Dedicated followers of Bikemagic’s regular maintenance articles will have noted that the last couple were to do with that milestone of home mechanicking, building your own bike up from scratch. The articles may have presented the impression that such builds are well-organised, almost surgical procedures where good planning and the use of the correct tools ensures that little can go wrong.
In the real world, of course, it doesn’t usually work like that. In face it works a little more like this…
A reasonable and straightforward question. The answer is neither of these things. In the old days, a Saturday night would see me outing my dancing trousers in a vain attempt to woo some slapper with a pulse and her own flat, before collapsing much later, contents of love sack unmolested, socially confused in a local gutter. Sorry, that’s probably far too much information. Whatever, we now have the internet for that kind of thing which saves on embarrassment, inappropriate trousers and wear and tear on mouldy chat up lines. It also delivers almost unlimited opportunities to spunk (is that the best choice of word? Probably not, but press on…) money you don’t have on things you don’t need.
So one Saturday night, marinated in a heady cocktail of post-ride dopamine and Belgian wife-beater, I foolishly bid on-line for a 1998 steel Kona frame. With the source being Singletrackworld, about twenty other people offered ludicrous sums of money which they had no intention whatsoever of parting with. So it came to pass that once the bullshitters had all gone home to their mums, it was left to me to honour my commitments and ponder the answers to the two perennial questions any such purchase prompts: “What the hell am I going to do with it?” and “How do I break this to ‘er indoors?”. The second question was met with, “Oh God, not another one,” doubtless a familiar refrain to many. Enough of that, firstly what did I actually own?
This. Ignore the child’s book and dodgy carpet square. The 18 inch Caldera frame had never been built and was completely unmarked. Lovely. The next step was to find things to go on it. In the oft-travelled and hopelessly optimistic path of part hoarders everywhere, I tramped to the shed to discover that, aside from a couple of dodgy yellow semi-slicks and a novelty saddle, there was nothing that would constitute even the beginnings of a bike build.
It was here that the singlespeed decision was made. No gears in the shed, no gears on the bike. The same logic could not, unfortunately, be levelled at other major component groups so my innocent 1994 rigid Claude was pillaged for wheels and cranks. STW came to the rescue again with the currency of unwanted, possibly purchased while drunk, parts being devalued to the point where a set of £400 forks cost me £70, a pair of XTR Vs made only a £40 dent in my wallet and the most stunning of all purchases a set of ‘cowhorn’ 27in bars were mine for a tenner. In a piece of negotiation worthy of a Marrakesh rug market I guilted a mate into selling me his Avid Levers for £15 on the grounds that he could buy some new ones for himself at only 25 quid. Then I borrowed a couple of bits “to try out” from soon to be ex-friends and only succumbed to buying a new bottom bracket, Singulator and other SS-specific malarkey. Oh, and a pair of tyres as of the eleven spares kicking around, none were suitable. Obviously. Now I had a frame and a box of bits – only a robust pair of patellas and any mechanical know-how whatsoever separated me from the righteous way of the singlespeeder.
Up until this point, the process by which the transformation from concept to reality was to be achieved had been little considered. What was certain was that I’d need help, and someone else’s toolkit. Justin is well known for making decent tea and owning a set of matching hammers so seemed a good choice until his son made an ill-timed appearance, freeriding out of the womb, leaving poor old fruity to an eon of dirty nappies and broken nights.
Swiftly transferring my allegiance, I installed first reserve Nick as my new best mate, turning up at his door on a drizzly Friday night with a six pack (of beer, not a well-formed torso. What do you mean, you guessed?), two frames, assorted bits and a perturbed expression. He took it all in his stride, cracked open a couple of beers and confidently surveyed the job in front of him. In a fit of enthusiasm and comedy competence, I whipped the cranks off the ever-so molested Claud (before chucking it, broken and useless, into the car) and grasped a chain tool with the look of a man who’d possibly seen one before.
First job was to render the Claud’s wheels sprocketless. Nine Years/No Lube – a simple couplet that doesn’t begin to describe the man versus cassette competition spanning three hours with full accompaniment of gurning, hyperventilating, swearing and frequent application of the big hammer.
All this after Nick’s SO had abandoned him to my frame and his children with the warning, “nothing abrasive on the new flooring please”. I would offer that bouncing up and down on an adjustable spanner whilst smacking the lock nut with a hammer isn’t strictly abrasive. But we did still dent the new floor. Sorry Laura. No really. Notice in the picture the large hammer which featured heavily in the final round of the bout and lead to eventual triumph. I punched the air before lapping the room, lockring raised triumphantly above my head chanting, “You never had a chance you little f*ck*r,” whilst Nick got on with the more technical tasks.
There are many worthy souls on bike forums everywhere who lambast those of us lacking the necessary tools and skills to perform even basic maintenance tasks. Nick has a wonderfully dismissive attitude to these keepers of all things anal and fitted the headset with nothing more than a rubber mallet and a vice disguised as his stomach. A man clearly confident in his ability as he whacked seven shades of shit out of the headset cup clasped 4mm away from his wedding tackle.
He did however read the instructions for a while as can be seen here. But to add spice to an already spicy cocktail of beer and bikes, he only studied the Albanian and Latin versions. Headset installed, we took one look at the fork steerer length and decided the big hacksaw wasn’t required. This was not much to do with riding positions, weight distribution or geometry but more allied to the likely trauma of removing and refitting of the star-fangled nut. We congratulated ourselves on a job well avoided and cracked open another beer.
The forks were now in the frame after Nick had precision engineered the crown race by the simple method of selecting the largest screwdriver and largest hammer and applying the latter to the former. On went the stem, with an appropriate length of steerer tube rapidly sheathed in a collection of spacers stolen from Nick’s tool box. Now we were ready for the ‘back end’ so to speak. I’ll spare you the sordid details of the multiple wheel swaps as we struggled with the cassette and Nick tried to pass off a totally wrecked STX wheel as something that’d “probably be ok for a while”. Yeah right, if it had gone round. Or was round, come to that. The freehub growled a bit but we growled right back at it and before you could say, “another beer, what a fine idea,” we had a single sprocket on our wagon. And all this before Frasier came on the TV.
The uncharacteristically new bottom bracket was fitted, and on went the crank. See that lovely crank? Without wishing to tend to narcissism, I built that, bolts and all. I know I know, it’s a thing of beauty and all my own work. As I wouldn’t let Nick near the camera since he was getting very dirty, much of my worthy yet unglamorous work has not been captured. Trust me, I was awesome. Apparently I also have that disorder that forces me to lie all the time as well. Oh yeah – notice the well placed Stella there.
Pizza in the oven, beers in the fridge (we’d moved to the large bottles now), our next challenge was fitting the cowhorn bars to the itty-bitty
stem. Nick wielded the Allen keys with much skill before we both fell about laughing at the 2in rise and general silliness of these ape-hangers. Never mind, they’ll do for the moment. Oh, and see those fantastically fitted grips and brake levers? I don’t need to tell you whose handiwork that is do I? Pukka job.
We almost had a bike missing only brakes and a chain. This seemed an ideal time to supplement our diet of hoppy liquid with spicy pizzas. We collapsed into chairs admiring our handiwork so far and prayed to the deity of all things mountain-bikey that the worst was behind us.
Pizzas consumed, we ripped lovely new XTR cables from their packages, so glad we had no gears to build and index, and reacquainted ourselves with noodles and suchlike. Nick has a patented method of setting up V-brakes. It’s very impressive, I can tell you, but unfortunately I missed it being on a very important mission to the fridge whilst it was being done.
Chain on with the bete noir of every singlespeeder, the chainline, looking almost perfect. But we were quite pissed by then so it could have been anything from zero to about 15 degrees off. Nothing else for it but a quick spin round the block so we wheeled it into driving rain for a splash and dash under the streetlights. First impressions were very good – smooth handling backed up by a drivetrain that was spot on, brakes squealing like a pig suffering a particularly unpleasant sexual experience and forks that were, and I’m being charitable here, in need of some TLC. A second ride with toed in pads (I was tired and a bit drunk by now so thought Nick said he was going to put a toad in the pads which I just assumed was some dark mechanical art similar to waving a dead chicken over the completed bike) and some air in the forks confirmed the positive impressions of the first outing.
We flopped onto sofas, cracked celebratory beers and regaled Laura with stories of our mechanical prowess in an attempt to divert attention from the floor. Build time was four hours. Bullshitting time was a further three and since driving was something that had passed into illegality some three beers before, I gratefully accepted Nick and Laura’s offer of the spare bed only to be awoken some four hours later by their small child alarm.
The weather, as your would expect near June, was bloody awful the entire day. I arrived home mildly hungover but appropriately steeled to a day of opening presents for the four year old’s birthday. Justin turned up later offering advice, direction and eventually after much faffing on my part, hands-on fettling including fitting Singulators and pouring oil into neglected parts of forks. The bike was ready to ride, but was I?
It was pretty damn good actually. We made an inauspicious start where a lack of Singulator tension saw the chain make four separate breaks for freedom in a similar number of miles but a zip tie soon shackled it back onto its sprockety prison. The downside of the mod meant it was even harder to pedal but hey – that’s the ethos of the whole singlespeed experience isn’t it? The test loop was one I know well and, in preparation for the exploding knee scenario, its one I’ve been riding in the middle ring on the hardtail.
This is in no way the same as riding singlespeed – you just don’t have any choices, climbs have to be attacked brushing granny-ringers aside in a desperate attempt to retain momentum. Flats can be dealt with by spinning like an epileptic hamster under a strobe light or chilling out and admiring the scenery (normally a mud-splattered vista of your multi-cogged mates disappearing into the distance). And downhills are about the same again with retention of momentum being everything.
Yet, there is a certain charming simplicity to the whole experience. I enjoyed it way more than I expected but it was also a hell of a lot harder. 23 miles later, the car was a welcome sight and my hours of reaching for non-existant shifters were over for now. Sure, there are some sections that will always require the use of the 24in gear (think about it…) but it’s been well worth it and I’ve no regrets. To all of those who say singlespeeds are a stupid idea, let me tell you this: dressing up in dodgy Lycra skinsuits and riding around in circles is hardly the act of sane individuals either. Subsequently, I ached in unexpected places (shoulders) and expected ones as well (knees, anything connected to knees) but stairs were still well within my capabilities the following day.
It’s not a tool for everyday use but I’ll be back on it out this weekend grunting, grinning, spinning and just generally windswept and interesting in a way that only a singlespeeder can.
Let me finish with this. I’ve just fitted the remains of the XTR brake cable to complete my daughter’s 14in wheeled steel singlespeed. I’m getting her started early on the “more beers than gears” idea…