Not-so-beautiful bicycles?

Here at LGRAB, we have a strong appreciation for the beauty of bicycles. So it was with some consternation that I read this paragraph in a post on Wisebread:

[A] number of people who owned very expensive bikes were doing their level best to make them look like $20 Craigslist rejects. It’s a simple enough idea. You take your wonderful $1000 bike, and proceed to repaint it, badly, apply stickers and scratches and scuff marks, bits of old tape, dirt, grime, in fact anything you can think of, and hey presto – one expensive bike that performs like a dream but looks like a nightmare. . . . Of course, you have the downside of riding a bike that looks less than cool, but if you’re a real biking fanatic that won’t bother you.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this idea, but it was the first time I really thought about it.

This used to be a beautiful Bianchi

Is the loss of the “cool factor” really the only downside? Putting aside the question of whether there is such a thing as a “cool” bicycle outside of the enlightened bike blogosphere, something about the idea of taking something beautiful and making it ugly bugs this “real biking fanatic.”  Does a bike really still ride like a dream if you’re sitting on duct tape and using mismatched pedals, as this Make magazine article advocates? Call me shallow, but part of the enjoyment I get from riding my bicycle — and driving my car, for that matter — is that it looks nice and is reasonably clean and well-taken care of. Of course, if painting my Batavus brown and ripping up the seat was the only way to hold onto it…well, I guess I would do it. Until then, I’ll let this sticker from my aunt Kathy do the job (well, that and my O-lock, U-lock and cable lock).

What about you? Anyone uglified their bike, or another item, to make sure it stayed yours?


40 thoughts on “Not-so-beautiful bicycles?

  1. Frits B says:

    The risk of theft sometimes leads to drastic measures. Are you familiar with the High-Tech Antitheft Bicycle Spray offered by Henry Cutler of WorkCycles? Same principle (but I have yet to find out if it works).

  2. I am not really on board with the “uglification” thing either. And although it began as a way to protect your bike against theft, I think at this point it’s developed into more of a competitive game where the people who are into this try to outdo each other, show off pictures of their bikes online, etc. If you’re going to spraypaint your $1000 bicycle, simulate rust and cover it with duct tape, isn’t the whole point of that for the bike to go unnoticed? And if so, why would you post pictures of it on 12 different website explaining that it is really a $1000 bike that you’ve disguised?…

    Anyhow, I also agree with what you said about aesthetics being a valid part of experiencing the bicycle. I do not think that is anymore shallow than caring about the aesthetics of your home. The fact that people derive emotional and intellectual stimulation from aesthetics is what drives art, culture and innovation. So the current PC tendency to shame people for liking the way something looks because of a notion that this is “shallow” is misguided. Liking how stuff looks is an inherent part of the human experience. Keep your bicycles beautiful and enjoy life.

  3. dukiebiddle says:

    Of course I’m a huge proponent of this kind of behavior. As to the lovely bicycle’s question of why people would post pictures of their uglifications to message boards is that the intent it to deter theft and there is nothing wrong with taking pride in how you’ve gone about doing it. Nothing about that compromises the original intent. Some things would be silly, such as ripping a good saddle or mismatching pedals(?), but switching out a good saddle for a cheap one and ripping it? That would get my seal of approval.

    No part of me would ever begin to think that there is anything shallow about keeping a bike’s appearance pristine, if that if what is right for the owner. But to suggest that uglification is an affront bicycle aesthetics sounds a bit insecure. Trust me, us uglifiers are not judging you. ;-)

    Also, all my bikes are in far better shape than when I purchased them, as I overhaul all of my components; so don’t let the looks fool you into believing these bikes aren’t well taken care of. They’re only meant to fool the thieves.

  4. Amy says:

    I’m not sure who thinks $1000 is the cost of a ‘very expensive bike’ anyway (probably the ppl at Wisebread, not here!), and the one in the picture retails for far less than that. Actually, without the zoom, I like that brown color better than Bianchi’s celeste! (And I’m even a Bianchi rider)

    I think it would make more sense to buy a used bike that looks crummy but is fixed up, or a used ‘very expensive’ bike that isn’t such a loss when stolen, but if people want to uglify something, it works for me! We live in a sketchy neighborhood and have purposely not invested much in the outside of the house because we don’t want it to look like a good place to rob. The inside is rehabbed nicely, though.

    Everyone’s different. Frankly I don’t understand why anyone cares about how they look on a bike or why you’d wear a skirt on one, but hey, we still all like bikes! Somehow I keep coming back here for ideas, more on cold weather and practical stuff than for fashion. :)

  5. nuliajuk says:

    I don’t need to uglify my Rocky Mountain Metropolis – it came that way. :(
    I’m not sure that uglifying a bike really works anyway. Bike theft is a crime of opportunity. Locking your bike in a busy area with lots of people walking past is perhaps the best way to hold onto it.

  6. G.E. says:

    @Amy – I concur… not sure $1,000 these days qualifies as a ‘very expensive’ bicycle, though it is a decent amount of money to plop down, especially just to uglify the two wheeled transportation.

  7. dukiebiddle says:

    @Amy – Looking at the two pictures of the Bianchi, the before picture doesn’t really do it for me at all, while the aesthetics of the after looks fine to me. Eye of the beholder, I guess.

    Although, I don’t think I could ever try to encourage rust. Rust is bad.

    Also, like you said, paying to dollar for a brand spanking new bike is a bit silly. You can get a top quality 20 year old bike that is already ugly and lovingly restore the components subtly, which is what I try to do.

  8. Vee says:

    I’ve thought of doing this in the past. Way past. When I lived in NYC and had a brand new $180 bike!!! But in reality I also like how nice a bike can look so I wouldn’t. Each to their own though, if I lived in a high theft area I’d have a beater bike to leave places. I already freak out about my current bikes. And I stopped talking about theft and my bike ( except now :-/) b/c I began to panic that someone would read it and see it and take it.

  9. G.E. says:

    This is a rather disturbing idea to me. I can’t imagine taking something I had purchased brand new and then attempting to make it look old and as used as possible. It’s like going to be a Chanel dress and taking spray paint to it so no one else wants it. It’s a bit perplexing to me. But, on the other hand, I say, to each his/her own, and if it makes them happy, then go for it. Afterall, it isn’t my money. However, I agree that part of the enjoyment of riding (for me) is that I enjoy the aesthetics of my bike.

  10. G.E. says:

    @G.E. – that was “buy” not “be a Chanel.” Someday, I’ll learn to spell.

  11. dukiebiddle says:

    @G.E. – I guess it is all a matter of perspective. If I looked at a bike in a similar way that I look at an article of clothing I would agree, but that thinking feels very foreign to me. I look at my bikes as machines. I want their guts to be working perfectly and be well greased and that’s what gets all my attention. At the same time, I wouldn’t walk down the street in my neighborhood in an Armani suit in a thousand years, and likewise I wouldn’t want to ride a bike down the street that looked like a thousand bucks, for much the same reason.

  12. Trisha says:

    Yeah, I can see it for the safety reasons — if you read the Wisebread piece, there’s a guy who uglified his camera to travel in dangerous places, and that makes sense to me. But I just have a hard time believing that uglifying a bike ups your odds of keeping the it enough to make it worth it. As others have said, just buy something old but quality that the average amateur bike thief won’t recognize as special.

  13. dukiebiddle says:

    “Also, like you said, paying to dollar for a brand spanking new bike is a bit silly.” oops, this is not what I meant.


    “…paying top dollar for a brand spanking new bike and uglifying it is a bit silly” is what I meant

  14. Anne Hawley says:

    I like riding a cute bike, and if I’m gonna drive, I like driving a handsome car, and I can’t imagine deliberately uglifying either.

    Mind you, both my car and my bike uglify themselves over time, and I can’t really be bothered to stop the process, but all in all, making a fine thing appear undesirable solely to prevent theft seems like putting an awful lot of energy into the idea of theft in the first place.

  15. Emma J says:

    When we were visiting Bruges in Belgium (where everyone biked) we asked someone why everyone also seemed to ride the same not-especially-sexy bicycle. The answer: to combat theft. Maybe part of developing a true bike culture is the cheap, possibly ugly, but nicely functional bike?

  16. Sox says:

    Dutch bikes are cool here yet, so my bicycle is safe for the moment. I still lock it up well, because I don’t want to take any chances….

  17. Doohickie says:

    I ride old bikes. That pretty much does the trick.

  18. Dottie says:

    I’m with Lovely Bicycle. I hate the idea of uglifying my bikes. That would not make a difference for theft deterrence in Chicago, either. The only way to deter thieves is using multiple locks, as I do.

    No one ever tells drivers to uglify their nice cars to prevent theft.

  19. Patrick in Chicago says:

    As a long time commuter, old bike messenger, bmx racer, touring lover & all around anti-car guy (full disclosure: We still own 1 car) I must respectfully disagree with your last post. I live & work right near the Webster/Clybourn intersection and I have stopped kids from ripping off bikes/bike parts on more than one occasion and I don’t think it has ever been from the “ugly” or purposely “distressed” bicycles. It’s always from something newer or cleaner looking. Always. Multiple locks are great…if you want to carry around an extra weight…and I’m a guy who often rides around town, by myself, on our vintage Schwinn tandem all year round so I’m no weight weenie! However, currently I am on a Fuji 12 speed mixte I bought off a metal scrappers truck last month for $10. Best $10 I’ve spent in awhile! 30 minutes cleaning, lubing and adjusting and it still looks quite ugly but she rides like a dream…and it still has personality via my Astroboy zip-tied to the bars, our doggy’s old city tags rattling around attached to the back rack & a few lights. Heck, I just got in from a quick ride to Menards(saving more money) and a stop for cat food…my wife (she’s no lover of the cold) thinks I’m crazy. So that’s 2 cents from a neighborhood business owner who spends too much time at Starbucks on that corner and at times has confronted some young bike/bike part thieves. There is one thing I know for for sure….there really never seems to be a police officer around when you really need one but I’ve avoided any fisticuffs and have come away the victor in every encounter. Still ride the pretty bikes, I like pretty bikes, as an owner of 6 bicycles I have some pretty bikes but like anything the bling can and does catch the eye…but sometimes it’s the eye of a thief.

  20. Patrick in Chicago says:

    ps: I’ve said it before, I love the blog you ladies have going and push my friends to check it out. Everyone have a great night and a happy, great and fulfilling new year! Ride safe!

  21. neighbourtease says:

    I am not into deliberately making a nice bike ugly in the faux patina and ugly stickers way, but I did deliberately resist any fancy updates and even any cleaning/shining to my old Raleigh so I could leave it for long periods of time in high theft areas of Manhattan. Multiple locks aren’t enough here. The thieves are just relentless.

  22. Giffen says:

    Bike? No! Camera? Yes! Why? I dunno.

  23. dukiebiddle says:

    @Dottie – “No one ever tells drivers to uglify their nice cars to prevent theft.”

    Has anyone ever told you to uglify your bike?

    I think we’re all best qualified to gauge the course of action most appropriate in our own environments. I do own one nice, expensive, new 4 digit road bike. And no, I’ve never done anything to uglify it. Twice heroin addicts have approached me and asked me how much the bicycle was worth. Another time, a little white trash kid on a bike came up to me, asked me how much it was worth and wanted to know where I was going so he could come around and steal it. I love that bike (but not as much as my cheapies), but locking it up is not an option. That bike draws attention because it looks valuable. This is not to say that what works best for me is ideal for others. Some people have bike lockers or secure indoor parking. In fact, I prefer others to have shinier prettier bikes than myself. I would also prefer that they park right next to me and use cheaper locks. ;-)

    Now, I will say that I’m hard pressed to identify who uglifying a brand new bike would be the most appropriate action for. I guess it would have to be someone that did not feel comfortable working on their own bike while still wanting the perfection of a brand new bike. Or maybe someone who had a new bike fall into their lap. Anyone else would probably want to consider resale value. Still, that magazine article took everything to a ridiculous extreme. Mismatching pedals? There are plenty of top quality pedals out there that look like nothing. Intentionally rusting up your frame? So you can have rust stains all over your clothes?

  24. Dottie says:

    @dukiebiddle – I’ve seen multiple articles advocating bike uglifying to prevent theft. I’ve seen zero articles advocating the same for cars. I’m not against people doing whatever they want with their bikes, but my instinct is to bristle in response to such advice, the same way I bristle when people (with their much more expensive cars) guffaw at how much I paid for my Dutch bike.

  25. Dottie says:

    @Patrick in Chicago – I’d rather carry two locks (and leave one locked to my parking spot at work) than uglify my bike. A personal preference of whether someone values aesthetics or weight more. Clearly, I don’t care about weight.

    I’m still waiting to spot you and your wife on the tandem :)

  26. dukiebiddle says:

    @Dottie – So often advocacy and/or articles take the position that all cyclists *should* or *have* to do something that works best for the advocate or author. Drives me absolutely bonkers reading that stuff.

  27. Cherilyn says:

    @Patrick in Chicago – Patrick–Pics of your bike, please! I’m trying to figure out what my commuter bike is going to be for the spring and summer since my simple mountain/commuter bike will actually be used for mountain biking then. I have hills to contend with in Montana, so a sweet-looking 3-speed cruiser isn’t going to work for me. I’d love to see what a reworked 12-speed mixte looks like!

    Dottie–You make biking look so beautiful, so I can see why the idea of uglifying a bike is painful. While I LOVE the new Dutch bikes and Electra’s Om in all their beauty, I don’t think they’re the bikes for me because of the frustration I’d have seeing them scratched. I need to focus on my kids, not my paint job. And if it was stolen in my bike-hungry college town? I’d definitely cry.

    While I can’t see myself uglifying a bike, I can’t see myself getting a gorgeous bike. I’m just not to be trusted with something that precious. Gimme a reworked vintage bike I can call my own, warts and all.

  28. nuliajuk says:

    Deliberately causing rust on a bike would be dumb, but a subtle paint spatter could give the illusion of it. I took a scenery painting course once through the Alberta College of Art which consisted of working for six weeks in a local hands-on museum making a sample street scene look old. Spatters of grey paint to look like pigeon poop on the window sills, fake-aging wood with a special mixture made from vinegar & steel wool, that sort of thing.

  29. Dottie says:

    @Cherilyn – Thanks :) I find that I don’t care at all about Oma’s paint job or scratches. She is such a utilitarian beast, all black and steel, I feel like the more battle scars, the better. My Rivendell, on the other hand, breaks my heart with every scratch. Paint job’s too pretty.

  30. Liz says:

    I used to ride old/ugly bikes, but once you start riding everyday, year round, the elements and wear and tear start to destroy the workings and you realize you really do need to invest in a quality bike to save your sanity if you were breaking down all the time and needing repairs and parts. And it does cost money to get a high quality bike. Sorry, but a $100 bike will not last long.

    Also when your bike is “out there” in public every day, your chances of theft are greatly increased. I cannot afford to leave work at night and find my bicycle gone.

    I bought an $800 Bianchi (end of season sale), stripped off every sticker and decal and made it very plain. If I did make it ugly, by adding paint and stickers, who cares? It does not affect the function, and when you ride to work every day, it is only about function at that point.

    And comparing uglifiying a bike to a car to prevent theft, is a moot point. It is much harder to start/steal a car, escape unseen, and sell or chop it. Cars are registered and have tags, bikes do not. The jail time is MUCH longer to steal a car, and besides, if you have a valuable car, you probably have insurance that will replace it. Most bikes are not insured.

    The first time you come outside and find your bike is gone, that terrible sinking feeling… you start thinking of every way possible to prevent it from ever happening again!

    And PS – It would cost me $6,000+ a year to drive to my job in the loop and park. So a $800 bike is a pretty good bargain!

  31. Erich Zechar says:

    It looks to me like the people spending time uglifying their bikes are taking as much pride in the appearance of their bikes as everyone on blogs like LGRAB and Lovely Bicycle. I doubt you would spend that much time and effort on the appearance of the bike, and then as much time again documenting and promoting your bike on the good old internet, without some sense of pride in the appearance of your bike.

    To me, it’s just another way of making a bike your own, and if that’s what they like then more power to them. Some people like to accessorize their cars with spoilers and wheels and paint jobs, and some people like to have “sleepers,” cars with ratty paint but lots of power. There is the new trend of “rat rods” with flat black paint that are supposed to be appealing to the eye, but faux-“ratty” in some way. That’s what these uglified bikes remind me of.

    Personally, my bikes look used because, well, they are. They’re old bikes that have dents, dings, and scratches, and peeling graphics because they’ve been loved over the years. My Honda Civic is much the same, with rusty spots, scratched up paint, dents and the like. But who cares? It’s got 150k miles and 18 years under its belt, and I think its looks reflect the fact that it’s performed well as a tool for those years.

  32. Patrick in Chicago says:

    My point was more that the attempted bike and bike part thefts that I’ve seen always seemed to be perpetrated against the prettier bike in the rack. The thieves just seem to gravitate to the better looking bikes if only to take just an personal accessory from it while ignoring the “ugly” bike with the generator hub or Campy parts group that may be locked up in the same rack. I wrote earlier that people should ride a good looking bike if they choose. I do sometimes. However, based upon my experience I feel that just as the general public notices a pretty ride before what they perceive to be a “clunker” so does the criminal.

  33. Beany says:

    Since we have a tendency to live in crappy areas and visit crappy places, we do uglify our bikes. My husband’s bike got stolen despite all the uglification. Don’t gasp too much, but we had duct tape, plastic bag covering the seat, anything we could think off covering some really good quality parts and a good quality frame. All for nothing, cause it got stolen.

    I belong to the school of thought that doesn’t believe in advertising my economic status. I prefer if people thought we were dirt poor barely making it.

    I do appreciate beautiful bikes…I just shy away from it.

  34. Brain says:

    This is funny. I spend a lot of time beautifying my bike (cleaning it, waxing it…totally against the Dutch standard). Well, Dutch bikes in general are pretty dull and in my opinion very ugly, yet these bikes are taken all the time like coins on a sidewalk. Because my bike stands out so much with its radical colors (OK maybe my bike is really ugly because I have bad color coordination), it has yet to be stolen. So bike uglification doesn’t deter theft, instead I think it promotes it because an ugly bike looks like an abandon bike–up for grabs.

  35. Christa says:

    Fascinating topic. Love the photo, thank you! :)

    In Davis, California (where I used to live) there are so many bikes around that there’s little chance it’ll be spotted and stolen.

    I’ve accidentally left my bike unlocked a few times for an hour – no problem. No one sees it among all the other bicycles.

    However, where this is not the norm, I always lock it to something stable with a ulock. I do worry about my wicker basket being stolen though.

  36. e says:

    To each his or her own, I think.

    For my short commute (~3 miles), a 30-year-old Schwinn is just fine. If someone steals it, it’ll be a sad day, but I’ll not have lost too much money.

    Friends who commute 10+ miles, however, would find the steel bike clunky. One has taken the paint off his good bike so it can be left outside without worrying about having the bike stolen. For him, it’s all about utility.

    After all, when you make $15,000 a year, taking at $1,000 loss is a bit hard; I think there are a number of factors which must be taken into account.

  37. Dave says:

    I’ve heard that a lot of people in the Netherlands do this to deliberately discourage theft, or they’ll have a kind of “beater” bike for daily use, and a nicer one for going to the symphony, on dates, etc.

    In Portland, I’m not too worried about my bikes, as everything is bolted on, the bikes are big and heavy, and that means there isn’t much interest in them (people are still big on the light, minimal, fast vibe – those have more perceived value). That being said, especially my Electra is not intentionally beat up, but definitely shows a lot of signs of use – nicks in the paint, coffee stains and dirt all over it, etc. I don’t try to beat it up, but I also don’t wash it every day or anything :)

    I’m a little more careful with my Raleigh, as it’s vintage, with hand-painted details, and I want it to stay in nice condition as much as possible, but still, it’s ok if it gets a little dirty, it’s a tool after all.

    So I guess I fall somewhere in-between. I wouldn’t deliberately beat up my bikes to make them look worse, but I also don’t worry too much about them looking pristine all the time. I take care of them enough to make sure they work well when I need them to, as much as possible.

  38. glenn says:

    Bike parts in very poor visual condition have marginal resale value, and consequently are of marginal interest to thieves. If you want to hold onto your bike, a coarse rasp over all the shiny bits (except spokes) is all that’s required*.

    *frames are a different matter, but we’re talking about commuting bikes here, for which valuable frames aren’t the norm

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