A Horse with No Home, or How to Get a Really Awesome Touring Bike Frame by Looking in the Garbage

In the market of bicycles, there is a maxim that is well-known to all involved in the sale and retail, but little known to customers, and is spoken aloud by none: Most adult-sized bicycles sold new in the United States will not see more than 500 miles of cumulative riding before disposal or resale.

Let that thought sink in for a second, because I know it sounds acerbic. But here is the thing: cycling comes and goes in fads, and most of the domestic bike manufacturers in this country have either gone bust or moved production to Asia long ago. The few major brandnames that remain, like Iron Horse and Cannondale either went bankrupt or were on the verge of doing so before their intellectual property was added to the portfolio of a large conglomerate. Look on Craig’s List or eBay and you’ll see loads of bikes, all “like new” or “lightly ridden.” Some, like in my old home of Lower New York, maybe rode in a major bike event like the Five Boro Bike Tour, and then went home and swore they were going to ride more. Others, on advice of physicians, were supposed to exercise more and went to their local Dick’s, Sports Authority, REI or wherever and pulled in the latest, shiniest, entry-level bike that their credit card could afford. I don’t fault these folks; I was one of them.

Diamondback Sorrento at NYC A-Train Platform

On of the few picture of my beloved, yet ill-fitting Diamondback. Aircraft aluminum finish was sexy, though the rest if the bike was entry-level Asia at its worst. I didn’t have the knowledge back then to get the niggles in line.

In 2011, I realized that my academic performance was strong enough to allow me to leave home in pursuit of a graduate education. I had been relishing the thought of being out of my house and truly on my own for many years before then. I had been riding increasing amounts in the spring and summer on my Diamondback Sorrento, made of basic Shimano parts affixed to an aircraft aluminum frame. I used a Topeak beam rack and a Camelback bladder pack to haul around the spares, tools, water and lunch. All was awesome except for two things: first, the more I rode the bike, the more stuff would start clicking and twitching on it. This is not because the bike was cheap per se; I paid $360 for it. But the Sorrento, as I would learn, was meant to do about 500 miles and then be taken in to the department store I bought it from (Dick’s in my case, which services bikes and offers service contracts on the stuff they sell). My Sorrento probably had about 300 miles or so on it. Secondly, the 18 inch geometry meant I leaned more toward the handlebars than I would have liked (the “aggressive” cycling position advertised in the brochures). I tried using aftermarket handlebar adjustment stuff, but it was never quite right.

AJ midspan on the Geo Washington Bridge with JHMC medicl EMS bike, 2010

The original plan was to spec my bike build out similar to the police bike I rode for Jamaica Hospital EMS bike patrol. My rationale was this: EMT’s and Medics abuse every piece of equipment, and these bikes, with aggressive riders, heavy luggage and rough urban terrain (including stairs!) kept rolling for more than 10 years before I joined the team.

Because I had worked on cars since I was 12, I could not really justify buying another bike from the department store, especially I knew what type of riding I wanted to do: I wanted a bike that could carry me (at the time, I weighed on the wrong side of 270 lbs.) and my gear on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, while allowing me the day-to-day reliability of a commuter, and the once a year urban bike tour. I wanted a more relaxed geometry, but not a near-upright position like on a so-called hybrid bike. Because of my readings online of other people’s grand tours, I wanted a steel framed bike, more for the flexion than the supposed weld-ability. Not able to afford a $1000+ bike, I decided I would acquire a full bike mechanics tool kit and bike stand, and acquire a bike frame from across the pond in the United Kingdom. Before the 29er craze took off in full effect, the hottest frames on the UK market were the On One Inbred and the Orange P7. I took a liking to the P7, with its black-painted Cro-Moly frame and bright orange decals and thought the 19 inch would be perfect for me. One of my favorite bikes that I rode as an adult was a 19 inch Trek Police Bike that I use as a bike medic for the EMS agency I used to work for. My plan, in earnest, was to acquire the Orange P7 (after shipping, it would have been around $5-600) and spec it out like my EMS bike with Kevlar tires, 36 hole, double-walled rims and a nice steel rack for the luggage. All I needed to do was wait for my tax return in 2012 and I could begin to get the goods in.

Orange P7 S

Orange P7S: The bike I almost had. From: http://www.orangebikes.co.uk/archive/2010/p7_s/

Between my studies, I dreamed about bike touring, a lot. I always wished that I could do something adventurous, spending significant time travelling off the grid and existing under my own power and wits. This is why I like hiking and backpacking so much! Life, funny enough, has a way of edging you on toward your goals because one evening in late February of 2012, I was driving home from the train station after a long day of work, dreaming of the P7 frame I was soon to buy, and drove past this:

Iron Horse AT90 set out for the garbage dump

Nearly the way I found it, literally laying out on the curb for the garbage man. People in nice neighborhoods thrown out some nice stuff!

Now I slammed on the brakes and put my Jeep into park for a minute. I knew I was daydreaming a bit while driving, so I did not just see a full bicycle in the garbage. I drove backward and pulled alongside the curb. Yup, it’s a bike alright. I turn off my lights and unlock the doors to step out to get a look. In the village I was in, people were likely to call the police for people scavenging garbage, so I needed to hustle. I ran to look at the bike and there it was: Iron Horse AT90, with the frame size sticker still affixed (19 inches, what!!!) and the sticker of the bike shop that originally sold it. The bike was completely whole, absent exactly one pedal (crank was still attached). The Iron Horse even had a Blackburn rear rack affixed to it. Also, adding evidence that this bike was lightly used, the tires still had the rubber fingers along the sidewalls. About the only thing I could see in the dark that was wrong with the bike outside of the missing pedal was that green paint has splattered along the rear rim and rear triangle. I knew then what to do: I threw the bike in the back of my jeep, quietly closed the tailgate and sped off to my house. Rolling the bike into my garage to get a good look at it, I knew that it was The Bike I always wanted. All it needed was an overhaul.

Revelator Iron Horse AT 90 Original

This is the condition I found my bike in. Had the bike had two pedals, no rust and air in the tires, it could have been ridden that night!

Being a bike of a previous generation, a lot was ready for change. After I acquired my tool box and began to strip the bike and begin to teach my self what the hell I was looking at, with the help of Sheldon Brown. Here is what I came up with and the solution to address it (price includes shipping and tax). For a detailed list, click here.

  • Cockpit (Handlebars and Steering): $112.53
  • Shifters and Brakes: $72.99
  • Cables and Housing: $45.57
  • Front and Rear Derailleurs: $39.97
  • Seatpost: $27.95 (Seat was a carryover from the Sorrento)
  • Bottom Bracket: $32.03
  • Pedals: $96.78
  • Crankset: $51.48
  • Cassette and Chain: $55.75
  • Handbuilt Wheels: $191.33
  • Tires and Tubes: $103.97
  • Miscellaneous odds and ends: $20

TOTAL: $850.55

New bike parts via the Internet

Revelator in boxes: All new parts for the Iron Horse AT 90 rebuild. Everything (or nearly everything) for the bike was sourced online from eBay, Amazon and Ben’s Cycle.

So, as you can see, all of the small things add up, but it’s cool because the bike is EXACTLY as I want it and rides like an absolute dream! I managed to build it in two nights just ahead of the New York City Five Boro Bike Tour, a route of 45 miles plus the distances I’d need to traverse to get to and from the train station. Though it was a rather foolhardy thing to go out on an untested bike, there was a method to my madness: the Five Boro hosts free bike mechanics at the start line who help with tune ups, so when my front derailleur was sucking it (remember, it was the original because I ordered the wrong size replacement), the repair guys spent 20 minutes tuning it up for me. It gave me hell all day and midway through the tour I has to resort to changing front chainrings with my right foot. At the end of the tour in Staten Island, another mechanic spend 20 minutes repositioning the derailleur and I have left it alone ever since. When I prepare the bike for a repainting, I’ll finally install a new front derailleur on the bike. For my first build though, I could not have been happier. Yeah, I could have spent $1000 on a new touring bike, but what fun would that have been?

Antoine standing with his bike Revelator near the start line of the 2013 Five Boro Bike Tour

One year on, Revelator and I return to fly through another 45 miles of NYC’s best views, steepest bridge ramps and absolutely worst roadway surfaces!

If you can manage the upfront cost of a complete bike took kit and a quality repair stand, the internet has plenty of forums, informational sites (Hail Sheldon!), and instructional videos (thank you Park Tools) to get you started building your own bike from scratch or reviving an old frame with a young soul like I did. The added benefit of doing this work yourself is that you get to check every bolt, make sure quality lube is applied where need be, and you have knowledge of every part and where it was sourced. Overtime, I have improved on the bike here and my baby gets better every time. So, the moral: keep your eyes open during trash days in the nicer neighborhoods near where you are!

So, that the story of Revelator. I look forward to your comments, and if you have a story about your homegrown bike, tell me about it!