Ahearne Cycles

Stainless Steel Bicycle - A Construction Story

Joseph Ahearne9 Comments
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A lot of bikes I build have details that are unique; one-off design features that may or may not be visible at a glance. And then there are, periodically, bikes I build that are striking at a distance, and just seem to light up as you come in for a closer look. This is one of those bikes. 

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A lot of people have come through the shop over the past eight or nine months, and seen this bike at various stages in the build process. Without seeing it first hand, or building a stainless steel bike for yourself, it's hard to fathom the time and labor involved in its construction and in the finish work. I may build a stainless bike once every five or so years. It's not an easy material to work with, both physically, and spiritually. 

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For this bike I used mostly Reynolds 921 work hardened stainless steel tubing. I chose this tubing because the walls come slightly thicker than much of the other stainless tubing available. Running 27.5" tires at almost three inches wide, this wasn't meant to be a race bike, so weight wasn't the first concern. I wanted stability and comfort. And too, putting a rack on a bike stresses a frame differently than having just a rider. 

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The man who commissioned this build is relocating to Colorado, up in the mountains. He told me he wanted something that could take all the various conditions that he might encounter: Roads, single track, snow & ice, dirt, gravel. We talked it through and he said, "I want something special," and he gave me license to interpret that in my own way, limited only by the parameters of what the bike would need to do, and where it might go. I told him it would be a long journey, and I'm not sure he believed me at first. Or, like many others, he just wasn't sure exactly what this sort of "long journey" would look like. How long, really, could it be? 

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To begin, I had to gather the materials. Part of the problem was, nobody had yet fabricated in stainless steel some of the things I needed for the build. I had to remake the fork crown plates with enough width to fit the tires. The chain stay yoke and front dropouts were made only in mild steel or titanium by Paragon Machine Works, and I had to call them up and beg for them to remake these parts in stainless, which maybe sounds easy, but because of the material, everything has to be reworked and retooled for the job. 

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The first thing I did, after gathering all the materials, was to put together the initial sub assemblies: Seat tube to bb, dropouts to fork legs, and dropouts to chain stays, assemble the chain stay yoke. Then, before I ever cut the first tube, everything was pre-polished. The fork crown pieces, fork legs with dropouts, chain stays with dropouts, the seat stays, bottom bracket & seat tube, head tube, yoke, and all the main tubes. All of it brought to a mirror finish. Then I brazed the crown plates onto the steerer, and re-polished the plates. Then put the fork legs into the crown, and re-polish. Then braze ons, and I installed the fender, and set up to build the front rack. I waited to do the final polish until after the rack was finished. 

Finishing the rack, I moved on to the front triangle. First thing I did was braze on the Ahearne logo. This is the closest I come to making jewelry, since the brazing is so delicate. I have to turn my torch low, and recruit the help of whoever may be in the shop at the time to hold the fragile piece against the tube. You can see a time-lapse video of the process in the "video" section of the website. 

Logo on, I then drilled and installed internal routing for the rear brake housing. With this it was time for to re-polish the tube, and assemble the front triangle. And a re-polish. Add chain stays to the yoke. Re-polish. Put yoke to bb, re-polish. I hand bent the seat stays using the "Roberto" double fork blade bender by Anvil Bikes. Bending seat stays in two planes is tricky, and then to slot and hand miter them correctly takes a lot of time. On this bike that I had to do two sets -- the first set of stays was practice, and taught me how to bend and miter them correctly. Sometimes that's what it takes. I got that first set all finished, but realized I just didn't have the tire clearance I wanted, and this was not a bike to cut corners on. Everything was perfect, except I just needed about 5 mm more on each side to feel like it was right. So I bought a new set of stays, and started the process of polishing, bending, slotting, and mitering all over again. 

The last step of the construction was to install all the bridges and braze ons. Then, at last, it was time for the final polish of the frame and fork. I made the rack from chromoly, so after it was finished and polished I sent it to a chrome plater for treatment. After the final polish on the frame, it was time to strategically mask around the logos, and on the seat tube, and to give it a very light bead blast to etch in stripes and mark off panels. I did this with the help of Black Magic Paint, and the use of Dave Levy's blasting cabinet (Thanks Rudy! Thanks Dave!). Black Magic also masked and painted the stripe on the fenders, filled in the fork crown and painted the stem. After etching stars and panels, I went over the lower part of the frame and fork with a white Scotch Bright pad, burnishing it very lightly to tone down the mirror finish and giving it a subtle brushed appearance. And yes, I wore white cotton gloves throughout all of this. 

Now it was time to install fenders, string up the internal wiring for the lights, and assemble the bike with parts. Much of this was accomplished with the help of Abraham of Abraham Fixes. I heard through the grape-vine that he recently became a father -- congratulations, Sir! With the bike now completed it was time to get some photos, which was way harder than I expected. I'm kind of a hack photographer, and I tried shooting the bike in several different settings, and with varying light levels, and had almost no success. Out of about 500 photos, I got maybe 6 shots that weren't terrible and washed out. I felt like this bike deserved better treatment, so I called in a professional, and Dylan VanWeelden took on the task. He basically had to make a black container around the bike, and to dim the lights way low. A majority of the photos you've seen here were taken by him, and many of them are still raw. I think you can agree, he did an amazing job of capturing this hard-to-shoot bike. I think a few of the shots are breath-taking. A big thanks to you, Dylan. 

The owner of this bike is moving to Colorado in the next few weeks, and asked that I wait to ship it until he arrives. A wood crate is ready at the workshop, and I'll be zipping it up soon. I was grateful for the extra time with the bike to get the photos, and also because it allowed me to put it on display. I wanted to give people a chance to check it out in person. I got ahold of Sky at Velocult Bike Shop and he agreed to let me keep it there for a month or so. Thank you Sky. 

The entire construction of this bike, including all the polishing and the final treatment of the frame, parts assembly, etc., took about six months. As a comparison, a regular, non-stainless version of this same bike would probably take me about two weeks to construct, would be at the painter for around a month, and would take a few days to assemble with parts. So you'll hopefully believe me when I tell you that I've had about a 12- 15% increase in my gray hair count over the course of this bike's conception and birth.

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I love the craft of bike making, and if I didn't push my own boundaries sometimes, I'd eventually feel stagnant in what I do. But a bike of this magnitude takes its toll, as well: When I send this one out, I'll be sending out a piece of myself along with it. In a way, I think this is how a person like me stays in touch with the planet we live on, and how I search myself for my version of what it means to be alive. 

To see the complete photo set, please head to the Ahearne Cycles Flickr page. Thanks for reading, and I hope you've enjoyed it. 

A Lighter Pinion Bike?

Joseph Ahearne2 Comments

A man named Dylan contacted me with questions about a Pinion build. Among other things, he asked about the weight:

"Is there any wild chance that this Pinion build can be made as a lighter-ish bike? Crazy talk?"

A couple of thoughts on this: Pinion offers four levels of gearing: 18 speed, 12 speed, 9 and 6. I’m only going to talk about the 18 speed vs. the 12 here. 

There are two factors involved; gear range and weight. The 12 speed C-line weighs a hair over 4.5 pounds (2100 grams), and has a 600% range from top to bottom. This is wider than most traditional 10 speed triple drive trains. The 18 speed weighs just under 6 lbs. (2700 grams) and has a 636% gear range, which means it doesn’t have a lot more range than the 12 speed, but with smaller jumps between gears.  For the weight, there’s about a 1.5 pound difference between 12 and 18 speed. The question is, how much does this matter?

12 Speed Pinion

I ride the 18 speed , and one thing I’ve noticed is that for my general around-town needs, there really are too many gears, and they’re too narrowly spaced. I often find myself skipping gears, shifting through 2 and 3 at a time. But, this is commuting, where I’ve got a lot of stops and starts, ups and downs, cars, stoplights, other cyclists, etc. Which is different from a multi-day tour. On tour I appreciate the gear options of the 18 speed because I can find the exact right gear for whatever situation I'm in. Gradual inclines, wind factor, weight, how tired my legs might be; it doesn’t matter, there’s always a gear. But would the 12 speed work for me? Fewer options, bigger gaps? It might, I’m adaptable, so long as I have a low enough gear to still pull big hills with all my stuff, then I’m guessing I’d probably be just fine. 

My other thought on this is, my bike is first and foremost a touring bike. Yes, I may take day trips into the hills around Portland, but I need this bike to be stable and sure when carrying weight for multi-day trips. Tent, sleeping bag and pad, stove and food and water, rain gear and appropriate clothes. A book. Camera. And I don’t always buy the absolute lightest gear. Just because it’s feather weight doesn’t mean it’s the best for me. Everyone has their own ideas on comfort vs. what they want to push around, which, you’ve got to figure that out for yourself. What I’m saying is, when touring, weight isn’t the first issue, and so I’m not going to worry about the difference between 4.5 lbs compared to 6 lbs in the gearbox. That doesn’t matter to me at all. 

Touring or Commuting?

This leads me to the next obvious question for anyone thinking about what kind of bike they want. I believe you have to look honestly at what sort of riding you intend to do. Do you want to go on light tours, maybe 2 or 3 day trips, possibly staying at hotels along the way? Do you want to do long day rides on a lighter bike carrying minimal gear? In these cases, I’d say yes, go for the 12 speed and let me build you a bike with lighter tubing. But if you want this bike to serve you well on longer tours, then the bike has to be built for that. If you compromise, you end up with a bike that doesn’t work optimally under certain conditions. In this case, the weight of the gearbox doesn’t matter as much as what it offers in range and gear choice. 

The short answer to the question about weight, then: Yes, a lighter bike can be built with a Pinion system. But this question bounces right back at you: How are you going to use the bike? Think about that, and let’s talk some more.

Loaded On Low Trail

Joseph AhearneComment
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A few weeks ago a customer, named Gustav, contacted me who’d taken his new bike on tour. He picked up the bike at our workshop, a new Page Street Outback with a Pinion gearbox, and very shortly after was taking off on a three-day tour through the Cascade Mountains and to the coast. There was really not much time for him to get accustomed to his bike before he left. 

 Pinion Gearbox with Gates Carbon Drive, S&S Couplers

Pinion Gearbox with Gates Carbon Drive, S&S Couplers

When a bike is brand new I always recommend a person ride it for a while before going out on any sort of multi-day ride loaded down with gear, just to get the bike dialed in and the bugs worked out. Short tours are fine, over-night trips or a weekend get-away. But I don’t think it’s wise to commit yourself to too much. Maybe go on some day rides, so you can pay attention to how your body and the bike work together. Bring along some basic tools since you may need to adjust the saddle fore or aft, or to adjust your stem, your pedal cleats, any number of things. You’ll always be able to do micro-adjustments while on tour, but if possible you don’t want to be surprised by anything major while out on a bigger ride. 

After a weekend of riding, Gustav sent me a message telling me about how the bike performed. This is what he wrote:

I’m back from the bike camping trip.  Overall it all went very well.  We did modify our last day of riding to avoid riding back over the coastal range in near 100 degree weather.  Instead we opted to spend the last night further down on the coast at Cape Lookout State park and then we biked back to Tillamook and took the bus back to the Portland area.

The most unfortunate aspect of the tour is that I didn’t fully figure out how to best load the bike with my stuff until the last day.  For the first three days I had the smaller ‘front’ panniers in the front the larger and heavier ‘back’ panniers in the back.  The result was that I often had a shimmy in the front that I was convinced was caused by the exact placement of my front panniers.  After experimenting forward and backward on the bars and even putting the front panniers high on the rack, I concluded that wherever I put the front panniers it made little difference as far as the shimmy.  On the last day by friend, Wayne Johnson, mentioned that my bike, because it has a low-trail geometry, would probably be better off with less weight in the back and more in the front.  Then I remembered what you said about using back panniers in the front and just a large saddle bag in the back, a setup that Wayne actually used on his bike even though it is not low-trail.  Swapping the front and back panniers and putting the smaller lighter ‘front’ panniers on the back rack and ‘back’ panniers front made all the difference in the world.  Much more stable and more fun to ride.  Now I’m kind of kicking myself for not figuring it out earlier.

Gustav’s experience got me to thinking about how we interface with our bicycles.

 Heavy in the back, light in the front: Maybe not so good for low-trail bikes

Heavy in the back, light in the front: Maybe not so good for low-trail bikes

A purpose-built bike will perform optimally under certain conditions, and based on the design and intended function you may find that your ideas about how a bike should perform may differ from how the bike wants to be ridden. 

Gustav went the long way around learning what best suited his low-trail bike, how to load it so it would ride most comfortably, stably, and “intuitively.” Not all bikes, not even low-trail bikes, will handle the same. A bike’s trail is just one of many variables that work in concert. Trail is one of the weirder and more elusive forces to talk about, but it’s very real. Other more obvious variables include tubing material (steel vs. carbon vs. ti etc.), tube diameter and wall thickness, wheel and tire size, tire pressure, rider weight distribution, and so on. 

As a frame builder I work with an individual to design a bike that will function optimally when used how it was intended. But remember, I’m aiming for a target, and there is a lot of interpretation involved, as well as a lot of subjective experience. Especially in regards to touring bikes, I don’t know what you’re going to carry, how much weight, and if you’re going to try carrying a camp chair and a charcoal grill, or just a Sterno canister and a spork. 

 Loaded

Loaded

It is up to you, the owner of the bike, to pack it and take it out, ride it and listen to it. In my opinion, that’s part of the joy of a getting a new bike, is figuring out what it can do, and how it responds to different loads and on differing terrains. The more you ride, and especially tour, the more refined your ideas will become, both for what you want out of your bike, what gear you carry, and how you carry it.  Experiment, listen, adjust, enjoy. Repeat. 

Gretchen's Mixte Pinion

Joseph Ahearne2 Comments

Designed and built with Many Tubes

Many hours of work went into this one, and a lot of planning. The design of the frame and racks came free-form, after the initial goals for the bike were set. Pinion, Gates Carbon Drive, disc brakes, of course generator and lights, fenders, the ability to carry a little or a lot of stuff.

This bike is going to live in Colorado, where the Columbine is the official state flower (check out the fork detail). The bike will likely see use on gravel paths, and so the wide tires were a requirement. Or, in winter change the tires to something knobby for snowy conditions.

There's a full set of custom bags made by Black Star Bags, and a steering lock to keep the front wheel from flopping when the front is loaded. 

Wenge base wood

The racks have Wenge as a hardwood base. The build was complex, but the hope is that the very low maintenance required for the Pinion and belt drive will make it very simple for Gretchen for years to come. 

The full run of photos can be seen on my flickr page

Enjoy!

Bicycle Times Article

Joseph AhearneComment

Check out the story on Jrdn Freelove, a local Portland legend in the making. This guy has crossed the US on a bicycle seven times now, and counting. He's an interesting person. And, if you're interested in bicycle touring, you might just learn something from Jrdn's adventures.

Another cool thing is, I wrote it!

The full story is in Bicycle Times.