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.
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.
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.
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.
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.