"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door" … "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."
~ Bilbo Baggins from The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkein

Friday, May 15, 2015

My BIKE - The Seven of Hearts

Time to talk about the most important thing I’m taking on this grand adventure – my bike. As I say in my Short Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, both Will and I will be riding steel-framed bikes custom designed and built by SEVEN 7 CYCLES of Massachusetts.

The Seven of Hearts standing nice and pretty and ready to go outside the Velosmith Bicycle Studio

Why a New, Custom Bike?

While planning my Door County trip last May I realized that if I was truly committed to cycle touring it was time to invest in a new, lighter-weight, 21st century equipped vehicle. True, my 35-year-old Proteus would serve me well on that relatively flat trip, but I'd need more gears and something lighter to get up the steeper stuff I dreamed of. I learned my lesson all those years ago: I'm SHORT and even these days, small, highly technical bikes don't grow on trees. I'd need another custom bike.

Luckily, just up the block Velosmith Bicycle Studio specializes in designing bikes for customers like me. I stopped in to talk to Tony Bustamante about getting a new steed and ended up learning so much about modern materials, fit, building techniques, and components that my head seemed to burst. In addition to getting a new bike, I came away with a deeper understanding about what makes it uniquely suited to both my body and my riding purpose. Thanks Tony for a great and on-going bicycle education.

Purpose Drives the Design

Jim and Will with their "Big Green Machines"
Great for around town. Not really suitable for riding around THE LAKE

To be at all useful a bike must not only fit you well but also suit your purpose. A bike you'd ride to the beach or to run errands is not a bike you' take around THE LAKE. Bikes you'd use for a triathlon, at the velodrome, off road, or in a road race, none of these would be suitable either. I suppose people have been known to try, but they certainly haven't been comfortable. To carry me and my stuff around THE LAKE, my bike needed to accommodate a rack and fenders, be comfortable for riding all day, day after day and be stable uphill, downhill and in the corners. I would need something with a longer than average wheelbase to distribute the added weight to the front and give my foot room to clear my panniers. It would inevitably be less agile and responsive, but that was a trade-off I was willing to make.

The Fit (Geometry)

According to Tony, designing the geometry of a frame involves a lot more than making sure the rider can stand over the top tube. If you're planning to ride the thing thousands of miles a year, it has to first fit your body in all kinds of biomechanical ways. The goal: to prevent injury, ensure comfort and transfer the rider's power efficiently to the vehicle. The height has to be right of course, but also the reach from saddle to handle bar should be comfortable, the legs aligned with the pedals. Then too the geometry needs to support the rider's desired "ride personality" and intended purpose - in my case, stable handling for light-weight touring. All these conceptual elements then need to be magically translated into a three-dimensional "living" frame. I've come to see that it takes a combination of science, art and bicycle passion to do so.

Some of the dimensions of my bike as drawn by Tony

The Material (Steel Tubing)

I knew from the beginning that I wanted another steel-framed bike. I love both the technology and history of steel bikes as well as the smoothness of their ride. But also, if something happens to a steel frame when you're out on the road, you can usually find someone out there to fix it. Titanium is strong and much lighter, but tricky to fix. Carbon fiber is even lighter, much harder to fix and, more importantly, not flexible enough to accommodate a rack. So for me, the up front choice of steel was simple.

Little did I know, but the backroom choice of which type of steel and what thickness of tubing to use for which parts of my bike was anything but simple. From what Tony tells me, my bike, with its eight steel parts (top tube, seat tube, down tube, head tube, seat stays and chain stays), incorporates variable tube thicknesses, diameters and even multiple manufactures.  This is one of the major benefits of having SEVEN build my bike. Unique in the world of custom bike builders, SEVEN has the ability to select just the right tube for its individual job, combining materials from several tubing producers in one frame. Their choice of manufacturer and specification for each tube was driven by a combination of my weight, intended use and preference for stability and comfort. They would have chosen something completely different if I'd wanted a firm, race quality ride, with sharp steering and agility. Frankly, it all sounds a bit like alchemy to me.


For my non-biker friends, components are all the things on a bike other than the pieces that make up the frame. There are LOTS of these and while each needed its own decision, some are certainly more significant than others. Some, like the rack and fenders which I need for touring, impacted the actual frame design. Others, like wanting really low gears and integrated shifting, would significantly impact my riding experience. For my biker friends, I choose the Shimano Ultra 6800 11 speed mechanical group, hand built wheels by Velosmith and a Chris King headset. I also picked out a carbon fiber front fork, which some would argue is part of the frame but technically its not. I know I'm running a bit of an on-road breakage risk with this, but, couldn't resist its lighter weight and smoother ride.

The Final Product

All those choices, all those big and little decisions, all those millimeter-sized adjustments added up to some big changes to the feel and handling of this bike versus my 35 year old, long-time friend. This new, modern steed seems more power-efficient, quicker in its handling and equally stable. I seem to be slightly less affected by the wind (although that's still a BIG problem) and have greatly enjoyed the lower gearing especially when faced with some real hills in Texas and New York. When I ride it without rack, fenders and panniers it seems to fly. On our test ride last month, it felt stable and comfortable fully loaded. It seems the perfect Renaissance bike - great for all the types of riding I do.

Can't wait to get started on its big adventure - only a few days to go now.

If you're really, really geeky and into the minutia of bike design, you can check out the page entitled "Bike Specifications." If your head seems to spin with too many numbers and angles - don't bother. The ride's the same whether you understand the math or not.

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