Makeover Your Bathroom Like an Elite British Cycling Team

I recently heard a podcast* about the use of incrementalism in British professional bike racing. Rather than blowing up the racers’ routine with colossal change—like mandating an all-goo diet, celibacy or transfusions of ibek* blood before a mountain race—this coach credits his success to dozens of small tweaks. For example, when the team travels, the coach brings the racers’ favorite pillows along for better sleep. He reduces colds by disinfecting doorknobs before the team’s arrival at a hotel. I assume he also wipes preschooler boogers on the doorknobs of the opposing team…


Team SKY and their secret team of child snot-wipers.

You’re probably thinking, “Great idea! But how can I apply the magic of incrementalism to my ugly upstairs bathroom?”

Perhaps, like me, you’ve inherited a bathroom this is perfectly functional for human waste disposal and hygiene maintenance, but drowns you in melancholy each time you plop down on the pink-brown toilet:


Or bathe in your matching brown-pink tub:

img_5131Or splatter toothpaste on your pink-brown sink on top of an orangey-brown cabinet surrounded by brown-pink tile:

dsc_0326Combined with the jaundice-beige walls, you feel as though you’re trapped in a can of expired salmon, or working third shift at the Band-Aid™ factory. Perhaps you don’t have money to spend on an upgrade, because in three years you’ll have one kid in college and another kid in braces and a third kid in… uhhh…Somewhere.***  But there is hope in small changes.

Welcome to our Incremental Babushka Bathroom Makeover (I-Ba-Ba-Mo!)

skylight-illustratorAs Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis**** famously said, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” And while I know he wasn’t telling me literally not to clean my toilet, Justice Brandeis understood that dark bathrooms are a total bummer. So when we had our roof replaced right after moving in the Babushka house, we splurged on a skylight directly above the toilet.*****

Next, we replaced the beige toilet seat with a white one. Not just for the color contrast, but because our 3-year-old (yup, third child) kept falling into the toilet.

We suffered in our 90% pink-brown bathroom for another two years. And then one chilly January night, I needed an excuse not to play board games (I call them “bored” games) with my family. So I slithered up to the bathroom with a bucket of TSP cleaner and my big orange sponge. After a nice scrub-down, I patched up the plaster pockmarks with joint compound. Finally it was time for a refreshing coat of white primer on the walls and ceiling. Feeling better already!


After priming, I applied two coats of high-gloss white paint. I can’t stress enough how important the second coat is to any paint job, regardless of primer. I’ve been working on  a catchy, Illinois-Department-of-Transportation-inspired rhyme for my Advice to Paint it Twice: Be cool like ice and paint it twice. Don’t roll the dice, paint it twice. If you don’t paint twice, you’ll pay the price.” Too threatening?

With the walls and ceiling neutralized, I pointed my paintbrush at the hideous orange wood sink cabinet. I was positively paralyzed in choosing a paint color when I glanced over my shoulder at the blue painter’s tape on the wall. I delighted at the contrast between the prawn-toned tile, cool blue tape and freshly-white walls.  At the paint store, I ordered up a can of oil-based “masking tape” blue paint.******

First, I gave the cabinet, door and drawers a light sanding and then a single coat of white oil-based primer:


The next day, I anxiously applied the first coat of blue paint.  As it dried, I spun into a vortex of panic and regret. It looked terrible. Like a toddler’s finger painting, or something listed on Craigslist as “shabby chic.”*******


And since this was finicky oil paint, I had to wait a whole day to recoat. The second coat was an improvement, but it wasn’t until the third coat that I allowed my family to see what I had done to our bathroom. Luckily, personal hygiene isn’t a priority in this house.


Waiting for the paint to dry is a great time to take stock of your toiletries. Dump everything on your bed and gather the family to reminisce about health problems. Try a game called “Match the Family Member to the Ailment.” Lice shampoo AND pinworm drops? Somebody here likes hosting parasites! Which of you had excessive earwax? Does somebody still get constipated while traveling? Is Jock Itch even a real medical condition or just a backdoor brag?


Please don’t google pinworms.

With the sink cabinet painted, I turned my attention to the ugly dollar-store basket full of towels that is usually shoved between the sink and the window.

dsc_0352Since Babushka House was built before the invention of closets, we had no dedicated towel storage area.  Always defending his title of World’s Most Multi-Tasking Dad, Scott installed a lightweight IKEA Grundtal shelf over the bathroom door while the kids took a bath. This may remind you of the old Rodney Dangerfield joke: I could tell my parents hated me—my bath toys were a toaster and a radio. Rest assured, he used a cordless drill. Safety first!




No need to adjust the settings on your device. Our bathroom really is that lopsided.

The remaining piece of the Incrementalist I-Ba-Ba-Mo Puzzle was Babushka’s Louis XIV French Baroque Medicine Cabinet. The golden swirls and twirls of the frame are perfect for catching toothpaste splatters, beard hairs and baby fingernails, and was clearly not designed by anyone who has ever cleaned a bathroom in his life, such as Louis XIV:


By this point, my only goal was to replace the cracked and yellowed light diffuser.  At Menard’s, a friendly fellow who blurted the words okee-dokee and fiddlesticks in the same sentence walked me to the light panels section, where I grudgingly purchased a 2 feet x 4 feet-wide “Cracked Ice” acrylic light panel; the kind that normally live in the drop ceilings of dentist waiting rooms:


I cut the panel down to size and gave it a light misting of white spray paint to reduce the incidence of Nighttime Medicine Cabinet Blindness. It doesn’t quite fit into the original curved slot, but this is nothing that the average self-absorbed eyebrow plucker would even notice.


I must now confess my tendency towards faulermutterzerkleinerer, which is the German word that I just made up for avoiding a task for days or weeks, even though the task takes two minutes to complete. In this case, I faulermutterzerkleinerered replacing the battery in the clock on the bathroom wall, because the bathroom is on the second floor and the batteries are on the first floor and it was easier to just leave a note on the clock to alert my family to the situation:


Two months later, with the battery in the clock, our I-Ba-Ba-Mo is complete!


dsc_0339dsc_0348As the great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham once said: Make ONLY little plans. They are the only ones that will actually be completed eventually. 

*  When I say podcast, what I really mean is this is what I heard on NPR while doing dishes. Saying I heard it on a podcast makes me seem fresh and relevant.
** I assume IBEK is the singular form of IBEX.
*** The third child always gets the shaft. Trust me, I’m a third child. I married a third child. I’d like to starting a dating site exclusively for third children called, which is, by the way, a totally normal name for an internet dating site.
**** Ironically, Justice Brandeis is famous for establishing the legal notion of an individual’s Right to Privacy. If you’ve ever tried using the bathroom with small children in the house, you know that the concept is tenuous at best.
***** It’s quite likely that our neighbors can see us do our funny business, but somehow it’s never come up in conversation.
****** OK, the real name for this paint color is Sherwin William’s “Loyal Blue.” Our second choice was of course, “Backstabbing Blue.”
******* “Shabby Chic” is French for Intentionally Terrible. A style popular among economically comfortable people who want that “Grapes of Wrath” look in their bedroom.


19 thoughts on “Makeover Your Bathroom Like an Elite British Cycling Team

  1. You do know you can buy Tub & Tile paint and change that whole Band Aid vibe…? I bought a house where both bathrooms were in Unbelievably Horrible Burnt Orange tile with avocado sanitary ware. I should have bought shares in Tub & Tile. If you do decide to go for a change of colour, make sure you go on holiday immediately after, to give the fumes time to reach less than lethal density, though! And I love the blue vanity cupboard 🙂


    • We actually did that for the tile in our downstairs powder room (half bath for those of us who don’t powder). It was an easy sell because not much water changes hands down there. Just a flush and a hand-washing for most. I’m much more reluctant to try it in the full bath where five people are using the facilities, splashing water, bathtub wrestling, etc.

      We did get our bathtub redone in our old condo, but it was just white over white. THe nice thing about brown is that you don’t have to clean it too often 🙂


  2. Do you know you are a genius and that you are hilarious and should probably also be sainted? I love how your posts are always inspiring and chock-full of practical advice — and even more so that they always come with a generous side helping of laugh-out-loud cleverness. Thanks to you, for the rest of my life I will make a (probably unhealthy) association between British cycling teams, brown-pink bathroom fixtures, and Justice Brandeis. 🙂 Wonderful post, Clare.


      • Good question about where to file/find that sainthood paperwork, Clare. I don’t have a clue, but I’ll get on it — because you certainly performed a miracle by taking my mind off global politics for a while and making me literally laugh out loud. 😀


        • It’s nice to hear you say that. I’ve actually had this blog post in draft form for several weeks. But after the inauguration and especially after the ban, I just felt silly posting about my bathroom problems when it felt like the world was on fire. But then I realized that we can fight the good fight AND also do the things we love, like write and giggle and speak fake german. If we give up the things that bring us joy, the bad guys win. The pope told me so!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Oh, Clare … you’ve said it so well! I’ve also been in a self-imposed posting slump, because my silly thoughts about Minnesota’s weather and Florida’s spiders seem so trivial compared to the chaos the is quite literally uprooting so many lives. But if I were to focus only on the ugliness I would be miserable — and it still wouldn’t change anything. So I will join you in fighting the good fight … and in giggling at made-up German words between battles. Onward, badezimmerundmöbelrefurbisherin! (That means “bathroom and furniture refurbisher” — the feminine version. 🙂


  3. Besides Tub and Tile paint, which I can see you seriously becoming addicted to, there is such a thing as “refinishing” countertops, known as Or also known as painting your countertops and adding a coat of water based poly on top. I know because I bought two kits and redid three bathroom countertops with it. But you can totally do it yourself, they just don’t want you to know. Only will last a couple years though by my estimation. I just loved the pick me up of the counters paired with the newly painted cabinets. But then I had a 1980s oak house that I was working on updating. Also, are you aware that there is a thing called grout paint? It seals the grout and updates the color, it’s magic and makes tile look wonderful, in a wide range of colors. I highly recommend it if you want to develop back pain and hurt knees for hours on end.
    It’s worth it and one bottle goes incredibly far. Now I go other places and have urges to redo other peoples grout, yes, I have a problem.

    Love your posts, I look forward to your never ending updates to your house, so fun.


    • Grout paint! I had no idea. I wish I had known about this at our old condo, which had a kitchen and bathroom full of awful ceramic tile and white (WHY?!) grout that was impossible to clean. I need to invent a time machine so I can go back to 2006 and tell myself just to paint the grout grey and then never clean it again. At least we learned the lesson when we redid the floor in the 1/2 bath — dark grey grout. It was born dirty!


      • Try it, you’ll become a convert. Apparently a lot of times grout isn’t actually sealed when installed and then gets irrevocably stained. Grout paint to the rescue! It covers everything up that’s already there that you want to hide and makes tile look brand new. Plus I believe one of the wonders it touts is that it repels future stains and inkiness within the grout.


          • It depends on what you consider tedious. Short answer yes, it is. The painting part is easy. Put some on a paper plate, use an old toothbrush to paint it on, come back with a rag to wipe down the edges of the tile, as you’ll get some on the tile and want to remove that before it sets. That’s the actually tedious part is the wiping off of the surrounding tile, and where you start to appreciate huge tiles with simple patterns. Let it set for, I believe, three hours without anyone on it, and then you’re good to go. I tested different colors with my tile and the colors I didn’t like I just went right back over with the color I did like and it even covered that right up. Lighter over darker worked fine too. It’s deceptive though that you think small differences in color won’t matter much but it ends up actually mattering when you have it next to your tile. I bought a bunch of colors, tested them, picked out the one I wanted, returned the rest. But once you see the effect you’ll want it for all of it.

            Oh and I think you’re hilarious with a wonderful voice. Don’t ever stop talking about what you’re doing and think that it’s silly with what’s happening in the world. A sense of humor in the face of huge problems happening is even more important than when things are “easy”. I don’t know about you but I keep waiting for the “easy” time in life. I don’t think it’ll ever happen. In the meantime improving your world one project at a time keeps everyone sane no matter what it is. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

      • There is also the option of painting the tile and grout all one colour. I had my doubts, but my interior decorator friend told me what to do (TSP, buy paint, apply) and my kitchen back splash went from Horrible 1980s (even worse because I installed the tile originally) to Huzzah! Hip and Chip (according to other people; I know nothing about hip or chic) grey back splash. I think the whole job might even be faster than painting just the grout.


  4. As always, you had me chuckling through your reno and thinking about some of my past and up-coming decorating jobs.

    Love the “German word I just made up” and am totally guilty of routinely putting off simple, quick tasks that bore me (I’ll run the risk of stabbing my neighbour in the eye with my fingernails before finally whipping out the clippers and dedicating 2.5 minutes of my life to that dreaded chore).

    It is all I can do not to jump in and join the “Match a *Blogger* to the Ailment” Game. In the interests of not over-sharing with total strangers, I will just say that, over the course of my life so far, I have benefited from a shockingly high number of the items you listed. Rest assured, I have no personal experience with jock itch and not need to weigh in on any “jock” related debates you may have created here.

    Thanks for the laughs. Wave to the neighbours for me (pervs).


    • Hey, no shame here! Looking over that pile of lice and pinworm treatments fills me with enormous gratitude that 1) I live in a time and place where parasites are easily treated and 2) the worst health problems to visit my immediate family are the kind that can be cured with a trip to Walgreens drug store (aka chemist). And hence, be chuckled at years later.

      So many people have identified with the german word that doesn’t really exist for procrastinating, which tells me that we are obligated here in this lowly comments section to come up with a word for it in English. Or at least a clever phrase. I ate too much spaghetti for dinner and thus can’t think clearly enough to come up with something right now.

      And the neighbors have assured me that they cannot see directly into our toilet. Or rather that they would have to get down on their hands and knees to crotch into that little window nook, and even then they only catch a fraction of our toilet scene, and there are probably more interesting things to watch on Netflix. Besides, these are neighbors that we go on beach vacations with. And when you go on beach vacations with people, it’s only a matter of time before you see their sandy bums.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah! Thanks for letting me know to be sure to get back to it. Getting my own blog started has been rather time consuming–an addition to an already full task list, so getting around to reading the posts of others has not been easy. I trust I’ll get things back under control soon, though, and find a groove in my day/week that I can designate as “Read Blogs I’m Following.” Blessings, my friend, looking forward to seeing what other kinds of new projects you do!


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