Marolt: It was all about nuts and loose screws
May 24, 2017
Building a bicycle from scratch is an enjoyable endeavor — if you aren't doing it wearing tight, black Lycra shorts and wishfully thinking you might tighten the last nut by early afternoon on the day you start so you can take it for a spin. It is a process that takes time, even more so back in about 1978.
It was one of those rare projects that turned out to be about as rewarding as I thought it would. It happened in the days when the parts were cheaper than the whole. A nice bicycle cost X dollars. A DIY project amounted to the price of a store-bought bike minus the labor to put it together. There wasn't enough demand for racing bikes to where companies made zillions of them and got big discounts for buying their parts in bulk, enabling them to sell the whole cheaper than anyone could buy all the parts.
I imagined correctly that anything you construct with your own two hands is better in all ways, besides maybe quality, than something from a factory. This was in the days when you didn't need all your digits to be perpetually in touch with friends and acquaintances through strings of text messages and could actually use your fingers for making stuff. Handmade things were kind of like what we think of homegrown tomatoes today.
Bicycling wasn't big in the sense that everyone in hip towns felt the need to spend thousands of dollars on the most exotic bike you could afford to pedal through the countryside every evening after work and all day Saturday and Sunday to work up a sweat in bright-colored, form-fitting, quick-drying clothes before pedaling past every cafe and coffee ketch in town with outdoor seating to work up the imagined envy of tourists and other slackers wasting the afternoon shopping and shooting the breeze.
I imagined correctly that anything you construct with your own two hands is better in all ways, besides maybe quality, than something from a factory.
I proved my devotion to the budding recreational activity not by jotting down words and times in a training log, but in blisters and the spontaneous swearing that comes naturally when you strip a screw or shear a bolt by foolishly trying to use the wrong tool to save some time.
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It took the patience of St. Schwinn to build a bicycle in the pre-Internet days. You read lots of magazines to get phone numbers for parts manufacturers and then called to ask for catalogs. Once you had the catalog you figured out the parts you needed. Chatting in an online forum wasn't an option, so you actually had to catch Ned, the only real bike mechanic in town, in his garage and spend an afternoon observing him work and asking for advice.
Once you thought you knew what you needed, you mailed the order in and waited the requisite four to six weeks for a response. Chances were good you would receive a letter informing you that the things you needed are out of stock instead of a box of parts.
In those days, if you could rely on plan B, you were extremely lucky. By the time I started putting my bike together, I must have been on Plan G V16. I was drilling through chain-wheels and tapping holes in the frame to fit screws I scavenged from the jar on my father's workbench.
Of course I ended up with a bicycle that worked as well as expected. Its chain clinked across the gears of the rear sprocket and shifting became a craft nobody could replicate except through enough iterations of trial and error to qualify as the machine's owner. The brakes squealed when you really needed them, yet only joked with you about actually failing. The headset was always a little jiggly. Although nobody had ever seen anything quite like my new bike, not many really cared, either.
But I loved that bike and probably had more fun riding it than any other of the world-class mounts I have bought and had professionally assembled since. Of course, the little mountain towns I rode through then were as much homemade and improvised as my bicycle, so we all were a good fit.
There were about a dozen people in town who considered a ride to Maroon Lake to be a fun thing to do and all of us knew exactly how fast everyone else was, so there was no posturing or pretense. The only guy in town with a fancy racing jersey was an actual former racer. Even he thought it was kind of cool that I made my own bike.
Roger Marolt figures he built his bike for just less than a couple hundred hours. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.