Learning How to Build a Bike Was the Best Thing I did all Quarantine

Stay at home orders make for the perfect time to learn how to put a bike together from scratch.
Photo: Hannah Morvay

If you had all the time in the world, what would you do with it? The pandemic has taken this question for many of us, put it in the palm of its hands, mashed it together, and presented it again. What would you do if you had much more free time than usual for six to eight weeks, but couldn’t leave home? Maybe you’re still working remotely. Maybe you’re just riding time out in order to return to work. In either case, when Friday rolls around, you’re not going to the game or to the brewery with friends.

For some, it’s meant catching up on books, or binge watching Netflix. Home improvement projects are an obvious choice, and for some reason, every other friend I have has been making sourdough bread for the first time.

Near the end of last year I decided that I was going to sell my bike. Although it was a 2019 model, the 27.5-inch trail bike design was about five years old. The geometry felt cramped and outdated, and no matter what I tried, I never felt like we could really mesh. There is no reason to keep a bike around that isn’t 100% enjoyable.

I listed the bike sometime in December, and it sat and sat and sat for months, garnering lowball offers and half-interested inquiries. My hope initially was that the bike would have sold at some point in January and I’d have the rest of the winter months, February and March, to ready a new bike for the singletrack battle. But, it sat through the first week of March without any realistic offers.

Then, coronavirus spread its reach into Colorado, industries started shutting down, and the new face of the economy showed itself. “Man, this thing isn’t going anywhere. No one is going to be dropping money on bikes for a while,” I thought. A day after the news got real I had three decent offers in my inbox, all at the same time. I was surprised, but not about to argue with any buyers. I stripped the frame and sent it to someone in California.

A few days later, I ordered my new frame, and a few days after that a UPS driver dropped the box on my front porch. I grabbed a knife and sliced through the packing tape around the seams of the cardboard box. The frame, a matte royal blue on the lower half and glossy on the upper, with gold lettering and accents was the nicest I’d ever purchased. And, it’s actually the first carbon fiber mountain bike frame I’ve ever bought. I am still a fan of aluminum.

The day after the courier dropped my package off, Colorado entered its first day under ‘Stay at Home’ orders. We were anticipating it, and my fiance and I had already been thinking about what we’d do at home. For myself, as long as online ordering and home delivery were still options, I was in the clear to make this build my most exciting quarantine project.

Unlike a lot of bike journalists out there, I didn’t grow up in a bike shop, patching tubes and replacing chains by the age of six. I just liked bikes a lot and went to J-school in my late 20s for a career change. As a kid, my family didn’t have a lot of money, so when something broke on my BMX, it was my responsibility to fix the problem. Sometimes that meant a wobbly ride to school after an unsuccessful wheel true on the porch of our apartment. Other times were more satisfying and my friend and I would regrease and repack our hub bearings around a BMX video tape on a Saturday night.

Photo: Matt Miller

Years later, and my maintenance capabilities have grown, but there are things that I often consider outside of my expertise. I could cut, install, and bleed brake cables, but had never changed a shift cable, or adjusted derailleurs. I had changed threaded bottom brackets, serviced my own suspension, but had never cut a steerer tube, or internally routed brake and shift cables through a frame.

Each and every component is its own operation, some more complex than others. As a system, everything on a bike works as a team, on its own. If say a rear brake is not operational because of air in its line, the minor mechanical somehow takes away 50% of our confidence riding it, even if the bike is still 90% functional.

Now, I felt like I had all the time in the world to learn it all — well, for the next several weeks. I could examine each component that would be fitted to the frame and absorb the process, rather than rushing to install a part because I wanted to ride it the next day, and missing steps due to my impatience.

Even though bike shops had been declared essential in Colorado, I wanted to avoid them. Bike shops seemed to have better things to do, like repairing a commuter’s bike so they could get to work or helping a family get their old fleet operational so the parents could get their kids out of the house for a ride around the block. My needs felt vain in comparison.

I started with the fork, which meant I needed a steerer tube cutting guide and a hacksaw, easily obtained under challenging retail operations with Amazon and Home Depot. I left a little extra on the steerer tube. Better to take off too little than too much. Then, I pounded in the star nut, watching the little wings slowly bend inward as it sank inside. I hit it one way, I hit the other, and after a half-hour hammering at the top cap bolt, it was still crooked, but it worked. When I threw the headset in the frame and the crown race on the fork, the front end tightened up just fine.

Photo: Matt Miller

That day, I mounted up the stem and handlebars, and the front brake on the new fork. Phase one of the build was as smooth as a freshly-bled brake. A few days later, I installed the dropper post — one of the easiest cable operated fixes on a bike. The next phase was trickier.

“Is spacing a bottom bracket usually complicated?” I asked Gerow, Singletracks’ Italy-based staff writer. “It shouldn’t be,” he replied.

The day before, I spent probably an hour-and-a-half trying to get the spacing configuration perfect so that the chainring would sit smack in the middle of the stock chain guide. I found formulas online, but none were working. One spacer on both sides of the BB didn’t work. One only on the driveside didn’t work. One only on the non-driveside didn’t work. Two on the driveside didn’t work, and as I kept cinching up the crankset, pulling it back off, and doing the same with the bottom bracket, I forgot which configurations I had tried and hadn’t tried. It was time to take a break.

Photo: Matt Miller

The next day with a clear head, I went back in the garage and pulled the crankset and bottom bracket off again. What if I tried one 2.5mm BB spacer and one 1mm spacer on the driveside? Winding the 8mm Hex wrench round and round again, the chainring lined up smack in the middle of the guide. Hell yes.

With the front end, the dropper post, and the crankset installed, I worked my way to the final frontier: the rear triangle and the rest of the drivetrain. The weather had been delightful the past week or two as I was putting my new bike together. The days had regularly been in the 60s and 70s. The trails were dry, but I had only been able to road ride, since my mountain bike was sitting half-assembled in the garage. It was now the middle of the week, with warm days all the way through Saturday, and an expected six inches of snow on Sunday. The pressure was officially on if I wanted to get one ride on the new bike Saturday before the snow.

The derailleur was a no-brainer. I threw it on the hanger and tightened it up, then wound the chain through. I measured my cable housing — again leaving a little extra — and clipped it. Then, it was time to drop in to YouTube University. I thumbed up a list of ‘How to install a shift cable’ videos and got to learning. Drop the shifter into the highest gear, try and get the slack out of the cable at the derailleur before locking the cable in.

Easy enough. I spun the cranks and pressed on the shifter to see where I was at. It sounded like robot vomit. The chain wasn’t staying on any single gear and the upper pulley wheel of the derailleur was jumping up at the cassette like a shark nosing in and out of the water for a hanging piece of meat.

Damnit. No dice. I rewatched the video several times, then watched several more, and still I had no luck. It was Friday afternoon, and my chance to ride before another week and a half of snowy and muddy trails looked like it had passed. On top of that, I had sloppily thrown the cassette together, removing a critical spacer between gears because I had missed one inside the hub when I was changing the freehub body. A lack of time had again become the enemy of quality.

So, I succumbed, closed the garage door, and went for a road ride instead on Saturday. The day after, like clockwork we had a fresh six inches of snow. Monday, I went back into the garage and looked at the bike as I thought everything over. Sitting on my work bench, a silver spacer caught my eye.

Photo: Matt Miller

I unspun the axle out of the rear triangle, yanked my wheel out and then took my cassette off. With the right spacer inside the rear hub, the cassette mounted up perfectly, and on top of that, I noticed that I didn’t even have the derailleur mounted correctly behind the notch on the hanger. Oh. Right.

The drivetrain still shifted like there was a mouse caught in the cassette, but I knew that since everything was installed correctly, I could actually tune it to shift. After adjusting the low and high limits, and the B-screw, the derailleur sang a tune of mechanical alignment, rather than a nauseous metal melody.

Photo: Hannah Morvay

Holy shit I just finished building a bike on my own! I yanked it off my work stand and sprinted onto my street, clacking the gears up and down. One to eleven. Eleven to one. Smoother than a well-buttered King’s Hawaiian sweet roll. The trails still wouldn’t be dry for for at least another week or two, but I’d be ready.

Having grown up without a lot of money, I am still picky about spending on services that I can perform myself. Part of that is surely my ego telling me that I’m mechanically capable enough and shouldn’t have someone else do something that I can do myself. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

When it works, it sure does feel real good. The pandemic has been an exercise in independence and self-sustainability, and even though I don’t mind running into a bike shop every now and then, it’s nice to rely on one less service for the time being. I know that I’ll need their help again, especially when life resumes normally and time is a greater enemy. For now though, I’ll revel in the fact that I’m my own one-stop shop.