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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.