By all standards I’ve got ample experience building things and riding bikes. Yet somehow I’ve never done both at the same time; I’ve never built a bike. Most people don’t think of a bicycle in terms of a thing that gets made any more than one would think about the internal composition of a car, computer, or toilet. This is unfortunate, because a bicycle is the sort of simple mechanical apparatus that might actually teach the everyman a thing or two about physics.
So, I’m building a bike. I plan to write up my progress as I go; currently, I’m just starting out. This post deals with analysis and prep work.
What’s a bike?
Humanity has gone balls to the wall in the field of bicycle design. Even during my tiny under-30-minute commute in Manhattan I see a variety of contraptions that often just barely qualify as bicycles.
There are lots of ways to go about choosing the type of bike to build at home. My approach is similar to the way I build software: define goals/non-goals & use this information to whittle down the set of available choices.
What’s important to me in a bike?
- Simplicity: my skills are limited, I don’t have a lot of expensive shop tools, nor a lot of space. I’m also just one person, and come equipped with two fairly standard hands.
- Price: I’d rather invest in a smaller number of high-quality components as opposed to a whole clutch of mediocre ones that together still add up to a significant sum.
- Failure mode: I have to be prepared for every eventuality, including the total failure to produce a bike that can be ridden safely. While I can always unload a bunch of ill fitting bicycle parts on Craigslist, or sell them to the LBS, I’d much rather repurpose or reuse components at home. I already own a track bike, so it would be nice if components of my build could be useful in the course of maintaining or improving my existing ride.
- Improvement to my current situation: I’d like a faster/lighter bike, or a more durable bike, or preferably both.
There are a few things I don’t care about, or might want to actively avoid:
- Suspensions, derailers, shifter cables, and brakes: all have their uses, but are too complicated for a first bike build. Why bother?
- Exotic or finnicky materials: carbon and aluminum are out.
- Street cred: I’m doing this for me, not for the sake of impressing NYC’s bike culture.
With all this in mind, I’ve settled on building another track bike. I know these things well, I enjoy riding a fixie, and I have a fairly complete understanding of track bicycle mechanics. These bikes are elegant yet simple machines that do one thing and do it well. I’m pretty confident that I might actually complete a build like this.
Picking a frame
I spent most of the long Memorial Day weekend trawling Craigslist, eBay and various other dusty corners of the web, all in search of the perfect frame. My current everyday fixie has a hi-ten frame, which is light but not the lightest. Yes, carbon or aluminum would be lighter than anything, but I’ve decided to keep away from exotic materials, so those won’t work.
Many midrange bikes made by reputable companies (Bianchi, Campy, Mercier, …) come with frames made of chromoly. This is a lightweight alloy of steel that includes small quantities of chromium and molybdenum. I’m not a materials scientist, but my research indicates that chromoly offers the best strength-to-weight ratio without high risk of structural failure as in carbon and aluminum.
After lots of shopping and dithering I settled on a beautiful unbranded, unpainted Mercier Kilo TT frame. You read it right: the frame is unpainted, but it comes with a clear coat, which should look good as well as protect the frame from corrosion. The two best regarded manufacturers of chromoly frame tubing are Columbus Tubi and Reynolds, hailing from Italy and GB, respectively. The Kilo TT frame I ordered is made of Reynolds 520 steel, which I’ve read good things about.
This frame is also a little larger than the one I’m currently using. When it comes to bikes, size really does matter! Size directly relates to fit, the elusive loveable quality that some bikes have and others simply don’t. My current bike - a Pure Fix with a 54cm frame - is just a tad small for me: at a standover height of 762mm it doesn’t quite reach to my inseam. I end up riding it with the seat pulled up to the upper limits my seatpost will allow, which probably also harms my posture as well.
My chosen Mercier frame has a standover height of 800mm when used with standard 700c wheels. An increase of 38mm (just under an inch and a half) doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to make me nervous. We’re in make-it-or-break-it territory. I figured that there’s only one way to find out, so I went ahead and ordered the frame. Should be here in roughly a week’s time.
While we wait…
Even though the frame will take a week to ship, I won’t be burning daylight during this time. My work is cut out for me: I already know all of the salient dimensions of my new frame, so I can use the time to choose components and do research on how they fit together. Anyone who’s ever had to tackle a skewed chainline will know what I’m talking about!