Like most enthusiasts, I like nice bikes. I mean what bike nut doesn’t get excited over the artistry of Sacha White or Joseph Ahearne. There’s a lot to be said for a bike that’s custom built specifically to fit your physique, with every detail carefully attended to. Such a bike can be a once-in-a-lifetime purchase and acquiring one usually involves a major investment in time, effort, and expense.

I’ve been lucky enough to own a full-custom bike, and I’ve also owned many semi-custom bikes based upon production frames, but built-up from bare framesets with each component spec’d to my liking. Most of these bikes have been a joy to own and ride. Besides being a pleasure to look at, photograph, and work on, for the most part they’ve performed flawlessly on the road.

But there is a drawback to expensive, high-end bikes. I always take good care of my equipment, and custom bikes, more so than run-of-the-mill production models, demand to be handled with kid gloves. Somehow I can’t get comfortable riding a really nice bike in the rain everyday, locking it up to the bike rack in front of the grocery store, or hanging it on a hook in the baggage car where it will bang against other bikes. These restrictions handicap the day-to-day usefulness of these bikes and limit their full potential as tools (of course, others may not have this same aversion to using their custom bikes as their daily rides).

Because I’m now using my bikes as tools for transportation, I find myself gravitating toward less extravagant production models that are only slightly modified for personal preference. My thinking has changed from always looking for the optimal, to looking for a certain mid-level functionality that will get the job done without going overboard and triggering that urge to baby the bike. My Pashley, my Brompton, and my soon-to-be Surly LHT fall into this category. Unlike high-end custom bikes, they’re workhorses that I’m not afraid to use and abuse… and even put a few scratches on.

9 Responses to “Workhorses”

  • Graham says:

    I’ve found the difference between coveted and hack bikes an interesting one. I have a stable of thoroughbreds including a few Moultons (classic and modern), touring bikes, and recumbent trikes. Each is sweated over on a regular basis, paintwork polished, gears and bearings tweaked to get them working just right.

    And on the other hand I have an old Brompton L5 and a Giant Action City that are lucky to see much more than a pump chuck once a month but perform faultlessly week in, week out, with scarce regard to the weather (they don’t get a half-hour cleaning and lubing session after a ride in the rain). The Giant gets left locked up everywhere with nary (much) of a thought. I suspect that though I tend only to do short distances on these machines, the total number of miles between them probably exceeds that of the purpose-built long distance bikes.

    I think these “practical” bikes are more perfect tools than the custom ones. They do the job so well that they disappear into the purpose of the machine, rather than be an object for admiration in itself.

  • Scott says:

    Hey, Alan: A scratch? On one of YOUR bikes? Are you kidding me!? Can’t wait to see a full work up of the new Surely. The photo here looks very cool. I’m a big fan of the mustache bars and bar end shifters.



  • charles vail says:

    I’m in that same frame of mind when it comes to using a bicycle for daily transport. I have an old mid 80’s Raleigh Technium converted to a ‘two speed’ that I throw on the bike rack for my partial commute each week. I t has scratches and a little rust here and there but its basically a sound bike with upgraded running gear and sealed bearings. I don’t worry about it other than air in the tires, oil on the chain and a cover for the Brooks when it rains. If it falls over in the shop at work, I don’t feel compelled to have a hissy fit either. Its kind of liberating to be able to use my bicycle without obsessing about it. I suppose it boils down to whether you can afford to be carefree with a $4000 dollar bicycle or a $400 one.

  • Tom Robinette says:

    Hey Alan,

    Your (soon to be) LHT is almost identical to mine, I must say that you have impeccable taste ;-). Let me know if you’re up for it and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee and your choice of whatever is in the pastry case at Karen’s, we can sit and compare build notes. With two A-Bar equipped LHT’s outside we just may cause mass panic with the lycra/carbon crowd (don’t get too close, it might be contagious…).


  • Roland Smith says:


    It isn’t a proper working bike unless it has a couple of scratches (which isn’t much of a problem with powdercoated bikes, btw. The powdercoated frame of my Optima Condor had a few scrates due to rubbing cables but no bare metal anywhere after ten years of daily use. I’ve seen lacquered steel fenders rust through in less than half that time.)

    Bikes accumulate scratches and dings just as humans acquire scars during their lifetime. It’s no big deal.

    On the contrary, a bike without scratches is in effect a museum piece, which might be nice to look at, but that’s about it.

  • andy parmentier says:

    my rebike was my beat up ol’ pickup truck recumbent. it plowed thru the snow, 45 lb low to the ground. rust was no problem-i paid $300 brand new. now a cycling friend tells me he has one potentially for sale. my mom had her eye on my rebike until it got stranded in santa barbara, but hopefully she’ll get a crack at this one. the rebike was designed by a woman, you know.
    my tour easy is somewhat pampered, but thank goodness it’s not a gold rush. i would REALLY get a complex. steel is tough, it’s my everyday bike. my unicycle has been gathering dust-that is a unique vehicle in that i can beat the crap out of it and it travels really easily, yet it has an exotic feel to it.

  • Alexander López says:

    hehe, your way of thinking is just like one of the drummers I’ve worked with. He has this beautiful, limited-series drumkit he only uses at home and on certain (big) places. But most times he uses a regular-series Pearl he’s not afraid to abuse.

    On the other hand, my guitar player likes to have his entire collection on stage, so he stays away from expensive guitars and only buys decent ones he can customize with little extra cost.

    I could only buy one bass and one bicycle, so in both cases I chose a workhorse with not-so-common looks and customized it to my liking. And both in my ride and my axe, I don’t need to pay someone to service them: I do it myself.

    The best part is that I always find people who want me to work on their bikes (and guitars) just because I care so much for my stuff. An extra income is always welcome, specially when the work is fun!

  • Alan says:

    @Tom R

    “Let me know if you’re up for it and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee and your choice of whatever is in the pastry case at Karen’s, we can sit and compare build notes.”

    That sounds like a ton o’fun Tom. Let’s make a plan to get together sometime soon.


    PS – I understand we have a mutual friend…

  • david says:

    And dirty, too. Dirty bikes are good. Bikes should be dirty. Not really dirty, but “used” dirty, and maybe “clean where it counts.” –d

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