Sunday, February 23, 2014

To Build or Not to Build (a bicycle, that is): Lessons Learned

In preparation for an upcoming post regarding the Soma ES that recently came into my life, I thought I would write some quick thoughts on building up a bike. If you've been thinking about doing your own build, but are a bit tentative when it comes to taking the plunge, I thought I could offer my experiences and thoughts to help either persuade or dissuade you from giving it a try. This is not intended to be a how-to, but rather just to offer some thoughts that could be beneficial when deciding whether or not this sort of endeavor is for you.
Our first ground-up bike build was my Rivendell Sam Hillborne. I use "our" in more of a royal sense because while I was very active in yammering on about the parts I wanted for the bike, I had very little to do with the actual process of building the bike up (unless you count standing around staring and asking when the bike would be ready to ride). Frankly, a lot of what I thought I wanted ended up being entirely wrong and I wrote several posts that followed in the months after the build, trying to determine what exactly I was looking for in a bike.

Lesson #1: Don't think that because specific parts work for one person or group of people that they are necessarily the right choice for you. Do your own research, and if possible, test the parts before buying them.

Following that first complete build, several others followed. It's no secret here that I am almost entirely mechanically inept. I do try; however, I find myself frustrated very quickly when things go amuck. I want to believe that having bicycles has improved this somewhat, but I know my limitations and understand that I'm not always going to be able to do everything I want to do myself. I am fortunate to have a partner in life who is (sometimes) patient with me and will attempt to explain how/why things work the way they do. In reality, a bicycle is a pretty simple machine, but when I get into the nitty gritty of things, I can get overwhelmed (it should be noted that I am also the individual who routinely gets a "0" score on mechanical aptitude tests). Understanding that if I wanted to learn, I would need to make a concerted effort to do so became apparent early on.

Lesson #2: In all of my attempts to do things for myself, I have accepted that sometimes it's better/easier/less stressful to allow someone who is more experienced and/or more mechanically capable to handle some matters, but it doesn't mean that I can't do anything for myself.

As I mentioned, with the Hillborne build I was very adamant about having the parts I thought I wanted. One would think this would deter me from choosing parts for future builds, but that was not the case. Partially, my need to pick out parts is due to the reality that I am a visual person, and while my sometimes overly-thrifty Sam will pick up the least expensive option available (which sometimes, but not always, equates to a less visually pleasing option), this does not always coincide with my aesthetic choices. We sometimes butt heads over this because while he would opt to save the few dollars, I will often choose the option that fits with my visual desires for a particular bicycle (even at a higher cost). Ultimately, I understand that the bike will function and operate in the same manner, and I don't purposefully set out to spend extra money, but I think most will agree that when we like the way a bicycle looks, it makes it that much more fun and exciting to ride. Ultimately, we have ended up spending more money at times because I didn't go with my initial selection and tried to give in to the less-expensive option.

Lesson #3: Sometimes those little choices can make a big difference in the way we feel about a bicycle. While it's always great to save money on parts, make sure you can live with whatever compromise you reach between cost and aesthetic considerations or you may end up spending more than you would have with the more costly option.

There is so much information available with the internet at our fingertips. Gone are the days of my youth when people actually spoke to each other and learned from those who had been-there and done-that (or so it sometimes seems). It's great to have so much information available with a few keystrokes, but sometimes a good old fashion chat with an expert can be invaluable. As simple as it is, there are a fair number of parts on a bicycle. If we are building from the ground up (assuming it is geared - and even if it's not, it's a very similar list), the list of parts includes: frame, fork, headset, bottom bracket, crank, front and rear derailleurs, seat post (and a clamp), saddle, pedals, handlebar stem, spacers for the stem, handlebars, bar tape or grips of some kind, brake levers, brake hanger (depending on brakes needed), brake cables and housing, shifter levers, shifter cables and housing, brake calipers (or discs, or other options), wheels (which consist of a hub, spokes and rim), rim tape, tires and tubes, a chain, a crankset, and a rear cassette. This list doesn't include other items that are also frequently needed, such as ferrules for the ends of cables, cable stops, or additional small parts that become necessary with a build. It also doesn't include extras such as baskets, panniers, bags, racks, and so on. In short, even though a bicycle is a simple machine, there are a lot more pieces to the puzzle than I realized when we built the first bicycle. I didn't start out knowing that I needed all of these items, but with each build and additional information at my disposal, I became a lot more confident in choosing items for a build (and made fewer mistakes as well).

Lesson #4 (which is oddly similar to lesson #2): If you don't know what the part is called or even that you need it, chances are that it would be better to let someone else take care of that portion of your build (or maybe the entire build). This doesn't mean, however, that you can't have an opinion about what goes into your bike build, or you might have a patient person in your life that will guide you through the process and offer hands-on assistance. If you're confident in your ability to get the job done yourself, don't be afraid to ask a shop mechanic or other competent source for some advice on what would work best (just ensure that the source is actually competent).

When it comes to the decision regarding which parts to put on a bicycle, sometimes there are only limited options available without a lot of extra work, and other times there are seemingly limitless choices. Additionally, I believe there are certain parts one should spend on to get quality components, and others that allow for some less expensive choices. For example, I think having a quality bottom bracket is a good idea, but perhaps spending on the most expensive crank isn't necessary. Additionally, having quality wheels is a great investment, but often brake caliper choices don't need to be the best out there as there is quality to be found even in lower-range products. Of course, this is all subject to opinion, but I have found that if I spend a bit more money on the "always in use/motion" parts, I can get away with spending less on other components. I have also learned that just because a part is more or less than some other option doesn't necessarily mean that it is better or worse than the other, and much of preference is subject to personal likes and dislikes. So, reading online reviews requires a keen eye and mind for reading through the b.s., and may require you to seek out the parts in person to see what makes that particular component a good or bad choice for your build.

Lesson #5: Lots of opinions are great when it comes to picking components, but deciding what is most important for your build may require a bit of investigation. Don't shy away from input, but learning to decipher opinion from fact is a honed skill that may require time and even some mistakes along the way. Don't let it deter you, but know that there is a learning curve in all new ventures.

Feel free to add your lessons to the comments. I know there are many more to be learned, so sharing your experiences are always welcomed.

10 comments:

  1. Really helpful. I'm looking forward to hearing more about your new build. It took me forever to settled on a new commute/utility bike even though I planned to order a complete bike (which I did, an Achielle Craighton Pure Oma). Just learning about all of the options and finding out about different components -- how they function, how they change the feel of the bike -- took a long time and was incredibly fun for me.

    Like you, have very little mechanical aptitude. I cannot imagine actually assembling a bike from the ground up, but I do want to understand my bike and why some choices are better than others. My new bike won't even arrive for another few weeks, but I'm already starting to toy with the idea of a new recreational bike. This time, I think I'd like to build one up, even though for me this means selecting parts and having a bike shop do the build. Maybe a Soma Buena Vista? Hmm....

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    1. How exciting! To have a new ride on the way. :O)

      I think building a bike (even if it means picking the parts and having someone else do it) is both fun and scary. I think I would say that (like Cecily experienced), be prepared to spend a little more than you think you will because somehow, even when we think we know what we want, it doesn't always quite work. Sometimes, the only way to know is to try things too, and it can get a little costly. If your shop/builder can help you by letting you test things out or borrow them for a short time, I think that can be really beneficial.

      The Soma Buena Vista is such a pretty frame. The one we had was a dark grey (almost charcoal), and I was impressed with how much better it looked in person than in photos. I wish I'd had more of an opportunity to use it, but as I had mentioned, it was so small that it just wasn't really practical. I would definitely build one again though if the opportunity presented itself (of course, I'm always up for a new bike build). :O)

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  2. One lesson I've learned the hard way is that when a bike shop says a part is "just like" the more expensive equivalent, do your own homework. I find myself in the not very fun position of having to order new handlebars after the Soma Oxfords that were put on my Betty Foy just aren't working for me.

    Another thing I would recommend is insisting that you OK all of the substitutions your bike shop makes when building your bike.

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    1. Cecily, that totally stinks! Are the Oxfords just not working for you as far as fit, or have you had structural issues?

      I agree. I think it's important to know what your shop/builder/etc is doing to your bike - and sometimes we don't know whether or not to trust them until they've already done something that makes us realize that perhaps we shouldn't have given them so much freedom (or maybe that's just me).

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    2. They aren't structural issues, thankfully. It mostly has to do with fit. The Soma stem is shorter than the Nitto stem, and the handlebars are ever so slightly narrower than the Nittos. Even though we've offset the saddle as much as we can on the bike, I still find that I'm not riding completely upright. On days when I don't have pain in my wrists, it isn't a big deal, but on days when my wrists are inflamed, I end up riding one handed and switching back and forth, just to take the strain off.

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    3. I think it's difficult to get a completely upright setup on the Betty. It seems as though it can be very close, but it's not exactly the same as many of the Euro-upright bikes on the market. There just always seems to be a little bit of lean. I suppose having slightly wider handlebars might help with relieving some of the pressure... I really hope you're able to find a good set up that works. It's no fun to ride when we're in pain!

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  3. Thanks for sharing. I'm new to cycling but did invest in a good bike. There is so much info on the internet and my cycling friends all have opinions on parts which is great except when they disagree. It will be some time before I build a bike but you are absolutely right about balancing function, aesthetics and budget.

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    1. Hopefully, you're enjoying your bike, May. I think that is the most important factor of them all. :O)

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  4. I've spent a lot of money on a bike build or a fix to a whole bike, in order to make a ride more enjoyable and fit better while looking stylish. I started off being totally lost and over the years, doing much more research and asking a bike mechanic whether a bottom bracket or other item will work with another part of the bike before buying it. The other way around, I'll show the mechanic what I would like, esthetically, and if they can order something very similar that will work. I explain the look I'm going for. This makes me more nervous about what I'll get but it's better than leaving it all up to the shop. My Surly Pacer has the most money sunk into it to make the bike comfortable for me because I bought the whole bike and it has a HB stem that is to short for most women. It's gone through a metamorphosis and has become more enjoyable to ride, yet I'm not finished yet. It was never meant for fenders - no matter what the ad says. Anyway, the first step in success for me in bike builds was knowing the geometry and bike size that works for me.

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    1. It's definitely easy to see the total expenditures on bike builds add up quickly, and you're so right - it sometimes takes time to realize what will work. I think your suggestion of showing the builder what you like and letting them find something comparable is a great one!

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