Blue Steel

Like many things in my life, all of this started with an image, although it's probably not the one that immediately comes to mind after reading this post's title.

For almost as long as I've been riding bicycles, I've known that I eventually wanted something made from lightweight modern steel. As you may remember from a (not so) recent post, I've been riding on aluminum Cannondales since I started. At one point along the way, I caught hipster-fever and sought out a vintage bike appropriate for fixed gear use. For what I still consider the "deal of a lifetime," I wound up with a blingy chromed thing with track ends made from an unknown blend of tubes. What I did know, however, was that for something that was older than I was, the ride quality was sublime, even on 32x 3-cross straight-gauge spokes on skinny rims and tires. If 30 year old steel (probably straight gauge chromoly) felt that good, I could only imagine how much of an improvement the metallurgy of modern tubes had gone through since then.

I ride with a club that has an established connection with a large brand-name manufacturer of some pretty nice bikes, and one of the questions I was often asked was "why not carbon?" Maybe I chugged hard from the chalice of #steelisreal Kool-Aid. Maybe I wanted to stand out in a sea of matte black wünder-bikes at the weekly crit or Saturday club ride. Maybe I enjoy the precision, craft, and artistry behind hand-made goods. Maybe I'm a little bit of a fan of the old school, for the same reason that I still wear a mechanical watch. Probably all of the above and other ephemeral reasons I can't quite put into words.

After updating to the latest version of OSX, I went back and found an old iPhoto album that I created years ago. Much in the same way that some people cut out photos of exotic supercars or motorcycles or what have you, this album was a collection of the coolest looking bikes I could find on the Internet. When I moved from Ontario to Vancouver, a few years ago, I found that there was no shortage of builders in the PNW that I could visit on a weekend trip through Washington or Oregon. My interest in brands and builders evolved over the years, but I always knew that I'd give in to the "treat yo self" urge eventually. What I do remember clearly was being at the Whistler 'cross race in 2014 and seeing a bunch of folks in some pretty sweet team kit I had never seen before: "Naked Factory Racing." I was intrigued, mostly by how Parker (below) was dishing out whoop-ass in the elite field on a single-speed. Some Internet sleuthing led me to Sam Whittingham of Naked Bicycles and that's where this process began in earnest. As an experienced builder, NAHBS award-winner and a local, Sam made a lot of sense.

My first time seeing somebody get Naked.

I first reached out to Sam in April 2015 to ask about my options. I knew I wanted steel, and I knew I wanted a "traditional" road bike. The whole disc-brake/all-road trend was really taking off in earnest, but I've never felt the need for them with the descents on Cypress or Seymour. A few of the first switchbacks coming down Mount Baker in Washington are pretty fast/tight, but I'm not chasing those fractions of a second where discs make a huge difference in late braking. My plan was still to race on this thing and with the whole UCI/disc brake fiasco still up in the air, I decided to stick with external mechanical shifting and traditional short-reach rim calipers. I thought about going for mid-reach brakes for larger tires and/or fenders, but figured that I would resort to my 'cross bike if I was going to be doing anything gnarly, so I asked for max clearance for 28mm tires.

I spent a lot of time going back and forth about whether to go with an all-stainless frame or something built around True Temper S3 or Columbus Spirit and about a month of back and forth over email before I sent my first deposit in June 2015. In hindsight, I could have sent the deposit earlier since I was fairly settled on him as a builder and ensured an earlier spot in his queue. The next few months were spent collecting inspiration from various sources and creating a mood board for myself, although this quickly became overwhelming. At its very essence, my conundrum came down to whether I wanted a painted bike or whether I wanted to get a frame done in brushed/polished stainless.

Fast forward to November 2015 and it came time to go and visit the workshop for an in-person discussion with Sam. I had previously sent him the contact point numbers from my CAAD10, but I had never been truly happy with that fit and the whole point of custom steel was...custom. I made the five-hour drive/ferry trek to Quadra Island and spent an afternoon on his fit bike under his careful eye although I left with new contact point measurements and although I left with new fit numbers, I still wasn't any closer to deciding on my tubeset choice. What it came down to was this: if I were to go stainless, I felt like my only option was to leave it with a brushed finish with either matte or polished accents. Why paint over stainless? It seemed like such a shame and a waste to cover it up; the whole point was that it didn't need a protective layer of paint. Also, no paint = less weight. I'll admit that I'm still a bit of a weight-weenie, although not to the extent that I used to be. The flip side was that bare metal bikes all tended to look pretty similar and another point of going custom was...custom; I also wanted something unique and truly one-of-a-kind. Sam also noted that KVA had slightly increased the wall thickness of the most recent MS3 stainless tubes, so my thought process was that although a bare S3 or Spirit frame might be lighter, painting the frame and fork would result in the two options coming out a virtual wash anyway. 

The other thing that was going on during this back and forth was discussion about geometry. After receiving my initial frame drawing from Sam, I kept focusing on two figures: top tube length and my saddle-to center of bar measurement. I tunnel-visioned on the fact that my proposed TT was actually longer than my CAAD and that the saddle-bar reach was essentially the same. Considering that I was looking for a change from my existing bike and a shortening of my cockpit to alleviate neck/shoulder issues, I couldn't see past these two numbers. Much like the proliferation in use of WebMD, it's quite easy in the age of the Internet to believe you know what you're talking about after performing some Google-fu. One of my closest friends had gone through a similar process in the previous year with his custom build and reminded me that I needed to simply trust Sam. I mean, his years of building, riding, and racing was worth more than the collective wisdom of the random Internet population, right? In the end, I made a few minor tweaks to the front end (head tube length above the top tube to minimize spacers and opting for a different fork rake to achieve the necessary trail), but otherwise left things alone. Trust the process. Trust your builder. Get it? Got it. All of this wishy-washy back and forth on my part set me back another month before sending in my 50% fabrication deposit in late December.

So, back to the image that started this whole process, the real one this time: This is what I wanted.

Once I had decided on my palette, it was just a matter of deciding on how the colours would be applied and the actual shades. No big deal, right? I knew there'd be a few months between sending in my fabrication deposit and construction and the paint stage, so I thought I'd have plenty of time to mull things over. I ended up going with the best of both worlds: a stainless rear triangle to minimize the need to worry about chain slap damage and drive train grease and a painted front end. I wanted something unique, so I asked Sam to do an oversized logo along the top of the down tube instead of his usual logo placement, which resulted in something quite abstract when viewed from the side. One constant through this entire process was that I wanted the inside of the fork painted with the frame's accent colour. I had originally asked about doing something patterned, but decided for the sake of cost and keeping things simple and timeless to go with a solid. My requests: midnight blue with purple flake when hit by direct light (affectionately known as "burple") and some shade of teal or turquoise.

The other thing about going the custom route is that even though I knew I had carte blanche with the design, I needed to achieve two goals: make sure the bike represented me without getting carried away. You'll notice the lens aperture/diaphragm on my top tube to represent my other major interest and my personal logo on the down tube, balancing the placement of Sam's "handmade in Canada" graphic. I was happy to keep the personalization minimal, also a reflection of my design and aesthetic preferences.

If you've worked with images or publication, you'll know the importance of colour calibration. Sure, I had all of these great paint inspirations saved online, but how would I get those to Sam and ensure that what I saw was what he'd see when mixing paint? I tried (not very hard) to get my hands on books of Pantone swatches and automotive paint to no success. I even asked some co-workers if they had nail polish I could borrow. My final solution was finding reference images of the House of Kolor codes I wanted, printing them on photo paper, and asking Sam to do his best to match them with the request for a gloss finish with some sparkly flake.

 I spent a lot of time looking at nail polish blogs and got a lot of strange looks from my female coworkers.

I spent a lot of time looking at nail polish blogs and got a lot of strange looks from my female coworkers.

 The "in" colours of 2015. Ooooooh, sparkly!

The "in" colours of 2015. Ooooooh, sparkly!

Things got really hard once February rolled around. I was hoping to have this thing in time for Spring Series racing, but the delay was nobody's fault but mine for taking so long to make some key decisions early on. Once Sam started posting teaser photos of fabrication, it was almost unbearable, plus the warning to give the paint and clearcoats about a week to fully cure before final assembly. I took delivery in late April and my other bikes have been languishing in the apartment since.

For the build kit, I decided that I'd venture back to Shimano after many years of SRAM shifting. It's hard to articulate, but I felt that a Shimano gruppo looked better on a more traditional-looking frame than SRAM. The fact that I was able to score a pretty good deal on a Stages power meter cemented the decision quite nicely. It took about a week to get used to the difference and I'm quite used to it now having ridden this thing pretty much exclusively over the last month, but I still get momentarily confused when I switch back to my 'cross bike with SRAM.

The big question you're probably asking is: "how does it ride?" Well, it rides like a bicycle: I pedal it and it goes forward. The long answer is that before taking delivery of this frame and having it built up, I hadn't ridden a "road bike" in almost 9 months. I'd been riding my SuperX since the start of last year's cyclocross season and knowing that I was eventually going to sell the CAAD, I hung it up on my wall and spent all winter and spring on my 'cross bike with slicks. At this point, it's been so long since I've been on road geometry that I wouldn't be able to provide any kind of meaningful comparison between the two without resorting to the marketing superlatives that you can read in any magazine review. What I will say is that after spending the last month doing everything from 25 minute criteriums to an eight-hour mountain slog, and everything in between, I feel at home on the bike: in the drops, on the hoods, or on the tops, my hands and my butt are where they need to be. I guess Sam knew what he was doing after all. My position and weight distribution feel dialed and I'm confident railing turns or settling in and just dieseling my way along. There's a bit more toe overlap than I had with my old road bike that's already resulted in an intimate encounter with the asphalt as I tried to track stand at a red light, but nothing that interferes with actual riding.

Oh, yes. You may be wondering what that thing is below my top tube. Yes, I decided to go with a full-size frame pump (painted to match, of course!). I've used Co2 in the past, but have been in/seen multi-flat incidents where the finite supply of gas runs out. I went through a period where I carried both a single 16oz Co2 cartridge as a primary and a Lezyne pocket pump for backup, and most recently have just been carrying the mini pump. Remember when I said I still had weight-weenie tendencies? Well, I nerded out and measured the difference between the already minimal Lezyne Trigger Drive + 16oz cartridge + Lezyne Road Drive and my full size Topeak Road Blaster and the delta was 73 grams. For reference, that's just a little bit more than the weight of two Honey Stinger waffles. Totally worth it for an unlimited air supply that's not going to devastate my arms or shoulders trying to get a road tire up to a decent pressure. Other potential uses: fending off aggressive dogs/swans/geese and jamming the spokes of rival commuter-racers.

Enough of my blabbering. You want photos, don't you? 

True Temper S3 main triangle, KVA MS3 stainless rear triangle
ENVE 2.0 1.125" fork with Chris King headset
Shimano 6800, 50/34 170mm with Stages
SRAM 1170 11-28 cassette and 1170 chain
Zipp Service Course SL seatpost & stem
Ritchey NeoClassic handlebars
PRO Turnix Hollow AF saddle
White Industries T11 20/24, laced 2x to Pacenti SL23 v.2
Veloflex Master 25 with Michelin latex
King ti cages
Topeak Road Master Blaster

Thanks to Jacob (aka Randognar) for bike and wheel build, literally burning the midnight oil when I first took delivery to get me rolling, and putting up with my really esoteric requests.