Thursday, August 13, 2009

London-Edinburgh-London: Building the right bike

During my first season of ultra-distance cycling, I realized that I needed a new bike. My stock Bianchi Imola just wasn’t cutting it anymore. What worked fairly well for 100 miles was not adequate for 375. While a decent entry level road bike, the Imola is not designed for long distance cycling. The geometry is much too tight which causes it to be somewhat twitchy on descents, Shimano 105 components are not as smooth or reliable as one would want, and the dimensions of the frame limit my ability to use accessories like full fenders that would improve the riding experience. I had no idea how much difference a better bike would make, however, until it arrived. I wanted a bike optimized for brevets, double centuries and randonees such as LEL, but I also wanted a bike that was quick and light that I could strip down for races as well. My budget was $4000.

While it would not be accurate to say that I built the bike specifically for LEL, with this ride on the horizon for 2009, LEL was very much on my mind when I designed the bike and chose the components and accessories. I received the bike in September of 2008 and put several thousand miles on it, but it LEL would be the true test.

Choosing the right builder:

Throughout my first season of randonneuring and ultra racing, I was a sponge sucking up tips and useful information about frame type and bicycle design from more experienced randonneurs and ultra racers. I also poured over past and present issues of Bicycle Quarterly, the outstanding journal lovingly devoted to the performance and aesthetics of long distance bicycles. I scoured old issues of BQ, and read test reports of various custom-built bikes, learned about the importance of a wide range of engineering principles, and drooled over the pictures of vintage and modern constructions. In fact, the currect issue has a whole section devoted to choosing a custom frame builder. It was actually a tip I ran across in an old issue of Bicycling Magazine, of all places though, that sent me in the direction of Independent Fabrications (IF), the small, Boston-based frame builders I would decide to use. A reader had posted a question about designing a randonneuring bike specifically for PBP several years ago and was advised to look into the IF Club Racer.

The Club Racer, designed for randonneuring or (the more commonly understood) “light touring” is basically a cross between the IF Crown Jewel racing frame and the IF Independence touring frame. The geometry (which is fully customized) includes an appropriately long wheel base and room at both the fork and seat stays for full fenders. The Club Racer can be made in steel (which I could afford) and titanium (which I could not). It would be optimized to my particular body and riding style as well as to randonneuring in general with all of the esoteric bags and components I would need. Since it would take me another year, at least, to afford a frame from one of the boutique frame builders that specialize in creating French constructeur frames, I decided that Independent Fabrications was just what I needed. A frame builder with a great reputation who could build me the bike I wanted at a price I could afford within a reasonable timeframe.

Getting the correct fit:

All IF bikes are custom build and I found that Signature Cycles, an operation run by Paul Levine a fit specialist with a great reputation in the New York City area, was listed as a dealer on the IF web site. I called up Signature Cycles to discuss the process, and found that working with them as a dealer, the price of a professional fitting would be included in the price of the frame. After saving my nickels and selling just about everything that wasn’t nailed down in my house on eBay, I made an appointment to meet with Paul. Before opening Signature Cycles with offices in Manhattan, Greenwich, CT, and Central Valley, NY, Paul ran the Serotta Fit School where he developed his craft and trained others in fitting cyclists of all types to custom bicycles.

When we met, Paul explained that he had some interesting experience fitting randonneurs, having flown down to Puerto Rico in 2006-7 to fit over two dozen local randonneurs on bikes in preparation for PBP 2007. He also explained that he had fit a RAAM racer or two along the way. Paul’s office is graciously appointed with leather chairs, half a dozen beautiful steel and titanium frames on the walls and a large stationary bicycle hooked up to and computer that looked like elaborate wide-screen TV. The process started with a long interview during which Paul asked myriad questions about my riding plans and the fit and feel of my current bike. He also tested my power output and pedal stroke on the stationary bike, saying positive things about my power output and giving me a few tips about building my core strength. We also discussed the importance of frame dimensions to accommodate wide tires and fenders. After about an hour and a half, Paul sat down with me to share the CAD drawings he put together based on our conversaqtion and I made a final decision about color and decal placement.

Selecting the best components:

After much research, I decided to outfit the new bike with Shimano Ultegra components. While Campaniolo would have the advantage of freeing up valuable real estate for a front handlebar-mounted bag, I thought that the greater popularity and ease of repair associated with Shimano STI parts might come in handy someday should I encounter a breakdown out in the middle of nowhere. Since nearly all US bike shops stock Shimano parts, it would likely be much easier to find replacement parts should my shifters give up the ghost in the middle of nowhere one day. I went with the compact 50/34 crank up front and a 10-speed 12/27 cassette in the rear so that I’d have plenty of options for both hills and flats. For brakes, I choose the Shimano “Long Reach” to compliment the Ultegra drive train, but found upon installation that what Shimano calls “long reach” are actually “medium reach” and were not wide enough to accommodate my 43mm fenders. After a bit more research, I swapped out the brakes for a set of Tektro R556 which are truly “long reach” and work quite well. I also chose Kool Stop salmon-colored pads for their improved braking power and wear under wet conditions. I was shocked to learn how easily standard pads can wear in the rain during the New England Fleche 2008, but that’s a story for another day. For wheels, I went with Mavic Open Pro rims for strength, durability and security in the event that I ever run into trouble with a spoke on a long ride.

I also read a lot about the benefits of wide tires and I wanted to make sure that the new frame would accommodate tires up to 30mm. While I normally ride and train with 25mm tires, I knew that I’d like to have the option of running Grad Bois "Cypress" 30mm tires on long events such as LEL and PBP. To fully cover the wide tires and enhance the aesthetic quality of the bike, I selected a set of the beautiful Honjo 43mm aluminum fluted fenders. It was a toss-up between the “hammered” style inspired by the French constructeurs, but in the end, the crisp lines of the fluted version seemed preferable. As far as details go, I asked IF to include a pump peg on the inside of the head tube so that I could install a Blackburn full frame pump and a sterling silver head tube badge just because it looked so darn cool. I chose a pair of beautiful stainless steel bottle cages from Velo Orange and was also able to transfer several recently upgraded components over from my Bianchi such as my beloved saddle, a Brooks B-17 Champion Special with titanium rails (which had nearly doubled in price since I bought it in 2007!) and my Time RXS carbon pedals. Once the frame and fork were built, painted and delivered, Paul’s crew assembled the bike in their Manhattan shop and was kind enough to install the fenders for me; the precision measuring involved with installing Honjo fenders would certainly have driven me mad.

So the jury is in – the bike performs like a charm. Within two weeks this summer, I achieved two personal goals. I rode my fastest 12-hour race (finishing with 226 miles) and enjoyed the hell out of my longest randonee at LEL (875 miles in just over 100 hours). While my training and the additional experience are partly responsible, I am convinced that the IF Club Racer helped tremendously and I recommend it highly to others with similar goals and budgets. The comfort and stability of this bike over 875 miles is hard to convey. The Grand Bois tires (at 85 lbs. psi) softened the ride and smoothed out even the roughest roads. The fenders kept me as dry as could be expected under the circumstances and the overall geometry made for a very comfortable and stable ride. I experienced predicable leg soreness at times, especially in my knees, but my back, neck, rear-end and other joints felt just fine. The numbness in my left hand is likely the result of applying too much pressure on my handlebars and I will seek to fix this by improving my core strength and altering my saddle position in the future. Who knows, maybe some gloves with thicker gel would help, too. Finally, while I LOVE the look of the bike, the one decision I might rethink if I were to do it all over again is frame color. Despite what people may tell you, it’s hard to keep a Vanilla Shake frame looking clean. Next time, I might try black . . .

1 comment:

  1. Magic stuff. There's nothing like a new bike to lift one's performance. And that sounds like a special bike indeed.