Tool-free bicycle maintenance tips

August 04, 2007 at 10:41 PM | categories: Bicycle | View Comments |

I completed my fixie such that I could ride it around three days ago, more on that soon. In this entry, I want to share two extremely useful bicycle maintenance techniques I learned about during the past couple of days.

1) Change tires and tube easily - without tire levers
Click here for original article. The chap's description of how exactly you slacken up the tire is not the best, so I will try to explain how I did it. As he says, hold the tires against your thighs (I did this kneeling on the ground). Place each of your hands on a side of the wheel, opposite from one another. Push the tire in, while moving your hands toward the top, where they nearly meet. Hopefully you now have enough tire slack at the part between your hands that you can pull one side of the tire off the rim. Once you have one part off, its not too hard to slide the rest off.

2) Tighten or loosen track cog - without a chain whip
Before you freak out, this page I link claims with this technique its safe to run without a lock ring. I don't recommend doing so. However, the technique to tighten the sprocket (which you simply reverse to loosen the sprocket) worked very well for me. I was close to going out and buying a chain whip tool when I decided the drive train already was surely an excellent tool for cog manipulation - so I searched and found this article. Again, for safety, always use a lock ring.

Niall O'Higgins is an author and software developer. He wrote the O'Reilly book MongoDB and Python. He also develops Strider Open Source Continuous Deployment and offers full-stack consulting services at

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Building a Fixie #3 - bicycle part sizing issues

July 26, 2007 at 10:52 AM | categories: Bicycle | View Comments |

Bicycle project continues. Many of my bicycle parts have arrived - frame, bottom bracket, moustache bars, SPD pedals and shoes. 700C wheelset with flipflop hub should arrive today. Last night I went to American Cyclery on my way home from work and purchased a Sugino RD crankset (165mm), tires, tubes, a cheap seat post (didn't know if it would fit), a chain (shop had many different colours, i went with normal), a pedal wrench (big sturdy thing), a bottom bracket tool (with Italian threads, I figure I'll need to do frequent tightening) and some heavy duty lubricant.

With all this stuff, I was able to begin my process of discovering all the mis-matched and incompatible parts I had actually bought. Since I began this project with pretty much zero knowledge of building a bicycle, I fully expected I would make mistakes along the way in terms of buying parts. I figure if I have to buy another of some part to correct an error, its just an additional educational expense. The thing I was most worried about was the bottom bracket and crankset. Having an Italian threaded frame, it is a little more difficult to find bottom brackets. I semi-blindly purchased a fancy Truvativ GXP Team cups bottom bracket from eBay, in the hope that it would fit my crankset (which I had yet to purchase). It turns out that the Sugino RD crankset requires a square taper bottom bracket, 103-107mm width shell. I don't actually know exactly what kind of crankset the Truvativ BB takes, but its clearly not mine. In any case, I need to get a new BB. Sugino make their own square taper cartridge BB in a 103mm size which I would be happy to purchase except for the fact that its not available in Italian threading. After some searching, I found that sell the Shimano UN53 in a 70x107 sizing, which should hopefully both fit in my frame's BB and support the Sugino RD crankset. At ~$23 for the BB, this lesson seems to come at a pretty good price!

The second sizing issue I encountered was in the seat post. Having looked at Sheldon Brown's entry on Italian bicycles, I figured the seat post diameter on my bicycle would be relatively standard. I asked the shop for a 'standard' seat post (although the cheapest one) and they gave me what I assume was 27.2mm. It is slightly too large. I also tried the seat post from my current Trek road bike, which also was too large - again I presume it was 27.2mm. I intend to try to exchange it for a 27.0mm, which should hopefully fit. Another thing to note is that saddles are bloody expensive. Cheapest I saw in American Cyclery was $50 (in an ugly colour), and many were well over $100. I figure I will cannibalise the seat from my Trek for the fixie, at least for starters.

Niall O'Higgins is an author and software developer. He wrote the O'Reilly book MongoDB and Python. He also develops Strider Open Source Continuous Deployment and offers full-stack consulting services at

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Building a Fixie #2, SF Bike Coalition

July 16, 2007 at 12:33 PM | categories: Bicycle | View Comments |

After being outbid on various frames a few times on eBay, I finally won a very nice bicycle frame for my fixie project. Its a 34 year old Atala Campagnolo with very nice chrome lugs. It doesn't have any down tube shifter bosses. This means it will be a particularly clean looking fixie upon completion. Here is a picture of the frame:

This frame should take British/ISO parts for everything aside from the bottom bracket, which is specifically Italian. Its not very difficult to find an Italian bottom bracket, the only issue is that owing to a poor design decision (found in both French and Italian bicycles), the fixed cup can come loose unless securely tightened. I have been advised to use Loctite or similar adhesive to secure it. My plan is to have a local bicycle shop build me the fixed wheel, preferably with a flip-flop hub so that I can switch to a freewheel fairly easily if I wish to coast (if I'm tired for example).

Speaking of local bicycle shops, I joined the San Francsico Bike Coalition a few days ago. A very worthwhile cause, and it seems like they have had considerable success in actually improving the lot for SF cyclists - for example, the introduction of bicycle lanes. Also they are trying to introduce coloured bicycle lanes, which are in many European cities (including my hometown, Dublin). These would be great to see in SF as they make the bike lanes far more visible to motorists and should have a fair impact. Another issue they are working on is to improve the quality of the SF roads. I have noticed that the road surfaces in the city are quite poor indeed and there are many awful potholes. Obviously this is an issue for motorists too, so they have teamed up with the AAA among other groups. Its a typical example of long-standing neglect by the city authorities. Road surfaces become extremely expensive to repair once they descend to the levels seen around SF, so unfortunately it looks like a very costly job to fix things. Hopefully the authorities will get their act together and take care of this very important issue. One of the best things about being an SF Bike Coalition member is the discounts you get. Discounts that interest me personally are 10% off the Arizmendi Bakery near my apartment (they do pretty good scones), 10% off at Velo Rouge Cafe which is a nice bicycle-friendly cafe on the other side of the park from me - and 10% off at various nearby bike shopes on Stanyan. This final discount could save me a fair amount of money seeing as I am likley to purchase a few hundred dollars worth of bicycle parts for my fixie project.

Niall O'Higgins is an author and software developer. He wrote the O'Reilly book MongoDB and Python. He also develops Strider Open Source Continuous Deployment and offers full-stack consulting services at

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Building a Fixie

July 01, 2007 at 02:53 PM | categories: Bicycle | View Comments |

Over the past few months, I have become much more interested in bicycles. I commuted around Dublin on bicycle for years but was never very interested in different kinds of bikes or performance characteristics or anything of that sort. I viewed a bicycle simply as a way to get around. However, in March I spent a few hundred dollars on a (to me at least) pretty nice road bike. I use it to ride to and from work, mostly, and I very much enjoy this. It takes 20-25 minutes to cycle in in the morning and 25-30 minutes to cycle home, owing to the fairly steep hills on Page Street. Compared to driving to work, which I am pretty much forced to do if I want to go to the gym unfortunately, bicycling is far more enjoyable. Its good exercise, cheaper, much less stressful, and faster. Apart from a $30 cycling computer (which tells me my cruising speed is around 22MPH and that I sometimes reach 37MPH going down hills) I have not invested much in my bicycle. One thing I really appreciate now that I own a car though, is the simplicity of the bicycle. Its highly impractical to perform any serious repairs on an automobile yourself - for example, replacing a clutch is something that takes an auto-shop a full day at least to perform. Reliance on professional mechanics to repair or modify your auto is not very satisfying in my opinion. Bicycles, on the other hand, are simple enough that its plausible to build your own one or perform extensive repairs or modifications.

I would very much like to learn more about how bicycles work, and about tuning the various parts. At the same time, I have become intrigued by the numerous fixies I see being ridden around San Francisco. It seems to me that building my own fixie would be a great way to learn about bikes, find out what is so great about these fixies and have a lot of fun in the process. I suspect that riding a bicycle which you put together painstakingly with your own two hands would be very satisfying indeed, even if it is really a pretty ulgy thing you cobbled together ;-)

To this end, I have been looking to buy bicyle frames through Craigslist and eBay. A frame with a horizontal droupout is much more suitable for a fixie project, and mostly these are old steel frames from the '70s and '80s. I am looking to pay $30-$100 for a frame - the going rate on Craigslist, when the parts show up, seems to be $50-$60. eBay is better, but shipping is an additional $30-$40.

I have found Sheldon Brown's fixed gear site highly informative on the nitty gritty details of building/converting a fixie. I plan to ask a local bicyle shop (surely one of the many around Haight-Ashbury will do it) to build the fixed rear wheel for the bike. I also plan to install at least a front brake and get some SPDs. My main apprehension with riding a fixie is going down the steep hills on Page Street on my morning commute. My reading so far suggests that heavy pedal-braking can create a lot of strain in the knees which is something I would very much like to avoid after getting highly painful shin-splints from boxing training. Being able to walk without sharp pains in my legs is something I'd like to continue to take for granted. However, I'm sure that some combination of brakes and intelligence will result in a satisfactory outcome.

I am also thinking that I should get a digital camera (after having lost my last one a few months ago) in order to take pictues of the project for this site - in addition to other things. We shall see. Anyway, I hope to press on with this project and post regular updates about it.

Niall O'Higgins is an author and software developer. He wrote the O'Reilly book MongoDB and Python. He also develops Strider Open Source Continuous Deployment and offers full-stack consulting services at

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