With this article I’m going to delve into what bikes to consider when going for a cheap bike restoration. I’ve restored quite a number of bicycles, and the far majority of those bicycles would set me back money-wise far more than I would’ve liked.
First off, I just want to say that cheap and bike restoration don’t really fit well together if you ask me. A bike restoration differs from simply repairing a bike in that you renew something to its true origins, or make it better than what it was with newer components.
Whatever you choose to do, restoring bicycles is a costly process with respect to both time and money. And one of the biggest joys I get out of the entire process, besides being able to enjoy using the final outcome, is thinking about what kind of experience I’m looking for in a newly restored bicycle. And working towards that outcome through research and obviously cleaning, repairing and restoring that which needs to be cleaned, repaired and restored.
But vintage bicycles are becoming more expensive, as has the general cost of living. So thinking about what constitutes a cheap bike restoration is a valid one. Not every restoration needs Rene Herse Humptulips tires, Spinergy wheels and Cane Creek Eesilk carbon suspension seatposts to be enjoyed.
1. What exactly is “cheap” in cheap bike restoration?
With that out of the way what exactly is a cheap bike restoration? I would argue that a fully functional bike for less than a 100 USD can be considered “cheap”. The reason why I feel that’s cheap is because it’s really difficult to achieve such a thing.
We’re talking about bike restoration here, not buying and using a bicycle as-is. Almost always a cheap bicycle is cheap because the seller doesn’t think she can get more for it, probably because the bike is either old, well-used or both.
2. Common repairs and their associated costs
If that’s the case the most common bicycle repair you will find yourself doing is to replace both the chain and cassette. The cheapest chain I recently bought was just shy of 10 euros. The cheapest cassette is about 15 euros.
And those were for very old 6 and 7 speed drivetrains. Anything 8, 9, or 10 speed will cost much more than that.
Another common bike repair is replacing cables and housing. I bought a set of brake and shifter cables and housing at my LBS for 10 euros.
For those two very common repairs I had to pay 35 euros, which would leave less than 65 euros if I’d wanted to stay below 100 euros. So that’s why I think the 100 mark is a good one to designate a bike restoration as cheap or not.
3. Don’t forget you’ll need tools
Let’s not forget the amount of specific tools you’re going to need to perform the bicycle repairs. Granted, you can reuse those tools, but if this is your first project the price of entry of quality shop tools is very high.
I settled for Park Tool as my go-to brand. A chain tool, chain whip, adjustable wrench, and cassette removal tool needed for the aforementioned repairs will cost more than 100 euros. Obviously you can reduce that amount of money to about half that by picking a less expensive brand. But still, tools cost money.
Bike restorations under 100 USD/euros
I’ve done a number of bike restorations where the total costs of the final product didn’t cross the 100-mark. Let’s see what type of bikes they were.
1998 Cannondale M300
The first bike was a Cannondale M300, which started my love for Cannondale bikes. The bike was obtained for free.
I replaced the cables and housing, cassette and chain, and the tires. The Schwalbe Fat Frank tires at almost 50 euros were the most expensive. The rest added another 30 euros for a total of around 80 euros.
I also replaced the severely worn riveted crankset with one from a donor bike. I ended up selling it for as much money as was put into it.
1994 Giant Coldrock
I bought it for 20 euros and it was meant for my daughter.. It was fully original and hardly used. NOS Shimano shifters added another 45 euros for a total of 65. I sold it for that price when it turned out to be too big.
1994 Trek 800
When my daughter did outgrow her 24″ MTB I bought and restored this 1994 Trek 800. I obtained it for 50 euros and only replaced cables and housing for another 10, and added a new kickstand for 13 euros.
Even though the drivetrain is worn, I decided not to replace it. The Shimano Altus crankset is riveted, which means I not only would have to replace the chain and cassette, but the crankset as well. It also still holds the pretty dried-out original tires.
The thing runs fine as it is, and considering the amount of usage it will see, I deemed it not worth the additional cost.
I also spray-painted the rusted handlebars and replaced the brake levers with nice Dia-Compe Power Control 7 EXA ones I had laying around. The ring lock I pulled off her previous bike.
Vintage mountain bikes make for cheap bike restorations
As you can see there’s a clear pattern to these restorations.
- They’re all 90s mountain bikes with rigid forks.
- The initial cost of obtaining the bike itself was either free or very cheap.
- I performed only necessary repairs and no upgrades.
- I reused parts I had laying around.
90s mountain bikes make for excellent cheap restorations. They are sufficiently old that you don’t have to pay much. They are simple enough so you probably need to perform only the most basic repairs. Yet they are new enough that replacement parts are readily available and offer the right amount of gears to be really versatile.
Where I’m from brands like Raleigh, Trek and Giant offer the biggest chance of a good start for a cheap bike restoration. Other brands like Koga Miyata, Cannondale, and Specialized, and the like are usually too expensive.
The same could be said for vintage road bikes, if not for the fact that the initial price of those types of bikes is usually higher than those of vintage mountain bikes.
And let’s not forget that vintage 90s mountain bikes simply look awesome and are extremely fun to ride. So that’s my take on what the best bikes are for a cheap bike restoration and why.
Johan van Seijen is the founder of restoration.bike. His cycling career has seen him at the starting line of classics such as the Amstel Gold Race and Liege Bastogne Liege. Realizing his racing capacity would fall short of what was needed he obtained a MS from the University of Amsterdam in engineering. His love for cycling changed into riding in an amateur capacity with his local cycling club TFC Weesp as a roadie and supporting MTB Noordwest as a mountain biker. He repairs, restores, and builds bicycles and shares his knowledge on YouTube, Facebook and this website.
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