Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Best Commuter Bike Ever Project, Part 1

A few months ago I began to realize (for real) that my bike collection is too large. Other times when I have realized this, I was able to justify the collection by explaining that it wasn't worth much or that it didn't take too much space in the basement. But this time was different for some reason. So I decided to thin the herd by a few bikes, and then use the cash to buy a bike to replace four or so of the departed ones.

So I sold the Van Dessel (a few tears because it was the Best Commuter Bike Ever), the Redline Monocog (I have a Monocog Flight 29er, so it was starting to feel a bit redundant), the Redline Monocog 29er (OK, that was certainly redundant), and the Cannondale MTB with lots of cool XTR stuff (recently living on Ritchey Tom Slicks and serving as the kid trailer puller).

Flush with cash and space, I began to accumulate ideas for an awesome commuter bike. The idea with this bike would be to combine the best of the Cannondale and the Van Dessel--a perfect commuter bike that in a pinch can serve as a competent road bike, gravel trail touring bike (for this or this), or kid trailer hauler. Oh, and another very important use: the no-worries loaner bike for friends. It is nice to have a bike around that you can lend to a visiting friend or a friend who is temporarily between bikes. This means that all of the bike's functions should be intuitive, idiot proof, and should require no explanation. This is not the case with my fixed gear bike.

I considered briefly purchasing a Bianchi Milano, but decided not to for three reasons. First, it wasn't different enough from the Van Dessel I just sold. Second, it has an aluminum frame, and I wanted a smoother ride than aluminum can offer. And third, although I found the idea of the newer Shimano Nexus 8 hub very appealing, if I was going to get an internal hub I wanted the Ultegra-level Nexus 8 Premium.

The Milano framed my thinking about what I really wanted, so as I started to build the perfect commuter bike in my head, it looked a lot like a Milano. The attributes I came up with were the following:

1) As lightweight as possible. The Van Dessel was nice, but its 7-speed hub was heavy. I wanted something light.
2) Comfortable ride (so probably not aluminum frame)
3) 26" wheels. This allows for a wide range of tire options with lots of frame clearance
4) Internal hub gears, either a Shimano Nexus 8 Premium or a Rohloff (but that's too expensive)
5) Cantilever or V-Brakes. I like discs just fine, but they can be heavier and I really don't see a need for them on a commuter like this. And I say this with some experience, having commuted through New England winters.
6) Full coverage fenders
7) Comfortable handlebars. (I have never found a more comfortable grip position than the one offered by the bullhorns on my fixed gear bike. I wanted to approach this grip but with a mountain bike-diameter handlebar because the Nexus shifters fit this diameter handlebar.)
8) Generator hub to run the lights.
9) Although there are some pretty heavy parts here (like #4 and #8), I wanted to make it as light as possible.

So I began poking around for parts. On Craigslist, I found a like-new Cannondale Fifty Fifty in XL. The Cannondale is basically the bike I am looking for, but it has an aluminum frame and an eccentric bottom bracket. I don't think I want an EBB because of the complexity it introduces. I bought the bike thinking that I could swap all of the component onto a frame that fit my needs.

I started looking for steel, carbon fiber, and titanium MTB frames. Titanium MTB frames are ridiculously overpriced right now. I have to believe that they will fall in price soon. Steel is a little heavy for what I want to do with this commuter, and carbon, well, carbon is nice. As I searched eBay for carbon and titanium frames, I stumbled across a magnesium MTB frame for what seemed like a really good price. So I poked around on the Internet and found generally positive reviews of magnesium frames. Apparently they are all manufactured in Russia, and they are of high quality. Magnesium purportedly offers miraculous vibration damping characteristics. And it is light. Very light. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I ordered the frame.

The Mg frame arrived in a UPS box, and it felt as though the box was holding feathers. I was shocked. It is incredibly light. And the welds are beautiful. I couldn't be happier. Here is a photo (it is wet from rain, and a few nicks from chain suck have been touched up with primer):

My plan is to primer it and paint it with this cool titanium paint, creating confusion regarding the frame's construction material. I am going to have a friend cut me some cool vinyl decals that call attention to the fact that this is Mg and not Ti. More later.