Living in the city is an awesome experience. There’s plenty of things to do, new faces everywhere, and an energy that can inspire when the situation calls for it. But getting around a city, even with good public transportation, can be frustrating at times. With that problem in mind, often the easiest and least stressful way to get around the city is on a bicycle. Seeing as my home stomping ground of Boston is only a few square miles, you can navigate it pretty quickly on two wheels. So, fed up with parking tickets and people who seem to drive with their eyes closed, I set out to build my ideal city bike. I learned a lot along the way, spent more money than I should have, made new friends, and ended up with a bike that perfectly suits my needs. It was the best pain in the ass I could have asked for.
Here’s how it happened.
I’d been thinking about building a bike since I moved to Boston in 2009. I love to explore the smaller parts of the city, and not having to park is a blessing. In college I’d ridden a bike all over campus and had dropped more than a few chains, rusted out bottom brackets, and suffered countless flat tires. The last thing I wanted was to have a bike that might crap out on me commuting to work or exploring the Charles. My goal was a bike that could take the abuse of city riding, and I didn’t want to have my back killing from being in a race riding position. I also wanted correct gearing so I wouldn’t find myself walking my bike up some of the more brutal hills in Beantown, and lastly, the bike should look pretty damn good. Bottom line: what I envisaged would be highly personalized.
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The first item I checked off was drivetrain. With bad childhood memories of walking my BMX home and dropping the chain off my 21 speed, I started targeting internally geared hubs. These engineering marvels allow you to get 5- or 8-speed functionality with a self contained rear hub. This means no dropping your chain or blowing out a derailleur. Further research and a recommendation from a friend brought me to the NuVinci 360. The NuVinci 360 is actually a Continuously Variable Hub, meaning it has no actual gears; so, depending on how you turn the grip shift you can adjust how much torque you’re putting to the ground. This provides customization that you cannot get with traditional gearing.
For a frame, I ended up going with a Raleigh Port Townsend. Made from 4130 Chromoly tubing with lugged joints, it provides a smooth ride with long-term durability. Most importantly, it has the geometry of a touring bike, making for a more upright and comfortable riding position.
With the frame and drivetrain on the books, I set about getting the right components to build a bomb-proof commuter. Extensive research brought two companies to light: Fyxation, which makes more “Gear for Urban Riders” such as tires, pedals and saddles, and Eighth Inch, which makes components for fixed-gear bikes. From Fyxation I obtained Session 700 tires for their durability and puncture resistance, Gates BMX style pedals, a Button Saddle and BMX handlebar grips. Eighth Inch provided a crankset, freestyle handlebars (for an even more upright riding stance) with corresponding freestyle stem and heavy duty headset, and finally the all-important two Julian wheels upon which I would cruise.
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With my basement full of boxes and a bike frame, I set about learning to build a bike. What I thought would be a simple process and fairly straightforward turned into a multi-month endeavor, with more than a few trips to the local bike shop (big thanks to Wheel Works bike shop in Belmont, MA). I ordered the wrong parts… a couple of times over. I assembled the majority of the bike and then read that I needed to lube everything first, and so was forced to break it all back down again. I spent weeks trying to find the right chainring to order for the crankset, only to find it at a shop ten minutes from my house. After months of spending weekend mornings troubleshooting and tinkering, I had the entire bike assembled. The final item was the wiring of the brakes and Nuvinci 360 hub. Considering the role these play in safety while riding, I decided to splurge on having professionals do the final step. I was shocked to find out it would have cost me the same to have the bike shop do all assembly as to just have the wiring done. The lesson is: sometimes it’s a whole lot cheaper to pay the pros to do it in the first place. But as a result, I do feel confident troubleshooting most issues with the bike as they might crop up.
After finally getting it assembled, it was time to get it out on the road. I hunted down the perfect helmet to compliment my creation. Never one to be shy, I found my way to the offerings from Nutcase Helmets and their Stars and Stripes street helmet. Its loud graphics and CPSC compliant construction properly balanced my desire to keep my dome in one piece while showing some “go to hell” swagger.
On the road, my city bike creation lived up to every one of my desires. The steel frame provides a smooth ride, but isn’t overly heavy. The NuVinci hub allows me to cruise effortlessly on straightaways and climb the hills of Boston without killing myself. Fyxation’s tires have held up to the abuse of frequent rides admirably, providing excellent grip and a smooth ride with zero flats. The handlebars and stem from Eighth Inch have definitely helped raise the already forgiving geometry of the Port Townsend so that I can get across the city without my back screaming at me. All in all, I couldn’t ask or more, and I certainly couldn’t have gotten a comparable bike off the shelf.
Another big thanks to Fyxation, NuVinci, Eighth Inch, Raleigh, and Wheel Works bike shop for helping make the bike a reality and providing guidance along the way.
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NuVinci 360 Hub: $334
Tektro Short Pull Brake Levers and Calipers: $17
Stars and Stripes: $60