Thursday, March 3, 2016

Building Confidence, Building Freedom, Building a Bike

Perhaps one of the hardest parts about getting in to the sport of cycling is not knowing much about what's actually carrying you down the road. The different frames, components, upgrades, wheels, hubs, shifters, and even saddles is dizzying, and often overwhelming. Bikes offer us freedom, build our confidence, and bring us to places we never imagined physically, mentally, and even emotionally. For those that love them, they are a big deal. I am most definitely one of those!

When I started cycling as an adult, I had no idea what I was doing aside from, well, riding a bike! Buying my first road bike was a slightly confusing adventure, but I made it through with the help of a few friendly LBS (Local Bike Shop) employees and began learning the differences between different groupsets, frame types and materials, and so forth. The more I learned, the more I realized just how much price was dependent on many varying factors, and with the purchase of my second bike (after selling my original road bike) I made the leap to the $3,000 Ultegra-all-carbon-for-real-race-bike level.
You always need a new bike.......

I like to commute to work a couple days a week, 22 miles one-way, and last year I did this on my Felt time trial bike. It is my race bike, and was also my only bike, and it was not the best for city riding. My hands were not constantly connected to the brakes as they would be with a road bike, leading to more than one close encounter with a motorist who suddenly changed their mind. Then, I was run off the road by a bus, wrecking the bike and my shoulder (only surface damage to both, thankfully!) and I stopped commuting. I knew I needed a road bike, one with drop handles, one with bright colors, light weight, and easy to ride.

I also knew that now that I'd had a taste of higher-end shifting and feel on the road, I didn't want to spend nearly $1,000 on another entry-level road bike I'd never want to race on or climb mountains with. But, I didn't have another $3,000 in the bank.

My solution? I built one instead! I came to this decision because I weighed my financial options with my needs and realized that, after three years and lots of tinkering, I had a pretty good grasp for what I needed to do. I also wanted to just SEE if I could do it, and be able to then show others, especially women, that it's not scary learning about bikes, working with tools, and trying something new.

The reality is, it was incredibly fun. This post will cover what I did, how I did it, lessons I learned, tips I picked up, and everything I put in to this project. I am really proud of what I did, although you will read, it wasn't easy, and didn't always go according to plan- but that's still the fun of it!

The Process

First, I will walk you through the process of how everything came together. The real inspiration for this project came from the fact that my awesome team, Maverick Multisport, is sponsored by ENVE Composites. This sponsorship allows those of us on the age group team to get carbon race wheels (as well as handlebars, forks, and many other bike components!) at an excellent price. I decided to take the plunge and give my tri bike a new set of shoes, the ENVE SES 4.5s. (Review coming soon!) This left me with a "spare" set of wheels and they needed a home!

Shiny new wheels on my race machine- officially worth more than my car!

So I got to work. I found this awesome article that went in to serious detail about the parts, and included a handy checklist at the bottom. Thus began the biggest challenge, but one of my favorite parts- online shopping!

The packages coming in! I LOVE mail!
There are many ways you can approach collecting everything you need. Many local bike shops sell build kits, where you can order a groupset, frame, and other parts necessary through them. This is a good idea because it insures compatibility, and gives you the knowledge that you've got everything you need. However, it can be more expensive than buying the parts piecemeal from many sources.

This is how my handlebars showed up. That works, I guess!

I knew I was getting serious when my derailer showed up.

I used Craigslist, eBay, Facebook, and Google to track down everything I needed. I found the absolute best price I could for everything and within a week, I had my whole list checked off. I will go in to detail about costs later in this post.

It's important to make sure everything you get is compatible. The easiest way is to get components from the same groupset. For my bike, I got all Ultegra 6800 parts, with the exception of a 105 cassette, because cassettes are pretty universal as long as the right number of cogs ("speeds") are present and, to make it easiest, the brand is the same.

When you pick out your frame, keep these things in mind: material (aluminum, carbon, steel?), size (if you don't know, FIND OUT before you buy! I am a 51-54, there are many charts available to guide you!), and other details such as: is the cable routing internal? (I wanted "yes"),  is the front derailer braze on or clamp? (braze-on was what I wanted, as those are easier derailers to find), are the seat tube and headset included? (Mine were) and finally, what is the bottom bracket standard? This final question is IMPORTANT because it MUST be compatible with whatever crank you buy!

A side note: I was almost 100% spot-on when I got my parts, but the insanely vast array of bottom bracket standards out there tripped me up. There are way too many options, and only some types can cross over. I settled on my frame, and learned is had a BB386 EVO shell. After buying one wrong crank and one wrong bottom bracket, I finally found both the correct BB and crank that just had the same numbers, and finally could call it a day. This amazing article helped me learn a ton about this, I DEFINITELY recommend it before buying your frame and crank! 

My bike frame, safe and sound at the post office!
Once all of the parts were in, I sat down and wrote myself a list of what I needed to do, and in what order. It was important to note, for example, that I didn't want to put the crank on before running cables, because the internal routing for this frame would be much easier if I could access the bottom bracket shell. (Confused on these terms? They're easier than you think! Check out this awesome glossary of cycling terms!)
All the parts laid out, waiting for assembly!
Obviously, to put together anything you need tools. For bikes, that is generally a good set of Allen wrenches, a mallet, and a few specialized tools such as a chain whip, headset press, and chain tool. Also helpful is a head lamp, a pipe cutter (the silver C shaped tool), grease, pliers, and a couple of screwdrivers. I highly recommend a bike work stand or similar set up- I did this entire project without one and my back hated me since I had to sit on the floor turning wrenches for way too long!

The tools I used for a majority of the project.

So, the first thing I did was assemble my handlebars. This included putting together the shifters, running the cables through their housings, clamping on the stem, and running cables and housings through the internal routing on the carbon bars I purchased. Let me tell you- internal cable routing is a pain in the butt. If your bike has it and you get a mechanic to work on it for you, bring them a cupcake, they deserve it. This portion of the project was the only time I had a serious swearing session, and I broke three nails. But, I got it done! If you are unsure how to get this part done, or where your cables go, I found this video and this video very helpful. They're not up to date, but will give you a good enough idea to figure out your more modern parts!
Step one- figure out which one goes where. (TIP: click the shifter, if the lever is going IN and not OUT for Shimano, you've got it on the correct side!)

This was my victory face. The headlamp allowed me to see inside the bars as I wrestled with the cables. 
Once I got that put together, there was nothing I could to until I painted the frame. I had done a lot of research and could not find a great solution for painting a carbon frame so that it would be a hardened, shiny finish like a factory bike. However, the lime green and black my frame came as was not going to work. I needed brighter, I needed bolder. I needed MORE PINK.

My solution was inspired by this video on YouTube.  The poster used PlastiDip, a product marketed mainly to home auto mechanics looking to personalize their vehicle in a non-permanent way. It is much like spray paint, but rather than forming a permanent bond, it forms a thin plastic wrap around whatever you paint that can peel off in large sheets when you want a new color.

Painting Materials, including sanding block
Frame come in a dark color? This primer is AWESOME!

I set up a painting booth in my carport, hanging plastic sheeting and stringing the frame from a light fixture using twine so that it was not resting on anything. The key to painting anything like this is to do MANY thin coats and allow EACH coat to dry. I generally painted a coat, then went and did something else (got a snack, played with the dogs, probably got another snack...) and came back in about five minutes to paint another coat.
My painting booth

Before primer and after- two FULL cans!
 The MOST IMPORTANT thing to remember if you paint your frame is that is is EXTREMELY important to tape of and cover anything you don't want painted. I completely removed all bolts, the derailer hanger, and the seat post and clamp. I used tape and paper towels to stuff the bottom bracket and head tube. My one mistake in this process was not double-checking the head tube. I managed to get some over spray in there, which caused a problem I'll discuss later.
My taped off fork

The finished product drying in the breeze!

The color turned out exactly how I wanted- so bright! No buses could miss me now, ahahahahaha!
I allowed it to dry for several hours before taking it down. I then Instagrammed and texted the pictures about 100 times.

My next step was to cut the steering tube and assemble the headset. I had some experience with this, as I had bought Bryce a new mountain bike fork for Christmas and installed it on my own, after reading about it, of course!
My first foray in to bike building.
Steering tubes on new forks come intentionally with a lot of extra length. That is because each rider is different, with different preferences for stack height (how tall you like your handlebars from the frame), angle, and so forth. In the case of this bike, I measured it against my current stack height on my time trial bike and added a few millimeters, since I knew I didn't want to be as low ("aggressive") on this bike.

Pipe cutter on my tube at the correct location.
Fully assembled headset.

Be very sure you have the right height before you cut. If you are just a little too long, that's ok. But too short is NOT fixable! Measure twice, cut once, cry none if you take the time to do it right.

Typically, when you buy a frame, it will come with the corresponding headset. Headsets come in the form of lots of spacers, bearings, dust covers, and a cap. Mountain bike headsets have a few more parts than road, making road a little easier. They'll typically be in the right order out of the box, so try to not mix them up as you work and your life will be easier. You'll want to grease the steering tube before adding your parts, so a good general purpose (or bike specific) grease is good to have at your side. You don't want it to rust, get squeaky, make a lot of noise, or get damaged from insufficient lube!

TIP: DON"T cut your cables before installing your
headset- I had to get a new brake cable because
mine was too short on the front brake after I put mine on!
I got everything put together, bolting in the top cap before tightening the stem (the piece that connect the frame to the handlebars) and realized my fork was wiggling. I found out later that this was simply a spacer issue- I needed one more 2mm spacer to fill the tube length I had cut and it was good to go.

The next step was to run the cables from the handlebars to the ports on the bike. Here is where I made the most mistakes, so the BIG lesson here is take your time and double-check everything you do! As I said, internal cables are awesome for aerodynamics, NOT awesome for patience, loving life, or fingernails.

Carefully take the two cables from each shifter (a brake cable and derailer cable each) and line them up with their respective holes. Make sure you have the right derailer cable going to the right place. Your left shifter corresponds with your front derailer, for example. If you're unsure, use another bike you have for reference- they all go in the same order.

Run the cables. Easier said than done, but it is possible. Use your headlamp and, if you have one, a spare bike spoke or other stiff piece of wire with a small hook on the end to grab the cables as you run them through. It will take a long time, but if you refrain from chucking the whole thing out of your window, you will get through it. Then, run the cables through the appropriate bolts. To get an idea of how to do this, there are, again, great videos (YouTube RULES for things like this!) to help you along. For example, this video discusses replacing derailers and this one covers brakes. I was able to use these to get me really close!

After I got the cables run through the right holes and before those videos, I had to mount the components. This is pretty easy, actually! My bike came with a braze-on mount for the front derailer, meaning there was a bracket for it installed already, and a rear derailer hanger. It's just a matter of using your Allen wrenches (or "hex keys,"as cyclists call them for some reason) to loosen and tighten the bolts until they're on.

The necessary tools- do NOT forget the grease!
Next up was the bottom bracket and crank! After my aforementioned difficulties, I was understandably nervous about this. Thankfully, my fiance works as a mechanical engineer for a company that has a cycling component to it, so he has access to some specialized tools I would have had to otherwise borrow or rent from a LBS. He loaned me a chain whip and headset/bottom bracket press.  

The press was most important here because it ensured that I would be able to very evenly apply pressure to the PF30 bottom bracket I needed in the shell. I checked and double-checked that it was the correct part. This mattered, because unless you have the right tool to remove it, you can damage a bracket that is incorrectly installed and have to buy a new one. That was $50 I wasn't willing to mess up!

The installation is truly super simple. You use the press to slowly push the two pieces in. My bracket came with detailed instructions, and I was so happy when they were in and spinning like they were supposed to! If you're unsure, here is a good video, of course.

The crank was an exercise in my sense of humor. As I said, I had some issues the first time I bought one, so I was super careful the second! Then, I went to push it in and...nothing. It just stopped and the spindle wouldn't go through. I was distraught! Thankfully, rather than having an emotional meltdown, I hopped online with the customer service chat agent at Competitive Cyclist, the website my bottom bracket and bottle cages came from. Their chat agents are awesome, and also non-judgmental when you ask stupid questions! He let me know that sometimes, it takes a bit of force. I grabbed a rubber mallet, went back outside, gave it a firm but light whack and POOF, it popped right in and spun like a dream!
Since I had no bike stand, I improvised and used my bike rack on my car.

I then threaded on the pedals and moved on to the last part of this process, the wheels. It helps to do this first, before adjusting your brakes, derailers, and cutting cables, because the width of your rims effects how long or short your cables need to be for your brakes.

To install the cassette I purchased, I had to remove the original one that then went on my ENVE wheels and replace it with a new one. This is super, duper easy, I promise! The critical piece is that chain whip- it holds the cassette still while you use a wrench and your cassette lock ring removal tool (something we purchased for under 10 dollars that's great to have around if you like different gear ratios for different riding scenarios)  to twist the lock ring loose.
Tools and my wheel, with the cassette already removed.
The one I removed need of a good washing anyhow! 

It took under five minutes, and it's fool proof. The sprockets will ONLY fit on the hub one way, so you seriously can't mess this up. Then, you just reverse the direction and tighten it back on. I put on the wheels, installed the chain, added my water bottle cages, and stepped back to view my work!

Well, it at least LOOKED like a bike!

The Issues

At this point, I had a bike that was 85% complete, done entirely by me! I was incredibly proud, but still had a ways to go. As I fiddled with the derailer cables and shifters, I was stumped. No matter how many videos I watched or articles I read, I couldn't get them to engage. I knew there was an issue with the cable tension somewhere, but couldn't solve it.

When I started this project, I knew before I ever rode the bike I was going to get it checked out by a mechanic for safety anyhow. Since I was at a loss for how to make these last two pieces work, I decided my pride was not worth my bodily security, and drove my creation to my local shop, Bicycle Sport Shop.

I explained to them what I tried to do, and could tell they weren't quite as impressed with me as I was, but at least glad I knew enough to tell them what was going wrong and what I had done to get it there. I left the bike with them, and later got the call about the issues I faced:

The loose headset was an easy fix, it just needed a spacer.

The problem with the over spray from the paint was explained, and I told them it was my fault and I appreciated them cleaning it. Spray in the head tube can cause unnecessary friction and damage to bearings, so I was glad they saw it!

The derailer issues simply came from the cables not having enough tension. This was partly due to my incorrect installation of the ferrals that came with the shifter cables. These are the plastic ends that go on cable sections that keep the housing still while the cable moves, and there were a TON that came with my shifters and NO instructions, so I wasn't surprised to learn my guesswork wasn't 100% on.

The internal cables had been crossed, which could cause undue stress/friction. Y'all, I'm telling you, buy your mechanic a cupcake. They had to re-do EVERYTHING I had done! I tried so hard to keep it straight, but in my excitement at getting the ends to come out of the correct holes, I didn't consider whether they crossed paths on the inside.

The cassette and rear derailer were not compatible. This is something I'm still skeptical of, as I read a lot about it, but decided it was not worth the argument. I purchased a "short cage" derailer and a larger 11 speed cassette that had 32 teeth on the largest cog. They said the max I could have was 28, even though I read differently. This is just fine, because the original cassette had 28 teeth anyhow, and my tri bike has a "medium cage" derailer (the length of the pulley arm determines this) so the new cassette would fit it, anyhow. Easy fix!

We settled on a solution- I would purchase a "Pro Tune Up," which included new cables, housings, tuning the derailers, and even wrapping the bars with my new bar wrap. It also meant some surcharges for the labor since the cables were internal and I needed new parts. The new parts was a bummer since the cables were new to begin with, but much better safe than sorry.

All in all, I am glad I decided to quit when I did. I had gotten really far on my own, further than I would have imagined a year ago, and was proud of what I'd done. However, we have professionals out there to help us, and when it comes to having a safe bike to ride that will last a long time, it was worth it to me to have them check (and fix!) my work. This got my bike to 100% ride-worthy and I didn't have to re-route the cables myself, so, win-win.

I finally got the call she was ready to pick up, and brought her home! I'll be using this bike to commute to work, participate in group rides where a tri bike doesn't fit, and maybe even trying my hand at a crit or two, just for fun.

Ready to go home!

The point of this project was to see what I could do. To accept a new challenge and make it my own. Bikes are one of the most common modes of transportation in the world, and there is no reason, even as women (especially as women!) that we shouldn't understand what's going on between those pedals. It took patience, general mechanical know-how, and the ability to ask for help, and I got a bike! If you're interested in giving it a try, I say, do it! It's worth the time, money, and work you put in to it to be able to ride the trails and roads on your own handi-work, and as you'll see below, it's cheaper, too!

If building a bike isn't your thing, then just take this as a lesson that hard things are worth it, and you are capable of anything you set your mind to. Take a camping trip, change the oil on your car, go fishing- do ANYTHING you want, learn how to do it properly, and don't let society's notions of what women should be interested in and should be capable of stop you. For real- you CAN do it!

That wraps up the narrative of this project, but if you're interested in tips, costs, and cautions, read on!

The Cost & The Parts

I estimate this bike, if I were to slap a brand name on the frame and sell it as a whole part at MSRP, to be worth about $3,000. It is full carbon, full Shimano Ultegra 6800 (including the cassette, which I had to switch back!), and has decent wheels on it from my Felt bike.

The total cost I paid is below:

Frameset (frame, fork, headset, seat tube) - $400
Bottom Bracket- $40
Crank- $88
Shifters (shifters, hoods, cables, housings)- $175
Cassette- $50
Chain- $23
Brakes (front and back set)- $95
Front Derailer- $30
Rear Derailer- $52
Wheels & Tires- FREE (we won't talk about the ENVE cost...)
Stem- $13
Handlebars- $40
Cobb V Flow Max Saddle- $35 (auction WIN!)
Pedals- $26 (Shimano SPD pedals, black, non-carbon)
Bottle Cages- $16
Bar Tape- $8
Paint- $40
Allen wrenchs (off limits to fiance since he looses stuff!)- $18
Extra cables after I messed up- $13
Tune up, labor, more cables, spacers- $229

This means I could sell this bike and come out $1,000 ahead at the very least, maybe more. Worst case scenario I could sell it for $2,000 and still make money. But, I wouldn't do that because it's beautiful and perfect and I love it. Had I not made the mistakes I made, I could have likely come in at under $1,000, which is awesome.

Final Tips & Concerns Addressed

Chinese parts- The reason I highlighted and linked the frame, stem, and handlebars is because they came from overseas as highly discounted prices. I am a comfortable online shopper, I do it a lot. All of my prom dresses came from China, and the buyer protection in place through PayPal and eBay is enough that I was confident enough to try it. These three pieces showed up on time and exactly as described, so if you're worried, I will confirm at least these sellers are legit. Bikes are made in Asian countries these days, along with almost all components. If money is a factor, consider buying directly from them and saving a lot.

Specs and fit- There are a few things to consider, but keep in mind, unless you're incredibly tall or short, you probably fit standard sizes. Crank lengths vary, and really are a matter of preference. 170mm is considered "short," 172.5 mm is "standard," and 175mm is "long" but the differences are minuscule , so don't spend an extraordinary time stressing it.

Handlebar width is another preference. with 40cm, 42cm, and 44cm being the standards. Most bikes have 42cm and those work for a lot of people. I got a 40cm set because I like having a narrower profile since I'm used to riding aero a lot.

Your frame is the most important fit portion. If the charts you find aren't clear enough, definitely go test ride a few bikes and get some advice! Chances are, if you're attempting to build a bike, you own one already and have ridden others, so use those numbers to guide you.

Your diameters on your stem clamp, handlebar clamp width, seat post width, and fork are generally universal- essentially all parts on the market fit the same standards. If your frame doesn't come with a seat post, just ensure the one you buy is the correct shape, (mine is aero, so not perfectly round!)

Getting the best price- Shop around! Don't rely just on eBay or Amazon. I got my shifters the cheapest by using Google shopping and finding a bike shop in England. Buying online can be risky, but worth it in sales tax savings and customization.

I hope you find this article and the resources in it helpful! Obviously, my first attempt was not perfect, but it was so much fun! I am glad I put myself out there and tried it, despite the cynical looks I received from the one jerk mechanic at the shop (everyone else there rules). My next project will be to begin building up my mountain bike to improve its components and frame, but since that's less urgent (I'm not riding it to work!) I can do that piece by piece over time and over many paychecks. I've found I really enjoy tinkering with bikes, and hope to build another full one in the future!

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