Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Twenty Dollar Rule in Theory and Practice


Commuting on a beat-up bike seems like a good idea to me, at least in an American urban setting in the year 2010. In other settings, or eras, it may make little or no sense to go cheap/ugly on a bike that is ridden for so many miles, and that is seen by so many people. Here and now, though, I wouldn't want to worry about what's happening to an expensive, beautiful cyclocross bike chained outside. I have enough to worry about already. But, in the natural course of owning and using any machine, even a cheap/ugly one, parts wear out and need to be replaced. In addition to pure need, sometimes I also just want. There, I said it. Even in the case of "just want," though, I need a governing principle to guide me, both to keep the commuting bike cheap/ugly, and also to avoid the topless mountain of upgraditis (starting with a cheap bike but winding up with a cheap bike with lots of expensive parts bolted on, a trap lovingly, exhaustively explored by The Snob himself. )

To that end, I long ago established the Twenty Dollar Budget Rule for Commuter Bikes: only buy individual parts for the commuter bike which cost in the range of $20. This kills multiple requirements with a single stone's throw. However, the bike business being competitive, fickle, and driven by churn, closeouts and bargains will sometimes permit the attentive shopper to apply the Twenty Dollar Rule, and yet not crash into the bargain basement of unreliability where bike-shaped objects dwell. Some parts will never fall into both categories, you may be thinking. It will never be possible, or advisable, to buy wheels that cost $20 for example. I had more or less planned to violate the rule when one or both of Yasuko's wheels needed to be replaced. Then I came across a closeout deal on a set of Vuelta Zerolite Mountain "hoops" for $49 minus 10% this week, and clicked the BUY button. Yes these are laced with only 28 spokes, and yes they are bladed aero spokes, neither of which are attributes which make much sense to me on mountain bike wheels. If Sheldon is watching, he is probably appalled. However, since I do not actually use this bike on trails, the lower spoke count may not be as bad an idea as it sounds. I guess I'll see about that. So, I installed the front wheel, above, and am about to take it for a test drive. I took the photo, and wrote this part of the post, before the test ride, so that in case it fails catastrophically and sends me supermanning into the canal, I will have captured my "before" thoughts while still of sound body and semi-sound mind. I have to wait for a seven speed spacer to arrive in the mail before installing the rear wheel, and maybe that's just as well.

Post break-in ride update: twenty miles along the canal and all is well with the new wheel. It came out of the box pretty true and round, and as far as I can tell, did not warp twist deform or otherwise taco on the inaugural spin. So, thus far, very early into the great twenty dollar wheel experiment, Carl the Canal Cormorant issues his preliminary seal of approval. Get up. Go ride.


  1. Is that bird "web surfing?"
    Those wheels are a crazy deal! I might have bought them even though I don't need them!
    I'm digging the two white spokes.

  2. Yes, he is "cloaked" for the sake of anonymity. I think he's a cormorant, but not 100% sure about that. Other than looking distinctive, I'm not sure what those two white spokes actually do.

  3. Depends if it fits you or not.

  4. By the way, I'm now taking your twenty dollar rule under serious consideration.

  5. If your employer participates in the Bicycle Commuter Benefit Act, you can buy something new with the $20 rule every month!

  6. Funny you should deem 20.00 as an appropriate amount. I scrounge wheels from give away bikes. They have to be nearly true though. As for other parts I have no problem spending 20.00 per part, but that can add up too. I can't even think about how much I spend on bikes. I always, always can justify fixing up bikes, and though I wouldn't spend 100.00 on new handlebars, it's less expensive than a car repair.

    1. Those wheels are approaching 10,000 miles of commuting. Current operating cost: $.005 per mile. And dropping. I think I have avoided the bargain basement of unreliable parts with them. No spoke problems. I think I adjusted the spokes once in the truing stand. It's been so long since I experienced the stress of car repair that I have almost forgotten. Almost.


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