Bicycle touring on the cheap

New touring bicycles cost thousands of dollars, but we live in an era of industrial plenty — perfectly good used bicycles are available at an 80% to 90% discount from new. Here are some things to know.

1980s-vintage lugged “chromoly” steel frames are an incredible bargain. Also known as chromium-molybdenum alloy, or CrMo for short, these were state of the art during the bicycle fad of the late 1980s. Used chromoly bikes are cheap, light, indestructible, and last forever. Best of all, they flex in a way that provides remarkable comfort on high pressure tires. My 1987 chromoly Trek 520 runs 95psi tires, yet is more comfortable over uneven surfaces than my 2006 Bianchi Milano, which has big soft tires but a rigid TIG-welded aluminum frame.

In my experience, many vintage bikes are actually more durable than newer ones of similar configuration, because the components are mechanically simpler. For example, my 1987 Trek has gone 100 times as many miles as my wife’s 1997 Trek 2100, yet her Shimano shifters have already failed. Mine can’t fail, because there is nothing to break — they are simple downtube index shifters.

Cheap used 1980s chromoly bikes of interest include Trek, Nishiki, and even high-end Schwinn. You can purchase whole bikes for under $100 at garage sales, and they often need nothing more than new brake cables ($20), handlebar tape ($10) and a modern seat ($50) to approach modern standards of performance, and to exceed modern standards of durability.

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