Step away from the squirrel and 13 other reasons to build your own bicycle

… the building of my newest build marked my first building of a build from the frame up. And I’m gosh darned happy with the way my build was built.

What follows is an overly detailed account of building a bicycle. But if you’re interested in building a pretty snazzy two-wheeled ecstasy machine for around $600, you may find some useful information here.

I’m a little reluctant to use the word “build” for what I did. As everyone’s favorite bicycling snarkalufagus*, BikesnobNYC, has noted, unless you’re wearing a welding mask you’re not building a bicycle. What you’re doing is assembling a bicycle. However, the use of this word both as a verb and a noun (e.g. that’s a nice build) is fairly widespread among cyclists and bike tinkerers, so I’ll go with it.

Let it be known that when I endeavored to build myself a bike I was not completely inept with a wrench. I worked construction for more than a few years, doing everything from finish carpentry to building swimming pool filtration systems, and I’ve always (since my middle school BMX days) done the basics on my own bikes. But the building of my newest build marked my first building of a build from the frame up. And I’m gosh darned happy with the way my build was built.

I decided to start from scratch for a few reasons, the first of which is that I had something specific in mind, something you can’t just walk into your local bike shop and procure. A steel-framed bike with affordable but quality modern components that would be: fast (enough); a good all-around, do-everything road bike; and easy to set up randonneuring(ish)[ly] with a handlebar bag and large saddlebag for superlightweight trips that last a night or two.

You can buy something like that, but in general you’d have to order it and you’re looking at >$2,000, keeping in mind that $2,000 is below the cost of most mass-produced “enthusiast” level road bikes with carbon fiber frames. As an alternative, you could get a bike made specifically for loaded touring in the $1,000 range — the Surly Long Haul Trucker comes to mind, and it’s a fine bike — but they’re heavy and come with lots of geehaws and whimmididdles and are geared lower than what I wanted. And I wanted to spend substantially less than $1,000 if possible. Also important: I wanted to build a bike.

I’m sold on the Rivendell / Velo Orange philosophy that most of the people who buy road bikes aren’t getting what they need (or really want for that matter). After years of BMX and mountain biking, I bought my first road bike in 2004 because I wanted to enter a sprint triathlon. The bike I ended up with was one of those aluminum Cannondales with an ugly, oversized down tube. Mediocre and ubiquitous, these are like the James Franco of bicycles. It had a decent parts mix of mostly Shimano 105 stuff and because it was the previous year’s model, I got it for an even grand with pedals and shoes thrown in. Because my only prior experience with a road bike had been the early-80s Yokota that my cousin lent me when I started college, I was generally impressed by the Cannondale’s ability to do things like shift into the correct gear. For a while this was enough. I used the Cannondale on and off for the next six years, mainly to do 20-30 mile rides on the country roads near my house and to enter a handful of triathlons. I never once entered a bicycle race or took part in one of those high-stakes, three-inches-from-death group rides that I sometimes read about but are probably only myths, like the Chupacabra or soft-spoken Long Islanders.

Then about two years ago, on a whim, I bought an early 80s Peugeot road bike for my work commute. There are lots of crappy-as-all-get-out Peugeots for sale on Craigslist, but this one was decent. It had 700c Mavic aluminum wheels on it (instead of 27″ steel monstrosities), and some Simplex drivetrain parts, not too shabby. I slapped some 32mm tires on it (most road bikes come with the far-too-skinny 23mm variety). I use the word slap here, but what transpired was more like being in a cage fight with Rampage Jackson. They were Vittoria Randonneurs, which had good reviews online, but when I took the bike to a now-defunct local shop for a once-over they had the same problem with the tires and ended up cutting them off and throwing them away, which they didn’t intend to do. So when they replaced the brake cables (and the tires of course) they threw in a gratis pair of aero brake levers, which are infinitely more comfortable than those old school things with the cables coming off the tops. Sorry purists, not everything vintage is better, or even good for that matter. Vintage frames: Yes, sometimes. Vintage brakes and brake levers: Rarely.

What later transpired was a slow epiphany. I’d convinced my nextdoor neighbor Richard that he really really needed a bicycle (what have you done for the world lately?) and when I found a pristine, stored-in-the-garage-since-1984 Motebecane with upgrades like Shimano 105 indexing down tube shifters for $130, he jumped on it.

For a while I rode the Cannondale when I went out for solo rides and rode the Peugeot both to work and when I went out for more leisurely jaunts with Richard. Say what you want about the two of us cruising merrily out to Jordan Lake on a pair of French bicycles, rarely breaking 20 mph, but eventually I stopped riding the Cannondale. Sure, it had the nifty brifters, and the 18 different speeds were sometimes convenient, but the ride quality was akin to being on a mechanical bull after taking a bunch of Sudafed — bone rattling and about as predictable as strapping yourself to a couple of rabid squirrels.

The Peugeot was just a lot more fun to ride, especially after I invested in a Brooks saddle.  Eventually Richard and I were doing 60-mile days without feeling like we’d picked a fistfight with a couple of silverback gorillas. The trouble was that I was gradually realizing that both the Cannondale and the Peugeot were too small for me. The Peugeot was advertised on Craigslist as a 56cm, when in fact it is more like a 53cm, and the Cannondale was a 54cm, which is what the bike store I bought it from told me I needed, even though I’m 5′ 10″. Eventually I sold the Cannondale and managed to continue making the Peugeot work. Sort of. Not only is it too small for me, but it’s French (and it’s for sale, incidently), which means that replacing pedals, headset, bottom bracket, stem, seat post, etc… would be difficult. Because the rest of the world is not French. So I’ve been secretly building the bike I really want for the past 6 months or so.  In all I’ve probably spent no more than 20 hours working on the thing, and somewhere in the ball park of $600, but it took me six months to gradually acquire parts off eBay (with a few new components from the Velo Orange and Rivendell sites).

Behold, a totally rad 56cm 1986 Trek 660 with a mix of modern Nitto, Shimano and Velo Orange parts. I have since adjusted the saddle a bit, but this is it. The ride is like a racehorse instead of a squirrel: fast, powerful, predictable, smooth. Amen.

The most difficult tasks I had to do to get this bike rolling all came about in the earliest stages. I bought the Trek frame off Craigslist for $50 — a decent mid/upper level racing steed (it has the word Ultegra written on the chain stays) that dated to a year when Def Leppard was pouring some sugar on us and I had just discovered that I could get Elon College’s (now Elon University) radio station in my rural home if I held my mouth just right while turning the FM dial all the way to the left (yes, that’s a song reference). I framesaved the frame. Or I JP Weigled it. Whatever. And then I had to “cold set” the rear dropouts because way back in 1986 rear dropouts were spaced 126mm apart to accommodate rear cassettes with six cogs. Modern rear hub/cassette combos are 130mm, and so are rear dropouts on frames.

The good news: You can cold set a steel frame, which isn’t possible with other materials such as aluminum or carbon fiber. The bad news: Cold setting is a fancy term for bending. The other good news: You can find out how to do anything to a bicycle online, often in the form of a video tutorial. Though I love and respect what’s going on at the Sheldon Brown website, their suggested method is to lay the frame on its side and spread the dropouts with a 2 x 4.  Scary. Instead, I went for the method suggested on the Vintage Trek site, which is to take a long piece of all-thread and some washers and nuts, insert in the dropouts, and crank the nuts to spread the dropouts. Still a little scary because I needed to spread the dropouts to around 160mm to get them to stay at 130mm once the all-thread was removed. Either method can throw off frame alignment, which lives somewhere south of desirable, but I checked the alignment with string and found that I was fine — cold setting accomplished.

Feeling hubrisly about myself, I moved on to other tasks that I read would be difficult but turned out to be not so difficult. When I bought the frame, it came with headset and bottom bracket already installed, and I wanted to scrap both of those. Removal of the bottom bracket required a tool that I already had. Removal of the headset races is said to be a more advanced maneuver, but in fact is no more complicated than whacking a piece of metal with a hammer; the issue is that bike mechanics generally accomplish this with a $60 tool. But I made a similar tool out of a piece of copper pipe for $0. Likewise, pressing the new races into the head tube requires a special tool, which you can purchase for about $100 or make with a long piece of all thread and a couple of stacks of washers and nuts. I did the latter, of course, and it cost me about $5 to make.

The one surprise I encountered that I couldn’t deal with on my own:  I went with a Nitto Technomic stem, which is a quality bike component that I got new for $45. This is the old-style quill stem used in conjunction with a threaded fork and headset (much prettier than the threadless variety if you ask me). I assumed that the fork tube was straight inside, with a uniform diameter, but this turned out not to be the case. When I inserted the stem, it bottomed out at a certain point, a point that would have left the stem, and therefore the handlebars, higher than I needed.

This is where I was introduced to and subsequently had an illicit affair with and then eventually fell hard for Back Alley Bikes in Chapel Hill. I called them and they said that it was entirely within reason to cut an inch off the stem and that they have a relationship with a machine shop around the corner. I dropped the stem off at Back Alley, and they called me the next day saying it was ready. In one day, they took the stem around the corner, had it chopped at the machine shop, brought it back, and called me. The cost? $5.   I actually tried to give them more money, but they refused, saying that the machine shop owed them a favor and had done it for free. The $5 charge was for Back Alley’s time and effort. But I’ll tell you this:  $5 wouldn’t get a wholehelluvalot of time or effort out of me.

In retrospect I would have tried to purchase some of the components, new or used because they carry both, from Back Alley instead of getting them off eBay. I’m fine with the fact that I supported Velo Orange and Rivendell for some of the new components, but again, I wish I’d bought those at Back Alley. They’ll get my support in the future. In contrast, I have another story about dealing with another bike shop that juxtaposes quite flatulently with my experience at Back Alley. I’ll save that for another post because this one’s getting long and boring.

To wrap up, here was my rationale for the bike I ended up with:

  • 80s Trek Frame: Steel, lugged, built in the USA and in excellent shape. To get a new frame like that made recently you’d pay at least $1,000. The only lugged steel frame I can think of for less than $1,000 is the Soma Stanyan, a beautiful, quality bike, no doubt, but not made in the U.S. Not that that’s a deal breaker, but even those are $730, so I think I did the right thing. Plus, I’m not going to baby this bike, I’m going to ride it.
  • Drivetrain is all used stuff: Ultegra cranks, rear derailleur and cassette, and a 105 front derailleur. Shifters are new Dura Ace bar ends, which are essentially indestructible and, unlike brifters, I can fix them myself in a pinch if I’m on a mini tour. I went with 9 speed, which is the previous generation of Shimano components, and that significantly lowered the cost. And who really cares about one extra cog? I’ve also read that 10-speed chains are unreliably narrow.
  • Some other components are used, such as the Shimano 105 brakes and aero levers.  Inexpensive and work just preciously.
  • Wheels are new Mavic Open Sports with 105 hubs (I didn’t build them), which are inexpensive workhorses.
  • Handlebars and stem are new Nitto, and the seat post is a new Velo Orange. I went with new because those are things that need to not break.
  • Tires are the Bridgestone city 28s from the Peugeot: more confidence inspiring than 23s or 25s, but still sleek and fast.
  • Brooks b-17 saddle from the Peugeot that’s just about broken in now. My buns love it.
  • I wrapped the bars with cloth tape from Rivendell and finished them the haughty way, with hemp twine and shellac. Loverly.

*BikeSnob Eben Weiss is no longer in hiding.

I followed the Rivendell advice on assembling the bars, stem, and brake levers.

My stand is a cheapo thing I got off Craigslist a while back, but it works. The placement of the clamp at the bottom bracket made running shifter cables difficult when the bike was in the stand. Otherwise, it was fine for everything else.

I have Dura Ace components on my bicycle. Just thought I’d say that.

I bought the book Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance at a used bookstore. It is indispensible as a coaster for the pint of IPA that goes well with bar wrapping night. Otherwise, don’t bother with the book. The how-tos you can find by frisking the Google are much easier to understand.

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About kimetime

Kimetime has lived some of his life in motion, some of it sedentary, all of it in hiding. Some people call him Jonny.
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