Early one Saturday morning a couple of weeks later, I set off from nearby Norfolk to drive over to Dave’s workshop to collect my bike. I arrived a little early but the gate was open and inside the workshop my frame was now a blue cobalt colour and was being worked on by Dave. He was just reaming a couple of dropouts after the painting, and was putting in a couple of gear guides and a seat tube bolt.
A few minutes later and the frame was complete. We took it outside to examine it in the sunshine, where the light bounced off the metallic blue finish. The colour worked and I had what was undoubtedly a finished frame.
I carefully loaded the frame and its matching fork into the car, using a few blankets to ensure that nothing got scratched. This frame was going to get some true TLC.
I thanked Dave once more, and headed off with my prize. Later I would carefully wrap the frame in bubble-wrap since I had to travel onwards from Norfolk to my home via public transport, and I was scared stupid of getting it scratched.
Now it was time to build the bike up.
While it’s possible to build a frame, there are relatively few components that most people will build themselves afterwards. Perhaps the key one is wheels, and while I’d previously bought a wheel truing stand, I was worried about my abilities – or lack of them – in this field.
David, who had been on the course with me, had built a pair of his own wheels for his bike, and claimed that it was actually pretty straightforward. He’d recommended a book to buy – The Bicycle Wheel by Jobst Brandt. I’d found a copy online and ordered it. But I was still a bit uncertain. If my wheels went while I was on my bike it could be catastrophic.
I felt that wheel-building was something to aspire to, but not something I was quite ready for just yet.
But a hand built bike did deserve some hand built wheels. There are plenty of wheel builders around, and a colleague recommended DCR Wheels based in Lewes. I dropped David a line (everyone in this piece seems to be called Dave or David), telling him what I wanted, and he suggested a specification for me, using his own hubs and some Velocity Chukkar rims. These wouldn’t be cheap, and it’d take three weeks build time since there was a queue of wheels that he was working on. Nonetheless, I ordered them.
I created a spreadsheet filled with all the rest of the components I’d need. Years earlier, I’d also read Robert Penn’s book, It’s All About the Bike, where he’d essentially built – or had built – the finest bike he could, visiting wheel builders in the US, and the Campagnolo factory in Italy.
I was on a bit of a tighter budget, and decided I’d stick with what I knew. So, that meant largely Shimano components, and mostly Ultegra. While I did toy with the idea of a triple chain ring, to allow me to get up hills with a fully loaded bike, that would mean mountain bike gears, and they don’t work easily with road shifters. This bike was going to have drop handlebars, and so it really needed a road specification gearset.
So it would have a compact Ultegra chainset, and an 11-32T cassette at the rear, allied with front and rear Ultegra derailleurs. The bottom bracket would also be an Ultegra one, while the brakes would be Shimano’s cantilever model Ultegras. These are mostly designed for cyclocross bikes, but they make sense for a touring bike. Dave Yates had actually suggested Tektro cantis, but I was worried about marrying the pull of an Ultegra shifter with Tektro brakes. Going all Ultegra seemed the safer bet.
I wasn’t at all sure about what handlebars I wanted, but I settled on Nitto Noodle bars. These are actually silver, and while bars of old always used to be silver, I hadn’t completely clocked that every bar these days tends to be black. And that means both stems and headsets are largely black.
Even though it would have bartape, a silver bar with a black stem didn’t work for me aesthetically, so I found a silver stem to match.
Headsets are, like bottom brackets, an area I get thoroughly confused about. There are a myriad of types and manufacturers seem to make dozens of variants. Which did I need?
Well I knew I needed a threadless headset, and I’d quite like it to be silver. That limited my options severely, with only high-end manufacturers like Chris King meeting those needs. But I found an M:Part model at a more reasonable price.
Fitting the headset was another concern, and I knew I’d need to either buy, build or borrow some tools to fit both race crown on the fork, and firmly affix the top and bottom cups to my frame.
The saddle was a relatively easy choice – a Brooks 17. I’d recently fitted one to my Brompton and felt it’d work well on this classic bike. This would be attached to a silver Deda aluminium seatpost. The saddle would be black and therefore my bartape also black. I really like Canyon’s own Ergospeed Gel tape that came on my Inflite AL8.0, so I ordered some of that from them.
For the tyres I decided on some 32mm Schwalbe Marathon Supremes that seemed to have good reviews, and I also ordered some SKS Chromoplastic Mudguards.
Pedals would be a pair of Shimano A530 flat/SPDs. These allow you to ride either with or without cycling shoes.
I already had a Tubus Logo rack which would be transferred to the bike in due course, and aside from some lights, a seatpack and a pair of bottle cages, that was the full bike specification.
I placed several orders with a variety of retailers, and waited for boxes to arrive…
My original plan had been to purchase everything, and then embark on the build. I did indeed accumulate a big pile of boxes of parts, with items from a number of different retailers. But key to all of these was going to be the wheels, and I was in a queue to get my wheels built. It’s perhaps not surprising that the summer months are the busiest for wheel builders.
The problem was that much of what you do with a bike depends on the wheels. Sure, I could drop in a temporary set of wheels and build around those, but that felt wrong.
Nonetheless, I could do a couple of jobs. First off was treating the inside of the frame to prevent rust. Dave had said to use Waxoyl, widely available at Halfords. There are bikeframe specific treatments, but they’re not cheap. I went out and bought a can of clear Waxoyl, and taking my bike outside, attempted to spray the inside of the steel tubes.
The first thing to note about Waxoyl is that it comes out as something of a goo. Although delivered via a spray can (there’s also a version that is applied via a paintbrush), it does accumulate very easily. And looking online showed that in heat, excess liquid came out as a yellow residue. So I also used some GT85 spray to drive out the excess as best I could. Of course, that may have also removed some of the Waxoyl. Hopefully, between the two substances, I had at least created a rust barrier.
The first component I added to the bike was the bottom bracket. Now I must confess that I find the whole area of bottom brackets immensely confusing. There are lots of different types, and designs, as well as screw fittings and everything. It’s one of those areas of the bike, I’ve left to the professionals in the past.
But in truth, the Ultegra level bottom bracket I fitted to my bike was pretty straightforward. I bought a cheap tool, although had to use the plastic adapter that came with the bottom bracket itself. Then it was just a question of using some lithium grease and screwing it into place. I confess that I don’t have a torque wrench to get the exact tightness right, but using the weight of my body, I got it in as far as it would go.
Then it was the headset, another area I wasn’t too sure about. First off, I had to fit the crown race to my fork. The internet will furnish you with many DIY solutions involving washers and lengths of PVC tubing. But I’d bought a proper tool for the job. Except, I had a problem. The length of my fork – yet to be properly cut to length, was so long, that the crown race tool wouldn’t reach. So I first had to cut off a conservative length of the fork to allow me to even fit the crown race!
The fitting was simple, and just involved holding the fork with the tool in my left hand and hitting it with a hammer in my right hand. The key thing here is not to rest the fork down. I didn’t want to damage the dropouts.
Next it was going to be fitting the cups onto my head tube. These cups are part of the headset assembly, and need to be applied with a certain amount of pressure. The fit is tight!
Again there are DIY tools to do this job, and again I’d bought something to do the trick. But I had a problem. My head tube is quite large, and I’d discovered that the tool was designed for smaller ones.
Eventually I worked out that if I fitted one cup at a time, and unscrewed the tool as far as was safe to do so, I could just fit the tool around my head tube. I had to use an adjustable spanner as part of my solution, but I managed to fit both cups properly into place.
The rest of the headset really required a wheel and inflated tyre in place to make sure I got the height of the fork right. But that went back to my wheels again. And so, the frame was put aside until I had more components.
The final arrival for the big bike build was a package containing my two new wheels from DCR Wheels.
I finally felt able to start the build. I’d carefully accumulated every single component necessary to build a bike. Indeed, it turned out that I had a few “spares.” Shimano, it turns out, packs some brake and gear cables with its shifters, so my separate cable packages were unnecessary.
But it also turned out I didn’t quite have what I needed in a couple of places. The first place I fell foul was with the headset. It turns out that cutting my fork down to size was more fiddly than I’d anticipated – at least without a tool to ensure I cut a perfectly straight line. It took a certain amount of filing down to get a decent finish to my steerer.
But that wasn’t the real problem. That was getting the star nut to adhere to the side of the tube. I had a 1 1/8″ tube, but it seems that not all 1 1/8″ tubes are the same. I actually had two sets of star nuts, and having finally worked out how star nuts should ensure a snug fit, I realised that my steel tube was slightly wider than some, and the star nuts were slipping down. I nipped out to the only local bike shop to me – a Halfords – thinking perhaps I’d damaged the two sets of star nuts I had. But this wasn’t the case. The new one was also too small.
I ordered a Hope Head Doctor from Evans and figured that this would solve my problem, being expandable to fill the tube.
Meanwhile I’d opened by cantilever brakes package and realised I had another problem. The front brake cable needed to drop vertically down to the centre of the cantilever to work properly. At least if I wanted a decent pull that wasn’t off centre.
The back of the bike was fine, since there was a central slot for the cable to reach, and a barrel adjuster in place. But there was no such thing at the front.
You can get pieces that slot into your headset, but these would be no good for me, since my head tube is quite long.
Searching around on Google, I found an image of a cyclocross bike with the same CX70 brakes I was using. This bike had a front fork hanger than guided the cable down. Again, this was going to be a special order, and I would need that part before I fitted the front brake.
But that weekend saw the tyres, wheels, cassette, front mech and rear mech all fitted. My long chainstays meant I needed nearly all the links of the chain I fitted.
I managed to get the front mech shifting properly, but the rear mech was giving me problems. I only seemed to have 9 of the 11 gears, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t get any more. One for another day I decided.
My frame is quite large, and as a consequence, I didn’t need much seat post showing.
At the end of a busy weekend, I had a bike still missing its front brake, bottle cages, handlebar tape, and properly tightened headset. There were also mudguards and a rack to go on. I’d got rid of a lot of boxes, and had a bike that now looks like a bike.
It was getting close!
I ordered a few more bits and pieces. Top of the list was a front mech cable hanger. Tektra make one that uses the mount on the front fork to let the front brake cable drop into place vertically above the cantilever brake.
But on fitting the piece, I found I had another problem. There was now not enough room for sufficient cable pull to engage the brakes. The angles meant that the top of the cantilever hit the head of my cable hanger.
No matter how I aligned the brakes I couldn’t avoid this. In the end, my solution was to find a shorter link wire – the contraption that delivers pull between both sides of the cantilever. I found a couple of shorter sizes on eBay and one of them seemed to work. I now had a working front brake.
In the meantime, I also fitted some mudguards – my hacksaw coming in useful in making sure that the stays were the right length. I did discover at this point that a mounting hole on my bike was in the wrong position at the front, and I had to make some “manual adjustments” to get it fit OK.
I also finally put on some bar tape, and now had a broadly functioning bike. The first test revealed that the position was indeed more upright than my existing bikes. But this is what I’d wanted. While the frame is large, and I perhaps could have had a downwards sloping top tube to allow more seatpost to show, the bike is wonderfully well fitted to me.
There was still the issue of the headset though, and my gears weren’t right. These would both require shop assistance. The worry at the back of my head was that there wasn’t much room for manoeuvre if the top of the fork needed some remedial flattening. I had a single 3mm spacer in my stack and no more.
Either way, it was time to go to a bike shop, and so one morning, I set off to work very early and to an early opening bike shop near work, to get the final snafus sorted out.
That afternoon, the shop had fixed everything perfectly and I now had a complete, and fully functional bike. I rode it home that evening with delight!