIT!! AKIO! You realize that combined you spent over $400 on these bikes and for that you could be almost a 4th of the way to a decent (entry level) road bike?!” You may also ask.

Yes well that is also true, but everything by degrees. First of all the gap between my investment so far and the investment needed to get to anything that would make hardcore bike people* happy is still about the price of three Gambler vehicles and a pack of cigarettes. Despite my spend so far, I do have two completely functional, if heavy and slow, bikes that should give me many miles of trouble free motoring pedaling.

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*I know not all cyclists are... like that. There is a small, vocal minority that can’t be content with people getting into the hobby/sport at any level other than what they see as optimal. You also see this with a lot of car groups, which is one of the many, many reasons I appreciate Oppo’s general “if you like it, it is a good car” philosophy.

So you own two shitheaps, what now?!

Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Screenshot: Google
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Long term I have no plans for both. I figure either both will end up in use by myself and my friends based on riding needs, etc, I’ll begin to use one over the other, or both will fall into disuse as the weather starts to crest 100F. If I do begin to favor one over the other, there is a mild possibility one could end up on the receiving end of a 2-stroke or 4-stroke engine kit... but that is pure speculation.

Or maybe I’ll just sell them. I’m reasonably sure I could ditch them for at or near what I have in them. Not a flip so much as a “get out what you can while the market is hot.”

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Either way, my hope is to increase my range and stamina over time to where I can start branching out into some of the more interesting trails around me. Right now I’m pretty ready to be done after about 10 miles (on the Varsity) and the next loop I want to do would put me at 15 miles. Doesn’t sound like much, but that is 50% more distance and about double the elevation change. I could probably do it now, but I really don’t want to overdo it.

I don’t expect to do... cycling... if that makes sense. I don’t own spandex, I have no padded underwear (or... at least not in the butt...), I haven’t downloaded Strava, I don’t have a commute, we’re not going out anywhere right now so riding to dinner/drinks is out... So I’m not sure.

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Are... are you going to buy another one?

Not until next month!

Kidding... I think.

No if I buy another bike I don’t expect it to be soon and it will certainly be a better bike. Not sure what that means other than I don’t see it being a carbon steel bike with 10 gears and friction shifters. That said, the prices on road bikes of any vintage other than old AF is prohibitive, so, as stated, I don’t expect to soon.

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Closing Remarks

This was a fun, rewarding project and doubly so to do on a compressed timeline.

Once again planning on this being my last bike post for a while, if for no other reason than I don’t think there is much left to say. Also the fleet needs work. The Saab’s gas tank needs to go back in, I plan on tearing into the EGR system on the Jag this weekend, and at some point sooner rather than later the Disco is going to need some love.

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Thanks for reading, here is Dog A being cute.

Illustration for article titled I rebuilt an(other) old Schwinn in less than 36 hours (sort of)
Photo: Akio

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