Grow your own bicycle frame

IMG_5126

Photo by Melanie Martin

Photo by Melanie Martin

Photo by Melanie Martin

Submitted for your consideration: two bicycles in Vietnam. The bike on the top, the one with the cashew-meets-elf-hat saddle, has a steel frame decorated with bamboo. The bike on the bottom has an honest-to-gosh, structural bamboo frame.

The bike on the top is for display, something to catch your attention as you shop. The bike on the bottom is road ready. And it’s nowhere close to being unique, judging by similar bicycles here, here and here.

Why build a bicycle out of bamboo? Maybe because it’s natural. Or you live near a bamboo field. Or you lost a bar bet.

I take that back. Maybe you’re trying to win a bar bet.

Or maybe, just maybe, you build with bamboo for the oldest reason that’s not really a reason at all: because you can. Or for the second oldest reason: because you think you can.

Amazing the difference one word can make.

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Take-five bicycles. The wish list

Cruisers are great near Mission Beach, but it was a lot easier climbing the hill behind Metro Cyclery on a six-speed Brompton. This is Bill Tracy's personal commuter, complete with front generator hub and lights.

Quick. Imagine a bicycle.

Is your bicycle the same as the one I dreamed up?

Maybe. Maybe not.

If your idea of a bicycle includes a carbon-fiber frame, electronic derailleurs and the latest in ridiculous bottom-bracket standards, rest assured that wasn’t the one I had in mind. Neither was I thinking about this upright, back-to-back tandem.

Nonetheless, it’s your imaginary bike. Enjoy.

But why stop at just one? Liberally applied, the term bicycle covers a number of human-propelled ideas, and all of your favorites will fit on a piece of paper. It’s not like you’re spending money.

So, what’s on your wish list? Here’s my take-five memo in no particular order:

Brompton. Made in London for around 30 years, this folding bicycle with 16-inch wheels offers one of the best combinations of rideability and compact storage. The interesting thing about the company isn’t that it continues to grow from its high-labor, high-rent base; it’s that its competitors never really intruded on its design brief. I’ll take the original M-style handlebar for an upright riding position, but I’d be happy with a 2-speed, 3-speed or 6-speed drivetrain. (Something a bit larger and less expensive? Okay. How about a Tern with 20-inch wheels?)

Volae Expedition recumbent. Comfortable, reduced wind resistance and an elegantly simple frame that accommodates a variety of tire widths. Good visibility in town. Brand originated by the Hostel Shoppe folks in Wisconsin. Steel backbone frame by Waterford.

Wide, 650B wheels fitted to an older Motobecane. Flotation is so very French.

Wide, 650B wheels fitted to an older Motobecane. Flotation is so very French.

650B-wheeled bicycle. The beauty of a high-end wish list is that the sky’s the limit. You don’t spend money to create it. It’s just a list. However, the more reasonable the price of the bicycle I’m not buying (yet), the more attainable it seems to be. That’s why I’m not specifying a chrome finish. The only problem with this bike–featuring generator lights, fenders, rack and less all-up weight than my Fisher–is that I’m particular about the seat-tube angle. I know I’m 5-foot-7, but something in 72, 73 degrees, somebody. Otherwise, I’ll have to think custom. And that’s even more money I’m not spending any time soon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGreenspeed GT-3 recumbent tricycle. Comfort, stability, conservative steel frame, and I don’t currently own anything from an Australian company (frame built in Taiwan). There’s nothing like coming up to a stop sign without putting a foot down. This is civilization for those in a reclining frame of mind. It’s not the fastest recumbent in the world, but I’m not the fastest rider, either. (I would also consider a Florida-made Catrike or UK-based ICE. Talk me into it.)

Victory ordinary. I used to own an 1880s-style bicycle. It was made for me by a gentleman in Indiana named Kennedy, who also sold tiring based on the original formula. (During one visit, he showed me you really can balance a quarter on the antique hood of an idling  Rolls-Royce. Good times.)

10003898_864648686892836_5871425484533033503_nI love the simplicity of this design. No chains, no freewheel, no chainring, no air-filled tires. The front brake is a curved piece of metal that slaps down on the smooth red tread. It’s the right brake for the job. A more powerful one would cause you to pivot around the front hub and land on your face.

You don’t know riding a bicycle in the rain until you pedal a 50-inch front wheel across Peoria’s Franklin Street Bridge. However, since that bridge is no more, I suppose you could recreate the feel by pedaling across a stretch of mirror-smooth ice on a breezy day. Just be sure to take your lane and prepare for a left-hand turn before you return to dry pavement.

I sold the Kennedy years ago to buy a tandem. The Florida-built Victory looks to be of high quality, true to both 19th-century design and 21st-century metallurgy. (Alternative in a pinch: a homemade tall bike.)

Final note: I didn’t get carried away here. No mention of an electric bike, a fat bike, a cargo bike, an electric fat cargo bike or a unicycle. Those are entries for the Next Five list (though the unicycle is seductively affordable).

Hey, you have to draw the line somewhere.

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Picture Mitch: Four photography tips for people who ride bicycles

Photo by Mitch Hull

Photo by Mitch Hull

Can’t wait for tips? They’re at the end of the story. But hang in there with me…

The first thing I did when I caught up to Mitch Hull back in 2012 was to take pictures of his Boxer Camponneur.

Turns out Mitch has some pretty nice cameras. He spent half a decade shooting pictures of buildings, lab equipment, food and people for one employer, did a few weddings–“the stress is not something I really need any more”–and processed photos on a 24-inch HP Designjet 130.

Photo by Mitch Hull

Photo by Mitch Hull

Tell me about that printer.

A U.S. photographer based in Paris said the Designjet 130 has the deepest blacks of any printing process. I used it to print a couple of 8-foot by 2-foot panoramas around the house. But I’m really not pursuing that business anymore. The food process improvement work at Kellogg, bike riding, home maintenance and family life take up my time.

Photo by Mitch Hull

Photo by Mitch Hull

What kind of camera do you carry?

I used to carry film and an Olympus OM-1 SLR with a wide-zoom tele lens in a handlebar bag on any ride that I thought might have interesting possibilities. I remember one time riding in a huge double paceline on DALMAC and sprinting ahead to stop and shoot the peloton from the front. Don’t have that kind of speed anymore!

Photo by Mitch Hull

Photo by Mitch Hull

These days, I carry a Canon SX260 with a 24-300 zoom equivalent lens–way better than my iPhone 5, and I love both the decent wide angle and the ability to zoom to a distant subject. Fits perfectly in a rear-facing outside pocket of the Berthoud bag.

I’ve also carried a Nikon D90 with 16-85 zoom on a few occasions.

I really don’t like the phone cameras I’ve used. The apps are cumbersome and slow to release the shutter, you have to use two hands, they’re not very wide-angle, digital zoom is lousy, etc. But I also know that the best camera is the one you have with you.

Photo by Mitch Hull

Photo by Mitch Hull

Any photography tips?

Sure. Get a bike into your shots to show it’s a bike ride. Don’t center the subject. A great photo has good light, subject and composition–you need all three! And don’t wait for the primo shot to present itself–you’ll miss the images you’ll later want.

20120415_0726You’ll find the latest pictures of Mitch Hull’s fully chromed Boxer Camponneur here, here and here.

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Chroming the Boxer: Jack Trumbull makes it shine

The area behind the bottom bracket requires extra attention to ensure the layers of nickel and chrome adhere.

The area behind the bottom bracket takes extra attention to ensure the layers of nickel and chrome adhere. Photo by Mitch Hull.

Mitch Hull sent his Boxer Camponneur to Franklin Frames of Newark, Ohio. The owner and sole employee is Jack Trumbull, who has been building, repairing and refinishing bicycle frames since 1976. I called him to get a few insights into the chroming process.

What makes chrome different than paint?

Triple-plated chrome is electrically applied. The current is negative on the frame and positive on the anode. You dip the frame in copper, then nickel, then chrome.

I specify double-plated chrome, which is a layer of nickel, then chrome. I prefer double plating, reason being the more layers you add, you lose definition, those crisp edges around the lugs. The nickel is the primer. The frame stays in there 40, 50 minutes. The chrome is the hard part. It goes in for 15, 20 minutes.

The Compass tail light is a new addition to the Boxer. Photo by Mitch Hull.

The Compass tail light is a new addition to the Boxer. Photo by Mitch Hull.

So you don’t use copper?

When you do a restore of a 1960s, 1970s frame and it’s really rusty, you can’t just polish it out. Then I go to copper, just in the pits, to bring them even to the surface of the tube.

How do you prep a painted frame for chrome?

When I send a frame to the plater, it looks exactly like when I get it back. It takes hours and hours of polishing. It has to be perfectly clean. No residual paint, no anything. The plating will only adhere where the electrical current flows.

There may be no better protected position for a tail light
than between the seat tube and the seat stays.
Jan Heine talks about the Compass tail light.

The bare frame has to look just like chrome because if there’s a bump, it will show up in the chrome. I use air tools and cartridge sanding rolls. I use different grits to get the scratches out and finish with jewelers rouge to get the high finish.

If the frame has any stainless steel parts, you have to seal them. The Boxer has a stainless steel chain hanger, and the internal cable routing is also stainless.

What can go wrong with chroming?

BoxerChainHanger1

Photo by Mitch Hull.

I’ve seen plenty of botched jobs. Somebody takes a frame to a bumper shop, they add a 16th of an inch of copper—too much plating—it’s just a mess. I weighed one frame at seven pounds. [Ed.: Good quality steel frames weigh between 3 and 5 lbs.]

If you just want to chrome the head lugs, you dip the front half of the frame. But sometimes you can see the edge of the chrome through the paint. My plater uses an oscillator to move the piece up and down in the bath to avoid that transition.

I guess it’s harder to chrome in tight spots, too.

The hardest part to plate is behind the bottom bracket and between the seat stays. The current makes a halo effect around the bridge. To get around that, you use an auxiliary anode. You fit rubber bushings into the bottom bracket and a little finger with the auxiliary anode that goes into the tight spot.

What if somebody comes to you with a chrome frame? How do you remove the old chrome?

The plater runs the current in reverse to remove the chrome and nickel. If it’s triple-plated, he sends it to a secondary plater to remove the copper.

You have to dip the frame in a cyanide bath to remove the copper. There aren’t a lot of platers who can do the work. Every year, there are fewer and fewer of them. Prices are going up and a lot of platers are going under because of regulations.

 

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Photo by Mitch Hull.

How much weight does your chroming process add to a frame?

Oh, I don’t know, couple of ounces maybe. Reynolds 531 tubing used to have a tiny embossing on one end of the tube. After chroming, you could still read it.

How do people find about you?

I don’t do the trade show circuit. Been there, done that. I’ve got the website, and I get a fair amount of return business—and from Classic Rendezvous. I build more bikes for other brands than my own. And I do more painting than frame building. Last year I did 300 repaints.

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Chroming the Boxer: Mitch Hull makes a few changes

Big 42-mm tires and fenders to match. The long front fender with mudflap keeps grit away from the crank, and the flap on the back fender keeps water off the next rider in line. Good to know someone's looking out for Civilization.

Big 42-mm tires and fenders to match. The long front fender with mudflap keeps grit away from the crank, and the flap on the back fender keeps water off the next rider in line. Good to know someone’s looking out for Civilization. Photo by Mitch Hull.

Mitch Hull calls himself a one-bike guy who rides “only for fun.” Like a lot of one-bike guys, that means he has three bikes: a 1983 Santana tandem, a 2006 Soma Smoothie and his real bike, a custom-built Boxer Camponneur.

The Boxer’s tires are quite a bit wider than the Soma’s–42 mm versus 28 mm–which should make for a more comfortable ride–and a more confident rider.

Bicycle Quarterly’s Jan Heine writes about the difference air volume makes.

Mitch enjoys riding on paved and unpaved roads. Most roads in Appalachian Ohio are chipseal in “decent-good shape,” and most of his rides include at least one 15-percent climb that tops out at a manageable 300 feet.

Of course steep climbs have a way of turning into speedy descents. Mitch decided to buy a bicycle with wider tires after taking the Soma through a downhill curve on pavement that turned to gravel. He barely kept it under control.

So he ordered the Boxer, rode it a few years and then discovered something more frightening than skittering sideways on aggregate: Rust.

Why chrome the bike? Why not repaint?

Mafac Raid brakes go back to the 1980s, if not before. Note the pump mounted to the left seat stay.

Mafac Raid brakes go back to the 1980s, if not before. Note the pump mounted to the left seat stay. Photo by Mitch Hull.

I’ve wanted a fully chromed bike since admiring the half-chromed fork on my first good bike, a 1969 Raleigh Grand Prix. Some of my friends had the next-better Raleigh, and I loved the additional half-chromed seat stays and chain stays.

Plus chrome is supposed to be more immune to scratches than paint. My previous bikes always got scratched while parked in the garage, moved in and out of the car, and when they fell over.

How did you choose Franklin Frames?

Jack Trumbull works in rural Newark, Ohio, just a 20-minute drive from me, and he’s been building, painting and repairing bikes since the 1970s. He works with my most-respected Columbus, Ohio, bike shop, Baer Wheels, on repairs. He offered chroming. I saw my chance!

You must be pretty satisfied with the bicycle to go to the expense/trouble of chroming it. What else has changed since we talked in 2012?

You’re right on the satisfaction–and right that there have been a few changes.

Because a chrome frame makes the most of whatever daylight you have, it looks good at any time of the day. Or night.

A fully equipped bicycle is ready for the weather–and the sun’s  bashful retreat from the party. Photo by Mitch Hull.

I have raised my seat at least an inch. I got a professional fitting after the Boxer was built. Kind of dumb I know, but my knee, which has bothered me on and off all of my life, is now pretty much pain-free.

The Boxer originally had a headset-based decaleur that doubled as a cable stop for the brake. I figured I would raise the stem as I got older and less flexible, and a decaleur attached to the headset would allow me to avoid any issues with handlebar bag fit.

Unfortunately, it flexed too easily, so I paid Boxer to make a stem-based unit.

I also installed a Nitto-made Rivendell Tallux stem to raise the bars. It has some flex, but this adds comfort rather than any loss of control. The Tallux also allowed me to get the bigger Berthoud handlebar bag that I originally wanted.

Probably the biggest negative is the decaleur; its design does not allow the top flap of the Berthoud to fully lay over the rider-side of the bag. In other words, a very tiny nitpick.

Traditional handlebar bags can come in several sizes. The taller the stem, the bigger the bag. Photo by Mitch Hull.

Traditional handlebar bags can come in several sizes. The taller the stem, the bigger the bag. Photo by Mitch Hull.

I also had Jack add the new Compass seat-tube tail light.

Good lights make a big difference. In the 1990s, I used a 5-watt halogen powered by four C batteries. Almost hit two deer with that setup. The Boxer, on the other hand, has a SON Deluxe generator and Edelux II headlight. (Originally, it had the Edelux I.)

It’s just wonderful not having to worry about getting home before it gets dark. It really extends the cycling calendar on work days.

Here's a look at the chainrest and all the cassette cogs that blame it for the absence of the ninth member of the unit.

Here’s a look at the chainrest and all the cassette cogs that blame it for the absence of the ninth member of the unit. Photo by Mitch Hull.

It’s been a couple of years since I last saw the bicycle, which means you’ve put some miles on the parts as well as the frame. What can you tell me about their reliability?

I started with Grand Bois Hetre tires in red–loved the look. I got two nail flats and one sharp stone right through the middle of the somewhat worn tread in two years and maybe 5,000 miles total riding.

I switched to the 42 mm Compass Babyshoe Extra Leger in October, and I believe they’re a little faster. My speeds on the same routes went up about a half mile per hour, to 15 mph. I like them a lot. I weigh about 180 lbs and run 50/55 psi front/back on pavement. I will try lower pressures on a longer gravel ride soon.

The Campy/Shimano drivetrain has been tricky, but only for getting the front derailleur to move the chain onto the 20 tooth granny without overshifting onto the bottom bracket.

After setting up the bike myself post-chroming, I thought I had a problem with the springs in the Chorus Ergo levers, so I took them to Westerville Bike Shop, an authorized Campy dealer in Columbus. The guy said it wasn’t the shifters, so I brought the whole bike in, and he adjusted the shifting. I haven’t dropped the chain since. And I thought I was decent bike mechanic….

HardwareW

Photo by Mitch Hull.

The rear shifting is a bit slower than the Campy 10-speed Ergo setup on my Smoothie. The chain is a little noisier, too. I’m still running the same SRAM 9-speed chain (PC-991) and the custom eight-cog Shimano cassette, one cog short to make room for the chainrest. Most of the customization involved grinding down the spider. Its been very reliable.

This is what happens when you don't have a smartphone. The Boxer's handlebars, circa 2012

This is what happens when you don’t have a smartphone. The Boxer’s handlebars, circa 2012. Finally, a photo by me.

What’s your saddle maintenance routine?

I bought and applied the Berthoud wax a couple of times. I use Vaseline for butt lube and it migrates to the saddle along with sweat. I just wipe off the excess after each ride. The saddle has softened some, but I haven’t had to tighten it up after 2,000 miles. On the other hand, the leather isn’t as friendly to my sit-bones as padded saddles, so I may change back out again at some point. It’s the most difficult contact point for me.

What does the information cockpit look like these days?

After I chromed the bike, I cut back to the heart-rate monitor. I always carry an iPhone and use the Cyclemeter app to record distance and altitude. I may go to something like a Reflct gizmo at some point, but probably not this year.

 

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Chroming the Boxer: An appreciation of Mitch Hull’s Boxer Camponneur

There may be no better sign on which to lean a bicycle with 650B tires.

There may be no better sign on which to lean a bicycle with 650B tires. Photo by Mitch Hull.

I like this bicycle. It doesn’t fit me, I’ve never ridden it and I don’t own it.

Let me explain.

I like the idea of this bike. First, it’s a randonneur bike. That means when I first saw Mitch Hull’s Boxer Camponneur in 2012 in Arthur, Illinois, it was the first bicycle of its kind I’d seen outside of books and magazines. I’m not sure I’ve seen another since.

Because it is what it is, it has everything you need: lights, fenders, a rack for the handlebar bag and lightweight, supple 42-mm tires for paved and unpaved roads. Want to replace all the bicycles in your basement with one machine? Well, of course not. But if you did, you could do worse than a bike like this one.

The frame is handmade. In this case, handmade means Dan Boxer, the owner of Boxer Bicycles, was also the constructeur. He built this bicycle for Mitch, for a specific customer. He built a different bicycle before this one and a different bicycle after this one. Handmade is different, and–despite the miracle of social conviviality that is interchangeable parts, production lines and extended supply chains–different is good.

Shift the chain all the way to the outside, and it lands on a chainrest brazed to the dropout. Photo by Mitch Hull.

Shift the chain all the way to the outside, and it lands on a chainrest brazed to the dropout. Photo by Mitch Hull.

Handmade is good.

Is it possible to copy a handmade item? Sure, consider Grant Wood’s painting “American Gothic.” There are a lot of copies of Gothic–even more parodies–but they’re copies, and everyone knows it. When you see a copy, you recognize the structure that defines the original. When you see the real thing, you see time rolling backward, into the past, back into the world that summoned up the work.

When you look at this Boxer, you’re looking at the real thing, even though this real thing alludes to other real things that emerged from France in the 1940s and 1950s.

You might not see time rolling backward yet, but you will in a few more years. For one thing, Boxer Bicycles has apparently closed. Its website has disappeared, though Dan’s Flickr account is still up.

Jack Trumbull of Franklin Frames put in long hours to prepare the Boxer for chroming. He also attached the Compass tail light. Photo by Mitch Hull.

Jack Trumbull of Franklin Frames put in long hours to prepare the Boxer for chroming. He also attached the Compass tail light. Photo by Mitch Hull.

Does that make this an increasingly rare bicycle? Maybe. But no one who creates handmade bicycles is turning them out in the millions. They’re all rare.

Don’t get me wrong: You want production companies turning out bicycles in the millions. More bikes is a good thing.

But if you like small business, if you like focus, if you like different, you should like handmade bicycles.

I like this one.

Why? Maybe it’s the style. Maybe its the craftsmanship. Or maybe it’s all the chrome that’s been added since I saw it last.

The Boxer was built for Mitch and the roads of Ohio. Photo by Mitch Hull.

The Boxer was built for Mitch and the roads of Ohio. Photo by Mitch Hull.

 

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Four things a bicycle expert can do to help a friend

Picnic setup outside of a village shop in Newcastle, County Tipperary, Ireland. Photo taken by Julian Westerhout during a tandem tour, August 1, 2014.

Picnic setup outside of a village shop in Newcastle, County Tipperary, Ireland. Photo taken by Julian Westerhout during a tandem tour, August 1, 2014.

The worst axiom in English may be, “It’s just like riding a bicycle; you never forget.” The problem is many people think they know how to ride a bicycle, but a lot of them are wrong.

Riding a bicycle is more than balancing a bicycle long enough to move forward. It’s also riding a bicycle on the right side of the street, which in the United States is, ding-ding-ding, the right side of the street.

(By the way, how much do you really know about riding a bicycle?)

Given the number of United Statesians who ride on the left side of the street, a more accurate saying would be, “It’s just like riding a bicycle; the less you’re willing to learn, the less likely it is that anyone can convince you you’re doing it wrong.”

At the same time, it’s possible to know too much, especially when it comes to helping someone with a bicycle issue. That’s right: Your big bike brain can work against you.

What to do?

  1. Understand the problem. If your friend doesn’t ride because the chain is jammed against the chain stay, but you think your friend doesn’t ride because your friend doesn’t have a $10,000 bicycle, the two of you aren’t working on the same problem. Use the most important tools you have: your ears.
  2. Maintain friend-speed at all times. I don’t know your level of expertise. Maybe you move households with your cargo bike. Maybe your riding goal for this year is 75,000 miles. It doesn’t matter. What matters is helping, not overwhelming, your friend. If your friend wants to ride to a store three miles away, ride to the store with your friend–don’t invite your friend to next week’s double metric century.
  3. Check the tires. If I could wave a magic wand, everyone who buys a bicycle would buy a pump at the same time because bicycle tires lose air way faster than car tires. But since I don’t have a magic wand and you have a pump, offer to air the tires. If your friend only rides once in a while, your friend will be amazed by the difference.
  4. Make sure the saddle and seat post are securely attached. Most of the time, the problem with nuts and bolts isn’t that they fail, it’s that they come loose. A saddle that was at the right angle tips and slides backward; a seat post slides into the frame. Readjust and secure both items, and your friend will be more comfortable—and more likely to ride.

Now this might be where you say, “But there are a lot more ways to help a friend with a bicycle. There’s adjusting brakes and derailleurs, fine-tuning the person’s fit on the bike, teaching a person how to work on a bicycle, getting a friend to ride more often, encouraging a friend to get stronger, faster. And what about clothes?”

Here’s where I say, first thing, you’ve got the big bike brain. You may be right. Second thing, you’ve got the big bike brain; you may be wrong.

The only way to move forward is to weigh your enthusiasm for the bicycle against your friend’s interest in the bicycle. You have to keep everything in balance.

It is, after all, just like riding a bicycle.

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