Monday, March 31, 2008

How to Buy A Bicycle on

No matter what kind of bicycle you want, chances are good that you can find it on From expensive bikes at “less expensive” prices to practical, functional bicycles for less than $100, craigslist offers a dizzying array of possibilities. There are many great deals to be found. However, buyers must also beware of scammers and junk-sellers looking for the unsuspecting sucker.

Finding and Buying the Right Bike

This article focuses on helping folks find a good, reliable commuter bicycle for a reasonable price. A good commuter can take lots of forms. All the “cool kids” are riding road bikes these days, and road bikes can make great commuters. However, all terrain bikes (ATBs) make great commuters as well, and since they are not currently in fashion, they tend to cost less. Generally speaking, ATBs offer a more upright seating position which is comfortable and provides for a good, heads-up viewpoint. They also have very durable wheels, frames and components.

Road bikes, on the other hand, are more efficient and faster. The “drop” handlebars on road bikes provide multiple hand positions, which can help riders avoid wrist, hand and shoulder pain over long rides. Road bikes designed purely for racing tend to be too fragile for most commuting duties, but most road bikes were designed to be sturdy enough for “real world” use. These benefits make road bikes a great choice for commutes longer than 10 miles or so, while ATBs shine on shorter rides. “Hybrids” or “City Bikes” provide another option. With sitting position similar to that of an ATB and wheels which are halfway between road and ATB wheels, these bikes provide many of advantages of an ATB without as much of an efficiency penalty.

For most commuters, the overall quality of a bicycle is more important than the style. An ATB with narrow, high pressure tires and “bar end” handlebar extensions will feel a lot like a road bike and give the rider multiple hand positions. A road bike with fatter tires and sturdy rims will be plenty rugged for the streets of most urban areas. A buyer who is willing to consider ATBs, hybrids and road bikes is likely to get the best deal on a great bike.

The quality of a bicycle is linked to the brand of the bicycle. The best brands have always been sold through bicycle shops. Companies such as Trek, Specialized and Cannondale have produced wonderful bikes for decades, and they tend to hold their value very well. Other brands also produce (or produced) great bikes but are not as well known. Old bikes from Univega, Nishiki, Scott, GT, Kona and Bridgestone all started life as high-quality products, but are often sold at bargain-basement prices. There are many other good brands as well. If you see a bike that looks intriguing, do a web search on the brand name to see what the experts say. Or better yet, find an expert and ask him/her about the bike.

Bikes originally sold by department stores should be avoided by people looking for reliable transportation. Brands to avoid in this category include Huffy, Murray, Magna and Pacific. Most Free Spirit brand bikes from Sears also fall into this category.

Schwinn has made some good bikes, some great bikes, and some horrid bikes. Schwinns built up until the mid-1970s tend to be heavy, but bomb-proof. Schwinns from the mid-1970s through the 1990s were good quality machines. Schwinns made in the last few years were sold at big box stores such as Walmart and should be avoided. Fortunately, Schwinns have a large and enthusiastic fan base, so there is a wealth of information on the nameplate available on the web. If you find a Schwinn you like, do a web search on the model name and see what comes up.

Quality sometimes depends on price as well. Expect to pay at least $50 for a decent fixer upper which will require another $50 to $150 in parts and repair work. For $100 to $250, a buyer can purchase a good, solid bike which will not require many new parts, but will probably need a good tune up. If you have more than $250 available for a used bike, you can get a wonderful, high-performance machine or a collectable classic, or both! Once again, the bicycle may need a professional tune up, but after that the bicycle should be a pure joy to ride.

Another important consideration is the size of the bicycle’s frame. No matter how good a bicycle is on paper, if it does not fit you, riding it will be a miserable experience. When looking at bicycles, stand over the “top tube,” the bar the connects the seat area to the handlebar area, with both feet flat on the ground. On a road bike, you should have about an inch of clearance to the tube. On a mountain bike, you should have between two and four inches of clearance. While the length of your upper body relative to your legs can effect the frame size you should choose, the general frame sizes people of average build should ride are listed in the table, below. To find the frame size, measure from the middle of the crankset (the parts that connect the pedals to the frame) to the top of the top tube.

When looking at any type of bike, check a few important areas:

• Make sure that the frame and fork are not bent or heavily dented
• Look for rust on the chain, spokes and frame
• Lift the bike up and spin both wheels. The rims should not wobble from side to side or jump up and down
• Ride the bike and make sure that the gears shift well and the brakes stop you in a controlled manner
• Check the tires to see if they are dried and cracked

If you see damage to the frame or fork, walk away.  If you find problems in any of the other areas listed above, you can fix them, but it will cost you. Cleaning and lubing a mildly rusty chain or installing new inner tubes is easy and inexpensive. On the other hand, replacing an entire wheel’s worth of rusted spokes or buying a high-end derailleur can cost more than a cheap used bike. Use your judgment, but understand that a few repairs can add up to a substantial amount of money. If there is something about the bike that makes it impossible to test ride, you should probably walk away.

Avoiding Scams and Ripoffs
Unfortunately, craigslist attracts unscrupulous folks who are looking to profit from other people’s ignorance. Use common sense at all times. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. When shopping for a bicycle, follow these simple guidelines:

• The more superlatives in the ad title, the worse the deal. Phrases like “Won’t Last!” “Incredible Deal!” and “Ultra High Performance Olympic Quality Bike for Less Than $500!” are all signs of trouble. When someone tries to hype a bicycle so much, it almost always means the seller is looking for an ignorant buyer.

• If you see the same ad popping up over and over again, ignore it. Craigslist only allows a person to post the same ad once each week. If the same ad keeps popping up every day, the seller is cheating the system to get more exposure. If the bicycle were worth the asking price, it would sell without multiple postings.

• Do not buy new bicycles from businesses. Craigslist was created for individuals to sell used stuff to other individuals. There are rules in place to keep businesses sequestered in one area of craigslist, where they pay for their ads. Any ads showing lots of new bikes for sale in the “Bicycles for Sale” section were posted by sleazy sellers. Most such ads are for beach cruisers costing less than $100. These bicycles are junk.

• If you send questions to a seller and don’t get straight answers or get a response that pressures you to buy right away, look for another bicycle. There are lots and lots of bikes for sale on craigslist. If you miss out on one, another great one will pop up in a little while.

If you see a bike that looks interesting, but you are not sure if it is the right bicycle for you, ask an expert. Most people have at least one friend who is a bike nut. If you do not, you can walk into a bike shop and ask an employee. He/she will understand that if you buy a used bike, you may soon be looking for someone to service it, so he/she should be motivated to help. Finally, you can post your questions on any number of internet-based lists such as:

After You’ve Made the Purchase
If you follow the guidelines listed above, you should find a wonderful bicycle in a few weeks or a month. However, as mentioned above, your bike will probably need some mechanical work and perhaps some new parts to restore it to its former glory. Most bikes purchased from craigslist need a tune-up or even a complete overhaul. Rubber parts such as tires, tubes and grips often need to be replaced. Chains and “gears” (freewheels or cassettes) wear out and rust. If you do not have much mechanical experience, you should take your bicycle to a local bike shop and have them perform the necessary maintenance work.

If you have the motivation but not the tools, there are many community bicycle organizations that are set up to provide tools and instruction to folks who want to repair their own bicycles. These places are staffed by knowledgeable volunteers who will answer your mechanical questions and offer other help. Some also offer classes in bicycle repair. A list of such organizations can be found on the website.

If you are truly adventurous, you can repair any bike on your own. There are many great books available on bicycle repair and maintenance from bookstores, bicycle shops and the library.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Allan Wanta - Building Custom Frames for Common Folk Since 1976

Let’s put the price of Allan Wanta’s frames in perspective. The big bicycle magazines tell us that a “budget” road bike costs more than $2000. A high-end set of road wheels can easily set you back more than $1200 once you add in the cost of your racing tires. Heck, if you want to buy a new cycling wardrobe with a few stylish jerseys, a pair of shorts for every day of the week, a “fancy” helmet and a nice pair of shoes, you can drop $850 in the blink of an eye.

Or, for that same $850, Allan Wanta can build you a custom frame and fork to your exact specifications, using state-of-the art steel tubing. For a bit more, he can add a carbon fiber rear triangle, if you are into that sort of thing, or add just about any custom feature a bicyclist could think of. Plus, he will throw in one of the whimsical, colorful paint jobs for which he is known.

Since 1976, Allan has built frames for a fraction of the price charged by the better known custom builders. What do you get for so little money? Allan built me a custom frame in 2006, so I am fairly well qualified to answer. He built me a “virtual” 68cm road frame from a combination of Dedacciai and True Temper tubing. The frame was fillet brazed, with cantilever bosses and a full compliment of eyelets and braze-ons. The extra features brought the price of my frame up to $900.

If you really wanted a Brian Baylis or a custom Rivendell, you might be disappointed by the aesthetics of a Wanta frame. Of course, with the thousands of dollars you saved, you could furnish your house with quite a lot of nice artwork to improve the aesthetic quality of your life. The workmanship was very nice, but emphasized functionality over artistry. The finish was fine, but not perfect. I encountered one significant problem; some of my cantilever bosses were not aligned properly (note that Allan will be the first to tell you that "ATB-style" options like cantilever bosses are not his specialty). Allan apologized profusely. He repaired the frame quickly and cheerfully, at no additional cost to me. When all was said and done, I had a wonderful frame and fork in less than 8 weeks. It would have been less time, but Allan was hit by a car while riding his bike and injured very badly during that time frame. Yet, after taking a few days off, he labored heroically to get my repaired frame back to me.

Allan has a unique view of the bicycling world. I wanted to find out more, and he was happy to answer some questions for me.

The author's very own Wanta frame and fork

Q: How did you get started in the frame building business?

A: Hello, I'm Allan Wanta, born and raised in Wisconsin sometime ago, moved to Santa Barbara California for the sun and buns of California life, along with my first wife and brought along some framebuilding experience from the Paramount Design Group back in Waterford Wisconsin, a Schwinn division before they sold their soul to the Corporate man. "Hisssss, boooooo."

Q: Your custom frames start at $850, which is less than a used Cannondale frame is likely to cost someone. I don't want to sound like a "Crazy Eddy" commercial here, but HOW IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DO YOU KEEP YOUR PRICES SO LOW?

A: If I had a reason for keeping my frame prices low, it was because it's a fun thing for me to do, and not an 80 hour a week job like so many try to make it. They try and try, but the bike business is not a place to make money. So I build frames, make a little, smile and ride and race, learning every day that life should be simple.

Allan Wanta

Q: How would you describe your basic philosophy toward frame building?

A: Building bikes was supposed to be a hobby, and it still is, with the idea to KISS off. That's keep it simple stupid, leave the high pressure worries of owning a business to those with ample supply of hair… well I don't and so I didn't. I've always built a frame with the notion of improving something about it every time. There's a lesson to be learned with every build, so I'm not considered a Master builder, at least by myself.

Q: Do you build mostly race bike frames? Town bike frames? ATB frames? Touring frames?

A: If you were to go on my website,, you'd see a mish-mash of frame designs, some lugged, some lugless, some blue, some red. It's all about choices, the differences that make life worthwhile. I love to work with my hands, and with people. Everything from 24-inch wheel tri-bikes, to the 650c models… I love ‘em all. The only things I keep my fingers out of are those pesky off road things, 26 inch MTB's. Not because I don't believe in them, but because everybody’s bother’s mother makes them, so I'll let them have the fun. I grew up in an era of non-mountain bikes. I have one but would rather not admit to it. Road racing has been in my blood since 1978, and racing on a frame that I built is all the part of the fun factor. So it gives me an extra advantage to design frames with a little bit of knowledge about riding.

A custom Wanta frame built with Newvex lugs by Richard Sachs

Q: What do you see as the role of the bicycle in our current transportation system?

A: The bike is the thing of the past and of the future. Sure I have a car, but the era of the automobile is fast coming to a close. We just haven't accepted it. I for one would rather ride to work than drive, no need to fund the tax coffers for projects that I don't believe in. I do believe in people, and getting fit by riding a bicycle is a future I want to be a part of.

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: Please stop on by my website if you want to see a simple idea of building frames, at a simple price, by simply one person who enjoys making them.


And, “Yes,” I did ask Allan what he likes for breakfast, but he declined to answer. Maybe his breakfast choice has something to do with his secret for keeping frame prices so low…

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Straight Talk from ANT Bike's Mike Flanigan

There are very few people who can build a bicycle that makes one half of my brain think, "Wow, that is one practical machine," while the other half thinks, "My, that is lovely." Mike Flanigan of Alternative Needs Transportation, A.K.A. "ANT Bike," is a member of that small group. The bikes he build are both beautiful and functional. They inspire me to believe that the population of the USA could get around on bicycles, while conjuring up romantic images of what a beautiful bicycle should look like.

So I sent Mike questions, and he sent me back answers. He proved himself to be a plainspoken man, with definite ideas and firm beliefs. He also revealed some plans for ANT Bike's future. If his new designs are half as nice as he suggests they might be, we are in for some good cycling times in the near future.

For more information, visit the ANT Bike website at

Ant Bike's Mike Flanigan in his shop in Holliston, MA
(Photo from his Flickr photos)

Q: You were part of the whole Boston-area bike building-scene back in the 1980s and 90s. To me, that looked like a crazy time of creativity and experimentation. Off the top of my head, I remember Chris Chance, Peter Mooney, Wayne Kirk, Rob Vandermark, and that guy out in Lincoln, MA (what was his name?). Plus, there were a couple of guys out in Concord experimenting with some of the first carbon frames. That was quite a conglomeration of folks building very cool machines. Who did I forget? What was that like?

A: Well that is a wide range of people that did not really have anything to do with each other, and there were a few more here and there. In no order-Peter White in Lincoln, Rygin, Tanguy Cycles, Merlin, One Off Ti, King Cage, Bomber Cycles, Rugg Road, Dick Ryan, Bill Darby, Bella Cycles, Mitch Neller, Ted Wojic...maybe a few more?

I would say that Rob V. is about the only one left, but then again he is more a factory owner. ;)

While I can not speak about many of the other builders, not having really know them closely I can say a little about my experience at Fat City Cycles, then again I cannot really say much about the inner working of Fat City Cycles, because that would make a lot of people upset (and may get me in trouble). Many people have a romantic memory of their Fat and or Fat City Cycles, and do not want to hear about the S,D and R&R. So that being said I will not go into detail on the web. I can say that it was a good experience for me as a young man, back then.

Q: Come to think of it, many of those folks are still building bikes in the Boston area. How have the dynamics of that subculture changed?

A: I am going to come out of the closet and officially say that I am now really sick of the word "Folks."

Ok, now where were we? Yes, the dymanics of the Boston bike building scene is completely turned on its head, which I think is a good thing. Before you had people working for little money and in bad conditions. Now you have a few respectable little factories and shops, doing some good work in safe conditions.

Q: On your web page, you state, "We are dedicated to building bikes for transportation that have the right combination of function and style." What does that mean? Does style ever trump function?

A: What does that mean.... Well I like a bike that has a nice level look to it where the bars, saddle and frame tubes intersect in a way that is pleasing to the eye and gives good balance (both in looks and function). To see the opposite of an ANT, just imagine a hybrid bike with a "sit up and beg" seating position or a bike with a lot of drop from the saddle to bars. Style never trumps function.

Q: The Boston Roadster... THE BOSTON ROADSTER!!! It is an amazing machine. Please tell me about the process you went through in developing that bike. Are they selling well? Who are you selling them to?

A: Thanks! I am always trying to come up with a "Universal Roadster" that fills a lot of wants and needs and at a good price too. I have changed the BR over the years based on what people would ask for. First I came out with the BR as a real low priced bike...then some would want to upgrade it (even though the bike had NO options). The next year I would change the bike based on those requests.

They do sell well, but not as much as the customs I make. Most of my customers want something a little nicer and more personal. The people that do buy them take a close look at the BR and see the value. The BR customer (and most ANT customers) is some sort of cyclist, but want a new useful bike that they do not have to really think about... just have it to use and be useful. Often it is someone that has been riding the same bike for 10 or more years (and does not have a stable of bikes).

An ANT "Major Taylor" (aka Iver Johnson truss frame)
(Photo from ANT Bike's web page)

Q: I feel bad every time I ask a frame builder this question, but here goes anyway... Given the time, energy and materials that go into each Boston Roadster, it is a screaming deal at $2K. But for many people, the idea of spending that much for a bicycle designed for basic transportation is quite a stretch. What do you tell people who balk at spending that much?

A: It is a screaming deal and actually it is just the opposite. Most people want a nicer bike or at least the parts [Honjo, King, dual E6 lights etc...]. The person that would balk at the price does not call me. I am working on a new model that will fit somewhere in between the BR and a custom. I am hoping this new bike I am working on will eliminate the BR and all the custom work that I do. If you think the BR is nice wait until you see the new bike. :)

Q: If someone came to you and said, "I want to invest in this company to build it up to the point where we can build 1000 bikes each month and sell them at $500/each," what would you say?

A: I would say "Take your little red wagon and go attach it to somebody else's rocket." Yes, I know that is harsh. If someone wants to start a company making ANT style bikes, go ahead and do it, that would be great. I am really not interested in working for any one ever again. So when someone wants to invest... that means... ”I want to buy you.”

Q: What are your thoughts on carrying a load in the front of a bicycle versus carrying it in back?

A: I like both. Like a lot of designs, ideas etc...there is a good and bad point to it. I do like having a little flatbed in the front. I often find useful things in the trash and with a front flatbed rack you can pile the suff on [old fans, bikes, chairs, end tables etc...] steer with one hand and hold (balance) the cargo with the other... can't do that with a rear rack and a milk crate zip tied to it.

Q: Who do you admire in the bicycle world?

A: I used to admire some people, but I am kind of burnt right now... so no one comes to mind. :(

A "Deluxe Light Roadster"
(Photo from ANT Bike's Flickr photos)

Q: Could we, as a society, replace cars with bicycles? If so, how do we make that happen?

A: Well sure... anything is possible, but that is not going to happen.

I would be happy if people in the cars would stop throwing trash in my yard when they drive by. People are not going to stop driving until they are forced too. You have to get rid of the oil to do that, but if you do that there might be a little chaos before life settles down (if we survive that), then we will all be in the recycling business and will be really hard up for tires and tubes....not to mention food.

If you want to get there, then there are many things you can do. Buy a kid a bike (anybody's kid), buy a bike rack for your local store(s), vote with your dollars (no bike facilties, no dollars).
However I think what would be most effective would be to somehow make bicycling for transport cool, fun, something to be attained. Now I know and you know that cycling is fun and is cool, but to catch the public you need the people in the public eye. This may be a shallow thought process, but I think that would work to get many people interested in cycling. Would that be enough to save the world?... probably not, but at least I would enjoy life little more on the way to the end of oil.

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: uuuh...Buy an ANT?

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: What do I like or what do I eat?

I eat a bowl of wheat flakes with silk soy milk unsweetened, OJ, black coffee from a press (actually I do like this).

What I like... bisquits and gravy... black coffee.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

An Interview with Kogswell's Matthew Grimm

Matthew Grimm founded Kogswell Cycles in 2001. Since then, Kogswell has earned the devotion of a highly-enthusiastic fan base who love the functionality and beauty of the frames, forks and components Kogswell has designed and imported. This interview deals primarily with new developments in Kogswell's product line. If you are looking for the "full story" on Kogswell, please visit their website,

Q: Tell me a bit about the history of Kogswell.

A: Kogswell is the manifestation of a dream that I first had as a young man. And the dream came from meeting Spence Wolf of the Cupertino Bike shop at the time when he was running it in his garage.

I was taken by the idea of connecting interesting bikes to the people who appreciated them.

I'm part shopkeeper and part frame junkie.

So I'm just following my instincts. Staying true to my heart.

Q: What do you see as the role of the bicycle in "modern" society?

A: At this point (March, 2008) there is a global bike BOOM happening the likes of which we haven't seen since the oil embargo of the 1970s.

And I think that this new boom is also a reaction to the cost of oil.

People, bless their hearts, are embracing cycling and I see that as a good thing. And it makes me very happy because I have a deep-seated dislike of the automobile and what it has done to our American culture.

Two wheels good, four wheels bad.

Q: Tell me a bit about the continuing development of the Porteur/Randonneur, a bicycle Kogswell developed to "do everything." It is notable for many things, including its ability to carry large loads mounted over the front wheel.

A: The big news is that the racks will be here this year. I think that's interesting for a couple of reasons: fork geometry and integration.

Let me explain.

Up to now most racks have been add-ons. But our research showed that in order to carry weight on a front rack you had to use the proper fork geometry and construction. There's a dependency in the system: if you want the rack to work, you need to match it to a fork.

And that's what we're on the brink of doing. We took a couple of years and worked out the details and now we have an integrated package that's going to be very compelling.

That's the design story.

The fabrication story is interesting as well. The more we thought about it the more it became apparent that the shop that makes our forks should also be the shop that makes the racks (think integration). So we approached the fork shop and, as is typical of those guys, they immediately saw the sense of it and got on board.

The other interesting part of the fork/rack combination is that the frame becomes an accessory. If your fork and rack is right, you can bolt an existing frame on and you'll be good.

Q: Who should be riding a Kogswell?

A: I think of the P/R as a replacement for an automobile. Safety, speed, comfort and utility are what it does.

If you need to get around and you're tired of burning oil then have a look at a P/R.

Q: Who should not be riding a Kogswell?

A: Many people.

Q: At the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS), 2008, there seemed to be a lot of bikes with big front racks and full fenders. Do you think the success of the P/R might have had something to do with that?

A: There -are- a lot of handmade builders who are now jumping into the market for -integrated- bikes. I think A.N.T and Kogswell both lead the way. Mike is great at integration and I think Kogswell should be credited with doing a lot of the work that went into resurrecting front-loading geometry.

Q: What's the scoop on wheel size options on the P/R?

A: The front center on a 64cm frame is big enough to allow for 622 (700C) wheels. By big enough I mean big enough to erase toe clip overlap.

Below that 584 (650b) wheels make sense. Down to about a 50cm frame. And below that 559 (26") wheels make sense.

The exception is that I like 559 wheels and so one day we're going to make a some super groovy 559 bikes.

Q: Whatchu' got up your sleeve? What might we be seeing from Kogswell in the near(ish) future?

A: The most interesting new development at Kogswell is the web site that we've been working on. Over the course of a year we've pushed it closer and closer to completion and there only about 80 more hours of work that needs to be done.

When we roll it out I think that lots of folks will be happy.

Q: What are your thoughts on aluminum frames these days?

A: Aluminum is a completely legitimate material for frames. I personally like steel better but that's just me.

Q: Any news on the Kogswell components biz? Are you still doing cranks? What other components are you doing/might you do in the future?

A: We found a couple of good 110 BCD cranks sets. The problem is Sugino cranks are such a superb value that there's no point to trying to compete with them.

I wish we had more time and money to develop/market more components. But for now we don't.

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: Hang on to your dreams and let your heart lead your head.

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: Cold cereal, fruit and tea. And a hug and a kiss.