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Cheap tricks

A weekend warrior buys his ultimate mountain bike, part by part.

October 28, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writer

It starts with a simple premise, but then again, so does the road to Hades.

I can build my own mountain bike. I can make it better, stronger, faster, cheaper than some off-the-rack number bolted with bottom-rung parts.

That's what they make EBay for -- to pick over the discards of gearheads trading bike messenger paychecks for rides priced like a 1995 Toyota Corolla. You know the type: technogeeks and weight weenies who debate a 50-gram difference between two tires for their latest double-suspension uberbike fashioned from a top-secret metal, unobtainium.

Not me. I'm a weekend warrior, with my heart in road racing. I already have a pavement princess -- a custom Steelman with Shimano Dura-Ace, priced like a 1995 Toyota Corolla. There's no room in the castle for another one.

I'm looking for something more generic, simple, unadorned. A hardtail, no disc brakes. EBay is paved with old hardtail frames and V-brakes left behind by those leaping onto the latest springy steeds.

Many hundreds of dollars later, I had my bike. Or maybe my bike had me. And I had come face to face with my inner weight-weenie technogeek.

My sad tale begins with the frame.

See, originally I was just going to raid the Shimano LX parts and Manitou shock on my ancient Scott Cro-Mo bike, which is as heavy as depleted uranium.

An outfit called Leader Bike USA in San Diego was auctioning off a frame made of Easton Ultralite 6061 aluminum, in the appropriately everyman color of black. (They called it Ferrari Black, but Ferrari's already got red. This is Johnny Cash black.) The frames are getting great buzz from mtbreview.com, which is just what the dealer in San Diego wants, because he's trying to get them into local bike shops. Leader's claimed MSRP: $399. Its "Buy it Now" price: $99. Cha-CHING! I saved $300 already.

Some words on tactics: Before bidding, I located a bunch of items on EBay, put them on my "watch" list, then let others buy them, to see what the market price was. I checked mtbreview.com for ratings and prices, as well as half a dozen Internet catalogs and stores (Supergo, Nashbar, Performance, JensonUSA, etc.).

For wheels, I stuck to new ones and quickly found a set of Sun/Ringle Zero-degree rims laced with DT Swiss black spokes with red nipples, set on black Shimano M510 Deore hubs. Black and a hint of red: a fitting homage to Johnny's "Ring of Fire." Winning bid: $77.01 Best catalog/Web prices for the rims, hubs and labor: $159. Savings: $82.

By now I've saved 1.5 times what I've spent. I should be able to build this puppy for $500.

Now for the fork. Mountain bikers, particularly the type who bump downhill at 30 mph, are shelling out up to $1,000 alone for these. The cheapest are about $80, but there is a cottage industry of detractors for most of the models that come on off-the-rack bikes (RockShox, Manitou, RST, etc.). My inner technogeek spoke: Splurge on a Marzocchi. I found a 3-year-old Z2 Atom Bomb, recently refurbished with new springs and oil, for $152. This retailed for close to $500 new. I'll round down to a $300 savings.

They're practically giving me this bike.

What else could there be? The drive train: a crank and bottom bracket, pedals, front and rear derailleurs, gear cassette and chain. Upfront: the headset, stem and handlebar, brake levers and shifters. The brakes, the seat post and saddle, tires and tubes. Priced out in catalogs, I learn that this will cost around $475.

By now I'm up to my brain stem in the latest in seat post technology, linear-pull V-brakes, tire treads and brake modulation. And I'm beginning to notice the steady $5 to $10 delivery charges for everything. My inner technogeek speaks: Catalogs charge that too. Go for it!

I cast about for grab bags of parts, or guys selling multiple items, and quickly find a guy selling Shimano LX parts because -- you guessed it -- he's upgraded to Shimano XT. I get a bottom bracket, a crank with a couple of missing teeth on one chain ring, a nine-speed cassette, nine-speed shifters and rear derailleur, for $112.50. They price out in a catalog at $182. Savings: call it $55, considering I'll need a new chain ring.

Almost done, right? For a front derailleur, I find a used Shimano XT and pay $15.50; savings: $4.50. Then come beat-up Shimano 858 pedals, which sell for $65 to $80, but I get them for $17.05. I save $48 to $73.

I spend nearly a week on brakes before landing on some out-of-production Avid Single-Digit Magnesium brakes with great reviews from the weight weenies, paired with super-light Cane Creek levers, for $51. The brakes sold for $100-plus in their day, and go for $50 to $90 now, while the levers go for $33 new. I'll call the brakes even and the levers free. Savings: $33.

So far, I still can't pedal this thing.

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