A bicycle mechanic doesn’t see a bicycle as a unified whole. They see an assemblage of compatible parts held together by opposing forces.
Joycee 1 started life as an Apollo step-through (sometimes referred to as a lady’s bike because the top tube or cross bar is lowered to preserve female modesty when ‘mounting’ the saddle). I first noticed the bicycle in Autumn 2016 at Macquarie University. It was a greasy cobwebbed mess, locked with a flimsy cable to the bicycle racks at the rear of the Mitchell Building on 12 Wally’s Walk (up until recently known as E7B).
Autumn turned to winter. I walked past the forlorn bicycle each day. I observed that it hadn’t moved an inch the entire season. When Spring finally arrived, at my behest, a jovial building attendant used his master key (basically, heavy duty bolt cutters) to release the bike into my possession. I duly stripped the bike down to the frame and forks and binned everything else. In hindsight I should have kept some of the parts as I could have reused them, or it may have made it easier for me to order compatible items. But it was one of my first used-bike acquisitions and, to be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing.
The dull-red coloured frame and white-coloured forks of the heavily soiled bike languished in the corner of my inner city apartment throughout 2017 and 2018. When my friend Lyn decided to relocate from Sydney to Queensland in the Summer of 2018/2019, she asked me if I would build a bicycle for her to get around town on, on Magnetic Island.
We agreed that this project would be a labour of love. She would only pay for components that I needed to order from local and overseas suppliers. To keep overheads to a minimum I carried out an inventory of what I could reuse from existing stock. I have a couple of frames besides the Apollo, but the Apollo is the right dimensions for Lyn who is quite diminutive in size.
I asked Lyn how she wanted her bicycle spec’d out and, along with a few suggestions of my own, we came up with the following list:
- Teal coloured frame and forks
- Vinyl stickers featuring the moniker ‘Joycee’ (the nickname Lyn answered to when we used to hang out in Balmain, and as it happens, Lyn’s mother’s name!)
- Dutch sit up and beg handlebars (the ones that allow you sit upright rather than lean forward)
- Dynamo lighting (basically a hub that generates electricity powering the front and rear lights)
- White coloured sprung saddle and cable housing
- Front carrier (basket)
- Front and rear fender
This is not a complete list. When I started assembling the bicycle, I noticed that some of the parts I already had in store, such as the hand grips and pedals, were tired looking. This detracted from the bike’s aesthetic appeal. So with Lyn’s permission, I bought nicer kit.
The Legacy of Reddy Go
The meteoric rise and fall of the inner city bicycle share company, Reddy Go, has faded from public memory. This app-based experiment, with cycling as the third way of commuting (after the car and public transport), provided fascinating insight into social behaviour at a community-based level. Why were these heavy clunkers vandalised and destroyed by otherwise law abiding folks?
Once the rider finished their journey, the Reddy Go could be virtually deposited anywhere. As the bike propagated in number, clogging up narrow footpaths and other public thoroughfares, it quickly came to be viewed as a public nuisance. Locals were not just unhappy, they were surprisingly livid.
Heavy though its frame was, a grown adult was able to throw the defenceless Reddy Go into waterways, hoist it up trees, and smash it against the ground. This depressingly violent ritual, was carried out dutifully and often. For someone who takes an animist view of bicycles, it was sad to see the Reddy Go lying prostrate, twisted and broken.
On the surface, the animus displayed towards the Reddy Go seemed to be vehemently anti-social. But with city councils lacking the appetite (financial incentive?) to free up parking space for bike share schemes, this may have induced a community backlash against what amounted to public littering. Eventually Reddy Go folded and the legion of battered bikes it left behind became a miserable symbol of Sydney’s love-hate relationship with bicycles in general.
In a selfish sense, this suited me quite well. The Reddy Go had a half-decent dynamo front hub made by Panasonic. Under the hood it also sported a 3-speed Shimano Nexus rear hub (an internally geared transmission system that is reliable and easy to use). Rather than see these and other parts (such as the cranks and brake sets) needlessly go to the wreckers, I wheeled a few of these poorly looking bikes home. I took what I wanted, and needled the council ranger to remove the picked-at carcasses from the front of my building. The vitals of the Reddy Go would eventually come to enjoy a new lease of life through Joycee.
Project Managing Joycee
The most challenging part of assembling the bicycle was not the art of assembly itself. Rather, it was measuring, calculating, researching and ordering parts that would be compatible with the ones I already had on hand. For example, to calculate the correct length of the spokes needed to thread the hubs I pinched from the Reddy Go, through the wheel rims I purchased on eBay, I measured thrice. If the spokes were too short, they would be useless. If they were too long I would have to cut them down to size – something I would rather avoid having to do.
Thankfully, there are established industry standards for the size of frames and parts. So, as long as one takes great care to measure the diameter and length of things that insert into and fit with each other, mistakes and reorders are kept to a minimum. That said, I ended up ordering a number of parts that did not fit! If they couldn’t be used for some future project then this would have been an expensive mistake. But still, when you’re operating on a tight budget, it’s generally not sustainable or efficient to order parts that are surplus to the project at hand.
There were six sequential stages to the Joycee project:
- Remediation and fine tuning
I did things out of sequence, such as building the wheels first. I find building wheels quite demanding, mostly because I don’t do them very often. It is an art in itself, and one day I may write something on the subject. When it finally came to assembling the bike, it was quite reassuring to know that the wheels were at my disposal. All that was left to do was fit the rim tape, tires and tubes, which in the scheme of things is relatively easy.
Between the stifling heat of late January and the chilly month of July, I ordered a heap of bicycle parts, sourcing them via online retailers (eBay, bike exchange, Wiggle, Chain Reaction, Jaycar Radio) locally and from around the world (China, Germany, North America, Poland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the UK). I conducted approximately 38 online transactions and just 3 face-to-face transactions. I suppose in this sense Joycee is a mail order bike!
The parts arrived at my local Post Office using Australia Post’s reliable Parcel Post service. For smaller parts I had them delivered to my Post Box. And if the merchant didn’t deliver to the Post Office, I had the items shipped directly to my apartment in White Bay. To keep track of parts and costs I recorded various details in an Excel Workbook.
Column headings included:
- Component name
- Cost passed on
- Shipping address
- Date ordered
- Date received
It wasn’t until the Easter break that I started preparatory work on the frame and fork. Rather than take the bicycle to a workshop to sandblast the old paint and powder coat it with fresh paint, I decided to do it myself. The concept of removing old paint with a sanding-bit attached to a power drill seemed quite straightforward. However, executing the task proved both laborious and hazardous. I used a a PC2 respirator to safeguard my airways against harmful dust. And I worked with fully enclosed goggles and protective gloves to protect my eyes and hands against catastrophic injury. I wore closed shoes, but they were not steel capped, which one should alway use when working with power tools.
Working out of my car space, it took three sessions and a few drill sander attachments to remove the paint. Because of how noisy and risky this task was, I was keen to get it out of the way as soon as practical. I timed the work during the middle of the day when my neighbours tended to be away.
The next step was to spray paint the bicycle. I wore a PC2 respirator for this task as well. I placed the frame and forks on large pieces of cardboard to protect the frame and also keep the car space clean. I applied a few coats of primer on the first day. Over the next few days I sprayed three coats of teal. Following this I attached the vinyl stickers. Finally I sprayed a clear coat to protect the stickers and frame.
I was glad when I finished this loud and odiferous phase of the project. I took some photographs and texted them to Lyn. She seemed delighted with the progress. Bringing the prepared frame and forks into my apartment to start the assembly process was a satisfying milestone.
Working full time, spending precious time with loved ones and friends, and maintaining a semblance of order at home, means that there’s not a lot of time left in the day to work on one’s hobby. So the only time I could find to work on Joycee was a few nights a week after dinner. As a consequence what should have taken a few days to finish, took three months.
The first thing I did was attach the handlebars and the seat. Once these two parts were installed I could flip the bike over and rest it safely on three points of contact (the handlebars offer two points, the seat one). This facilitated easy access to the bottom bracket, which I’ve heard poetically described as the ‘guts’ of the bike. As an aside, If I owned a portable bike repair stand then I wouldn’t need to work in this fashion.
The underlying principle of effective bicycle operation is smooth and unencumbered movement between mechanical parts. I packed fresh ball bearings and grease into the cups of the headset and the bottom bracket. I then applied sufficient torque (force) between the cups and cones to fasten them together so that the steering tube and axle could turn with minimum friction while remaining securely fastened under sustained vibration.
There are at least seven mechanical components on a bicycle:
- The front wheel hub and rear wheel hub, which the sprocket is attached to
- The steering tube, which the headset and handlebars are attached to
- The axle, which the chainring, cranks and pedals are attached to
- The chain, which drives the chainring and sprocket, thereby propelling the bicycle in a forward direction
- The left and right pedals
- The brake system which includes the brake levers, cables and brakes
- The gear system which includes the gear shifting mechanism, the gear cable, sprocket and transmission system
The Art of Bicycle Maintenance
When fiddling and tinkering with a bicycle, there are tips and tricks one picks up along the way. Many of these I have acquired from instructional videos and from friendly mechanics at local bicycle stores. One such trick is fitting a chain to a bicycle using a home-made tool. This tool is made from a coat hanger or bicycle spoke cut to a short length. Using pliers, one bends each side of the material at right angles so that the tool sits in between the links holding the uncoupled chain together. This then allows one to measure the requisite chain length and decouple the excess links with a chain breaker tool. Again, it pays to measure twice and cut once. Removing one link too many renders the whole chain unusable and destined for the garbage bin.
No two people would work on the same bike in the same manner, with the exception of assembly line workers, and even then. Personally I find fitting and adjusting the gears and brakes on a bicycle frame the most challenging step. It’s not difficult to thread cables through their housing or fasten cables to the pinch bolts of brake callipers or gear transmission systems. Nor is it a tax on one’s abilities to cut cable housing with a decent pair of cable cutters. Anyone can do this. But doing so in a manner that optimal calibration of braking and gearing changing is achieved, requires patience, effort and feel.
For example, the length of cable housing should not be unnecessarily excessive. To ensure minimum mechanical resistance, there should be a pleasant curve where each end connects to the braking and transmission systems. This reminds us that in bicycle construction and maintenance artistry is as important as skill.
I encouraged Lyn to include fenders on Joycee. Fenders not only cover the wheels. They protect the rider and their clothes from water and road debris. They also play another important role, especially in the case of the rear fender. It supports the fixing of a rear dynamo light. The electric cable can be inconspicuously routed via the inside of the fender, firmly affixed with duct tape. I used marine grade cable to keep things as waterproof as possible. Getting everything into place involved stripping the housing; connecting the exposed tinned wire to connectors; and, using a heat gun, insulating the exposed connections with heat shrink material.
Spanner in the Works
Sometimes, there are unexpected hiccups that throw a spanner in the works, so to speak. I had my fair share of these moments with Joycee. Here are some examples that come to mind and the remedial solutions I used to address them:
- I stripped the bolts of a recalcitrant kickstand that refused to securely fasten to the chain stay. I replaced it with a kickstand that is bolted onto the frame adjacent to the bottom bracket.
- When subject to moderate load, the basket kept dropping into the fender. I added thick pieces of silicon shim on the handlebar p-clips.
- The frame did not have a sufficient number of cables-stops, so the rear drum brake lacked requisite braking power. I added a cable-stop clamp.
- The rear fender arms were too long. I shortened them with a bolt cutter.
- There was no cable guide beneath the bottom bracket. I picked up a spare from my local bicycle store and attached it to the bracket’s drain hole with Gorilla Glue.
The old saying that a poor tradesman always blames his tools, should be taken with a grain of salt. Without reliable well-made tools, working safely and effectively on a bicycle project is near impossible. Below are the main tools and materials I relied upon to complete the Joycee project:
- Combination wrench set
- Hex key wrench set
- Adjustable spanners
- Metal files of all sizes and shapes
- Screw driver set
- Torque wrench
- Chain link remover
- Spoke wrench
- Tire levers
- Floor pump
- Marine grease
- Duct tape
- Machine oil
- Spray paint
- Gorilla Glue
- Heat gun
- Power drill and sanding bits
- Cable cutters
- Tape measure
- Metal ruler
- Stanley knife and cutting board
- Hack saw
- Vice grips
- Wire stripper
- Pedal wrench
- Socket wrench with hex and nut socket bits
- Spoke, ball bearing and cotter pin ruler
- Personal protective equipment (glasses, gloves, respirator and dust jacket)
It would seem that putting together a bike from scratch is as much about making lists as it is executing plans! In the final analysis though, the pertinent question is this: Does the bicycle actually work?
Putting Joycee to the Test
It’s a Sunday morning. I can hear kids crying with laughter in the street. Just as a caterpillar emerges from its chrysalis, transfigured into a pretty butterfly, so too does Joycee from my apartment, a teal coloured beauty. For quality assurance and safety reasons, I’m compelled to test Joycee under different riding conditions, which includes subjecting her to controlled crashes (basically allowing the bicycle to fall sideways onto the nature strip of the footpath).
I ride the reborn Apollo frame around neighbouring streets putting Joycee through her paces. I shift gears from first to second, second to third and back down again, speeding up and slowing down in the process. Lagging and hesitating between gears, the shifting does not feel as responsive as it’s supposed to be. Later that afternoon I install a fresh gear cable and recalibrate the transmission. I take Joycee out for a ride in the twilight, the dynamo light casting a bright beam of LED light onto the dim road ahead. Everything seems to be purring along nicely now.
I text Lyn the next morning. I share the good news. ‘Joycee is finished!’ I write. She replies with a string of affirmative emojis. A few days later while I’m at the office Lyn calls me out of the blue. ‘Marios?’ Lyn asks me, striking a suspicious tone. ‘Are you going to install a bicycle rack?’ I gently push back, explaining that Joycee doesn’t have the necessary anchor points in the seat stays. Lyn sounds crestfallen. I’m being lazy. I know where I can buy clamps that will do the trick. A week later, I place an order for the parts. As I write, said parts are enroute from Brimingham UK to Sydney. Money makes the world go round.
It’s been a journey, both figuratively and literally. Building a bicycle at home is something special. It’s not an assembly line affair. There’s no clocking on or off. It’s a very personal activity that one invests with patience, concentration, sensitivity, problem solving and physical energy. Sometimes, when I’m working on a bike, although I am present and focussed, I drift into a zen-like state. An overwhelming sense of calm descends upon me and the remains of the day wash away into a sea of tranquility.
In the coming weeks I will take Joycee up to the local Pack and Send on Darling Street. I will ask for a quote for shipping her from Rozelle to Magnetic Island. I’ll be sure to mention Joycee by name, inferring that she is more than an inanimate object. Hopefully, they will take good care of the old girl as she winds her way up the north coast of Australia, before making the final leg of the journey via the barge from Townsville to the Island where Lyn now calls home.
I leave the reader with this concluding observation, which is essentially apropos of nothing:
The bicycle is a perfectly engineered technology of the body.
- Thank you to my partner, Lisa, for her many helpful editing suggestions. Any blame for errors and general long-windedness lie with me. While this essay is written with a broad readership in mind, at times it is inescapably technical. The reader is welcome to skim through these sections at their leisure. ↩