Monday, December 06, 2004

A Bike for Mr. X

Although some details still must remain classified, the story can now be told.

In the early fall of 2003, Mister X approached us with a proposal to build him a secret weapon. He hoped we could build him a bike that weighed 12 pounds for the Mount Washington Hill Climb.

Some riders have always stripped their bikes down to the essentials for the hill climb, typically leaving only the front brake, a single chain ring in the front and maybe even reducing the number of cogs on the rear gear cluster. By removing things like the rear brake, brake lever and cable, front derailleur, front shifter, and any unused chain rings a rider might strip a pound or so off an already lightweight racing machine. Some went so far as to install cut-down handlebars and other temporary modifications that placed lightness over comfort.

Mister X’s specifications included a certain gear that restricted our choice of cranks and a seat he swore was the only one that treated his anatomy with due respect. Neither piece of componentry would be the lightest such item available.

I’ll be the first to admit that our shop is not a top-echelon road bike fancier’s boutique. We have to serve a wide array of customers in a town with a year-round population of about 7000, but a summer population supposedly numbering in the tens of thousands. We see a little of everything and can’t pick and choose the caviar and champagne at the expense of the other food groups. But this challenge was intriguing.

Although Mr. X’s budget for this was practically unlimited, his few specific requirements automatically eliminated the most exotic equipment we might have found hard to get.

With a website called “Weightweenies” as our guide we entered the shadowy world of gram geeks. We had many months to build the bike, but that could melt away in a hurry if we absolutely needed to track down some esoteric part. If we could work with our established suppliers it would go more smoothly.

X’s target weight was 5376 grams. As I trolled through Weightweenies and our supply catalogs I started building up sample groups on a couple of different frames I was also trying to arrange to buy. We established near the beginning that none of our regular road lines offered a light enough platform for a bike as light as X was seeking.

Like Gary Sinise in “Apollo 13", in the simulator trying to figure out how to fire up the command module with the least amount of juice, I kept adding component weights to frame weights and I kept exceeding the limit. There were too many variables, too many unknowns.

Frame choice came down to the only company that responded to my email. Fortunately, it was also the top choice, given the information I had. Naturally, in the months that followed, other contenders emerged, but at some point you have to quit crunching numbers and start ordering.

We obtained a Trek 5900 SL, 58 centimeter, frame only. We couldn’t hop on the phone and order one, but through contacts and field operatives, the frame was procured.

For the wheels, the very lightest did not seem adequate for the potential conditions. Mr. X has financial resources, but he does not ride with a tech support team following him, as do the racers one sees on television, whose bikes have to be specially weighted to bring them up to the required limit. We were not going to put him on sew up tires and all-carbon rims and then just kick him out into the world to fend for himself.

American Classic offered a fairly traditionally built wheel set that weighed in around 1362 grams. Mr. X could ride them for some training. The alloy rims could withstand normal brakes.

The bike was taking shape, at least on paper. There was only one choice for the crank. The Race Face Next LP arm set weighed in around 400 grams. It was the lightest that would take a 20-tooth chain ring.

None of this had been assembled by late spring. Even though we ordered the frame in February it was not delivered until almost July. Parts piled up in secure corners while we waited. The wheels arrived. We lifted them delicately from their boxes, dangled them from our fingers to feel their barely perceptible weight and put them away again until we could attach them to the bike. It was the same with each shipment of parts.

The only item made to order was a titanium seatpost from Bold Precision. Albert Bold, machinist, is based in Pennsylvania now, but told us he had lived in Center Harbor for years. He has also built himself a Mt. Washington bike that weighs twelve and a half pounds.

Mr. X was unwilling to have major parts custom machined. While that would have given him a very expensive and personalized bike, it would have made the bike harder for others to duplicate. As it was, he commissioned a bike any consumer with about $4000 could have a shop build for them.

We missed the 12-pound mark. The bike weighed about 14 pounds at the first weigh-in, and gained a little after that with some changes and additions. Much of that was in the crank and the saddle.

To make custom gearing we took the bolts out of a Shimano LX-level gear cluster, because all the cogs and spacers are separate. By doing that we could assemble a “climber’s straight block” with one- or two-tooth jumps between gears so Mr. X could shift smoothly on the climb to find his most comfortable speed. He only needed one fairly small cog for the few yards from the starting line to the beginning of the real climbing. He took the rest of the cogs from the two or three cassettes we had cannibalized so he could fine tune the gearing after he had trained on the bike for a while.

More expensive cassettes have groups of cogs held together on alloy carriers that prevent selecting cogs individually. While lighter overall, they can’t be as easily adapted to special needs.

We designed the bike to favor durability over absolute lightest weight.

The Cane Creek BRS 200 brake is about the lightest available. We matched it up with a lever originally designed as an auxiliary lever, which we retrofitted to work as a primary. It weighed less than the lever we originally specified, and worked better. In addition, these levers have a hinged clamp, so Mr. X could slap on a rear brake for training and easily remove it, lever and all, for the race.

Only after he picked up the bike did Mr. X mention that he’d forgotten to register for the race. But the covert operations associated with this project weren’t over.

The Mount Washington Hill Climb is absurdly popular for something that inflicts terrible pain on each and every participant for a minimum of one hour and probably much longer. Registration fills up rapidly. It costs $300 to register early (February) and $200 if you take your chances and try to save a little by registering a month later. And yet it fills up. So in July Mr. X should have been shut out.

Ah, but “we have ways...” Mr. X came in a few days later to report that he had somehow managed to get into the closed field. We don’t even want to know how. On a very wet day in August he got to ride to the summit with 537 other sufferers. It wasn’t a personal record time, but wait ‘til next year.

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