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In today’s edition of Bikes of the Bunch we feature a bike that Tristan Thomas, founder of New Zealand-based custom wheelbuilder Wheelworks, built for and by himself. The following article, written by Tristan, tells the story behind the bike he calls “The Number 1” and why it means so much to him.
This is my favourite bike. Not because it’s the fastest or the lightest (my Cannondale takes that title). Not because it’s the most advanced (my Independent Fabrication probably takes that title). Not because it’s the most beautiful (I once had a spectacular Mapei Colnago C40 which would hold that title). And not because it’s the most fashionable (truth be told, I’m not very fashionable so I don’t have any bikes which fit that mould).
It’s my favourite bike because it’s the bike that I made. With my own hands. From steel and with welds and much “general boy usefulness”. I don’t mean to be gender-biased; that’s just the way a friend, whom I once helped put up curtains, described my services.
While I’ve been working on bikes and with bikes for almost 20 years now and have built thousands of custom wheels, up until six months ago I had never built a bike from scratch and couldn’t even weld.
But I wanted to learn. And if you want to learn to build a bike there’s only one place in the world to go – the United Bicycle Institute (UBI) in Oregon, USA.
Before you get there you have to be able to answer the age-old question “Do you even weld bro?” in the affirmative. So before I went to Oregon I had to go to Lower Hutt — or the suburb of Petone to be precise — because that’s where the local polytechnic held evening welding classes.
Six months and hundreds of entirely useless welded thingamajigs later and I was confident enough for framebuilding school. Welding is like cycling: the only way to get better is to spend lots, and lots, and lots of time doing it. This is why a pro cyclist will always be better than an amateur (that pesky 9-5 job gets in the way) and there is simply no replacement for experience.
The classes at UBI are taught by industry framebuilders – real guys with real jobs earning their money from making frames. My class was led by Paul Sadoff who holds the torch at Rock Lobster and endeared himself to me because he complimented my welding skills and could transform his laid back SoCal accent into that of a British Tour de France commentator.
Not that my welding skills are really up to much. When I compare how I finished up with this bike, with comparatively simple-to-work material, I am even more awestruck by the welds that the guys at Firefly, Baum, Independent Fabrication, and all the other legendary framebuilders manage. I found the seatstay-seattube junction to be the most difficult – an area I’d previously overlooked while ogling other people’s skills.
But great welding isn’t everything. As a builder once told me when he finished the fitting for my kitchen, but before the paint, “In glue and dust we place our trust”.
In bike building the same is true for paint. Add to the mix a graphic designer who knows what he or she’s doing (the guy who shares my workspace is a long time partner in crime and bike enthusiast, Gary Stewart) and you can really make a good bit of welding look amazing.
To do the magic on The Number 1 I used Haedyn Borck. He had previously done paint for me on various hubs and cranks and had painted a few of my customers’ bikes. He took the design, my raw materials, his talent, and made it beautiful. If ever you get your own custom bike, you can’t spend too much time thinking about the paint and getting that right.
Joseph Kelly’s skill behind the lens is evident and his photos really show off this bike’s details.
The build kit is the usual suspect for something like this – Dura Ace Di2 with hydraulic disc brakes and an Enve fork. I cannot speak highly enough of this. Gavin at Wheelworks built the wheels for me around a beautiful pair of White Industries hubs and CyclingTips’ Matt Wickstrom put them through their paces for his disc brake article before they were fitted to my bike. The one thing I would change is the seatpost. Yes it looks good, but it’s an absolute nightmare to work with.
How much does the bike weigh? How stiff is it? Who cares. Those things don’t matter on this bike.
I built it with my hands. And with the help of some other highly skilled professionals it looks awesome. It even rides in a straight line with no hands so I must have done something right.