My $150 Project Bike Isn’t Nearly As Awful As I Hoped It’d Be

I did buy my 1987 Schwinn Cimarron with the intention of riding it. It’s a bike. Riding it places is the whole point. But I also bought it as a project, as something to teach myself how to fix. A few weeks into owning it and I’m discovering it’s maybe better at one thing than the other.

Before this bike arrived in the mail, I was binge-watching bike restorations (such as these OldShovel Youtube vids of Ibis and Ritchey mountain bikes of the time) and staring at finished build threads of other Schwinn Cimarrons. I zeroed in on one in particular. Its red frame gleamed like I thought mine would after some polishing, and while it still looked old-school, all the actual components were modernised. It had a new bottom bracket, new crankset, new derailleur, shifters, stem, bars, grips, and brakes.

I found the owner on Instagram and quickly found his celebratory post of completing his build. “1 year later it’s finished!” the caption read. It took me a minute to let that sink in. This was not going to be a speedy process of getting the bike in shape, I gathered, and I set a timeline for myself that centred on slow.

I was sure that when this Cimarron arrived in the mail, it would be trashed. I was sure that every part of it would be hammered, broken, in need of removal, reassembly, or replacement. I searched through eBay listings to find affordable more modern parts that I’d be able to order and start swapping over. I envisioned my Cimarron Year. I loved that Cimarron Year. I’d learn so much.

But when the bike came, it wasn’t the basket case I anticipated. A few days after it showed up in pieces in a box, it was back on the road. A few weeks and a few short rides in and the bike has been riding like a gem. It soars over baby jumps, it claws its way up chunky hills, and it feels both comfortable and fast.

Alright, there was one thing wrong with it, and I found it right at the start. And yes, it was very much a shitshow getting it fixed.

What was wrong was the headset, and it was wrong in every way possible. It was broken in such a way that I couldn’t just pack it full of grease, re-adjust it back on the bike, and call it a day. I needed a replacement.

Of course, I couldn’t just order anything. I didn’t know if my bike was built to modern headset standards or an obsolete, rare, old Japanese standard just a few fractions of a millimetre different from what is used today. After several trips to several bike shops, an industrial supply company, a local auto shop, and a few more bike shops, I had disassembled enough parts and borrowed enough callipers to find out what I knew was bound to be true: my bike was built to the old, obsolete standard not what everyone uses today. Though my bike is a Schwinn, it is built to the old Japanese JIS standard. Even Japanese bike companies were abandoning it at the time.

On a modern bike this would read 26.4 and the 0.6mm difference was enough to make this complicated.
Photo: Raphael Orlove

And not only was my headset made to an obsolete standard, but it used a different kind of bearing than normal headsets: My headset had needle bearings. The only JIS replacement I could find uses (perfectly fine but common and boring) caged bearings, and I didn’t have much hope finding a needle-bearing headset (not really any better but tough and weird and fun) even on a modern standard.

Photo: Raphael Orlove

I hate to say, dear reader, that even this job turned out easier than I expected. I walked my disassembled bike to the bike shop down the street, to see if they’d have any interest modifying my bike to make a modern headset fit and they said they’d do it for $US50 ($70) including the headset. And what did they pull out but a little black, unbranded needle-bearing headset! The box read “ACtion” and directed me to a dead website, but it turns out to be a still-operational company based in Taiwan with an office in New Jersey.

After so much expectation that I would be ordering oddball parts, filing parts of my bike myself, all I did was hand a guy some money and come back in an hour or two to find my bike all back together.

There were so many things I was sure I would have changed on this bike. I thought that the handlebars would be awkward and I would be obligated to work to change them out. I could go with a drop bar, like Jacquie Phelan and some of the other earliest successful mountain bikers did. If I went with a drop bar then I could do new shifters, and if I did new shifters then I could get new gearing with a new cassette, and new brakes, and on and on.

But the handlebars have been supremely comfortable as they are, and the gearing is just fine, and so are the shifters and everything else on the bike. Nothing needs me, my input, my futzing. I had a pair of modern V brakes lying around (discussed in more detail here), a perfect little modernised brake upgrade, but they didn’t clear the tires.

Photo: Raphael Orlove

The bike doesn’t even seem like it wants me to fix it. All the bike wants from me is to ride it. I put new tires on it and I can’t think of much else to do.

Photo: Raphael Orlove

What I’ve really been learning is the scale of projects that I am comfortable with taking on at the moment. There are people who want to do no maintenance on a bike, on a machine, ever. There are people who want to build bicycles from the bottom up, to start with a bunch of tools and tubes and see a bike slowly materialise out of them. I’m somewhere in the middle, and I guess I’m figuring out where exactly on that scale I sit, at least for the moment.

Photo: Raphael Orlove