Monday, January 25, 2016

Why Order a Custom Bicycle?

New England Builders Ball 2014
With opportunities to ride diminished in winter, there is more time to devote to thinking, perhaps a tad obsessively, about bicycling - from planning cycling routes for summer adventures, to browsing internet "bike p0rn.” For some this includes considering a custom bicycle, made from scratch by one of a growing number of specialist builders, who now exist in nearly every region.

From the start of this blog, I have been passionate about handmade bicycles and independent framebuilders. I own several custom bicycles myself (from ANT, Royal H., Seven Cycles and Mercian), and have even tried my hand at making one. Some interpret my enthusiasm to mean that I consider custom handmade bikes to be altogether superior products to mass produced ones. For that reason I receive lots of questions about the benefits of going custom. And I think my attitude in that regard surprises readers...

Because, for most of us, I believe there is no practical benefit to ordering a custom made bicycle.

By no means is this sentiment meant to discourage anyone from ordering a custom frame and supporting a talented framebuilder. It's just that I think it is important to understand what is, and is not, reasonable to expect from the experience.

When I hear people discuss why they want a custom bicycle, the themes that come up most are comfort, fit and quality. But in reality, there are now more off-the-shelf options than ever that will satisfy most of us in regard to all three of these features.

These days, production bikes by most of the mainstream manufacturers are offered in a myriad of sizes. Assuming your body's proportions are within the range of normal and that you do not have any quirky fit preferences, a production frameset in the appropriate size for your dimensions and riding style can be easily set up to fit “perfectly.”

To be sure, extremely short and extremely tall riders will benefit from custom fit and geometry, as will riders with genuinely unusual proportions. Likewise, extremely lightweight riders may benefit from an independent framebuilder's ability to select tubing that a mainstream manufacturer could not, due to safety regulations (see my review of the Soma Grand Randonneur, and accompanying comments, for an explanation of this). And on the other end of the spectrum, riders who weigh beyond what production bicycles are rated for, can turn to a custom builder for a specially reinforced frame. But again, even taking these groups together, the riders who need to go custom for reasons of fit are in the minority.

And, while comfort is to some extent subjective, comfortable mass-produced bicycles do exist (and I say this as someone for whom comfort is crucial). You will have to shop around. And, importantly, not assume that once you've tried one bicycle of a particular style or material, they all feel the same. Because they really do not. Within each genre of bike, there are specific makes and models that are known for feeling "harsh," and likewise specific makes and models that are known for their comfort characteristics. For example, if you want a comfortable carbon fibre roadbike, the Specialized Roubaix/Ruby series is the obvious recommendation, and it is available in a range of price points. So even if you experience serious pain from going over bumps or from road buzz, know that there are off-the-shelf options especially designed to address this. Unless your discomfort issues are of a truly unusual nature, strictly speaking there is no need to go custom.

Now as far as quality... I think that firstly, we ought to compare like with like. Certainly, a low-end or entry level production bike will likely be of worse quality than a custom handmade one. But that is hardly a fair or logical comparison. Once we get into mid-range territory or higher, mass produced bicycles have a pretty good quality record. In fact, unlike the one-off custom frames, production bikes are tested thoroughly before they are available to the consumer and, as mentioned earlier, they must abide by stringent safety regulations. Of course some materials are by their very nature more fragile than others. But then, a custom framebuilder working with those materials will face these same challenges. A factory-produced frame may lack the "heirloom" factor of a handmade one. But chances are, you will grow tired of it before it breaks on you.

New England Builders Ball 2014
So if not for reasons of fit, comfort or quality - why go custom? I do not have a prescriptive answer to that question. All I can do is answer it for myself.

I choose to order handmade custom bicycles...

Because all things being equivalent, I prefer to support individual craftspersons and small, independent manufacturers.

Because I enjoy the process of interacting with a framebuilder to create a bicycle from scratch.

Because I like unusual materials, such as titanium and ultra-lightweight steels, which are not commonly available off the shelf.

Because I have quirky geometry preferences.

Because I like having input into aesthetics and paint.

Because a handmade custom bicycle feels more "soulful" and personal.

Because the cost is typically no greater than that of a production bike of similar spec and quality.

As you can see, some of these reasons have elements of practicality. But others are entirely subjective, emotional, personal - having more to do with my general interest in craft, handmade objects, and the people who create them than with bicycle-specific factors per se.

New England Builders Ball 2014
There are plenty of comfortable, well built, high-performing mass-produced bikes on offer whose fit can be dialed in perfectly for most riders. I do not tend to cover these bicycle here, because my personal passion lies in the handmade, the niche, the small-scale - and really we can only write about the things we are passionate about. But that does not mean I don't think there are good off-the-shelf bikes.

As for the question of why order a custom bicycle? I suspect that everyone who has done so, or is considering doing it, will have a different answer. Because really, underneath all the pros and cons, the framebuilder reviews, the personal anecdotes, the lists of specs, and the photos of frame joints, it is a highly personal and subjective process. Do you want it? Do you need it? And will it suit your needs better than a production bike? In leu of personal experience, the best guide is perhaps your own intuition.


68 comments:

  1. One thing that plays into the decision to get a custom bicycle that you do not mention is the desire to show, by your selection and purchase of a more expensive, handmade product, that you have the spare time, taste, and money to choose appropriately. In other words, the choice is driven by the same factors that lead people to choose expensive wine, clothing, jewelry, fountain pens, and other luxury goods.
    People choosing custom bikes tend not to mention this factor, or to minimize it, because to acknowledge it is to admit to a desire for ostentatious display of wealth. They might even look down on somebody who buys an expensive car, or say a big screen TV, claiming that they are not subject to this gross desire for luxury. But that is just another form of snobbery, not to put too fine a point on it.

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    1. I think this certainly can be true. But one thing that needs to occur in order for it to work, is that onlookers must recognise the handmade bicycle as a status symbol. In my experience, that just doesn't happen in the non-internet world. And from my observations most people who order custom bikes do not post photos of them online.

      Interestingly, there are many cyclists where I now live, a number of cycling clubs, and there are certainly comparisons of purchases going on. The "prestigious" bicycles are the high end models from big name manufacturers, not custom bikes. In comparison, a handmade bike by some small maker is perceived similarly as a sweater your neighbour knitted for you (vs Armani). So, some cultural differences at play here as well.

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    2. Not to belabor the point, but it is a sign of taste when the average person wouldn't even have heard of the name of a carefully selected luxury item. One thing that distinguishes social climbers and the nouveau riche from established wealth is their tendency to run out and buy showy items that advertise their wealth.

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    3. Jon - I feel that the impulse to buy a custom bike is more often the opposite of what you're describing, the very real behavior of conspicuous consumption. The appeal lies in the qualities hoped for within the frame (as Velouria describes so well) I believe. That goes for handmade or those 'super-bikes'.

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    4. If you are saying one might feel a secret sense of satisfaction from the very fact that most people around them do not recognise the value and specialness of the object they selected, that is of course also possible.

      People are complicated, multilayered, weird. Present company included. Anything is possible. Some tend to, in various ways, philosophise, fetishise, or moralise their consumer and lifestyle choices, and to judge the choices of others along the same lines. Others just like what they like and don't think about it too much, or care what others like. Most of us fall somewhere in between.

      I want to stay away from categorising people's reasons for getting custom bicycles (or anything else for that matter) into good vs bad, correct vs incorrect. And, in keeping with moderating rules, I ask that commentators here do the same.

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    5. Oh dear, I've met SO many people who have gone the custom route not to ride but to simply have. Often they'll see that I ride one and invite me to the house to show off and talk about their beauty. It's maddening but some people do like to consider themselves a connoisseur.

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    6. I see your point, but not all custom bicycles are as expensive as off-the-shelf models and brands. Nor do they tend to be as "promotional" as the larger brands which often have the brand in HUGE letters on the down tube, and in several other areas of the bike lest you forget what you're riding.

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    7. Over half a lifetime ago I went the custom route whilst living in a city. I did everything to make it look worthless! I wanted a superb bike and even now come spring it will just need some extra air in the tyres and it will ride like new. After forty years the pedals still spin better than any I have seen this decade. A custom bike is haute couture, last a lifetime and quality fit, fashions may change but classic stay the course...

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    8. To use Jon's wine example, while there may be people who go to a restaurant and order the most expensive Barolo it has just to show off, so to there are many who drink a certain Barolo because it so meets whatever it is they enjoy about drinking wine.

      Likewise, there may be some who buy a custom - or more likely as mentioned below in these comments a top of the line Cervelo or Trek - to show off. But so too are there people who buy custom because the bike, the process, or both fulfill whatever personal reasons that brought them to cycling in the firs place.

      Many cyclists on the MUP riding the latest carbon race dream designed for riders decades younger and up to 100 pounds lighter than they probably may be seeking confirmation from other riders in the know as much as a pleasant afternoon's recreation. But there are just as many who ride their custom to work, to the cinema, to fetch groceries, etc. all among others who for the most part do not even recognize the custom as being any more special than their off the shelf bikes.

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    9. @Jon Webb: in your example of "social climbers" who want to purchase expensive stuff to show off their wealth, why would those hypothetical people not buy a high-end bike from one of the big-name manufacturers? As in, bikes like the ones often featured on the Global Cycling Network as pro team bikes (or, equivalent models that can be purchased by non-pros)? Those bikes cost a lot of money and look the part. Custom bikes, on the other hand, don't often look like $10,000 bikes. They certainly cost that much, or more, and may look expensive, but more often than not, custom jobs look like more run-of-the-mill lower-end mass-produced bikes. People who know bikes would be able to spot the details to distinguish custom vs. non-custom (intricate lug work, decals, etc) but those details don't stand out in the same way as a $10,000 pro-level racing bike.

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  2. Thoughts.....

    We have a great tradition of customizing our homes and transport - putting our "art" into our daily lives. You cannot read your blog and but notice that you have a slight "bent" in that direction. A customized bike is part of that, possibly.

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    1. Sure. Even leaving "art" out of it, some people feel more compelled than others to personalise the spaces they inhabit, the clothing they wear, etc. Some peoples' homes look like they could belong to anyone, whereas others are uniquely and weirdly THEIRS. Some people's notebooks are clean and neutral, others' have margins covered with doodles and coffee stains. And so on. That said, a custom bike can look neutral and impersonal too, and I have seen some notable examples.

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    2. I am sure you're right. At least to me, this seems like a lost opportunity.

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  3. I've gone through the process of getting a custom bike and the points that resonate most with me are the overall process of discussing and agreeing the fine details of the build with the builder, there was limited choice of "off the shelf" frames available in high-end steel and the final finish of the bike (which in my case was no paint at all as I wanted the look of raw stainless steel)

    There is also the process of meeting and discussing your ideas with framebuilders before selecting one. I met with four and all had slightly different philosophies, experience and areas of speciality. I couldn't have separated them on the quality of their work, but there seemed to be something indefinable with some that appealed more than others.

    I'd also add the time required for the overall process. Any decent frame builder these days will have a long waiting list then add to that the time to complete the build and there is a reasonably long gestation period before getting the new arrival.

    However most worthwhile things take some time, unlike the instant gratification of swiping or entering your credit card details in a bike shop or online.

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    1. I could do a whole series of very, very long posts on the various aspects of custom bikes - both from the customers' and from the builders' perspectives!

      Lead time is certainly a factor, which is why winter is a good time to order. Framebuilders waiting lists can range from 1 month to 1 year+, and - perhaps more importantly - there is also some variance in how reliable the time estimates end up being! I would not necessarily say though that there is a direct relationship between how good a framebuilder is and how long their wait list. Some are more efficient at clearing backlogs than others. And some have a system where they work in bursts of several months, not taking new orders until all current ones are finished.

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    2. In my case, I spoke to two relatively established builders who quoted lead times around 6-9 months and two relative newbies who had lead times of a few months. I wouldn't say that the more experienced builders were any better, but they definitely had a longer queue.

      Also components can affect things. Again in my case, a particular carbon fork I wanted was out of stock when it came to ordering components so I ended up slipping my place in the queue by a few months.

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  4. Jon, in the case of bicycles, a bike from a one person shop
    is often considerably less expensive than a bike from a major
    manufacturer. Velouria's point about the lack of status in a one
    person shop bike matches my own. My bikes are seen as nice old
    bikes, not serious, like a top of the line Trek/Spec etc bike.

    Scott G.

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  5. Only slightly off topic. But I have always thought your blog would be a good platform for an survey on customer satisfaction with the frame building process. Thoughts?

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    1. My thought is that firstly, it would have to be anonymous. And even then I'm not sure people will answer honestly. I have mentioned this before, but one problem with getting feedback of this kind is that people are reluctant to report negative experiences for fear of damaging the already struggling framebuilders' chances of making a living.

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    2. If one enjoys reading blogs and reviews one can find lots of feedback on the process and specific builders, including negative experiences. My thought is when there is a negative experience one should express it in hopes of helping others beware of potential issues. If a frame builder is struggling to make a living (which I think most are) they should be aware of critiques, shouldn't they?

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  6. Well, you kind of eliminated me from this conversation because I mostly chose my custom bike for personalized geometry and the fact I could choose the kinds of components best suited for my needs. If I could afford it I'd buy everything custom and mostly live simply with few things. If I can't make it I try to find someone who can. The bike has been with me for six years of daily transportation riding and longer multiple day recreational excursions. I love it and it loves me back. Prior to getting it I had gone through many off the rack bikes which never fit or felt comfortable and I was tired of the constant maintenance and modifications. Since giving up the expense of a car I felt it was affordable and practical to met with a fitter and builder who only cared about making something I could ride all day long without pain. Aesthetics did not matter, in fact I wanted it to look as unsexy as possible. The reality is that I've increased both my miles and pleasure and advocacy these last few years because of it's reliability and quality. The components are pretty much built proof, maintenance has been minimal. It's freeing! I do agree that one can find a good option from a bike store but it wasn't the case for me and I've no regrets.

    As for anon 11:19, I agree, this would be a nice platform to share experiences, expectations, and satisfaction with the process of finding a builder, knowing what factors one should consider with regard to design and fit and components. I, for one, would have never considered the bike I'm currently riding had it not been for the discussions with both the fitter and the builder and listening to their insight and benefiting from their experience. Changed my life ;) Best.

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    1. Oh no intent to eliminate anyone from the conversation.

      I simply listed my own reasons for going this route (which included custom geo btw), and was in fact hoping others would contribute theirs.

      "If I can't make it I try to find someone who can."
      = my preferred methods also.

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  7. We went full custom with our Swallow tandem. Reasons for going full custom were geometry and fit, my seat angle was much steeper than Jayne's for example, and to get something that wasn't available off the peg at the time, a 26" wheeled touring tandem. We picked Swallow for a number of reasons. We sent a number of builders our ideas and asked for comments and rough idea of price. We dismissed a few because they pretty much ignored our ideas, a few on price. Pete Bird was very receptive to our ideas initially and once we'd met him in person formed a good working relationship. We had that tandem for 24 years and through several iterations including being turned into a triple.

    We've now got an Orbit tandem, off the peg frame and custom spec'd bits. There are more options nowadays to tailor fit and more choices of style and spec. We didn't think custom was necessary.

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  8. An important consideration as well is that with the advent of the internet, there is a slew of niche companies producing short runs of off the rack frames which are for all intents custom. And they can definitely fill the gap between the big name companies and the pure one@ a time custom builders. Companies like Rivendell & Velo orange for example produce bikes that offer something unique in the off the shelf or semi-custom market. Even bigger niche companies like Surly can eliminate the need to go custom.
    I a habitual custom of these type companies, currently owning frames by Rivendell, Surly, Rawland, Greengear

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    1. That is true, and I appreciate these manufacturers as well. Also worth pointing out the category of manufacturers where, while the bikes are not custom, they are made in local-to-them facilities by hand. Brompton, Pashley, Bella Ciao and Detroit Bikes are just a few examples.

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    2. Or then folks like Breadwinner Bicycles in Portland who offer and build a variety of bikes with a 8 to12 week wait. Custom builders who have a shorter wait, more mass produced line.

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  9. I own a semi-custom Rivendell mixte and an off-the-shelf, light-weight steel road bike with carbon forks (sorry Grant). I love them equally.
    The Rivendell was bought because I had fallen in love with it through reading various American blogs and it seemed like the perfect step up from my ex hybrid (too harsh a ride) and Pashley (too heavy).
    At the time, I too was looking at custom builds but could find nothing in the UK that corresponded on price and ease of ordering (I also felt that I didn't know enough or that I wouldn't be taken seriously since I was only interested in mixtes - this was in fact the case with the 2 UK builders I contacted at that time).
    Now I have a lovely stock road bike which actually seems to fit me better than my Riv. Unfortunately, I also love custom bikes and have attended Bespoked Bristol (dragging my MTB loving husband along)which is a seriously bad place to go if you are afflicted with that kind of desire.
    Each bike we own takes us down a different road, (hopefully) it's all good.

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    1. In the US, the willingness of most custom builders to make mixtes, step-throughs, or anything but a fairly traditional roadbike for that matter, was not really there either until fairly recently. I remember looking at framebuilders' websites and reading about clearances for tires "all the way to 28mm!" for a "custom commuter"- by which they meant a roadbike with somewhat more upright geometry (but still made for drop bars) and braze-ons for a rear rack. Those same guys are now offering mixte frames for 650Bx42mm tyres plus mudguards. Things can change if there is sufficient demand!

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  10. I share much of the same perspective and reasons on custom bikes. I own a few of each, and usually for different purposes. Though there is something to see a bike built for you in the various stages of development, and being able to rub your hands on the bare tubing to impart a little DNA into it before painting. I've never built my own bike, yet, but my last custom bike was made by a local framebuilder/friend who's shop is near my home. It was something special to be there when he cut the first tube, and see it's development over the next several days, and to hold the finished product before he sent it out to paint.

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  11. I've always thought of the decision to commission a custom frame, apart from disposable income or need for a very specific geometry, was a reflection of a person having ridden enough to be highly educated about their own needs and highly decisive about how to meet them. The implication is that one has "earned" the "right" to a custom bike, though of course anyone who can afford one can indulge even if the requisite miles have not been ridden. There is also an element of attaining the next level in one's personal set of riding goals, where the right builder can also serve as a mentor. I am unlikely to ever be a candidate myself, but experiencing the process vicariously is fascinating, in large part because the end product can be so stunningly beautiful.

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  12. I totally agree with masmojo. Any keen and frequent web surfer/cyclist can put together their own custom bike without going near an artisan frame builder. Infact, I would say that in many cases, if a person is leaning towards a particular frame builder, it is because they want the builder to put their own mark on the frame.

    I have been considering a custom build recently and to be honest I find the entire process too daunting and time consuming. I live in Ireland where there are very few frame builders, but I am originally from the UK where there are more and more cropping up year on year. This means if I were to get measured properly, it would mean at least one or two trips across the water, valuable time which could be spent riding instead.

    In the 80's a good road cyclist where I lived in the Midlands would turn to Brian Rourke or possibly Mercian for their fast road bike. It was simply a race machine made to fit them exactly and not a product used to express their individuality.

    Generally, budding road cyclists nowadays turn to the larger manufacturers for a competition bike. To me, this makes sense due to the extensive R&D budgets and bulk component discounts these companies can tap into. The only problem is that IMO and a lot of others, most of the mass produced plastic bikes look disgusting.

    So, the big road race business has gone elsewhere and visiting exhibitions like Bespoked, you don't really bump into the typical road race cyclist. Instead, folk that like to spend time getting to know their builder and almost building a friendship with them prior to committal.

    Personally, I am more comfortable with what could be considered to be a more 'fast food' custom build approach. Take for example, Condor. Good pedigree where a bike can be built to your own spec and to a degree colour scheme without getting up close and personal to a frame builder. They offer a 'good enough' service in terms of providing a bike that fits well. A big bonus here as well is that you can often ride the bicycle prior to purchase and get a faster delivery time.

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    1. "I live in Ireland where there are very few frame builders..."

      Wait. Do you mean to say there are ANY still operating today? If so, I would love to know who they are. I know there is Woodelo, and whoever it is that makes the roadsters for High Nelly in Limerick (which they claim are built in Ireland), but not so much individual builders.

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    2. I too was counting Woodelo, but the more traditional custom builder that I was thinking of would be - http://www.bicycledesigncentre.com/arcane-custom-bikes/.

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    3. Oh wow. Thanks! And that is so strange - I remember visiting that website, but did not realise they were in Ireland.

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    4. As I touch at above, a draw back with the high end off the shelf bikes is the design and technology is focused on helping an in shape max 140 pound twenty something cyclists go as fast as possible. Middle aged cyclists who weigh well more than racers may derive some benefit from all that R&D but not nearly so much as the expense warrants.

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    5. Frame builders in Ireland... I've also heard of www.coastroadcycles.com in County Antrim, near Carrickfergus.

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  13. Would it be curmudgeonly of me to point out that there is no such thing as "lightweight" steel? The specific gravity of all types of steel is about the same. What does differ is -- among other things -- the strength. Some types of steel are stronger than others, which allows for thinner-gauge tubing, and thus a lighter frame. Of course, the thinner the gauge, the less the stiffness, since the modulus of elasticity of all types of steel is more or less constant. Also, the thinner the gauge, the more prone the tube will be to denting.

    Sheldon Brown wrote an excellent and entertaining article on frame materials. It's worth a read.

    Like almost everything else in life, the choice of tubing involves tradeoffs.

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    1. You are of course correct. I was just lazy and used the phrase "lightweight steel" as shorthand for something like "lightweight steel tubing, whereby the lightness can be achieved in one of several ways."

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  14. OH OH, CALL ON ME!!!

    I've been into bikes for most of my life and have wanted something special since almost the very beginning. I couldn't have been more than about 14 or 15 when I saw a Bruce Gordon with those sexy fastback seatstays and beautifully filed and shaped lugs, and the idea of a new bike, just the way I wanted it took root and turned into a desire that got me even more interested in the best bikes, the people who built them and some of the badass things some really interesting Men and Women did on them.

    But I've never had much money and almost all my bikes for the last 37 years have been second hand, close-outs or slightly damaged in some way and done as inexpensively as possible, so that little spark of desire had years to really burn deep into what bikes were about for me. I always managed to have really good bikes that fit me and were good tools for the job, some of them were even beautiful but none of them checked all the boxes.

    Anyway, I got older and managed to scrape up some money that could be safely spent on a special bike and I had Mercian build me a frame, not many frills but with as many of the important things as I could afford. It was a more frustrating process than I expected and when the bike finally arrived after 11 months(I think) instead of 6 or 7, in a color that wasn't what I thought I was getting and the "wrong" type of steerer, I was sort of disgusted. At that point nothing about the bike seemed "special" and I thought about selling it without even putting it together. But then I started thinking about why I bought THAT bike from THAT company and realized that what I had gotten was almost exactly what really mattered to me, which was a traditional British bike like my favorite old Raleigh race-bike, but brand new with the details that were most important to me, IN MY SIZE and stuck together properly in every way(not always the case with those old Raleigh's), AND built in a famous shop with a long history that I wanted a connection with. It was all of those things and it fit my budget so why was I still whining?

    So I put it together and it's now one of my very favorites of the few really special things I own. It rides like a great British bike, which is something I like even if I can't explain it very well. It still makes me smile when I look at it 3 years later.

    I also have a new Titanium Seven Mudhoney frame that I bought with a windfall without really thinking it through. A bunch of people I know have them and a shop I help at sometimes is a dealer, so I got something close to employee pricing. That bike sits unfinished in the stand and I can't get excited about it in any way. It's certainly going to fit me about perfectly and it's going to ride great and all that but I'm just not into the sort of bike they build. It's likely "better" than any bike I've ever had but the ways in which it's "better" just aren't very important to me. I'll probably end up liking it but I wonder if it's ever going to be "special" to me. Fortunately the guys that collect vintage BMX stuff paid for it. I sold one vintage handlebar stem and 2 sets of NOS rims to pay for it so it still feels like it was "free". But I wish I'd bought something else...

    Everything about custom bikes gets weird...

    Spindizzy

    Sorry this got so long...

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    1. Was the Seven built for your size/weight and to your specs, or was this a shop/demo model you bought off the floor?

      It's hard to believe it was nearly 4 years ago that I got my Seven Axiom. It fits me like a glove, makes me feel like the best version of myself (athletically) when I ride it, cures fatigue and pessimism just when I need those cured most, and has never let me down. The aesthetic of the welded Ti tubes and the carbon fork has grown on me over the years, but I never have gotten as far as actually liking the way this bike looks. The construction method and the racing-oriented philosophy that went into making it are both foreign to me, and perhaps that is why I have also not "bonded" with the bike at an emotional level. But, weird as that may sounds, I do not find these to be these negatives. My Seven has the uncanny effect of making me forget about it so completely, that the environmental and physiological aspects of cycling come into sharper focus than with any other bike I own. I look at this as a sacrifice the bicycle made - giving me the gift of loving the ride at the expense of itself being loved or admired.

      So... just saying. Maybe you should build the Mudhoney up and see.

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    2. To my mind, the very best compliment one can pay to a handmade object is that it becomes transparent in the experience of the user, allowing them the full experience.

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    3. Oh it was built to measure just for me.

      I wanted something that I could use hard on muddy gravel roads with 38s and fenders but still strip down in the fall and race a few 'Cross meets(slowly, from the back). I suspect it's going to be amazing but it wasn't a bike I was pining for for a couple of years so it's just sitting there waiting for me to get excited about riding it. I want to take it on the first 200k Rando at the end of March so I should get busy...

      Spin

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    4. Oh yeah, I forgot to say, for someone who appreciates traditional bikes and collects nice old ones in a small impoverished way, that Seven seat cluster is about as sexy as a jail-house tattoo. If you shot it with a burst of spraypaint you wouldn't be able to tell if it was Titanium or PVC.

      Spindizzy

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    5. Well, of course it fits you like a glove, it's a custom frame, right? I'll say the same about my steel custom, the moment I got on it there was a noticeable difference between it and all the other bikes I had owned or tested. It was invisible, my body clicked in, there was no adjustment required, it was wonderful. I didn't understand at first exactly how much experience and thought went into the measuring and designing of my bike. They asked the right questions, I gave them honest answers about not the kind of rider I wanted to be but the kind of rider I am, which was key. I'd agree that the look of the bike is not something I'd choose for myself if I were walking through a custom bike show but I don't care, it works! It cost a small fortune but I had been saving up for thirty years. .. ;)

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    6. One of my favourite things about getting new tools eg scroll saw, or jeweller's drill, is having them sit around for a while until I forget my initial reason for buying them and discover the new things that they make possible, a project comes up and I have just the right thing on hand. I feel similarly about bicycles; there is a point where you are free from the desire that made you get it and you like it for what it is (and what it is to you particularly)

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  15. I started my search for a custom builder with exhibitors at Bespoked so for UK people, it is a good place to start and if you can't visit the show, the website has a list of exhibitors.

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  16. As a commuter I find it´s more important with good quality wheels and a comfy saddle than a custom fit frame. When riding 32mm tyres or wider the Comfort comes from that, not the frame. I can´t think of anything more suitable for industrial production than a bicycle frame. Other than that I pretty much agree with John Webb,secretly knowing better than those Specilized or Trek riders is just upper middle class snobbery.
    "A robot wrote this"

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    1. Comfortable tyres will of course make a bicycle more comfortable, all else being equal. But not all wider tyres are comfortable.

      see: "Will Fat Tyres Make Your Bicycle More Comfortable?"

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    2. Let me take another stab at this: I wrote here earlier that this sort of thing wasn't high on the list of conspicuous consumption examples: cars handbags bottles of champagne etc seem more like it. Recently, I scoped some tennis rackets, reading up on them thought about the hidden qualities within different racket frame materials & shapes combinations. We can get excited about the potentialities within objects, especially objects that perform or respond to our inputs. Unlike the expensive handbag, the racket/car/bike frame may live up to the expectations. The twist is that the non-custom Seven Axiom proves that 'custom' isn't the only way to cycling-Nirvana.

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  17. CTC Magazine has just come through with an article on this very topic

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  18. It took a long time to figure out what type and size of frame, what tires and components, and what saddle would make a perfect bike for my use. So many choices. I've come close to perfect but I hear there is no absolute perfect, just the right bike for a specific use or a bike that can be used for more than one job - so I stopped expecting perfect. Instead, if it fits great off the shelf, is fun to ride, looks great, handles well and is quality enough for my budget, that closes the deal. I've often considered selling some bikes and getting one custom bike but I like variety for now. More chromoly steel bikes are being made now. I'm glad to see some quill stemmed bikes in the affordable [for me] range.

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  19. For those considering a custom bike, I'm wondering, how would you answer this question…'A custom is only as good as….?'

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    1. The fit! I have a couple of semi-custom bikes, ie off the peg frames with a finishing kit spec'd by me. The first one I got about 7 years ago and didn't really know what I was after, allowing the bike shop to put me in a position they thought was right for the sort of riding I said I wanted to do. It was quite a stretched out position. A few years later I got a tourer for which I had a much better idea of what I was after it terms of position on the bike and was fortunate to go to a bike shop that listened to me. After riding my new bike for a few months, I put a much shorter stem and wider bars on the first bike. Its still more stretched out than the tourer, but more like what I was after.

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    2. ...the thousand decisions involved in making it!

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  20. Well, I have contemplated getting a custom frame (actually when I was younger I considered frame building as a profession), but I have always been put off by the Price! Not that the price itself is the major concern, but rather that I might speed several thousand dollars only to find that I don't like it or ride it any more then any of the dozen & a half bikes I already own or have owned in the past.
    To be sure if I bought a custom if wouldn't be a commuter bike: although I might commute on it! And it would not be this or that or the other thing, in the end I think it would just be a fairly basic beast (but pretty), just made for me to have fun on and that would most likely be the thing I need and want the most. Even though I have fun on anything with wheels!
    To me the idea that I could look down and see that I am riding something very special that was made just for me, to make me feel good would be enough I guess! - masmojo

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  21. While I have had much success buying off-the-shelf bikes and adapting them to my particular needs, I always wished for one that was purpose-built from the beginning. In my case, I had in mind a lugged bike with low-trail geometry that would accommodate fat 650B tires and fenders, and have a generator hub and internal wiring for the lights. By using a custom framebuilder I got exactly what I wanted.

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  22. Do you feel similarly towards the frame you made yourself as you do towards your custom bikes?

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    1. More or less yes.... but that is not because I view it as a "custom bike," but because making it changed how I look at bikes made by others. I used to look at custom bicycles and see them as a stunning beautiful functional objects. Now I mostly see them in terms of the work that went into them. I will look at a custom bike and think things like "interesting the way he crimped those stays to get that to fit" or "that seat cluster lug looks like it was made form scratch, must have taken forever." It's a different perspective.

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  23. The only good reason to oder a custom is because you need one. If you can't find something to fit or work for your needs then custom just may be the answer. Haha, isn't that funny! People who have money spend it in whatever way they choose, bless their hearts. Marketing rules. My son works at a coffee shop popular with a certain cyclists crowd and he knows both them and their bikes, many are customs but i won't mention the names….He says they are the worst customers and tippers and he knows their professions. Meanwhile, he has no car and rides a beat up 80's road bike with 70's Campy equipment. He's young and flexible and strong and loves what he created but also has developed a jaded view of high end custom bikes and those who ride them…..So, I remind him that I've got a custom bike which costs more than most cheap used cars and he says, yeah but you're old and crippled and can't ride anything else ;) It's true, a custom was my best option for getting around. I'm grateful for it…It was worth every penny and I make sure to graciously tip all who help me get by, despite my poverty. Bikes are such wonderful means of transportation with a bi-product of exercise and unique connections. Simple and healthy, I love them.

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  24. Why did you choose all your customs?

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    1. You mean each bike specifically, aside from the general reasons I've listed in this post? They were all different.

      My first custom bike was a mixte I no longer own. It was made by a then-fledgling framebuilder in my neighborhood (Royal H Cycles) who needed the practice and at the time charged very little. I mentioned that my old Motobecane mixte felt harsh to ride and he offered to try his hand at making a comfortable one. He made a very beautiful bike, and it was indeed comfortable, but in some other ways not exactly right for me. I sold it 2 years after, and have since worked with the same framebuilder to design other bikes for his customers.

      The reasons for the other bikes are more or less covered here:

      Seven Axiom
      Mercian Vincitore
      ANT Truss

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  25. I bought a "custom" frame in the early 1990s. At this time the predominant frame material was steel. I wanted a frame that fitted and was lightweight. I could then swap the components off my current mass produced frame on to the new frame. Of course it was to be a road bike but suited to long rides. After choosing a shop and paying a perhaps a third more than what I would have paid for a new mass produced frame, I ended up with a bike that I'm still riding to this day and that still gives me a smile. When I made the decision to go down this path, it was with the thought that I would never have to buy another road bike frame again. So far so good.

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  26. A couple of comments seem to inevitably pop up in discussions about custom bikes, "Only a good custom bike will ever fit you perfectly and allow you to get the most pleasure out cycling" or "Custom bikes are just some sort of elitist snobbery" or something similar. That get's sort of tiresome since those kinds of statements can stick to just about any item where you get to choose on a continuum of cheap to extravagant, but those arguments never seem to really apply to ANY item in a useful way.

    Do we think only people who buy the least expensive clothes are acting rationally or that only people who can indulge in expensive clothes are getting the "Full Clothing Experience"? Both those positions are troublesome and get more absurd when you apply them to other things like food or musical instruments or hand tools and on and on.

    Bikes are cool, and if you dig something off the rack and it works for you than you get to play and have fun without screwing around in the "Arts and Crafts Room" with the Dorks that like to turn things into an Art Project, and if you are one of the Dorks than have a bit of perspective about your "Passion".

    I'll sit with anyone in the cafeteria who'll save me a chair...

    Spindizzy

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    1. Outside of active riding club members trying to one up each other (and in a riding club wouldn't performance be the outlet for that sort of thing) I really struggle to grasp how I might assert superiority on the basis of my owning a custom bike.

      Maybe in other parts of the world things are different. Here in Chicago most people I encounter on my custom bikes do not seem to notice at all. When I am not on the bike, those times cycling may come into the conversation is almost always where I rode lately or current developments in local infrastructure.

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    2. I use to caddy at a private golf course. Every year the owner would hold a tournament for his (wealthy) friends (if you’re from Seattle, names like Nordstrom and Bekins). We kids loved to see the newest and best clubs and this is where I first saw a set of Ping irons. By far, the best player was Harry Givan who would have been in his late 50s and way past his competition prime. One year my brother caddied for him and he was playing with a borrowed set of pretty old, crummy clubs. The 5th hole was a long, uphill 5 par and Harry hooked his drive under a fir tree. He had 250 to the hole, an OK lie but only about a ¾ swing so he goes in there with his DRIVER and hit this low screamer that just clears the crest of the hill and rolls forever, up onto the front of the green. In my 60 years, that was the most amazing physical thing that I have ever seen.

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  27. Velouria,

    I read an excellent post years ago under Crazyguyonabike in which the touring cyclist espoused the idea that touring on an inexpensive bicycle afforded him the greatest possible freedoms. He was never in panic mode if someone wanted to take his bike for a spin or if a thief should make off with it. The riding became more of a pleasure because the bike was only an integral part not the major parcel. Just another perspective of many I guess.

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    1. I'm currently in strapped for cash mode and don't have the option, but before long I'll be thinking seriously about a custom road bike and the main thing that will hold me back will be the knowledge of how much I'll worry about it getting stolen or damaged. I currently ride an $800 bike I got on sale for $550. I've scratched it an absurd number of times in the year I've had it, and I don't really care. There's a certain luxury in that.

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