A Fine Balance.2015/10< Back to blog
He sat across the room from me as I discussed his new bicycle. He looked delighted as I began to outline the geometries and proportions I was thinking of. He opened his mouth to speak and began gesticulating wildly. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I was sizing him up as he sat there. He was small and his legs and arms were proportionally short in comparison to his long torso: his new bike would need a very compact frame.
I tried to find out what he was looking for in a new bike but he didn’t seem to have any preconceived ideas. He just kept looking at me and giggling. It was clear that he had little experience in bicycles. All the decisions would be entirely up to me then.
It was time to take measurements. At the sight of the shiny stainless ruler he began to quiver excitedly. He kept trying to yank it from my grasp but I used my superior height to keep it out of reach. I tried distracting him with a magazine but soon had to take it away as he began to tear at the pages. By now I wasn’t sure that he was even listening to me – perhaps this would be easier with some of the parts for his bike at hand. We headed outside to the workshop.
Near the workshop door his new wheels were resting against a cabinet – I’d already put the tires on and inflated them and to his amusement I bounced one of the wheels on the floor. He grasped it in both hands and turned it around and around. He held it close to his face inspecting something and then he opened his mouth and tried to bite the tire.
While he was distracted I took the other wheel and passed it between his legs. It only just fit. At least this would be a rough measurement I could use for determining his inseam. As I knelt behind him I became aware of the odour from his pants: his nappy must need changing. I took him inside to change him – it was time for his nap anyway.
Before long I’d tucked my son into his cot. Here was a window of opportunity. Using the measurements I’d gotten I began to sketch the outline of a balance bike on a piece of cardboard on the workshop floor. This was going to be fun.
I started by cutting dropouts out of some 5mm steel plate – I modelled their design on BMX fork dropouts – only these would end up being somewhat prettier. I bent some 22mm straight guage cro-mo tubing on my pipe bender and set about creating a fillet brazed, unicrown fork. For the steerer tube some scrap 28.6mm straight guage tubing was found – this would be lighter than a conventional thick-walled steerer tube. The fork crown race was fashioned from a piece of bright bar stock turned on the lathe and slip brazed in place.
The frame followed a similar recipe – scraps of tubing came out of hiding. The down tube was an oversized seat tube that I had cut too short for a previous custom build and had had to discard – I was glad that it would finally come in handy. A piece of 28.6mm seat tube pierced the down tube a short way ahead of where the chainstays were to attach. The chainstays were a mirror of the fork blades – thin walled 22mm cro-mo with a single, simple bend. A teeny brass headbadge found its way onto the head tube. A one piece handlebar and stem followed soon after. I wanted the bar to have a bit of back and up sweep. I put a gentle bend in the centre of the bar using heat and a little physical coercion. The bar was mitred to fit directly onto the steerer clamp and a seat binder boss was brazed in place to handle clamping duties.
I needed a few parts to finish the bike off – the headset is actually an amalgamation of three trashed headsets that I had hung onto. I turned the outside of the cups in the lathe so that they looked the same and polished them to a gleam with brasso. I refashioned a topcover from an old cane creek headset – the rebate wasn’t deep enough to accept the expanding wedge so this was bored out and then the outside of the cover got a similar skim and polish treatment to the cups. This was now a fine looking headset, definitely worthy of the little bike!
The saddle was an old plastic model. These were so popular on BMX’s in the 80’s and I had a soft spot for their hard, unyielding design. It has a very slim profile and is fairly long – I thought this would make the bike easier to sit on as my son would be able to slide as far forward on the saddle as he needed to. Padded saddles aren’t necessary when the rider wears a nappy. The seat post was an old kin-lin model that received a little spit and polish to give it a new lease on life.
There was little left to do but wrap some bar tape onto the ends of the handlebars and the little bike was done.
When I presented the little bike to my son he became very excited and his garbled gabbering went up a notch or two in pitch. He seemed to know instinctively to swing a leg over of the saddle although at this point instinct ran out. We’ve been having riding sessions these last few days – he steering while I hold his shoulders and push him around. It’s going to take him a while before he manages on his own – he’s only just figuring out the mechanics of walking. The glee as he steers is already there and I can’t wait to see him discover the joy and freedom that I know two wheels can give him.