The perfect cycling vacation: building bikes with Mike Flanigan at ANT
2014 has been a huge year at Bike Law: we launched our new site, developed a network of first-rate bike lawyers across the country, moved into a dedicated Bike Law HQ (after renovating the 1825 Charleston Single House), and represented more and more injured bicyclists in South Carolina and beyond.
August rolled around and realized that we needed a vacation. What does a bike lawyer do to take a break: build bikes, of course. Some of you know that I love the bicycle as an object (as art) as much as I love to ride. I have a mid-sized collection of droll-worthy bikes: a Grand Bois randonneur (from a 2011 trip to Kyoto), a Mariposa randonneur (recently repainted by Chris Kvale), and my three Della Santas. (I’ll show off these beauties in posts soon).
But I’ve always wanted to build a bike. When I say “build,” I don’t mean assemble, I mean start with a pile of steel tubes and finish with something you can pedal away.
And I’ve long wanted to do this with Mike Flanigan of ANT Bikes. I’ve followed his work over the years, and dig his approach and focus on gorgeous, practical roadsters, a modern take on the classic English three-speed. Mike is well know for sharing his craft with others, running week-long frame building classes (he also offers longer programs to train hobby and professional builders).
We “needed” everyday bikes for commuting, shopping, light touring and riding around. “Gentleman Cycling” is my thing, and I wanted to build a gentleman’s (and gentlewoman’s) bike (much much more on Gentleman Cycling in the near future).
Lauren and I packed up the car and drove north. We left directly from a deposition in a bicycle accident case in Greenville, SC and drove to Mike’s shop in Walpole, Mass. (On the way, we spent a few days at the Mohonk Mountain House, an old-world spa in the Hudson River Valley, and visited with friends in Amherst). It is a perfect summer in New England, especially in comparison to Charleston.
We arrived at ANT at 9 am Monday morning, excited but clueless about what was in store. I’ll admit, as much as I think about bikes, I really never thought about how much work goes into a bicycle frame.
STEP 1: Welding
Our first task was learning to weld. I use the word “learning” loosely. I am a believer in the 10,000 hour rule to do something well (it takes me at least that long), so I knew that a week was an introduction to the beginning of learning.
For us bike nerds, TIG welding is to brazing as bass fishing is to fly-fishing for trout. The classic, artsy steel frames have long been built by brazing (i.e., melting a softer metal (like silver or brass) to “glue” steel tubes together, either into a steel lug (and they can be beautiful) or by seamless fillets (my favorite style)). TIG welding uses a high temperature electric arc to join the steel tubes together with melted steel (mostly from a steel wire).
TIG welding gained prominence with BMX bikes and mountain bikes in the 80s. It’s a quicker, cheaper, and usually uglier way to join the tubes together. Debates used to rage that welding was weaker than brazing (because of the higher temperatures), but with steel tubes now designed to withstand welding, the issue is dead. It’s only an issue of aesthetics.
Mike is a skilled brazer, but most of his work is TIG. Part of the reason is that he began his trade with Fat City making mountain bikes, another reason is that TIG can be more versatile, but the most important reason is that he is fantastic at it. It only took a few hours with Mike to abandon any notion that TIG welding is a lesser craft. He is amazing at it, and his small symmetrical welds look great.
But before we welded, we decked out in protective gear:
Mike had us start welding heavy pieces of flat stock together.
We spent the better part of two days getting the hang of it, graduating from welding heavy steel plates to sample bicycle tubes. Welding is a game of millimeters. You use the arc to form a puddle of melted tube, and then dab the steel wire into the puddle to form the circular welds. One tiny misstep and the tungsten point can dab and stick, the wire can ball up, or, worse yet, the steel tube can blow a hole and melt away. We made all these mistakes, over and over. But after two days, we got to the point of being able to actually kind of do it. There are so many variables: the tungsten tip, the foot pedal to control heat, the angle and direction of the welding gun, the speed of dabbing, and on and on.
STEP 2: Designing the bikes
We knew what we wanted before we got here. His-and-her bikes in the ANT house style. While one of us was welding away, Mike measured us and and watched us “ride” a fitting jig of his design and construction (one of the coolest thing about Mike and his shop he builds most everything himself).
He then put those measurements into a Bike CAD program and made design prints. Here’s mine:
I’m used to seeing the sizing measurements and geo charts, but these plans have tube dimensions and construction details.
STEP 3: Preparing the tubes
We started with a stack of steel tubes and various metal bits.
Each of the tubes had to be cut to size, slotted or mitered (cutting them at the correct angle and radius so they could fit together), and prepped. Here’s Mike showing Lauren where to cut:
Working with metal was a revelation. It is intensely satisfying to cut, grind, and file steel.
STEP 4: Building the main triangle
Once the tubes were prepped, we assembled our bikes in a jig and tacked them together (using a few bigger welds to temporarily hold the bike together).
Then we got to it! I was pretty confident with my test welds, but all changed when I was working on my own bike. I got nervous that I was going to screw it up. Mike reassured me that this was normal; he has had good welders freak out a little when they got to their own bikes.
Here’s Lauren welding the seat tube to the bottom bracket:
Wednesday (our third day) was nuts. The goal was to complete our main triangles. And we did it.
STEP 5: Building the rest
It was overwhelming to realize that after the main triangle was welded, the real work started. Think of all the parts of a bicycle frame, all of those bits need to be prepped, cut, welded, filed, etc. Here’s me grinding the rear drop out:
Mike stepped in on the hardest parts, and I am very thankful that he did!
And he brazed lots of bits. It was really cool to see how gentle brazing was compared to welding. The temperature is much lower, the flame an actually flame (and not an electric arc), the softer silver melts and flows like liquid. Our next trip to ANT, we are going to learn to braze. Here is Mike brazing a lug detail on the head tube. The care and attention he gives to bike building is awesome to watch. You knew that he wanted us to have gorgeous bikes.
Mike also made many trips to another jig (of his construction) to align the frame. (I have ridden many bikes, but this city bike is the easiest to ride no-handed, probably because it is perfectly straight).
He built these amazing stems:
STEP 6: Painting
One of the hardest parts of getting a custom bike is deciding on paint color. Believe me, been there done that. Not this time! Any color you want as long as it is black. Lauren agreed.
Like TIG welding to brazing, powder coating is the red-headed stepchild of traditional wet paint. Unlike paint that relies on nasty chemicals and solvents, powder coating uses the magic of electricity to bind a fine powder onto metal, and then into the oven for 30 minutes to bake on. The result is a thicker finish that is much more durable that regular paint. No fumes, no multi-coats, just sandblast to prep, spray on powder, and then bake.
For an everyday bike, powder coat is by far my preference. In the few weeks I’ve had it, I have locked this bike up at least a hundred times to bike racks, parking meters, fences, and nary a mar.
STEP 7: Assembly
Saturday was devoted to assembling the bikes. I’ve been my own mechanic for years, and I thought we would fly through this step. But it took all day to put the two bikes together. The biggest time drains were running the light wires through the frame and fork. It was only during final assembly that Mike’s complete vision came into view. Every facet of these bicycles has been thought out and perfected. Mike patiently helped build them up.
STEP 8: Our first ride!
It was such a joy to jump on these beauties and take our first pedal. It was immediately apparent that Mike had nailed the design: cosy, as light as practicable, very responsive, solid, and quiet. Smiles all around:
STEP 9: Go do it yourself!
I cannot stress this enough: go see Mike Flanigan at Alternative Needs Transportation in Walpole, Massachusetts, and build one for your very own. He is such a skilled craftsman, patient teacher, and all-around great fellow with great taste in music! As far as vacations go, way better than sitting on a beach, and, IMHO, even better than going somewhere exotic and riding yourself into a jelly.
Thanks Mike, and save some a week for us in a year or two to come back and learn some more. Here’s Mike, proud as hell: