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The $20 bicycle rides again

Ok it was only a very short ride, but it was a long road to get there.

To back up slightly: Last weekend I was bored and a little drunk which resulted in my buying a 1970s Schwinn road bike for $20.


It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The plan was to throw some parts and labor at it to get it ridable and either keep it and ride it, sell it, or do a third thing Oppo would yell at me about but involves a carburetor.


Work so far

Crank Bearings

First up was to get the rear wheel wobble and front broken spoke sorted. I took the bike down to my local, well reviewed bike shop to do just that.


It did not go well.

While the bike shop was admiring the wheels for a few days, I set to work on what was left. Highlander-Datsuns are Forever suggested I inspect all of the moving parts as apparently they’ve played this game before. As a result, I put on my big boy pants and split the crank open to see whats what.


OH MY those were some dry bearings!

You’ll see I treated it to my finest wrenching clean room... and by that I mean OH GOD I NEED TO SWEEP THE GARAGE
You’ll see I treated it to my finest wrenching clean room... and by that I mean OH GOD I NEED TO SWEEP THE GARAGE
Yes. I know. It looks bad but... well fuck it.
Yes. I know. It looks bad but... well fuck it.

Aside from some radial scoring (that looks worse than it is) on the race everything looked serviceable. In an ideal world I’d replace those bits, but we don’t live there so I went with repair.


Or tried to anyway.

See I’d made the mistake of opening the (one-piece) crank without removing the pedals first, which were well and truly stuck on. After flailing around with it for longer than I care to admit, I put the crank back together and clamped some wood to the frame so I could get some leverage on the pedals. Some penetrating fluid and a very large cheater bar later, I was rewarded by both cracking loose.


Now that the pedals were off it appeared they too needed some love. I’d never even considered pedals of all things would have bearings but now that I think of it they are a moving part and one that takes a lot of force, so it makes sense.

Anyway, moving back to the crank bearings! Weirdly I had a set in the basement from when I was shotgunning parts at a different bike project. After cleaning and polishing everything the best I could, I re-greased heavily with bearing grease and reassembled, which was remarkably straightforward. The only issues were making sure to not cross thread the astonishingly fine threaded components and setting bearing tension. Too loose and the crank will wobble, which will both be unpleasant and wear out the bearings quickly. Too tight and the crank won’t move freely which will both be unpleasant and wear out the bearings quickly.


Fucking Goldilocks horse shit.

After some fiddling I got it juuuuuuuuuuust right. MY FIRST VICTORY!


Next up was to address the aforementioned pedals. A trip to the table vice got the caps off and the very dry but otherwise good looking bearings removed. Oddly this was the first thing I’d encountered with asymmetrical bearings, with 9 on the outside and and 11 on the inside.


Now I should point out that yes, I could/should have just replaced the pedals. Hell I have a spare set in my parts bin that would have bolted on just fine. But I didn’t. Firstly because I didn’t think of that before I’d ordered the bearings and second because I was having fun. ...well a sort of fun anyway. The sort of fun that isn’t pleasant at the time but is quite rewarding when it is done... if it gets done.

Illustration for article titled The $20 bicycle rides again

Either way, cleaning those up reassembly was again pretty straightforward, minus the Goldilocks problem. These seemed even more finicky than the crank, but eventually I got them dialed in and operating well.

Rear Wheel

After getting my untouched wheels back from the bike shop, I set about disassembling the rear hub and freewheel. Unfortunately I didn’t have the correct freewheel removal tool, so figuring the freewheel needed new bearings anyway, I opted to disassemble the freewheel.


This was unwise.

First of all this thing has like... so many tiny little bearings. I think we counted 45 on one side and 38 on the other. All 1/8" loose little fu- things.


Second the springs that cause the pawls to engage and make the bike go are like... little strands of springy wire that are held in by :checks notes: nothing once the freewheel is disassembled.


Furthermore the pawls looked like they’d seem better days. I think this bike has some MILES on it.


After some looking I figured out how I was going to get this bitch back together, but didn’t have any 1/8" bearings around. I could Amazon them, but as I still needed tires (my attempts to acquire them online had not gone well) and there was another bike shop nearby, I figured I’d put of my big boy pants and go see if they had some of the stuff I needed.

This was a good call.

Illustration for article titled The $20 bicycle rides again
Photo: Google

To put it in vehicular terms, Bike Shop A is a snooty Audi dealer (redundant) and Bike Shop B is that mechanic you can’t ever find parking at because of all the cars in the yard.

I know which one I’d rather go to.

I pop into Bike Shop B and let him know the situation. Which is to say I need tubes and tires. He has tires (whitewalls, nice) but the only tubes he has are presta valve and fuck that.


Then I go in with the opening line of “So... I donked up...” and explain the situation with the freewheel. They don’t have any 1/8" bearings in stock, let alone the 90 or so I’d need, but for $10 he’ll remove the old freewheel and put a “new” one on.

I’m sorry what?

Apparently they just have piles of old, good bike parts and don’t mind selling them on the cheap. Five minutes and a trip to the table vice later, the old one was in the trash and I had a new(ish) one in hand. (He left it off to make putting the rear axle back in easier, which it did.)


Total: $10

Well ok like $55 with the tires and tax but still.

My faith in humanity bike people is slightly restored.

I also found out their original location was two doors down from my house, but they had to move out 25 years ago due to some zoning issues or some such.


Anyway, back at home the rear axle went back in without troubles and then the new freewheel threaded on like it belonged there. I also left Bike Shop B a good review on Google, rather than venting about Bike Shop A.

Illustration for article titled The $20 bicycle rides again

Front Wheel

Well... not much to say here. With Bike Shop A not wanting to replace the spoke, I decided to send it as it (FOR NOW!) and reassembled the front axle with, you guessed it, new bearings.


Being a defacto expert at the Goldilocks problem at this point, the front went back together quickly.

Chain and Reassembly

Alright this thing is about to start looking like a bike again!

After an intense amount of dicking around thanks to the fenders, I eventually got the front and rear wheels back on in such a way they were both secure, square, and not rubbing. A surprisingly intricate dance.


Then it was time for a new chain. I wasn’t going to do the chain until I checked the wear on the old one and the gauge just rear “TILT”. Seriously it was, as the YouTube guy said, dangerously worn.


Anyway. $13 got me a new chain. I counted the links (111+1) and cut the new one to be the same as the old, dangerously assuming the old one was correct.


Then I spent the next hour trying to figure out the rear derailleur.

Seems like every way I threaded the chain the derailleur wasn’t providing tension at best and was binding at worst.


I checked google, YouTube, old photos. Nothing made sense!

Then I looked REALLY hard at the old photos.

Illustration for article titled The $20 bicycle rides again


Illustration for article titled The $20 bicycle rides again

Things weren’t in the right place!?

The derailleur had flipped. It was hanging on the forward side of the axle but needed to be on the rear. (I wish I’d taken a photo, but I didn’t.)


I didn’t even know that was an option!!

So I remove the rear tire, flip and hold the derailleur, and put the tire back on. After another 20 minutes lost to the fenders, I got the chain back in, master link popped on, and suddenly I had a bike!


Time for a test drive!

Oh shit I should put the brakes back together first.

Ok.... now... TIME FOR A TEST DRIVE!

And it went... fine. I still don’t like the narrow AF drop bars one bit, but otherwise the bike drove very well.


Handling is much improved at higher speeds, but with the brake refresh still on the TODO list and my very much not feeling confidant using the drop bars, I only tried this once.

Also it was dark and I had no lights. That too.

I also didn’t try shifting because of aforementioned drop bar insecurity. Baby steps. Whatever gears I’d selected were actually pretty serviceable as a fixed speed affair. Easy set off and easy cruising.


Impressions so far

Certainly different than my previous mountain bikes! For one, it is a lot heavier! For another, going forward certainly seems effortless, which is a new thing to me.


Compared to the 2-stroke cruiser it is the quietest thing in the world. Then again a plane crash is quiet compared to the cruiser, even with the engine off, so I don’t think that is a fair comparison

I think I might like it?

We’ll see.

Total Spend So Far

Oh hey yeah... I guess I should do that.

  • Tires (2x) - $40
  • Tubes (4x)- $20
  • 1/4" bearings (x100) - $7
  • 3/16" bearings (x100) - $7
  • 5/32" bearings (x100) - $7
  • Chain - $14
  • Freewheel removal tool - $11
  • Freewheel - $10
  • Flatbar - $16
  • Grips - $11
  • Brake cables - $10
  • Brake pads - $0 (bench stock)
  • Brake levers - $0 (bench stock)
  • Bearing grease - $0 (bench stock)
  • Crank bearings - $0 (bench stock)

Approximate Total: $153

Still to do

Well I’m still waiting on a flat bar to come in. USPS hasn’t updated the tracking since Monday so I assume it is going to be a while. I ordered another one (with free returns) and it’ll be here on Sunday.


With the flat bar in, I’ll install new grips, brake levers, brake cables, and brake pads. That should get the ridability sorted.

I should note several Oppos have spoken up in defense of the drop bar and suggested I just upgrade to one that fits me better (IE wider). I am open to this, but in the interest of sussing out this bike and not eating it, I’ll explore going back to drops later on.


After the brake work, I’ll need to adjust the derailleurs. By then the new tubes should be in so I can see about pulling the old tires off, freeing up the rusty spokes, and learning how to install and adjust spokes. The brakes on the front rub in one spot, so the front is pretty clearly out of true. How much of that I can adjust out is unclear, so a new front wheel may be in my future.

Overall I’m happy with this project. The spend has been low thanks to Bike Shop A being [censored] and the glory of Amazon.


More importantly, It has been fun learning about bike internals, even if I never use that knowledge again, and I’m really proud of the work I’ve done so far.

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