Monday, December 9, 2019

The Making of a Back to the Future Road Bike

View of a shelf in my workshop. October 16, 2016
During the lean times of intermittent freelancing and the even leaner times of unsuccessfully trying to turn a cargo bike passion into a paycheck, I was fixing junk bikes with junk parts. I deferred all kinds of maintenance. I patched tubes that should have been replaced and let tires wear down to levels that flirted with perilous. And once, upon finding a set of discarded, generic weightlifters gloves in the road, took them home and washed them because they were better than the cycling gloves I was wearing.

But I also would sometimes find a few items here and there that I kept for a future build: a road bike. Yes, my Bike Friday New World Tourist is a great bike that has been to over a dozen countries with me and up to Lick Observatory and back, but part of me wanted to use it for its intended purpose - a travel bike made for flying - and another part of me just wanted to build another bike. 

So I took a small plastic tub, labeled it "Road Bike I Can't Afford to Build Yet" and began tossing things I'd find on sale at bike shops, items my cousin would gift me, and other accessories.

This went on for almost three years. 

About two-thirds into that span I began working part-time which soon turned into full time - and I finally reached the point I felt I could move on the road bike project a little more aggressively. 

Like, say, for instance...actually buying a frame. 

I wanted a titanium frame but didn't want to spend a lot of money. By this time, I had "money" but it was, and still is, in lowercase. I didn't have MONEY and I certainly didn't have "fat stacks" - and even if I did, my brain just won't allow me become one of those people who own bikes that cost more than the down payment of a small house. 

Luckily, I had my cousin come to help - just as he did years ago guiding me through building a mountain bike - recommended XI'AN in China. Even though the web site looks like something from the Geocities era, they looked like they knew their stuff. I emailed a query and connected with someone there named Porter. Several back-and-forth emails - including one with an attachment of what my bike would look like - took place before I finally made the plunge: a titanium frame and fork would arrive nearly two months after I ordered it. 

I had it sent to me at work and it was even lighter than I had imagined. Since I take a bike and VTA to my job, I took it out of the oversize box it came in and brought it home home in a manner that would definitely be described as on-brand.

I brought it into my shop and unwrapped it. I had truly bought something special.

I knew what I wanted to make. I've seen road bikes move by me in a blur of indistinguishable lumps of colorful carbon fiber and decided to ride in a different direction: I wanted to make a theme bike - specifically a bike that carried the theme of one of my favorite movies of all time: Back to the Future.

Yes, I know I'm over forty but that's part of the point: we had 'theme bikes' when we were kids, remember? Dukes of Hazzard. Star Wars. Barbie. Knight Rider. Today you can even buy - much to my considerable dismay - a Kylo Ren-themed bike for a child.

Kids have theme bikes now. We had theme bikes then. Why was that something we grew out of? 

I wasn't having it, so I set out to build a Back to the Future-themed road bike.

I figured with the titanium frame, I was already ahead. With the frame and the fork, it looked a lot like brushed stainless steel. I went with a color scheme that consisted mostly of gray and black and even found cables that looked like they'd fit the part. Before long, I needed a bigger tub.

Even though I couldn't - and still can't - bring myself to spend an insane amount of money, I quickly saw how easy it was to go absolutely nuts with the 'Buy it Now' button on eBay. And there are very few parts that are not titanium, carbon fiber, or otherwise made from material that can be described as Incredibly Expensive. Titanium axles. Titanium bottom brackets. Titanium bottom bracket bolts. Titanium stems. Titanium seatposts. Titanium bottle cages. And titanium bottle cage screws can be yours for $6 a pair. 

The list goes on.

Now I did not buy everything I just described. But I bought just enough to make what I was building be considered a serious road bike - until it came to choosing wheels. Instead of dropping thousands I didn't have for some built from the same material as Wolverine's claws, I spent about $80 on a strong, 36 spoke set at Good Karma Bikes - simply because I, as you know, like that place and they happened to carry a set of matching rims that were black and silver - similar to the wheels of the Delorean time machine. 

An HO scale model of the Delorean time machine (and a scuba diver - don't ask. It has something to do with a librarian friend of mine in Florida but beyond that I will add nothing.)

I first tried to focus on the practical side of the build before getting to the decorative touches. For starters, I had to install a headset, which is something I've done quite a few times. Since a croquet mallet wasn't available, I pounded it in place with a rubber hammer, set in a sufficient number of headset spacers, and put on the stem.

The titanium fork was very long - so much so that the number of headset spacers I needed would be a little on the out-of-control side. I texted this picture to my cousin in Connecticut. After a long wait - probably because he needed time to wipe the laugh-spittle off his phone - he told me to do what I knew I needed to do: I had to saw off the top of the titanium fork and make it shorter. 

This wasn't easy. Not the sawing part, it's just that I keep forgetting if it is measure-once-cut-twice or the other way around...and I was really nervous since there'd be no room for error. I figured out how to saw away enough to lower the height of the handlebars and still make it work for my body type and also do it once: what I did was I fastened on two old stems - one on top of the other - leaving just enough space for a hacksaw blade to pass through in a perfectly straight line.

When I finished, I filed it down to make it smooth. When I put it in place, the stem looked a lot less comical and the bike looked a lot safer. 

My cousin had given me a used set of carbon fiber handlebars years earlier to use on my then-untitled roadbike project, and I naturally took them with me when I moved from Connecticut to California. With these in place, I installed a set of modern brake and shift levers. That took a little time since the openings where you have to insert the cables are a lot harder to see on road handlebars than mountain bike ones.

That also meant I wasn't using old school downtube shifters, as are found on older road bikes. The funny part was that my titanium frame came with mounting points for downtube shifters and I didn't even notice that when going back and forth with Porter (you can see them in the photo of the fork installed before I sawed it off).

What I decided to do here was to wire-tie the rear brake and the derailleur cables to the downtube. My reasoning: Doc Brown's time machine had cables running the length of the car, and the gray cables I bought would look the part as well as perform an essential service.

But when I attached the cable with the wire-ties, it blended in too much with the frame. So I added some accents - namely a red, a green, and a yellow wire I stripped from a decades-old phone cord. 

You'll also notice the black rectangular object on the frame with a blue/green switch on it and the telephone wires attached. There's one on the other side too, and they're bolted to the downtube shifter mounts. These are Atlas brand HO scale track switches from a train set I had in the 1980s. In high school I wasn't popular, had few friends and didn't date much so I spent a lot of time building a little model town in my parent's basement. Very little of it survived (just some of the cars, mostly, that I still use today in some of my displays and animation) but these switches did. They're now on the frame, and they are there to stay.

Even though Part II is my least favorite of the trilogy, I liked the look of the Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor rising out of the back, so I bought a piece of white plastic hose at a hardware store and covered the seatpost with it. 

Next, came the part I was most excited about.

I collected clocks - lots of them - when I was in my early teens because of Back to the Future. Mostly yard sale finds, I loved the way they all sounded when they were all together and ticking at the same time. Almost all but a couple are gone now, but one that I kept was a tiny, broken alarm clock that had been made in Yugoslavia. The photo may be giving some poor collector a heart attack but, hear me out: a key moment at the end of Back to the Future part 1 was when Doc was giving Marty instructions as to the exact moment he should start the time machine. "When this alarm goes off you hit the gas!" he yells...before placing a tiny clock on the modern dashboard of the car. 

I thought it was cool.

I figured out how to add a clock to my road bike by hollowing out the old Forestville clock.

Next, I managed to locate a bicycle computer that would fit inside - which actually wasn't that hard to do since most bike computers are really quite small. A tip of the hat to The Off Ramp in Santa Clara for having this Sigma computer on sale.

What I did was I cut a piece of yellow foam PVC - leftover from my failed cargo bike business, just like I had used when I made the Alameda Bike Trailers - into a circle where I attached the mount for the Sigma computer. This put the display in view of the clock's face - here's how the yellow piece of foam PVC looks without the computer on it. The screw in the middle is what holds it in place and attaches the entire assembly to a plastic reflector mount which I modified to angle the clock up towards me. 

The last thing I did was use some black rubber bands - you know, the kind that come with a Garmin GPS so you can put a mount on your handlebars? I used two to wrap the two top bells of the clock to the 'feet' of the clock to eliminate any chance the vibrations of the road could make the whole thing come apart. 

I was very happy with the result. I reasoned I didn't need any of the functions but wanted the current speed and the distance - as of now, the total distance the bike has ridden since it came into existence. I reasoned Strava could handle the rest.

I didn't abandon the idea of welding something for this bike - and ended up welding a very important piece: because of my decision to run the cables along the downtube I couldn't use a traditional bottom bracket cable guide for the front derailleur. Reasoning that the front derailleur would never work completely perfectly anyway* I welded a tiny mount with a little L-bracket and a steel cable stop - also from the failed cargo bike business.

I know it's not pretty to look at, but it's mounted under the bottom bracket where you can't see it anyway.

Another new item for me - even though you've seen it in a couple of the photos already - is a Redshift suspension stem. I am a fan of suspension stems (my city bike has a cool one) and decided I'd like a little more comfort on my hands when riding. So far it's done the job well. 

I knew there was one more thing I needed for this bike: a flux capacitor. To be honest, I didn't even know that it needed one until I saw that ThinkGeek actually sold little decorative flux capacitors as car cell phone chargers a few years ago.

Cue the 'Buy it Now' button. 

A few weeks after placing the order, I got it in the mail and took it apart almost immediately. The black plug in the back was the first thing to go when I noticed that a simple nine volt battery was enough to make the flux capacitor...flux. 

The on/off switch was a bit of a hassle though: For what I wanted to do it was not only awkward, but it was momentary on/off so it wouldn't work if you'd detach it from power. I discovered where the circuit is complete and soldered - with an iron bought decades ago from Radio Shack, God rest its soul - a tiny piece of red wire so it would always remain in the 'on' position. You can see it on the lower right side of the picture. 

With that done, I set out to create a place to mount the flux capacitor. No better place than a plastic Cage Rocket.

As a big fan of the Camelbak, I like the idea of using a frame bottle cage to carry something other than water. So I took a Cage Rocket case and sawed off a chunk of it the approximate size of the flux capacitor.

I took a piece of plastic from the packaging the epoxy came in to fill the gap on the bottom of the flux capacitor so the Cage Rocket could still be used to store a spare tube and a few road bike specific tools, like a titanium tire lever**.

I carefully smeared epoxy to attach it firmly. I also used more very old parts from Radio Shack - like a push-button switch and a 9v battery mount - and soldered everything in place.

And, on a Saturday morning, coming on the scene on the Raiders of the Lost Ark DVD when Marion wins a drinking contest in Nepal, I...had...this.

The little red button is rated for 120 volts and it makes a satisfying click when you push it. If I wanted to cut down on some weight, I could remove the battery or even the entire Cage Rocket but why would I want to do that?

So there you have it. Other cyclists are faster than me, stronger than me, have more money than me, have bigger followings on Strava, have better equipment, are better looking, and...where was I going with this? 

Oh yeah: other cyclists may have all of these things but I am the one with the Back to the Future bike. I did that. From time to time, on a satisfying downhill, I can almost hear the music by Alan Silvestri and the words "Vaya con dios!" screamed by Christopher Lloyd while he fires a pistol in the air.

The bike works great. As of course I pointed out in the Cycle of Hope ride the front derailleur is problematic, which is on-brand...but then again so is the rest of the bike. Hope you all can build something for you that sparks something in you - even - no, especially - if it takes a long time to spring into being. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

*since I was the one installing it. I have terrible luck with front derailleurs. 

**those are real.


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