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Help with building a bike for my wife - back injury

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Help with building a bike for my wife - back injury

Old 09-17-19, 08:11 AM
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Help with building a bike for my wife - back injury

Hello everyone,

My favorite bikes are nice steel frame road and mountain bikes, and although a novice (compared to all of you) I've really enjoyed fully stripping down and building up the 4 steel bikes I've got.

I'd like to build up a bike for my wife to ride with me, but she has back problems resulting in difficulties with much of a forward leaning position. Several back surgeries have left her lower back unable to bend, so she'd need a very upright riding position.

On most bikes she has to keep the seat too low to avoid bending her lower back, leading to very inefficient pedaling.

Are there any nice vintage road/mountain bikes with longer seat tubes, but relatively short top tubes that I could put a tall set of bars on? Riding in the drops would be completely out, so I'm thinking maybe an older mountain bike would work well as a starting point. Do you all think it would be best to start with a pretty small size and a long seat post (shorter top tube) or a larger frame with the correct seat tube length and some sort of swept back bars?

I'm open to any suggestions - I'm also not sure how adding taller/more swept back handle bars will effect the handling/steering.

Riding would be mostly on street/gravel roads.

Thank you for any input, it is much appreciated!


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Old 09-17-19, 08:34 AM
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I have chronic neck and back problems from various injuries, so the challenge is familiar. Upright isn't always better than too low or stretched out. Sometimes a more forward lean may be more comfortable.

And comfort may vary according to my progress with physical therapy, or setbacks due to other issues. I feel more joint aches with sudden shifts in barometric pressure, usually downward ahead of storms. I used to laugh when my grandparents mom predicted the weather with their aching joints, but I ain't laughing now that it's happened to me.

I'm often tinkering with the fit of my road and hybrid bikes. Quill stems and seat posts with quick releases help make adjustments as needed during rest breaks on rides. With my bikes that have threadless stems I'm pretty much locked in for that ride. So on longer club rides on rougher rural roads I'll often take my steel bikes instead.

After selecting an appropriate frame her size, start with an adjustable stem. This will help identify a suitable stem length and height for a fixed stem, if she wishes to switch from the adjustable stem.

The next best solution is a quill stem. Easy to adjust the height as needed with a single tool. A couple of two-bolt or four-bolt quill stems, shorter and longer, would make it easier to swap between the two without needing to strip the handlebar of brakes, bar tape or grips, etc.

So far I've used only fixed stems on my bikes, occasionally swapping between shorter and longer, angled higher or lower. But I'm considering an adjustable stem for my main hybrid for errands, commutes and casual group rides. It currently has a Nitto albatross swept bar, conventionally oriented (not flipped) and is generally comfortable. But it never feels quite perfect. Part of the problem is that the top tube is a bit long for my preference despite being technically correct. The swept bar helps with that.

Another issue for me is helmet fit and weight. With age my C1 and C2 neck vertebrae are deteriorating so I'm more sensitive to weight on my noggin. I often use a video camera on my helmets and I've found that most mounts set the cameras too far forward, straining my neck. Instead I'll mount the camera as far back as possible, using blue tack removable gum to hold the camera, with a safety leash as a backup. So far, so good, no mount failures. Much more comfortable on my neck, although it's not as comfortable as not having the camera up there at all. But I prefer to have at least one camera aiming where I look. (I've used video cameras on most rides for more than 3 years and one of the few times I didn't was the day I was hit by a car last year. If I'd been running video the driver's infraction would have been clear -- she was looking down at her phone while turning left across my path while I had the green light -- and the insurance claim would have been settled much sooner. Instead I'm still waiting and there's no resolution in sight.)

It also helps me to do stretching and massage before rides. A month or so ago I got a long handled percussion massager. Looks like a portable vacuum cleaner, with two heads about the size of golf balls that work sort of like fast moving pistons rather than non-directional vibrators. It's the bee's knees. I dab some topical analgesic balm on the tips and use the massager to apply the stuff to my shoulder blades, back and neck. Really helps before and after rides. Heck, I'd take it on a ride if I could. If I'm ever forced to switch to a recumbent I'm gonna have a massager built into the seatback.
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Old 09-17-19, 08:54 AM
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Originally Posted by canklecat View Post
I have chronic neck and back problems from various injuries, so the challenge is familiar. Upright isn't always better than too low or stretched out. Sometimes a more forward lean may be more comfortable.

And comfort may vary according to my progress with physical therapy, or setbacks due to other issues. I feel more joint aches with sudden shifts in barometric pressure, usually downward ahead of storms. I used to laugh when my grandparents mom predicted the weather with their aching joints, but I ain't laughing now that it's happened to me.

I'm often tinkering with the fit of my road and hybrid bikes. Quill stems and seat posts with quick releases help make adjustments as needed during rest breaks on rides. With my bikes that have threadless stems I'm pretty much locked in for that ride. So on longer club rides on rougher rural roads I'll often take my steel bikes instead.

After selecting an appropriate frame her size, start with an adjustable stem. This will help identify a suitable stem length and height for a fixed stem, if she wishes to switch from the adjustable stem.

The next best solution is a quill stem. Easy to adjust the height as needed with a single tool. A couple of two-bolt or four-bolt quill stems, shorter and longer, would make it easier to swap between the two without needing to strip the handlebar of brakes, bar tape or grips, etc.

So far I've used only fixed stems on my bikes, occasionally swapping between shorter and longer, angled higher or lower. But I'm considering an adjustable stem for my main hybrid for errands, commutes and casual group rides. It currently has a Nitto albatross swept bar, conventionally oriented (not flipped) and is generally comfortable. But it never feels quite perfect. Part of the problem is that the top tube is a bit long for my preference despite being technically correct. The swept bar helps with that.

Another issue for me is helmet fit and weight. With age my C1 and C2 neck vertebrae are deteriorating so I'm more sensitive to weight on my noggin. I often use a video camera on my helmets and I've found that most mounts set the cameras too far forward, straining my neck. Instead I'll mount the camera as far back as possible, using blue tack removable gum to hold the camera, with a safety leash as a backup. So far, so good, no mount failures. Much more comfortable on my neck, although it's not as comfortable as not having the camera up there at all. But I prefer to have at least one camera aiming where I look. (I've used video cameras on most rides for more than 3 years and one of the few times I didn't was the day I was hit by a car last year. If I'd been running video the driver's infraction would have been clear -- she was looking down at her phone while turning left across my path while I had the green light -- and the insurance claim would have been settled much sooner. Instead I'm still waiting and there's no resolution in sight.)

It also helps me to do stretching and massage before rides. A month or so ago I got a long handled percussion massager. Looks like a portable vacuum cleaner, with two heads about the size of golf balls that work sort of like fast moving pistons rather than non-directional vibrators. It's the bee's knees. I dab some topical analgesic balm on the tips and use the massager to apply the stuff to my shoulder blades, back and neck. Really helps before and after rides. Heck, I'd take it on a ride if I could. If I'm ever forced to switch to a recumbent I'm gonna have a massager built into the seatback.
Thank you very much for the comprehensive and thought-out response. The issue my wife runs into is that the vertebrae in her lower back down to her hips cannot bend. If she rides a bike with a more stretched out position the nose of the seat would have to be pointed downward at a rather extreme angle (maybe 45 degrees downward from horizontal on the bikes in her size when the seat post height is set correctly). My goal is to build a bike where her hips/lower back are relatively vertical - a slight bend in the upper back and neck is fine, as long as she can reach the handlebars from this position.

Hopefully I'm making sense while trying to describe this. A smaller bike would have the advantage of a shorter reach when using a tall seatpost, but a more appropriately sized frame could possibly have its reach reduced with higher/more swept back bars. I'd still want to be able to mount shifters of course, and this is all new territory for me.

Thanks again!
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Old 09-17-19, 09:08 AM
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Where are you located? My wife is selling her RANS Wave recumbent and that is the kind of bike you might want to consider. Lots of 'bent versions out there. She had a fall years ago that damaged her arm/elbow and can't put weight on her arms when riding, even with a suspension stem, so we tried the recumbent but she just does not ride any longer and is getting rid of her fleet.
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Old 09-17-19, 09:09 AM
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The best bet here is to probably go with something more modern.

My wife need to sit very upright because of vision issues. We tried various modifications to her hybrid, but they all caused her to have to look downward, which didn't align with her glasses.

We got a nice specialized globe for $40 and she can sit bolt upright.
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Old 09-17-19, 09:17 AM
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Originally Posted by thumpism View Post
Where are you located? My wife is selling her RANS Wave recumbent and that is the kind of bike you might want to consider. Lots of 'bent versions out there. She had a fall years ago that damaged her arm/elbow and can't put weight on her arms when riding, even with a suspension stem, so we tried the recumbent but she just does not ride any longer and is getting rid of her fleet.
We live in Montana - part of the allure for me is that I love deal hunting (no large bike budget at the moment) and building up, working on, and saving nicer older bikes from the dump.
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Old 09-17-19, 09:22 AM
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Allure notwithstanding, @thinktubes had a point about newer bikes and their frame designs; many new machines have a variety of frame styles not dreamed of in the C&V production days. Only old European city bikes had the kind of tall head tubes and upright riding positions your wife probably needs, but many modern bikes now offer that. Much smarter to pursue that than to waste time trying to make old tech work.
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Old 09-17-19, 09:27 AM
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Originally Posted by thinktubes View Post
The best bet here is to probably go with something more modern.

My wife need to sit very upright because of vision issues. We tried various modifications to her hybrid, but they all caused her to have to look downward, which didn't align with her glasses.

We got a nice specialized globe for $40 and she can sit bolt upright.
That is what I was kind of hoping to avoid having to do. We are both quite athletic (late 20s) and longer rides aren't out of the question. I was hoping I could maybe build up a nice older mountain bike with more street oriented tires that would still weigh around the 27 lb mark if I can decrease reach and raise the handlebars enough.

Something newer with an upright position would (I imagine) either weigh 40+ lbs or cost quite a lot. I know I can build up a nice older mountain bike for under $150. We just bought our first house, so most of our finances are going to home improvement for the time being.

I greatly appreciate all the insight you've all provided so far, and for letting me bounce ideas off you.

Last edited by Cheseldine; 09-17-19 at 09:32 AM.
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Old 09-17-19, 10:08 AM
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Have you seen this thread, it might be helpful.

Vintage MTB To Upright Bar / Urban Bike Conversions
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Old 09-17-19, 10:10 AM
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Mixte?


My girlfriend is not athletic but prefers to be upright so she can view the road easily. She has had numerous health issues the past couple years. Not a great pic, but this is her bike I built up with a chromoly mixte frame for lighter bike and flexibility on drivetrain plus a smooth easy ride. Her's is a 2 x 5 and I used MTB style, bars, levers, brakes, stem, and thumb shifters. Everything else is stock Ito my knowledge. I could easily lighten it up with diff seatpost and lighter 27" wheelset or 700c wheelset or diff components.

Last edited by Senrab62; 09-17-19 at 10:13 AM. Reason: Forgot to add photo
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Old 09-17-19, 10:12 AM
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Originally Posted by Cheseldine View Post
Thank you very much for the comprehensive and thought-out response. The issue my wife runs into is that the vertebrae in her lower back down to her hips cannot bend. If she rides a bike with a more stretched out position the nose of the seat would have to be pointed downward at a rather extreme angle (maybe 45 degrees downward from horizontal on the bikes in her size when the seat post height is set correctly). My goal is to build a bike where her hips/lower back are relatively vertical - a slight bend in the upper back and neck is fine, as long as she can reach the handlebars from this position.

Hopefully I'm making sense while trying to describe this. A smaller bike would have the advantage of a shorter reach when using a tall seatpost, but a more appropriately sized frame could possibly have its reach reduced with higher/more swept back bars. I'd still want to be able to mount shifters of course, and this is all new territory for me.

Thanks again!
Check out noseless saddles like the MoonSaddle, which make saddle angle less critical. I met a woman a few months ago at a group ride who had a well worn MoonSaddle, had ridden it for years and swears by it.

There are also the shorter, noseless split saddles favored by some time trial and triathlon riders. But the MoonSaddle may be even better for folks with limited ability to rotate hips, lean forward, etc.
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Old 09-17-19, 10:16 AM
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70s Raleigh Steel

70s Raleighs tend to have shorter top tubes for their frame sizes.

Ideally you could find a Gran Sport or a Competition with butted Reynolds 531 steel frames/fork.

The geometry is a bit slack, and plays nicely with upright bars.

Tire clearance is generous, and several BF members like them for road/gravel riding.

Budget of $150 may be the sticking point, unless you have a big box of parts and/or a bike co-op nearby.
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Old 09-17-19, 10:38 AM
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Originally Posted by brian3069 View Post
Have you seen this thread, it might be helpful.

Vintage MTB To Upright Bar / Urban Bike Conversions
I have, and I've been perusing it for ideas. I've also wondered if anyone ever puts more upright bars on vintage road bikes?
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Old 09-17-19, 10:40 AM
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the above suggestion of a mixte is a good option, imo. that is if something vintage is more attractive. true...modern bikes with taller head tubes make your goal easy to achieve, but i built a mixte for my wife set up in the manner your reaching towards

back issues are exacerbated by a static position. my wife doesn't have them so much, anymore, but i used trekking/butterfly handlebars to give her the ability to go upright or stretch out without having to go lower to do so as would be with drop bars.

those noseless saddles are awesome, btw! consider a suspension seat post with whatever saddle you use. fatter tires and one of those really take out the shocks of any terrain

and, maybe consider some mild yoga as an adjunct, if you haven't already. it helps realign the muscle/skeleton system. and/or some fascial therapy. maintaining flexibility is good and even necessary, but not all "stretching" is equal.

ps. to add, a step through/mixte frame i would say should be a real consideration. they are very easy comparatively not having to strain the hips/back to even just get on or off the bike. in the event of an emergency dismount, there's nothing to get in the way ...ie. no top tube to have to avoid!

Last edited by thook; 09-17-19 at 10:48 AM.
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Old 09-17-19, 10:43 AM
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Originally Posted by brian3069 View Post
Have you seen this thread, it might be helpful.

Vintage MTB To Upright Bar / Urban Bike Conversions
This is a great option! Used rigid mountain bikes tend to be cheaper than used road bikes. A lot of them had longer top tubes than seat tubes so it's good to look out for that.

That said, I have pushed the limits of using short, upright stems on my drop bar builds and don't have a problem getting used to the steering and geometry changes that occur. I think your wife would get used to whatever you do to adjust the riding position as long as it's not completely insane. I regularly see bike commuters here in Seattle that have waaaaaay to small or large bikes with ridiculous changes to accomodate and they seem to be obliviously banging out the miles. I think us cyclists either have a higher sensitivity to it or just completely overthink it or both.
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Old 09-17-19, 10:46 AM
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Originally Posted by Cheseldine View Post
I have, and I've been perusing it for ideas. I've also wondered if anyone ever puts more upright bars on vintage road bikes?
For sure. Lots of people put north road bars or other upright bars on road bikes. That is reason Velo Orange has a whole line of these types of bars.

Blog post: https://velo-orange.com/pages/flat-a...ebar-selection
Their section of their store for just this type of bar: https://velo-orange.com/collections/...d-upright-bars
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Old 09-17-19, 10:48 AM
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Originally Posted by Senrab62 View Post

My girlfriend is not athletic but prefers to be upright so she can view the road easily. She has had numerous health issues the past couple years. Not a great pic, but this is her bike I built up with a chromoly mixte frame for lighter bike and flexibility on drivetrain plus a smooth easy ride. Her's is a 2 x 5 and I used MTB style, bars, levers, brakes, stem, and thumb shifters. Everything else is stock Ito my knowledge. I could easily lighten it up with diff seatpost and lighter 27" wheelset or 700c wheelset or diff components.
That does look nice, I'll have to keep an eye out for a nice mixte. The main problem is that I'm no good at judging size looking at them.

Originally Posted by canklecat View Post
Check out noseless saddles like the MoonSaddle, which make saddle angle less critical. I met a woman a few months ago at a group ride who had a well worn MoonSaddle, had ridden it for years and swears by it.

There are also the shorter, noseless split saddles favored by some time trial and triathlon riders. But the MoonSaddle may be even better for folks with limited ability to rotate hips, lean forward, etc.
That's really interesting - I wish there were a way she could try one out without spending $100. Thanks for sharing it!

Originally Posted by chainwhip View Post
70s Raleighs tend to have shorter top tubes for their frame sizes.

Ideally you could find a Gran Sport or a Competition with butted Reynolds 531 steel frames/fork.

The geometry is a bit slack, and plays nicely with upright bars.

Tire clearance is generous, and several BF members like them for road/gravel riding.

Budget of $150 may be the sticking point, unless you have a big box of parts and/or a bike co-op nearby.
That is great info - I know it may be a bit sacrilegious, but do you know if it would mess up the steering/ridabilty if the drop bars were replaced with higher more swept back bars?
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Old 09-17-19, 10:52 AM
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Originally Posted by tricky View Post
For sure. Lots of people put north road bars or other upright bars on road bikes. That is reason Velo Orange has a whole line of these types of bars.

Blog post: https://velo-orange.com/pages/flat-a...ebar-selection
Their section of their store for just this type of bar: https://velo-orange.com/collections/...d-upright-bars
That looks perfect - do you folks have any insight as to whether it would be better to convert an old road bike, or a mountain bike? Would I be better off with a smaller frame and longer seatpost + higher stem or a larger frame and more rearward sweep of the bars?
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Old 09-17-19, 10:54 AM
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FWIW, I put a Nitto albatross bar on my Univega Via Carisma which is technically my size, but with a longer top tube I felt too stretched out with the original flat bar or even a riser bar with slight back sweep. The albatross bar solved most of my neck comfort issues. And I switched from 700x32 to 700x42 tires with less pressure for a softer ride. Very pleasant including Monday when I rode about 20 miles for errands at a casual pace on what was supposed to be a rest day after some long, fast club rides on my road bikes over the weekend.

While I've mostly been using my drop bar road bikes the past year and am comfortable with them for rides up to around 40 miles, sometimes I prefer the more relaxed hybrid rides. I'm considering converting an older steel road bike that's slighty-too-large for a sorta-hybrid conversion with a swept bar. I've seen a couple of folks with those conversions at casual group rides and they love 'em. The road bikes with aluminum swept bars are around 5 lbs lighter than typical steel frame hybrids.

Ditto some MTB conversions. And with MTB conversions to swept bars you can easily fit fatter tires for a softer ride.
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Old 09-17-19, 11:04 AM
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Originally Posted by Cheseldine View Post
That looks perfect - do you folks have any insight as to whether it would be better to convert an old road bike, or a mountain bike? Would I be better off with a smaller frame and longer seatpost + higher stem or a larger frame and more rearward sweep of the bars?
I mounted Velo Orange Porteur bars on a 1974 Nishiki Competition. I found it to be slightly twitchy compared to drop bars. Probably would of gotten used the handling, but Porteur bars have no rise and they didn't work with my bad neck. Now I'm riding a ridged Specialized Hardrock mountain bike with Velo Orange Tourest bars and 26 x 2.0 slick tires. That set up works great for me.
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Old 09-17-19, 11:05 AM
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I've fixed up a few bikes for people who needed/wanted a pretty upright riding position. If I was doing it with an existing bicycle of theirs, I'd start by getting them an adjustable quill stem and seeing if that gave them the upright position they wanted. If that wasn't high enough I'd then get them a quill stem extender. Also, because of the much more upright riding position, I'd recommend them to get a suspension seatpost to help absorb road shocks. BTW, I fit the stem and/or the stem extender and check the resulting fit with the person on the bike BEFORE I hooked up all the cables.

Cheers
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Old 09-17-19, 11:28 AM
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I had a commuter that I converted to upright bars, and it was a night and day difference. I mounted porteur bars upside down so they would have a little rise, and it was perfect. I was only dealing with visibility (wanted to see traffic) rather than back issues, so my margin of error was wider. Here are a couple of pics to illustrate, because the bars and stem were the only fit variable that changed between these two iterations.



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Old 09-17-19, 11:54 AM
  #23  
chainwhip
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She would likely enjoy a bike like noobinsf's pic below, especially if a classic/vintage bike is part of the brief.

In addition to 70s Raleigh Comps and Gran Sports, look for Raleigh Super Courses( less $) or even Grand Prix ( even less $).

Originally Posted by noobinsf View Post

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Old 09-17-19, 11:57 AM
  #24  
Clyde1820
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Originally Posted by Cheseldine View Post
Something newer with an upright position would (I imagine) either weigh 40+ lbs or cost quite a lot. I know I can build up a nice older mountain bike for under $150.
Here's a 1984 Specialized StumpJumper Sport, 17in frame, with 24in wheels: click. Relaxed geometry of the era, with smaller wheels for a smaller person (sub-5'6" or so).

It'll certainly go anywhere you want to go, including gravel and other off-pavement routes.




If concerned about how beefy the rims might be, you can always have a wheelset built up using, oh, the Sun Ringle Rhyno Lite rims in 24in/507mm sizing (click).

With the right stem, bar and saddle choices, it might make a very nice fairly-upright, all-terrain rig.


I've been mulling just such a build. An older relaxed-geometry MTB type frame and fork, taller stem, the Nitto Albatross, Bosco or a NorthRoad type bar, with a suitable sprung Brooks saddle.
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Old 09-17-19, 12:19 PM
  #25  
Doug Fattic 
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Iím a custom bicycle frame builder who has spent a lot of my career fitting women customers. Iím going to suggest you get an old bicycle that has M shaped handlebars. As already mentioned these can be referred to in the Industry as ďNorth RoadĒ handlebars. Many hybrid or MTB style of bicycles use a straight bar with a bend which work best with a completely different frame design (there can be exceptions). When you are using an M shaped handlebar you actually need a longer top tube because where the hands are placed at the ends of the bars are much closer to your body than where they would be on MTB or standard road bars. In addition your butt will want to be further back when you are sitting more upright with M handlebars. This means that they require a shallower seat angle than what is common on a standard road bike and why it is difficult to get comfortable converting one over to North Road bars.

An excellent example of the kind of bicycle that would fit your wife would be an old Chicago made (before 1978) Schwinn Collegiate or Suburban. Old English 3 speeds fit this category too. Instead of 73ļ angles they are around 70ļ. They are super heavy at 40+ pounds so it isnít what she would want but if you can find one at a Goodwill or garage sale it would be useful to find her position and confirm that is the design that would work for her. A Mixte has already been suggested that if it came originally with M shaped handlebars would probably already have the geometry that would work best for her. The design of mountain bikes has evolved through the years but in the era when they were made out of steel in the mid 80ís to 90ís those where pretty laid back and could convert to upright handlebars. You wouldnít want to use them with the handlebars that came with them because old mountain bikes had long top tubes and she most likely would be extended out too far.

I canít emphasis enough how important fit is to make your wife enjoy cycling. It doesnít take much so things donít fit and she wonít enjoy riding. And one more tip is that her handlebars will need to be higher than her seat so the frame size has to be able to get the bars up that high and still small enough so she can straddle the top tube.
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