Bicycle Resurrection: Bridgestone XO-4 by Scot Hinkcley
Bicycle frame technology has been pretty much perfected for quite a long time. Sure, derailers are better now, chains last longer, and tires have become amazingly durable as of late. The frames, though, are still just triangles (most of them anyway). Steel was good, and it still is. Titanium, aluminum, carbon fiber, and bamboo seem to work pretty well too. Bicycle companies need to sell bikes, so they’ll come up with a reason for you to buy the new stuff every year, but no “good” bike has a lifespan that’s measured in months. Even if you race, I mean, come on. That’s why I thought I’d write about the build I recently did for my brother. I built his old bike up to be a really good bike, his only bike, but I think the topic is worthwhile to commuters who are getting ready to face winter and want a durable bike that’s not necessarily fast (I still think people, not bikes, are fast but maybe that’s just me), so they can leave their less hearty bike inside. In no way should this be considered a “beater” bike. It was good when its life started, but it needed some love after 18 years.
Just a bit of history
The bike in question is a 1994 Bridgestone XO-4 that was passed down to my brother. The XO series is now legendary, as is that time span in Bridgestone’s history, but the XO-4 wasn’t the glamorous one of the bunch; it was tig’d rather than lugged like the higher end models and didn’t have the fancier components and now-famous Nitto Moustache Bar. What it did have was the geometry and the sensibility that makes even low end Bridgestones of that era highly sought after. The relaxed head tube angle, clearances, and wide range gearing made sense then, and still do. I mention all this because I want you to realize why I went to the trouble of bringing this bike back to life rather than spending the same money on a cheap “racing” or “hybrid” bike from Bikes Direct or some other equally crappy retailer. It’s because this bike can still be good at doing 90% of what 90% of riders do.
The XO-4 spent the first part of its life in Maine, and then went to Montreal. The harsh climates didn’t do it any favors, but that really just meant I could justify a more complete rebuild. Our mom had the bike, sans wheels, boxed up and sent to me in Seattle. I ended up removing everything but the brakes, seatpost and bottom bracket, which is still good and smooth, crazy as that sounds. There was surprisingly little rust, and only where the paint was obviously scratched. They rust police will act like this will kill you, but normal surface rust will take decades to make a difference. Sure, you could wrap it up in a towel, keep it constantly moist, and you could destroy it in no time. That’s not how normal rust works, though. Just because I had some on hand, I sprayed Boeshield inside the frame but I don’t know if it’ll do anything. Anyway, I’d trust it more than an 18 year old carbon fiber frame (just saying).
Actually getting started
The idea when I started was to keep the basic spirit of the bike intact and spend wisely. By “wisely” I mean that I would buy cheap stuff for it only if the cheap stuff was good. This also helped offset some of the more expensive items. I started off with the wheelset (speaking of areas that you can’t skimp on), and chose a 36h Mavic A719/Shimano XT set. They’re strong enough for commuting, camping, touring, and whatever else the bike will go through. I went cheap-but-good with the tires and got a set of 35c Schwalbe Delta Cruisers. The bike originally came with 38c, but I wanted to be sure it would clear fenders (as it turned out, there was plenty of space and probably would’ve fit with 38c). The fenders are from Soma, and they’re pretty good; the color is nice, the coverage is OK, but I’m not terribly impressed with the stays. Small complaint, though, and they work just fine.
On to the drive train
Next up was the drive train, and it’s quite a mix; used-but-very-nice Shimano triple crank (nice and cheap), 9 speed SRAM 11-34t cassette (a good one, not cheap), Sora FD, Acera RD, and used Campagnolo clamp-on downtube shifters. I’d go so far as to say that the whole thing works in blissful harmony. I can’t explain why, but it’s unbelievably smooth. I’m a huge fan of friction shifting and this is one of the best set ups I’ve ever used. Oh, and by the way, the cheapy Acera RD is great. Shimano isn’t stupid; they don’t make their low-end stuff bad. If they did, they’d be making terrible first impressions left and right. Low end Shimano is nice, believe it. I also got the same MKS Sneaker Pedals I have on my bike, which are the best I’ve ever used. My brother has no aspirations of “pedaling in a circle” so I was able to avoid the whole clipless nonsense.
The cockpit (do people really call it that in casual conversation?)
Obviously the bike was going to get the moustache bars it so richly deserved. I ordered a pair of the Soma version thinking that if they weren’t as good as the Nitto version, I’d just return them. As it turned out, the Soma version is really nice; the shape isn’t exactly like the Nitto, but instead is sort of like a moustache/upside down Albatross instead. Really comfortable hand positions, and half price of the Nitto as well. Because that bit saved me so much money, and because there’s not really a viable alternative to it, I treated the bike to a Nitto Periscopa stem. It’s really the only choice for moustache bars, so it had to be done. Other than being nice quality, the Nitto stuff can easily be re-sold so it’s not a bad idea to pay a little more for it.
Them’s the brakes
I did the Sheldon Brown left-brakes-rear/right-brakes-front weirdo brake set up. I didn’t just do it to be an oddball, but rather because I was imagining a panic braking situation on the bike and it made more sense. Here’s what I mean; downtube shifters mean that you’re going to take your hand off the handlebars completely when you need to shift. The right shifter (rear derailer) will be used much more often than the left (front derailer). Since it’s more likely that the left hand will be the one to grab the brakes first in one of these situations, I decided to have that one control the brake that is less likely to cause the rider to lose control when grabbed hard and fast. Understand? Me neither, but that’s as much of an explanation as I’ve got. Quick tip about the Tektro levers: they’re wicked ergonomic, so switch the sides left to right when using them with moustache bars and your life will be grand.
Don’t ask me how, but I managed to set up the canti brakes all by myself. I must have gone into a trance or something because when I tried it on my bike, I continually failed for what seemed like hours. Canti brakes are awesome, but they’re just about the biggest pain in the ass of any adjustable item on a bicycle. From now on, I’ll be leaving it to the pros at my LBS.
Stowage and portage
Bikes become infinitely more useful when you add stuff that allows you to bring things along. For this bike, I decided to go flexible and medium-duty since this would allow for commuting, camping, light touring, picnicking, whatever. The front rack is from Soma and I zip tied a Wald basket to it. The rear rack is an Axiom, and the panniers are from Ironweed (which are a pretty incredible value for a Made in the USA product). Both the racks are aluminum, so the weight’s hardly noticeable and can be left on the bike even when you’re not using them. For general commuting, the panniers can come off and the basket bag can be used. For camping, the panniers can hold a ton of stuff and the basket can hold your sleeping bag/pillow/change of clothes with a net to hold it all down. For extended touring, you can utilize the space on top of the panniers or add a large saddlebag. I’m also working on a way to attach a PVC pipe to the rack for transporting a fly fishing rod.
The exciting conclusion
So that’s how I brought an 18 year old bike back to a point where it’s once again capable of delivering on its intended purpose; to be a fun and useful travel companion. Is there any more perfect life for a bike?