Friday, July 31, 2009

The New MegaBike 4000

Riding on the back
my daughter calls out to me
look yellow roses

The newest addition to the stable is finished - I call it the MegaBike 4000. Actually it's a '94 Bridgestone MB-4 ("MB" for Mountain Bike) but like the Six-Million Dollar Man, it's become something better, stronger, slower because "we have the technology," courtesy of the Xtracycle Free Radical kit. Thanks to this kit, an old & outdated (but sturdy & well built) MTB has been given new life as a modern SUB (Sport Utility Bicycle).

I first became intrigued by the idea of a "longtail" conversion when former team mate Charlie Wicker showed me the rig he had built up for his fledgling coffee business, Trailhead Coffee Roasters. That started the wheels turning (so to speak). Hmmm, I could haul lots of stuff, put kids on the back, maybe even go bike camping... the "X" extends the possibilities of all kinds of bikey fun. So T and I started planning and budgeting for it. - they're not exactly cheap (but compared to this, it's a bargain.) Just about any bike will work for building a longtail - you could even build an Italian fixed X. But ideally, the Free Radical should be built on something solid, sturdy, and stable, which means a good old steel mountain bike. It also means bike shopping which, next to riding, is one of my favorite pastimes. But here's the slightly embarrassing part of the story. The MB-4 was not the first bike I bought for the conversion; it was the 4th. See, the problem is that , like a mini-van, the X was intended to be a family vehicle, meaning something my wife and I can both ride. But like most mini vans, in reality, it's more her rig than mine - which is fine with me. It's just that, apparently, it took me 4 tries to learn that whatever frame was to form the base of the X, it Must Meet Her Approval.

The first candidate was a bike I picked up at a garage sale while T was away for the weekend - a 1986 Miyata Terra Runner for $25. Of the 4 bikes considered, this is my sentimental favorite. Maybe it's because of the price, which sort of implied the old owners were putting it out to pasture. But I also have a soft spot for lugged frames & forks, which are rare for MTBs. And the "Holy Terra" (yes - I kept it) just oozes character with all those silvery alloy friction shifting shiny bits. I thought T would be thrilled. Her opinion? "Too purple" and "it has a dumb name." Huh? It's Latin! What could be better for an English major?

The second candidate was a newer, Taiwan-made, TIG-welded Voodoo Hoodoo I found on Craigslist for $100. It's a solid bike in great condition, with a lemon-yellow metal flake paint job and a really cool skull logo on the seatpost. I had approval on this one, but after a day of deliberations, the verdict was something along the lines of "It hurts my eyes."

So bike three was kind of the opposite, a subdued & practical workhorse in a dark gray/blue matte finish. It's a rigid-fork 1996 Specialized Rockhopper. This was also a Craigslist buy and this time T was with me for the test ride. She liked it fine, especially compared to the earlier experiments, but it was more like the way someone might like a burger after a couple meals of brussels sprouts and tofu. it doesn't necessarily mean it was a good burger, but just that it was a step in the right direction. I think we payed $50 for it. It joined the others in the
basement, waiting for the kit and the final decision - who will be the Next American Longtail?!?

And then the MB-4 popped up on Craigslist. Now, I'm not a card-carrying BOB, but I have an affinity for the Bridgestone/Rivendell aesthetic, and the old catalogs are admittedly great reading. And when T and I were dating, I helped her parents buy her a bike - an MB-6 (which by the way is still rolling as a cow-bike on sister-in-law Tami's ranch.) Plus, T's main ride is a sweet little 1985 Bridgestone T700 touring bike whose restoration was a delightful labor of love for me. The girl selling the MB-4 knew it was a nice bike and despite my feeble attempts at dickering, she knew she had no reason to sell it for less than the $100 she was asking and I knew it too. The smile on T's face when I brought it home was all I needed to know that I was done searching.

Getting the kit, however, took awhile. If you couldn't tell by now, I'm kind of cheap. My sisters claim it's the McKee in me, refering to my maternal grandpa who was a notorious coupon-clipping, horse-dealing "dabbler" in real estate. It's true that I hate paying full price, especially for big purchases. The short version is that it took a couple phone calls and 3 visits, but I was able to parlay my team membership & the "special team discount week" into 25% off the kit.

After sitting in the basement through spring, my vacation - including no teaching summer school for the first time in 5 years - gave me the time to jump on the build. I started by stripping and rebuilding the bike, including new bearings, chain, BB, cables and housing. I also did a little upgrading. The original rear cluster was a 7-speed freewheel, which would have been fine, but a peculiarity of the Xtracycles is the prohibition on cantilever brakes - which this bike had. The reason for this is apparently that, because canti's stick out horizontally from the seatstays, they c ould interfere with the bags and supporting "V-racks." Eyeballing the bike now that it's done, I doubt this would be a problem. But the "required" V-brakes or disc brakes also have better stopping power than canti's, which might come in handy when you hit the downhill stopsign carrying 150lbs of groceries and a 3-year old on the back. Because the stock components included integrated brake/shifters, and because canti brake levers are generally incompatible with V-brakes, it meant I was going to need new brake and shift levers anyway. So when I had the opportunity to get a set of 8-speed shifters & nearly-new cassette for $20 (Craigslist again) that made my decision to upgrade from 21 to 24 speed.

Sidenote: the guy I bought the shifters from was kinda interesting. He sort of runs a bike mechanic business with his housemate in a trailer park in Gresham. When I showed up at 4 PM they were both drunk, with Hendrix blasting from the stereo. The seller was asleep on the couch and after his housemate told me to go in, I had to shout to wake him up, and I scared the crap out of him. He literally jumped, then staggered around saying "dude! dude! You scared me, dude!" Then laughed hysterically at himself. But he dug out the shifters and cassette, and even threw a new chain in, wishing me luck as I pedaled away.

Since the new shifters didn't incorprate brake levers, and I knew I needed V-brakes, that was next on my list, and I scored. Performance Bike was opening a new store downtown, and for
the grand opening was offering a $20 store card to the first 100 people in the door Saturday AND Sunday. Of course my son and I rode down and were in line early both days. In addition to the $20, they also had "spin the wheel"where you could win more store money (or other stuff like water bottles, "big prize," etc.) Saturday my son and I each spun $5, and Sunday he scored another $5 and I hit $10. Plus, they were also giving $5 cards for bringing in recycled innertubes. I could only dig up a couple Saturday ($5 each) but scrounged several more for Sunday for the maximum $15 each. Our grand total: $145 store credit, plus some schwag like snacks, chain lube, and sunscreen. The only hitch? It had to be spent that weekend. Of course, V-brakes just happened to be on sale, so we got a full set for the X, plus some sunglasses and a tailight for my son, a bell, new shorts, a clear jacket (for cyclocross) and a couple new tubes. It felt like bike Christmas.

I had avoided opening the Xtracycle box until all my ducks were in a row,
but once vacation started and all the parts were lined up, I hauled everything out to the driveway and spent the better part of the weekend on the build. The FreeRadical is a pretty well-designed kit and marketed as a lifestyle item, kind of like an ipod or a BMW I guess, but cooler. Included in the box are all the practical bits and pieces, including such welcome items as an extra length of chain, longer rear cables & housing, and a kickstand.

They also include a great sheet of stickers
and a packet of business-size cards titled "Eleven Answers" to hand out when asked the inevitable questions you get when you roll with an X. Examples: "Light! As little as 5 lbs." & "Yes, but you won't want to."

The final construction was actually easier and quicker than I had anticipated. I've learned from experience to anticipate glitches and problems that need solving, and the free radical didn't really present any. The extension attaches at three points -to the rear dropouts and the chainstay bridge with special doodads designed to hold it secure.

Once the FR was on and the new V-brakes mounted, it was just a matter of installing a new chain, routing new cables and housing - (using the included rollamajig to reduce rear derailleur friction), putting the wheels back on and getting everything fine-tuned before sliding on the V-racks, strapping on the Freeloader bags, and snapping on (literally) the Snapdeck.

When done, the girls were begging for a ride, so after a short run up the street to make sure nothing fell off, we were ready for a loaded test ride.

The only thing needed was a stoker stem and bar for carrying a passenger. You can get fancy with this if you want, but most folks find a cheaper solution. Mine included a used stem, shim, and mtb bars (which I chopped down) from the CCC. Total cost around 20 bucks. I topped it off with purple sparkle grips and streamers, a Hello Kitty bell (plus a red pepper bell for the pilot), and now it's fully customized and fit for both girls. Eventually I'll probably get the Footsies if I can find a deal on them, but since Lil' C couldn't reach them anyway, I bolted a pair of bar-ends I had lying around to the front of the V-racks and she's now got somewhere to put her feet.

The following weekend was the 2nd of three Sunday Parkways events - the NE Portland version, and after riding a loop as a roving mechanic with the MegaBike 4000, I met up with my family and we took another lap together. I think this bike is a keeper.