Friday I spent the day behind the scenes at San Jose Trek photographing another meticulous bike build. This time it was owner Bill Ruffner putting together a beautiful 54cm 2008 Madone 5.2 for San Jose Trek's inventory manager and race team member, Kelly. While I got set up with the camera, Bill was finishing removing the Dura-Ace componentry from Kelly's "old" 6.9 SSL for transfer to the new frame. The 6.9 SSL still has plenty of life as a backup training bike before it gets put out to pasture as a fixie or singlespeed. Ultimately both Bill and Kelly are planning Project One bikes (Trek's expanded custom component/paint program) when 6.9s become available with the 2009 Dura-Ace 7900 gruppo later in the year. That may be a carrot I can't resist, we'll see.
Up in the loft that houses the store's four tech stations, Bill was out of the immediate line of fire from the sales floor. That didn't mean there wasn't a steady stream of questions, visitors and good-natured insults trying to break his concentration but the former ace pitcher knows how to focus on the strike zone and still keep tabs on the runner at first. No one stole second, and the staff handled all the ground balls during the nine-inning build.
Once the SSL had surrendered her parts, all carefully arrayed on the workbench, it was time to unwrap the gleaming Carrera Blue 5.2. Even wheelless in the workclamp the frame looked fast thanks to the beautiful profiles of the OCLV BLACK carbon tubes. From the headtube to the bottom bracket the Madone downtube is a shape-shifting masterpiece, the toptube/seatmast to seatstay transition has the taught grace of an archer's bow at full draw and the integrated seat mast provides the benediction. Amen.
Bill spent ten minutes carefully cleaning the paint of extraneous decals, removing the bottle cage bolts and critically inspecting the basics before putting wrench to frame. It was 9:15 am, an hour and three quarters before Trek San Jose officially opened for business but the day was already well underway. A familiar tap on the downstairs glass signaled UPS had arrived with fifteen packages, most of which were bikes that would need assembly before they could be displayed, sold or delivered. Bill shifted into receiving mode for three minutes, taking a quick mental inventory while chatting with the driver. Staff started to arrive, by bicycle of course, as he reappeared and started in on the Madone drivetrain.
The 2008 Madone 5.2 Pro is available stock with Ultegra SL and Bontrager components from San Jose Trek.
Bill's been doing this for a long time. His parents Bill Snr. and Barbara Ruffner started the business in the early 70s and he's been building bikes since he was a kid, before he hit the books after school there were always bikes to be assembled in the garage. "Get to it son."
To hear Bill tell it, his dad was a hard taskmaster who set the assembly bar very high. Nowadays Bill Snr has mellowed considerably (they always do when they become grandfathers) but the spark he put in his son to do things right, still burns bright.
First up, Bill roughly positioned and clamped the 7800 front derailleur to the seat tube and then set about prepping the Madone's enormous bottom bracket shell for the cranks. After inserting the nesting alloy tubes that pass through the bottom bracket from either side, Bill simply pressed the bearings and Shimano-specific spacers into Trek's Precision Fit Sockets, net-molded right into the frame itself – no external bearing cups, no special tools required. Something worth considering if you're a racer contemplating a drivetrain overhaul on the motel room floor the night before a race. Chances are you'll only ruin one bathroom towel. Rumor has it that Trek's engineers consulted with Motel industry cleaning staff while engineering the new BB design.
The 7800 Hollowtech cranks with Kelly's Speedplay pedals "present and correct" just slid into place. With crank arm bolts tightened on the non-drive side, Bill fine tuned the front derailleur position and the powerplant spun freely, ready for action. He then mounted the rear brake mechanism at the base of the webbed seatstay bridge that flows out of the Madone's seat tube.
Using the measurements he recorded from the SSL, Bill carefully mocked up the front end and called Kelly over for a consultation before trimming the E2 aluminum steerer in the Bontrager Race X Lite fork. Sometimes a second opinion is critical. That's true for steerers and doctors.
Six years ago Bill discovered he had cancer no thanks to the first two doctors who wrote off his symptoms as training related. Sure that he knew his own body and something more serious was at work, Bill persisted until a third doctor delivered the news he really didn't want to hear – it was cancer. Fortunately, he'd caught it early, it was operable and hadn't spread. They cut it out and he's here fit and healthy to tell about it, raise his family and race his bike. You go through an experience like that and it puts a lot of things in perspective. As Lance said "It's not about the bike"
Confident he and Kelly were on the same page, Bill cut and deburred the steerer tube. As a last detail before it went into the frame and received spacers and stem, the chamfered edge got a little cosmetic touchup with a Sharpie. The perfect positioning of the stack topped by a Bontrager carbon plug might have shown a hair of that edge, and that wouldn't cut it with any generation of the Ruffners.
Descending chip and seal at more than 50 mph is not the place for surprises or the faint hearted. A good race bike has to track perfectly and that starts with a rock solid connection between stem and bars. Alloy bar meet four-bolt alloy stem. The bar, taken from the SSL with levers attached was still taped. When Shimano's new 7900 group appears, Dura-Ace will support hidden cable routing and that hot-swappable efficiency will be lost to the next generation of racers. Bill took a lot of time with the front end: ensuring carbon spacers were logo aligned; bolts were evenly torqued to spec; and the bars were square to the frame. He mounted the front brake caliper.
Wheels were next. Bill would have preferred a set of Bontrager Aeolus clinchers but stoically mounted Kelly's Zipp 404 rear wheel. A quick check with Park's DAG 1 (Derailleur Alignment Gauge) confirmed the derailleur hanger was true, so it was on with the Dura-Ace rear derailleur mechanism. Back to the front of the bike, the front wheel went on and this gave Bill the true measure of front end alignment. Another round of inspection, tweaking and tightening of headset and stem ensued until he had it dialed in to his satisfaction.
I'll spare some of the blow-by-blow details here. The front brake cable run was first, followed by the installation of the cable guide below the bottom bracket, and the rear brake run. Bill took special care with the length of cable housing running from the port where the cable emerges on the top tube to the adjuster on the brake mechanism. Just the right amount would ensure the cable pulled cleanly through the housing. Same with the small loop from the drive-side chainstay to the rear derailleur. I got the sense Bill has this curve imprinted in long-term memory. Since this bike was going to be raced, no barrel adjuster.
It's interesting how the build sequence alternates between static and dynamic. With the cable running to the rear derailleur, Bill threaded the Dura-Ace chain, popped in the master link and brought the drivetrain to life. Idiosyncratically he made the first rough adjustments in cable tension and trimmed the cable... another mechanic might have left more awaiting final adjustment. He mumbled something about extra cable getting caught in the wheel and I had the feeling this was another Ruffner lesson learned years ago from Bill Snr. I'm still using my dad's Aqua Velva aftershave, old habits are hard to break.
Continuing with the drivetrain, Bill fished the front derailleur cable through the frame and then threaded a rubber grommet over the cable and into the exit hole in the carbon – a little protection against the elements in this exposed area. He took a few minutes shifting both front and back derailleurs aggressively, listening-to as much as looking-at the shifting. He wanted a little cable stretch before locking things down. Kelly would be racing the bike the next day.
The pace in the shop below was busy. I'm surprised this many people were shopping for bicycles on a weekday, but then I was here taking the day off to photograph a bicycle being built. I concluded they had their priorities right. At this point there wasn't much left to do on the Madone. Bill fixed the carbon-railed Aliante saddle to the Madone's elegant seat mast cap, adjusted the seat height to the numbers from the SSL and tightened it down secure and level. The two Bontrager carbon cages were bolted down. Computer and speed sensor zipped to stem and fork and then it was down to the mirrored fitting center for a look at Kelly on the bike.
Kelly peddled for a minute while Bill produced the fit protractor and checked a couple of angles, but there really was no need, Bill's eyes already told him this was good. Bill was happy, Kelly was happy – bring on the competition.