Zen & The Art Of Learning How To Build A Bike From Scratch

Zen & The Art Of Learning How To Build A Bike From Scratch

And deal with love and loss along the way.

Some people are born into hobbies and passions; others have to find their own way. Maybe your parents were super into hockey, so they signed you up for every single hockey-related thing in your hometown, and you’re a Hockey Family, so this is what you do. I’ve always been an artist, and while I’ve also always been naturally inclined to playing outside, working out, etc., sports just didn’t come too naturally to me. I had to try.

As a kid, I road a bike because I was a kid and kids tend to ride bikes. It was how we tooled around the neighborhood, it was how we went as far as our little legs could carry us to go poke that thing our buddy found. I grew up in a largely undeveloped area of what was once the Everglades, there was plenty of stuff to poke and trees to climb, and we had to get there! But once high school hit, the bike just became a past-time — something I rode when I wanted to work out but running seemed deadly/boring/annoying. You know, like running. Besides, everyone was learning how to drive, and cars seemed so cool, and suddenly we could all stay out late drinking smoothies and eating Taco Bell and generally being teenagers.

College changed all of that. For one, I moved up north, and didn’t have access to a car. And then I started dating a girl who was obsessed with bicycles.

This isn’t a case of discovering a passion because it was someone else’s passion, at least not at the get-go. I got myself a little beater bike just so I could keep up with my then-girlfriend. We’d be at a house party, and when the night was over, she would turn to me and say, “Oh, you’re on foot? See ya at my place, I guess!” And zip away. At some random early morning hour in the cold of New England, watching your girlfriend speed away by bike while you have to walk like a chump? That’s some good motivation to take up cycling.

Watching your girlfriend speed away by bike while you have to walk like a chump?
That’s some good motivation to take up cycling.

My first bike that wasn’t a Walmart find was the next step up (or down, depending on your perspective, I guess): Craigslist. On a Sunday afternoon, a big bearded dude showed up at my house with a van, after I found his listing titled “BIKES OF ALL SIZES: $40 OR LESS.” I gave a few a whirl before deciding on a heavy 1970s-style sky blue guy. It was my first “real” bike, but it was heavy and clunky, and it had the gear shifts on the down tube, which made it awkward to shift quickly.

Having a beater bike is a great way to learn about how to fix bikes. Every time something seems off, the stakes of fixing it yourself aren’t very high. It’s okay to fuck up a $40 bike from the seventies that a Craigslist guy sold to you. The frames are hearty as fuck, and, for the most part, pieces can be replaced. I learned how to assess and address problems with this bike. My little beater taught me a lot, and once I really started riding everywhere and anytime (I mean, everywhere and anytime. I lived in Portland, Maine, where winter is nine months out of the fucking year and I road uphill in the snow.), I got the bug to go beyond just fixing and maintaining my bike. I wanted to build my own.

I wanted to build my own.

Here’s a thing to know about building a bike, especially if you’re going to build it from all different components: you should probably be comfortable being a nerd. Yeah, a nerd. You better love to research shit. The internet makes it easy to do this stuff. I built my first bicycle with a book (this one, to be exact) and good old fashioned Ebay, along with my local bike stores. But it took a lot of staring at numbers on one screen, on a page, and back to another screen, because I want to make sure I fully understood what dimensions for what part I was ordering, so I could know that part would fit into that other part so it could connect to that other other part. Properly. I didn’t always get it right, and I didn’t always have the right tools to make those parts fit into those other parts, but I learned so much.

My frame was a Leader Bike frame. I had done a ton of research (nerd, remember?) and knew I wanted a sturdy aluminum frame. Aluminum alloy is super light, and the Leader frame has this aerodynamic thing happening that really made me so pleased. After choosing my frame, building out the rest of the bike was a test in matching the quality of their frame. I would painstakingly dig around forums, and message boards, and comments sections and try to find the strongest yet lightest material. I wanted to be fast. I wanted to be fancy.

It helps, when you’re learning something new, to be surrounded by people who love what you love. My roommate at the time, Brian, was also a bike enthusiast. He hadn’t built any, but he had tons of tools. I slowly squirreled away bike parts in my room, laying them out like precious jewels, and every so often we’d have a jam session trying to see what worked and didn’t work. I spent many a night in my pajamas, sometime around midnight, sitting on my floor with Brian and seeing what I could do with that book and my bare hands. 

After several months, Frankie was born. I named her (you know, my bike) Frankie because she was a veritable Frankenstein of parts. Her frame was from one company, her drive train from another. I got her pedals at a local shop, but her casette from Ebay. I didn’t have a front derailer, so I just didn’t have one. She was a delightful mess but she was my mess, and I was so proud of her, it hurt.

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I treated Frankie like the precious project and sturdy steed she was, until I started to get comfortable. I used a strong lock until it “felt heavy” in my bag, and I switched to a little wiry thing that I could wrap around Frankie’s top bar. I could have brought her up the single flight of stairs into my job, but I started leaving her in the back hallway instead, flimsily locked to the guard rail of our office building. All of these actions were based out of comfort, out of convenience, and a little bit of the small town mentality that comes from living in New England.

I left for dinner with some friends right after work one day, and a buddy even offered to put Frankie in their trunk to bring me home later, but I declined. I figured we could do it once we were on our way home. I regret this decision to this day; why was I being so lazy about it? But the deed was done. We came back, and Frankie was gone.

We came back, and Frankie was gone.

In my memory, I dropped to my knees and cried out, “Nooo!” But I’m pretty sure I stood there dumbly, and instead started to cry. I don’t cry very easily, but emotions do overwhelm me to the point where I go mute. I stood there in silence, walked around in a circle, and then burst into tears. Frankie was gone. In fact, every single thing was gone — there was no sign Frankie, or my lock, or my helmet had ever been there at all. Clean gone. Gone.

I learned later that month that weekend had been essentially a “sting.” Basically, some folks drove around Portland and Boston, and took as many bikes as they could as fast as they could. One of the local bike shops had a “bike yard” where they did a lot of their work, and the entire thing was almost ransacked. Frankie was probably stolen away to be taken apart and resold in pieces.

I was pretty heartbroken. This thing I had spent a long time learning about, one of my first true loves, was gone. Stolen from me in broad daylight. It felt incredibly violating.

When you first lose something or someone you love, it feels like nothing could ever replace that hole in your heart. To some degree, this is true: nothing will ever take the place of that love, that passion, that person, that thing. You learned something unique, you grew in a way you could only grow at that moment. I spent the weeks following Frankie’s disappearance forlorn. “I’ll never build again,” I thought to myself, and really thought I meant it.

Little did I know, building Frankie also helped me build something else. Working with Brian, working with local shops — my friends rallied around me. In the months I was moping, my buddies pooled together money to help get me started on a new bike. They worked together to help me rebuild.

It’s been almost ten years since Frankie was stolen, and while she’s still missed, I’ve had to move on. Frankie taught me valuable lessons — not just about how bikes work, but how to let things go. And my passion for biking wasn’t about the things, and hasn’t ever been about the things. It was always about the building and the learning.

My wife (not the then-girlfriend from the start of our tale. Sorry, romantics!) has a wonderful bike tattoo in homage to her first bike, and I’ve been tempted to rock something similar. But I don’t think I want a whole, completed bike on me. I think I’d rather get the pieces, one by one.

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