Editor’s note: This new column appears the second Friday of the month in the Star Tribune Outdoors Weekend section.
All those focused people that you hear clanking around in your basements and heated garages these days are, likely as not, working through a profound transition in their cycling lives — the winter project of building a bike.
This transition, from passive bicycle consumer to active contributor to a community’s census of unique, cool bikes, is beautifully described by Minneapolis guy Robert Pirsig in his classic, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” The late author defined two basic kinds of biking people (motor, in his case, but the distinction also works for pedal).
The first is the romantic, whose interest in the bicycle is in the outward beauty of the machine, the simple experience of riding, or even just the satisfaction of here-to-there utility. The mechanism that produces those rewards is beside the point. They see beauty in engineering, incurious in its complexities.
The second type (Pirsig’s type) is what he called classical, a more rational, inwardly looking rider who is more attuned to the wobble of an ailing bottom bracket than the exhilaration of a long summer ride. The bike, for these riders, is a wonderful, whirring collection of potentially misaligned components, under-lubricated gears, and dodgy headsets. The mechanical classicists are tuned to derailleurs, not the framemakers’ art.
Pirsig ultimately makes a case for a healthy evolution to a middle ground. Most people start as romantics. Then they learn how to change a tire. Then they lube a chain. Pretty soon they’re watching YouTube tutorials on cantilever brake adjustment, and then it’s pretty much over: They want to build their own bike, a revelation that leads to the tradition of the winter bike-building project.
Bike building — or, really bike assembly, unless you are welding your own frame — is an exercise from the general (what kind of bike am I making?) to the increasingly specific (at some point you will have to ask yourself if the total capacity of your crankset matches the design boundaries of your cassette). Here’s what they’re going through:
They’ve defined their mission (road, mountain, urban bomber, whatever; all new, or all used, or a mix) and then set out to find a frame, learning in the process that the selection of new frames is not huge (many manufacturers, such as Trek, won’t sell you just a frame), but that some local bike shops and Craig’slist have used frames. They now know what “stack and reach” are.
Frame in hand (sized right, built for the intended kind of riding), our builders are facing an estimated 10,786 decisions that ultimately accumulate into the singular character of their machine. How sturdy or light you want your wheels — and 32 or 36 spokes, of what gauge, with brass or aluminum nipples, of what color? One, nine, 10 or 11 speeds? Long, medium, or short cage on that rear derailleur? Looked at options on handlebars and tires recently? And on.
They learned quickly that they don’t have all the tools they need. But they’ve also realized that (A) there is no shame in a little help from a local bike shop (for example, new frames’ bottom brackets must be ground precisely parallel with a $400 tool called a facing set, which no one owns); and (B) some shops have DIY workstations with every tool you’ll need. They’ve learned that online chat sessions have dealt, at length, with the most obscure of their questions. And they’ve bookmarked the late, great Sheldon Brown’s website, an encyclopedic trove of technical guidance.
And, by the spring, these builders won’t just have a singular bike, and intimate knowledge of how it works; they might also sense a spiritual balance of romance and rationality that Pirsig would contend is, yes, “inner peace of mind.” In a word: Zen.
Hey, stop — you with the panniers!
Buried in a report on bicycle-related citations released before the holidays from Our Streets Minneapolis (formerly the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition) was this: The Minneapolis and University of Minnesota police departments have both in recent years diverted federal grant money, and officers’ time, for “stings” and “stakeouts” intended to snare outlaw cyclists. The city will feel reassured knowing that the most common citation in the study (40 percent) was for riding on the sidewalk.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.