Getting a Custom Bicycle, Part II: Choosing a Framebuilder
[Mike Flanigan of ANT Bikes, Holliston, MA]
Last year, I began what was meant to be a series of posts about ordering a custom bicycle frame. Overwhelmed by the topic, I stopped after the first one. But with an additional year of experience under my belt, with the deep winter chill we're having, and with an increasing number of readers ordering custom bicycles, this seems like a good time to resurrect the series. To start from the beginning, please read "Getting a Custom Bicycle, Part I: Why?" But if you already know that you want a custom frame and are hunting around for a framebuilder, I offer some ideas on finding the right one:
[Insignia on a Peter Mooney bike, Belmont, MA]
1. Avoid the "Who is the best?" mentality
To start with, I would like to note that I do not believe there exists such a creature as "the best" framebuilder. I have my obvious favourites, but that's all they are: my favourites. It does not matter how many Handmade Bicycle Show awards a framebuilder has won and how many blogs feature them. That stuff says very little about whether they are right for you, and I am afraid that those who rely on the big name/ new hottest thing factor in selecting the person who will build their frame, are setting themselves up for disappointment. There are many different types of bicycles and different types of cyclists out there. To me, what it's really about is finding a good three-way match between yourself, the framebuilder, and the type of bike you are looking for. So, when I receive emails asking me whom I believe to be "the best" framebuilder, all I can say is that's just not the way I would approach it.
[Bryan Hollingsworth of Royal H. Cycles, Somerville, MA]
2. Decide what kind of bike you want first
While I am not saying that you need to know all the minute details in advance, I think it is good to at least have a solid idea of what type of bicycle you want: racing vs mountain vs commuter, diamond vs step-through vs mixte, lugged steel vs welded vs carbon fiber, and so forth. Those are fundamental categories that ideally would be already formed in your mind before you seek out framebuilders. If you ask a builder, you may be surprised to learn how common it is for a customer who initially asked for one type of bike, to grow unsure about their choice over time, or to change their mind dramatically. When that happens, it will most likely create glitches in the framebuilding process - some of which may be resolvable, while others may not. But more importantly, it can mean that the framebuilder you chose initially may no longer even be the right person to make your bicycle. Which brings me to the next point...
[Armando Quiros of Quiros Custom Frames, Natick, MA]
2. Pick the best (hu)man for the job
Most framebuilders specialise in a particular type of frame (racing, touring, transportation...) or a particular type of construction (lugged, welded, fillet brazed...). And even the ones who can make "any kind of bike you want" are, more often than not, better at one type than at another, and have more experience in one type than another. If you are looking specifically for a lugged bicycle, it makes sense to pick a framebuilder who specialises in lugged steel and not in TIG-welding. If you are looking for a sturdy, step-through transportation bicycle, it makes sense to go to someone who has done plenty of them before and is familiar with all the challenges they entail - not to someone who mainly builds racing bikes. This is why it's helpful to take the time to do some research on the various framebuilders you are considering.
One thing to keep in mind, is that even knowing that you want a "touring bike" or a "transportation bike" is not enough, as these terms are subjective and different framebuilders have different understandings of what they mean. To some, a "transportation bike" means a diamond frame fixed gear bicycle, with some fenders and 28mm tires instead of the "normal" 20mm. To others, it means a step-through frame, upright handlebars, a basket, and enormous balloon tires. Don't take it for granted that your vision of these things will correspond to the framebuilder's vision. Get to know the framebuilder's design philosophy and aesthetic first.
In that context, I would also not be shy about contacting previous customers if you see that they have the type of bike you want (for example, if you find their flickr pictures when searching for a particular framebuilder). People usually love to discuss their custom bikes and will probably be pleased to hear from you. Contacting them may help you determine whether their bike is typical of the framebuilder's work, and how pleased they are with the result. This type of feedback, especially from multiple customers, can be as helpful as the information on the framebuilder's website.
[Marty and Brad of Geekhouse Bikes, Boston, MA]
3. Listen to your instincts
Just as with jobs, universities, and potential romantic partners, a framebuilder can appear to be the perfect one for you "on paper," but in reality things might not work out between the two of you. Of course, the opposite can also be true: Going by their reputation or description, you would not think the framebuilder is a good match for you, but upon personal interaction it just "feels right." Either way, I am a believer in listening to your instincts. If you get a "bad vibe" from the framebuilder or if you feel like you are having trouble communicating with them, I would see that as a red flag - even if you had already decided that they were "perfect." You need to feel comfortable with the framebuilder and to feel wanted as a customer, in order for everything to work out in your best interest. If it doesn't seem right, start over and look for someone else (before you place an order, of course).
As usual, boiling something down to a handful of key points results in an oversimplification of the topic, and that is definitely what I've done here. Finding the right person to build your custom frame is not easy - especially if you are looking for something like a classic transportation bike, or a true randonneuring bike - which are still fairly rare offerings. Hopefully, these points can serve as a starting point for your own research into which framebuilder is right for you. There are many excellent ones around.