After getting a taste of working on a bike myself by swapping out the handlebars and stem on my Cross-Check, I knew I wanted to learn more about bike maintenance and eventually putting one together as a project. I recalled riding my Aunt’s old Raleigh when I spent summer days at my Grandparent’s house. It hung, unused (except for me periodically), in the garage then and still did now. It had been hanging in the garage for probably over 20 years. So I asked my Aunt if I could have it for a project. She obliged and I asked my dad to check out it’s condition, and if it was worth it, to ship it down to Texas from New York.
Turns out the frame was in excellent condition, though the rest of the parts had certainly seen better days. But the frame is what matters so the bike made it’s way from its old home in Syracuse to its new home in Houston. When the box arrived I was very excited to see what I was in for. I had talked with my parents via phone a few times as they were getting the bike ready, and had remarked how hilariously the tires pretty much disintegrated when they were rolling it out to the truck, and everything else was kind of frozen in place. All in all, it was about what I expected. But I wasn’t keeping anything original on it, just keeping the frame. After all if you keep the old stuff on it, you’re not going to learn how to build a new bike.
As you can see, the rubber and sidewalls of the tires had deteriorated beyond repair, and the rims were rusted out. The foam wrapping on the handlebars was hard and flaking away. None of this was a surprise since the bike had seen roughly 20+ years of central New York swings from summer temps to winter temps inside an uninsulated garage. I was able to rip the foam off the bars in about 40 icky pieces. Getting the brake levers off, along with the front and rear reflectors was just a matter of getting the bolts to budge. Same goes for the old stem and brake calipers. This era Raleigh model was also fitted with stem mounted shifters (the worst kind ever) – so those came off right away too.
I didn’t have all the tools necessary to strip the bike down entirely that first night. But I managed to take off everything except the front crankset, the chain, and the bottom bracket. I was especially worried about the bottom bracket since during my research online I came across several mentions of older Raleighs having a special kind of bracket that was a pain in the ass to use and remove. Thankfully, this bike was only from the early 80’s, so it turned out to not be an issue.
The two wheels, the handlebars, brake levers, all the cables and housing, and various other small bits and pieces went into the dumpster. I needed to head to our favorite bike shop to get some input and help the following weekend. During the rest of the week I scoured online for parts and input on what kind of build to do.
I frequent an online bike forum and I turned to them first for some guidance. Not surprisingly I was met with helpful supporters, and many who thought I was wasting time, money, and wouldn’t learn anything. But I ignored them. After all, you’re supposed to learn from your mistakes, yes?
Originally I was planning on making a simple geared bike – probably just a single chainring in the front, and maybe a 3-speed in the back. Apparently these are really hard to come by these days, and especially if you want to have indexed shifters. My plan quickly unraveled as a discovered indexed shifters require a minimum of 6 or 7 gears in the back to function. In order to get that many cogs in the back I had two options: a) get a new style wheel with a 7 speed cassette, or b) try to locate a 7 speed freewheel. This was already getting harder than I wanted. Making things worse, newer bikes have a wider distance between the rear dropouts (where the rear wheel’s axle fits into the bike frame) to accommodate all the gears bikes have these days. This meant if I was going to use a 7-speed anything, I’d probably have to stretch-widen the frame. Hey that sounds like the fun! Yeah, no. It’s done often I’m told, but I wasn’t going to try it – not yet.
In the end I decided to save myself the hassle. I went with a single speed. No gears to worry about. No fitting shifters, or derailleurs. Just pedaling. And there’s something clean and elegant about a single speed road bike.
Our favorite local bike shop is West End Bikes. The guys there are awesome. I brought them this frame with a chain and a front crank dangling off it and asked for some help. They filled me in on some of the specs of the bike (from memory) and were kind enough to remove the parts, including the bottom bracket for me at no charge. Everyone often shops online for things because they are cheaper, but this is the kind of place I am happy to play a few extra bucks for the awesome service. (Sidenote: both my wife and I bought our other bikes from West End – my Surly, and her Specialized). Obviously this does you no good if you don’t live in Houston, but if you do, stop by. Also their logo is an adorable dog. The best thing about these guys? Instead of giving me shitty advice or trying to sell me stuff I didn’t need they said they don’t specialize in single speed bikes much – they could order the parts, but didn’t have much to compare to or show me. So, they referred me to another shop closely that does. So with their thanks, off I went to Urban Bicycle Gallery – a shop we didn’t even know existed until that moment.
So off I went to check it out. A mechanic named William stopped what he was working on and helped me for over an hour with my decisions. In the end, he had dispensed quite a bit of single speed info and wisdom, patiently showed me a number of parts, and happily answered all my stupid questions. In the end, I walked out having ordered a set of wheels, a crankset, a single speed freewheel, and a new bottom bracket. Since this was a project bike, he understood that I didn’t want them to install anything except the bottom bracket because I lacked the special tool. He wished me good luck and to stop back if I needed help (I did, eventually, and William was there, remembered who I was, and commented on how badass the bike turned out).
So, now that the meat of the bike was ordered, it was time to grab the rest of the essentials, and wait for everything to start rolling in.
While I was waiting for components to arrive, I worked with what I had. Putting the tubes and tires on the wheels wasn’t much of a problem. I was trying out foldable tires for the first time instead of traditional tires with a wire bead. They’re a little more puncture resistant, and easier to get onto a wheel – apparently. I was told I could do it without the use of a tire lever – but I couldn’t. Needed that leverage to pop the very last part of the tire into the bead slot. But they looked nice nonetheless. These were also the narrowest tires I’ve ever ridden on as well. I’m used to fatter tires on a mountain bike or my Cross-Check. Oh, and they were mostly slick. I’ve never ridden slicks before.
Putting the freewheel on was a piece of cake because it tightens itself as you ride. The crankset was pretty easy as well, and I learned a thing or two about chain alignment (before I even had the chain).
It was starting to look like a bike. Then the rest of the parts starting arriving…
Turned out I needed long-reach brakes because the original wheels I chucked were actually 27″ wheels – which I understand was pretty standard back then. Today’s standard 700c wheels are actually smaller, so for the brakes to be attached to the frame and still be able to reach the rims, they need to have a longer reach. This is a common issue so long-reach brakes are fairly common. Tektro is pretty much the standard for brakes these days, so they didn’t disappoint.
And the pieces continued to arrive in the mail and find their respective places on the bike…
As you can see the bike is nearly done at this point. Just missing brake cables, some bar tape, a chain, and those ever important pedals. I’m glad I forgot I ordered cables and housing from Amazon as well as went to another bike shop to get some because I messed up a few times and needed that extra. I was nervous running brake cables because of course it really is the most important. If your brakes fail you’re pretty much screwed. But thanks to some trial and error and a couple of YouTube videos, I got the cables inside the housing, and everything attached and strung properly. I’ve ever already adjusted them after the initial ‘stretching’ period. And I’m still alive!
Putting on the chain was interesting as well, since any chain you buy is way too long. Thankfully I also picked up a chain tool which made the whole thing a snap. The chain I bought has a master link so getting it on and off, and adding or removing links is simple. Removing the right number of links so the wheel ends up in a good spot in the dropouts was a little challenging. I kept in mind chains stretch as they are used so ultimately the wheel would have to move further back in the dropouts so I had to leave enough room initially.
After I wrapped the bars, it was ready to go. I took it out for a test ride in the apartment parking lot and she flew. I was anxious about whether or not I had chosen the correct size freewheel because to small = too hard, and too large = too easy. Thankfully, 18 teeth seems to be a good sweet spot, especially for a first time single speed-er.
And here it is. It’s name is Henry. (My Cross-Check is named Sherman. $5 to anyone who can figure out who they’re named after.)
I’ve already been riding it to work for about 3 weeks. A new rack just arrived this past weekend as well, so I’ll be reviewing that soon, too.
I know this was a long post, but I hope you enjoyed reading about my learning experience. Building a bike was a lot easier than I thought, but there are a lot of little things you need to pay attention to otherwise you could end up in dire trouble! Next time, I’ll take on the harder task of building a geared bike. But, not for a while. It’s pretty flat here in Houston, a single speed should work just fine!
Full components list:
Wheels: Origin 8 Fixie/Free set
Crank: Origin 8 Pro-Pulsion 46-tooth
Freewheel: ACS Crossfire single-speed 18-tooth
Brakes: Tektro R559 Long Reach, nutted
Brake levers: Cane Creek 200TT time trial levers
Handlebars: Origin 8 bullhorn “Bully” bar
Stem: Origin 8 Classic Sport quill
Chain: KMC Z410NP 1/8″
Bar tape: Profile Design cork (orange)
Tires: Bontrager AW-2 folding 700c x 28
Additional thanks go to Bike Barn for help and parts.