Seventy Quid Sue

I didn’t know much about bikes when I decided to tour Ireland for 3 months. I could change an inner tube usually, but sometimes even that went wrong. I picked up a beaten 90s Merida mountain bike for £70, the chain was worn and so was the cassette but I didn’t know my bottom bracket from my elbow at this point. ‘Seventy Quid Sue’, I called her. I’d taken her to the Bike Lab a few times beforehand to sort out some minor niggles and Mat told me to keep in touch and let him know how it went. 

One July day, I wheeled my bike out the front door, attached my Dads 30 year old panniers and started pedalling. 2500 miles later, I arrived back at my front door, not having quite found the answers I was looking for. In fact, I was even more confused about life than ever. And a lot of people didn’t really get what had happened. It’s hard to understand when you haven’t done it yourself I think. 

I learnt a few things on that journey. Mostly about myself, but I did manage to pick up a few things about bikes. Now I could quite reliably change an inner tube, and sometimes I could adjust my brake pads correctly, though I often made it worse than before. Sue came back a deathtrap, with a rattling bottom bracket, pedals that jiggled, concaved rims, a chain that was beginning to skip, and a back wheel that was buckled beyond belief. So much so, that the back brake was unusable. Even in this condition, someone decided to steal her from out the back of the flat. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise for she would’ve likely been the end of me.

Now, I have bigger bike plans. Vague plans. I don’t really know where I want to go, or when, but I don’t know if it matters so much as long as you’re going. Norway sounds good. I thought I should attempt to build my own bike this time, so I have some sort of idea how bikes work. I got in contact with Mat, and he was happy to help. A scratch for a scratch. I had no idea where to begin, and bought an old Dawes Galaxy frame, before realising it couldn’t take wheels wider than ‘   ‘ . 

I went down to the Bike Lab with Mat, and looked through the bikes. We chose a Montana mountain bike, it seemed the best fit, but mainly it looked cool. Upon research, it appears to be a KHS Montana Summit 1993. I want to transform it into the ultimate touring bike. A tough little scrapper that can take a lot of punishment. The sort of bike you can find parts for in Halfords, and also in a dusty Moroccan village. Steel mountain bike frame, 26” wheels, rim brakes, friction shifters, 7-speed cassette. The sort of bike that’ll keep going till the end of time as long as you’ve got enough electrical tape and a dose of ingenuity. Working on the ingenuity.

On Thursdays, I head down to the Bike Lab with Chris, a master of all things bike related. He started tinkering with bikes as a kid growing up in Liverpool in the 70s. He’d find them off the rubbish heap and start taking them apart and figuring out how they work. Then as a young man, he began touring on his old racer. He didn’t have panniers, or any fancy frame bags like you see today, just a small bag he swung over his shoulder with only the essentials, a clean T-Shirt, a pair of jeans, half a towel, half a toothbrush, and a quarter of a bar of soap. Him and a friend cycled down from Liverpool to the south of France one summer until they ran out of money. On the way back they would steal fruit from the orchards and hold it in their T-Shirts and eat it as they cycled. And I thought I’d done it rough. 

The first task has been to take apart the bike and fully service it, cleaning, regreasing, and replacing any worn parts. Now be warned, it gets a tad technical here, as in, if you don’t know a thing about bikes it will sound like dark magic. The drivetrain was in dire order, the chain even rattling as we touched it, so we took off the chain, and the front chainrings, which were so gone they went in the bin. Even at the Bike Lab you can only preserve stuff to a certain extent. The pedals went too. We removed the crank and the bottom bracket, and gave it all a ‘birthday’, as Chris says. I cleaned the various bike parts in an old washing up tub with white spirit and an old toothbrush, and would wipe it off with mostly clean bits of rag. After cleaning the interior of the bottom bracket shell, we greased it with marine white grease, to make it resistant to water. 

Then we found an old, but new to me, set of chainrings amongst the treasure trove that is the Bike Lab, 50- -20, though upon reflection we realised 50 teeth was way too many for the big ring, so I have now purchased a 44 tooth Stronglight big chainring.

Next, we serviced the rear hub. We removed the rear wheel, and took the hub apart with a cone spanner and a normal spanner. The bearings were worn, so we replaced those, and then cleaned the hub with white spirit, and greased it with the marine white grease. We put the hub back together after checking the cones for pitting. We reattached the rear wheel. 

My hands and clothes were covered in flecks of grease and white spirit, I felt grotty yet accomplished. I’ve never been a naturally mechanically minded person, so this felt big. The dream was becoming reality. A few days later, my hands were finally clean.