How can I modify my Trek to make it a) prettier and b) more comfortable?
August 2, 2013 10:02 AM   Subscribe

My Trek is an excellent bike, but I wish it looked a little more velocouture and a little less family of four on a bike trip. Also, the handlebars are physically killing me. Help me create a good lookin' frankenbike that feels great to ride.

Hi! I'm a very small woman (5ft tall). Also, I love bicycles, especially good-looking bicycles like Public Bikes, Pashleys, Abici, etc. Unfortunately, these lovely bikes all feel too big for me, and I hate the feeling of being out of control on my bicycle. So I've got a 13 inch 2011 Trek FX 7.2 WSD with a powder blue frame and black details/tubes/handlebars/bracket/fenders/rear baskets. It feels good to ride, is light, etc.

But. I wish it looked nicer. Also, despite being chopped by a few inches and swapping grips, the handlebars still kill my wrists and hands after just a few miles. They also force my shoulders into an uncomfortably slumpy position that tenses up my neck.

I hate the handlebars. But I do really like the shifters. Not married to them, but they click satisfyingly. However, I'd really like to make some upgrades to my bike, and need some suggestions on how to make it look good and feel good, too.

Issue 1: The Handlebars
This is probably the most important, because my current handlebars are causing wrist and back problems. I really like Nitto bars, and wouldn't even mind having a more swept-back bar. But what would this do for the bike, overall? Would I have to get a wider seat? Would the shifters have to be changed? Currently, they're trigger shifters. Also, the Nittos are all chrome (which looks great), but all my bike details are black.

Issue 2: Making it Look Good
It doesn't look bad, just...really sporty, and sort of ordinary. For instance, it would be nice to have some good-looking grips and an aesthetically-pleasing seat. I do wish the details were chrome, but can work with the black. Am willing to change some details like fenders or bracket if it makes a big difference.

Also, the seat is all black on my bike -- no white details.

Can you suggest a few changes to this bicycle that will make the difference?

By the way, I'm an urban cyclist and am about to make a move from a relatively flat city to a very hilly city.

Thanks, MetaFilter.
posted by Miss T.Horn to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You might look into some Brooks accessories - particularly a Brooks saddle - for it. Those are usually the type of saddles that Pashleys and the like tend to favour. If I were you and could do anything I wanted to that bike, I'd probably opt for a really contrasting colour, probably white or yellow, depending on the exact colour of the blue of your frame, for both the saddle and the handlebar covers.

That said, white does tend to get a bit dirty (which I say from experience with a white saddle and white handlebar tape). If you really want, you can always switch out individual components - seatpost, handlebars, rims, gear rings etc. and nudge your bike's overall colouring over toward chrome rather than black, though that would probably be a lot of replacing of components that are in good condition and don't yet need replacing.
posted by urbanlenny at 10:14 AM on August 2, 2013

Best answer: First thing first since I don't see it mentioned in your post - get a proper fitting at your local bike shop. This might cost you $100 or more but it will be worth every penny. Nobody on the interwebz can talk to you about bike fit without seeing you on your bike how you've got it set up now. During a fitting they'll make minor adjustments that will make worlds of difference in terms of comfort and performance.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 10:15 AM on August 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

Re: Brooks saddles and accessories - I use nothing but Brooks saddles and love them but you're not going to want to wear any light colored pants if you go that route and will not enjoy the "breaking in" period (~500 miles) on their, or any real leather, saddles. That said, nothing beats a well broken in Brooks saddle for touring or commuting.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 10:17 AM on August 2, 2013

Best answer: First priority here is going to be dealing with the pain issue. I recommend Sheldon Brown's article on pain and bicycling for some ideas on what you may need to look into there. There are likely to be some adjustments you can make to your current setup that will help with the back and wrist pain.

If adjustments to what you already have aren't sufficient, swapping out handlebars on that bike won't be a huge chore. It's doable without a stand, and shouldn't require tools beyond some allen wrenches. If you don't feel comfortable doing it yourself with aid of a repair manual, it shouldn't cost much to have a shop take care of it for you (and any shop you buy the handlebars from ought to offer the service.)

As for making it look good: I really like the aesthetic in Momentum magazine, and it may give you some ideas about accessories you could buy or make, or other changes to bling your bike up. It sounds like you've got some good things to work with. If you have rear baskets, you could weave some ribbons through the wires (ones that would reflect at night, even). Or crochet a fabulous skirt guard to attach to your fenders. There are handlebar grips in lots of colors and styles, and if you'd like new platform pedals, I recommend finding a BMX shop to get BMX pedals -- they're cheap, lightweight, incredibly grippy, and come in a ton of different colors.
posted by asperity at 10:17 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Why are your current bars causing wrist pain? Is it because you're stretched too far forward? Is it because they feel too high?

Which Nitto bars are you thinking about (there are four shown on that link). The Nitto Albatross are fairly swept back and would not require a shifter change, but your shifters will feel a bit different. If you want something like Nitto Noodles then you will need new shifters and new brake levers. You can do something like Cane Creek SCR-5 levers, which are about $35 for a pair and work great, combined with bar end shfiters (you can still find Ultegra 8-speed bar ends for about $90) would do nicely. If you want integrated shift/brake levers for drop bars, Shimano ST-2200 levers will work for you.

Issue 2: Making it look good. After you pick the bars, you can put just about whatever grips you want on there. If you get drop bars, then wrapping the bars with a nice bar tape (I'm a fan of Fizik brand) will make things look snappy. Am willing to change some details like fenders or bracket if it makes a big difference. What do you mean by "bracket"? Are you talking about a rack? There are plenty of rack options that work for that bike. Check out the MTX Explorer by Topeak or the options from Tubus (which is owned by Ortlieb, or Tubus owns Ortlieb, one or the other). Both companies make great looking racks.

Changing the position of the bars might mean new cables and housing. In my bike shop, the cost of doing this work would be in the neighborhood of $40-$75, not including the cost of the bars.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:20 AM on August 2, 2013

(or the cost of new levers/shifters)
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:25 AM on August 2, 2013

Response by poster: To follow up:

spikeleemajor: Yes, I meant rack. Oops. Also, I'd prefer not to go the drop bar route. Currently, my handlebars still feel too wide, and are forcing my wrists to bend up so that all of my upper body weight is on my wrists. At the same time, my stance is very much leaning forward...often, just to get a bit of a break, I sit back and hold on to the center of my handlebars.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 10:26 AM on August 2, 2013

Sorry, just noticed you have linear pull brakes, so the SCR-5 won't be optimal. Since you don't want drop bars, just forget everything I said about that anyway.

Have you changed your stem yet? Swapping for a shorter stem will shorten the cockpit length and make you feel less stretched out. Stems can be found for around $30. It sounds like your bike is just plain too big for you. If you feel ok with the saddle height but stretched out, your top tube is too long. That can be somewhat alleviated with a shorter stem, but before you go throwing money into this project consider selling and using the money to buy a bike you're more comfortable on.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:32 AM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

If your wrists get bent up when you ride, check to see if you can rotate the brake levers and shifters down to get rid of that bend. It's one little thing that I often see wrong on people's bikes.
posted by advicepig at 10:37 AM on August 2, 2013

Response by poster: If a 13 inch frame is too big for me, where is there to even go besides little girl bikes? The only thing I've found so far is this Terry.

P.S. this is really heartbreaking. Why don't they make nice bikes for small women?
posted by Miss T.Horn at 10:58 AM on August 2, 2013

A local bike shop can advise you on fit. For instance, your saddle may be too far back, requiring you to stretch forward put more weight on your wrists. The stem could be too low (there may be room to adjust it up depending on how it was cut/spaced), etc.

If it turns out the frame is only slightly too big, you/they can swap in a shorter stem (and/or one with more rise) without much changing the handling. That will reduce the distance to the bars, which again will get you more "upright" and reduce the weight on your wrists. Switching to bars with more sweep will also do the same, but the change in the rotation of the wrist can be painful/annoying to some riders.

Also, just in case, have someone who rides a lot check your riding posture while you ride back and forth past them. Shoulder vs. grip width, wrist straightness, etc. The human wrist can sustain a tremendous amount of force, but only if it is very straight. (Imagine punching someone, etc.)
posted by introp at 11:13 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sounds like you have similar issues to me! I'm a tiny bit taller than you at 5'3" but I also love biking and this is how I've arrived at my perfect bike over the years. I started with a size small (basically a boys bike) Gary Fisher mountain bike with no shocks or quick-release parts. I've done the following over the last 17 years to make it almost exactly what I want in a bike. Photo here (not the best shot but you can see the general look):

1. Spray paint can make your bike ANY COLOUR YOU WISH. My bikesnob friends may insist on a properly cured multi-layered paint job but I've had great luck with the $2 cans of matte automotive paint I bought from Canadian Tire. I used a lot of tape and newspaper to mask off the moving parts and just painted it in my driveway. This was done within a week of buying it and the paint job is still going strong -- its only worn down a bit where it tends to rub against bike racks. I didn't even remove the decals before doing this and found the paint really covered it after a few nice light coats.

2. New tires / wheels. Get some higher quality wheels and a nice set of slicks to make the ride more comfortable (if you don't already have them). These can cost a bit of $$ but I really like being able to brake in the rain (original bike came with cheap steel rims) and also the much cushier ride of slicks vs knobbies.

3. New handlebars were the biggest change. I acquired and had installed a pair of nice swept back handlebars and a new stem to raise them up to where I wanted them. This also meant replacing all my cables since they were now too short. I believe I paid about $300 Cdn at the time for all this plus a tune-up. I was able to re-use all my shifters and grips. I did this about 5 years ago and its basically spoiled me for all other bikes -- my bike is now super comfortable to sit on but still has tight, whippy handling that allows me to weave through traffic with ease.

4. New seat - this is crucial. Visit your local bike shop and ask to "test sit" some of the seats they sell. A beautiful Brooks saddle or something like this could really change both your comfort and the look of your bike. Myself I find a cheap foam split saddle is the right fit for my sitbones even though its not the best looking.

5. Racks & accessories. I love my faux wicker front basket for keeping my purse in and I have a simple rear rack + a triple-strand bungee cord for carrying heavier items. I would love to get panniers but because of the short wheelbase of my bike there is almost no room for these (I hit them with my heels when I pedal).
posted by id girl at 11:18 AM on August 2, 2013

When I was getting wrist pain and didn't want to spend the money on drop bars and new shifters I went in to the bike shop and had handlebar extensions put on. Being able to switch up my wrist orientation as needed has made a huge difference to my wrists and back. They aren't exactly cycle chic though.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:56 AM on August 2, 2013

Ugh, flat handle bars are the worst! I find them both asthetically displeasing and uncomfortable. For me, I either need drop bars with multiple hand position options or ones that are swept back for a more upright ride. Flat bars force me to lean forward with my wrists at an uncomfortable angle.

Treks are inherently dorky. I'm not sure how to get around that without spending a lot of money that you could just spend on a bike more fitting with your style and comfort.

Have you tried looking for vintage bikes?

I'm a short lady, but not so short than I can't usually make the smallest women's frame work for me. My friend who is a bit shorter (closer to your size) sticks to youth sized frames.

And yes, it's bullshit that the bike industry doesn't give a shit enough about us shorties to figure out geometry that works in our range.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:03 PM on August 2, 2013

I'm no fan of flat bars. I find that only having a single hand position gets uncomfortable. But for me, simple bar ends help a lot. They are cheap and can be added with just a multitool.

Don't be afraid of drops though. People think they are specialized to serious cyclists but in fact they are more general purpose than straight bars. Straight bars give you one position but drops give you several. Of course, putting drops on a bicycle with a straight bar generally implies at least new brake levers and probably shifters as well. If I thought my fit was okay and wanted to help wrist pain or hand numbness, I would certainly try bar ends first.
posted by jclarkin at 1:44 PM on August 2, 2013

And yes, it's bullshit that the bike industry doesn't give a shit enough about us shorties to figure out geometry that works in our range.

Terry works around this on some of their bikes by having smaller front wheels. A bit odd-looking and not readily accessible to test-ride most places, but apparently it works.

It's not a bad idea to try working through a fit calculator; you can compare with what you get in a fitting at a bike shop, or use the info to make some more immediate changes. If you're riding flat bar road, you might try going through both the mountain and road calculations and aim for something a bit in the middle. The most important figure to look for is usually top tube length -- especially for women, if you've got a bike with a short enough top tube length to fit you well, you're vanishingly unlikely to have a problem with standover clearance. The reverse is not true, and there are plenty of people out there who can stand over their bikes with a good safety margin, but still have too much distance between saddle and handlebars to be comfortable.
posted by asperity at 1:46 PM on August 2, 2013

Best answer: Seconding the recommendation of Sheldon Brown's pain and bicycling page. If you're putting too much weight on your wrists, the problem might be that your saddle is too far forward. See Peter White's immensely helpful article on bicycle fitting. It's not a substitute for a shop fitting, but it will give you some very good advice for starting, and it's a helpful corrective if the shop fit specialist tries to fit you to the way a racer would ride.

I suspect that a good fitting and bars that allow your hands to rest at a more neutral angle would resolve the problem. Nitto North Road bars are a possibility (as well as the Albatross bars that Riv sells). If a bar like that is too high, you can flip it, so that the stem clamp is higher than the grips.

If you want a bike that's specifically designed for a smaller frame (human, that is), you can check out Bike Friday's line of petite bikes. Fridays use smaller 20" wheels, which allow a smaller frame without toe overlap. They look goofy at first, but you get used to them. I've done thousands of miles on my 20"-wheeled Friday, and I'm a 5'10", 200-lb. guy. I think they'd end up being cheaper than a semi-custom Terry.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:05 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

These Soma arc bars might work for you - they're narrow, sweep back, and would take your existing brake levers and shifters. And you have all sorts of color options, and it looks like even matching fenders.

Your bike has a fairly modern feel to it, but if you want to make it look more "classic" there's also Velo Orange.
posted by drwelby at 3:55 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

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