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Vintage bikes grow in popularity

Posted by Roy Greene  April 4, 2013 12:08 PM

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(Photos by Jake Lucas)

A photo slideshow about vintage bikes.

CAMBRIDGE -- The Cambridge Antique Market sits in a crumbling brick building, just up the street from the last stop on the Green Line’s E train. In the basement, past a labyrinth of stall selling antique Coke ads and rocking chairs, Cambridge Used Bicycles sits in a tiny room set in one corner of the market.

There, Steve Swyryt stood working on a vintage 3-speed Raleigh bike while the Ramones blared overhead. He was surrounded by vintage bikes, all more than 20 years old.

Enter the words “vintage bike” in Google Trends and a graph appears showing the number search on the word has increased since 2004 and peaked three times: once in July 2010, and this summer in May and July.

But the trend is not limited to Google searches, or vintage bikes. Ed O’Brien, owner of Cambridge Used Bicycles, which deals in vintage bikes, said he has seen a major rise in demand for them. Swyryt agrees, but said the trend may not necessarily only be about older bikes.

“It’s a trend, for sure, but not even necessarily vintage bikes,” he said. “Bikes on the whole are in such an upswing.”

O’Brien said he has noticed a lot more bikers around the city too. At subway stations, he said he has seen hundreds of bikes jammed into the bike racks. The city is reaching a tipping point, he said. And soon, especially during the warmer months, he thinks there will be more bikes than there are cars.

“If you look at the whole culture of bicycles, I think you’re going to find it’s just a matter of time,” he said. “I hope it’s sooner than later.”

Last year may have been O’Brien and Cambridge Used Bicycles’ best year since they opened the shop six years ago. They sold over a thousand, mostly older bikes. Last summer, Swyryt said there were days when there were no more than four or five bikes left for sale of the more than 100 bikes that lined up in the shop walls and covered the floor at the beginning of the day.

The popularity of biking in general may be driving the trend toward older bikes. Swyryt thinks older bikes offer many of the features people look for in a bike anyway – including a small price tag.

Mark Vautour, the store manager at Laundry’s Bicycles in Boston, said he doesn’t think older bikes have “always been around,” in part because of their affordability.

“For $120 you can get a better old bike than a new one,” he said. “A bike that came from a bike shop twenty years ago is still better than a bike you get from Walmart.”

In the basement of Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences, Ben Goodman sat with three vintage bikes around him. He moved from bike to bike, explaining how their gearshifts and frames were designed differently than bikes nowadays.

A junior in BU’s College of Arts and Sciences and president of BU Bikes, Goodman thinks, “Old bikes are rad.” He used to work in a bike shop, fixing and building bikes all day.

“The reason people like older bikes, especially from the era of the ‘80s and ‘90s, is because back then bikes were really well made,” he said. “A lot of [older] bikes are actually, in terms of functionality, probably worth more than the new bikes today.”

He said he thinks everything from the steel -- not aluminum alloy or carbon fiber -- frames, to the way the frame is lugged, not welded together, make vintage bikes better than new bike. He also said they look better.

Brooke Morgan, who works at BU’s College of Fine Arts, said she got her bike, a red-orange three-speed, largely for its looks. The blue-haired art school grad smiled and called it part of her style.

“I like things that are very old school, and so it’s a little bit a part of my aesthetic,” she said. “It’s kind of an American icon riding around on a sunny day on an old three-speed cruiser.”

Bicyclists are often environmentally conscious to begin with, so it fits that they would be drawn to the durability of older bikes, said Daniel Kamalic, the faculty advisor for BU Bikes and the manager of research computing for BU’s College of Engineering.

“Bicycling is a very environmentally conscious activity to begin with,” he said. “And the idea of constantly throwing things away and buying new things is, in a lot of ways, contrary to what the social mission of a lot of bicyclists is.

This idea may be driving related to the growing number of city cyclists. Recently, the city of Boston has made a conscious effort to create safer streets for riders as a part of its Climate Action Plan.

Either way, Kamalic is happy older bikes are getting the attention.

“I think it’s great that we should be celebrating a culture where things are built to last forever, and we don’t throw things away and replace them every chance we get,” Kamalic said. “We can keep them in good condition…and celebrate the beauty of these things that were made to last.”

This story was produced under a partnership between the Globe and Boston University.

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