My awesome, hand-built bicycle 

click to enlarge Bill Watts and his awesome bicycle. - MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Bill Watts and his awesome bicycle.
  • Michelle Craig

I have a bicycle that turns heads. Just the other day, as I was looking for a bottle of beer in a shop, with my bike parked outside, a clerk came up to me and said, "That's an awesome ride, man!" And that happens a lot.

I don't mean to boast, but my bicycle is even more awesome than most people realize. The things that draw immediate attention to my bicycle are its colors and its fenders. But what makes the bicycle really special is not so readily apparent.

My bicycle was built from the ground up, beginning with the frame. Everything on my bike was built and chosen by my frame builder and myself. Consequently, my bicycle fits both my body and my needs almost perfectly.

I have relied on a bicycle both for basic transportation and for recreation for 48 years, and, in recent years, I have ridden about 8,000 miles a year. My long experience gave me a very good idea of what I wanted in a bicycle and what I could get by having one built to order.

But as cycling goes through a kind of renaissance, and more cyclists take to the streets, more people can and should think about having a bicycle custom built. For that reason, then, I want to tell the story of how I built my awesome ride.

One of the compensations for living in the otherwise dreary cultural and political climate of the early 21st century has been the rise in hand-made and locally produced goods. In Indianapolis, this is most obvious when it comes to food and beer. I now buy my milk from Traders Point, which is up the street from my house, my meat from local growers, and my beer from local brewers. It is more and more possible to live in a hand-made world, and I like living in that world.

So, when it came time to build my bike, I naturally wanted to work with a local frame builder. In Indianapolis, I had two choices. Shamrock Cycles is the more established of the two. Tim O'Donnell, the owner and builder, sponsors a race team, and he recently won an award for the Best City Bike at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. His bicycles are innovative and beautiful.

Kevin Harvey of Harvey Cycle Works is relatively new to professional frame building. He did build some frames in the early nineties, but has spent much of his career as a machinist for an Indy 500 racing team. I found his frames to be elegant and well thought-out, but more utilitarian than the Shamrock bicycles.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I went with the less established builder. When I first met him, I knew that I could work easily with Kevin Harvey. We had compatible idea about bicycles, and he had built for himself a bicycle very much like the one I wanted for myself. Plus, I knew from the outset that Kevin was utterly honest and completely trustworthy.

Once I had chosen my builder, I went to a bicycle fitter to determine the exact dimensions for my frame. For this, I turned to Jonathan Juillerat, a fitter who is also the general manager of the Nebo Ridge Bicycle Shop on the north side of Indianapolis. I had known Jonathon for more than 15 years because of his work as a bicycle advocate. I once took my commuting bike to Jonathan when he was the head mechanic at another bicycle shop, and I was amazed at how thorough he was in going over every inch of the bike and in anticipating future problems. I knew that he would be equally meticulous in fitting my bike.

Attention to fit

The fitting was done in three one-hour sessions. In the first session, Jonathan took numerous measurements of my old bike and of my body, and conveyed these measurements to Kevin, who designed the frame. In a second fitting session, Jonathan set up the stationary bike according to the new design. I rode this stationary bike, Jonathan took more measurements, and Kevin made adjustments to the design. Then, after the bike was built, I had a third session, in which final adjustments were made to the components.

For me, this attention to fit was something entirely new. Prior to building my own bike, my whole notion of fitting was to adjust the saddle to a point that seemed comfortable, and then take off riding. Since I was spending a good sum of money on the bicycle, and committing ideas to the permanency of steel, it made good sense to invest the time and money in a professional fitting.

In addition, I have had one persistent problem that I wanted to address through fitting. On long rides of more than 200 miles a day, the tips of my fingers go numb, and sometimes stay that way for months. Both Jonathan, in doing the fitting, and Kevin, in designing the frame, were mindful of this problem, and worked to take pressure off of my hands. While it is still early days, my hands seem happier with my new bike.

Fitting the bike to my needs was even more important than fitting it to my body. I planned to use my new bicycle for three distinct purposes. First, I commute about ten miles a day to work, and I also use my bicycle for most of my day-to-day travel. Secondly, I participate in an organized but obscure sport called randonneuring. This is not a competitive sport, but one in which riders complete a specified course within a certain time period. The shortest randonneuring event is 200 kilometers, or 124 miles, which must be completed in 13 hours, and the longest is 1200 kilometers, or 746 miles, which must be completed in 90 hours.

Thirdly, I use my bicycle for touring, and go on two or three trips each year carrying all of my camping gear and clothing. I have ridden down the California coast, across France, and down the Florida coast to Key West, and plan to make similar trips in the future.

Some cyclists would have different bikes for these different purposes. I have heard the late, great Sheldon Brown say that cyclists should think of their equipment as golfers think of their clubs: they don't use a putter when they need a driving iron. Consequently, cyclists should have a bag full of bikes to meet their various needs, regardless of what their spouses say.

I understand the thinking behind this view, but I have always preferred to rely on one bicycle for most of my needs. Because I am not a gifted mechanic, I like to have just one bicycle to maintain on a day-to-day basis. I will keep my old bike as a back-up, and I keep a separate bike equipped with studded tires for snow and ice, but I will do 98 percent of my riding on my new bike.

Some of the decisions about my bike were obvious given the ways I planned to use it. Most randonneurs have fenders on their bikes so that they can ride through the rain, and they have generators built into their front hubs that power very bright and very reliable front and rear lights, allowing them to ride through the night. I wanted these things, and I also wanted a device called "The Plug," which would be connected to my generator and allow me to charge my GPS or my phone as I rode.

Some of the choices I made came out of my own habits and experiences as a cyclist. I wanted disc brakes because I had grown tired of adjusting cantilever brakes, and because I am overly cautious in descending steep, twisty hills. I thought the additional power of disc brakes would give me the confidence to make faster descents. Disc brakes are still relatively rare on road bikes, but Kevin had already designed and built several road bikes with them, so it made good sense for him to put them on my new bike.

I also needed a bike that would travel well. For both randonneuring and for touring, I often have to take my bike onto an airplane. My old bicycle was a Ritchey Breakaway, which had a frame that came apart so that it could be packed into a suitcase and checked as regular baggage. I needed something like that on my new bike. Kevin was able to build my bike so that it could be taken apart.

One of the most impressive things Kevin was in the wiring of the bike. A wire goes all of the way from the front generator tube to the back of the bike, providing power to the rear light. But, because the bike comes apart for travel, the wiring also had to come apart. Kevin's long experience working with racecars has given him great skill in solving problems, and he was able to design and build such a wiring system.

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