This just in…

After a little shipping mishap, the bike I built at United Bicycle Institute has arrived. I’ve decided to ride it a while, fenderless, to see if moving the seat stay bridge up a centimeter is all I want to do. I’ve already started collecting some basic tools needed for frame building and it so happens I live only a block from AirGas, a major supplier for welding equipment and supplies. You won’t normally find a huge selection of silver brazing supplies in an area where gas barbeques and plumbing are the two big customers, but AirGas should be able to order anything I need and have it in stock on Oahu. (Yes, life is rough in the islands, I know.)

Also, apparently cycling to work makes you a better employee.

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Big Island Touring Challenges

Jan Heine just wrote about his visit to the Big Island and some of the obstacles he encountered. Like many that visit the Big Island and intend to ride it on a bike, he didn’t have much information to work with and hit some dead ends.

However, the roads here can offer flora, smells and views that are absolutely stunning if you’re willing to run into some of those dead ends occasionally. Should you decide to visit, maybe your usual sources and expectations better left on the mainland.

Here I’ll discuss some of the most common sources of information and what to be wary of.

Guide Books

Guide Books for are woefully outdated. I believe the most recent one written on the Big Island is over 20 years old. A lot has happened in that time. Infrastructure has been both created and destroyed. Chiefly, Daniel Inouye Memorial Highway AKA Saddle Mountain Rd, was recently completed that bisects the island and gives a clear shot between the Hilo and Kona sides. Conversely, lava, landslides, farming, and whatnot have eaten away at the infrastructure with near equal speed. Leave them and their weight at home.


GPS! Technology! Wonderful things but they can be a source of frustration if outdated, or even dangerous if you rely on them too heavily. You may recount the 2009 story about a woman who trusted her GPS while crossing Death Valley California. It lead her miles off the main road where her Jeep got stuck in the sand. She survived but sadly her young son perished.

While it’s unlikely that to be that dangerous here, Garmin’s Hawaii GPS maps, for instance, are based solely on data provided by the government and quite outdated even if you buy the latest 2014 map. “Government” here means state, county, or federal sources in that order of likelihood.

I never use GPS for navigation, only for mapping my rides and taking notes. My advice: if you use GPS, have a backup plan.

Web Mapping Tools

Like Garmin, Google also uses government data. Further, Google has been very resistant to reporting in Hawaii for some reason. I have quite a good record with them in New Mexico but they have consistently rejected changes I’ve submitted in Hawaii, so much so, that I only use Google Maps now for the satellite view.

Google Street View vehicles turn around when the road turns to gravel roads, of which there is a lot. So it’s only helpful in the most obvious of places, not where you really want to go.

Paper Maps

Given they derive from the same sources as web maps and GPS, paper maps aren’t any less obsolete.

Particularly frustrating is Adventure Cycling Association’s total lack of involvement in developing cycling maps or route development in Hawaii. Last year, ACA sent out surveys to all but two states. Rhode Island was the other one, meaning they included five states smaller than Hawaii. (Hrmpf! See if they get my dues this year.)

Yelp, TripAdvisor, et. al.

I have no idea how these reviews sites can be so consistently wrong, but they are almost always the exact 180 degree opposite from my experience. Perhaps the problem is they tend to be written mostly by the cruise ship crowd. They leave the ships irritated at their captivity, possibly feeling a little ill, and might not really be into the rural Hawaiian experience to begin with.

I stopped using these a few months after I moved here in 2011, and suggest you at least take the reviews with a grain of salt.

LBS Advice

When touring, local bike shops are always a favorite source of information for me. However, getting accurate advice from my local bike shops tends to be hit or miss. I’ve received some really great advice but also some really inaccurate information. Some of this has to do with the changeable landscape, but I think some of it is simply just bad guesswork.

Strava, MapMyRide, et. al.

I’ve used these to find quicker ways to get where I want to ride, but not the rides themselves. These, Strava in particular, tend to be sourced mostly by road cyclists with skinny tires apparently. These are where I get a lot of starts from and I continue to use them regularly.

Warmshowers Hosts

I am a host on the Big Island. If you’re not familiar, Warm Showers is like for cyclotourists. I’ve found great advice from other hosts on tours. The problem on Hawaii is there are very few of us, no more than three active at any given time.

I’m really only familiar with the Hilo side of the island, although I have plans to map out the Kona side as well. So that limits my usefulness somewhat.

Another Problem: Entitlement

Unfortunately, a lot of roads that should be open to the public have been annexed by farmers. While I tend to respect “estates” (similar to “reservations” on the mainland) farmers hold less sway with me. I’m not talking about mom and pop farms, I’m talking about corporate farms run by the likes of Syngenta and Monsanto, of which there are many. Roads paid for by the public can be blocked, fenced across, planted over, and signed — illegally in many circumstances. That doesn’t make them any more passable and it’s almost impossible to know which are legitimate. Much of Hawaii is government leased lands. Many farmers operate on leaseholds and believe that their lease grants them exclusive rights. However, and I speak as a person who lives on leased land, the leases are usually written such that easements for public access are to be honored.

What I’m Doing

I’m not just complaining, I’m trying to be an advocate for cycling the BI. I’ve been exploring the roads throughout the Hilo side from Volcanos National Park north to Honokaa on 32-42 mm tires. The notes I have are forming a route that follows as much as possible the mostly unused Old Mamahaloa Highway with some notable options and excursions. My ultimate goal is to develop at least one route around the entire island that offers safe off-highway cycling opportunities. This would take the form of a laminated (it pours here) spiral bound map that includes the queue sheet, points of interest, excursions, and services.

I have recently been able to cultivate a contact at the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). She should help identify areas with obstructed public access and initiate correction those obstacles. It’s been a bit challenging but I’m trying to get small businesses such as B&B’s, restaurants, bike shops, attractions and even Hawaiian Airlines to come together to develop more cyclotourism on the island. The smaller they are, the more enthusiastic they have been. I am managing a website and mailing list for these organizations to communicate with the idea that we can lobby the state for money to develop some of the route. As I mentioned on a previous post, eventually this site will allow visitors to provide feedback on conditions, route changes, and so forth.

For now, Hawaii visitors can contact me through and I’ll pass along the notes that I have and answer specific questions about the Hilo side.

Postscript: This is a good place to mention the otherworldly Mana Road ride. Although it requires a bike with suspension for most of us, it’s one of my favorite rides thus far. Steve writes about it on

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Fork Crown Cable Hanger

Earlier in the year, I explained how the fork crown mounted cable hanger solved a problem for me and also resulted in a slightly nicer aesthetic. While true, I’ve found a problem that is potentially serious and I’m looking for another alternative.

The hanger had a tendency to flop over to the drive side of the bike. It wasn’t a lot but it looked odd and the brakes would loosen a small amount.

While changing out the wheel on the Soma yesterday, I accidentally bumped the hanger to the non-drive side. That resulted in the brakes being completely unusable because of the slack it added. As there is already a handlebar bag, decalleur, and rack down there, and I’m always moving my hand in that area to attach the bag loop, this could easily happen while riding.

Note the brake lever range of motion. The mount perfectly vertical as in the following image.
Correct, vertical position of the cable hanger.
Bump the hanger to the left and…
…suddenly too much slack and the brake lever bottoms out on the bars before the cantilevers are fully engaged on the rim. Yike!

Something to be careful about.

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Frame Building: The Results

Here’s the semi-finished product of the chromoly brazing class at United Bicycle Institute.

IMG_1290 2

The parts are all spares, and not how I intend to ride it. The paint (powder coat, actually) is temporary, just to keep it from rusting until I can get a torch, some files and other tools to make a few changes. Chief among those changes will be moving the seat stay bridge to allow more space for fenders. I’ll provide a ride report when I get a couple of hundred miles on it, but it seems to be solid and track straight. No oddities nor quirkiness noted so far.

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Frame Building: Day 9 & 10

Well, internet statistics seem to indicate that these frame building posts are the least interesting. Even the spam bots are ignoring them. However, this is the last full day of class, the last day we’re going to have torches running, and the (exciting) conclusion to this story. So if you don’t mind I’ll press on and finish it.

Thursday: When things went wrong

As of Thursday, with only a day and a half left to work,  it seemed inconceivable that we’d have rideable bikes. True, the structural components were in place and aligned, but what about things like brakes, cable guides, and for godsake what about water bottles!? Most everyone had torches and drills running the whole day in order to finish before Friday.

Case of the Troublesome Bridge

I was a little ahead, but I still had lots to do. And a problem. The seat stay bridge that I measured and mitred late the day before was too low to accommodate a 650B wheel, even without fenders — although it would ride fine without a tire. I hadn’t taken into account the seat stay supports. I could leave out the supports, but it would look more like a production bike, and I didn’t want that. They were only 1.5mm thick, but there is one on either side and 3mm on a 7 degree angle changes the position in a not-so-insignificant way. On the plus side, the bridge was too long, not too short, and it’s easier to remove material than to add it. So back in the vertical mill it went. (I was advised it wasn’t a job for hand-mitring with so little time left as any mistake would result in even more time lost.) Luckily, the hole I drilled for the braze-on to mount the fender was dead center, so the mill didn’t have to be reset between shaving off the two sides. Dan, who helped me with it on Wednesday reran it for me and it fit perfectly.

As it turns out “perfect” is a relative term. It’s still too low to take fenders on a 650B rim with a 42mm tire. This is something I would have noticed if I a) was working at my own pace and b) had test fit the wheel I wanted to use. The fault was in my measurements, I hadn’t taken into consideration the bridge’s tube diameter, nor the height of the lip on the braze-on boss to which the fender is attached, which is an additional 2mm. It doesn’t sound like much, but 2mm here, 4mm there and suddenly the 14mm fender clearance I had budgeted was gone.

The chain stay bridge didn’t have this problem because its placement was by in large determined by the ovalized portion of the stay tubes. The bridge was much easier to mitre so to mate with the round portion of the stays rather than the oval portions.

Botched Bottle Bosses

After brazing the bridges, I realized there wasn’t time to clean up and bask in the glory of what I’d done. Nope. On to the next part. As soon as I shut off my torch, I spun around to the jig cabinet and grabbed the water bottle boss jig. I quickly placed the two dummy bottle cages thinking to myself, lower is better. I wondered why people didn’t really lower them, so I placed the seat tube bottle really low. The school has an angle drill that makes quick work of these holes. I cleaned up the holes with a deburring tool, file and emery cloth and brazed on four bosses. Boom!

What next? I looked into my baseball cap where I set aside all of the braze-ons I’d need for this bike, and grabbed the chain hanger. This one I didn’t use a jig, I just balanced it on the seat stay hoping that the flux wouldn’t cause it to float onto the ground. It worked but I wouldn’t do this again. Then I grabbed a cable guide jig and brazed three of those on, two on the underside of top tube for the rear brake, and one on the drive side chain stay for the rear derailleur.

Top tube cable guide ready to braze.
Chain stay rear derailleur cable guide ready to braze.

The Cantilever Controversy

Since the frame was in the stand still, I decided to braze the cantilever brake bosses next. This is where things start getting messy. A confluence of measuring mistakes caused these to be misplaced on the frame and eventually the fork. I’ll admit to some of those errors, but my biggest error was, again, not test fitting the placement with a wheel installed. I grabbed the brazing jig for this task and stuck those suckers on good and tight.

At this point, the frame had about four brazings worth of dried flux caked on it, slowly turning to glass. I decided that removal was something I could do the next day or at home and started to mount the braze-ons to the fork. The jig for this is probably the least useful in my opinion. It has registration marks for distance from the hub, but doesn’t take into consideration fork rake. My fork rake is extreme by common standards, roughly 68mm, which compounds the problem for this jig. It also has a problem applying uniform pressure to the left and right braze-ons at the same time. With the flux all up in there, it’s hard to see the gaps. This began my endeavour to learning to fillet braze with silver… pretty much a waste of time and silver.

Cantilever bosses being silver brazed to the fork.
Brazing the cantilever bosses silver to the fork. The jig measurements don’t account for the fork rake.

These mistake in the placement of these four crucial parts wouldn’t become apparent until I tried to build the bike four days later.

The shop was fuming hot this day and a little cross breeze from the open doors on either end was little relief. So I was actually glad to hop back on my bike and ride 100 minute commute back home. On that ride, I looked down at my bottom bracket as I often do. The front derailleur kept grabbing my attention for some reason. After a while, I realized it was located on this bike, right where I placed the water bottle bosses on my new frame. Doh! That’s why they don’t put them so low, I thought to myself.

Friday: Making Things Right, Sort of

I let Joseph know what I’d done with the bottle bosses and apparently the no-torch-rule-on-Friday is more of a guideline. I drilled a third hole above and inline with the other two and quickly brazed on another boss.

The rest of the day was spent removing most of the flux, facing the head tube, reaming the seat tube, adding threads to the steerer tube, and retapping and facing the bottom bracket. This was only a half-day, but by far the most physical. When we’d all finished, we had our pictures taken, spent some time asking questions about the business ends of frame building, and were given our certificates and a handshake.


On Saturday I tried to build the bike, well, just put the rims on and noticed the front canti bosses were too high. Then I noticed the rear ones were waaaay too high, above the rim and almost high enough to install Paul Racers. I pulled the rim off and spent a few hours removing every molecule of flux with metal tools and emery cloth. When the frame is just steel, silver and brass, it’s quite a beautiful thing, even if the brazing is done by an absolute beginner.

Cleaned frame. Notice the incorrect positions of the cantilever bosses both fore and aft.
Cleaned frame. Notice the incorrect positions of the cantilever bosses both fore and aft.

On Sunday, I shot an email to Joseph asking him if he’d move those bosses for me. In the end, we agreed on Tuesday afternoon and he was kind enough to do that for me for just the price of the silver. The next day I tried to paint it with some primer and the only color the local one-stop-shop had. It was a blue mess, literally. For the price of getting it powder coated by a professional, trying to hand paint it isn’t work the the time, expense and sticky mess to me. My brother dropped it off at his powder painter, Zollwerks in Dundee, OR on Thursday who turned it around in just a day. Fine work.

I got the frame back around 4 PM on Friday and had to catch a train the next morning at 6 AM. I literally threw the bike together, mostly, the rest in a suitcase and headed for Seattle. I’m waiting for the last parts to arrive today and will take it on a brief ride this evening and maybe get some beauty shots of it.

All in all, my experience at the United Bicycle Institute was extremely rewarding. I feel they give the dedicated student enough knowledge and experience to build bikes on their own, and enough resources to get help when they need it. I would do it again. And many students do take the class again. I find myself less interested in TIG or Ti classes now, but could see returning to the chromoly brazing class to concentrate on fillet brazing next time.

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Frame Building: Day 8

Day 8 was spent mostly truing the frame one last time, measuring the chainstays, creating the points, and brazing them to the frame. Once the seat stays are in, the frame “is what it is” Joseph told us — the frame’s alignment is pretty much locked in without having to resort to permanently fatiguing the steel.

Seat Stays

The finish work for the points (the parts connecting the seat stays to the seat  tube) was pretty amazing, a bit like jewelry making. I chose to add “spoons”, dished out points made from pieces of scrap tubing. I kept the points pretty shallow, about 2 cm. Longer would have been more elegant, but success would be more likely with shorter ones — and the pace of class was quickening.

First, the seat tubes are cut at an angle to create the length you want, then scrap tubing is rough cut to match the length of the angled opening. The stays are then mitred by hand and the scraps brazed on with brass.  (If the the spoons were brazed with silver, they’d just fall off when the stays were brazed to the seat tube.) After that cools, the rough edges of the spoons are snipped off and then comes a careful filing of the excess steel around the spoon. It has to match the radius of the seat stay so it appears to be a single piece of material. When finished, you can see the layer of brass sandwiched between the steel of the scrap and seat stays.

Seat stay point from the back showing the layer of brass holding the spoon and stay together
Seat stay point from the back showing the layer of brass holding the spoon and stay together

The tricky part is doing both sides exactly the same. Then they are brazed to the seat tube… in my case the lug.

Test fitting the seat stays.
Test fitting the seat stays.

Using a file, grooves are carved into the lug. This gives more contact area between the stays and lug for silver. It doesn’t take much silver to make an incredibly strong bond and it could be done so the silver can’t even be seen. However, I globbed it on anyway because I hadn’t convinced myself that that is actually true. Carbide radial saw blade teeth are brazed to a steel wheel and they don’t come off, so I should be a little more conservative with silver in the future.


That took a good portion of the day, along with demos of how to use some of the many jigs for braze-ons. When the day was done, though, the frame was finally rideable.

A Visit to the Ahearne Shop

After a long, very hot, day in the shop we rode as a group to Joseph’s own shop to see a working shop. The learning environment of the school’s shop is intentionally sterile and perhaps overly equipped, so it was good to see another where not one, but two pro frame builders work. Joseph took us on a tour and demoed some of his own equipment. The most interesting two pieces to me were his torch, which was more like a scalpel compared to the “hammers” we have at the school, and his abrasive tube notcher. The latter, I came to learn, is used mostly for knife makers but can be made to make quick work of most tube mitring jobs if the right attachments are used. Joseph had some add-ons machined just for the purpose of making tube mitres, so what would take me 30 minutes with a file, he can do in maybe 30 seconds with some set-up time and finish filing. Pretty impressive stuff!

He also introduced us to Christopher Igleheart, or just “Igleheart”, who has been building frames… I think someone said for centuries. Joseph and Igleheart share their shop space, which seems to be a good idea for professional builders like them to reduce costs and have an extra pair of hands close by to help with tricky brazing jobs. Joseph used to share space with Mitch of MAP Bicycles before they lost their space to some sort of eminent domain and Mitch moved to Chico. However, the two haven’t lost touch and we got to see, and even purchase, a new handlebar they created together, which is a slightly longer version of another upright bar they created. I really like Mitch’s handiwork and got to see one of his frames up close.

We also got to see a lot of other bikes Joseph has made over the years and hear the stories behind them, including a motorized bike and his second fillet brazed frame. One bike in particular was nearly finished and being fitted with a top-shelf Campy group. No expense was spared for this bike going to the buyer in Chicago. (Joseph promised pictures of that bike will be appearing on the Ahearne Flickr in weeks to come.)

I bought an Ahearne t-shirt from him and some other bling before heading off on my 20 commute back home.

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Frame Building: Day 7

To be clear, a lot of what I write during this class is basically notes for my future reference.

I had my first measurement mishap today. Luckily it was only in the drawing rather than the frame. I’d drawn in the tire centered over the diameter of the tire rather than the radius. This threw off the position of the chain stay dimples. But like I said, it was only in the drawing. The actual position of the dimples were marked with the actual wheel mounted to the free hanging chain stays.

Although I noticed the problem, I didn’t figure out the cause. Joseph did, and that allowed me to continue with brazing them in place. It went, meh, okay. The fit was rather rough at the bottom bracket. The ports are straight but the chain stays are tapered, so every time I inserted the tubes, the points on the bracket points would spread apart again. Long story short, it caused some large gaps that needed to be pinched while hot (a good two-person job) and a truck load of silver to fill. Next time I’ll take more off the drop out end so the bracket end will be less into the tapered section when I trim.

Most of us also had time to align the stays. I must’ve had some good karma because it was nearly perfect. The drive side dropout was a millimeter low and the bracket spacing was 127 mm instead of 130 mm. Both were quickly fixed.

Next was the seat stays, which have been cut, test fitted, and I’ve prepared the points. I’ll be using a traditional points, spooned, and they’re ready to braze when I get in tomorrow. A lot of today was demos so I didn’t have the time to finish them. Also a contributing factor was I wanted a long scallop here, so that meant more time to file and book-match them.

I wasn’t able to use my first choice of seat stays because the end diameter of the .7 mm tubes was too small to fit the plug-in style rear drop outs. That would mean I’d have to cut off a good portion of the small end of these tapered tubes, and that would make them too short to reach the seat tube lug. So I’m using .8 mm. It’ll have a stiff rear triangle. Jan Heine seems to prefer this design but I have not enough personal experience for an opinion.

Regardless, the entire bike is now .8 walled tubes, butted to .5 on the main triangle, except for the seat tube, which is .9/.6 as that is the only diameter we had available.

Besides the seat stays tomorrow, we start adding the brake posts and bridges. As a special bonus, we’ll have the honor of visiting Joseph’s own shop after class. I’m looking forward to that. Not so great is that Ron, the owner and UBI’s chief engineer is heading back to Ashland tonight for the remainder. I’m going to missing his encyclopedic knowledge and technical input. On the bright side, maybe the biggest need for that is gone as there isn’t any more structural work to be done and the jigs have been put away.

Here’s where it stands:

My little corner of the shop. In the vice is the partially completed frame with a Grand Bois Hetre EL on a Velocity A23 rim I made a few months ago. This is the actual tire and wheel I intend to use, which is helpful to have on hand when designing and measuring the frame.

Did I mention it was hot? Today was the hottest day of the year, I believe. Like most shops I’ve been in, it gets hot inside, especially when working. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride home though, despite the heat.

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Frame Building: Day 5 & 6

On Friday, I left with the head tube and top tube brazed together. By the end of the day Monday, the whole front triangle was brazed and the chain stays ready form mitering. I needed to drill a vent in the seat tube under the lug. Like most things, front and back orientation is important but easy to reverse.

By the end of today the chain stays will be brazed on, the frame aligned, and I’ll begin on the seat stays, which take the longest.

Here’s where we stand:


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Frame Building: Day 4

For those of us fillet brazing most of the day was spent practicing that technique. The lug people began working on the forks in earnest. As a group we went through the process of drawing the rear of the bike to scale in order to select and optionally bend chain stays.

I was able to finish the fork, let it cool and get it into the heat tank before class was over. I’m excited to see the results without flux all over it.

The 20 mile commute is getting easier but I’ve noticed what I’m calling “competitive commuters”, so far only men. More on that later. Time for class.


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