Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Getting a Custom Bicycle. Part I: Why?

It is still winter, and writing post after post complaining about the cold can get rather tiresome. So it seems like a good time for a series on custom bicycles. This series will consist of multiple parts and will describe my take on the process of getting a custom bicycle from start to finish. In writing this, I hope to benefit both the persons who are considering custom bicycles and the framebuilders who make custom bicycles for a living.

[Royal H. mixte frame, image by Eric Baumann]

The first question I want to raise, is that of why. Why would you want to spend the money on a custom built bicycle, when the stores are now full of bikes that are getting nicer and more practical, and when there are vintage bicycles to be bought on the cheap? Here are the three main reasons I can think of:

1. The kind of bicycle you want is not available in stores.
This can mean many things, ranging from the basic form you want the bicycle to be, to its geometry, to more decorative issues.

For example: If you want a lugged steel touring bicycle, your choices for ready-made frames are limited to Rivendell and Velo Orange. If none of their models appeal to you, then going custom may be the only option. And although it may seem that vintage bicycles are available, it is actually quite difficult to find one with a comfortable touring geometry. Most bicycles from the 1970s- early 80s have fairly steep geometry and narrow tire clearance, do not do too well with a front load, and are more sporty than comfortable. Sure, you can set it as a goal to hunt around for a true vintage touring bike in your exact size - but not everyone is willing or able to dedicate the energy and time required for this. And if you are a woman looking for a true touring mixte, then it is more difficult still. Going custom allows you to specify exactly the kind of bicycle you want.

2. You are very tall, very short, or have unusual proportions.
Even if the type of bicycle you want is available retail, the sizes in which it comes may not accommodate your height or proportions. If you have long legs and a short torso, or the reverse, it can be difficult to find a bicycle that fits properly. And if you are very short, then adult bicycles might simply not exist in your size. A custom builder can build a frame in your exact size and tweak the bicycle's geometry to fit your specific anatomy. To a greater extent, this category also applies to people with special needs or handicaps - for whom bicycles with custom features or proportions could be designed.

3. You want a bespoke bicycle that is uniquely yours.
Maybe it is a special occasion in your life, or you are crazy about bicycles, or you are simply a person who likes every important item they own to be bespoke. Some people dream of that perfect wedding dress that is handmade by Polish lacemakers in a remote village, out of silk that comes fresh from the mulberry tree worm. Others never buy suits off the rack, but go to a tailor. Other still hire interior designers to create a personalised look for their home. Why not a bicycle then? If you find yourself obsessively doodling lugs shaped like butterflies and brake bridges carved with your initials, then for goodness sake - save up and get one built.

Finally, if you are wavering between that mass-produced bicycle that is not quite what you wanted, and a custom bicycle that is perfect but costs $X00 more, consider the differences in value and longevity, and in the subjective pleasure you will be deriving. Consider also that in buying a custom frame you will be supporting a local economy and an independent artisan, rather than funneling money to an anonymous manufacturing corporation. Whether these factors justify the extra cost is entirely up to you - but certainly something to consider.

20 comments:

  1. yes I think the last part is also very compelling. While I don't mind importing something that I cannot get in the US, I very much like supporting local artisans and local econ is this way.

    Looking forward to future parts and I wait to jump start my own custom project!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Lovely use of "bespoke." A usage as rare and unique as a custom bicycle.

    ReplyDelete
  3. By "manufacturing corporation", I think you meant "marketing entity". Most bicycle companies buy frames in bulk for cheap and then mark them up by hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Giffen - This is exactly what makes me unenthusiastic about most bicycles currently sold in stores.

    Mike - really?.. Thank you, and I am surprised to hear that the usage is rare.

    Vee - I am sooo looking forward to hearing about your custom bike(s)!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Funny - I see the word bespoke everywhere during the last year. Sometimes about bikes, other times fashion or what have you. I guess it means extra nice.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Nordic: "Bespoke" means custom-made. The word is used mainly by British people, and most often refers to custom-tailored suits.

    One of the reasons I have two custom bikes and am going for a third is that I have more leg than torso. Back in the day, most shops and builders fit bicycles according to the customer's leg length. For someone like me, that meant a top tube that was too long, which would necessitate a stem with a short extension. That dulls the handling of the bike.

    I'm getting my third Mercian, a custom, for a variety of reasons. One is my odd proportions. Another is that most of the women's bikes I see in shops are awful. And, as you might've guessed, I'm celebrating the birth of a girl. ;-)

    Plus...My newly-found inner feminist wants a women's bike that's as good as my diamond frame bikes!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Another thought-provoking post. If one falls into the first or second categories, they will probably not be happy with something bought 'off the rack' in the long term. If it's not comfortable, if it doesn't fit you properly, if you get pain riding it, then buying a cheaper bike off the rack is false economy. You won't get the use out of it - you won't want to. Having a custom made frame may seem like an outrageous expense at the time, but consider this: you'll be getting something hand made that is much better quality than anything coming out of Taiwan or China. I do agree with the comment about supporting local artisans, too, rather than just the mass-produced/quality issue. Having got your quality, hand-made for your dimensions bicycle, you will want to use it and be able to use it for many comfortable years.

    Putting the whole bike together, you'll be able to choose the other components rather than just accept what manufacturers give you (or mess around changing them later). This too is dependent on your budget obviously, but if you make the choice to build a bike from the frame upwards, again it's worth getting the best components you can afford.

    You might be able to buy a second-hand car with what you spend on your bike but... isn't your bike nicer?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Maybe I've lived outside the US too much, but is bespoke really such an unusual word or are you all being sarcastic?

    Traditionally, fashion is an inherently bespoke/"haute couture" industry, with every article of clothing hand-sewn to suit the body of the wearer. In a sense, mass produced clothing is actually outside the realm of fashion and even the antithesis of it. Same with furniture, china, silverware, perfume, leather goods, and pretty much everything else. The phenomenon of ready-to-wear and ready-made being widely acceptable is quite recent. The genius of the 1950s+ advertising industry is that they took the idea of having the exact same, mass-produced items as millions of other people, and turned it from an indicator of poverty into something to aspire towards.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I don't think bespoke is such an unusual word. In fact in the UK Country Living magazine I subscribe to, it's used a lot, particularly in ads for bespoke country kitchens created by artisans. ;-) Despite that I do like it as a word; for me it encapsulates quality, design and detail rather nicely.

    ReplyDelete
  10. A custom bike is definitely on the "someday" list, but I feel like I have to get a bunch of riding under my belt so I have a better sense of what I want. I get woozy whenever I look at Sweetpea Bike's website, whether it's from the beautiful bikes or the idea of doing someone building bikes for love.
    http://sweetpeabicycles.com/

    "Bespoke" isn't as common in the U.S., so I doubt that people were being sarcastic.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I agree with everything said here and in fact, my disappointment in the traditional production bike caused me to build a whole business around this concept. I might add that one doesn't need to be incredibly tall or short to hugely benefit from a custom frame. A properly designed custom frame is not a commodity but becomes an investment in your active lifestyle. It will be ridden more, appreciated more and will be in your family longer!

    ReplyDelete
  12. "bespoke" is used more commonly in UK english; it's rarely used in US english vernacular.

    carinthia, i think some of the new rivendell frames come from taiwan. FWIW...

    i also agree with bliss chick's comment: i have no doubt that one day i'll have a custom bike or two made. however, i haven't ridden nearly enough in all different cycling environments to know exactly what i want out of a custom bike. until then, i'm perfectly content buying vintage bikes and building them up the way i want with the components i want.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I hear "bespoke" all the time but I have quite a few a friends who write about style or fashion or who are designers. I do think the word has a current vogue that's spreading from the fashion business into the mainstream. Lots of newer men's labels (Band of Outsiders, Thom Browne, Rag & Bone, Freeman Sporting Club, etc) have returned to a more traditional way of tailoring and offer semi and fully bespoke options at much lower price points than, say, a bespoke Savile Row suit made by Anderson & Sheppard or Gieves or even buying a Brioni or Kiton suit off the peg. Those newer labels often use wonderful dead stock fabrics and do their production in Brooklyn. Both pluses in my mind.

    I also think the persistent coolness (when will it die??) and influence of the steampunk aesthetic has something to do with "bespoke" being bandied about, and, in many cases, used incorrectly. The steampunk thing is also related to the hipster-wide obsession with vintage bicycles, just to bring us back to, you know, bikes. Be it suits or bicycles I generally don't mind any trend that brings more dollars to people doing independent, interesting and creative work.

    And it's wonderful to have things made. I have done a lot of that and generally I have found that it is generally not much more expensive than buying something of high quality. I also make things, which helps one appreciate the deep process and the thought that go into making anything good. The price hurts less when you know how hard people work and how much they truly deserve to be paid for that work. I think Velouria's custom mixte is the perfect example of obviously, obviously worth it.

    Looking forward to more info about bespoke bicycles (which is the name of the wonderful shop where I bought my Pashley, actually).

    ReplyDelete
  14. neighbortease - I agree with your description 100%.

    Re where frames are made: All current frames by Velo Orange and all current "lower-end" ($1000) frames by Rivendell are handbuilt in Taiwan, to designer specs and using designer-selected tubing. I understand that the building process is of high quality and tightly controlled. The more expensive Riv frames are built in the USA.

    ReplyDelete
  15. velouria, that was exactly my point-- the quality of manufacturing (be it by hand or automated process) of goods no longer can be judged by their origin, as rivendell frames and VO accessories (like their fenders), are examples of fine quality workmanship from taiwan. quality aside, there are still the issues of carbon footprint, supporting local economies, and other globalization factors, which are considerations for buying "homegrown", but that's a separate discussion.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I agree. Plus there is the sentimental value. I have already mentioned elsewhere that for me having a bike made locally is not a patriotic consideration but a personal one. I do not anticipate remaining in the Boston area for long; this is a temporary situation for us. But having my frame built here will remind me of this period in my life, during which many important things have happened to me. Similarly, I have a feeling that my purchase of a Pashley was influenced by having lived in England for a significant portion of my 20s. As far as I am concerned, bikes made in Taiwan, Texas, Spain, and Seattle can all be of equally high quality - but I have no connexion to either of those places and therefore having a bike made there holds no romance for me.

    And yes, this is all an entirely separate issue from having bikes mass-produced in China on an assembly line with questionable working conditions for the laborers involved. A bicycle made in Taiwan holds a very different set of implications than one that is made in China.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Also re somervillan and Bliss Chick: I agree that one should wait to get a custom bike until they have a concrete notion of what they want, which can only come from riding experience. In my case, I have only been cycling for under a year, but I have done a lot of riding during that time - probably over 1000 miles. I spent May and June of 2009 going on 40-80km rides 2-3 times a week along the Danube in Austria, which resulted in knee injuries due to an improperly fitting bike. Then I spent the rest of the summer and Fall in the US struggling with my vintage Motobecane and feeling limited in the sort of rides I could take because of pain and discomfort. By the time October came around, it was clear that my interest in long rides was serious, and that I needed a more comfortable bicycle to accommodate this. The vintage Motobecane is good for 20-25 miles at a time, but after that I am in pain no matter how I try to adjust it.

    ReplyDelete
  18. @Velouria

    I would never recommend a custom bike as a "first" bike, precisely because you never know what you want until you start riding. That is not to say that you need to spend a long time riding your "first" bike -- you begin to figure out your needs pretty quickly. A little under a year, like in your case, is plenty of time. It also really helps having a few different bikes to compare. I had a generic 3-speed and thought I wanted a road bike. So then I got a road bike and quickly decided I need a vintage rod-brake roadster. :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. Excellent post! As an aspiring custom framebuilder, I look forward to the rest of your series.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Giffen - Oh I agree of course! I am not sure what I would have even said to a framebuilder if I were getting a custom bike as my first bike. As it is, I've sent some crazy inquiries to a couple of framebuilders early on. Thankfully, they were very graceful in answering my questions, which probably left them bewildered!

    Tim - That's wonderful; I would love to have framebuilders' comments here and get their take on things.

    ReplyDelete