A Mission I Didn’t Think Possible
The first ride was a little nerve-racking.
I had just built a bike from frame up—and because I am neither a bike wrench nor a technically minded individual—I was nervous about everything from the headset loosening up to the cranks falling off.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust that the bike would function. A bicycle is a basic machine powered by a chain and geared wheels that are turned by cranks. Simple. It was whether it functioned properly: Had I damaged anything during installation? Had I tightened bolts to the accurate torque specs? Could I corner at high speeds or punch through a technical section without parts of the machine failing?
Building a bike from frame up is no small undertaking; you need the right tools, and it takes patience, time, care and skill. But should you choose to accept the mission, the end result is gratifying. You’ll end up with intimate knowledge about your bike and gain a greater appreciation for your local bike mechanic.
My project started from a desire to swap out my drivetrain for a SRAM 2x10 setup and to try a women’s specific MTB frame. A cross-country rider at heart, I knew I wanted a full-suspension, lightweight frame. With these non-negotiable factors identified, I launched Operation Bike Build 2011.
I’m short. Everything about me is short: I’m 5 feet 2 inches, my torso is short, my legs are short, my arms are short. I ride small (15-inch-ish) frames and for at least a half-dozen years, I’ve been convinced that only a custom frame will work for my petite stature. Walking into a shop and finding a stock bike my size with higher-end components has been difficult. It’s hard enough to find a bike my size, not to mention a race-ready rig.
Then I rode a Specialized Safire, a women’s specific trail bike, in the Ashland Mountain Super D and saw the light. I was comfortable and confident out of the gate on a course I’d never ridden.
After talking with three-time Leadville Trail 100 champ Rebecca Rusch about her bikes and riding style, I was then turned on to the Specialized S-Works Era, a carbon frame built for XC racing, sold in 2011 as a frameset or fully built bike. (Although the Era will not be available in 2012, Specialized is among the few manufacturers that offer top-end framesets in their MTB lineups for those who want to build or those who have trouble finding exactly what they want on the showroom floor.)
When designing its women’s line, Specialized uses research conducted on the average woman’s average reach, which is 1.5 millimeters shorter than the average man’s average reach, according to Kim Hughes, who handles Specialized’s industry public relations.
The company uses that information to measure out its women’s medium frame and subsequently designs its other frame sizes based on the medium. As a result, the top tubes are a bit shorter to fit the slightly shorter reach of women and are also lower for better stand-over clearance.
What had made the difference after all these years in finding the right frame? Could it be as subtle as a few millimeters in the top tube? When it comes to bikes, yes, millimeters make all the difference. And when it comes to the right fit of a frame, do not compromise. Riding a bicycle should not cause neck pain, back pain or numbing of fingers or hands. If you have the desire to build your bike, start with a frame that is right for you. Do not be tempted by the “deal of the day” on eBay or craigslist.
Average female rider weights are additionally factored into the Specialized specs, with the shocks (spring rates) on the women’s bikes custom-tuned for a lighter rider.
“This allows them to use the full range of the shock,” Hughes said.
On the rear shock is the mini brain. Specialized Brain technology knows the difference between rider forces and bump forces and is built to transition from firmly efficient in smooth terrain to fully active in rough terrain to boost efficiency and control. After you have set the mini brain for your riding style, you can basically leave it alone. At softer settings, less motion from disturbance on the trail is needed to open the shock, so it will remain more active even on smoother terrain. At firm settings, the shock will not open as readily, providing a stiffer more responsive ride, only becoming active for the bigger hits. Even on varied terrain, you can dial in the brain for predictability, but you really shouldn’t need to fiddle with it often.
With the frame choice out of the way, I turned to my gruppo. I tested the SRAM X9 and X0 2x10 drive trains on different trails and in different climates this season, and I’d experienced nothing but buttery-smooth shifting with both.
For me, the decision to move to an X0 2x10 system was less about the weight (many racers list weight savings as the top reason to drop the third chainring) and more about efficiency. When I rode the test bikes with SRAM 2x10, I simply was not messing with extraneous gears. Although my Era frame deserves the higher-end SRAM XX drive train, my budget liked the more affordable X0 line that will see me through more than one season. The high-end gruppo will no doubt save weight, but there is no perceptible loss in performance. I balanced out what my local bike shop owner, Nic Degross of Aloha Mountain Cyclery, calls the “dollar-to-gram ratio.”
The gear ratio you ride will also affect the speed and efficiency of shifting. This year, SRAM is introducing new chainring sizes for different segments of the cycling market, including all mountain and 29ers. SRAM has a 36-22; 38-24; 39-26; and 42-28 front gearing for its X0, X9, X7 and X5 2x10 families. Paired with a 36-11 cassette, it gives a lot of options and similar gear ratios to a 3x10.
The 38-24 chainrings provide easier gearing for steep climbs and are ideal for the 29er market. The 36-22 chainrings offer the lowest 2x10 gear available from any system—a good choice for all-day, all-out adventures on 29ers. The 39-26 and the 42-28 chainrings are versatile offerings for serious XC riding, which requires a happy medium for a variety of terrain: you’ll have a high enough gear to go hard and fast on the flats and a low enough gear for longer climbs. If the myriad offerings are freaking you out and you just want to know if your new bike is going to be harder or easier to pedal, try downloading a simple iPhone app, such as Bike Gears to see what kind of comparable gear ratios you’ll experience.
I’m running the silver X0 drivetrain on my Era with 170 mm cranks and a 39-26 ring configuration in the front and 36-11 cassette. Compared to my previous cross-country bike (165 mm cranks, 44-32-22 front and 34-11 cassette), I am realizing roughly a 10 percent loss in the low gears and 11 percent on the high end. Not a big deal; this seemed like the sweet spot for me.
Predictably, this gearing has advanced my technical climbing and pushed me to be a more powerful rider. I’ve always relied on the lowest of gears to crawl up a trail. Now I am not dropping to my “old” granny gear and spinning out or lacking the power to get over rocks. Yes, I notice the difference on non-technical climbs, too. I was more taxed pedaling one familiar super-steep fire road but really just needed to muscle up (that’s my politically correct way to say “man up”). Overall, I’m faster at climbing and am consistently powering through technical sections that, before, I could rarely clean.
While weight savings on the drive train was not a priority, a little research convinced me that a lighter wheelset would be a good investment. That led me to putting a good set of hoops on my ride. The Stan’s NoTubes ZTR Crest wheelset is a good choice for cross-country riding because of its rim profile. The big advantage to tubeless is running lower tire pressures with fewer pinch flats. Tires running at lower pressures improve traction and, on dirt, have less rolling resistance. A hard tire will hit small rocks and be forced up and over the rock, whereas a tire with lower pressure will absorb the rock, rolling straight over it and not lose speed. Smooth equals fast. The handling is noticeable; when I played with the tire pressure on one of my favorite technical climbs, I dropped to 20 psi and gained a crazy amount of traction. Coming down a flowy, smooth singletrack, I was hitting corners fast—a little too fast at times for my own good. It was pure delight.
With the big decisions out of the way, I was ready to part out the rest of the bike and get down to business. Admittedly, Project Bike took a lot longer than anticipated. I knew more about bikes than I gave myself credit for, and putting it together was a lot simpler than I thought it would be. But my new racing machine still needed the fine touch and attention to detail of mechanics at my local shops (props to the Gear Exchange in Glenwood Springs and Aloha Mountain Cyclery in Carbondale), where the guys fit my bottom bracket and headset (expensive tools for one-time jobs) and let me go in after hours to tidy up my “loose ends,” some figurative and some literal.
Friend, co-worker and endurance racer Scott Leonard, who’s built several of his rigs, sees piecing together his bicycles as a rare opportunity to get exactly what he wants, how he wants it. “Obviously, it will cost more and you need to have some skill and patience, but the end result is your ideal bike,” he said.
The hard costs on Project Bike included the frameset at $4,500; the SRAM X0 build kit, $2,300; accessories, $1,600; and wheelset $850, totaling roughly $9,300. If I factor in my time (at least 40 hours of research and building), that price goes up. Price comparisons are a moving target, given that cyclists have numerous outlets for purchasing, but Specialized offered a SRAM XX version of this bike for $8,800.
That is only one example of the range of great bicycles one can purchase off the floor, built up and spec’d with superb accessories. In most cases—if you can’t find exactly what you want—a small, customer-oriented bike shop will help you piece together a dream bike. With that in mind, I don’t necessarily recommend undertaking your own Project Bike.
Before you even consider the mission, decide if you’d rather be riding or wrenching. Every two-hour chunk I spent standing in front of my bike parts was two hours I could have been in the saddle.
On the other hand, the knowledge I gained about my new ride is invaluable. I don’t have anywhere near the bag of tricks of my local mechanics, but if I have trouble shifting, hear a creak, or feel some clunking, I now have a better understanding of where to start troubleshooting. That, in the end, is what made this mission impossible worth accepting. –T. Ortega