While earning, or enduring, her Ph.D in Environmental Life Sciences, Courtney Currier began spending more time on the bike as a way to further connect to the places she was studying, and as a way to just spend time outside during the very inside days of the pandemic. In a very real sense, her time on the bike was inspiring and she began making art again. Building up and custom painting a unicorn fixed gear commuter brought everything full circle! Below, as she plans for what comes next in life post-Ph.D, Courtney reflects on bikes and joy, along with Tobias Feltus’ overview of the build process.
I recently earned a Ph.D. in Environmental Life Sciences. My research examines how desert plants and soils respond to precipitation extremes, like drought and flooding. While the choice to pursue a Ph.D. grants the privilege to follow one’s curiosity—to answer the most pressing questions of our time freely—it is often accompanied by self-deprecation and burnout, especially near the end of the doctoral journey. I remember being a bright-eyed first-year doctoral student meeting some jaded and very tired sixth-year students, thinking to myself that my passion and energy simply would never dwindle like theirs did! Humility sure is a sneaky teacher.
Part 3 of the very official WikiHow “How to Survive Graduate School” Guide suggests “leaving school at school” and “allow time for fun.” For example, lean into hobbies. I love to paint watercolors, but the prospect of sitting at another desk with the requirement to concentrate on a task felt like more work. And, as someone who tends towards unnecessary perfectionism in her work, the idea of art as a form of relaxation just seemed to be a paradox. To unwind, I instead opted for low-metabolic activities on the couch or barstool.
However, these habits just did not jive well with the 2020 global pandemic. Like so many others, I was confined to my apartment for work. Moving ten feet over to the couch to watch TV after a long day hunched over my laptop in the kitchen seemed objectively depressing at times. I needed to get outside! The bicycle became an important tool for me to cope with the tribulations of graduate school and reconnect with nature beyond the Ph.D. field work, beyond the walls of my apartment.
Equipped with a gorgeous and highly versatile Crust gravel bike that I built, biking in desert landscapes suddenly gave me a new appreciation for the ecologies I studied throughout my Ph.D. For example, I found new perspectives and happiness while riding the Monumental Loop with my friend and fellow Ph.D. candidate Sam Jordan. Notably, the Monumental Loop circumnavigates our field site at the Jornada Basin, north of Las Cruces, NM, and provided for us a therapeutic reflection of our time and efforts there.
By adopting some healthier physical and mental habits, I also gathered energy to return to art. When creative inspiration struck, I started to intentionally follow that call and witnessed my evolution as an artist. Simultaneously, the anxiety and internal stress—souvenirs acquired during grad school—also started to calm. Inspiration can manifest in many ways. Most directly, I painted the beautiful landscapes around me in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts.
My gravel bike also brought me to unique bike communities in the southwest, and inspiration became further activated by events like Sarah Swallow’s Ruta del Jefe. The bicycle is a tool to traverse and enjoy landscapes, and so the purpose of Ruta del Jefe was to raise awareness and funds for pressing humanitarian and environmental issues in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands region, where so many cyclists enjoy the spectacular Patagonian grasslands and smooth, packed gravel roads.
Related to these important initiatives, I made paintings for an art initiative called Thirst for Humanity that raised funds for local agencies that provide legal and humanitarian aid to migrants. This pushed my artistic focus into even more intentional topics than the dreamy transcendentalism of landscapes alone.
A Different Kind of Bike Build
Sometimes, inspiration also strikes in rather unexpected ways.
“Is that a… unicorn vomiting a rainbow?!” A question I receive often regarding the head badge affixed to my 1991 bonded metal Koga Miyata; the answer is “Yes, that is indeed a unicorn vomiting a rainbow.” Followed up by “Where did you get that?!” I am so pleased to share the amazing mixed-metal creations by Jen Green if you have not seen her work! With refreshed motivation to stay sane while I finished school, I merged my loves for art, ecology, and bicycles. This unicorn head badge became the cornerstone for a side project that would provide the perfect amount of whimsy to distract me from the ennui of my last Ph.D. dissertation chapter. What started as a “simple” bar bike endeavor became a symbol of both fantastical escapism and self-love.
I wanted to build a simple fixed-gear bike with a streamlined and colorful look. One night while imbibing at the local Tempe dive, the Palo Verde Lounge, fellow cyclist Mike Morgan (and bartender at the famous “Dirty Verde”) strongly encouraged me to find a frame with rear-facing dropouts if I’d be riding fixed. The challenge was that I wanted a vintage steel frame, with a pretty crowned fork and cool seat stay angles and whatnot. Many folks considered such a frame a unicorn; I’d never find one reasonably priced.
And yet, that same night while doom-scrolling on the couch, I came across an eBay page with bikes aplenty. A small, white 1970’s steel frame with rear-facing dropouts caught my eye. It was perfect. I e-mailed the seller, a nice stranger who kindly responded to my ramblings about unique bikes and car-less lifestyles and gave me a deal. The frame was owned by a woman who raced at Marymoor in the ’70s/’80s, which made it extra badass. And thus, the unicorn frame materialized to match its head badge, and I immersed myself in a new artistic outlet.
New-to-me frame in hand, I stripped the bike to the raw metal. Amalfi Powder Coating in northwest Phoenix gladly took the job. I love these kinds of places; they’ll sandblast pretty much anything and were politely inquisitive about my next steps. I consulted friend and artist Lance Turner about paint, and he directed me to Spray.Bike. They have thorough instructions and a trove of primers, colors, and topcoats to choose from.
I hung my bike in my apartment complex courtyard, applied a coat of the Frame Builder’s Metal Primer, and, after 48 hours of drying, lightly wet sanded the frame using 220-grit sandpaper and again with 320-grit.
It was time for the color. My favorite flower is the desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea spp.), which became the inspiration for my bike’s color palette. I took a recent visit to the banks of the Salt River near Phoenix, AZ, and was absolutely floored by the carpets of globemallow that covered the normally bare-soil patches of ground. Our desert ecosystem became the caricature of a jungle due to an unusually rainy 2023 winter, a special treat for an ecologist and outdoor enthusiast like me!
I chose Peacock and Milan Celadon 1 for the frame color and was ambitious enough to try a fade. I chose accents of orange and pink, an homage to globemallow flower petals, along with splashes of other colors reminiscent of dreamy desert sunsets and unicorns to perfectly complement the green frame.
The paint is advertised as a dry matte powder coating, and it really did feel like a powder coat in a can! If you do this, do not forget to wear a respirator or appropriate mask. Application was even and easy when following the recommended distances of 2-4”.
To create the fade, it was important to isolate the transition spots between the two colors. I scrounged up as much spare newspaper as possible to block off parts of the frame I wanted to avoid speckling with the minty Milan color. I should have newspapered my whole courtyard. Luckily, the green paint clandestinely looked like moss all over the walkways.
With the Milan can, I started in the solid mint area with regular pressure on the can nozzle and worked up to the color transition to Peacock. At that transition, I steadily pulled the can farther away, so only about half or less of the paint reached the frame. A smooth and slow flick of the wrist is a motion that worked well for this part.
Finally, I allowed the frame to dry for at least one full day, although Spray.Bike says 2 hours are enough to cure. My favorite part was covering the entire frame in Keirin Paint (Flake Multi). Possessing a highly controversial stance, I believe everything should be covered in sparkles! I took my freshly painted frame over to Tobias Feltus at Rage Cycles to brew up even more magic.
The Build Process (By Tobias Feltus of Rage Cycles)
Sparkles? It is worthy of note that I have been referring to this specific kind of sparkle as “unicorn fart” for a good number of years, so the head badge resonates well.
The first challenges that the bike threw at me were measured as the 110 mm rear hub spacing, and the 26.4 mm seat post. No one seems to make a 110 mm rear track hub, so my options were to get an old hub, or try re-spacing a new one which ideally uses cartridge bearings and a fully threaded axle.
When I was ordering the Velocity rims, I asked if they thought their track hub could be re-spaced and—after being left on hold for a few minutes—I was told that it can’t officially, but maybe. Re-spacing any hub involves rummaging through bins of lock-nuts to find some parts that have the right thread pitch. It worked. The rest of the wheel build was straightforward: I had Courtney look at color sequences using Industry Nine’s “anolab”, which I then transferred to the spoke holes on the rims with a permanent marker.
I like to build my wheels with the slimmest round silver spokes available, and I use linseed oil on the threads. I like the weight and how the structure of thinner spokes draws the stress away from weak points, and I dislike how most spoke preps contain ammonia which inevitably starts galvanic corrosion of the nipples. The extrusion for Velocity rims is made somewhere here in the Phoenix Valley: Velocity is one of two alloy rim manufacturers to have their whole manufacturing based in the USA, as far as I know. Velocity rims build up really well, and I have been using the A23 tubeless on my commuter for a couple of years with no issues, so I know from personal experience that these wheels will be stellar.
Prepping the frame, I discovered that the isopropanol we use in the shop dissolved part of the paint system, so I had Courtney topcoat the frame again with Rustoleum clear lacquer (the kind you put on patio furniture). This could have been disastrous cleaning up the epoxy around the head badge (which inevitably will ooze, and only cleans easily with isopropyl).
The main challenge in the build turned out to be the headset, which took several attempts over a couple of weeks to get under control. The crown race was extremely tight for what it measured, which equated to a long battle, and ultimately needed massaging with a micro-file to de-burr the situation. This only revealed that the first two headsets ordered had a stack that was way too high for the very short steerer on the fork.
The technical drawings for the Tange Levin NJS headset are off by over 3 mm, leaving no threads for the locknut. I ended up having to use a Tange CDS from my parts bin to get the bike rolling. I fail to understand why headsets fight me more often than not on 1” threaded frames, though I am sure the industry is rolling its eyes and reminding me that they are now dinosaurs, remnants of a pre-millennium era… Just like me, which is why my stable has 9 (complete) bikes with 1” steerers, though two are actually threadless.
The finishing touches (bar tape, pink housing, green cable ends) helped tie the whole project down to reality. I am extremely appreciative of my boss for not complaining too much about the time spent on the project: he knows it is the kind of build that I really enjoy, partly because of those very challenges that make it difficult, and partly because of the marriage between new and old tech. He has owned Rage Cycles since the turn of the millennium, he understands the magic of a true custom build, and threaded headsets.
My journey with bikes started to become serious with my (now) wife, Lauren Hayes, and I making the decision to go on a 3-week tour, and to do this on 1960s Moulton frames, which of course I modified to take an 8 speed cassette (re-spacing MTB hubs, and lacing them to 16” hoops), amongst other things. The trend for taking the easiest and most modern route is deeply rooted, my one car is a ‘94 Isuzu Trooper which I maintain as an adventure machine, and I regularly use cameras made over the last 60 years with equal frequency.
As I am typing this I just completed exchanges with people in Mexico, Belize and the Dominican Republic using HAM radio and a digital mode called FT8, using an Arduino based radio which I have heavily modified. I (Tobias Feltus) commute to work on a 1989-ish Ciocc, singlespeed, which is running tubeless Vittoria 700×28 tires, a Brooks Swallow and a Portland Design Works “Takeout” basket for my lunch, which I ceremoniously prepare every morning. The commute is 8 ½ miles (13.5 km) each way, and my route evolves to minimize contact with motorized traffic. My serious side resides in a rarely-updated blog called The Weight Weenus and—on that note—I have succeeded in opening and closing with the mention of farts.
Doing a Ph.D. is a lot like going for a long bike ride: it’s a pain in the ass. And yet, both labors of love leave you with an enormous sense of accomplishment. And, like my degree, this bike build could not have been completed without help from friends. As I wrap up this chapter of my life, I am so excited to carry a piece of the beautiful southwest deserts of North America with me to the shores of the North Atlantic.
It’s funny how sentimental we can become about objects… when I look down at the whir of colors flashing from my new wheels, the lovingly applied paint, and Tobias’ thoughtful customizations, I truly feel the joy of finishing my Ph.D. marked by the joy of finishing and riding this bike.
Fork: Tange (probably original to frame, with extended braces on the inside of the blades)
Frame Color: Spray.Bike Peacock, Milan Celadon 1, and Keirin Paint (Multi Flake)
Rims: Velocity A23
Tires: Vittoria Rubino Pro
Spokes: Sapim Laser, Pro Wheel Builder nipples in pink, orange, gold, light green, green, turquoise, blue, and purple.
Front Hub: Velocity
Rear Hub: Velocity (reduced from 120 mm to 110 mm)
Saddle: Brooks B17
Seatpost: Kalloy Uno Advanced Project
Crankset: Sugino RD2
Tape: Snack.Bike Tropical Sherbert