Explorations in the Republic of Nowhere


Earlier this year I met with Adrian at a local coffee shop to discuss his custom bike. He had been riding an older steel Specialized touring bike and although very happy with it’s ride and fit, it’s classic nature was making it hard to find up to date spares and parts. Adrian wanted a versatile bicycle that he could use for pleasure as well as touring. It would need to accomodate rear pannier bags, a front rando bag, have space for fenders as well as 35 – 40c tires. It would be roughly based on the sizing and geometry of his Specialized but with a few tweaks for comfort. Adrian had a good idea at the outset of how he wanted the final build to look but it was up to me to add whatever touches to the frame I felt would fit in with the classic yet modern aesthetic.

This was going to be a big project: a custom frame, fork, stem, front randonneur rack, rear pannier rack and custom front cable hanger. There was a lot to get done.

Adrian had seen my own personal tourer – The Monkey King. He’d admired the bi-laminate construction and so I had decided at the outset that I wanted to try something similar on his frame. Bi-laminate construction is a combination of fillet brazing and lug techniques and has been in use since the 1930’s and 40’s. Back then the main reason for using the bi-lam technique was that lugs were only available in certain angles – by modifying the lugs one could build frames with any angles. The addition of sleeving at the joins could also help to reinforce high stress joints. With modern tubing, bi-laminate joinery is probably more about satisfying the urge for something unique as it gives the builder more options for creating a truly custom product.

I modified a pair of standard Lon Shen head lugs by removing the top and down tube sockets. The remaining lug stubs were slip brazed into place around the head tube and then the top and down tubes were fillet brazed into the back of the modified lugs. The finished result makes it look as though the top tube and down tube wrap seamlessly around the head tube.

For the seat cluster I decided to try something different. I modified a Lon Shen seat lug by removing the rear part of the seat tube socket. I re-shaped the seat lug so that it would have an elegant arc from the bolt through to the long pointed tang running down the front of the seat tube. The points were thinned and the edges crisped. The seat stays were fillet brazed directly into the back of the seat tube in a ‘fast-back’ style design.

I used classic Ritchey dropouts for the rear end. Simple scalloped junctions joined the dropout faces to the chain and seat stays.

I built a custom stem with clamps machined on the lathe from thicker walled tube stock.

A fork soon followed and before long it was time for a visit to Jared’s paint booth at BMC Cape Town.

Adrian had been fixated on a certain colour he’d seen while on an overseas trip. He’d tried to describe it to me but it wasn’t until I saw the final product that I realised what all the fuss was about. The frame came back from the spray booth wearing its metallic coat with pride. The colour had a deep elegance that reminded me of the colour of light through unleaded petrol. It complimented the brass highlights perfectly and I knew that the black components Adrian had selected would tie the ensemble together well.

Under the BB shell, Adrian’s brass plaque proudly bore the name “Republic of Nowhere” – perfect for a bike that was destined for a life of travel.

Over the next couple of days I completed the build. A full SRAM Rival groupset handled shifting and transmission. American Classic Victory 30 wheels were de-stickered and an old but reliable set of Dia-Compe cantilever brakes were refurbished with new custom brass bushings and stainless hardware. I made a custom cable stop for the front brake and then it was done. It was an exciting day when Adrian came to meet his new ride.

There was a minor problem though. After a initial weekend of test riding Adrian found that there was a large degree of toe overlap with the front wheel – he called me to discuss it early the following week and as he described his concerns my heart sank. I couldn’t understand where I’d gone wrong – the primary dimensions of his new frame were so similar to his last that I didn’t feel that those tweaks could have accounted for this glaring problem. It soon became apparent that the differences were in the fork. Adrian’s Specialized was a dedicated tourer and had a low-trail fork on the front end. Low trail forks have more rake than a standard road fork (typically 65mm vs 45mm) – this makes the wheel trail behind the steering axis to a lesser degree than on a standard road fork. Low trail forks are primarily used whenever the front end of a bike needs to be loaded. Under load a low trail fork provides more predictable handling and has a similar feel regardless of the amount of weight on it.

I asked Adrian to bring the bike back to me and I spent a stressful day attempting to add more rake to the forks. I managed to add a further 20mm of rake but in the process caused some crimping on the fork leg – I would have to build a new pair of forks. In the meantime his bike would be fine for light use and I was anxious to know whether the additional rake would solve his problems. I didn’t have to wait long for my answer – a few days later Adrian called to tell me how happy he was with the set-up – the additional fork rake had solved the toe overlap and recreated the handling feel he’d grown to love on his Specialized. I started work on his new forks immediately.

I learned some valuable lessons from Adrian’s bike. I think it’s made me a better builder and it’s added more questions to the list I ask myself every time I start a new frame.

Adrian, thank you for the opportunity to build you your dream machine. I hope it takes you to the horizons of exotic locales. You’ve already wowed me with picture of it’s initial travels – I can’t wait to see what the two of you get up to in the future.

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