I booked my old Malvern Star Wisp in for a service down at the bike shop, the fabulous VeloCycles in Nicholson St. My bike was fifteen years old, and had served me well, but it had needed very regular servicing for the last couple of years. It was scratched, rusty and creaky. They put it up on the stand and gave it a quick assessment. Most of the gear teeth were damaged, the wheels were getting out of alignment, etc. etc., and perhaps it was time to donate it to the Ceres bike exchange and start with something new. I wasn't surprised: they had given me plenty of warning over the last few services.
We had a quick look at similar styled bikes on the floor (hybrid bikes, where you sit up to ride, and the wheels are neither thin like racing bikes nor thick like mountain bikes), and then I remembered how much I'd enjoyed riding with dropped handlebars on our New Zealand trip, so we started looking at other bikes. I am absolutely no expert on bikes at all, but I described the kind of riding I do — a daily commute from North Fitzroy to Parkville, an occasional longer ride around city bike paths, and then once a year or so a longer trip on rural rail trails — and they narrowed it down to two bikes they had in stock. One was called Surly. OK, so coming from a bike called Wisp I wasn't on very strong grounds to object to a name, but all the same there was no way I was going to hitch myself for the next fifteen years to Surly. There was another, a Salsa Vaya that was dark brown. Then as is always the way, there *was* a bike they thought would be perfect for me, a Salsa Casseroll, but they had sold their last one last week. They phoned around and found there were none in the country, and no news about any new shipments. However, there was one frame left, and it was exactly my size, so Paul said they could build one for me.
Woah: I thought. This is going to cost way too much, and I have no idea how to do this. I can barely change my own tyres, let alone choose different fittings. The whole project seemed so uncertain to me, partly because I didn't think I was that serious a rider. Was it really worth it? But the more they talked about it, the cleverer an idea it seemed; and the more desirable the Casseroll frame. We looked at pictures of the Casseroll on the web, and I must admit it did look rather elegant. And yes, Casseroll is an odd name for a bike, too. It's either something to eat or vaguely French: "break roll"? Someone needs to do some serious work on naming bikes.
I went back a couple of days later and met with Lee, the senior mechanic, who would be in charge of the build. And there began a very happy relationship indeed. He would ring me and run various options past me, and I'd come in and look at the various quotes. He gave me a couple of options at one point, and said don't worry about the most expensive total, because it was "downspecable". And I could have saved a couple of hundred dollars at this point, except that it was so clear Lee was putting together a fabulous bike. One of the great selling points was the wheels. The wheels they put on most bikes are factory built and don't often last more than a couple of years, but handbuilt ones are far stronger and more finely tuned.
At one point I asked Lee how often he built a bike from the ground up. "Twice a day in my head" was the quick reply, at which point I realised exactly what this kind of "build" represented. I go into a bike shop and am quickly overwhelmed by the choice and variety of what's on offer. Someone like Lee sees thousands of possibilities and variations, and most importantly, can explain them clearly to a novice. One day the frame arrived:
When choosing the fittings we decided to go for a brushed chrome look that would complement the bike's silvery grey coloring, and the styling was "semi-retro", complete with leather saddle and handlebar grip.
The whole shop seemed excited about this project. I have to say it is always a pleasure going in. Some bike shops have a way of making you feel very ditsy if you don't understand the finer details of Olympic racing, but I've never had that kind of grief here. They were also really careful about the money, giving me careful advice about what I would be up for.
Finally on Friday it was ready. Well, nearly ready. Lee put it up on a little training rack, so I could try it for height, etc. in the shop.
This was much better than the moment I was dreading, when I would ride it out on the bike path and fall off because I wasn't secure enough to see if it was too high, or when I would mess up a gear change and bring the chain off. So I hopped on and off a few times until the height and position of the saddle were just right, and off I went for a trial spin. The gear shift levers on this bike are cunningly positioned to emerge from the end of the handlebars and they take a little while to get used to. Also, the brakes were very tight, indeed: luckily Lee warned me to go gently with them at first. But it felt pretty good, I must say.
We decided it needed a slightly shorter ... I don't know the name of the part: the horizontal bit that connects the handlebars to the vertical stem. So off I went home, and turned up again a couple of hours later. A fancy new wooden pannier rack had just come into the store, and they had fitted that, plus the lights, bell, and silvery mudguards etc. we had chosen. As the leather saddle ages, it will darken to match the leather grips, which are amazingly comfortable. I also bought a new lock!
My bike is a thing of beauty, now: sleek and silvery, but with lovely old-school touches of leather and wood. I've learned enough over the last two weeks to realise how streamlined and tight is its construction and fittings. Its pedals are small: flat on one side for riding in regular shoes; and with the little cleats on the other for when I get the special shoes (you are thus propelling the bike when your leg moves up as well as when it presses down) for touring. The brake cables are neatly positioned, without those huge loops you sometimes see.
If this sounds like an ad for VeloCycles, and Lee, and for the idea of getting someone to build you a bike from the frame up, so be it: this was such a fun thing to do, and I couldn't be happier with the result. I'll be taking it in to my office for the next little while, so do feel free to come and admire it if you are on campus. It was not cheap, but given that I plan to ride it for the next fifteen years, that's absolutely fine. I was going to use my tax return to buy an ipad: I'm much happier having a fabulous bike!