The Elusive Finish
Most bicycle builds begin with a vision, a plan, an ideal of what it is the maker wants to accomplish. Then, somewhere along the way, reality intervenes. Unforeseen compatibility issues arise. Certain parts turn out to be unavailable when the bicycle is being assembled. Budgets shrink. Inevitably, compromises are made, and the end result can deviate quite a bit from the original vision.
It was exactly 4 years ago now that I built the frame and fork for this bicycle. And 2 years ago that I first assembled and rode it. In between these two events, I underwent some major life changes, including a move overseas. When I finally got the opportunity to put the bike together, I just didn't have the stamina - or the resources - to care about the details as much as I did back when I was planning the build. On a short visit to Boston, I dragged the frame, fork, and a burlap sac full of spare parts, to a friend's house. Mumbling "doesn't matter, let's just get it ridable," we used whatever compatible parts were on hand.
The result - promptly named Alice - was by no means bad. In fact I was delighted by how well the bicycle rode. Not only did the frame and fork not shatter immediately beneath me, but over the next two years the bike proved feisty, comfy and dependable. It was close to what I had in mind when I first set out to build it.
So what exactly did I envision when I conceptualised this bike 4 years ago? Mainly: I wanted to make a bike that was not a compromise between, but a combination of, a performance machine and a fully equipped mixed terrain traveller. The distinction is an important one. The former implies sacrificing performance for the sake of having fat tyres, mudguards and a rack for carrying luggage. The latter implies that, if done just right, both can be achieved. Inspired by Jan Heine's descriptions of sub-20lb fully equipped brevet bikes from the 1930s, I was convinced this was possible. And I built the frame and fork with this in mind from the start, using the lightest tubing and fittings - sometimes against the advice of my instructor! - and aggressive low-trail geometry, to achieve an exceptionally light and (I hoped) responsive frameset.
Aside from that, I wanted the bicycle to have a modern drivetrain with low gearing. And to look aesthetically pleasing, yet muted and unfussy. I did not want a gleaming remake of a vintage French museum piece, but a classic/modern melange that reflected my needs and preferences more than any textbook ideal.
The first iteration of Alice accomplished these things to some extent. There were, however, some niggles. Firstly, the fit. The too-long stem, combined with handlebars I had not originally meant to use, proved more uncomfortable than I anticipated. No matter what adjustments I made, I could never quite get the feel of the "cockpit" quite right.
I also knew pretty much straight away that the drivetrain - 10speed Chorus married to Rene Herse cranks - would not be staying. I will not go into detail on that topic here, but let's just say combining modern Campagnolo Ergo systems with vintage-style chainrings doesn't work perfectly for me, and I am done experimenting in that regard. In future, I would either go with an all-classic, friction-shift drivetrain if I wanted to keep the RH cranks, or all modern.
In the looks department, everything was good, except that the overabundance of silver-coloured parts began to bother my eyes over time. The bike was literally too shiny!
And finally, there was the weight. As those who've aimed for a lightweight bicycle build know, the only way to achieve this is to scrutinise every single component obsessively (see: Toward an Understanding of Weight Weenie-ism). Not having done that at all when the bike was first assembled, it is perhaps not surprising that it ended up heavier than I had hoped (just under 25lb complete). Now, weight doesn't bother me for weight's sake. But on a bike that is meant to be performance-oriented, ridden by a fairly lightweight and not very powerful rider, it does make a difference. I could especially sense the weight in the wheels, which felt noticeably more effortful to rotate than the wheels on my skinny-tyre roadbike, especially when accelerating and climbing.
While, visually, the re-build of Alice was quite subtle (so subtle that none of my local friends even noticed a difference!), it addressed all of these issues.
For the handlebars and stem, I considered several possibilities but in the end - influenced heavily by my husband's recent adventures - decided to go for some used Italian racing parts. The 3T Prima199 bars have massive amounts of reach and drop with lots of hand positions, which is what I wanted. And with the 80mm Cinelli XA stem the reach is perfect. This stem and bar combination is also quite a bit lighter than the previous Nitto/Soma setup, so I saved some weight with this change.
In keeping with the Italian/ weight savings theme, I also replaced the original seatpost with a sexy carbon fibre Spada (imagines seatpost singing "I'm too sexy for this bike"...).
Having found new homes for the Rene Herse crankset and the 10-speed Chorus parts that made up the drivetrain previously, I then moved over the 11-speed Chorus bits from my Seven Axiom - except instead of using a Sram setup in the back as I had done there, this time I was able to go all-Campag. Because luckily, Campagnolo had recently released its new Potenza 11-speed group, which allows for low gearing.
The Potenza derailleur accommodates cogs up to 32t, and my cassette is 11-32t. The levers and derailleurs and chainrings all play together perfectly. I have tried to drop or jam my chain through deliberate awkward maneuvering, but have been unsuccessful so far. The 11-32t, paired with a 50-34t crankset, gives me a nice range of gears. My lowest gear ratio is not quite 1:1 as it was previously, but nearly. And so far, it seems that the missing low gear is well compensated by the bicycle's sudden weight loss and the rider's gradual fitness gain.
And finally... the wheels. The original wheels were built impeccably, quality-wise. But they were not performance wheels. I'd been planning to re-build them as soon as I could find a local willing to take on my "exotic" 650B setup. At last, I found one: Me! You can read about how this happened here, but long story short I can now build wheels. I will describe the 650B rebuild project step-by-step in a separate post, but to summarise briefly: I re-used the original Pacenti PL23 rims, re-lacing them with light double-butted spokes and a lightweight front hub (the original generator hub needs servicing, and is temporarily out of commission).
I also converted the wheels to run tubeless and fitted them with lighter tyres. All in all, I removed nearly 2lb in weight off the original wheel + tyre setup. And let me assure you, I can feel the difference when riding the bike - especially accelerating and uphill.
As pictured, Alice now weighs in at just over 21lb. That's including mudguards and front rack, but not including handlebar bag. I could have brought it down to sub-20lb by opting for a lighter saddle (the Brooks C17 being not exactly weight-weenie territory), using a rackless handlebar bag setup, and making a few other minor changes. But for the sake of comfort and utility I decided not to do any of that. Once I rode the bike with the new wheels and tyres, I knew the crux of the matter lay there. The current overall weight is fine with me, considering how well the bicycle feels in action.
In the long term, I will probably return to integrated lighting (a project for my friend Velo Lumino, formerly known as Somervillain, perhaps). But for now I am just sharing the Lezyne battery lights that we use on all our road bikes.
In the nearer future I might also outline the lugs in metallic copper, and finally get the poor girl some decals. Oh and I'd like a sexier brake hanger for the rear, than the one I currently have. But none of these are pressing matters.
I've been riding this bike in its revamped state for a couple of weeks now, and could not be happier with the end result of the modifications. It's the same bike, yet a different bike. With the dramatically lighter wheels (1490g for the pair), it is as fast and responsive as a skinny-tyre roadbike - no compromises. The drivetrain works like a normal modern drivetrain, freeing me from anxiety during tricky elevation changes. With the altered handlebar setup, the fit is absolutely perfect now, and the bike feels better balanced as well. Finally, the infusion of matte black and gray parts makes it easier on my eyes.
To my eye, the modern Italian bits also work nicely as a way of shaking up the French museum piece look, which I think can at times overwhelm these types of builds. I know that some people look at the "ugly" handlebars, and the drivetrain, and all the black parts, and the Tacx bottle cage and go "Huh?" But to me it all makes sense. (Oh and the plastic cage, before anyone asks, is to make it easier for me to grab and replace the bottle while I ride. I find the metal ones too grippy.)
But all the minutiae aside, the main thing is this: the bicycle feels finished, in a way it didn't before. Certainly when I look at it. But even more so when I ride it. It feels finished, finally allowing me to breathe a sigh of relief and satisfaction, in that the project I began 4 years ago is completed, as intended - with not only the frameset, but now also the wheels, that I built myself.
With sincere thanks to Mike Flanigan, Jan Heine, Somervillain, Curious Velo, Mr. Wheelson, and my very own O.G., for the help, advice and inspiration, Alice and I are off for our evening constitutional.