Advice for building a road bike
May 20, 2007 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Should I build my own road bike and, if so, how to go about it?

I have been shopping for a road bike for a combination of recreation and fitness, with an eye towards a century ride this fall. It occurred to me, however, that assembling one myself might be an interesting project. I have absolutely no experience in bike maintenance, but I’m reasonably adept with tools. I have no illusion about saving money, I’m really just in it for the experience, so I need opinions:

Is it a sensible thing to do?
What tools will I need?
Are there any good guides for this sort of thing?
What are good sources for a frame and parts?
Any tips or tricks you can share?
posted by dzot to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I built my own fixed-gear bike not too long ago. And let me share perhaps the most important bit of wisdom from that experience: Only do this at a bicycle maintenance school - a place where you can pay for either classes in bike building, or for one-on-one teaching and help. In Boston I can recommend Broadway Bicycle School or Quad Bikes at Harvard U. You WILL find yourself in a jam at some point, and need expert help, whether it be grinding the brake housings, tensioning your derauiller, adjusting your headset, or what have you. On the other hand, going through this will be possibly the most informative thing you can do with a bike, and you will know a lot afterwards.

One thing you should know is that this is very likely to cost more money than buying a catalog bike.

The shop will have all the tools you need - and probably all the parts for that matter. I recommend scrounging the trash for a frame. Bring a tape measure on your dumpster diving expedition. You're looking for a bike with a center-to-center measurement of 56cm if you have a 32" inseam. The size scales linearly with your pant leg size. I would recommend either buying a wheelset, or setting aside some extra time and frustration for building your own. Make sure the frame is intact and all tubes are straight and dent-free. On mine I had to braze one of the seat stays back to the seat tube, so if you don't weld, make sure all the welds are good. If you are lucky you can assemble a lot of the parts you need from scrounged bikes. Don't forget to check garage sales, estate and police auctions either. Craigslist is also a good source. For parts, the bike shop or mail order stores like Performance or Nashbar.

You'll need:
Wheelset (new)
Bottom bracket (hopefully in your scrounged frame already)
Headset (also hopefully comes with the frame)
Chainrings (Make sure they're 8/9 speed Shimano HG)
Cassette (new, 9 speed HG)
Chain (new, Shimano 9 speed HG)
Front and rear derailleurs (make sure rear is compatible with chain)
Brakes with new pads
Brake levers
Cables and cable housings
Seat post
Bar tape (new)
Tires and tubes (new)

Also, I recommend fenders. Yes, the dudes on the century may laugh, but if it's raining your ass will thank you.
posted by noble_rot at 9:10 PM on May 20, 2007

And don't forget a fork!
posted by noble_rot at 9:13 PM on May 20, 2007

errr... great idea, great fun, good experience, lots of pride in your bike, but in my experience components will be a LOT more expensive piece by piece.
oh hey, here's an idea - might not have the same effect - all bike stores assemble their new bikes before they put them on the sale floor. I'll bet you could get them to give you the bike you want unassembled, maybe even for a little cheaper than normal. Might not be as satisfying as shopping around for each piece and all the learning that would take place therein.
I'd say assemble your first bike, get through the century ride in the fall, notice all the things you like and dislike about the bike, see how you like road riding at all, then after the century if your still interested, sell the bike and piece together your dream bike and build it. You'll meet all kinds of bike crazed people and see a lot of bikes training for the century that'll give you a much better idea about what you really want in a bike.
good luck.
posted by sauris at 9:14 PM on May 20, 2007

Building a bike from parts is going to cost you a lot more than just buying a bike. Unless you can get very good deals on all the components, you will spend a lot more to buy them one by one. If you want to scrounge up used parts from here and there, you can build a bike for fairly cheap, but the work involved in that scrounging would make it very much not worth your time (unless you enjoy scrounging a lot).

If you do go ahead with the project, find a well equipped bike shop: there a few specialized tools involved that you don't want to have to buy as well.
posted by ssg at 9:18 PM on May 20, 2007

IMO, if this is your first road bike ever, (which I've implied to be the case) don't do it. You won't know what you like and dislike enough to make reasonable choices about components. Plus, you won't be able to ride it first to know if it will be comfortable, which is what matters the most. Especially if you plan on doing longer rides.

Unless you know exactly what you need in terms of frame geometry that will be appropriate for your body (which only time and a proper bike fitting will tell) it will be a huge waste of effort.

My advice for you is that if you are a novice, or even a recreational rider, go to a local bike shop and ride half-a-dozen or so new bikes to get a feel for what you like. Then, purchase the best bike you can with about $500 dollars set aside to spare. Take that money and have your bike professionally fitted by a specialist (anywhere from $100-$200). Then spend the rest on shoes/ pedals / helmet and gear.

Down the road, if decide if you like biking enough to sink more money into it, then by all means build your own bike. It is really a lot of fun, especially if you get a custom frame that will fit your body like a glove. But make sure you even like the sport first.
posted by |n$eCur3 at 9:19 PM on May 20, 2007

All good advice above, but the thing that keeps me from building my next bike from scratch is that it requires a lot of tools that are both expensive and rarely used.

I used |n$eCur3's method when I got my first road bike a few years ago. I found something decent for $500 and it's been great. I've upgraded almost everything on the bike to the components I like. Once I finish that I'll get a new frame and move everything over, like a rolling upgrade.

I'll have the shop do the work of putting it together, though. :)
posted by rhizome at 10:13 PM on May 20, 2007

When it comes to building stuff, I have some rules, including:
"Don't build stuff in which unexpected failure of that stuff would get me killed"

But it's more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules... :-D

For a semi-build-it-yourself approach that you might not have considered - have you seen some of the bamboo bikes people have made? They look surprisingly awesome.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:11 PM on May 20, 2007

Building a bike is a great project. I agree with InseCur3 though, that it shouldn't be your first bike. Get a regular bike, but do all your own maintenance, and in a couple years you will have performed almost every operation that goes into assembling a bike from scratch. And that's if you only work on something that needs it -- you can learn faster if you want.

Just about every mechanism of a bike has a beautiful visibility about it, where it's easy to see how it works with some close observation. I can only think of a couple parts (say, freewheel) that you couldn't take apart and figure out by yourself. Other fix-it-yourself projects always have areas that are complicated, sophisticated or just plain mysterious. Not so for bikes. So-- you may need a few specialized tools, which you'll acquire as you need, but you won't need a lot of guides and instructions.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 11:20 PM on May 20, 2007

I don't think building a bike from scratch is worthwhile, because you need some pretty specialized tools that you might only use once every few years (e.g. headset press, bottom bracket wrench). And you need a fair amount of expertise to do certain things right without wrecking the frame -- e.g. prepping the bottom bracket (especially chasing the threads) before installation. The rest you can learn easily, but it takes time to figure out how to do things correctly and with finesse...even seemingly simple tasks like wrapping tape on your handlebars.

This is what you should do: buy the book Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance. Flip to the section on tools, and Zinn lays out 4 levels of toolkits for you, from basic to hardcore. I have most of the tools in level 1 & 2 plus the odd item from level 3 (e.g. wheel truing stand) and that allows me to do everything except install headsets, bottom brackets, and re-align bent frames.

I agree with what others have suggested: buy your bike assembled, and learn to maintain and re-build it over time. It helps to understand how a part is supposed to function if you've already seen it in action.
posted by randomstriker at 11:52 PM on May 20, 2007

I'm good with tools too, but there are certain parts of my bike I prefer to trust to the pros, for a couple of reasons.

1) Certain parts of my bike simply have to work right all the time. In particular, I like to coast down hills going 30 mph or so. If the headset falls off at such a time, I am likely to die. If the brakes stop working, I am in serious trouble. If one of the wheels comes loose for some cockeyed reason, I am very likely to be seriously injured.

2) I have fiddled around with adjusting my shifters and derailleurs and the cable linkage enough to know that it's almost always going to work better when the pro does it. Same goes for the angle of the brake pads.

3) Dismantling the bottom bracket and related parts requires a special tool and a lot of torque. Frozen pedals, the same. I have no interest in creating a print of my big chainring on my inner forearm (although I have done it several times, in blood); I would prefer to let someone do that job who really does own the right tool.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:11 AM on May 21, 2007

I'm an inveterate bike fettler (and now a novice framebuilder) with a shed full of bike-specific tools that would put most bike shops to shame. My advice would be not to build one from scratch first up, but to focus on learning to maintain it and in so doing pick up the skills you need. The tool aspect shouldn't put you off necessarily, as most shops can perform the tasks you're not equipped to ie press in a headset, install a bottom bracket.

The bigger issue if you're a complete novice that bikes have a bewildering variety of standards and options when it comes to how everything fits together. Like headsets for example. Just when you think you know what you want ie a 1" threaded headset, you discover that 1" headsets come in different standards. Is yours a JIS headset or an ISO? Is the steerer tube long enough to accomodate the stack height of the headset? Bottom brackets are another example. Is your bottom bracket English, Italian, French or Swiss? Is the taper Campy or JIS? How long shoud the spindle be? Etc etc.

Someone has mentioned Zinn's book. The *bible* of bike maintenance is Barnett's manual. It's not newbie friendly, and assumes a fair degree of knowledge, but it is exhaustive. Very strong on the diagnosis side of fault finding as well as the pure procedure. Each chapter has a list of tool recommendations as well, although they are shop quality or better.

The easiest way of becoming a competent bike mechanic is to start with something that works and maintain or upgrade it, learning the skills and acquiring the tools you need as you go.

Rich Smorgasbord makes a great point above when he says that the mechanisms of bicycles are all visible. It's not like a car where cause and effect can be separated by several components or physical distance. An analytical mind and patient approach will get you a long way through any bike related problem. Good luck with your project, however you want to tackle it. Feel free to email me if you ever have any questions!
posted by tim_in_oz at 12:53 AM on May 21, 2007

Best answer: Yes, get Zinn and consider Barnett's later, if for no other reason than cost. You'll know you've become a fanatic when you consider buying Sutherland's.

The only really specialized tools and skills required for most bike mechanics are headset fitting, for which you need several expensive purpose-specific tools that you might use once or twice in your whole bicycling life, and bottom bracket tools that are specific to the type and brand of bracket you might use. Make friends with your friendly local bike shop and get them to do these for you. There's nothing to be gained by doing these yourself and they're not even particularly interesting jobs, once you know how they work.

Outside those jobs, you'll need:
* A selection of hex wrenches (get long ones and preferably the ball-end type).
* Some small regular wrenches (8, 9, 10, 11, 12mm will cover everything).
* Philips and flat-head screwdivers.
* A pair of needle-nose pliers.
* A larger adjustable wrench (to be used infrequently, if at all).
* A pedal wrench (not essential but very handy).
* Possibly, a crank extractor (proprietary and hence usually fantastically over-priced for what they are).
* A pair of hub cone wrenches (no need to get the expensive types, they don't get much use on most modern hubs, you might not even need these to begin with).
* A chain whip (again, cheap ones are fine, or even make your own).
* A cassette lock-ring remover.
* A good cable cutter (worth spending more - cheap ones will soon frustrate you).
* A spoke key.
* A handful of tire levers.
* A tub of any old grease and a pot of mineral oil.

Your local shop will try and sell you exotic substances with bizarre names in an assortment of garish containers printed with amazing claims about how you'll be a better person and ride faster if you buy them. Resist them and go to the local tool supply to buy chainsaw oil instead, for a tiny fraction of the price. In a pinch, any old oil will do.

Anyhow, it's all fairly inexpensive and easily learnable by anyone reasonably mechanically adept and motivated. Just like any mechanical activity, take your time, be prepared to take things slow and methodically, double-check your work at each step, seek advice when you don't understand, and you'll be fine. Don't expect or aim to finish your first bike in a single afternoon.

It's best to start with an uncomplicated, affordable, modern, standard steel frame that's designed for currently available parts with no silly proprietary nonsense. Have a look at Surley or Soma, for example. Pay your local shop to chase the threads and ream the seatube free of any leftover paint or other detritus of manufacture before you start fitting parts. They can do that while fitting your headset and forks.

Spend lots on your headset, it's worth it. Economize elsewhere if you need to. It's the most loaded single part on the bike and the difference between cheap and expensive is real and huge. Shimano headsets are nothing special and best avoided in favor of a Chris King, Campagnolo, or suchlike.

If you're not rich, buy your parts and components from online suppliers. Unfortunately most local bike shops have silly prices and a very limited selection in comparison. Check out Harris Cyclery (unusual parts available, but can be slow to ship), Bikeman, Airbomb, among many others. Nashbar and Performance are often mentioned, but frankly, their prices aren't often all that great and their parts selection isn't very exciting. Sometimes they have reasonable clearance deals. I can't advise on parts without knowing much more about just the kind of bike you'd like to build, but stick with the mainstream to begin with. So that'll be Shimano, then? Probably. Avoid Campagnolo. But do consider SRAM stuff. Shop around and see if you can get a good deal on a component groupset.

It is much cheaper to build your own bike, in the long term. What you'll learn will save a fortune in maintenance and repair costs for what are often very trivial tasks if you know what you're doing. Compared to most machinery, bicycles are very simple. There's a few subtleties, but that's what books and websites are for.

If you want to learn something both very satisfying and mechanically interesting, consider building your own wheels, but that's probably a subject for another post.
posted by normy at 4:41 AM on May 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

I agree with many others here: while I think that assembling a bike is a great idea, it may not be such a great idea to assemble this bike. You'd be better off buying one off the rack, or (if you want to get fancy) speccing the frame and parts, and letting a shop build it up for you. Once you've got that bike, you can gradually accumulate the tools you need to service it, and get the hang of working on it. I'd go a step further than ikkyu: there's very little on a bike that isn't critical to its safe functioning, and part of the problem with being a novice is that you don't even know all the questions you should be asking. (eg, "Should I grease this thread?" You're maybe thinking "Wait, I didn't know should I grease any threads.")

You could also volunteer with the Yellow Bike Project in your area, if one exists. This would be a great way to get up to speed.

For my own part, I let the shop build my road bike, but I put together a single-speed beater using a used frame and parts I scavenged from my shop's junk bin. I also bought a town bike off the rack, and then swapped out half the parts on it.
posted by adamrice at 7:36 AM on May 21, 2007

Half-baked idea I just thought of - spec your bike and have a shop assemble it, but ask if you can watch it being assembled. The guys who repair bikes at shops have, in my experience, been the kind of people who are happy to be chatting to a customer while they work, explaining what they're doing and why. You'll learn a hell of a lot, and get pretty much the best of both worlds.

Depending on how the store operates, it may not be feasible (ie if assembling a bike happens over the course of a few days, just doing a bit here and there between serving customers), but even in this case, you'd probably have nothing to lose by either phoning around a few stores first, or offering a hefty tip :)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:33 AM on May 21, 2007

I vote for buying an assembled bike now, as it can take a while to get it all together and you don't want that to get in the way of your fall goal. As you get used to the bike, you'll get an idea if you'd like to change anything. You can learn by updating parts incrementally as you go, and maybe build up a beater from the parts you pull off and a thrift-store frame.

Keeping that in mind, I'd focus on getting a frame that fits you well, both physically and in relation to your ability and goals. Spend the money now on getting a good fit from a shop that specializes in that, and don't worry too much about getting "the best" components. Honestly, almost all components today apart from the lowest of the low-end are pretty darn good.

The biggest bang for your buck upgrade on an inexpensive bike is going to be upgrading the wheels and tires, and you'll learn a lot in the process, so I'd try to get that done before your century. I'd get a set of better pre-built wheels but then retension and retrue them myself. Refer to the previously-mentioned references as well as and Google Jobst Brandt for more good stuff about building/truing.
posted by Opposite George at 8:50 AM on May 21, 2007

I've had a bike sort-or-built piece by piece, but the thing that would keep me from doing this is that it would cost you far more in the long run. Say you wanted to build your own wheels. A truing stand will cost upwards of 100 dollars, and can be confusing to a novice. And then your truing stand will sit around for a long time (though you could build one).

If I were you (unless if you have alot of money to spend). I'd buy this bike pre-built to your requirements, and then gain knowledge by doing the repairs on it yourself. As you've built up some of the tools and knowledge, then build your own bike.
posted by drezdn at 10:06 AM on May 21, 2007

Response by poster: You guys rock! Many thanks to everyone. I appreciate all the very thoughtful answers.

I'm going to follow the general consensus and buy a fully assembeld one and learn as I make upgrades.
posted by dzot at 10:14 AM on May 21, 2007

Here is a useful site for anybody who is interested in working on their bike or who has questions.

Good luck.
posted by tbird at 12:21 PM on May 21, 2007

Re truing stands: I'll respectfully disagree with drezdn and say I've had excellent luck with one of the cheapie self-centering ones from Nashbar. It was less than 40 bucks on sale, and you can probably do even better on ebay. Yes, a more expensive one would make things easier (especially for radial truing) but for the price and the amount I use it it's good enough for me.

Of course, unless your bike comes with really crap wheels you probably won't have a need for one for a while, and you need to get more basic tools first so don't mind me.

Oh, though it's about the most basic thing you can do, you might start with installing clipless pedals if the bike doesn't come with them. That's easiest with a pedal wrench, which will run about 10 bucks for an okay one. Note the left pedal has a left-hand thread (unscrews clockwise) while the right pedal is normal thread. Of course you'll need to buy shoes, too. Trust everybody who tells you it'll make a huge difference to your cycling.

And be sure to post back if you get stuck. I'm sure you'll have no shortage of answers!
posted by Opposite George at 1:23 AM on May 22, 2007

Opposite George, I was assuming that if he was going to build his own bike he was going to build his own wheels. It's cool to know that there are cheaper truing stands though.
posted by drezdn at 6:13 AM on May 22, 2007

It's a question of personal taste. The cheaper ones definitely require more patience to squeeze that last bit of precision out. Building wheels regularly with them would probably drive you nuts if you're used to working with better tools. For the twice a year or so I pull mine out of the closet it was cheap enough so I don't have to feel guilty about having it.

Now, if only I was better with this metalworking stuff it might be worth taking a crack at this. Low-budget with a dial indicator looks pretty cool (still needs a dish gauge though.)
posted by Opposite George at 7:42 PM on May 22, 2007

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