The first ride on the first bike. Hesitation, disbelief, and the motivation to make another.
The particle-board floor is littered with castoffs: curls of backing-paper from the bar-wrap; a handful of one-inch-or-so long pieces of cable housing; at least a few stainless washers that managed to slip through my greasy fingertips, land on the floor, and roll out of reach. Behind my desk, against the far wall, a pair of speakers hiss a methodical static. The album to which I was listening has died out, and I’ve been too involved to have noticed. I’ve been working for at least a couple hours in workshop silence.
It’s late—after midnight, at least. The neighborhood outside my window is black and quiet. The street is asleep. My wife and daughter are too, hopefully, up at the house. I’m down in my studio above our garage, putting the finishing touches on a bicycle I’ve spent this evening assembling.
I thump in the final bar-end plug with my mallet and it’s done. Well, it’s rideable, anyway. I haven’t dealt with the fenders—always the damn fenders—or installed the racks—always the damn racks—just yet, but the rest of it is ready. The saddle is set to its (roughly) appropriate height, the tires (more or less) to their correct pressures, and my mood to the right rhythm.
I have to ride this thing. This can’t wait for daylight.
I slide open the heavy, glass door and step outside. The early-April air hints at spring as I lift the bicycle up and onto my shoulder. The top-tube of this frame I’ve built—my first—settles down naturally. The bike balances itself there as I trot over to and descend the stairs that lead to the road below our garage.
I’m not sure what it is about making a steel bicycle frame that’s held such appeal to me for so long. There’s a certain attraction to the work itself; using my hands and fire to make something useful and agreeable seems a worthwhile endeavor, for sure. But there are plenty of steel bicycles in the world, and many of a certain vintage can be had instantly and for cheap. For some reason though, I’ve always wanted to make my own and ride it. Perhaps just to see if I could?
I throw a leg around the back of the saddle and straddle the bike. The frame is unpainted—raw steel coated with a rub of oil. The golden fillets—where the tubes have been joined together—catch the fluorescent rays of the streetlights and reflect, just so. Right now, it won’t matter a bit if this is the worst handling bicycle I’ve ever ridden. It could animate itself and buck me off and I’d still be proud. I reach my right toe down and lift the drive-side pedal up to its starting position. Push off. Find the seat. Clench my jaw. Squint my eyes. Await the inevitable.
The first thirty feet are hesitant as I wait for something to snap. Slowly, however, I gain more confidence. I start pedaling—softly so as not to break anything—and notice that my heart is beating right through my sweatshirt.
Well, this is... odd. This thing I’m riding feels familiar. Like... a bicycle. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. As I reach the end of our street I turn right, lean forward, and grab the forward section of the handlebars. I stand up and give the bike a little more gas. A couple good strokes and I’m coasting at a faster pace.
I’ve ridden countless bikes. Most of the utilitarian persuasion, but a few high-quality riders as well. Both new and old—mostly production steel frames. I think I know what a nice bicycle feels like. Or, at least I’m sure I know what a crappy bicycle feels like.
A quarter mile in and I already know it: this is the nicest bicycle I’ve ever ridden. Or, at least it’s not the crappiest bicycle I’ve ridden. I’m certainly biased, but I don’t think I’m mistaken.
I start really riding the bike now, standing up and smashing on the pedals to climb the hills of our neighborhood. The main drive is empty this time of night, and I start flying right down the center of its double-yellow, climbing another mile or so to the park to which my daughter and I walked earlier today. Circling the playground to start back down the grade, I'm flying over speed humps and around curves. I hop a curb or two to test the fork I’ve made. Settle into the saddle and ride another mile around the flat part of our neighborhood. Wear myself out pretty quickly. Must be the excitement. Or maybe the relief.
I stop in the darkness, and—through the visible fog of my breath—look down at this bicycle I’ve made. I’ve never felt anything quite like this. Chest thumping, throat swelling, the worries and stresses of a typical day falling out onto the pavement behind me. That short ride was some kind of slow-motion, surreal bliss. The bike beneath my feet is, somehow, still in one piece. And I really can’t believe it.
Best not to ruin it. I take off again and head towards home.
Shouldering the bike once more, I climb back up the stairs and re-enter my studio. The hiss of the speakers becomes apparent as I place the bike in the corner—its new home. Ok, you can stay. I reach down and remove a scrap of tape that has stuck itself to my shoe. I kick the strips of backing-paper into a pile and grab my broom. I look around my little workshop.
Oh, man. I’m in deep. That’s it.
The only thing I can think about while I sweep is how crude this bicycle seemed as I was building it up. The metalwork showed my inexperienced hand in so many places and so many ways. An amateur effort if there ever was one.
And yet it rides so damn nice. Was that luck? Or a product of the care I took to producing this thing, despite my obvious inexperience? The design? Was it merely in my head? I have no idea. I'm confused, but motivated.
All I know is that I need to build another one. I need to do it all over again. Determine if I can do it all over again. On my own this time. In this little studio space. Build one worthy of paint. Take photos of the work and share the experience. Write something about this ride I just took. That I'm taking. Could the second be better than the first? I need to find out.
There is steel to order, a drawing to be made, and expectations to set.
It's time to make another.
Well, I did make another. On my own this time. In that little studio space. And here it is. This is the bicycle I made to replace the one described above. The first frame I built was completed during a bicycle-making course here in Portland; I'll share photos of it down the road. I assembled that bike and rode it for nearly a year until this new one was ready.
This new one is a personal porteur/commuter—the bike I'll pedal every day, to and fro. And yes, it rides even nicer than the first. And no, I'm still not sure how that's possible.