I Built Her a Bike - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

August 24, 2014

I Built Her a Bike

I've traveled more than 15,000 miles by bicycle since I took up touring in 2009. In that time I have pedaled over the Continental Divide more times than I can count. I have outrun the packs of feral brown hounds that stalk the roads of Eastern Kentucky. I have camped in city parks, in hostels, next to gas stations, on a deck perched above the Atlantic Ocean, in the company of bears in the backcountry, in bathrooms, on top of a picnic table, in between stacks of hay bales, inside churches, behind churches, underneath churches, and even in the front yard of a home owned by a drunk 80-year-old woman who promised not to rape me. I can stay upright on steep hills while traveling at less than three miles per hour. I can poop next to a desert highway with less shame than you'd think. I can scream horrible things at a headwind better than anyone I know. When it comes to living and adventuring and making bad decisions from the seat of a bicycle, I've done some stuff.

But could I show you how to install a headset?

No.

How to replace a brake cable or index the rear derailleur?

Nope.

How to pull a bottom bracket or swap a crankset?

Not a chance.

It's not for a total lack of wanting. More than once while crossing the Great Plains or pedaling alone on a remote dirt road I've considered how a couple of broken spokes or a snapped cable or a stuck brake pad would knock me down from explorer to hitchhiker in about eight seconds. And for several years now I've thought about building a bicycle from the frame up, learning how all of the components work and then figuring out how to install them, so that I can understand in detail what makes a bike go and stop and not fall apart when you run over a two-by-four that you didn't notice because you're too distracted by visions of pizza and beer after riding for 70 miles in the brain-melting heat of a Middle American summer.

I've thought about it, but I've never done it. I haven't had the need.

Until now.

Future grizzly bear snack.
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Kristen owns a bicycle, but it's an enigma on two wheels. Even though it's one of those cruiser-type bikes with a step-through frame and grip shifters and a bell with a pink flowery design on the top, it also has a triple crankset, quick release axles, and a solid rear rack like you'd find on a commuter bike. Somehow it weighs better than 35 pounds. Suspension forks and a wide, squishy, squeaky seat round out the strange package. It isn't bad for riding around Portland. It even did a decent job for our three-day trip back on Memorial Day. But if you're going to spend most every day of the next few years sitting atop a bicycle, you want that bike to be comfortable, reliable, and not the kind of thing that makes everyone you meet say, Wait, you're riding across the country on that?

In theory, new bicycles are wonderful. You find a model that meets your needs, head to your local shop to have it sized and fitted, and come home with a machine capable of climbing steep mountains, hammering across broad valleys, and upsetting impatient drivers just about anywhere in the world. But any new touring-type bicycle is expensive, even the entry-level kind. In part that's because they use specialized frames and are made in low volumes, but it's also due the fact that they require so many add-ons beyond the basic bike package: a headlight, a taillight, a cycling computer, a front (and sometimes rear) rack, and fenders. Some manufacturers also cheap out on pedals, saddles, and tires, so you need to upgrade those as well. If you start adding high-end drivetrain components, expedition-style racks, frame couplings, and internally geared hubs, it's not unusual to find your bank account $3,000 to $5,000 lighter.

New bikes are also wasteful. Save for accidents or neglect, steel frames and forks don't wear out. Neither do handlebars, stems, seatposts, or well-built racks and saddles. One of the ugliest things about our culture is how we produce so many things that are lightly used and then thrown away because they aren't perfect, or because we aren't willing to put in a little effort to make them perfect again. We waste so much for no reason. When you think about bicycles from that perspective, a used bike starts to make a lot of sense. And for a few weeks that's what I hoped to buy and set up for Kristen. But it turned out that even in a place like Portland, one of the most popular cycling cities in America, there was a flaw with that plan: it's almost impossible to find a quality, touring-ready bicycle for a rider that stands five-foot-four. Six-three dudes and their long-legged wives always have a dozen choices, but unless you get lucky, the bikes for shorter riders are either not suited for touring or require so many changes that you end up paying for handfuls for parts you'll just have to recycle.

What ended up being easier to find were smaller-sized bare frames and forks. Modern mountain bikes are made of lightweight materials, feature exotic suspension, and are intended to carry minimal gear mostly in the downhill direction, but that didn't used to be true. Back in the early to mid-1990s those kinds of bicycles were made from steel and featured attachment points for racks and fenders, based on the idea that people would load them with gear and ride them both up and down hills to find adventure on remote forest roads and trails. The frames were built to last — and as a result they still do, by the thousands, in any size you could hope to find. Once I realized that, it only took a couple of days to locate what would become the base of Kristen's new bike: a 1996, Wisconsin-built Trek 930 Singetrack frame and fork with a handful of old components still attached, bought off Craigslist for just $50.

The best $50 I'll ever spend on Craigslist.
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The frame and fork were both rust-free with only a few small dents, none of which you can see from more than about three feet away. The seat post and front derailleur look decent in the picture, but both were scarred and rusted in many places and not suitable for a bike destined to become the greatest bike ever built, so off to the used bike parts bin they went. The bottom bracket, the headset, and the front reflector mount also looked like garbage, so they too got the boot. The brake cable guide mounted to the headset would have been good to keep, so of course that's the one piece I managed to lose. All that remained in the end were the frame, the fork, and the seat post collar.

Had the paint and decals made it through 18 years of use looking good, I would have kept them as they were. After all, this was going to be a touring bike, and touring bikes get beat up when used correctly. But there were too many chips to count, the decals had started to peel at the edges, and one of the previous owners might have been a four-year-old girl, because much of the frame was covered with decade-old sticker goop petrified by a thick layer of road dirt and chain grease. That just wasn't good enough for a bike about to ascend to the highest levels of awesomeness. Repainting was never an option, because paint is expensive, hard to get right, and with all of the toxic mess it leaves behind it's kind of a fuck you to the environment. In contrast, powder coating is much cheaper, harder to screw up, and doesn't cause future generations of frogs to grow five legs.

While the frame and fork received a new wine red finish at the powder coater's, Kristen and I headed to Sugar Wheel Works — a woman-owned, two-person shop in Northeast Portland — for a custom set of 26-inch wheels. After learning more about the type of terrain we'll be covering over the next few years, they suggested a pair of 36-hole Velocity Aeroheat rims with Shimano Deore hubs, Sapim Race spokes, and Sapim brass nipples — all in silver. Although the wheels cost three times more than any other component on the bike, everything I've read and experienced suggests they are the parts most likely to break on the road if they aren't built well to begin with. Knowing that, it made the most sense to invest in quality wheels up front, rather than waste time and money trying to track down replacements out in the middle of nowhere in the future. To the wheels we paired a set of 26-inch by 1.75-inch Continental Travel Contact tires.

I joined the finished frame and fork with a Shimano STX HP-MC31 threaded headset. I had no luck finding a used quill stem that would fit at the kind of relaxed angle Kristen prefers — even in Portland, which has more used bike parts for sale than any place I've ever lived — because the bike uses a headset with an unusual 1-1/8-inch width. To get around this issue I picked up a Zoom Q 1-1/8-inch-to-1-inch stem adapter, which then allowed me to bring together a used, threadless-compatible 1-inch stem with Dajia Cycleworks trekking handlebars. With the basics of the steering in place, I then installed a used seatpost, the seatpost collar from the original frame, a used-once Brooks B-17S saddle, and a pair of used bottle cages. At this point we could start to see and appreciate the shape of the bicycle to come.

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From there came the drivetrain: a Shimano UN55 square taper bottom bracket connected to a Sugino XD600 46/36/24 crankset, Shimano PD-A530 SPD dual-platform pedals, a Shimano HG-41 8-speed 11-34 cassette, and a SRAM PC-830 chain. Shifting is controlled by a Shimano FD-M430 Alivio front derailleur, a Shimano RD-M410 Alivio rear derailleur, and Shimano ST-MC410 Alivio shift and brake levers. Because the frame features a cable guide welded onto the top of the seat tube, cantilever brakes (Tektro CR720) were the only elegant option for the rear. The bike uses Shimano BR-M590 Deore V-brakes up front.

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To round out the bicycle for world touring duty we added SKS Commuter II 60mm fenders, a Tubus Tara rack up front, a used Tubus Logo rear rack with a Busch & Muller 4D Toplight tail light, a Nite Rider Lumina 550 headlight, a Cateye Enduro 8 cycling computer, and the bell with a pink flowery design on the top from Kristen's old bike.

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I feel a deep sense of pride when I look at Kristen's bike and think about how it came to exist, but I also recognize that I couldn't have achieved all of this on my own. I owe a lot to the kind volunteers at the Bike Farm, a community bicycling collective here in Portland. They're humble, helpful, patient people who promote bicycle use and help take away the mystery and challenge that come along with building and fixing bikes. In exchange for a small donation they provide access to a huge workshop that offers at least a dozen repair stands and work benches, every common and obscure bicycle tool you could need, and massive racks of used parts. All of this exists in a welcoming environment that vibrates with the energy of discovery and self-reliance, generated by people of all ages and sizes, from different social and cultural backgrounds, who bring with them abilities and experiences that aren't like my own. It's rare to find that kind of genuine diversity and community in America, but the Bike Farm proves that it's possible. It's something I'm happy to have been a part of, and something I'll carry with me long after we've pedaled out of town.

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The Bike Farm is one of many reasons why this bicycle turned out to be more than just a bicycle. I would lose myself — sometimes for days — researching what components to use and then reading articles and watching videos to learn how to install them. A lot of those components were used parts that might otherwise have been tossed, and almost all of the ones that I couldn't buy used came from local shops instead of online stores. This was a project that I loved and that Kristen loved. It brought us closer together, gave us something tangible to work on and watch evolve in the months leading up to our departure, and helped build up both our knowledge and confidence about how bicycles work. It also served as inspiration. Every time we looked over at the bike as it leaned against the wall below my kitchen window we'd lose ourselves to thoughts of what could be, dreaming of the places we might go, the people we might meet, and the things we might see while traveling with it.

In three more days those dreams will become our reality.

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