The trouble with custom…

26 02 2011

Welding a Bike Friday...

I’ve ordered some custom products over the years [including a bike frame] and to be honest I’ve been disappointed almost every time.  The problem is that we have this fantasy in the bike world that a custom bike will be our “dream bike”.  It will fit us perfectly and ride perfectly with every feature we could possibly want.  Because of these unrealistic expectations it’s easy to see how someone could be less stoked than they expected about their custom bike.

I’ve read a lot of reviews of custom bikes online and in many of them you can hear the implicit and/or explicit criticisms of what was supposed to be the owners ultimate ride.  For many people they’ll only ever be able to afford a single custom bike so there is a lot of pressure to love it…both from themselves, their wives who supported the purchase and the bigger cycling community.  It’s almost not possible to tell the world your custom bike sucks – even if you feel that way!

Now to be fair I’m not suggesting custom builders are turning out junk left, right and centre.  Most custom builders make a quality product.  The trouble is being human they can’t read your mind so the bike that they build is what they think you want, but is rarely exactly what you had in mind.  That’s a normal function of human communication and we see the same thing played out around us on a daily basis in everything we do.  The other problem is we assume that a $7K custom bike has to ride 7 times better than the $1K production bike we own.  But, what if the production bike is a pretty nice bike that was well made with decent parts?  Is it possible to make another bike 7 times better? – probably not.

I’d also add there are definitely people out there who buy custom bikes that love them.  So it’s something that can be achieved.  How do you ensure you get a custom bike you love?

  • build a prototype first
  • pick a builder who has built bikes very close to what you want and tell him which one of his previous bikes you loved
  • work very hard on communicating with the builder in person ideally
  • be honest about your need for a custom bike…maybe semi-custom will do?
  • have realistic expectations for the result
  • trust the builder’s vision

Prototyping

Consider spending the extra $$ to have the bulder weld you up a frame that’s got the geometry/features you want without spending the time to make it perfectly pretty.  Look at it and better yet ride it.  Give him feedback and let him build the final version for you.  This will cost more, but you will know what you are getting and be able to dial in the result very closely to what you want.  The builder may well be happy to do this at a discounted rate because he will know the result will be better and may enjoy being able to give you precisely what you want.  This technique is valuable when what you are asking for is unusual and the builder is working in unfamiliar territory.

Work from an existing bike

Using a builder who has built bikes very close to what you want is like getting much of the benefit of prototyping without the extra cost.  Firstly you are asking for something that is well within the builder’s area of expertise.  A guy that builds mainly racing bikes can build a touring frame, but he won’t be as skilled at it as someone who only makes touring bikes.  Maybe you can ride the bike in question or at least talk to the owner so you can provide the builder with as much feedback relative to the previous design as possible.  Some beautiful bikes have average ride quality and some average bikes ride beautifully.  Looking at a picture is great, but not the same as pedaling a bike.

Comunicate Effectively

If you are going to get a custom bike work very hard on communicating with the builder.  Use as many methods of communications as possible.  Show him photos of bikes you like, sketch stuff that’s important to you, describe how you want the bike to feel and what it should be able to do, ask him to tell you what he thinks you want, listen closely to what he says since this is your chance to steer him towards your vision and if at all possible go visit his shop so you can talk face to face.  What if the builder is busy and doesn’t want to spend the time talking to you?  If it’s a builder you really want to use offer to pay extra for the time spent communicating.  An extra $500 perfecting your $7K bike is well worth it.  If that doesn’t work you really have to ask yourself if it’s worth the risk using a builder who isn’t going to spend the time taling to you to understand what you want. The best craftsman can only create what he thinks the customer wants.  If he’s wrong than the result will be a disappointment.

Semi-Custom?

The beauty of a fully custom bike is you can ask for anything, but that same aspect of the process is what causes the problems since anything is possible the people involved have to communicate far more to describe what is being requested.  Production bikes are almost always what you expected because there is little or no choice.  I can order a blue 58cm Surly LHT with 4 words and get the bike I’m after.  However, you can have the best of both worlds if you don’t really need fully custom.  Perhaps what you really need is a Surly LHT frame that you’d like to paint pink and assemble using a Rohloff hub and extra heavy duty wheels?  Rather than trying to get this done as a custom bike buying a production frame and repainting it before you build it up with your parts is much cheaper and faster than getting a custom frame built plus it will have less risk of not being what you want as each component is well understood.  Another way to get a semi-custom bike is to find a company that builds stock production bikes that’s willing to tweak a frame for your needs – perhaps adjusting the tubing to meet your sizing needs or adding some feature like Rohloff specific vertical dropouts?  Again you are working with well understood components and just changing them slightly to better suit your needs.

Being Realistic

A steel production frame and a steel custom frame will ride quite similarly if they use similar tubing and have similar geometries.  Expecting a custom steel touring bike based on the LHT to ride many times better is simply foolish.  It might look much nicer with lugs and a custom paint job, but it’s not going to be a radically different machine despite the huge difference in price.  Having said that if what you want is not available in a production frame and you’ve test ridden a bike similar to what you are asking for so you understand what it will be like a custom bike is the way to get something unique that meets your specific needs.  If you are asking for a bike that is radically different from what the builder normally makes and is something you have never test ridden be okay with the idea that what you actually get may not ride and feel like what you have in mind.  If you can’t be okay with that back off from the order until you can throw a leg over something similar and/or you find a builder who has enough experience in the area of interest to guide you.

Trust the Builder

A good builder will not build junk.  If you tell him what sort of bike you are after, what you’ll do with it and give him your measurements he’ll build something great.  The trick is not to get attached to a bunch of specific details.  If you only will be happy with a bike with 35mm of trail this approach won’t work, but if you are open minded and are happy seeing someone’s creativity flourish maybe taking a hands off approach will lead to a beautiful bike you would never have ordered in the first place?

Bike Friday NWT semi-customized for me!

What would I do?

I’m at the point now where I know what I want and I know that a fully custom bike is my last resort to get it.  The cost and risk of fully custom isn’t worth it to me unless I absolutely can’t get what I want any other way.  Having said that I am picky and I like things that aren’t available as production bicycles.

So what I do first off is see if I can buy a production bike and tweak it. That’s always going to be the cheapest easiest way to get where I want to go.  I can often test ride a production bike and the components are sold at a huge OEM discount when you buy a full build.  My Bike Friday Tikit is such a beast.  I swapped in a few parts such as grips, tires and a custom front rack, but most of the bike is stock. It suits me well and is one of my favourite bikes.

My second option is to find a production frame that meets my needs and build it up with specific parts I want to use.  This will cost more than tweaking a production bike, but I can get the parts I want and it will be far less expensive than a fully custom frame.  Additionally it will be faster to get a hold of and I can read a bunch of reviews online from owners of the same frame to help ensure it’s the bike I want.  My Surly LHT is an example of this as was my Thorn Nomad.  I love my LHT and have barely modified its original custom parts build.  On the other hand when I owned the Nomad it turned out it was far too heavy duty a bike for my needs even though I thought it was what I wanted.  Since it was a production frame I was able to sell it at a modest loss without too much trouble.  Had it been a fully custom bike [I had thought about such a beast when I was looking at the Nomad] I would have either kept it and tried to love it simply due to the cost or had to sell it a much greater loss.

My third option is to find someone who makes a bike along the lines of what I want who will tweak it for me.  My Bike Friday New World Tourist was built that way.  It’s a long standing design of Bike Friday’s that was custom sized for me and then built to my parts spec.  The changes make it better suited to my needs, but it doesn’t stray far from other NWTs out there reducing the risk that I’m going to get something I didn’t want.

Thorn Nomad built from a frame...

Would I go fully custom?

For sure…don’t let anything negative I’ve said here steer you away from a custom bike if that’s what you really need and/or want.  My comments are aimed to make you aware of the risks involved so that you can mitigate them ahead of time and also to make you aware there are other options besides fully custom that might satisfy your needs better.  Personally I can’t see what sort of bike I woud want/need that would have to be fully custom…perhaps a full suspension ultra fat 4″ tire titanium mountain bike???…=-)…but if I did want something that I couldn’t get by tweaking a production bike or getting something semi-custom done I would get it made from scratch.  I’d be very careful and take my time.  I would only use a builder that has built something like that before. I would work very hard to communicate with the builder and to make sure my expectations were realistic.


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17 responses

26 02 2011
adventure!

Great post! I too worry about getting a custom bike and realizing it’s not as perfect as I’d want it to be. Thankfully I don’t have the $$ anytime in the near future to buy one!

There’s also the worry about being too scared to ride a custom bike. I have a friend in Vancouver who has a Sweatpea and never rides it in the city because she is worried about theft. If I spent all that cash on a custom frame, I’d want to be able to ride it every day!

26 02 2011
rob

Great post Vik. I have a custom mtb frame and love it, but I also have a hard time fitting on production frames. My tikit will likely be custom sized as well. I need the TT of a large and the standover of a medium or smaller. Personally I’d recommend custom for anyone who struggles with fit and spends many hours a year on a bike. It’s an investment for sure.

Another option is to have your production bike custom fit by a pro. It’s a fraction of the cost of a custom build with similar benefits.

26 02 2011
srpark

You make a ton of good points.
Knowing that a shop makes terrific bikes is only half the experience. If you want custom, definitely find a shop that does a good job communicating and managing work. That part is huge.
Custom bikes are great but are a bit of a hassle. A good stock frame is almost always as good.

27 02 2011
Tim S

Just got my new IndyFab about 2 weeks ago and, to be honest, I was scared to ride it. I was scared that it wouldn’t meet expectations what with all the hype, decision making and-of course- substantial cash outlay. Fortunately, I can say that the bike has exceeded expectations so far. It fits like a glove and just pounds the ground. So far- importantly said- it has done exactly what I wanted it for. I have to reserve judgement, though, until the summer when the bigger mileage will happen for me. I consider myself fortunate, but the process with IF worked *exactly* as marketed, from first questions to fit guide to final product.

28 02 2011
Brian

Great post, Vic. You make many valid points and have said things that many owners of custom bikes ARE probably afraid to admit to themselves and to others. About 3 years ago, I had a custom bike built for me. I did everything I (thought) was supposed to do; I measured and re-measured, communicated almost daily with the frame builder, did tons of research and got a lot of input from him about what would be best for me and my custom build.

When I picked up the bike from him, I got it home and took it around the block and had this nagging feeling in my gut that something was not right. It wasn’t the magical experience I had expected. The bike, despite being built to my body’s measurements and equipped with all top of the line components, still did not feel as good as the slightly oversized 1980′s Trek road frame that I got second-hand for $150. The custom bike seemed like it was just too small for me. I immediately went into denial mode, and spent the next three months riding the bike and trying to convince myself that something would change that nagging feeling, but it did not. I felt terribly guilty, like somehow I had screwed something up, but mostly I felt guilt that I had suckered myself in believing that I was going to get something special out of this bike that no other bike could give me. I never contacted the builder to tell him about what I was experiencing. It wasn’t his fault, and it wasn’t the bike’s either… I chalked it up to just a bad decision on my part.

Within 5 months, I had stripped the components and put them on another bike that I enjoyed way more. I still have the frame hanging in my garage, and I still feel like I should hang onto it for some strange reason, like it still has some value to me… even though deep down I know it does not.

28 02 2011
thelazyrando

@Brian – I hear you. I was interested in a 4×4 travel van and mentioned on a list for those vans that it seemed odd you couldn’t arrange a test drive with the company before you bought a $100K custom rig.

I got a bunch of replied from people who said they bought their van with no test drive and love it.

I didn’t bug them, but I wanted to say after spending $100K on something unique that you can’t sell without a huge loss what else can you say???

Since I don’t have a $100K burning a hole in pocket I don’t have to worry too much…=-)

BTW – I’ve had similar experiences with bike frames where I’ve spent a bunch of $$$ on something theoretically awesome only to love my $350 production frame better…I also kept those frames for a long time after coming to that realization because I just couldn’t wrap my head around what went wrong.

1 03 2011
Raymond Parker

Of course, it is possible to make a mistake when ordering a custom frame … just as it is to roll out of a shop with the wrong off-the-peg frame.

I guess the larger sense of disappointment comes with the deflating of the dream that it was supposed to be “perfect,” and the fact that it was likely a much more expensive mistake.

I have one custom frame that underwhelmed. Luckily, as more of a semi-custom, it wasn’t super-expensive and I chalked it up to, as you say, a “prototype.” The next one was near-perfect.

I’m now ready to take the big plunge. My next frame will be full-custom 650b.

Come to think of it, custom may be a lifelong project, as our needs evolve.

1 03 2011
thelazyrando

@Raymond – any ideas where you’ll get your custom 650B from?…Rene Herse perhaps?

http://www.renehersebicycles.com/

That chrome plated 650B on their main page looks lovely.

5 03 2011
Why a 650B Boulder Bicycle Allroad? « The Lazy Randonneur

[...] aren’t many sources for a bike like this and I knew I didn’t want to go the fully custom route for the reasons I posted recently not to mention it would be the 2012 brevet season before a custom bike showed up. So the positive [...]

6 03 2011
Todd S

I agree with what you’ve said here. I plan on getting into some semi-custom frame building in the near future. Maybe settle in with just a couple of frames that I can make at a rate of closer to one every day or two instead of a week or longer. I’d very likely do full-customs for those who really want them, but the bulk would be semi-custom in the sense that the frames can be made in many different sizes and colors, brazeons and dropouts can be changed, but will not be customizable to the extent that I’m taking the customer’s humerus measurements. In that sense, I think this is essentially what the Boulder/Herse people are doing. I think components are a valuable area as well, though I see SOMA now has the handlebars I’ve been wanting to make for ages: http://reneherse.blogspot.com/2010/12/lauterwasser-handlebar-bliss-december.html. Bah, I can still make my own version of them. That’s what procrastination gets me.

8 03 2011
Raymond Parker

I haven’t narrowed it down too much yet. There are many good builders out there with 650b-specific experience.

Looking through a lot of the NAHBS presenters.

21 03 2011
Rob Thomson

Hi Vik,

Great selection of blog posts here about Bike Friday…very informative.

I was just wondering what, if any, opinions you have regarding the Bike Friday NWT and the Pocket Llama. They both seem to be marketed as tourers, although apparently the Pocket Llama is supposed to be more rugged?

Cheers,
Rob

PS. Between 2006-2008 I cycled (on a HPVelotechnik Street Machine GTe recumbent) and skateboarded (on a longboard skateboard) around the world – (www.14degrees.org/en), so am looking for something in between the full functionality/range of a bike and the simplicity of a take-anywhere longboard…I thought a folding bike might be just the ticket.

21 03 2011
Rob Thomson

Sorry Vik, I just saw your first post about your NWT (http://thelazyrando.wordpress.com/2009/01/20/bike-friday-new-world-tourist/)…no need for the extra wheel clearance etc…

Have you used the NWT on ice/snow? I live in Hokkaido, Japan, and would be navigating hard-packed snow roads for about 6 months of the year…

22 03 2011
thelazyrando

I used the Bike Friday Tikit on snow for two winters in Calgary and it was fine except for right after a snowfall when deep snow would overwhelm the 16″ wheels. The NWT has 20″ wheels so you can even get studded tires for it if needed. The NWT is a very capable bike. Get some Greenspeed Scorchers for non-winter use and inflate to a moderate pressure – they are fast and comfy tires. The Biek Friday fenders are good and ideal for packing/reinstalling quickly, but if you’ll be in one place a long time or not flying with the bike install some normal full coverage fenders for better protection.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/vikapproved/sets/72157623989828787/with/5189896128/

Your trip sounds awesome…=-)

22 03 2011
Rob Thomson

Thanks for the reply Vik…I am eying up the Schwalbe Marathon Winter HS 396 tyres for winter (http://www.schwalbetires.com/node/1788)….about summer tyres, have you used Schwalbe Big Apples before? I hear they are quite fast and comfy also. Especially their new Big Apple Liteskin looks interesting (http://www.schwalbetires.com/bike_tires/road_tires/big_apple).

22 03 2011
thelazyrando

The regular BAs are a lot slower than the GS Scorchers, but I haven’t tried the liteskin version. Note that 50mm tires don’t fit the NWT, but will fit the PL. I haven’t really had the urge to use anything after getting 40mm Scorchers on my Bike Fridays.

16 08 2011
Tikit PR Rack Update… « The Lazy Randonneur

[...] be. That’s too bad as I think it would have been a great addition to the Bike Friday Tikit. As I posted a few months ago – custom projects are difficult and may not turn out the way you …. That’s just part of the package and something you have to accept when pursuing them. I [...]

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