How I cycled 6000 miles to the North Cape of Europe on a Free Bike
My bike at Geiranger
I recently completed a 6000 mile cycle odyssey from Scotland to the most northerly point of Europe in Norway and beyond, using a free bike I found abandoned in a tenement stairwell. I had noticed that the bike hadn't been used for several months and thought it was a shame to be going to waste – if a bike isn't ridden for a long time it can become unusable. I left a note on the bike asking who it belonged to and if they no longer needed it. After a few months without an answer I asked all the neighbours in the block if it belonged to them. No one knew anything about it so I claimed the bike and set about restoring it.
The bike is a Raleigh M-trax 3000 mountain bike with handbuilt Reynolds chromoly frame. The frame isn't the best for touring as the forks are too stiff, the bottom bracket too high, and the top tube too long, but with modifications it is reasonably comfortable and feels very solid and reliable. It is quite a heavy bike but that is more to do with all the stuff I've added to it than the frame itself. Most of the original parts were usable but I replaced all of the following for the tour.
I switched to a pair of Alexrim wheels (though the original wheels were fine and would probably have done the job). I picked up the Alexrims for practically nothing second hand.
stem and stem extender – because the handlebars were too low and far forward for comfort
The old ones were worn out and new ones were needed for a long tour
Getting the old one out was the main challenge – it had seized quite strongly and needed
heating from below to loosen it
The middle one needed replaced so I changed the lot
- chain and sprockets
- grips and tape for bar-ends
- front pannier racks – I created a hybrid from a pair of Blackburn low-riders and a rear rack so I could store stuff above the front wheel.
- brake blocks
- saddle – I invested in a Brooks saddle for extra comfort and durability, though the original was usable
- front and rear dérailleurs – not really necessary but I found them cheap in a sale
- cables and housing – always a good idea to replace these rear brake – I switched to a cantilever brake as the v-brake hit the mudguard when operating
I also slapped some hammerite over places where the paint had flaked off but it turned out to be a waste of time. I may give the bike a proper paint job at some point in the future but having the bike look so rickety means I didn't have to worry much about it being stolen. In fact I seldom bothered to lock it outside of major cities, particularly in Norway, and even then only used a lightweight lock.
Total cost of renovation was £200-300, which isn't a negligible sum. Considering you can get a new touring bike for not that much more it's questionable if it's really worth the considerable extra work involved. But not all the modifications I made were essential and I could probably have spent under £100 and still toured with the bike. There is a lot of work involved though and some of it needs special tools, which will put the cost up. If you find a really good frame, can source cheap parts, and are the sort of person who enjoys a renovation project it's definitely worth doing up an old bike. Also, while you can pick up a budget touring bike for under £500 a good one with a chromoly frame will cost closer to £1000.
The bike performed really well on the tour, and in fact the main technical problems I had were with the cycle computer and panniers I added to it afterwards. The front brake could have done with replacing as it was very difficult to adjust and caused uneven wearing of the front wheel, which had to be replaced. But all in all it was comfortable and felt very sturdy and reliable all the way through Scotland, England, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
The bike is still going strong and I'm already planning to fit it out for a more adventurous tour … perhaps the Himalayas. Read more about the tour and about restoring free bikes.