Among the people I know who have tried their hand at making a bicycle frame, I've observed a curious trend: After completing the project, most did not build up their bike straight away. In fact, some still have the bare frame hanging up on a wall years later, with only the vaguest of plans, if any, to turn it into a ridable bike. I did not understand it. I would have thought they'd be eager to ride the bike they made with their own hands. But that was before I went through the process myself - before I too felt the postpartum/PTSD-like aftermath of the framebuilding experience. For someone who is neither mechanically inclined nor endowed with physical strength, building a bicycle frame from scratch can be difficult, exhausting and, in truth, demoralising. In our culture of can-do, we perpetuate a myth that creativity and effort in of themselves will necessarily fill us with pride - that even if we do a lackluster job and our teacher holds our hand the whole way through, that portion of our psyche that is the internalised supportive parent will accept our blotchy finger paintings, saggy papier-mâché vases, and crooked macaroni picture frames with utter delight. Everyone gets a star! In reality, the act of making can fill us with shame and an acute awareness of our limitations. We come up against our own boundaries, and, instead of turning away as we'd normally do, we are then forced to spend time chafing against them only to reaffirm their steadfastness. It's uncomfortable territory to hang out in; an experience we'd soon rather forget. Except that we now have a memento of it! This may go some way toward explaining why it was 20 months before the frame I made, with the help of master builder Mike Flanigan, became a ridable bicycle.
Nevertheless, one day I woke up and knew I wanted it to happen. I was visiting the US at the time and scheduled to return to Ireland in about a week. I was in the process of selling my Rawland, and needed to decide whether to sell the entire bike or just the frame, keeping the parts for what they were originally meant for - that is, my DIY bike. At the time I was building the frame, I had wanted it as a fast, go-anywhere bicycle that would be a notch better than the Rawland. However, by now, I no longer really needed such a machine - nor had the confidence that the thing I'd cooked up myself could actually be better than a tried and tested bike made by somebody else. But my reasoning was, that I could use a long-distance commuter bicycle in Ireland, with fat tires, drop bars, low gears, powerful dynamo lighting and a roomy handlebar bag - so I may as well ride my own. How it performed beyond these requirements almost didn't matter for my purpose, as long as it did not fall apart underneath me - so the risk of disappointment was low. I had no tools or stand with me to disassemble the Rawland or assemble the new bike, but it seemed a fairly straightforward job, so I asked old buddy and fabled bicycle assembler Somervillain to take it on, as part of a mutually agreeable barter exchange. Of course in the end it turned out to be not such a straightforward job after all - due to a couple of, ahem, mistakes I made in fork and rear brake bridge spacing. The words "okay, just throw the whole thing out then!" may have been uttered, melodramatically. Mike Flanigan may have gotten involved, insisting that the problem - which both Somervillain and I had diagnosed as catastrophic - was in fact fixable, then actually coming over and fixing it 2 days before my flight back. I test rode the bike for a total of 40 minutes - too stunned to form any impressions other than "it rolls!" - before it was wrangled inside my travel case and en route to the airport.
The following morning, the bicycle was out of the bag and on the roads of Northern Ireland. It took me some time to get over how convincingly bike-like it felt in action! Perhaps part of me was expecting for it to feel creaky or have obvious handling problems, or just, I don't know, somehow feel different from a normal bicycle - so, initially, the mere fact that it didn't dominated my impressions. It took a good few rides before I finally got over this and grew capable of processing the bike as I would any other machine - forming opinions about its ride quality, speed, handling, and other characteristics. And the shocking thing was ...I liked it. I couldn't believe it, but I really, really liked it!
I designed this bicycle with True Temper super-thinwall tubing (7/4/7 with 8/5/8 downtube ), as well as super lightweight Kasei fork blades. The decision to stiffen the downtube was made, because previously, I had found the feel of several all-7/4/7 bikes I'd tried too flexible - whereas, for instance, the Rawland Nordavinden, with its 8/5/8 downtube, felt like it had just the right amount of flex for me. In fact, this bicycle's tubing specs and geometry are very similar to the Rawland's. The main differences in the latter are that my DIY bike is slightly smaller (shorter top tube and head tube) to better suit my proportions and preferred riding position, has a steeper seat tube, a slightly lower bottom bracket, and shorter chain stays. The decisions to make these changes from the Rawland's geometry, were, more than anything, based on a subjective intuition that I would "like it better that way." However, by the time I got done building the frame, and certainly by the time it was assembled, I had lost confidence that this would be the case. At the point I started riding the bike, I was just hoping it would ride close to as well as the Rawland.
That said, compared to my skinny tire Seven titanium roadbike, there are differences in performance - albeit not as dramatic as I expected. On flats and mild-to-moderate inclines, the speeds of the two bikes are actually comparable at my typical riding pace, and it's only if I try to go all out that the Seven's performance advantage becomes apparent. The more noticeable difference is felt during steep, sustained climbs. At some point there comes a threshold beyond which the 650B bike begins to feel "heavy" - and I put that in quotation marks, because I am not sure this sensation literally has to do with the weight of the bike, as opposed to something else - and very much as if I am dragging it up the mountain with me. The Seven, on the other hand, continues to feel weightless even on the toughest climbs. I was not sure to what extent this was all in my imagination, until I took the DIY bike on this horror of a local climb I'd gotten accustomed to doing. This climb starts out difficult enough, and then just gets worse from there, for a continuous 6 miles, reaching a near-vertical pitch in the final km to the top. On my Seven, the last part this ordeal is difficult, but doable in my lowest gear (34/36t). On the 650B DIY bike, I had to get off and walk before I even reached the worst bit - the 28/29t gear just wasn't enough. Once I understood that I simply can't ride this bike up that particular mountain in the same way as the Seven, I adapted a different approach - pushing harder and standing during the last bit, to avoid stalling out. But my point is, that I don't have to do that on the Seven, whereas I do on this bike.
The payoff, however, comes during descents - which is my favorite part of this bicycle's handling. To put it simply, I do not feel the speed on this bike when going downhill. A plummet at 39mph feels not much differently to a 15mph coast down a gentle slope. If on the Seven, descents are 50% fun and 50% fear, on this bike the percentage is more like 90/10. This makes me a lot more confident on descents, enabling me to corner without braking, and thus go a bit faster.
Another plus, is that the DIY bike seems to be more resistant to strong wind gusts - a common feature of winter weather around these parts.
That, plus its obvious benefits in sleety and snowy weather due to the fat tires, makes the 650B bike the preferred choice for winter cycling a good part of the time. Overall, the extent to which I'm faster on my skinny tire roadbike vs this bicycle depends on the nature of the ride and the topography of the route. I am happy to have them both and I feel that, rather than competing, the two bicycles complement one another.
But enough comparing. I've had a lot of questions about this bicycle's build, so here it is: Most of the components have been moved over from the Rawland as described here. Namely, these are the wheels (Pacenti PL23 rims; Schmidt SON dynohub; White Industries rear hub with Campagnolo road cassette), tires (650Bx42mm Grand Bois Hetres), brakes (Paul's Racer center pulls - which, to my relief, stop just as well on the steep descents here as they did for me in Boston), derailleurs and brake/shift levers (Campagnolo Chorus 10-speed), Schmidt Edelux headlight, and King Cage bottle cages. There are also parts that are new to this bicycle.
Rather than keep the Rawland's White Industries VBC road double crankset, I wanted to try the Rene Herse crankset that I had acquired in a trade earlier. The rings on this crankset are 44/28t, which, with my 12-29t rear cassette, gives me the sub-1:1 low gear for hilly terrain. Overall, the setup works well. I find myself staying in the big ring most of the time, only employing the small ring on serious hills. Also, this crankset is very pretty! On the downside, I do find myself maxing out my high gears when playing "town line" games with friends. And the shift from small ring to big is not as carefree as it is on my Seven's compact Chorus crankset. I am going to give it some time before declaring this with certainty, but my feeling at the moment is that I prefer the Srampagnolo method of achieving low gearing, despite it being less elegant aesthetically.
The saddle I have on this bike at the moment is a Brooks C-17 Cambium , which I shall post a long-term review of soon. I am not sure, however, if it's what will end up being on the bike in the long run.
The front rack is a modified Velo Orange randonneur rack with integrated, detachable decalleur. When designing the frame I had planned to use this rack, and going by its description it should have worked. But when the frame was built, we mocked it up and discovered that the rack’s bracket would not clear the Paul Racer brakes in a way that would also allow the struts to reach the fork blades. So Mike Flanigan kindly sawed off the original bracket and welded on a new one, after shaping it to clear the brakes.
Thankfully, the rack is a perfect fit now and the detachable decalleur is quite a handy feature.
I should also mention that I had to alter the handlebar setup, as the Rawland had a threadless steerer, whereas this bike's steerer is threaded - so the stem could not be moved over. The only threaded stem I had lying around at the time was 110mm (I had a budget of $0 to spend on this bicycle's assembly, so it was either using existing parts or nothing). So I decided to use that with some Soma Hiway 1 short reach bars I also happened to have, achieving a similar overall reach to the Rawland's shorter stem/ long reach bars combo. Make sense? Of course it does!
Of course the part of this bike that gets everyone's attention immediately, whether they know bikes or not, is the sexy slate gray Berthoud handlebar bag with caramel leather trim. I had resisted Berthoud bags for some time, finding them just "too much" visually. But this Berthoud bag in small was actually the only production handlebag available that was petit enough to fit my bike, considering its short headtube. So even though this bag looks quite domineering in pictures, keep in mind that it's proportional to the bicycle. Even the small VO bag I had on the Rawland was too tall!
But for me, the piece de resistance on this bicycle are the fenders. Notice anything unusual about them? The Honjos I had on the Rawland did not fit properly (brake bridge spacing issue), so resourceful Nick of the Three Speed Hub suggested fenders with a more domed profile - namely, a pair of English alumnium ones he had lying about, circa the 1930s ...though to call them a "pair" is stretching the definition, since they are actually mismatched: the rear being a Britannialloy and the front a Bluemell Airweight. When Nick produced the ancient things, I thought he was joking at first. But they were actually very lightweight, and they worked splendidly. Unless you know, you really can't tell they are not a matched pair. And of course they look fantastic with the carbon fiber detailing of the modern Campagnolo rear derailleur!