By Stan Purdum
I noticed three things almost simultaneously about the mountain bicycle leaning against the earthen bank: It was a Cannondale, it was an adult-sized bike and it had a sign on it reading “FREE.”
I’m primarily a road cyclist and have all the bikes I need for that pursuit, but I’ve been looking for a mountain bike to use on the 70-mile-long Delaware and Raritan Canal Trail that runs right through our New Jersey community.
For good family reasons (grandchildren), we moved four years ago to New Jersey. It’s greener than we expected, but there are a lot more people per square mile here than in our home state of Ohio, and a lot more traffic. This is especially true in our part of the state, which is within commuting distance of New York City. I’ve found some good routes for road rides, but some of them need to be avoided during rush hours, which around here are from about 6-9 a.m. and 3:30-6:30 p.m. That makes the D & R Trail a good option for pedaling during those times.
Trouble is, it’s paved with crushed stone and cinders and has many surface irregularities that become mud puddles following rain. I’ve been able to ride the trail on my touring bike, which has 700 x 32 tires, but the absence of a front shock absorber on that bike leaves my arms sore.
So what I needed for the trail, I decided, was a mountain bike with a front shock and larger tires. Since I don’t plan to do single track or wilderness riding, I couldn’t justify purchasing a new one, but I’d been seeking a good used one for several months.
All those I’d located to that point, however, had been either too small, too damaged or too cheaply made.
But now, while out on a road ride, I spotted this Cannondale propped up against an earthen bank in front of a house on a back road. There was no model name on it, but it was clearly a mountain bike with off-road tires and a Rock Shock fork. And if the FREE sign was correct, the price couldn’t be better.
I stopped immediately and walked with my road bike up the driveway toward the house above the bank, where I found the homeowner, an older man, working in the yard. After an exchange of greetings, I asked him about the bike out front. Yes, he was giving it away, he said. He’d owned it for 18 years, but didn’t find it very comfortable anymore, as he wasn’t as supple as he’d once been. He was thinking about buying a more upright comfort bike and needed to get rid of the Cannondale to make room in his garage.
I told him I’d take the if I could leave it in his yard until I could come back with my car later that day, and he agreed. I wheeled the bike up from the bank, and he instructed me to leave it behind a large bush where it wouldn’t be visible from the road, but where I could retrieve it even if he weren’t there when I returned.
Once I got the bike home and up in my work stand, I found it to be in reasonably good condition. The man had told me the rear tire was flat, but once I replaced the tube, the tire was fine.
The derailleurs, shifters and brake levers were Shimano Deore LX, and the bike shifted great through its full range of 21 gears. The Shimano Deore XT V-brakes were in good shape and worked well.
Going over the rest of the bike, the only problem I found was that front wheel hub was so overtight that bearings sounded crunchy, and the wheel itself was out of alignment. I took the wheel to my local bike shop and had the mechanic replace the bearings and true the wheel.
Now able to test ride the bike, I felt like I had had to bend myself in half to get down the handlebars, and the reach to them was too much of a stretch. I mail-ordered a steering-tube extender that allowed me to raise the handlebars nearly three inches, and I replaced the stem with a shorter one I happened to have on hand. I also swapped out the saddle with one I had once used on another bike.
After my maiden voyage on the trail with Cannondale, I made one more fix. The handlebars were too wide for me. So I slid the brake levers and shifters closer to the center and then used a pipe cutter to take a couple of inches off each end of the bars. I reattached the bar end “horns” that had come with the bike, and I now have a comfortable bike for the trail, one that rolls easily over its bumpy surface.
Total parts and repairs cost me about $65.
I’ve since logged several enjoyable trips on the bike and have found some other trails I intend to explore.
I may not even wait for rush hour.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.