Too Precious to Ride?

Too Precious to Ride?

Some people wonder whether special bikes can be too precious to ride. They ask me about my bikes: “Aren’t you afraid that it will get scratched?” or “What if you crash it?” or “What if it gets stolen while you lock it up on the street?”
Those things do happen. I was bringing a mailing of Bicycle Quarterly to the post office, and arrived just seconds before closing. In a rush, I leaned my Urban Bike (below) against a concrete retaining wall. As I took the mailbags off the front rack, the bike scraped against the concrete, causing a big scratch in the seatstay. Ouch! On the way home, I was upset for while, but then my attention drifted to the lovely ride in the evening light and the vibrant autumn colors. I still need to touch up the scratch with paint. I have waxed the bike with car wax, like I do for all of my bikes, so no rust has formed in the two years since the bike got scratched. I got used to the scratch, and no longer notice it.
My new René Herse had been completed just before Paris-Brest-Paris last year. Sixty kilometers into the ride, another rider ran into my front wheel, wedged his seatpost-mounted rack underneath my handlebar bag, and we went down. As I was flying through the air, I was far more concerned about injuries to myself than about damage to my bike. All of us were lucky: The damage was limited to a few scrapes (on both the bikes and the riders). The next ride on the new Herse was a trip across the center of France in the rain and mud (below). I enjoyed riding the bike so much that even if I had known that those things would happen, I still would have taken the new Herse on these rides.
Both bikes are developing patina, and I actually prefer that over a shiny brand-new bike. I also find that high-quality products usually develop nicer patina than inexpensive ones. Plastics and powdercoats don’t age as well as aluminum, leather and paint…
What if it gets stolen? I have been lucky so far. But if it does happen, renter’s or homeowner’s insurance will cover your bike. There is a deductible, which means that your out-of-pocket expense is the same whether your bike costs $ 500 or $ 5000. Of course, replacing a custom-made bicycle is not as easy as going to a bike shop and getting a new one. After a theft, I might have to ride something else for a while. On the other hand, if I were overly protective of my nice bike, I’d be riding “something else” all the time!
Some truly rare classic bikes are more precious, and I take more precautions. There are different opinions, but I believe that even with irreplaceable classics, riding them keeps the intent of the builder alive. An unridden bike is like a painting kept in a safe: it no longer serves its purpose. I really appreciate when collectors let me ride their priceless machines, such as a twin-chain built by Vélocio, a Retro-Directe, the Schulz, and the only surviving René Herse from the Technical Trials. This generosity has enabled me to share first-hand experiences of these machines in the pages of Bicycle Quarterly.
I also felt that riding a 1946 René Herse tandem in Paris-Brest-Paris went a long way toward proving – to myself and others – that wide tires, 650B wheels and low-trail geometries were great alternatives to the then-current conventional wisdom of how to make a superb bike. It was great fun, and it brought wonderful memories to the older spectators, many of whom remembered these machines in their prime!
I recommend not worrying about your nice bike. Just go out and ride it! You don’t want to miss out on the fun!

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Comments (33)

  • Keith Andrews

    You buy a specially designed, custom finished bike to ride it. There is no sense in
    ordering a custom bike if you don’t intend to ride it. You can own a pretty bike …
    put it on display and just look at it all day and that’s fine…. but please not a custom!
    If you can’t rationalize owning a custom bike to ride it, don’t order one. If you were
    into automobiles, yachts, homes or stamp collecting, the reasoning is all the same.
    Would you own a home not to live in it… a yacht not to sail it? As for the stamp ….
    okay …. don’t use it to send mail.

    December 28, 2012 at 9:24 am
  • lawschoolissoover

    Good points. And I would further point out that any bike you ride, if it is enjoyable, will qualify as your “nice bike.”
    Last July I was hit by a car and my bike was damaged to the point that I didn’t feel comfortable riding it anymore (I never trust a frame that has lost an argument with a vehicle > 2000 lb.). It was an ’85 Trek 560 that I got ten years ago for $80 or so, scraped and dented and sort of held together with kludges of one sort and another. The headset was in need of replacement, the tape was scruffy, there was a bit of rust. All of that. I didn’t mind leaving it locked up anywhere. Fenders were held on with P-clips. More scrapes? No big deal. But it was a great ride.
    I was *devastated* when I was hit and, even more than the repairs to my own body, knowing that I would never be able to replace the 560 really stung. So I spent my recuperation period asking lots of people, and even contemplated buying a custom frame made to the 560’s specs. I spent weeks in a tizzy, browsing and researching frames and bicycles.
    Ultimately, I was looking at one of the short-list candidates, worrying about the cash (the guy who hit me was not insured) and my spouse suggested I just go for it.
    I did, and though I only have about 600 miles on the bike, I am very glad I went for it at her suggestion. Assembling it helped greatly with my recuperation and riding it has been a true joy.
    I still dread scrapes, and would regret it immensely if the frame were destroyed (it was relatively inexpensive because it was being closed out). But cycling is an activity, not a fetish. Bicycles are for going places, and that means scrapes and scratches. I can live with that.

    December 28, 2012 at 9:40 am
  • robertkerner

    Excellent post. I only recently discovered your blog through a link at The Hudson Valley Randonneur and I’ve enjoyed reading your insights. You’re absolutely correct, of course, that bikes are made for riding and if you obsess too much you’ll never ride.I’m planning my next bike and contemplating “naked Ti” versus painted steel to avoid OCD over scratches and dings, but painted bikes are just so magnificent!
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

    December 28, 2012 at 9:40 am
  • Rod Bruckdorfer

    Sailors say, “The only way to be a sailor is to sail.” As you point out, the only way to be a cyclist is to ride the bike. Bikes get scratched and sometimes dinged but they can be repaired and painted again.
    Happy Holidays,

    December 28, 2012 at 9:52 am
  • jdb

    Agreed – nice bikes deserve to be ridden. Scrapes and scratches become part of the patina. My greatest pleasure in riding a hand built randonneur is the recognition, the reminder, that no matter how out of shape I get during the parenting years, the bike still feels effortless to ride – because it was built around my physique. I am reminded of the pleasure of the experience – a well fit bike disappears under the rider. You can’t enjoy that if you hesitate to take the bike off its display stand in the garage.
    Avoid feeling that things are too precious. A car is not really your own until you’ve spilled liquids inside, scratched or dented the outside, and had it towed. You can’t enjoy a nice camera if you bought it to collect and keep it in a protective bag in your safe. You will have no visceral connection to a nice bike if you live in fear of using it…

    December 28, 2012 at 10:02 am
    • Herr Karl

      Interesting you mentioned cameras. Vintage cameras (at least some of them) actually should be used, otherwise they would cease to work. I guess, to a lesser extend, it’s the same with bicycles. And what would be the point of a fine machine, if it’s not in working condition.

      December 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm
  • GuitarSlinger

    I look at my fine bikes in the same light I look at the fine acoustic guitars I own and play . Someone sweated blood ( figuratively speaking ) in order to make them perform to their utmost potential : therefore not using them would in fact be an insult to the one who made them . The dents dings and scratches only being the proof that you’re using them as their makers intended .

    December 28, 2012 at 1:15 pm
  • Heather

    True, the only reason I don’t ride my nice bikes in the winter is because the de-icer used here and increasingly elsewhere. I had a bike stolen, but the police found it(yay!). I am clumsy and drop bikes, lean them precariously and watch them fall. I get more upset about brooks saddles getting scratched and cry over scratches…then forget about it five minutes later. I sometimes see people in Vancouver on rivendell bikes and they are a mess! They look very happy though.

    December 28, 2012 at 1:43 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The scratches in Brooks saddles buff out as you ride them. In fact, a classic Brooks saddle is the perfect example of wonderful patina. When new, the large rivets on a Team Professional have facets that show the hammering. After a long time of riding, these are smoothed out and conform perfectly to the shape of the leather. The leather also looks rather stiff and not that appealing. After riding it, it will conform to your anatomy and develop gentle curves. You could argue that only riding the saddle completes the manufacturing process.

      December 29, 2012 at 12:26 am
  • Steve Palincsar

    On the other hand, don’t be stupid about where you leave that bike.
    Your home owner’s insurance may (or may not) pay towards replacement if it gets stolen, but in the case of that new Rene Herse of yours, there’s the dollar cost, then there’s how many years waiting on the wait list for a replacement? And let’s not forget about all the time you’ve put into making components for that Herse in your machine shop, and that special saddle you save for the really long rides. None of that’s going to be compensated for by insurance.
    So use it, by all means. But when you park it, keep your eye on it.

    December 28, 2012 at 2:15 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The resale value of that Herse on a street corner isn’t all that great, and if you tried to get top dollar for it, you’d have to advertise it where somebody would notice it quickly.
      My biggest concern is that somebody would steal it and then throw it in the river after they are done riding it.

      December 29, 2012 at 12:28 am
      • lawschoolissoover

        Years ago, I pulled a very nice bike from the stream (“the kill”)that ran through the campus where I was teaching. It was lovely; I made the (in retrospect) mistake of turning it over to campus security. Of course, access to the internet was scarce in those days, so finding the owner would have been difficult. Still and all, I suspect it wound up as scrap somewhere.

        December 30, 2012 at 2:20 pm
      • Jason Marshall

        If someone steals your bike off the street (any bike) they probably aren’t concerned about getting top dollar. They will most likely sell it for very little as quickly as possible
        Regardless of how much or how little they get your loss is the same.

        January 5, 2013 at 6:30 pm
  • Paul Glassen

    I still ride them, and my only concern is with replacement of obsolete parts as my favourite bikes get old. They range from 20 to 47 years. There was some recent mention here on this site of the unavailability of quality freewheels and the older rear dropout spread dimensions. Fortunately, in the early 1990s, when the future of freewheels was beginning to be in doubt, I bought a half dozen Regina Oro six speeds on a close out sale. In a bewildering aray of cog combinations they have served me through the bikes’ many setup permutations. I have also been able to always store my bikes inside and their finishes are in reasonable, if not perfect, condition, reasonable enough to be admired by the few people who recognize what they are. I mentioned a concern for theft once to a modern bike shop employee. He perused my twenty-five year old French tourer and said, “No offense, but that isn’t a bike a thief would take a second look at.”

    December 28, 2012 at 3:42 pm
    • Steve Palincsar

      That didn’t stop a thief from stealing my then-20 year old 1972 Paramount. For all I know, when they were done they either flogged it off for twenty bucks, made a fixed gear conversion out of it, or simply threw it away. Either way, there went 20 years of personal history, and all that was left was an open hole that nothing will ever fill.

      December 29, 2012 at 8:46 am
  • Preston Grant

    I’ve also had this emotion of not wanting to spoil a great bike. Took about three years of it hanging in the garage before I could finally reconcile myself to jeopardizing its renovated, pristine condition. It is a 1978 Jack Taylor Tour of Britain that I bought frame/fork only in deplorable condition and had repainted, plus found parts for it, and put it all together. I finally got over my anxieties and now I enjoy the ride so much that I regret the time it was merely a “garage queen”.

    December 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm
  • bgobie

    I used to own a varnish boat — anyone who has owned a wooden boat will know why I call it that. One day I was talking with the owner of the yacht-maintenance business at the marina. He owned a wooden boat, and like me kept it in serviceable but not show condition. We watched the owner of a wooden boat with flawless, mirror-finish varnish work nattily remove his shoes and wipe his socks before boarding. The business owner remarked to me, “It’s a boat, not a grand piano. Go out and sail it!” So in that spirit I say, “It’s a bicycle, not your great-grandfather’s pocket watch. Go ride it!”

    December 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm
    • GuitarSlinger

      Heck I use my grandfathers pocket watch almost daily as well ! Love the wooden boat analogy !

      December 30, 2012 at 5:35 am
  • kimble cloyd

    It’s because we ride our bikes in a variety of situations and conditions that we develop sentimental feelings toward them. That is what makes them so precious to us that we keep them and ride them; to enjoy those memories and build some more!

    December 28, 2012 at 9:00 pm
  • Paul Ahart

    Good story, and damned right! If you are going to have a good bike, ride it! My two favorite bikes, my Rivendell Blériot and my Boulder 700c, have stone chips on the fork, and the odd nick or scrape. Totally no big deal; they were made for riding, not hiding. I must say, after my stock color Boulder got nicked up, i found an almost perfect match for the light blue at my local hardware store: Rustoleum Harbor Blue. Amazingly perfect match.

    December 28, 2012 at 10:20 pm
    • Aaron C

      Thanks for the tip on the touch-up color! I also couldn’t wait to go out and scratch my Boulder once I was finished building it. After I built it up I put some pictures on flickr. One of the first comments was “that’s beautiful, now go out and get it dirty!” So I took it for a loop through a very muddy trail. It’s had “dirt under it’s fingernails” ever since! And of course a few chips here and there.
      I think it’s a great looking bike, and there are a lot of shiny bits, but I don’t mind scratches at all (as long as I made them!!). It makes me feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. I’d be embarrassed to show it off if it were still pristine a year after I got it.

      January 1, 2013 at 6:36 pm
  • John Duval

    I seem to have amazing luck at not adding “character” to my bikes over the years in spite of the miles. I make component choices based on real benefit, not bragging rights, sentimentality, or arguably, cosmetics. However, I still fear to lock up a $3000 custom bike outside. If I crash, chances are it would be a new wheel, a brake lever, a handlebar, but not a total loss.
    Around here, I think, homeowners insurance only covers it while on the property. If not, a couple $3000 claims risk becoming uninsurable. You pay the deductible, which is most of it, and they raise your rates such that you pay for it twice over. No. If I am going to lock it up outside it has to be valued at an amount of cash and time I am willing to loose. Hopefully a junker with a 24″ frame is not a target.

    December 29, 2012 at 1:46 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I guess it depends on where you live, but I don’t know anybody who had more than one bike stolen. Yes, if you had a claim for an expensive bike every year or two, your insurance might go up.
      In the U.S., most homeowner’s insurance covers your property no matter where you use it. In fact, they even cover you when you cause an accident on your bike.

      December 29, 2012 at 2:06 am
  • AndrewGills

    Hear hear! A bike is to be ridden not looked at. That’s why you spend money buying the best you can afford (if that’s your style 😉 ). Otherwise, do like I do – recycle something so it doesn’t matter 🙂

    December 29, 2012 at 4:09 am
    • David

      Yup. Our xo-1s are for when we are going out to ride bikes. Our mb-5 and 6 are for riding to work, grocery getting, etc. and not worry about leaving locked up…with pinheads in wheels and seatposts.

      December 29, 2012 at 12:14 pm
  • Daniel

    I worry about my custom bicycle but that doesn’t stop me from using it. Having touch up paint helps, a lot. I don’t leave it locked, except on my roof rack, where my insurance covers it, but I do leave it leaning against a store now and then

    December 29, 2012 at 5:13 am
  • Joey Korkames

    Its been awhile since my chromed 70’s road racer was stolen, but I still miss how the plating shrugged off most every clumsy drop I inflicted on it, whereas my dark-painted bikes will immediately pull my wincing eyes onto every little nick after a tumble.

    December 29, 2012 at 8:55 am
  • Harry Harrison

    My 1963 Rene’ Herse is virtually identical to the active line diagram ‘Herse on the Compass Bicycles front page but it doesn’t get a second look here in France, not because they are on every boulevard but because it just looks like any old ‘bike to the casual Gallic observer. I use it whenever the weather is dry, shopping, pottering & century rides etc. I don’t lock it up or leave it out of sight, I’m too poor to replace it even if it were possible. Insurance cover in Europe is very limited and would be well short of it’s value/replacement cost. For club runs, I use a 2005 Mercian Audax frame that I built up using full Campagnolo compact record. Left out in the rain, used for loaded camping tracing the route of the 2007 TdF (Reynolds 531c … I know, I know !) crashed flat out descending the Ventoux .. it’s got plenty of patina.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:03 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I have fond memories of riding my friend’s late 1940s Herse around Paris. As you say, it didn’t get a second look. Another grandpa bike, like so many… (except all the others were mass-produced and performed nothing like the Herse.)

      December 30, 2012 at 8:03 am
  • Mark in Beacon

    I’m also fond of quality bicycles with patina–so much so that it was a little difficult ordering a custom bicycle frame this summer. Why get something brand new when I already have a few great bikes that work for me? Well, it’s hard to get vintage 650b bicycles with the ride quality touted by BQ. Ordering NOS vintage parts and bits has helped reduce my qualms about a shiny new frame, and when I take delivery of it in late winter (I hope), I will have no trouble riding it like I ride any other bicycle.

    December 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm
  • Scott G.

    If your new bike needs patina look up “Shep Paine” a master of weathering techniques.
    Also google “Rustall”, a marvelous artificial rusting/patina system.

    December 31, 2012 at 11:32 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I have seen fake weathering on motorcycle restorations, and from a few meters distance, it looks convincing at first. In the end, I prefer real patina.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:55 am

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