The Mountain Bike Life

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and a shifter with a thousand parts explodes with a single screw.

There is something satisfying in the assembly of bicycles. Cathartic even. Something promethean about creating a thing that is more than the sum of its parts. Something useful. Something poetic and artistic. The slow becoming of reality, watching the product of the hands take shape and match the vision of the mind. From musing to lusting to creation of spreadsheets (yeah… my bike builds include spreadsheets), to pulling various deals and connections and the patient waiting for it all to materialize. Neurotic email checking waiting for things to ship, waiting for wheels to build. The panicked flutter in my chest at the approach of the UPS truck. The devastation when it passes by without stopping.
All of it leading up to this day. Build Day. Two months of anticipation while I patiently waited for all the pieces and players to align. Today I cleared my schedule. The final bits of bike that I needed to round out the build were scheduled to arrive today. Mike, the current UPS guy, usually makes his rounds by about twelve. I had a few hours of overtime at work in the morning and with the rest of my family out of town for the day I would have the afternoon to dedicate to The Build. It would take two hours taking my sweet time leaving me with hours of daylight to load up and head out for a shake-down ride. I pictured myself, golden sunlight, hand in hand with my brand new bike, skipping into the sunset. Happily ever after.

I cleaned my bench. I put on my apron. I dialed up my favorite Pixies album, “Doolittle”. I cracked a Lagunitas Little Sumpin Sumpin. My new frame hovered in the stand, unadorned. My stage was set.

And that was about as perfect as it got. It was mostly downhill from there. I decided to start with the bottom bracket. I spun in the external Race Face Cinch bearing cups by hand. I plucked my trusty and beautiful Chris King bottom bracket tool from the bench and attempted to fit it to the splines on the bottom bracket. It didn’t fit. The BB was too large in diameter and had too few splines. I remained calm and referred to the included instructions. There, clearly printed in black and white and pretty colors it listed the Race Face BB tool, or similar BSA30-type tool from Zipp, Rotor, or Enduro as necessary equipment. Doh. Several phone calls and I was on the road to the nearest shop that had the proper tool. Thirty minutes later I walked into Vecchios Bicicletteria in Boulder. Vecchio’s oozes old-school cycling cool. Not this johnny-come-lately, bro-brah, red-bull, crap. I’m talking about style. Fausto Coppi kinda style. From the Phil Wood spoke cutter to the track frames on the wall everything in this store is beautiful. It is sometimes said that “you can’t get out of Vecchio’s for under ten grand” referring to the prices of the full custom masterpieces they typically build. But today, I got out of there for free. The mechanic was friendly and non-chalant as he took my frame from me and with the absentminded skill of a devout expert snugged my bottom bracket down with the right tool and dismissed the notion that I might pay him with a wave of his hand and the return to his beverage.
I rocketed away from Boulder as fast as I could, swatting away hippies and trust-funders, narrowly avoiding a Land Rover with a “Save Tibet” bumper-sticker as it screeched to a stop to defer right-of-way to a fixie-borne hipster a block away.

Safely back at the Bike-lab, I settled back into the soothing rhythm of Lagunitas, Pixies and things Going Together Nicely. The bike was starting to look like a bike. The dream was becoming real. I had the garage door open and the evening sun was oranging up the sky. It was getting later and the notions I’d had of demo’ing my new whip in the High Country tonight were fading faster than the sun. I mentally began to shrink the radius within which contained trails I could still get to tonight. There were a few, and I still had the neighborhood loops if all else failed.

Chris King

I ran the shifter cable and began my tuning routine. Top-end limiter screw, bottom-end limiter screw, cable tension, barrel adjuster. Shift.

The shifter dragged. The perky, crisp takes and releases that I expected were replaced with a dead trigger that failed to release past the first couple gears. My beloved Single Speed sat quietly in the corner, a smug I-told-you-so grin on her face.

I don’t remember much about the next 4 hours, but at some point I thought it would be a good idea to disassemble the malfunctioning shifter. Which it most certainly never is. Unscrewing the hardware on a SRAM XO1 11-speed shifter disrupts the retromagnetotronic field which makes it possible to contain eleven speeds in the space that used to house as few as six and seven speeds. The resultant spatial warp propels the roughly 186,000 pieces of a SRAM XO1 11-speed shifter outward, mysteriously teleporting the small-bitsiest of them into tight spaces like the garbage disposal.

I managed somehow to keep both eyes despite the cloud of shifter shrapnel and was now presented with the daunting task of reassembly of a machine that I had not actually seen intact, for which there was no available schematic or diagram, out of a pile of parts that I could not verify for completeness. All the little parts were coated in some custom-viscosity perma-grease that made handling them difficult, and simultaneously tensioning a number of clocksprings, clips, and retainers almost impossible. I felt like I was attemping to solve a spring-loaded rubik’s cube with the stickers removed, made entirely out of live mackerel. At some point my neighbor, Jason came running down the street with true excitement on his face. I had done a small test ride with down to his house an hour earlier, and his wife let me steal a spare shift cable from his shop. She told him about the new bike and he appeared like a child expecting to see a new puppy.

“I had to come see it”. A true fellow bike geek. His bike lab is adorned with mountain bike kitsch including an original AMP Research F4 linkage fork. From the look on my face he could tell that there was trouble in paradise. He couldn’t tell if I needed some help, or needed some time alone. “I’ll get you a beer” was all I really had to say.

As I fiddled with the parts of my annihilated shifter Jason defaulted to work mode. As an industry pro for 20ish years he started troubleshooting. I took him through the steps I already covered. My hands already red with SRAM blood, I opened up my laptop for him and he began scouring the interwebs for SRAM schematics. Checking the time, he began calling old contacts at shops on the West Coast: Portland, Seattle. He chatted up the tech at the REI Flagship. No joy. Nobody had the intel we needed.

I had forgotten to eat lunch and dinner. It was ten p.m. and my hopes of riding tonight were long gone. Finally Jason had to call it quits, go home to his wife and sleeping children. He wished me luck and left me alone with my madness.

This is what a Bad Idea looks like

This is what a Bad Idea looks like

At around 11:30 p.m., about five hours into the operation, after five hours of rebuilding, failing, reversing, reassembling, repeating, things started to come together. Literally. An epiphany. Clarity. Insanity maybe, but there in my shaking, raw fingers, I held a functional shifter. I cradled it like I might a little bird which had fallen from a nest, like a delicate fragile thing that could be crushed by a heavy sigh. The sound of angels singing was deafening.

I installed the shifter and tuned the deraileur, the simplicity of a 1×11 system was refreshing and exciting. By 12:30am I had a functioning, rideable bicycle.

I coasted out into the cool, black night. I hot-rodded my new Chris King wheels. In the midnight calm the Angry Bee echoed off the houses along my street and I became self-conscious for fear of disturbing my neighbors. I screamed past Jason’s house, childishly hoping to wake him just enough for him to hear the telltale buzz and to know my success. In the sodium glow of the street lights I made lazy circles, pulled a few wheelies, and laid down a little rubber to test the brakes. I have used this exact procedure to test the ride-worthiness of my bikes since I was six years old.

At 1 a.m. I put my new bike back in the stand, pausing just a second to wipe off a smudge of cosmoline with my ever callusing finger. I headed off to bed. In the background of my mind played a loop of all the rides that I would do with the bike. Lenawee, Two Elks, Alpine, Trash Mountain, Jones Pass, Miller Fork, Crosier, SSV…. Anticipation lead to frustration to elation to satisfaction to anticipation. The cycle was complete.

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