Monday, February 28, 2011

Building A Mountain Bike: The Origin Story

The arrival of the decision I made to build my own mountain bike came in part from My Cousin, mostly in the aftermath of a recent ride he and I took together at Bluff Point State Park here in Connecticut.

A photograph in the header above shows one of my bikes: a 2009 Dahon Matrix, which is a folding bike with 26" wheels In the header it has a pair of MTB wheels, but the picture below shows it with the thinner ones it came with:

I bought it mostly to get around the Metro North commuter train restrictions which prohibit anyone from bringing bikes onto the train during peak hours (which is most of the useable workday). If you read the regulations, it becomes clear a folding bike is to Metro North what a brown paper bag is to public beer consumption.

The Matrix isn't the smallest folding bike in the world and far from the lightest, but it does its job well. I added the fenders, pedals, and suspension seatpost, and thought I could use it as a mountain bike by swapping out the skinny tires for fatter ones.

This is probably good for about 90% of mountain biking, but not when I'm trying to keep up with My Cousin. He's five years younger than me, and I have vague memories of riding with him all over Mystic when we were kids and he'd say those three little words which always meant the world to me: "Mike! Wait UP!!!"

At some unrecorded moment, he started growing up and became an incredible cyclist. He grew taller than me and stronger. When I'd come to family reunions in Mystic he'd always want me to join him at Bluff Point State Park; he on his full suspension whatever-it-was and me on my zero-suspension Diamondback I had gotten as a high school graduation gift. I'd finish each and every ride in his dust and likely with fewer fillings than I had when the ride started. As the years went on, it got harder and harder to keep up with him. When I brought the Matrix (tricked out with the big tires) to Bluff Point on a recent trip, I only did slightly better, but it was like racing a box truck on a rally circuit. It would do okay on singletrack, but My Cousin favored trails he referred to as "rock gardens" and "technical."

When I had uploaded the photo above (after a Bluff Point trip over the summer) I began to fully understand the need for a good mountain bike. I mean, look: there's a cup holder attached to the handlebars. A cup holder. When I'd bring the Dahon to visit my in-laws in New Jersey, the cup holder was useful to bring coffee back from Dunkin' Donuts. But it has no place on the trails of Bluff Point. The Matrix had simply grown too utilitarian for its own good. I was also worried I'd damage the folding mechanism (the hidden hinges Dahon made for the Matrix are just brilliant) so I'd ride it as gingerly as I could, which wasn't easy when riding with My Cousin, who is now far removed from his "Mike! Wait UP!!" stage and just a machine on any trail he and I have ever taken together.

I admit, however, he did say those three little words on a trip to Bluff Point that day. I was just ahead of him on a rather uninteresting section of the trail and he said: "Mike, wait up. I want to see if I can ride over that log back there." I could only look back at him in awe.

Wanting to save the Dahon for its intended purposes (which was still many) and wanting to keep up with My Cousin on rides helped me decide I should build a mountain bike. Up to this point, I had only learned about bikes by tearing them apart, and My Cousin (a very enthusiastic cyclist but far from a snob) assured me I'd enjoy the experience of building a bike from the ground up. He's been right. I have enjoyed the experience of building a bike. I'm positive the outcome of the black frame on my inaugural post won't make me a better cyclist than him, but I'm hoping I'll be able to keep up with him more and crash less when we go on rides together.

But building a mountain bike isn't the easiest thing to do. More on this in another post.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How To Ride In New England Winter Months (outdoors!)

It used to be that if you lived in New England and you wanted to ride when there is snow on the ground, you'd plop the road bike on rollers and pedal furiously in front of the Mythbusters' Pirate Special on DVD until you either fell off or rolled off the front and crashed into the television.

There's an alternative.

Over a year ago I bought a special kit made by Ktrak Cycles as a birthday present to myself: it consists of a rear track and a front ski that can be mounted on almost any bike with 26" wheels. It may have been an impulse buy I should have ignored but I didn't, and it wasn't until recently I had a real chance to use it.

What happened was I was driving through Stamford and found this sticking out of a green recycling bin: yes, it is a Specialized frame, and this is exactly how it looked when I pulled it out of the bin and stuck it in my car:

Pay no attention to the $40 garage sale workbench it's sitting on: the frame was a real find. The chain was rather gooey and it needed grips, pedals, a seat, seatpost and a rear brake but I had all those things. The first thing I did was remove the caliper brakes off the front and back: the Ktrak kit calls for a rear disc brake, and the frame had mounting points for that on the back.

I had a Nashbar mechanical disc brake kit on a shelf so I set to work mounting it to the frame. It turned out to be a real task, because no matter what I did, one of the brake pads kept rubbing against the disc on the Ktrak wheel. I don't know if it was the design of the frame or my own impatience installing it, but a little metal tab on the replaceable brake pad kept getting caught on something and wouldn't mount flush.

Bike shops don't usually have bolt cutters around, but mine does. Problem solved!

Now it was time to clean the chain, which had the properties of a giant piece of pipe cleaner (it could literally be posed in different positions).

I follow a three-step process when I clean a chain that would probably be better off being thrown away. First, remove the chain and soak it in degreaser.

Step 2: shake the chain about like you are panning for gold...

Step 3: Get your salad spinner and spin the chain until it is clean (For the life of me, I don't know why the Salad Spinner people don't sell their product in every bike store in America. I really don't).

I put the chain back on and installed the pedals, seatpost, seat and handlegrips I had lying around. Once I put the kit on the bike (it mounts like a normal wheel would) and fastened it properly to the seatpost, I had this:

In anticipation of using this thing only with winter boots, I adjusted the pedals as such so I could fit the boots through the toe clips.

I rode this on Mirror Lake during a trip to the Adirondacks (the picture is in the header). I couldn't go far without becoming exhausted, but while I was riding tourists would actually come out of the lakeside restaurants to gawk.

Given the miserable winter Connecticut and other states have suffered in 2010-2011, I found that I could be one of the fastest moving men in Stamford in the hours between after the snow falls and before the plow comes.

In short, a Ktrak kit and a free Specialized frame added together gives you something smarter than a Smart Car in this kind of weather.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Welcome to Bikeshop Playground

Welcome to Bikeshop Playground, a blog about bicycling, workshops and other things we shouldn't take too seriously.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself: you know the guys who spend $4,500 on a bike frame and shave their legs so they can go 0.01% faster? The cyclist with a BMI of a whippet? The triathlete with his local bike shop on speed dial?

I'm not that guy.

I admit I'm enthusiastic about cycling, but I have trouble measuring that enthusiasm with money or component lust.  I favor bikes I can afford and bikes I can work on myself. I've also had a long history favoring modes of transportation that are a bit different from the others. One of the bikes I own and ride regularly in fact is - and I'm disclosing this now to weed out the Snobby Cyclist demographic -  a recumbent. It's the one pictured in the header. I bought it from a guy who owns a tattoo shop in Greenwich Village and I actually had to walk through the shop - past some clients currently getting inked - to retrieve it.

Since owning a recumbent is considered an act of treason by the Cycling Community (and the bike dates back to the Reagan Years anyway) I had trouble finding anyone willing to repair it. I made a point to frequent bike shops that would wait until after I left the shop before laughing at me. Even when I did find a bike shop willing to work on the recumbent, they'd complain about its minor personality quirks (i.e. - it once took three employees to take the 27" wheel off to true it) after I had settled the bill.

So I worked on the bike myself, and as I acquired more bikes and more tools, I found myself going to a bike shop less and less but I was enjoying myself more and more. I learned how to true wheels and am learning how to weld. In true man fashion, however, I'm forever tweaking my workshop (just as much, if not more, than working on bikes themselves). However, I've been able to work on several interesting projects, one of which starts with the naked, black alumninum frame you see here.

When I wasn't working on bikes or working at my day job I was trying to find ways to insert bike riding into my life more, and one of the ways I've done that is traveling from my home in Stamford, Connecticut and renting bikes. Some of those travels will be featured on this blog, and as you probably guessed one of the destinations was San Francisco, where I rented a bike from  Bike and Roll so I could ride across the Golden Gate.

As this blog is still in a bit of a zygote stage and my interest in travel, riding, and building things take many forms, I'm not sure what direction this blog is going to take, but I hope you hang around and check back often to find out. Thanks for the visit!

(follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)