March 9, 2010

How to Build a New Bike out of Old Parts—for Dummies.

An old fixie becomes a real Schwinner: Graham Markel gives step by step instructions on how to build a new bike out of old parts.

Part 1: Departures and Arrivals

At the end of last November my fixie was lifted from my back yard.

It was a beautiful modern Felt Brougham I bought for $600 only three months prior (pictured above). The frame was black with a white elephant sticker on it. The back tire was white, the front tire was black. It all matched so perfectly.

Felts are well made, and fast. I was in love. I have always thought that things were safe in the North Boulder neighborhood I grew up in. (Lesson learned. I’ll admit I left it unlocked for a couple of days. I’m an idiot, I know. Like I said, lesson learned).

I did all the right things afterward: I called the cops, filled out a report, and vowed to tackle anyone I saw riding the bike. The cops told me I could get an assault charge if I did, so I told others to do it. I spent the last three months carefully looking at every bike I saw. I even chased a few people on black bikes a block or two.  I answered every unknown phone call hoping it was the cops with good news. It never was. I began to lose hope. Craigslist can become a bit of an addiction when looking for something you want. I looked everyday, hoping that the dirty bastard was stupid enough to sell it locally. Both Denver and Boulder craigslists were searched religiously.

No sign.

I started having dreams of riding my bike again. I couldn’t get the special moment we had together out of my head. The wind in my buzz cut, as I tore through the cycle of green lights on Spruce, between 13th and Broadway. Skidding through the foliage in the brisk morning light of fall. Moments like that make life worth living. I’m not the most experienced fixie rider, I had only been doing it for three months, but I loved it. The simplicity and speed of the bike as I flowed through traffic. Let’s face it: fixies are damn sexy.

But eventually I had to think about moving on. All that time on craigslist showed me what other options were out there. Of course nothing measured up to what was lost.

I didn’t have the money to buy a new bike from the shop.

The bikes online were okay. They were either too expensive, or not quite what I was looking for. One bike was cute, but too big. Another was the right size, but was too far away. It was rough. A few times I called some bikes out of my league, tried to make some deals, but got shot down. I learned a lot in those three months.

I would see parts for sale, but never thought that I could build I bike on my own.

February 23 was my 26th birthday.  My wonderful big-eyed, black haired roommate, Grant, bought me a present. As I walked into my small apartment I could barely open the door. The small living-room was packed with four old bikes. Grant had been at an estate sale earlier that day, and had bought them all for 10 bucks each. All older, there was a red Bridgestone, a grey Fuji, a white Peugeot, and an orange Schwinn. Gracious Grant said that I could pick one out for my birthday. I felt like a governor at a whorehouse. I was going to be caught red handed with one of them. I carefully inspected every one. They were all going to be projects, as they were each 20 to 30 years old. Three of them had the horizontal dropouts needed to convert them to fixies. I liked the white Peugeot at first. The Orange Schwinn was the best looking, but the heaviest. In the end I had to go with the Schwinner.

When I had my black and white Felt, I knew nothing about it. I got a flat tire, and had to take it to the shop and have them fix it. Taking on the task of building a fixie felt quite daunting at first.

One step at a time, I thought.

Part 2: If you build it, you can ride it!


Here is my best explanation on how I built my fixie. The guys at my local bike shop helped me helped me so f**king much (THANK YOU). The guys at your local bike shop can help you more than I can. Forgive me if I leave something really important out like tightening the front tire and you hurt yourself really bad. I don’t have a lawyer. There are other ways to build fixies, but this was easy and it works.

First thing to ask when looking at frames for fixies is: do they have Horizontal Dropouts? This allows you to get the chain tight so you can go fast and pull off skids. I’m not saying it’s impossible without horizontal dropouts, but I don’t know how to do it.

Horizontal Dropouts looks like this:

The orange Schwinn had them, so I was in business. Most old road bikes have them, and there are many great options for sweet new fixie frames for sale on the internet.

Unfortunately for me my Schwinn frame also had about eight pounds of extra gear on it. More including the tires, but fcuk the old tires (those were the easiest to take off). It took me about an hour using a screwdriver, allen wrench, pliers, and wire cutters to strip the frame down past its skivvies. Be careful to leave the front brake on if desired. I did not, because I’m a man.

In doing this I learned a lot about the bike; particularly things about the stem and fork. Be careful when messing with the stem too much, as it contains a bunch of ball bearings that should stay where they are. It’s also where you adjust how easy it is to steer. It should be quite easy. At this point you can decide if you want to keep the handle bars, saddle (seat), and crank. Of course leaving them will save you money. Buying new ones will make the bike look sweet, but will cost money. I have chosen to leave all for now, but will buy a new seat when I get my money back from my new African roommate I met on craigslist. He said he would pay me back for the first month’s rent and his travel expenses when he arrives.


There are thousands of different directions to go in with the wheel sets. It would be easy to spend $1,000. My wheel sets are by far the most expensive thing on my bike. They are 2000% more expense than my frame. Figure that out. I got a great deal on craigslist, and I love them. I have Velocity B43s. They are black deep V track wheel sets. Sweet! I do realize it’s a bit like putting chrome spinners on an El Camino. In my opinion they make the whole bike.

Wheel sets can be built from the hubs up to the rims, or bought as a package. You can buy them only fixed, or fixed on one side/single speed on the other. For getting around, a basic wheel set works just fine. From what I can tell don’t buy Weinmann wheel sets off craigslist. They’re all over craigslist—cheap, look good, but are pieces of sh*t. Do some research if you have not heard of the brand name.

You can choose quality and wheel pattern of spokes. These things are a mystery to me, though.


Tires are what you make of them. At the basic level they are $20 each at the bike shop and cheaper on line. If you want to get really good ones they are $60 each for cool-colored Continentals. I have a basic black on the front, and a white tire on the back I got off the internet for $30. So, for $50 I have a set that works, looks cool, and gives homage to my old bike that was stolen. With tires you are basically paying for weight and grip.

The inner tubes are $5 bucks each at the bike shop. They will make sure you get the right ones.  You are going to have to figure out how to put the tires together just like I did. I’m not explaining that one. It’s simple!

Cogs and Chain

The cogs come in different sizes. The fewer the teeth, the faster you go on the flat, and the harder it is to go up hill. It is important to choose the right one for your use, as you only have one gear. It also has to do with the ratio between the size of your back cog and crank set. That is a little out of my expertise. I know I have 39 teach on my crank, and 16 on my cog. I bought a Shimano Dura-Ace for $20. It’s geared to go fast on the flats, and kill me on hills.

Cogs are threaded against forward peddling. Every time you peddle forward it pulls the cog a little tighter. This brings me to the locking ring. They go over the cog on the hub, and are threaded the opposite way as the cog. It’s just a little piece of metal, but costs $15. Ouch. They make sure your cog doesn’t fall off when you reverse the peddles and pull off sweet skids. This is the only part I got my shop to do for me. It needs to be tight, and lock ring tools are $30. The shop did it for free. The fixie tools with a lock ring tool on them are awesome. They have many other tools on them. Including a bottle opener.

Chains are cheap and most of them work. You can find cool colors on line. I bought a Sram track bike chain at the shop for $10. I saw chains online for $1. Putting the chain on is a bit of work, it’s not hard, but requires a chain tool:

Put the chain on the back cog and crank until open. Make sure the back tire is resting at the beginning of the horizontal dropouts. Then pull the chain tight over cog and crank. See how many links need to be taken out. Take them out. Reconnect the chain with the back wheel taken out. Put the back tire back on. Thread cog into chain.

To tighten the chain, pull the non-chain side of the wheel back a bit past where the chain would be tight. Then tighten the bolts on that side. The tire will be resting against the side of the frame. Pull the chain side of the wheel equal with the other side, and tighten. Bam! Now you have a tight chain, and more importantly a rideable bike…if that made any sense at all.

Other Important Things

New handlebars start at around $30. I put new wraps on the bike’s old drop style handle bars. This is a bitch to do. They don’t really stick to the bar. This is good and bad. It’s bad because they don’t stick, so they move around a lot. It’s good they don’t stick because you can get it right on the 10th try. When wrapping start at the end farthest away from the stem.  It’s important to remember to leave a little extra where you start so you can tuck them into the ends of the handle bars and get the plugs in:

You can use the crank set that already exists on the bike and save yourself a lot of money. The cool one at the shop was $170. I spent nothing, and the bike works great:

My existing seat sucks. I would love to have a black Brooks saddle. I can’t wait for my money from my new Nigerian roommate. My butt hurts.

Toe clips, or clip-in shoes and clips are a must. If you have no brake and you are relying on skidding for stopping you need one of the two. I have heard of people that can skid without them, but I have never met them.

Oh yeah…Remember to tighten the bolts on the front wheel.

There, I got it in. That’s all!

Part 3: It’s alive!

In the end, with the frame as a gift, I spent $332. I bought too many parts from the shop, not the internet. That brought the price up. But I also saved by using existing parts. So I would expect to spend about $300 if you were to try this at home (I bought some expensive wheels). I now have a cooler bike for half the price as the Felt that was stolen.

The whole experience of building the bike I’m going to ride gives me a much stronger relationship with it. It’s like we were really good friends before we became lovers. I almost feel like this bike was created from one of my ribs. The process got me much more emotionally involved with the things around me. It makes me want to build everything I use. If you build something, you know how to fix it. It’s healthy to be aware of how things in your life work. It’s the same reason I just got rid of my microwave. I have no idea how that crazy shit works.

So, without further adieu, here is the monster I have created:

I rarely think of my old bike…what’s its name? Who cares.

I think I’m going to fix up an old ‘60s Ford or Chevy truck next!

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