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I'm a big mountain biker and looking to get into road biking. However, I don't want to drop $1,500 on a new or relatively new road bike without being sure I'd want to stick with it. Anyway, I found an old 1974 men's Schwinn Varsity 10 speed road bike on Craigslist for about $100 and I'm not sure of a few things:

First, I'd like to upgrade a few parts on the bike if I do buy it, e.g.: clipless pedals, possibly a drivetrain overhaul, etc. The only thing I'm not informed of is compatibility.

Second of all, I really have no idea how a bike this old would match up to a bike from the last 5 years or so. I'd be riding with people from my local bike shop and I wouldn't want to have a tough time keeping up because of shortcomings in my ride. Obviously a newer bike is better, but does the difference really matter if I'm not doing the Tour de France?

  • I'm not an expert on this, but upgrading would need a lot work.older bikes have 27" tires while newer bikes have 700c tires, they are different several milimeters. The axle length of the older bikes are also shorter because the cassettes only have 5 speeds compared to modern cassettes which have 9-10 speeds. – azer89 Jun 15 '15 at 18:33
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    With a 70's bike, you'd have to respace the frame among other things to bring it up to use things from today. You're way better off buying a newer bike if you want to make any modifications. There are decent options in the US for new offbrand bikes or used brand name bikes for ~300 dollars. – Batman Jun 15 '15 at 19:17
  • The diameter difference between 27" rims and 700c rims is 8 millimeters, being the 700c smaller, so if you put 700c rims on a bike designed for 27", the brake pads will ride 4 millimeters too high (far from center). This is solved easily using long reach calipers. The rear axle length on the other hand is a more difficult issue. Only steel frames can be re-spaced, but that requires experience and some special tools. – Jahaziel Jun 16 '15 at 0:45
  • The major bicycle parts manufacturers have arranged to "refresh" the technology about every 10 years (whether it needs it or not). Replacement parts for the older technologies are not unavailable, but they get more expensive and harder to find with each passing year. If you have a bike in good condition that's over 20 years old it's probably worth keeping, but if you need to "fix up" a 20-30-40-year-old bike to use it then probably not. – Daniel R Hicks Aug 5 '15 at 17:16
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Upgrading an older bike is typically not economical. Parts are typically not cheaper. Parts are not as available. That drivetrain is not compatible with a modern bike. Bikes have gotten better. Little faster, lighter, more comfortable, and easier to service. You can find decent to nice newer model used bikes for $400. Find someone that bought an $800 bike thinking they were going to get healthy, did not ride it, and is selling it for $400. It happens and that is your best value.

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    That $400 price range is the same place you'd be buying a $100 and dumping money into the drivetrain. Looking for a newer used bike is the right answer. – Deleted User Jun 15 '15 at 17:13
  • Yep. Buy used, but not old. If you don't stick with it you can sell for a similar price. Old bikes are good if you want to spend $$$$ on restoration. – andy256 Jun 16 '15 at 1:39
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It is relatively simple to find parts to fit old bikes. Things have changed a lot but there are still enough old bikes out there that you will not have a difficult time getting replacement chains, cogsets, derailers, wheels, bottom brackets, wheel bearings, seat posts, stems, headsets, or anything else. Any gaps in what is available can likely be filled by a visit to your local bike co-op, who will have bins overflowing with what you are looking for.

THAT SAID: Schwinn Varsitys were not a nice bike, they aren't worth the effort of upgrading, and you should absolutely not pay $100 for one. The frame is stiff, heavy "gas pipe" tubing, the dropouts are inferior stamped steel, and the parts are garbage and probably worn out and/or seized into place. They go for a lot more than they are worth on craigslist due to the market not knowing any better.

If the seller is willing to take under $50 for it, by all means ride it and have fun. It will take your preferred clipless pedals and saddle with no problem at all. I wouldn't mess with the drivetrain as that will be a can of worms not worth opening.

  • Schwinn Varsities had one-piece steel cranks that are NOT compatible with clipless pedals. – Brian G Aug 5 '15 at 17:57
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    I'm pretty sure that the bottom bracket for a Varsity won't take a bottom bracket for a non-one piece crank, so you can't put on cranks that would be compatible with clipless pedals. The Schwinn Varsity is a very durable bike for riding around town, but you can't really put modern parts on it. You can get a nice 80's or 90's steel frame and put clipless pedals and brifters on it. That's what I raced on in that era and up until ten years ago. You'd be at a slight disadvantage, but you could still podium in criteriums on such a bike. It ain't the bike it's the motor. – Eric Aug 6 '15 at 1:07
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I think it all depends on the use you are going to give the bike. I've owned nothing but older bikes (road) since I resumed cycling around 2006, mostly for commuting and occasional longer rides (on the lines of 5.000 km / year) and everything has been ok.

What I would do is try and find some old bike that works fine, and not get into the upgrade thing; if you are going to change stuff, better get a new one, because it is so easy to get entangled in an upgrading trend.

enter image description here

This is the kind of bike I would look for, that I think can give you more for your money: something from early 90's with an old shimano 105 group or similar, which provides reliable shifting and braking, steel frame that will still last a lot and not very heavy... these bikes are awesome... not too old to be overpriced as vintage, not so new that will still cost a lot, and really close to modern bike performance once you master downtube shifting. I bought a similar one for 140€ that I was very lucky to get, but I see them in the 200 - 300 € range, which is still a really great bike for the price.

Now, for mountain bikes, it is another story, those have improved more with time, (suspension, disc brakes, smooth shifting under tension, whatnot ..)and I would go for a new one if I was interested in getting out to the trails.

The bikes I mentioned are also easy to resell at the price you bought, so if you get into more serious riding you can always sell and get new one without losing much (which will not happen if you upgrade a lot)

  • Interesting. did the bike originally have 700c tires and 130mm spindle length? – azer89 Jun 15 '15 at 18:52
  • Yes, this is not my bike, but my wheel with old 105 hub has 130 mm spindle and the tires are 700C. (cassete is threaded though). – gaurwraith Jun 15 '15 at 19:19
  • My bike is early 90's, 126mm hub (7 speed), freehub, 700c wheels. I bought it new though :-) I've recently respaced the frame to 130mm and fitted a new groupset (with brakes swapped for long reach ones to fit). The wheels weren't the originals even before that, but were the same size. Buying a new bike might have been more rational than the upgrade though. – armb Jun 30 '15 at 12:27
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Regarding interchangeable components, it's hard to say without pictures, but it's likely this will be hard because a) old bike, old standards and b) even with the same standards road and mountain components are substantially different.

Regarding old vs new, this question is hard to answer. If you take a look at similar answers in this Stack Overflow you will see big discussions regarding old vs new bikes.

Some people say they have old bikes that use everyday reliably, and that's great. They also say performance is really nice, and that is great either. Other people love their old bikes. This is all great, as what is really important is that you have a bike and that you have fun in it.

However, I have a different take, but given what's stated above please keep in mind this is (a little) a personal opinion, and that people will disagree for the reason above, some time rightfully, some times not really. I am also the owner of old and new bikes and deal with bikes daily because most of my groups of friends have bikes and we all use them daily.

An old bike is an old bike. It's like an old car. I have a 15 years old Toyota that works reliably, absolutely nothing is wrong with that car. I love it. Does it perform as good as my parent's 3 year old one? No way. Does it require more maintenance? Yes it does. For two reasons: time takes an impact in every vehicle, everything has a life span; and technology evolves and changes in 15 years.

It is the same thing with bikes: you can have an old bike that works well, and you can use it everyday, but a new bike is a new bike. Having a component that just left the factory is just better than using one that that has been used for the last 10 years. Worst case scenario, and your new bike even comes with guarantee, some of them of a few years. Not only it is more likely you will have problems with an old bike, on the short term that is something you will have to deal with it, instead of simply filling a guarantee claim and get a new one.

Some people will now come and say that "mechanic principles didn't change that much in the last 15 or 20 years". That is true. A derailleur works the same way. And so do the brakes. But returning to the car example, an engine has the exact same 4-step gas-consuming principle as it had 20 years ago, and driving a new car is much, much better. It's faster, more powerful, revs easier and consumes a lot less fuel. And it is the same with bike components: new brakes have better materials, tweaked designs, servo technologies, and therefore they break much better. This is true for all bike components, as they didn't suffer a complete revolution but they sure have suffered years of evolution.

So if you felt in love with old bike, want to go through the process of restoring it or buy it ready to ride, maintain it, and have fun riding it, that is great. Again, having fun doing it is what really matters, and if your friends are not Cipollini's I am sure you will be able to catch up with them. However, I would recommend just get something new.

I have old and new bikes, but for long rides I always use the new ones. I love the old ones much more but really, being on a modern bike with modern components is just different. It is just better.

You can get something pretty good close to the $1000 range, as you can see here. For example, I am not sure you can get find B'Twin bikes in the US, but one of the bikes on the list is a B'Twin Triban Black 5 that goes for around $700 and has five stars.

Another thing you can try is to find shops around you that rent bikes. Rent one for one or two days, and get the feel of what riding a road bike is. It is very different from mountain biking, but I think you will love. I do, but again I love every kind of bike ride.

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I have a relatively cheap bike that I bought about 6 or 7 years ago. So it has modern rear triangle spacing (135mm) and is not too heavy (not superlight but it's 6061 alloy). It cost me £240 Sterling (sorry, don't know the exchange rate) and I've spent about the same so far updgrading the components piece by piece to bring it up to basic race level (Shimano 105).

I would look for a bottom of the range version of a decent brand and then upgrade the groupset. You'll get the same frameset as their more expensive models just with probably a cheap Sora groupo that you can upgrade to 105 or Ultegra.

It'll still be cheaper than any bike that comes with a 105 level groupset.

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Schwinn varsity? Heavy. Bullet-proof, but heavy. Not compatible with newer parts. Anything that would fit would be a tinkering work-around - and you would have to be the DIY tinker. Nothing is compatible with newer components. Do you want to spend a lot of time diving into used parts bins? IF you can find used parts bins?

Those old Schwinns do have a certain following - as they were unique technologically. But they aren't good road bikes by any standard - they weren't good road bikes even back then.

Btw - I have a 1970's Panasonic road frame with 27" wheels I use as a single-speed. I've got a 1950's Raleigh in the barn as a possible restoration. My commuter bike has a top-of-the-line Raleigh frame from the late 70's, with modern components. So, I've got a little experience with this issue. My everyday choice of rides is a modest Specialized "city" bike that I bought used (lightly!) for $175. I use it because it has fat tires and a geometry that I can handily use on gravel roads and trails. Because my riding buddies these days are my dogs, not my mates.

Go with the advice to look at something newer with low miles / light use, for a couple more bucks.

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