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New Bike.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom in Desert.

 

So I got this new bike. Darn cool. Cervelo Team Soloist. I've been waiting forever. Since September of last year. I tricked it out. FSA Carbon Pro Team cranks, all Dura-Ace stuff, new Time Equipe Titanium Magnesium pedals, genuine Easton stem and bars- just like the CSC Team uses. I got the bike the weekend Tyler Hamilton became the first American to win a European Classic on the very same frame. Good Karma.

This thing is dialed. I built it late at night. Electronica on the XM radio here in the shop, counters spotlessly clean, a full stomach and no one to bother me. It is like a Zen experience.

This is how it works: I build this thing up and do a perfect job. All the cable lengths are perfect, the ends of the cable housings are ground jewelry-smooth. The chain is stripped of packing goo, sized to perfection and then lovingly relubed using "The System" of PG2000 and Pro Gold. It is spotlessly clean and beautifully relaxed in its conformation around the cogs and chainrings.

The inside of the cable housings is lubed and the outside of each stainless steel, genuine Shimano Dura-Ace cable, is wiped surgically clean. I would not hesitate for one second to pull the length of the rear brake cable across my tongue. They are super clean. The entire assembly slides together with more than a suggestion of sexual union. All the while electronic music pulses under the incandescent bake of sunlight colored bulbs on white counters clean enough to eat off of.

This bike will be perfect. It is a sacred ritual. Building a bike. Sometimes bikes arrive here with parts already installed but that is profanity. We pull them apart and give them the treatment. The insides of bikes is an interesting place, and there are a lot of opportunities to make improvements. Most people will never see them, but they will benefit without ever knowing.

Two years ago a man called us. He said, "I just picked up my bike and I was inspecting it. I noticed the guy who built it chased the threads in the water bottle bosses and put clear grease in there. Thank you very much, that is great attention to detail. I'm impressed." As well you should be Sir. It is an obsessive labor.

Anyway.

The bike begins to take shape. There are the usual minor glitches, the steer tube plug won't grip the inside of the carbon fiber steer tube. I fix it. The cable routing has to be perfected. It is. At the end of this process I reach for the 8mm wrench, one of the rituals signifying the bike is nearly done. I torque the carbon fiber cranks into place, using Archimides principle to drive them onto the bottom bracket spindle. A melding of carbon fiber, heat-treated aluminum and titanium. Force drives them together. Torque holds them under silent tension. Under the mechanical deformation that penetrates crank with Isis drive titanium spindle the two parts become one. They rotate quietly on sets of German precision bearings. The resistance so minor I cannot detect it.

I want to ask you a question, and I ask myself this too: How many moments in life are like this? Utterly without compromise. I don't ask prices when I build a bike. I don't even know them. I just build it. I am so fortunate as to own a bike shop that this is one of the most opulent luxuries in my life, and I am willing to give away many others in return for this one. No compromise. You know you compromise all the time- this is life. You have to. You compromise when you took that job, when you moved into that neighborhood. Heck, maybe you even compromised when you looked across the aisle at that person and said "I do". But here, I do not compromise. The truth is, I can't even come close to affording the house I want, where I want it. My car has two big dents in it and I don't plan on fixing them soon. My windshield has a crack. If it were up to me I'd be driving a new Lexus. But I do have to compromise there. So I have a beat up old Subaru.

But tonight, there will be no such compromise. The only question tonight, over the din of electronica and across the sterile counters of my shop is: Is this the best? It this assembly the absolute finest? Is it perfect?

And it is.

The drivetrain and brakes are wired. The cables clamped into position with what I think are the right tensions. Only time will tell. Now it is like a musical instrument in need of tuning. A Stradivarius newly finished being prepared for its first concerto. The brake pads are rotated to their proper orientation with the rims and then locked into place. Their proximity to the rims is established by the size of my hands, my desire for reach. This is becoming my bike, set only for me. To anyone else it will be foreign and awkward, but to me, it is a mechanical extension of my body. My skeleton ends inside my skin but the bike is a mechanical extrapolation of my skeleton. The cyborg adaptation that magnifies my physical capabilities for speed with unparalleled efficiency.

After a few test shifts this phase is complete. And now on to the most critical part.

Positioning.

After nine and a half months and two trips around the globe, spanning a war, an epidemic and a bad economy the 317 parts that make up this bike have arrived here and been meticulously joined. Now, what began as a geometry project on a computer screen nine and a half months ago is tested for compliance in reality. And the standards are exacting. The tape measure, angle finder and level come out. They are swept over the bike with ruthless scrutiny. If the bike fails this test it is utterly worthless to me. If the math somehow failed then the bacteria of compromise soils this project. It is ruined. And many have fallen here, under the tape measure.

Because of this, jubilation while assembling the bike is tempered with the realization that it is only as good as it fits: And it must fit perfectly.

The tape checks the millimeters. The lever and angle finder establish the parameters of relationship. The three points in space are established. All the numbers lock into one another. If one is out of concert the others are dissonant. But in a seemingly mystic manner the information comes: Saddle height precisely 71.4 on 175mm cranks. Reach exactly 54.1cm. Saddle setback precisely 2.2cm. behind the center of the bottom bracket. As each measurement is confirmed the ugly specter of compromise is backed into a corner, where it is systematically eliminated. What is left is beautiful, white, pristine perfection. The kind you don't find in real life. But this isn't real life. It is a bike built without compromise. An effort done in solitude.

Only one man had access to this ritual over the past two decades and he is gone now. Died a cyclist's death clipped in and on the saddle in preparation for a race the next morning. A clean death. After spending the evening in the shop steeped in the ritual pursuit of perfection I describe here. He understood. So he was allowed. He is gone, so now it is done in singular reverence. We worked for hours in silence then. Both understanding the need for utter perfection, best achieved quietly. There was no superfluous banter. Only respectful silence- broken sporadically by the need for information, and curtly terminated upon its fulfillment. Anything less would be unclean, it would break the concentration. Since he is gone now I do it alone. No one else has earned a spot. Letting someone else in the room would be a compromise. And we are not here to compromise.

Allowing someone else in the room now would pollute the environment. Bicycles like these are an inanimate cocktail of swirling atomic elements carefully blended together for perfect mechanics. They need nothing, save careful, precise workmanship. People are revolting bags of skin fraught with random emotions and starving for acknowledgement and attention, sucking away at your concentration like a sewer in a downpour with the cover torn off. Best to keep them out now. To make the bike perfect you must meet it half way, and that means becoming more like a machine, as you make the bike more like you.

Finally the confirmation is complete. Each of the myriad tasks is done and the process is exhausted. There is nothing left to do and the bike stands alone.

Now it is time for the trial. The awkward first step. Now nine and a half months of anticipation become reality and we stand at the threshold of its realization.

Oh, what unfathomable synergy waits. Picture the day: It is hot. There is no wind in the still August air. Heat shimmers undulate from the black canvas that our masterpiece will be unveiled upon. The other performers are assembled in a rapier formation designed to pierce the feeble resistance offered by aerodynamics. It will be slashed like an enemy's gut by the conqueror's saber. 27 m.p.h. in a formation of four: Aderhold, Roland, McMahon. The Gang of Four completed by me. The uniforms match, as well they should. Designed by The Man. There is unity against physics. In this beautiful performance each man suffers within himself to maintain his part of The Agreement. The agreement that we will each take a turn at the front, to cut the air. That we will be responsible for the direction of the group, to avoid obstacles. That each will do his share so the others may grab feeble recovery for a precious 45 seconds while physiology comes to grips with gravity and wind resistance. This is the moment I work for tonight. When front wheel meets still air at 27 M.P.H. in uncompromising, utter annihilation.

So now my bike is complete. It has been prepped, assembled, cleaned, lubed, torqued, tuned, tested, retuned, aired, sized and checked. And checked. And checked. Finally checked again. Then it is waxed and wiped. Now it is ready.

For the vital first impression I don cycling shoes but nothing else. This is not the shake-down, only the first impression. Steadying myself on the counter I clip in.

So this is it.

I ride right out the door into the street and take a few careful pedal strokes. Racing bikes are optimized for lightweight and, although this bike was built form the finest equipment utterly without compromise we could still have a shuttle disaster here that would drive my testicles onto the top tube with the snap of a pedal spindle. So I am a careful person.

The first few pedals strokes confirm it: Energy in nearly = energy out. It is straight and unyielding. I hover above the pavement, gliding over it. I think shift and with only the slightest physical suggestion at my hand the shift occurs. Silently, nearly telepathically.

But there is a rattle. It rattles. How can that be? I ignore it, mostly out of denial and that fails immediately. It is not supposed to rattle. But it does rattle. Damn. My mind swirls across the bike's systems for the one place where I may have lat something go. But there is no place like that. Everything was perfect, but it still rattles.

Maybe it is the cables inside the down tube. Damn this design. Didn't they think of that? Didn't they test that? Maybe body weight on the headset has changed its adjustment and now it is suddenly loose. Maybe a phantom washer around the cranks has come loose and is now rotating stupidly with every pedal stroke, flopping around in there, rattling. God, how can this be? The counters were so clean. There were no distractions. I even used new wrenches!

This is a bicycle and even in a perfect world they can be maddening. So after hours of meticulous toil I put it away and slink off to bed.

It is as though some rebellious part of the bike resisted this absolute perfection that went into its assembly. It is like a bad song that will not leave my head. That rattle. Where could it be coming from.

I ride the bike to Northville and back and it is a miserable ride. Cold and windy, I am out of shape and the road is torn up where we make our turnaround to come back to Dearborn. During the ride the bike has its moments but the rattle spoils them. For the life of me I cannot identify it. But I will.

I will wait until everyone is gone, clean the counters, wash the bike, turn up the music and diagnose and dissect it. I will find that rattle, and perform a rattleectomy.

When I return from my first ride that Saturday morning I meet Seth, waiting to open the store. He asks the inevitable question:

"How's the bike?"

"Ahh," I answer, "Typical deal. It's really nice and it fits perfect and I like this version of compact geometry but the damn thing rattles."

Seth is a man who works with his mind, and his mind is always working. Always. In the deep abyss that is his bizarre psyche he contorts problems until he enters them through their back door then solves them, usually with little or no effort. He is a sideways thinker. But mostly, he is a thinker: analytical and controlled, methodical and thorough. Seth is a person who works with his mind rather than his back. Even his taste in cycling runs to styles that are driven mostly by gravity rather than brute force or mindless perseverance. He and I are opposites in that regard, and an opposite is what I need right now to find The Rattle.

He casts an inquiring gaze at the bike, at nothing in general, just its entire space.

"I'll find it."

I retire to the office to put on street clothes and start the day. When I walk into the shop area Seth flatly states, in his typical monotone:

"It is fixed."

"What did you do?" I asked. I have learned not to be skeptical if Seth says it is fixed.

"The carbon fiber dust cap on the hub was not being held in place by the rubber "O" ring behind it. You couldn't see it because it was behind the dust cap. I pulled the cap off and moved the "O" ring forward. The carbon was rattling. Let me show you…"

Seth found this discrepancy in less than 60 seconds.

Seth showed me the inside of the hub. He gave me a clinic on how the hub was assembled. This is the new Zipp hub and I had never been inside one before. How Seth knew this I have no idea. But he did.

With the hub fixed I have since ridden it again. It is silent perfection now. The sum total of extensive attention to detail, 21 years experience building high-end road bikes and obsessive perfectionism. And still, as Seth illustrated, there is still room for improvement, something more to learn.

In the relentless pursuit of The Best this was an excellent exercise. It is repeated many times, every week. It's what makes me love this job. It's the bikes.

 

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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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