Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The birth of an Xtracycle: Part 1

If you've read my earlier posts, you'll note that I had built and ridden an Xtracycle. This is the story of how this bike came to be. It all began back in what I like to think of as the formative years of my cycling career. It was the early to mid 90s and I'd recently rediscovered the childhood joys of cycling, and mountain biking in particular. My first completely brand-spankin'-new mountain bike was a '94 Specialized Stumpjumper Pro. The bike had been hanging in a local bike shop near where I lived in Atlanta at the time. Apparently, this shop no longer sold Specialized bikes and the owner was willing to make a deal with me. "I want it out of my shop. That bike has been here so long it's having birthdays," the shop owner told me. So, I was pretty stoked to get a bike that should've gone for $1400, for less than $600. This was back in '95 by the way.

So, jump forward quite a few years to the present and we now have an 18 year old mountain bike that saw some pretty heavy use for about five pretty hardcore years. During that time, the solid Tange Prestige Cro-moly frame saw upgrades of virtually every component. In it's current configuration as the donor bike for the longtail cargo bike upgrade, the only original components are the frame and the front Suntour derailleur. I'd had a lot of good times on that bike. Lots of good memories. At one point though, I'd moved to Chicago and discovered much to my dismay, that mountain biking was non-existent anywhere reasonably close to the city. The best riding to be had without a day trip was a place called Palos Hills, south and west of Chicago. I rode the trails once with a friend and found them tame by comparison to what I'd been used to riding in Georgia, and even central Illinois.

So, the Stumpy sat on a bike rack for years, collecting dust because it was simply too much effort to load it in the car for the trek to Palos, and it simply wasn't that fun to ride it along the streets and lakefront path of Chicago. Once I started commuting to work regularly on a far more recently purchased road bike, the wheels started turning (pun intended). As I became more of a cycling fanatic, a utility cycling fanatic in particular, I started thinking more about possible uses for the old dust collecting Stumpy.

At one point, I'd completely stripped almost all of the components off of the frame, intending to sell the various bits by auction or local classified ads. It was then that I somehow stumbled across my first glimpse of an Xtracycle online. It seems that these guys out in California had hit on this amazing idea. You could haul a figurative ton of gear on a bike if you bolted this weird thing to the rear of a regular old mountain bike frame. The bolt-on accessory was dubbed the FreeRadical, and the longtail cargo bike was born. An entire day can probably be lost in looking through the archives of Xtracycle Gallery.com where one can see all manner of mountain bikes, cruisers and the like, repurposed into cargo carrying utility bikes.

It was plain that I'd lost interest in mountain biking and that my Stumpjumper was going to be more trouble than it was worth to sell in parts. Conversion into an eminently more useful cargo bike seemed to be a way to bring some life and usefulness back to a tired old bike. So, I began by purchasing the base FreeRadical unit and P-racks ("P" for "pannier"), from Xtracycle. They offer several different versions of bolt-on models with varying amounts of accessories.

Being somewhat cash-strapped, I decided to try to keep my build as budget conscious as possible. To that end, I decided to make my own deck instead of buying any of the ones sold by Xtracycle, along with making my own cargo bags. What components couldn't be salvaged or incorporated into the new build would be replaced with new bits, hopefully avoiding the purchase of unnecessarily expensive "high-end" or "trick" components.

So, over the next few weeks, I budgeted, searched the online retailers, and eventually purchased enough replacement components to begin the build in earnest.

First though, the old Stumpjumper frame and fork needed to be cleaned and prepped before any new components were installed. Imagine my surprise when I discovered nooks and crannies on the frame still harbored traces of the ubiquitous Georgia red clay, known for its tenacity and incredible power to permanently stain almost anything with a porous surface. Luckily a bit of judicious application of Simple Green cleaner removed all traces of Georgia from the frame.

Once the frame and all threaded surfaces were cleaned the first thing to do was to install a new headset. I'd replaced the original Grease-guard headset with a high tech race-quality needle bearing headset made by a company called Odyssey. Unfortunately, years of hard riding and later, neglect, had left the Odyssey Toro Pro headset with badly pitted and dented bearing races. The whole thing felt grindy and crunchy. Time of a new headset.

So, needing that new headset, I hit up a local bike shop that frequently comes to the rescue when I can't get parts quickly enough from the internet to satisfy my urges for instant gratification. So, I purchased a replacement 1" threaded headset from Smart Bike Parts. I expected something like a generic Cane Creek headset for my $25, but was instead pleasantly surprised to find that it was made by Velo Orange.

So, I carefully installed the top and bottom headset cups using my homemade bearing cup press which consists of a 12" piece of 5/8" diameter threaded rod along with several large fender washers and a pair of channel lock pliers combined with an adjustable wrench. It's not pretty and it can be a bit tricky to use, but it gets the job done for a fraction of the cost of the cheapest headset press out there.

Here the lower bearing cup is being installed.

You have to pay close attention as you tighten the nuts down, making sure that the cup gets pressed in evenly all around. This is the one major failing of this type of homemade tool. It works great for cheap, tough headsets, but would probably ruin any lighter weight race or performance type of headset. Here you can see me eyeballing the cup as I tighten the bolts.

The original stock rigid fork goes back in and the last bits of the headset are installed and tightened down. The rigid fork had been replaced by a Manitou 3 elastomer suspension fork. Luckily I still had the original fork as the elastomers had long since collapsed from age and heat exposure.

The last bit to go on before the rest of the build is the bottom bracket. Luckily for the budget, the bottom bracket probably only had about 100 miles on it, even though it looked pretty cruddy. A bit of cleaning with a wire brush and it could be reinstalled. Those venerable Shimano UN55 sealed bottom brackets are cheap, heavy, and tough.

Installed and looking nice and clean.

And the beautifully cheap and simple VO headset.

That seems like a good stopping point. In "The Birth of an Xtracycle: Part 2," you'll see all of the rest of the components being installed, along with a innovation or two.

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