Friday, February 4, 2011

Is it Possible to Build a Perfect Bicycle the First Time?

During the summer of 2010, we began the build for my Rivendell Sam Hillborne, aka, Tony Stark. I suppose that build really taught me quite a bit, despite the fact that I had little to do (okay, none really) with the actual physical labor involved in the process. I really wanted to, at minimum, be the one who purchased each item, so that I would have a better understanding of how it works, and what I actually have. Plus, I had rather specific aesthetics in mind, and as long as they worked, I didn't want the mechanical master telling me that such and such component was $5 less. To be perfectly honest, I ended up neither purchasing every single component, nor fully understanding the intricate details of a fairly simply machine. Though I did get most of the necessities, with the aid of Sam's expertise, and my never ending barrage of questions like, "So, a V-brake is different from a cantilever brake how again?" and, "I want to make sure I have that little thingy that covers the chain on the front derailleur.What is that called? (For the record, it was a piece that is actually part of the derailleur called the derailleur cage, but I'm not the sharpest tool when it comes to these sorts of things.)"
*Image from
Parts of the front derailleur... the "thingy" is the derailleur cage
Let's face it, I'm not mechanical, and I really have little interest in the technicalities of machinery. At the same time, I am a fairly independent individual, and don't enjoy it when I can't understand or explain something that I should know. I want to understand how the bicycle works, what I actually have on it, and not feel like a total moron if someone asks me a question about my bike; but beyond that, I'm okay with just accepting the bicycle for what it is: something that I pedal to get me where I need to go...oh, and to look pretty, of course! If I were to order the factors of what I wanted out of this bicycle, the list would look like this:
1) The bicycle must be supremely comfortable, yet also allow me to ride long distances
2) The bicycle should be aesthetically pleasing (at least to me), so that I want to get on it and ride
3) I should understand, at minimum, the basics of this bicycle, and be able to change my own flat tires (still working on this one - the changing the flat part)
4) Be able to utilize the bicycle for multiple purposes (such as riding to the store, or going for a 50 mile ride)

Okay, so you'll note that my number one necessity for the Hillborne was that it be comfortable. I read, and read, and read, and then read some more about people's experiences with a variety of things like handlebars, saddles, seat tubes, tires, handlebar stems, etc, and decided on particular items based on my reading and my experience with past bicycles. What I learned from that process is that reading alone does not a perfect bicycle make (unfortunately). Suggestions can be made based on body type, frame geometry, possible weak points for the rider, and so on, but the rider will never truly know what works until the bicycle is used... and used more than once.

For example, I purchased a Brooks Champion Flyer S saddle, believing that, after so many reviews of this saddle, and even the high endorsement of the guys at Cycle Analyst in Denver, that it would be a perfect fit for a touring bicycle. What I did not take in to account is that I intended to place my handlebars higher than the saddle (and quite a bit higher) for comfort reasons, and my hand/wrist issues.
Brooks Flyer S saddle

When I rode the Hillborne, I would get about 20 miles in to a longer ride and realize that it wasn't comfortable - at all. It wasn't the leather (there was plenty of flex for my needs), but rather that my sit bones weren't being supported. I rode on this saddle for several months, just thinking that there was something wrong with me. What I hadn't taken into account was the fact that I would need wider support because I was riding more upright than many road riders out there on the streets. My choice was to either lower the handlebars to alleviate the strain on my sit bones, or go with a different saddle. I ended up selling the Flyer and purchasing a B72 saddle (which really is more of a "city ride" kind of saddle).
Brooks B72 saddle... the better choice for my ride
The saddle is wider (209 mm B72 vs. the 176 mm Flyer) and helps provide the support for a more upright ride. While others would likely tell me that this isn't an appropriate saddle for the type of bicycle, it works for me. I do need to have the bottom laced so that I can keep the sides from spreading when I ride (the saddle is quite flexible), but that small detail aside, it seems to be a great fit after several rides.

Beyond the saddle, there were changes to the handlebar stem (I purchased one originally that was too long for my reach, and had to resell it to obtain a shorter one),
The reach on this stem was too long for me
the tires (I bought the Grand Bois Hetre tires because I loved them and they sounded like the perfect ride cushion, but then they didn't fit under the fenders without serious -and dangerous- drag, so I bought some Schwalbe's in black. I didn't like the black look with this particular bike though, so then I thought we'd remove the fenders so that I could have the cream tires),
The Hillborne with one Schwalbe tire in back, and one Grand Bois tire in front
the fenders (see just prior to this one, but in more detail, I ended up buying different fenders, which seems to have resolved, at least for the most part, the drag issue with the super fat tires),
The first set of fenders were these Honjo hammered fenders... they didn't last long
and several rounds of bar tape (I tried out various options because I wanted more cushion, but didn't want it to look strange. Not to mention having to remove the handlebars when the new stem arrived).
One of the first of many incarnations of bar tape for the Hillborne...
at least my wrapping skills improved in the process

Through all of this I realized that no one can tell another what to ride, nor what will definitely work. It's a process of trial and error for the individual, and at times, a costly one. I don't know if it would be possible to have everything perfect the first time around because, 1) I didn't precisely know what I would like, 2) What is comfortable to me, may not be for someone else, and vice versa, and 3) It really does take some time with riding the bicycle to get everything perfect. Even after riding this bike for awhile now, I still know there are some (small) changes that should be made to optimize the Hillborne. I think anyone looking to build a bicycle needs to be prepared to add some funds to the budget (even if the extra parts are re-sold) because inevitably, something will require a substitution, an addition, or some sort of modification.

In the end, I am extremely happy with the Hillborne, and it is definitely a forever kind of bicycle...It's just been a more involved process than I ever anticipated to make it my bicycle.


  1. I honestly don't think it's possible the first time, and furthermore, i don't think it's possible to even buy the perfect bike, changes will always be made.

    I also think that a bicycle is a living, breathing creature, not unlike riding a horse, i think it changes with you, or "should".

    This bike is probably very close (for you). I really didn't consider all the ramifications when i did the tech stuff for you, because i had never really build a bike for someone else. All in all, it turned out well. Tweak a few more things, and you are the money....

  2. You make an excellent point in that a bicycle will likely change as the rider evolves.

    I think you did a wonderful job building Tony. How would you have known what would and wouldn't precisely work for me? Trial and error was necessary.


Word verification is on, but I've turned off the moderation portion in an attempt to make it easier for you to know that your comment has indeed made it through. We'll see how this goes, but I'm hopeful that this will help out and I'll try my best to weed through and remove spammers comments. Additionally, I recommend copying comments before hitting publish as the "blogger comment eater" seems to continue his snacking.