Here at Blue Heron Bikes, one of the most common questions we get asked by customers is, “I have a mountain bike, but I use it mainly for riding around Berkeley and doing errands, but it feels like a real dog.  How can I make it more comfortable, efficient, and practical for city riding?”

This is a really good question to ask, because the truth is that a lot of old mountain bikes can make the basis for really good everyday bikes, since they’re generally built with reliable, durable frames and components that are fairly flexible in terms of their usage.  The best are mountain bikes from the 1980’s and early-to-mid 1990’s, before suspension became commonplace.  Newer mountain bikes, especially hardtails (rigid frames with only front suspension) can often do well as city bikes, but the 1980’s and early 1990’s were the sweet spot in terms of mountain bikes that can be converted into awesome city bikes.

Below is a list of modifications, arranged by roughly by cost, that we at Blue Heron Bikes recommend for converting old mountain bikes into practical, everyday bikes. As you will note, some of these modifications can also apply to older road bikes as well, with some caveats.

1. Street Tires

The Serfas Drifter is a great tire for city riding.

The simplest, and often the cheapest, modification that we recommend for old mountain bikes being used on the street is a tire swap.  Mountain bikes usually come with wide tires that have aggressive “knobs” on them, which are designed to dig into the soft dirt of trails and provide traction during fast off-road riding.  However, when used on pavement, these tires are less than optimal for a number of reasons.

Firstly, knobby tires provide less traction on pavement than a good street tire, since the rubber knobs can’t dig into pavement like they can into dirt.  Therefore, the tire rides mostly on the surface of the knobs, with less surface area of the tire contacting the pavement than on a tire without knobs.  Less surface area means less traction.  Secondly, knobbies often feel much slower on pavement, requiring more energy from the rider to get up to, and maintain, speed.  This is because all of those knobs between the wheel and the ground are flexing under pedaling load, sapping energy that would otherwise be pushing the bike forward.

So, a great first step for making a mountain bike better on pavement is to swap its knobby tires for tires designed specifically for traction and efficiency on the street, with less knobby treads on them.  These tires are often referred to as “slicks” because of their smooth appearance, but this is misleading.  “Slick” tires actually provide much more traction on pavement than knobby tires because they put the maximum amount of rubber in contact with the pavement. In addition, lacking knobs, they flex much less under pedaling loads, and therefore are more efficient, a difference you can really feel when you first switch from knobbies.

For those for whom comfort is a priority, we have street tires that come in similar widths (usually around 2 inches) to off-road tires, providing lots of natural shock absorption over bumps while still gaining efficiency and traction compared to knobbies.  For those looking for even more efficiency, we also have narrower (and therefore lighter) slicks that will fit on mountain bike rims—we usually recommend something in the 1.5 inch range.

Tires of this type are usually around $20-40 per tire.

Road bikes: Road bikes generally already have “slick” tires that feel nice and fast on pavement.  However, those using their road bikes for commuting rather than fast recreational rides may find that slightly wider tires that are normally fitted to road bikes—say, 28-32mm wide rather than the more common 23-25mm—provide a big gain in comfort for a negligible loss of efficiency (in fact, new research shows that wider, lightweight tires may even be more efficient than their skinnier equivalents).  They also allow the bike to handle more weight, great if you’re carrying a small commuting load (see below).  However, tire clearance is often a limiting factor with road bikes, since most contemporary road bike frames and brakes often will only clear a 28mm tire at the most.  Older road bikes often have more clearance.

2. Fenders/Racks/Bags/Basket

All of these accessories go a long ways to making a bike more practical, something that you can hop just hop on and ride for the shorter trips, where before you might have used your car.  Both fenders and racks require eyelets, which are threaded mounts that are part of the frame.  They’re usually located at on the dropouts (the parts of the frame where the wheels mount) and on the top of the rear triangle of the frame, just below where the seatpost enters the frame.  If you can’t find eyelets on your bike, however, don’t despair—there are many alternative ways of mounting fenders and racks, and we can usually figure out something to work for you.

Fenders keep you and your bike dry on wet roads.

-Fenders (also called mudgards, especially in the U.K.) mount to the frame and fork of the bike and in wet weather prevent water and dirt from being sprayed on the rider and the bike itself.  This not only makes riding in damp weather more much more comfortable for the rider (you’d be surprised how much of the water that gets on you while riding in the rain comes up from the pavement, rather than down from the sky), but also keeps the frame and components in much better shape, preventing rust and corrosion as well as keeping lubrication where it needs to be.  I find that even if you’re not riding in downpours, fenders are great for removing any hesitation to ride when it’s just damp and the roads are wet, or just after a big rain.

While the fenders on your old Schwinn or Raleigh might have been heavy and rattled a lot, newer fenders are made from lightweight plastic or metals and have much better mounting hardware—once they’re on there, you’ll never notice them, except when you notice how dry you are!

We have fenders starting from about $40.

Racks like this Topeak Explorer are the basis for a good load-carrying system.

-Racks are pretty much self explanatory—you need (at least) one to be able to carry stuff on the bike.  Carrying your weight (your commuting load, or your groceries) on the bike rather than in a messenger bag or backpack reduces fatigue and makes the rider/bicycle system more stable, since the center of gravity is lower.  Most bikes, especially mountain bikes, can easily take a rear rack, which also tends to be the most stable place to mount a load as well.  Front racks also exist, but they depend on the type of frame and handlebars you have, and can also affect the steering of the bicycle since the load often moves with the handlebars.

We have racks starting from $26.99.

Baskets are super convenient, great for shopping loads!

-Bags/Baskets mount to racks to carry whatever your load is.  The most common type of bike bag is the pannier, which is a bag designed to mount to the side of a rack.  People often use two panniers on each side of the rear rack to balance their load.  Panniers are the most stable way of carrying a load, since they can cinch down on a load and hold it close to the rack, but bulky loads may prove a challenge if they are bigger than the pannier.  Panniers are often also waterproof, providing the maximum protection for whatever is inside.  Baskets, which can mount either to to the top or sides of a rack, on the other hand, are much more flexible and convenient—just drop in your load, cover it up with a cargo net, and go—but they do less to hold the load stable, which can affect the stability of the bicycle.  They’re also less weatherproof.  So, there are advantages and disadvantages to both panniers and baskets.

Baskets start from around $20, and panniers start around $50 each.

Road bikes: Road bikes can often take a rear rack pretty easily.  Full fenders, however, might be more difficult, since again, contemporary road brakes and frames often don’t have enough clearance between the tire and brake/frame to allow a fender to fit without rubbing the tire.  We do carry SKS “RaceBlade” fenders, which are designed to fit to road bikes without passing under the brake.

3. Upright handlebars

The swept-back bend of the Avenir Circa handlebar is great for city riding.

Switching out handlebars, after adding racks, is one of the most common modifications we make to re-purpose bikes as practical commuters.  While early mountain bikes, from the early 1980’s, have relatively upright seating already, many later mountain bikes, especially ones from the early 1990’s, were designed for competitive cross-country riding, and had riding positions more similar to road bikes, with narrow, flat bars mounted low and far away from the seat.  Retrofitting bars (and possibly also a stem) that have more rise and that sweep back towards the rider allows the rider to sit up more vertically, providing a more comfortable riding position with the rider’s weight more on the saddle, as well as making it much easier to see your surroundings and be seen by other traffic.  This is usually a pretty straightforward conversion for most mountain bikes, since the brake levers, shifters, and grips you already have should work on the new bars as well (we sometimes have to replace the cables for brakes and shifters, however, since longer cables are often required to reach the new bars).  We often end up sliding your saddle back and down a little bit as well, to get even more weight back off your hands and onto your butt.

A conversion like this often goes a long ways towards making a bike more useful.  Even if you’re just going short distances, having a bike that feels instantly comfortable when you get on it can go a long ways towards motivating you to use the bike for whatever you need to do.

The Avenir Circa handlebar is perfect for this type of conversion and only costs $19.99.  If you need longer cables, that ends up being around $20-30.

Road bikes: Such a conversion is equally appropriate for road bikes being used as commuters.  However, with a road bike it can be a bit more complex, since we will have to also switch out your drop bar brake levers and shifters for ones that are compatible with upright bars.

4. Longtail (Xtracycle) Conversion

Rob with one of his Diamondback MTB to Xtracycle hauler conversions.

All of the above is great, but if you really want the ultimate upgrade for your old bicycle, something that will make it at least as capable as your car for most of your daily needs and more, something that will transform the way you think about your bicycle and what it can do…you need an Xtracycle FreeRadical conversion!

The Xtracycle FreeRadical is a bolt-on conversion kit that will retrofit most bicycles into a longtail cargo bike, similar the Xtracycle Radish, Yuba Mundo, or Surly Big Dummy cargo bikes that we sell as complete bikes.   The FreeRadical kit consists of a frame that bolts to the rear triangle of your existing frame and moves the rear wheel back about two feet, providing attachment for oversize racks and panniers on either side of the bike, and a deck above the rear wheel for carrying passengers, including small children with Xtracycle compatible kid seats!

The FreeRadical was designed especially to work with the type of mountain bikes we’ve been discussing.  It uses your existing rear wheel, brakes, and derailleur, so there’s no need for all new parts…all you (usually) need is a longer chain and rear cables to reach back to the rear wheel, which are included with the FreeRadical kit.  It certainly does change the way the way the bike rides and handles, but the new feeling is easy to get used to and most people find that their converted bike is actually more comfortable now, thanks to the super-long wheelbase!

Road bikes: the FreeRadical can also be used to convert bikes with 700c (road/touring size) wheels, using an optional brake adapter kit.  It will work best with hybrid and touring bikes–we wouldn’t recommend bolting one to a lightweight racing bike!  700c Xtracycles are a bit more limited in their rear tire clearance–they can only fit about a 35mm tire–but a 700c Xtracycle is still a very capable hauling machine!

The full Xtracycle conversion, with labor and accessories, usually ends up around $800.  With an Xtracycle, your bike can carry pretty much anything, and becomes a feasible replacement for a car.  Want to pick up the kids from school and then go grocery shopping?  Can do!  An Xtracycle can easily handle two kids and at least 4 bags of groceries.  You could even go shopping at Costco!  Want to pick up some 50 lb bags of soil or mulch for the garden, or lumber for that next home improvement project?  Easy, especially with the optional LongLoader attachment!  Want to take the kids camping, maybe even take the canoe along?  We’ve done it…with an Xtracycle.

Want to haul your Kayak down to the put-in on your bike? No problem with an Xtracycle!

Rob, the founder of Blue Heron Bikes, has been riding his old Diamonback mountain bike with a FreeRadical (not to mention street tires, upright, swept back bars and fenders) for about 10 years now, and experiencing the possibilities it opened up for him, and the freedom it gave him, was his inspiration for starting Blue Heron Bikes here in Berkeley.  We love seeing what people can do with their bicycles, the kinds of adventures they can have every day.

Whether you just want to swap out tires, get a tune up, or go for the full Xtracycle experience, come on down to Blue Heron Bikes on Gilman Street and we’ll talk about what we can do to rejuvenate your old ride!