Make Your Own Cheap, Hard Shell Panniers – Part 2: Assembly

We went over the parts list in Part 1, now its time to get down to business and make some panniers.

This is part 2 in a two-part series.  If you haven't done so already, check out Part 1.

So Lets Build It Already!

Before you drill a single hole, or make a single cut, you need to take something into account that isn’t immediately obvious.

Measure For Heel Clearance

This is something you have probably taken for granted but will recognize instantly when your attention is called to it: Panniers have a diagonal cutout in their lower forward portion. The reason for this is so your heels clear the pannier when you are on the back side of your pedal stroke. A DIY pannier like a trash can does not have this cutout.

Fortunately, I knew to measure for this in advance. I was surprised when I saw how far back I had to go. Luckily the can slopes into a more narrow profile at the bottom, so half the work is already done for us.

How do you measure for heel clearance? The fact my bike shoes cleat into my pedals made that job easier: My foot position is always fixed in one spot. I just clicked my shoe into the cleat and rotated it.

I took the picture for Figure 1 below after installation. But I did the actual work by holding the can up against the rack with one hand, grabbing the shoe with the other and moving the can back until the shoe cleared.

Then I eyeballed the can relative to the frame to decide what spot was the final location: The front edge of the can is lined up right alongside the back edge of the bike frame.

NOTE: I eyeballed everything and measured almost nothing on this project. You will see some wavy lines as a result. It worked out, but you should be a little more careful than I was.

Figure 1: There is not a lot of clearance here, but you don’t need even this much. If it clears at all you will never know the panniers are back there while riding.

Measure the flat part of the top inside of the can

This will tell us how much flat bar to cut for the mounting plate. The hooks and bungie cord mounts bolt into this. If you don’t use a plate and just drill holes in the plastic can, thats not going to be anywhere near as strong, which is not something you want on a big bucket holding things for you on a bouncy road.

Figure 2: Here is what the plate will look like, after installation. The holes are off-center thanks to what we learned measuring for heel clearance.

You want the plate to extend only across the flat portion of the can’s side, stopping where the can starts to curve at either end. This gives you maximum contact without affecting the molding and shape of the can.

Cut the aluminum flat bar to match this measurement

For this can, it turned out a 10″ length was about right. You should confirm this measurement matches whatever can it is you are using. Even if you are using the same Rubbermaid wastebasket.

Decide where the hooks are going to go on the rack

I just manually placed them as far apart as I could, where each hook ends up jammed against a rack cross-support. That config for the hooks means once the pannier is assembled, it can not slide forward or backward on the rack.

Mark the mounting plate with the J-hooks’ bolt holes.

NOTE: This part is a LOT easier to do if you take the rack off the bike. Since I had an identical rack waiting to be installed on a new bike, I used that.

With the mounting plate attached to the outside of the can with blue painter’s tape at its proper fore/aft position, line the plate up to the hooks, which are still sitting in their mounting position on the rack. Mark the holes to drill in the plate thru the hook holes with a Sharpie. Remove the plate from the can.

We only need to go through this measurement process once, since the second pannier is a mirror image of the first one.

Drill the marked holes into the two mounting plates

Once those four marked holes are drilled on your first plate, line it up atop the the second, uncut one. Drill thru the existing holes, down into the second plate. Now we have two plates with matching holes. You just need to flip over the second one so it works on the other side.

Figure 3: The two plates are clamped together and the holes in the first are being drilled down thru into the second. The topmost hole hasn’t been drilled-through yet.

I used strong clamps to hold the two plates precisely, firmly together. As noted, I used M5 bolts throughout this project, so use an M5-sized drill bit.

Chamfer (partially countersink) all of the holes

As seen in Figure 2, I am going for a flat profile on the mounting plate, inside the can. To get that, I am using countersunk M5 socket head bolts, and larger M8 washers that are wider than the bolt hole, but narrower than the full width of the socket cap. The last ingredient in achieving this flush fit is to chamfer a bit of the bolt hole. That gives the beginnings of a full countersunk hole (since we are using a 1/8″ plate, we don’t have enough material to do a full countersink). Use an M6-sized bit to drill in the already-made M5 holes just a hair to create this effect. You can set the drill to reverse direction to just kind of grind in the chamfer (properly drilling it is very easy to overdo).

Drill the mounting plate holes through the can

Position the mounting plate on the outside of the can so it is lined up where it is supposed to be installed. When you do this, since the plate is on the outside of the can, but it will be installed on the inside, make sure you have the plate oriented correctly (i.e. not backwards or upside down).

Figure 4: I wrote myself a note to remind me which side should be installed up against the can on the right-side pannier. These bolts are just stuck thru already drilled holes to hold the plate in position while I drill the two outer bungee mount holes.

Again: Make sure you don’t reverse the position of the plate and get the holes backwards. I made this mistake on my first pannier, but fortunately that meant I could just flip it around use it on the other side… so long as I didn’t screw up on the second one and create two right-side panniers.

Do the bungee mount holes

I am describing this step out of order, as it should be done at the same time as the J-hook holes are drilled, above. I did things differently on my first installation, and this step actually came later and needed a complete disassembly to make it happen.

Figure 5: My original bungee installation re-used the lower hook hole for the bungee P-clamp. Just for starters the knots got in the way of the rack stays. After some use I came up with a better way to do this.

So the original installation used four holes in the mounting plate, and the final version uses six, with the two P-clamp holes being far outboard from the hooks, and more or less at the same vertical level as the lower J-hook holes.

This mounting position gives us perfect cable tension. It also leaves lots of mounting plate around the bolt hole so the washers on the outside are backed fully by the mounting plate on the inside.

Figure 6: Bungee v2.0 works MUCH better. Uniform length thanks to no knots or uneven cable cut. Thinner cord vs. the humongous leftovers I used from my parts pile. Enough tension to do the job without worrying me about long term damage to the flexible rubbery can.

Bolt everything together

OK so pretend all that stuff you see in Figures 2, 5 and 6 hasn’t happened yet. But its about to. We’ve drilled all our holes and now we bolt everything together.

Our J-hooks all use M5 x 16mm countersunk hex caps, with an M8 washer on the inside, bolt sticking out. Outside, we have the Jandd pannier hook, directly against the plastic. On top of that goes an M5 nylock nut (if you want to use a flat washer under the nylock, there are enough threads to spare to do that).

The two bungee mounts use identical bolts and washers, facing inside-out, with a steel M5 fender washer on the other side, up against the plastic. On top of the washer is the 1/2″ P-clamp, and on top of the P-clamp is another M5 nylock.

Assemble all of the bolts loosely

Since we are talking about nylocks, just screw them down by hand until the nylon lock ring stops you from using your fingers to further tighten it.

Tighten down the hooks first

Once all of the 6 bolts are hand snugged (they will actually be quite loose), tighten only the top two bolts of each hook. But not quite fully. The screw holes on the hooks are sized a bit large so you want to be able to re-align the hooks as you go along. Once you truly clamp to the plastic on the top two bolts, do the same for the bottom two, keeping the hooks properly parallel with your fingertips if they shift around.

Now do the bungee mounts

Pretty straightforward here. Tighten down while keeping the P clamps at a 45-degree angle as shown in Figure 6. When the bolts are fully tight they lock the P-clamp in position.

Figure 7: With everything bolted up, there are two ways to route the (red) bungee strap. I decided to use the right side routing as it lets the pannier sit directly against the rack stays… which will matter once you take in how the cinch straps work.

Add the cinch strap

Anyone who knows old school pannier bungee strap mounts knows I left out a step: There is no lower strap to capture the bungee and keep the pannier from flapping around, as the bike moves down the road.

Figure 8: These cinch straps are easy-on and easy-off, taking just a second or three to release or reattach. They are interwoven inside around the outside of the rack, inside the bungees and back outside the inside forward rack stay… so they can’t slip down.

This omission was intentional. Having a lot of cinch straps in a box in my shop, I opted to use them to lock the pannier down onto the rack. Removing the strap only takes a second, and the stability it provides works so well it not only never rattles, I could probably ride a singletrack trail without any worries about it moving.

Nest in the second can

We’re finally going to see why we’ve done that countersink stuff. Lets show it in a sequence of pictures; left-to-right:

So thats easy enough to understand. We kept the mounting plate flat so it would not interfere with the nesting of the cans. What is the point of that?

  • A double-thick pannier is much stronger, and loses all semblance of wobbliness. Stronger means stronger all around and includes the ability to take hits, lean the bike on things etc.
  • The interior is completely un-holey and waterproof.
  • The insert is easily removable. Once home from the shops, just pick up the inner can and walk it inside to unload.
  • When nesting the two cans, you can easily slip in a sheet that makes a lid for the pannier, with the 48″ flat bungee being an easy-apply band around it to secure the lid. The fact that the sheet is snuggled in between the nested cans makes it an attached, integral piece of the pannier, not a potential UFO if a strap comes loose.
  • That second can beefing up the operation makes the pannier system a substantial piece of kit… and costs a whole US$8 per side to add in.

Finish it off: Put on a lid

The very first idea I had for this job was the easiest to manage. It cost virtually nothing and was easy-peasy. I took a full size garbage bag and folded it into a 20″ x 17″ square.

Figure 9: Pannier Lid v1.0 – a simple folded garbage bag. It worked great!

The folded bag worked extremely well. It was easy to manipulate and rendered the panniers completely waterproof in rain and wind. The trouble was… it looked like I was using garbage bags for a lid. I wanted something that looked better. and so we have Pannier Lid v2.0:

I splurged on Amazon and spent $27 for some vinyl fake leather, ordinarily used for furniture re-upholstery. I used more material than I needed so I have the option of expanding the lid should I stuff things into the pannier that stick up.

You can see in one picture above how I have a second sheet with folded corners on a workbench behind the bike. That is the segment slipped in between the two cans as they are nested together.

Originally I had plans to do a proper measurement of just how much excess material I wanted to use, cut out in a pattern, where there was just the right amount and shape of fabric to stuff down in between the two cans for a fold-free fit all around. The right measurements on the rest would let me use nice hospital corners to fold up nice and neat on the outside, too.

I ended up just cutting a single sheet, 24″ wide in a straight cut off of the big fabric sheet I received. Then I cut that in half on the long side, leaving me with two sheets measuring 24″ wide by 27.5″ long. That 27.5″ side is the one that gets triangle-folded and tucked in between the two cans.

Because there is so much extra material for expansion, folding it up on the outside is a little less tidy. BUT in exchange for that the lid can expand considerably should I need it to.

And that, as they say, is that. Or is it?

Job done. I haven’t decided if I am going to use these for Bullitt II as originally intended, or leave them on this bike and buy four more cans and do another set for the other bike when the frame finally arrives later this month. Since its a white frame, I’d buy a white set of cans, but for almost everything else on the build sheet I have all the parts to do another set. Having a set to use as a reference, I can probably get the entire job job done in an afternoon.

Make Your Own Cheap, Hard Shell Panniers – Part 1: Parts

Commercial products are available but are priced at US$300 for a pair. This alternative offers more space for minimal cost, needs only a few simple tools and can even be assembled in a few minutes.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series.  If you are looking for Part 2 it is here.

Background

I need some big panniers for the upcoming Bullitt II. I use them now on my current Bullitt as overflow when I fill my cargo bay on a big shopping run.

While I was pannier shopping, I came across a hardshell pannier called the Coolcave, offered by Specialized. It looks like a very neat product, especially when paired with its lid pack, sold separately, that takes its capacity up to 25L. Unfortunately, each pannier is priced at US$80, a lid pack adds another US$70. So US$300 for two panniers. For a cargo bucket in a middling size, that pricing is well past my pain threshold.

While I was looking at them online, I couldn’t help but notice the Coolcave looks an awful lot like a small trash can, right down to the molded-in feet that let you sit it on the ground.

Hmmmm…

You can see where I’m going with this already, right? How tough can it be to get some nice clean new trash cans and make panniers? Especially since I have a lot of the parts in the garage already, and all the tools I could need to make this project happen.

As I began looking around for the parts I needed, I found I am by no means the first person who has had this idea. Jandd Mountaineering has their Tidy Cat bucket kit. Sellwood Designs has their own bucket and bucket kit available at thebikebucket.com. I am sure there are many more out there. If you are considering a DIY approach, all you need to know is almost any container that isn’t round can be made into a pannier.

Lets get started.

Project Pan-Yay Begins

Let me lay out the ‘final’ parts list on the panniers I ended up making. These are the parts that made the final cut. Further on I’ll comment on some alternatives that would have worked out great, but inflated the cost too much. This build is meant to be budget-minded.

Parts List

  1. Rubbermaid Commercial Products 28-qt wastebasket (US$31.61 for four)

    28 quarts in Imperialist units works out to 26.5 liters each. Why are we buying four instead of two? I’ll get to that later. These commercial wastebaskets are meant to take a beating. They are soft and flexible, yet sturdy. They nest inside of one another snugly.
  2. Two strips of aluminum flat bar (US$6.00 total)

    I used a strip 1.5″ (38mm) wide and cut each to 10″ (254mm) long. Width was dictated by the bolts used for the hooks, and length is the flat width of the trash can. Cost is based on 20″ of an 8-foot bar purchased at the hardware store for about US$28 – that I already had some of in my garage.
  3. Jandd Mountaineering stainless steel pannier hooks (US$18.40 for four)

    These hooks are dirt cheap, easy to install, beefy and durable.
  4. 24″ bungee cords (US$5.16 for two)

    Using bungees to fasten a pannier is old school, like the Jandd hooks. However using one commercially-available, non-DIY cord per side isn’t. Its a nice hack.
  5. 48″ bungee cords (US$7.96 for two)
    I use these flat bungee cords to secure my waterproof, expandable ‘cloth’ lid. It works faster than a traditional buckled pannier flap, and is more easily expandable.
  6. 1/2″ vinyl-lined P-Clamps (US$2.00 for four)

    These are used for mounting the 24″ bungees. They’re available at any local hardware store. Mine were in a cubbyhole in my garage already.
  7. 2″ x 48″ Hook and Loop Cinch Strap (US$8.00 for two)
    I have chosen these 48″ straps as they should be right for one strap to fully encircle the pannier and thread thru the rack stays – I am using straps to bolster the j-hook-and-bungee pannier mounting. They are easy to remove, easy to attach and make the panniers so solid to the rack I could ride with them on a singletrack trail and they’d stay put (pro tip: Use a black Sharpie to make the garish logo invisible).
  8. Two yards of fake leather vinyl sheeting (US$26.99)
    Let me say right off I first used two folded-over garbage bags for lids with my 48″ bungees and they worked fine. Using this waterproof vinyl is a purely cosmetic choice. The 2 yards you get is about 3 times what you need.
  9. Various Stainless Steel Nuts and Bolts (US$20.00 total)
    I used M5 bolts with countersunk heads, oversized M8 washers and M5 nylock nuts. This is a little weird but mounting the bolts so they go inside-out gave me a completely flat surface inside the outer can… but I’m getting ahead of myself mentioning that so I will stop now. I am ballparking the cost here, which you can reduce by quite a bit by using zinc-coated steel parts instead of stainless. I will list the specific nuts, bolts and washers in each part of the assembly instructions.

Total Project Cost

Add up all of the above and you come up with $126.12. Which sounds like a lot for two trash cans, but pretty good versus retail price on two 26.5L-each, waterproof, hard shell panniers – if you could find them for sale at all.

You can cut costs here. Don’t do the nested cans and use two instead of four. Forget about the vinyl and stick to the folded trash bags. Just those two things knock off US$43 from the project cost. Do without the bungees for the lid and you’ve now removed just over US$50. Find a couple things in your garage to use instead of buy and you knock off even more.

Alternate Parts

Trash Bags

Lets get this one out of the way immediately. If you want to cheaply create a waterproof liner for your pannier, then the 7-10 gallon trash bags that are sold everywhere as a direct fit to these trash cans are an obvious solution.

Savvy cyclists know a trash bag makes ANY cloth pannier instantly waterproof. The use of a bag as a can liner can also take the place of a lid. Especially if closed off with something like a reusable OneWrap tie, or a small cinch strap.

Next, when setting up the lid, before I received the faux leather I eventually used, I simply took a full sized trash bag, re-folded into an even-ish square. Then on the rack-side, I tucked it in between the two layered-together cans so it becomes semi-permanently attached (only coming off if I separate the nested cans). This creates a square flap with overlap that I can easily flip off and back on again, using the 48″ flat bungee strap.

On my first day of use, it was raining, so I had to have a lid. The folded trash bag worked perfectly. the only knock against it was cosmetic: I was obviously using a trash bag.

Ortlieb Mounting Hardware

While I was researching my options for the build, I came across this page at Campfire Cycling that lists a wide range of in-stock Ortlieb replacement parts. A complete mounting solution can be pieced together.

  • 4-hole QL1 long rail
  • QL1 top hooks with handle
  • QL 2.1 lower rail
  • QL 2.1 lower hook

You are mixing mount versions top vs. bottom, but thats not a problem. With shipping the cost is about US$80 to ship 2 panniers worth of parts to me in California.

Thats top-quality equipment, but I was not ready to spend that much on a concept I was not 100% certain was workable yet.

Vincita Mounting Hardware

I actually purchased this and intended to use it as my go-to solution on the first build. Unfortunately the shipper reported the package lost, and I got a refund. Some time later a battered package finally showed up on my doorstep.

As such I had the opportunity to inspect the mounting kit, even if I didn’t use it. I had picked the 12mm kit and found it to be of very good quality, and definitely workable with my Axiom rack’s tubes. At less than US$13 per side it would have been an economical option as well. I’m not sure I would have wanted to use the lower mount on its own. I’m pretty sure I would have wanted to use the bungees as I ended up doing here.

SO LETS BUILD IT ALREADY!

We’ll get to that in the next part. This is a good spot to put in a break.

(e)Bike Tool Kit – The 2022 Edition

In the last few months, I’ve made a few changes to my standard on-bike tool kits. Lets take a look.

Things have changed a little since I originally wrote up my full size tool kit in late 2020, and my minimalist tool kit a couple weeks later. The changes are not big but when you are talking about risking your ride turning into a walk – especially in rough, remote terrain – its worth bringing up the things I have changed.

The Core Kit Items

Unless noted otherwise, the changes here are the same for both my full and minimalist kits. Lets run down the main players on the small kit first, so you don’t have to go and refer to another article to get the complete contents.

The Patch Kit

As I noted in 2020, Rema Tip Top cold-vulcanizing patches have been the gold standard for decades. And that is before I started using them in the 1970’s. They are essentially unchanged today. If you just want to buy what you need, then the Rema Large Touring Kit is the way to go. At present its a whopping US$7.15. However, I do it a little differently. I take an empty Costco pill bottle with its locking lid, and then I add a slew of my own patches, along with a snip of special sandpaper and a much larger tube of cold-vulcanizing goo. This gives me a more capable patch kit in a better, stronger container. It is not the no-brainer that just buying the pre-made kit is, though.

The Tire Levers

As was true in 2020 so it stays true now: After trying many alternatives, the Park TL-6.2 tire levers are the ticket. You can see them rubber-banded to a patch kit bottle above. They’re superior because they are metal, with a sturdy-enough-to-withstand-use plastic coating.

A Tire Patch

The Park TB-2 Tire Boot remains the standard and one is always found in my patch kit just in case. This is just a great big gooey patch meant to be applied to the tire and not the tube. You use one of these if you have some kind of major slit in the tire casing that gives it the tire equivalent of a hernia.

Hex Wrenches

A stubby set made by Bondhus metric wrenches is in most of my kits (some of the bigger ones get a long set). These are made of high quality tool steel and inexpensive. You don’t need a whole set so if you want to shave weight or save space, you can buy these individually or just buy a set and include only what you need. However an extra piece of steel can be a handy pry bar. You never know…

A Pocket Knife

A pocket knife is one of those just-in-case items that has no specific job, but can come in REAL handy in so many ways. A Kershaw Shuffle is a good quality, inexpensive folder that incorporates flat and Phillips screwdriver bits. A.G. Russell’s Featherlite One Hand Knife is lightweight and handy for only about US$35, and their ‘Simple 3″ Lockback‘ is a bit less than half that price. Or how about a Slidewinder for ten bucks? Substitute in a multi tool for greater functionality (I saw a Leatherman Bolster on sale in a local Costco recently for only $39.95), but that is expensive and could make your tool bag a bit crowded.

Needlenose Pliers

I carry these outside my toolkit, usually somewhere I can grab quickly. The idea is if you hear that awful hiss-hiss-hiss sound as your tire rotates around a nail or similar, you stop the bike, jump off, grab the pliers which are in a quick-grab place and pull out the offending nail. Speed counts on this particularly if you have tire sealant like FlatOut waiting to do its job once the nail is removed and you spin the tire.

Its entirely possible the needlenose pliers can be done without depending on how you feel about the first item on my New Stuff list below.

New Stuff

Knipex Wrench/Pliers

7 1/4″ (180mm) size is my favorite for a bike tool pouch, although I also have the two smaller sizes (150mm and 125mm). The 180’s are ideal in my opinion. Small enough to use on a rack bolt, big enough to use on a pedal, or even an axle bolt.

These tools are spoken of in hushed tones by the folks who have been turned onto them, and I’m no exception. Think of them as a kind of super Channel Lock style of pliers, except they are optimized so you have much finer graduations in your ‘channel’ widths, the jaws always stay perfectly parallel and you can really clamp the bejesus out of these things, so much so they can be used like an adjustable, open ended crescent wrench. A 10″ / 250mm set lives permanently in my car and is great for bolting stuff like trailer hitch bits down tight.

This tool takes up the same space as the former adjustable crescent wrench and is more usable since it is a pair of strong pliers as much as it is a wrench.

Be warned, though. The little buggers are freaking expensive. But if you are a tool geek, you’ll love them.

A T25 Torx Wrench

Over time, the T25 Torx wrench has gone from something only Magura used on their brakes to a sort of alternate standard among manufacturers. Particularly when it comes to brake rotor bolts.

My brakes, brake rotors and now my seatpost use a Torx T25.

As much as I hate to admit it, the T25 is a better tool socket than a simple hex. Formerly only kept in my bigger tool kits, Since my Squeezy seatpost clamp also uses a T25 on my Apostate I’m officially carrying one in even my minimalist kits.

Battery Powered Pump

A couple of years ago I began championing the use of a portable air compressor that could be slightly modified to run off your existing ebike battery. I still have 4 or 5 of them, and I have never had one fail. However after reading some success stories, and my own research, I’m ready to say I have found a couple of models that are worth relying on.

About a year ago I started doing remote beach runs where there is no land access for miles along the route. You either climb up the beach cliffs and leave your bike, you go swimming, you turn back or you reach your destination. No one’s coming to get you because nobody is out there and your cell phone doesn’t work. Since my ride to the jumping off point was a few miles of paved shared-use path, followed by a bunch of deep sand and then more pavement home, I found I now needed a pump that could be used routinely and regularly rather than emergency-only. So I started looking at pumps and their reviews.

Out here, running out of juice would REALLY suck.

I found out pretty quick that many pumps advertise long life but when you dig into exactly what battery is inside, you find there’s not much there under the hood. Maybe 800 mah. For a pump that has to inflate two *fat* tires at least once and probably twice during the ride, AND have enough left over in case of emergency, I wanted some serious juice in the battery pack.

I decided to try out the CycPlus A8 pump, which had good reviews and published their battery spec. Not 500 or 800 mAh. 2500 mAh. Thats the biggest I could find in this class of small portable pump. What remained unanswered was whether the pump was reliable and whether or not – like lumens on headlights – the claimed battery capacity was remotely believable.

After a lot of use without any failures, I can say it has proven to be reliable. I literally can’t run the battery down in use on a given bike trip. The same has proven true with its companion model, the cheaper, lighter A7 model that trades the alloy pump casing for plastic.

The A7 is also narrower and longer. When I needed a pump for The Apostate, I wanted it to fit in my handlebar bag. I found I had to go with the A8. The A7 was too long to fit in my chosen handlebar bag. Not the biggest deal in the world. The A8 fits perfectly and the weight on the bars is not noticeable.

A7 on the left, A8 on the right. Comparative sizes are not quite to scale. Pic on the right is a little smaller than in reality compared to the A7.

Hockey Pucks

Most useful if you have a two-legged center-mount kickstand. A couple of regulation hockey pucks underneath your kickstand effectively puts the bike up in the air for service on either wheel. Ridiculously handy. Also if you are parking your fat bike on sand, the enlarged puck under your single kickstand leg can mean the difference between the bike staying up or sinking. Call this an optional item but if you can spare the space one or two pucks can be a huge convenience.

Hockey pucks in place let me easily lube my chain at the park rather than in a dingy old garage.

Gone But Not Forgotten

This is what was once in the toolkit but is now gone/replaced.

Wrenches

The Knipex pliers take the place of the adjustable crescent wrench.

CO2

Now that I have an on-demand air compressor, I can kiss goodbye this ancient, single-use technology. That means no more cartridges stashed everywhere I can find a place to fit another one, and no more cartridge head

A super cool, best-of-breed little part… but good riddance to antiquated, single-use co2 technology

Manual Backup Pump?

I’ve worked with the battery powered pumps listed above enough to finally cut the umbilical cord to my backup hand pumps… but if I can carry one without too much difficulty I will. This is one habit that is very hard to break for someone like me who is so invested in having redundant backups.

Needlenose pliers?

I think the Knipex will also do this job, but my US$9 needlenose pliers are often out in the open in a MOLLE slot outside one of my packs. I don’t know for sure if I want to hang a US$60 set of fancy German workmanship out in the same way. So long as I have the space I’ll keep the needlenose’s on the payroll. But really if we’re being a weight weenie, I can find a way to safely secure the Knipex’ and get rid of the pliers. Or attach a multi-tool to the exterior of a bag perhaps and make my emergency tire pliers handy thataway.


Well thats pretty much it for the tool kit. Not the most exciting topic… until something breaks and you’re sitting on a rock trying to fix it.

Ride on…

How To Build An Ebike From Scratch: Perfecting

We built an ebike. Are we done? Here are the things that typically go a little wrong with a build, and some ways to fix them.

Introduction
Step 1: Planning
Step 2: Hunting
Step 3: Tinkering
Step 4: Buying
Step 5: Assembling
Build Day 1
Build Day 2
Build Day 3
Step 6: Perfecting (you are here)
Tools List

Preparation is Everything?

In Planning, I opened by saying Preparation is Everything. With that said…

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

-Iron Mike Tyson

Yeah. Lets talk about the reality check that is coming, once you actually ride the bike you just built. You learn whether what you thought would work actually does. More than likely, something will not work the way you’d like it to.

It won’t be a catastrophic problem, but this is a custom bike and you should expect a do-over or two to make it exactly what you want. This is how I wound up with the materiel and experience to write Musical Chainrings.

On that subject (bicycle gearing), over time that inevitable uncertainty has worked out in my favor. I know I am going to need some time in the saddle to figure out exactly how I want to gear any bike. I may also be surprised when I get a look at actual versus expected chain alignment. Thanks to Tyson’s Law, I have plenty of stock on hand to play around with and get it right.

You have to plan for and budget for this final step. Not necessarily for chainrings. There are a variety of typical culprits.

What Culprits?

There is a pretty common hit parade of things most likely to need a tweak. They all have something to do with the human/bike interface: How comfortable the bike is to you when you ride it.

Handlebars

Is their width comfortable? What about the angle? Your wrists feel OK after awhile? Need a rise on the bars? You’ll only be certain you got it right after riding the bike.

For the Apostate I put on a 760mm titanium flat bar. I have tried to use this very snazzy handlebar on a half-dozen bikes over the last few years, and was never happy with it, so it went back to the parts pile. Having had the Apostate on the road for a few months now, it looks like I finally found a permanent home for it.

My first ride on my Bullitt on February 21st, 2021. Look closely and you can see the same titanium handlebar on this bike; a few weeks later it came right back off. Again.

Handlebar stems

This is surprisingly important for rider comfort, and is perhaps the part I most often change after a new build hits the road. A longer or shorter stem can make a world of difference in comfort depending on what reach to the bars best fits you and your riding position (seat height relative to bar height also plays a role, so once again you need to be on the actual bike to understand what works best). A stem at a different angle can raise or lower the bars for a different improvement than changing the reach with stem length.

SIDEBAR:
No matter what... do not use an adjustable riser stem.  The kind that has a hinge you can supposedly bolt down so its safe.  I know of two separate instances where they broke loose (thankfully I was not the rider).  Both under heavy braking.  Want to keep your teeth?  Use a fixed stem with a set angle to raise handlebar height.

For the Apostate I tried an 80mm stem with a 6 degree rise. Based on measurements from other bikes, I knew this was likely to work. But once again… you never know until you ride it.

Once I did, my posture naturally gravitated to holding the bars with my thumb and forefinger; not naturally planting my upper body weight on my entire palm. I needed a big change, and so I grabbed the biggest change I had: a much longer 120mm stem with a 45-degree rise. This raised the bars as much as was reasonably possible (about an inch and a half) while not really moving the bars forward much (which would increase my reach and make the problem worse).

I set aside these potential alternatives, just in case. I used the one on the far right.

After riding it for a week, it felt better, but I still had to think to put my hands down flat on the bar. I hadn’t gotten it quite right yet. I needed to reduce reach a bit while not affecting handlebar height.

Since I was pretty much at my best result on the stem length and handlebar height, my next step in fitment moved from the handlebars to the seatpost, where I knew I had a little room to maneuver, so to speak.

Worth noting: I could have stayed at the handlebars and changed the bar to one with a pullback of some kind. But I wanted to keep the bar flat and straight on this bike so…

Seatposts

If you are having reach or posture issues, one of the tools at your disposal is to change your seatpost. Some have a setback, where the saddle is mounted aft of the seatpost tube itself. Others have no setback and the rail clamps are directly over the tube. The difference moves your body forward or backward depending on what type you use.

I try to solve fitment issues with handlebars and stems. Changing seatpost setback is usually a last resort (and if you have a suspension seatpost, changing that expensive part is usually off the table as an option).

For the Apostate, a vintage 350mm Kalloy Uno came with the frame. This venerable post has been on the market for decades. It is a no frills, sturdy option. It turns out a 350mm post, with a bottom set near to matching the frame’s bottom edge (still well within its safety limits) was perfect for my pedal stroke. Winner winner chicken dinner.

Or not. As noted above, after riding it for a week I felt I still needed a small change, and it seemed like it would have to be a seatpost change.

The alternatives left were scooting the seat forward in the seatpost clamp (minding the limits scribed on the saddle), and changing the post to one with no setback. Since I was already at the forward limit of the saddle, that meant a different post with no setback. I did that in an over-the-top way, which moved this modification out of the ordinary and into the Afterword section below. We’ll discuss details there.

My original Kalloy seatpost had a ‘setback’ that moves the seat’s mount back behind the post’s center axis. The post I replaced it with has no setback.

Saddles

You won’t know if it works until you sit on it and ride for awhile. But, you don’t have to start from scratch, either. What you like on another bike is liable to work again. I know that for bikes I pedal hard, I like narrower saddles. I knew I liked the WTB Volt (taken off of my Surly Big Fat Dummy) on my GG Smash enduro bike.

So I put on another Volt (I scored the much nicer Chromoly version on a clearance sale) and its fine. No changes necessary. You may not be so lucky as saddles are notorious for not being quite right without some trial and error.

Pedals

Again… this is about comfort. But budget is a factor as well. I tried going with a more or less period-correct option via some old cage pedals with mtb clips and straps. I had them on a shelf collecting dust, and thought this was a great place to put them back into use.

Wrong answer. Some things are better left to the past. Toe clips are one of them. I only had to fumble getting back into them once (I’m not cleating in here) to remember how annoying that was. Fortunately for my budget I also had a pair of perfectly good, cheap flat pedals on the shelf, which I put on.

And I still wasn’t happy. Again thankfully for my budget, my Smash is stored with its pedals off, and those pedals are Pedaling Innovations Catalysts, which are sort of monsters, but I have several sets. I really like the ability to support my arch, in a mid-foot position that benefits from a stomping pedal stroke.

New bike. Scruffy pedals swiped from another bike. No problem.

So on they went and … perfect. I’ll use the cheapie flat pedals on the Smash. For now.

Chainrings

Finally, I built a bike I did not need to play musical chainrings with to get it geared right. Some of that was luck, some of it experience. The 40T Lekkie I used – which requires a special motor cover to be substituted on to fit – was a big ticket item, but its the smallest chainring available that would give me the offset I needed to get excellent chainline on this build.

Pay no attention to those wires. Cable management was tackled on Assembly Day 3. This picture was taken on Day 2.

That chainline was figured out in the Tinkering phase, when I had only the frame, the motor, a wheel and some of my spare chainrings to play with. Chainline is dead straight back to the middle of the cluster, and the gears I am comfortable riding in on this bike are the middle ones as well. One and done. For once.

So… maybe Planning Really is Everything.


Afterword

The Apostate pictured in my Day 1 ride didn’t stay the same. Most of the changes are documented above. But things don’t always fit into neat little categories. What unique bits did I end up changing or prettying-up?

Battery Mounting

The battery solution on this bike came out great. The frame fits a certain type of ‘in-triangle’ battery pack, and of those packs, the Wolf Pack from Luna Cycle fits as if the frame was made for it.

However, clearances are tight. Particularly on top where it really matters. It was clear even during test fittings I wanted to keep this battery permanently on the frame and remove it as infrequently as possible. Ideally: Never remove it.

Not just because there isn’t much room to work with in terms of getting the thing off of its (super strong) magnetic mount. That strong magnet, versus the rivnut bottle bosses on this vintage frame… worry me. You have to apply so much force to remove the pack (or move it in any way forwards or backwards), I’m concerned something is going to bend (the mount) or break (one of the bosses tearing loose from the frame). There’s likely no coming back from a failure like that on an aluminum frame 23 years old and counting.

SIDEBAR:
Why use the cinch straps if the magnet is so strong?  
The straps provide additional stability and support.  I want to do everything I can to take as much stress off of those two little rivnutted M5 bosses in the frame, which otherwise are holding the entire 9-lb battery on their own through all manner of road and trail shocks.

Initially, I used three velcro cinch straps to nearly cover the pack, and also stabilize the magnetic mount as much as possible. Later on, I decided to take advantage of two of the three slots on the battery side’s mounting tabs. These exist so hose clamps can literally clamp the battery permanently to the frame.

The clamps further reduce the reliance on the bottle bosses to do all the work of holding onto the pack. I had already padded the underside of the mount with a thin pillow of red silicone tape. The hose clamp makes no contact with the actual frame thanks to the mount width on one side, and the wire tunnel for the shift sensor and main motor harness cables on the other.

Those clamps also help reduce the potential of battery theft. Sure, nothing is going to stop a determined thief, but the hose clamps – and I made a point of not hiding them for this reason – make it clear to anyone looking that a few minutes (or an angle grinder) will be needed to get that pack off the bike. There isn’t going to be a grab-and-go theft. That fits in with the very limited likelihood of leaving this bike outside at a shop, locked but unattended.

If someone tries to steal it anyway, once a thief shears off or unscrews the hose clamps, they’ll be confronted with that magnet. I bet it will take some time to realize whats holding the battery so tightly. And once that realization dawns, they will have to figure out how to get it moved just right to angle it out of the frame.

Thats time I can spend setting bear traps, digging pits and buying a baseball bat.

I also used velcro to ‘face’ the cinch straps. This holds them together – really only for cosmetic purposes. The straps don’t move once tightened down. The facing (on the sides and the top) just makes the velcro present a little better; keeping the graphics on the battery from bleeding thru in the gaps between the straps.

Handlebar Bag

The Condor Deployment Bag is something I use on almost all of my bike builds. Its easy to adapt into a secure handlebar mount, its small but still the perfect size for a tool bag that can also hold a wallet, phone and keys. These bags are my go-to for hiding wires – and especially controllers – on my 2wd bikes.

The original brown bag was replaced by a black one I also owned – when I finally found it.

Having several of these on hand, I simply switched from a brown one to a black one. The reason is straightforward: black wires blend in better when they are running along a black bag. Note that in some of the photos you may see a lot of wire stuffed behind that bag. I didn’t cut down the brake hoses to size until the very end of the build and test ride process.

Seatpost

This was a big change, but not for an overtly obvious reason.

The vintage Kalloy Uno seatpost that came with the frame worked great. Except as noted above I had reach issues. I had already moved the seat forward, and I did not want to shorten the stem as that would create other issues. So that limited next steps in terms of fitment.

I didn’t need much reach reduction, so I decided to do a seatpost with no setback. My first thought was a Thomson Elite. Which is a great product but not a trivial purchase at about $115. Since I was in that league in terms of cost, I decided to try a dropper post. They all have no setback. A dropper would be handy for all the reasons droppers are handy.

Also, the frame introduces constraints. The post can’t be super long. 350mm is the right length for a seatpost when fit on the frame to my anatomy; any longer means it protrudes down towards the shock, where the potential for contact is worrisome. Droppers tend to be in the neighborhood of 450mm long, so I wanted to find one with minimal drop. Those posts tend to be closer to 400mm. Also I didn’t want to blow the already blown budget, and a really good dropper costs big money.

I found an interesting option that would be an experiment of sorts, and decided to try it: I bought a PNW Components Coast dropper post, with external cable routing. I could have done internal cabling but a cable coming out the bottom hole in the seat tube could once again be a contact risk with the shock.

Why is the Coast an experiment? Because it is a – unique on the market – suspension post as well as a dropper. Advertised motion is 40mm (it can be more) and its a weird choice because this bike has full suspension already. My reasoning behind doing this – and my results – are enough for a full blog post all by themselves so I’ll just say I did it and it worked well.

Dropper post, with wiring thats not too bad; piggybacking onto the brake hose. Ignore that cheapo temporary seat collar.

As a dropper. Jury is still out on whether it is also an effective suspension feature, but it does seem to work for me in an unusual sort of way. Stay tuned for a separate post on this oddball idea and result.

After all was said and done, I did find a way to test whether there was risk of the seatpost hitting the shock: I removed all but about 20 psi of pressure, which let me easily compress the frame by hand, and observe the result. It turns out, for my frame, there is no risk of contact. Perform this check with yours to learn your result.

Seatpost Collar

This one was pretty straightforward, but boy was it frustrating. I have had occasion to lock the bike up outside a store. The Salsa quick release seatpost clamp that came with the frame carried the usual risk: It makes it easy to steal the saddle and post. Since I am using a US$170 dropper and a US$95 saddle. thats worth taking steps to protect.

With a dropper, there is no longer any need for a QR clamp. So time for a fixed collar. I chose a Bike Yoke Squeezy in 35.6mm size, which turns out to be the wrong size thanks to a mistake on my part. Hint: Take the seatpost clamp off and measure under it. Not below it. This frame has two external seatpost diameters, which is invisible if you leave the clamp in place.

Why the Squeezy for a post clamp? It was a whim. The Squeezy is a bit of a unique animal and I wanted to try it out. Its a neat idea and well-made.

But there was that sizing issue, which I was only able to temporarily overcome with some shimming. I ended up finding a basic 34.9mm Axiom seatpost collar in my parts pile that I made work. Its an unremarkable part not really suited to this build. Still, it was handy to just install so I could move on to the next job … and wait for my annoyance at myself to subside so I could spend another US$35 for the correct 35.0mm clamp. Its on. It works. It holds my weight over time with no shifting. It looks great.

The Squeezy defines low profile. Note the very light torque specification. The T25 socket adds a hair of security without requiring an additional tool in my onboard toolbag.

The Wire Harness Tube

This was a unique need for this build. The usual preferred solution of a battery bag in the triangle didn’t work on this frame. Not so great news, as you use the battery bag to hide wires. My best solution to hiding otherwise bare wires was to enclose them in a pipe that more or less matches the frame.

I originally used cheap red PEX pipe purchased locally for about the price of a candy bar. I ended up not being happy with the red color and did a spiral wrap of red silicone tape to get a better match. In a short time it darkened to be a near perfect match to the frame. But it also had a few problems:

Rips like this only get worse with silicone tape, which becomes easier to tear as it ages

The tape was just not durable. I had rips and breaks in it – more than in the picture above . Also, I had cut the pipe a bit too long. When turning the bars to an extreme, the fork poked the top of the tube and pushed it to one side or the other.

Oops. You can see how the fork pushes into the tube when its turned to one side.

The solution was to replace the pipe. I used a length of furniture grade, red 1/2″ PVC – a better red than the PEX came in, so no tape. I had to wait a couple of weeks for it to arrive. Cost was about US$20.

The new pipe’s presentation is a lot cleaner given no need to wrap it in silicone tape. Its also cut shorter this time.

The shorter pipe didn’t need as much in the way of fastening thanks to two things: Wraps of more red tape around it provided sticky bumpers that hold the pipe to the frame under the pressure of the hose clamps and the velcro straps. The biggest benefit was the shorter length preventing any contact from the forks. So there’s no longer something trying to push the tube out of line all the time.

The wire tunnel is not a perfect solution, but the alternative is bare wires and zip ties.

So… to paraphrase George Lucas, a bike build is never finished. It is abandoned. And so, for now at least, we abandon the tinkering, building and perfecting of the Apostate. I’m sure I’ll do something to it again as time passes, but for now its time to just do to it what is meant to be done to a bicycle…

Ride it.

How To Build An Ebike From Scratch: Final Assembly Day

We’re in the final stretch. All of the big stuff is done, except installing the brakes. Today, the work is mostly about tying up loose ends.

Introduction
Step 1: Planning
Step 2: Hunting
Step 3: Tinkering
Step 4: Buying
Step 5: Assembling
Build Day 1
Build Day 2
Build Day 3 (you are here)
Brakes
Working Handlebar Setup
Test Rides
Custom Motor Settings
Finalize Battery Wiring
Grips On – Finalize Handlebars
Step 6: Perfecting
Tools List

Wrapping It Up!

We accomplished a lot yesterday. What do we have left? Only one major component is left to install – the brakes – and then some final mopping up. We’re almost done.

Put On The Brakes (Literally)

We have already completed a part of this job: We put the brake rotors on with the wheels during Day 1. Now, we add the brake calipers that grab those rotors. We’ll mount calipers to the fork in front, and the frame in back, with the brake hose coming up from each caliper to the handlebars, where the levers are attached. This will be a lot simpler than it could be as hydraulic brake kits ordinarily come as a set with everything attached together already.

For this project, we chose a small 160mm rotor on the front wheel and a 180mm for the rear. A given bike could be built with various combinations of rotors. A brake caliper adapter lets a generic brake kit match up to any rotor size. How to pick the proper adapter is a common question, so let’s take a short detour and explain.

How To Pick A Brake Caliper Adapter

For almost all bikes, there are two different types of adapters: IS (International Standard) and Post. I’m going to ignore some of the fringe products like flush-fit, which you’ll probably never see on an ebike conversion/build.

International Standard mounts have two unthreaded M6 bolt holes, (spaced apart 51mm, center to center) facing horizontally, that pass a bolt through into a threaded adapter. The brake caliper then bolts to two top-down, vertically facing holes. Our project bike has a typical rear IS mount. Here it is, both before and after the brake caliper adapter has been installed.

Figure 1: Rear frame IS brake mounts, bare and with adapter installed.

In the right picture above, that is a Magura brand adapter. They handily have the adapter type printed right on them. You can see the model is QM-10, which is not particularly useful here (its an old part number… I dug it out of my parts pile for this build). What IS useful is the size/type designation under it: ISR-180. That stands for an IS mount type, R = Rear and 180 means it fits a 180mm rotor.

The most important takeaway from this tidbit of knowledge is there is a difference between a front and a rear 180mm rotor adapter for IS mounts. The two are not compatible, and if you try to swap a front adapter to the rear, at the very best you are going to get a bad fit to the rotor. At worst the caliper won’t fit over the rotor at all.

Our project’s front fork is a model-year 2000 Marzocchi Bomber Z2 X-Fly. That old fork has (for 2022) a very unusual disk brake adapter for a suspension fork: an IS mount. Almost all modern suspension forks use Post type mounts.

Figure 2: The IS type brake adapter mount on the Apostate’s model-year 2000 Marzocchi front fork.

Here’s a pic from my Smash’s front fork, which is an MRP Ribbon. You can see where the name ‘Post’ comes from as the two mounts look like posts sticking straight out of the fork at a 90-degree angle.

Figure 3: The arrows are pointing to the post mounts on the fork

A Post mount adapter bolts straight down onto the threaded posts, which are spaced 74mm apart (center to center). Typically, a fork has “160mm posts” which means you can use a 160mm rotor with no adapter. I have seen some forks with 180mm posts, which means you don’t need an adapter with a 180mm rotor, but those are rare. Regardless, you want to KNOW what size your posts are if you have them, both front and rear.

Bolt the caliper directly to the posts on the fork. Just like the IS mounts, M6 bolts are used on Post mounts.

Figure 4: This is a Post mount adapter in the rear. The rotor is 203mm.
What Have We Learned?
  • Brake caliper adapters with IS mounts are specific to the front or rear.
  • If the frame or fork has two unthreaded M6 holes that you put a bolt through horizontally inward across the bike’s wheel, with a 51mm distance (center to center) between the two holes, that is an International Standard (IS) mount.
  • If the frame or fork has two threaded holes facing outward (usually that look like two parallel posts) with a 74mm distance (center to center) between them, then that is a Post type mount.
  • Post adapters are unthreaded. IS adapters are threaded.
  • Pick the adapter that is meant for the rotor size, mount type and front/rear axle that matches your wheel.
One More Thing!

As if the above is not enough, there’s one lesson I have learned that has served me well: Buy an adapter made by the same manufacturer who made your brake calipers. A homebrew brake caliper job often involves using washers here and there as spacers/shims to make up for a slightly wrong/bad fit of the caliper to the rotor face.

I have never had to shim a brake setup since I started matching caliper and adapter manufacturers. Here’s the thing: An adapter is often made with the manufacturer’s calipers in mind. So for example, Avid brakes are mounted with semi-hemispherical washers above and below the caliper (this is used to aid caliper alignment to the rotor). The lower washers take up vertical space. That space is accounted for with a slightly lower rise in an Avid adapter.

Try mounting a different manufacturer’s caliper on one – where that caliper was not intended to be spaced with those washers in mind – and it’ll be too short. You’ll need two or three M6 washers (or dedicated brake spacers, which are a precise thickness) between the adapter and the caliper to make up for that difference.

Or use a matching Magura adapter with your Magura caliper and everything bolts directly together with no messing around.

Speaking of which, rotors are by no means manufacturer-specific, but you may see a slight misalignment when mixing rotor and caliper manufacturers. So there is a case to be made for matching the manufacturer throughout the entire system unless you are willing to do some experimentation off on your own You may suffer through a little trial and error, but you may also find a perfect combination, as I think I have (I normally use Tektro TR-17 rotors but not on this particular project).


So, with all that said, for this project bike I need a front (Magura QM-43) 160mm IS mount, and a rear (Magura QM-41) 180mm IS mount.


Bolt the two adapters on, front and rear. Magura specifies 6Nm for the M6 bolts you will use to do this (they should be included with the adapter you buy). Magura adapters include bolts with a Torx T25 head. 6Nm for an M6 is a good number regardless of what brand(s) you buy.

Attach The Calipers And Levers

Once thats done, you are ready to bolt on the brake calipers. Once again, you use M6 bolts, but the standard 6Nm may not be where you want to be on the torque spec. More on that when we tackle caliper alignment below.

Before you do this, you need to spread the pistons inside the caliper so they are fully retracted. Depending on your brakes, you can do this with a screwdriver, or a brake block that came with your brakeset, or both. The actual procedure for this is illustrated in the Filling / Bleeding Video 2 below. You want those pistons spread wide for that first installation. After you have spread the pistons, if you removed the pads (not really necessary if you just used a screwdriver) put them back in.

Now you can mount the caliper. Do NOT torque it down. Thread down the bolts until there is only a very little play in the caliper. It should be able to slide sideways left to right with fingertip pressure. You need to be able to fudge it around a bit in our next step.

The brakes I am using come pre-assembled – the caliper is connected to the brake hose, and the brake hose is connected to the brake lever that goes on your handlebars, so it is a ready-to-run assembly. The brakeset has hydraulic fluid in the lines already and does not need to be bled unless you cut the hoses to fit your bike. This makes initial installation a lot easier.

After mounting the calipers, your next step is to provisionally bolt the brake lever onto the handlebars (don’t worry about routing the hydraulic hose just now. Thats for later). Since brake levers are manufacturer-specific with their own torque settings and bolt sizes (some are M5, most are M6 and the SRAM brakes that came on my Big Fat Dummy were actually an SAE size) I am not going to get into the bolt or torque spec for the lever. Refer to your manual for yours. Just get the lever on in more or less the right place, and only tighten so its barely held in place. You should be able to rotate it on the bars without effort, which you will need to do later on in the day.

Align The Calipers

With the brakes on the bike but not safe for riding just yet, we need to align the caliper so it doesn’t rub on the rotor, which it will when you do an initial install.

Take up the ‘slack’ in the brake pistons

In the auto racing world, brake pads can wind up getting spaced away from the rotor thanks to the torsion that comes with sharp curves and high speed flexing of the suspension. This gives you something called ‘knock back‘. The cure for knock back is to do some gentle brake pedal depression in advance of that corner you are rushing up to. This tee’s up the pads so they are right up there with the rotor again. Otherwise, your pedal goes to the floor and you need a change of underwear.

We artificially induced a form of brake pad knock back when we spread the pads during the caliper installation. Now that the caliper is on, we need to undo that. The procedure is the same as with a race car: Squeeze the brake lever a few times, and don’t worry that it goes all the way down to the handlebars on the first couple of pulls. Keep squeezing and proper lever travel will eventually come back.

NOTE:  What follows is the 'brake whisperer' version of aligning a bicycle brake caliper.  This is a lot more effort than most people go to, but it will yield perfect alignment on even marginal brakes, barring some sort of mechanical defect (like a warped rotor).  It is almost a you-have-to-feel-it-to-get-it technique.  I will try my best to write it down coherently so you can replicate it yourself.  Here goes!
Rear Caliper

Lets align the back wheel first. Toolwise, you need to keep within arm’s reach whatever wrench you need to tighten down the brake caliper. Usually that is an M6 hex key wrench, or a Torx T25.

Either spin the rear wheel by hand or use the crankarms. Get an earful as to how much misalignment there is (your ears will tell you how much real quick). Now grab and depress the brake lever to clamp and stop the wheel. Keep holding the lever down so the brake continues to hold the wheel. Since we left the caliper so it had only light play and could move freely, that caliper is now sitting very close to its natural, proper alignment, and is holding itself there thanks to your hand clamping the brake lever.

Now pick up that wrench you set aside with your other hand. While still holding the brake lever, gently tighten first one bolt, then the other so now the brake caliper is just barely held in place. It is imperative you apply only the gentlest amount of torque to that wrench, because even a bit too much will cause the caliper to move and spoil your alignment.

When done with two gentle tugs on that wrench, spin the wheel again. Does the wheel come really close to rotating without any touch to the rotor? Since we only barely tightened it, you can now move first one side and then the other of the caliper side to side, just a hair, with your fingertips to try and eliminate all contact. The slight tension you put on the caliper via the bolt should still allow you to move it, and that movement will now stick. Fiddle with it front and back, gently, side to side until you have the brake caliper in the perfect spot, so it does not rub at any point in the wheel revolution.

If we have the caliper in a final position, since we have barely any tension on the brake caliper bolts, we need to – again, very slowly and gently – apply more torque, alternating from one bolt to the other. It is a good idea to physically hold the caliper and adapter with your thumb and forefinger, clamping it in place with your fingers while you do small wrench turns – maybe 1/16th of a turn or less (!) at a time at each go. After each adjustment, spin the wheel and see whether the caliper shifted a hair in the wrong direction. If so, try and correct with your thumb and forefinger, or back the bolt off just a touch until you can make an adjustment.

You may have to undo and restart the process a few times. It is not at all unusual for the caliper to rotate on its horizontal axis a hair – even on a caliper not using hemispherical washers. Don’t be discouraged by this. Just take it into account as you try (and likely retry) to get the caliper tightened down sufficiently so it is in place, not moving and not rubbing. Do it precisely enough and you will find that sweet spot.

When you do find it, that bolt is almost certainly nowhere near the 6Nm that is typical for a tight M6 bolt. It will be much less. I do not try to tighten the calipers down that tight. Applying torque like that makes it almost impossible to align the caliper with the kind of fine control I want. I have never had a caliper loosen so, anecdotally, you should be fine too.

Its worth mentioning that this procedure is being used with Magura brakes along the lines of what you see in Figure 4 above: No washers, no spacers. Just direct part-to-part contact. And I am often using 2.3mm thick rotors, which are very thick. Even thicker than the 2.0mm rotors Magura recommends for their calipers, which are in turn thicker than the 1.8mm rotors that are the standard for most of the rest of the industry. So this procedure is used to dial in a very tight system that has very little wiggle room in it. Still, it will work great for any system if you are willing to put the time in. And once its done, its done. It will survive wheel removal and reattachment just fine.

Front Caliper

Aligning the front caliper is the same process as aligning the back. Only one additional observation is necessary that applies to both wheels: given the low torque on the caliper used here, you could be forgiven for coating the threads with Vibra Tite gel (NOT Loc-Tite). I use it if a tube of the stuff is within reach. Otherwise not. So its not something you have to do, but it can’t hurt, right? Don’t lose any sleep if you forget to use the stuff.

Route The Brake Hoses

This is effectively the identical process that was described in Day 2 when we routed the shifter cable. Once again the exact process varies greatly by bike, and you’ve already seen how I am going about it on the Day 2 build. So we won’t re-cover the same ground. Below in Figure 5 is a pic showing the anchor points for both brake hoses. Numbers 1 through 3 are identical to the shifter cable that is on the other side. #4 is a simple zip tie wrapped and anchored by crossing the V-brake post. Modern front forks will have some sort of dedicated, manufactured anchor point at roughly the same spot.

Be sure you leave enough slack in the front so there is adequate room to turn the handlebars to their fullest extent without any tugging on the brake hoses. Need an example? Look at another finished bike 😀 . The hoses need to be long but not too long.

The picture below shows the temporary brake routing I used in the first few weeks as initially I did not shorten the brake hoses.

NOTE:  When routing the hoses, they will be longer than necessary.  Route them so the excess hose is sticking out in front of the bike.  From the caliper forward/upward to the handlebars, the hoses should be tied down as you expect them to stay.
Figure 5: Brake cable anchor points.

Shorten The Brake Hoses

This is luckily one of those times when a video is the best tutorial, and we have a great one here. Again this is tailored to Magura brakes, but the principles hold across all brake marques. Its only 3 1/2 minutes long so watch it now:

VIDEO 1: Specific to Magura brakes, but still a good tutorial on snipping and shortening a hydraulic brake hose.

Here’s what I do differently: I use a different hose cutter as shown in the tool list. I also would put on the cable molding cover, nut and olive BEFORE I stuff on the metal hose barb. The reason for this is when you put the barb in, it often spreads the housing of the cable just enough to make it impossible to thread those fittings over the now-finished hose end. So just put them all on before pushing the end barb in.

My treasured needle driver. Makes a PITA job so simple its worth the $26.

Additionally, I use the specialty tool (brake hose needle driver) that carefully drives the end pin into the hose. Its a lot easier than hammering in the pin. Video 2 makes this process look easy as pie and it is seldom that. If you don’t want to spend the $26 for a specialty tool, yes you will get the job done by using the method shown in the video. For me, I never want to fight with a hose barb again and I’m glad I sprang for the needle driver.

Bleed The Lines

Once you have cut down the hoses, you have air in the hydraulic lines, which is very bad. You have to bleed the brake lines to get the air out. Here are two videos that show ‘the long way’. This is how you should do it at least the first time after cutting the hoses down. I am also showing you Video 3, which is much less messy than the ‘official’ instructions in Video 2. It is worth mentioning that the instructor in Video 3 is a Magura tech specialist. So its not like he is breaking any rules.

VIDEO 2: This is the ‘long’ way to bleed your hydraulic brakes, minus one trick to minimize fluid loss.

The only issue with this next method is you have to remove the caliper, which means you have to realign it per the procedure above.

VIDEO 3: This is the same ‘long way’ to bleed hoses, but with an added trick – remove and raise the caliper to the level of the brake lever.

And now for the short way. Use this method for a touch-up bleed down the road. You can probably get 90% of the efficacy received from a full bleed by doing it this way, which is much simpler and does not involve disconnecting brake lines and spilling fluid. Its also faster.

Note also that when I do ‘the long way’ I just use a syringe stuffed into the reservoir hole like is done below and do not bother with the expensive bleed bottle that is used in Videos 2 and 3 above. I use just a syringe with a hose and screw-on tip, a syringe reservoir and a bottle of fluid. No need for any fancy bleed kit.

VIDEO 4: Yet Another Brake Bleed Video

Handlebars!

Its time to start getting the handlebars set up in their final format. Now that the brakes are on, we’ve pretty much got a working bicycle here and all thats left is some tidying up. The only thing we aren’t going to do is put the grips on, and thats because the grips I put on often have to be cut off. So I want to wait until the last second to take that final step. Everything else should be put in its final position.

Brake Levers

These are what you position first. Nothing is more important than being able to easily reach your brakes without having to work at it. So having them set up right is Priority #1. They go closest to the grips. Always. And everything is fit around them. You don’t move your brakes to a sub-optimal position to make up for anything else. It is done the other way around.

Shifter

The next most important item on the bars is the shifter. Here again, you must have unrestricted accessibility. You also don’t want to have to change your grip to use it, so the shifter should be directly up against the brake lever. On an ebike, typically you have only a right-side shifter (for the rear cluster).

Throttle

If there’s a shifter taking up the space adjacent to the brake lever on the right side, that leaves the left side for the throttle. I am assuming a thumb throttle here and will not get into the nuances of a grip or half-grip throttle as I never use them, so I don’t have much to say for them or about them.

One nuance of a thumb throttle that is often overlooked is ‘clocking’ the lever. You want to position the lever so when it is fully engaged, the tip of your thumb is comfortably holding the handlebars, and preferably the paddle is fully extended straight down. The reason for this? When you hit a pothole or similar road imperfection, if you are putting any sort of weight or grip on that fully depressed throttle paddle, your hand/thumb will bounce down thanks to gravity and inertia… and can snap that paddle clean off as a result.

If you clock the throttle so it is pointing down when fully engaged, then your body’s reaction to a terrain impact will just cause your thumb to slip off. The throttle snaps back to zero input. Maybe a bit annoying to have to re-engage, but nothing is broken. Maybe for you straight down is too much. Experiment with it to find out what works for your preferred grip on the bars, while keeping this fail-safe technique in mind.

Once that is done, this is what the bike looks like now.

BAM! This sucker is ready to ride, finally.

Whats with the handlebar bag?

Well, in addition to being a handy way to store wallet, phone and keys, it also hides any excess wiring that I can’t easily get rid of. In this case, even though the wiring harness I am using is a little shorter than normal, it is still probably an extra foot longer than it needs to be. That slack has to get taken up somewhere. Likewise, there are wires connecting to the left brake, the right brake, the display and the throttle. In addition to the usual shifter plus right and left brake hoses. Thats a lotta wires.

I have found a handlebar bag – especially this particular molle deployment bag I am using here – is great at hiding that rats’ nest in addition to being a convenient dump pouch for what is usually in my pockets. The molle loops on the bag are perfect for running excess wire so it is literally integrated into the bag’s surface. In these early build pictures, I am using a leftover brown bag I had in my parts pile. A black bag hides black wires running along its surface much more effectively, and I switched to one later on for that reason.

Test Ride Time

Go on. You’ve earned it. Go for a ride. If you’ve done your job as described here, its ready. Sure, the grips aren’t on yet, but you can hop on and ride around the neighborhood. Start out slow. Engage the pedal assist. Give it some throttle. Figure out how it handles, keep things mellow. Oh, and wear gloves and a helmet. Some of my worst mishaps occurred on test rides that were supposed to be a 5 mph toodle around the neighborhood cul-de-sac and ended up with a faceplant. Right now you are a test pilot. Dress like one. At least a little.

Tailor The Motor Settings

This procedure will vary depending on your chosen motor. For this project, we are using a BBSHD and I have that platform down pat. I know exactly what settings I want and I have a tool to change those settings that I can plug right in.

Here’s the process I use. Once you’ve read thru this article, follow on to the sequel linked at its page top. I plugged in the Version 2 screens in that second article on this bike in a couple of minutes (shown below). These are the most neutered pedal assist settings I have in my toolbag. The gentlest stuff you can find while still retaining the ability to lay on full motor power with the throttle if its ever needed. Look to the linked articles for sterner stuff.

Clean Up The Wiring

OK so you were having fun riding your new bike around. Unfortunately there’s a bit more drudgery to get through. You need to finalize the battery wiring … at least you do on this bike because everything is out in the open. So we need to do something short, strong, neat and tidy that is also color matched so it doesn’t stick out.

Figure 6: The finalized exterior wiring. Bottom wire is AC Power to the motor. Top wire is battery charger input.

Here’s what we are looking at in Figure 6 above. First: the power lead that sends battery power to the motor. A BBSHD comes with two fairly long (roughly 35cm), separate black and red 12-gauge wires, each terminated in an Anderson Powerpole connector. While Anderson connectors are adequate, they are susceptible to water and far from your best choice, which is generally considered to be a water-resistant, spark-resistant XT90S.

It so happens the wireless Luna Wolf pack I am using also has a female XT90S built into itself, so the decision to use the more capable male XT90 is made for us by the battery.

The job was to measure thrice and cut once. I had to shorten the power cables running out of the motor just right so a similarly shortened 10-gauge XT90 pigtail could wrap around the frame at just the right length to be snug, yet removable without being so tight it would break something.

Remember:  The tutorial on making safe, reliable crimp connections is here and gives you complete details, tools and instructions on doing this exact sort of work.

Since this power cable is in the worst possible place for collecting grit, grime and water, I went overboard on the protection for the connection. I used 3:1 marine adhesive butt-end connectors and surrounded the connection area with thick marine 3:1 adhesive heat shrink. This effectively waterproofed and armor plated the connection. I topped it off with a hand-wrapped spiral of frame-matching red silicone tape to lower the visibility of the thick wire. This also adds more protection and waterproofing. If I could have found a reasonable way to use the same red PEX or PVC tubing to further armor the connection I would have done that too. But as it sits, if something gets through all that its probably going to destroy the bike, too.

The battery cable was made almost the same way. Two short 12 gauge male and female XT60 pigtails were crimped together with marine heat shrink butt end connectors to make a short extension cable. No 3:1 heat shrink this time as I need this cord to be flexible. The loose end that will be attached to the battery charger is tucked into the velcro strap that is helping to lock down the pack onto the frame. What you can’t see in Figure 6 is the open female end of the extension cord is further covered with a waterproof cap made to fit the XT60 like these (also widely available on Ebay). I finished the job with a matching, protective wrap of red silicone tape.

Put The Grips On

My chosen silicone grips are 50/50 in terms of being removable. Half the time they have to be cut off, so they only go on at the last possible moment. That moment is now. We’ve got everything installed, laid out, positioned and generally nitpicked so we can put the grips on without worrying we have to take something back off. Further, we purchased as many parts as possible that use clamshell type attachment (the one exception is the throttle) so those items can be removed without also having to remove the grips.

For silicone grips like those I am using (Wolf Tooth Fat Paw), I have found some drug store denatured alcohol inside and on the grip is the way to go. Here is a video that shows removal and installation of a variety of grip types using various methods, including the use of alcohol.

Video 5: Get a Grip!

My chosen end caps are the compression-plug type that screw on and off. Also, if you look at the final pics you will see I am using bar end extensions for some grip variety and a bit of added certainty my hands won’t come off the bars in extreme circumstances. When setting up placement of my shifter, throttle, brakes and grips I took into account the extra 1.5cm or so I would need to fit these extensions onto my 760mm handlebars. In fact, I chose bars a little wider than I like because I knew I would have these ends on, which effectively shorten the bars by placing the grips a bit further in.

Figure 7: The handlebars. Note the little lever hiding in between the throttle and brake lever in the left photo. We’ll get to what that is in the next ‘Perfecting’ post.

And we’re done. Holy crap. We’re done! We did it. We made a bike.

Epilogue

(link coming soon to “Perfecting”)