A funny thing happened in the bicycling world about 15 years ago. Amidst a deluge of diamond frames, derailleurs, lightweight alloys and narrow racing tires a number of cyclists said “enough!” Waxing nostalgic over memories of a time when bikes were a youth’s basic transportation with names like Schwinn, Huffy and J.C.Higgins, this sizeable subgroup of cycling enthusiasts began seeking out, restoring and actually riding vintage bikes, and the cruiser was reborn. By 1996 new bikes built in the old cruiser style – simple, durable and stylish were on the market and bike shops in upscale places like Denver and Sun Valley saw cruiser sales rise until they claimed as much as 25% of the market.
So . . . Why ride a cruiser?
In part, the old cruiser’s new found popularity is a reaction to the complexity, maintenance-intensity and price of many road bikes. For a casual rider or short-distance commuter such miscellany as multiple gears, suspension forks and alloy frames are simply unnecessary and expensive frills. A cruiser with its durable steel frame, single-speed mechanics and coaster brake is about as low-tech and trouble-free as you can get. The sturdy balloon tires can get a grip on a wide range of surfaces and can float over sand or loose gravel, or absorb shocks that would stop a narrow-tired road bike in its tracks.
If stylishness is a concern, the elegant lines of a cruiser are timeless. Then there is the matter of comfort. The wide sprung saddle and swept-back handlebars carry the rider in an agreeable upright posture that feels easy and entirely natural.
Best of all, a stock-model cruiser can be had for a fraction of what an elaborate racer or special-purpose bike costs. Low-end stripped-down cruisers can be found at some “big box” stores for under $100; while these are usually cheaply-built and not very durable, they can nevertheless enable a low-capital entry into cycling and allow a newbie to the game to test the waters. Sturdier bikes carrying beloved old-line names like Schwinn and Huffy generally run in the $200-250 range and can last for years. Top of the line models like the Pendleton Cruiser from Worksman Cycles – a New York company that has been building bikes for over 100 years – can cost from $700-800 but will last a lifetime and hold a solid resale value.
Restore a Vintage Bike
Although becoming increasingly rare, genuine vintage cruisers from the years 1920-1965, the “classic cruiser era” can sometimes still be found at garage sales and estate auctions. For a mechanically-minded rider with an appreciation for a true classic, restoring one of these old-timers to pristine condition and riding it can be a rewarding project. The goal of a true restoration should be to retain as much of the original fabric as possible. Anything else is merely “customizing” an old bike. Such original equipment as pedals, chain guards, fenders and saddles should be preserved in place if possible. Tires, paint and handgrips should be faithful to the original product.
Scott McCaskey, a Texas-based bike restorer and publisher of the Classic Bicycle News
(classicbicyclenews.com/) lists 10 things to watch for when buying a classic cruiser for restoration:
1. Make sure the frame and fork are straight. Is the carcass in good shape? Is it
2. Are the wheels straight and true?
3. How bad is the rust? (If it’s through the frame at joints, it’s structurally not
4. Look for original components (pedals, seat, fenders, grips, tires, chain, etc.)
5. Do the fenders match?
6. Is the chain guard there?
7. Do all the painted items match?
8. Is it the original paint? Is the paint in decent shape?
9. Are all the “original equipment” accessories (lights, speedometer, “gas tank,”
reflectors, bells) still intact?
10. How badly are the pedals, hand grips and saddle worn?
Once the classic is in hand, a restoration involves lots of solvent, steel wool, paint, patience, skinned knuckles and painstaking attention to detail. The amateur restorer will rarely be able to recover what he has put into the bike in terms of dollars; the rewards are less tangible than that. The reward is in the feeling of accomplishment, in the improvement of one’s own skills and in the satisfaction of breathing new life into a tired old machine.
Whether you employ an inexpensive department-store bike, an elegant custom job, or a venerable classic cruiser, the object is to get out and ride. People who ride cruisers do not, as a rule, tackle road races, wilderness trails, endurance rides or other monuments to masochism. They ride for fun and convenience. They cruise to work, to school, to the corner store, to the park, to visit neighbors. They ride for the sheer pleasure of riding. The pleasant, easygoing elegant nature of the ride is what cruising – and cruisers – are all about.