blogorrhoea (heather)



red girl

kaffenback build-up

I've been wanting to build up a road/touring frame for ages. My dream bike is a Cannondale road sport or touring bike. However, starting at around £1200, these are probably a bit prohibitive. And, y'know, I've been into cycling for a couple of years, I've done various bits and bobs of bike maintenance: why not just go the whole hog and put one together? Hey, how hard can it be?

Build up so far:
Frame: Planet X Bikes Kaffenback
Fork: Kaffenback cromo fork (as standard)
Headset: Cane Creek S2
Brakes: Tektro Mini-Vs
Wheels: Campagnolo Daytona (Centaur) hubs on DRC st17 rims
Shifters: Campagnolo Mirage ergos
Seatclamp: Salsa Lip-lock
Stem: 3T THE stem
Bars: 3T THE bar
Tyres: Hutchison kevlar beaded
Front mech: Campagnolo Mirage
Rear mech: Campagnolo Mirage

With that sentiment ringing in my ears, and a cheap components deal courtesy of Brant at On-One/Planet-X, I took the plunge and bought a road bike frame. Over the next couple of months, I'll be building this up, and adding to this page as I go. Hey - it's cheaper than golf, and I get a new way to zip around the countryside at the end of it, right?

Couple of general principles for the build:

Righto. So, on with the fun!

stage 1: first catch your frame

I'd been looking at Planet X's road frames for a while. Their sister company, On-One do a range of very well regarded steel bike frames, including a steel singlespeed (the Il Pompino). The Kaffenback is basically a geared version of the Il Pompino, with a different paint job. As On-One and Planet X have a number of rather enthusiastic adherents out there on the interweb, I was quite interested. Then one day, on the Singletrack forum, Brant (runs On-One) offered to knock a few quid off for forum readers. I was tempted, but didn't quite jump.... Then a few months later, Cycling Plus did a review of the Kaffenback, and rated it very highly indeed. On the basis of this, I emailed Brant and asked if the quids off still stood. He offered cash off some components instead, and the deal was done.

So, first off: I've got the frame & forks, headset, and brakes. Planet X very nicely pressed the headset cups into the frame before sending it out - this would otherwise have required a trip to my local bike shop, as the tool is pretty specialised. Final headset installation has to wait until the stem arrives, but that's about it. I've managed to seat the crown race on the fork myself - passing by the chance to spend £25 on a specific tool, and using a block of wood and a hammer instead. Worked fine. The headset (Cane Creek S2) is pretty zippy looking, and very nicely machined. Mmm. Brakes I'm leaving off until the wheels/cables arrive, as they'll just get in the way otherwise. Next step is to put the stem on to confirm the fork length, then cut the fork headtube to length and put the forks properly on. Now we just need to wait until the first package from Wiggle arrives.

stage two: go round and round

As my order at Wiggle was being delayed waiting for a seat clamp, I popped out at lunch and bought one locally. Billys stock Salsa kit, so I picked up a very nice 30mm "lip lock" seat clamp. It's amazing how nice looking a simple piece of well-machined aluminium can be, innit?

On arrival back at the office, I found that my wheels had arrived from Oldham Cycles. Campagnolo Centaur hubs, black spokes, very nice rims. Of course, you can't actually "install" wheels until pretty late in the piece - still, though, it's nice to have 'em around. Package also contained a set of Campagnolo Mirage ergos (combined brake/shifter units), which are again pretty much useless until I get the handlebars to mount 'em to.

So now I've got a bike frame with a seat clamp fitted, with two wheels sitting next to it. Whee! Roll on the arrival of some more parts, so I can actually fit some stuff to it. In the meantime, I'm indulging in that highly important section of cycle maintenance: a tin of lager.

stage three: make with the spanners

The other morning, a package from Wiggle arrived, with my handlebars, stem, seatpost and saddle. Nice. I can now start putting the bike together a bit more. As I see it, this assembly process has roughly two components:

So, for example, attaching the stem and handlebars comes under the first category, while getting the gears working correctly is in the second. In general, bolting things on is easier than getting them adjusted correctly. OK, so the distinction blurs slightly in things like putting on the ergos (combined brake/shifter units), where the final positioning requires quite a bit of adjusting, but still. The early stages of the job mainly require bolting, and the adjusting comes towards the end. I expect the bolting to go a lot quicker, especially since I've never worked with a lot of these road bike bits and bobs before. Still, Campagnolo have very comprehensive user guides available as PDFs on their web site, so that should help.

I should point out at this stage of the project that I found Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance really annoying. I can't see how you can take that sort of neo-Platonism seriously: all that kerfuffle about Quality, for instance. Arguing from the fact that everyone seems to agree that some things are better than others to the proposition that there is some Platonic ideal of Quality, which things have in varying degrees: barking. How about, we're socialised such that our opinions of certain things tend to converge? Tch. Anyway, no cheapie Eastern insights here. In my experience, the closest thing you'll get to a deep spiritual insight while maintaining a bicycle is that deep sense of satisfaction when a stuck bolt finally comes out, or the deep inner calm that comes from cracking a tube of lager once you've finished the job. I used to ride a bike around Beijing in the early to mid 90s, and I'd occasionally get minor mechanicals. My solution to this was to wheel the bike to the nearest bloke sitting my the side of the road with some old tools and some innertubes, and pay 'em RMB5 to fix whatever'd gone wrong. Deep insights about the nature of life received I none; cigarettes was I offered aplenty. Ancient Eastern spirituality, my arse.

I have the spiritual impulses of a brick, yes.

Anyway, having received the stem and handlebars, I decided to have a crack at installing the fork properly. So on Saturday afternoon, I trucked all the stuff out into the back garden, whacked a chill-out compilation on repeat, made meself a cuppa and had a crack at it. First thing was to cut the fork steerer to the correct length. This is the bit at the top of the fork, that actually goes through the head tube on the frame and is clamped by the stem (which holds the handlebars to the fork). These are always left long, to allow for height adjustment. You figure out how long you need the fork steerer, then you cut it to fit. I'd already figured out how long I needed it, so I whipped out my hacksaw and set to work. As the saying goes, measure twice, cut once, and I was pretty sure I'd got the cut at the right place (marked with duct tape in a very butch fashion). Five minutes later, I'd cut through the fork steerer, and was neatening the end up with a half-round file.

Now the fork steerer was the correct length, the next step was to install the nut to which the headset top bolts. This is an oddly-shaped bit of metal, known (after the shape) as a star-fangled nut, designed to wedge into the steerer tube and provide an immovable base that the headset bolt can pull against. This means that the damn thing is slightly wider than the tube itself, and wedging it in is an absolute bastard. Again, rather than resort to the cheating method of using a specialised tool, I whacked it in using a hammer, a block of wood, and the lawn. This provides a suprisingly well-damped method of whacking something in place, actually, and I'd recommend it.

Star-fangled nut in place, I took the fork over and installed it on the frame. The headset (Cane Creek S2) is good quality kit, and all went together very easily. I left a few spacers just for fine adjustment, put the stem on, then bolted the top cap in place. A bit of tightening, check for play in the bearings, a mite of fine adjustment and we're away. Bang on. So that's me forks installed, then.

To make it look a bit more like a bike, I've whacked the bars on, and for the same reason I've fitted the wheels. I picked up some tyres (Hutchison kevlar ones - nice, and they've got blue bits) in town on the Saturday morning, so I fitted the rim tape and tyres as well. A minor setback for about ten minutes when I realised that I'd put the rear tyre on backwards (!), and then discovered how damn difficult kevlar tyres are to get back off the rim, but nothing that a lot of swearing couldn't handle. So it's definitely starting to look like A Bike, rather than A Collection of Stuff. Next step is to whack on the drivechain, so it'll actually be able to go somewhere. I can feel an order to Parker International coming on...

step four: hammer and a nail

Thanks to a handily-placed bank holiday, the build is now mainly done. Few minor missteps on the way, but otherwise fine.

The package from Parkers arrived without incident. I whacked the bits on in two stages (before and after our trip to Bristol). The entire drivechain was Campagnolo Mirage kit, with the exception of the chain (I have a few 9spd chains lurking around spare from the MTB).

First off, I fitted the cassette to the rear wheel. I'd assumed that cassettes came as a single lump that you needed tools to dissassemble. It came as a slight shock that it was just a number of loose sprockets and plastic spacers. Still, once I'd worked out the zippy plastic holder thing that theoretically makes fitting the bits a doddle, fitting the cassette wasn't too bad. Locking everything into place presented a slight challenge: the lockring tool worked fine, but as the turning surface was a 24mm bolt I faced the problem that it was too big for any of my sockets or spanners. Even my adjustable spanner - which hadn't hitherto let me down - turned out to have trouble breaking the 21mm mark. A bit of bodging with some odd spannerlike tool, the proper name of which escapes me but which I'm reasonably sure I've heard nicknamed a nutfucker due to its main usage to remove hopelessly rounded bolts, and I'd got the cassette fitted. Victory!

This done, I bunged the rear wheel in and spun it. A slight scraping sound occurred. On closer inspection, it turned out to be the small sprocket catching slightly on the bottom tube of the rear triangle. This looked to be caused by the fact that I was running a 130mm road hub in a rear triangle designed for 135mm - not much of a difference, but just enough to cause a slight rub. As this would have caused more than slight problems in use, I was a bit worried. Fortunately, the solution was pretty simple: a 2mm washer sorted it. High technology, eh? I briefly considered sticking an extra washer in - you know, just for the hell of it - and then decided to leave well enough alone. [Update: I've had a bit of email about this, and apparantly the recommended method of fixing this problem is to carefully give the relevant bit of chainstay a thump with a hammer to flatten it out slightly. That said, the washer works fine and I'm not arsing around with it any more.]

With the build well and truly going, er, well, I had to take a hiatus for a brief trip to Bristol. Whoops!

On returning, I had another whack at it. Everything was now in place except for the drivechain. And we had a well-timed bank holiday. Woo hoo. Righto. Settling down at 9am, I put on a tape of the Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy radio show, got meself a huge of tea, and proceeded to get anti-seize grease all over my hands. I'm not sure if anti-seize grease is strictly required to fit a steel bottom bracket cup into a steel frame, but what the heck. The anti-seize grease looks surprisingly sparkly: kind of like kids' facepaint, but presumably with a greater design influence from spark plugs. I had been quite intimidated about the bottom bracket, but it was a doddle: grease it, carefully start putting it on using your fingers, tighten with the correct tool, and bob's yer uncle. No worries. Crank installation was similarly easy: place the crankset on the bottom bracket axle, insert the screw, tighten as hard as you possibly can. An 8mm allan key socket head made this a bit easier.

The deraillers bolted on pretty easily. The front derailler was a bit tricky - I'd never played with one before, and setting the height was a bit of a bugger. The rear was a bit easier.

So: cranks, cassette, deraillers: the last component of the drivechain was the actual chain. As I had a couple of Sachs 9spd chains around (I use them on my MTB, and Chain Reaction do 3-packs at a discount), I just bunged one of these on. 9spd is 9spd, right? I'd decided not to go for 10spd drivechain, as a) it's a bit overkill and b) I like the idea of having as many parts in common between bikes as is practical. I was a bit worried about the sizing - I didn't recall there being that many links left over when I changed the chain on my MTB, and that's only got a 44t front ring. I wasn't quite sure how well a 50t frong ring would go. Fortunately, I'd forgotten that I only had a maximum 23t rear sprocket (rather than the 28 or so on my MTB), so there wasn't a problem.

I'd now reached the point at which there wasn't really anything more to be bolted on. From now, I just needed to adjust stuff and tape things into place. Cabling, specifically; I needed to get the cables in place and make sure that the brakes/gears all worked as intended.

Installing the brake cables was pretty hassle-free. Once I'd figured out how to poke the cable through the ergo handles, it was quite straightforward to cut the outer cable to length and run it down to the frame stops. Straightforward, that is, once I'd realised that I'd absentmindedly run installed the inner cable before cutting the outer to size, and had to take it to pieces and start again. Hey ho.

The gear cables weren't too bad either, though they were a bit trickier. More to do with slightly complicated cable routing. Actually, the only real bugger with the gear cables was that finding the correct length involved fiddling around and getting the indexing to work for the front and rear mechs - which involved a fair bit of faffing around with the mechs. Let's just say that it's surprisingly hard to tell how straight a front mech cage is in related to a chainring, and that a lot of patience (and two cups of tea) were required to get these playing nicely with others. That said, after a bit of work these all seemed to get the hang of each other, and the gear systems are now all working well... when the bike's in the workstand.

Finally, for light relief, I fitted the handlebar tape. This is supposed to be a terribly tricky job; I found it OK, which probably means that I've missed out something very important. Still, so far so froody. I'll be interested to see if the tape falls apart the first time I use it.

Which, all going well, will be tonight. The bike now has everything it needs except for pedals. I'm going to be swapping the clipless pedals from my MTB (Shimano M515s), and whacking the platform pedals back on that. So the plan is to head home, swap the pedals over, and give her a basic road test. Woo and indeed hoo.

step five: shake her down well

So it's been about six months since I finished the build. I didn't take the bike out much over winter (hey, it's my lovely new bike, I don't want to get the bugger dirty), so it mainly got use during August this year and spring this year. The verdict: nice the house.

Whole bike, leaning against the laundry pole
The result! See how it gleams!

Closeup on Frame
Close-up on the frame.

Drivechain, mainly Campag Mirage. Also note Crank Bros Egg Beater pedals - they're the absolute business.

Other side
It goes like the clappers. Like the clappers, I say.

The gears worked like a beauty straight out of the box - I was sprinting standing up on the pedals with complete confidence on my first run out. You really notice the difference between a tight, close-gear racing cassette and a standard MTB cassette. The racing cassette doesn't have as large a gear spread, but does have very minor incremental jumps between the gears. This makes it much easier to walk up the gears - each upshift is only slightly harder than the last, so you tend to upshift a little more readily. In general, my opinion of the Mirage ergos is extremely good. Upshifts are by a thumb lever on the inside side of the ergo; downshifts are via a small lever under the brake lever - you push inwards with your fingers and you downshift. Both up and downshifts can take in multiple gears, so you can ramp up or bail out easily. Response on the levers is very crisp - you're never in any doubt about whether you've shifted. A nice feature is that the left ergo isn't indexed to just the standard three positions. Instead, it moves in a succession of smaller indexed clicks. Thus, you'd need to shift it up four clicks or so to move up to a higher chainring, or down four or so to shift down. I suspect that this means that you could, if you wanted, swap it and run the rear mech indexing on the left shifter - handy for the sinister among us. Usefully, it also allows you to trim your front mech to prevent chainrub (as in, if you shift gear at the rear and start getting slight chainrub on the front mech, you can move it over slightly and everything's groovy again). In general, Campag Mirage has me very impressed so far.

The steering originally felt rather twitchy, but I think that's just a normal difference between road bikes and MTBs. The first few rides were mainly taken up with trying to get used to the fit of the bike, and with minor tweaks. I'm now thinking about slightly raising the bars, but moving the ergos up and angling the ergos down a little. That said, this is a pretty minor issue.

The bike as a whole (which is pretty much the best way to talk about the frame) is a joy to ride. Very nimble, very quick. The first few rides I was a bit worried about the handling, but after a few hours I've got used to it and am now quite happy to go through central Cambridge at high speed playing dodge the tourist. The frame has a good, springy feel to it, and is really whippable around corners. Maneuvers at high speed feel very stable. Can't comment on how much road buzz the frame is absorbing, but the total lack of suspension isn't a problem unless the road surface is completely knackered. As a fairly heavy (90+ kg) rider, I feel very comfortable on it

In essence: it's a good solid, not too heavy frame, with a very nice ride indeed. Looks the biz, very nimble, and not too many notes. Ideal commuter frame.

And the experience of building the bike up was great. It wasn't as difficult as I thought: not significantly harder than building a fairly complex meccano set. There's quite a few bits that require a bit of understanding of the underlying principles and a willingness to fiddle around and get the fit right; but that's half the fun. The other half is getting a bit of kit that you're used to seeing on your bike and not thinking too much about - a front mech, for instance - and having to sit down, take it out of the box, and figure out precisely how it works, how you need to set it up, and how you should install it in relation to all the other bits. A great learning experience, and tremendous fun. It's also given me a lot more confidence about mechanical bits on the bike. Fettling's good fun once you get over the worry that you're going to utterly bugger up the careful set up; once you're confident that you can set it up from scratch, it's all a lot less intimidating.

Changes since the original build-up: I originally bunged on my spare pair of Shimano M515 SPD pedals. These were upgraded early in 2004 to Crank Brothers Eggbeaters (the cheapie cromo ones - all the functionality, slightly more weight, half the price), which are the bee's knees. Highly recommended. I've not yet replaced the saddle, but that's just because I can't get a decent Brooks cheaply enough on eBay yet. While the Topeak Biolink is perfectly usable, it's a bit silly, (the air conditioned crotch is just ludicrous), and I fancy trying something else. And the bike tart in me means that I'd like to upgrade those headset spacers - they're mismatched 'cos they're a combination of what came with the headset, and what I had lying around the toolbox.

For the curious, the total cost of the build was £666.05. Most of the parts were purchased via mail order (see the links above); that cost does include some of the specialised tools. For instance, the bottom bracket cost £8.95; the tool to screw it in place (special tool needed for Campag mirage) cost £29.95. Blimey. That's the disadvantage to Campag - for Shimano kit, chances are that you can use tools in common with the MTB.

To sum up: building the bike was great fun, and the frame rocks.

tallpoppy graphic

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