Larry Olmsted: The Great Life
If you like riding a bicycle, you will love riding a custom made bicycle.
Not everything is better in a handmade custom version: I’d rather fly in a jet from Boeing or Airbus than one some artisan made in a garage. But when it comes to road bikes, even the best off-the-rack bikes, even the models the top pros use, can’t compare to good custom versions. If riders in the Tour de France did not have paying sponsors, they would likely all ride custom models (and many ride custom versions of “stock bikes” you can’t buy anyway, or totally custom bikes by others painted to look like those from their sponsor). In fact, I was just in Mellow Johnny’s, the Texas bike shop owned by the most famous cyclist in history, 7-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong, and they had a hand-built custom frame on display with a placard saying that it was the first bike Lance EVER bought with his own money – and that was a recent purchase.
FYI, a new study written up in The Atlantic showed that in places where more people ride bikes to work, the citizens are happier, healthier, and more successful. I bet this is even truer for those who go custom over stock.
What’s the big difference? Fit, performance, and quality, only the three most important things. There is also looks and jealousy from other riders, but that’s just gravy. I spend a lot of time in the saddle as a recreational rider, doing charity Centuries (100 mile rides) and weekly fun group rides, but nowhere near as much as many enthusiasts, and going custom has emancipated my back and neck from pain, eliminated numb hands on longer rides, and basically crushed all discomfort except that which comes for being out of shape. The more you ride, the more important these aspects are. My wife, on the other hand, has a high-quality stock frame, and has made repeat visits to bike fitters over the years for new stems, handlebar adjustments, etc., in an attempt to eliminate her neck and shoulder issues. It has helped, but not enough (she’ll go custom when it’s time to buy a new bike, meaning when the piggy bank gets bigger).
The other day I was riding with a guy who had a Serotta, one of the top companies for custom bikes, and he told me how he went to a fancy bike shop and they told him that due to his size and shape, no off the rack bike would fit him well. He naturally assumed they were scamming him into buying a high-priced custom, so he spent the next two years going from shop to shop, unable to find anyone who could offer to sell him a bike that fit, riding a painful compromise the whole time, before biting the bullet and investing in the Serotta, which he now wishes he had bought two years earlier.
Unless you are 100% “average” no premade frame will ever fit you as well as one custom made to your measurements, from inseam to reach to how far you bend at the waist while riding. When I got my bike made by Seven Cycles, there were over 100 different questions and measurements involved. While fit in a bespoke suit translates to looking better, fit in a bespoke road bike translates to feeling better and possibly avoiding knee injuries from massive repetitions of an off kilter pedaling stroke, along with the various back, neck and arm pains associated with riding.
Then there is the performance issue. I like to climb, a lot, long grueling climbs and I like to stand and grind. So when I got my custom bike, I told Seven Cycles this and they built in an oversized seat tube to add rigidity for my standing pedal stroke, an efficiency increase. Even if a stock bike fit me perfectly, no stock bike can change the diameter of the tubes and flex of the frame to suit my whims, but Seven can.
When I bought my titanium Axiom model, about 6 years ago, custom bikes commanded a huge price premium over stock, and you really had to make the decision to spend more. Unfortunately, the price of better off-the-rack bikes has skyrocketed in recent years, while many custom bikes have actually gotten cheaper, greatly narrowing the gap, with the silver lining being that custom is now a much easier pill to swallow – and sometimes less than non-custom. And while most custom bike companies used to sell mainly frames that you then had to complete a la carte, the most expensive way to by bike components, they are now offering complete finish kits in a range of quality levels and greatly discounted prices.
“We’ve done it to make the bikes more attainable,” said Seven’s marketing director, Mattison Crowe. “You don’t have to spend $6000 anymore to get a full custom bike. You can, but you don’t have to. Frame prices are misleading because our buyers want to know how much the whole bike will cost, so we have been moving to that model.” For instance, Seven’s entry level all-steel, completely bespoke Resolute LSX can be had for $3,699 fully built out and ready to ride. This is comparable to a higher end off -the-rack steel bike, and less expensive than buying a stock steel frame from a prestigious Italian manufacturer like Colnago and building it up. Outside Magazine picked six stock road bikes as the best in all categories, from beginners to racers, for its 2011 Gear Guide, and these ranged from $2,460 – $8,715 with only one option under $3,200.
The completely bespoke and handmade titanium Axiom SXL is Seven’s lightest frame, and one of the lightest you can buy anywhere, yet it is priced competitively with better off-the-rack bikes.
With off-the-rack models at these prices, you can’t afford to not go custom. But make no mistake: just because the prices have become similar, custom is still better and more desirable and the longtime dream of many riders.
While cyclists are famously always looking for the next great thing, investing in custom means a good fit and lightweight frame that will last forever (in steel or titanium, not so much in carbon fiber), or at least for a really long time, and you won’t have to upgrade , while you can always upgrade components. In my case, because titanium does not rust or fatigue appreciably, its useful life is until I die. When I went custom, I also stopped coveting a new bike each season.
The final thing to consider is the craftsmanship and looks. I was not planning to buy a Seven when I toured the company’s Massachusetts’s factory for research, but once I saw how beautiful the welds were, how perfectly and lovingly the frames were made, I had to have one. And with custom, you choose the colors, the finish, the lettering (right down to font), no lettering, special art, your initials, etc., for a truly one of a kind bike. If you love hot pink, your road bike choices are limited in the store, but unlimited with custom. My bike is far from new, but it elicits complements from strangers nearly every time I ride it.
But there is a fine line between form and function in the case of custom bikes. If you are an avid gearhead, you crave a bike by a one man shop frame maker who does each as a labor of love, famed artists such as Richard Sachs or Carl Strong, guys whose entire production is 30-100 frames annually, and 100 is a lot in this category. But the tradeoff is that while you are buying an instant collectible with a ton of wow factor, at least from those in the know, there is nothing instant about it – you might have to wait years to actually ride. Sach’s waiting list is now at 7 years for delivery, and you pay based on what it will cost then!
Also, individual frame makers are true artists and quirky imperfection is part of what you pay a lot for. In a recent interview with Men’s Journal Magazine, Sachs said, “My bikes aren’t going to make you a faster or better rider.” I don’t know if that is true or not, but I know my Seven, and my friends’ Sevens and Serottas and Penguins have made them faster, if not better, riders, because they are lighter and optimize efficiency while better comfort on longer rides reduces fatigue. The other “problem” with the small custom shops is that for the most part they only work in metal, and many only in steel, because titanium (better than steel) requires more specialized equipment (especially for welding) and carbon fiber (better for some applications, like time trial and aero triathlon bikes) even more so, while the bigger companies offer the full choice of materials. Seven and Serotta in particular look nothing like garages and run laboratory-like production facilities where tolerances are excruciatingly precise, and the materials, be they steel, carbon fiber, or titanium, are best in class. Just as not all wool is cashmere, not all titanium is the best titanium. I’d make a substantial wager that not just the fit but the materials and construction of these bikes are appreciably superior to even the priciest off the rack American or Italian frames. In comparison, companies like Seven Cycles, which I swear by, Serotta, and Independent Fabrication (IF) make true made-to-measure custom bikes, but employ a team of frame builders, and you can get them in a matter of months, not years, and know how much it is going to cost. I’m not knocking the frame building artists, but I think the point of a bike is to ride it, sooner rather than later, within realistic limitations. It’s worth waiting months for a perfect fit over off the rack today, but is it worth years? You might not even be able to ride when it arrives.
These larger companies generally do not sell direct and often sell only frames, so you go to an authorized bike shop and get fitted, then they order the frame for you and you pick the components and have the bike built. More recently, Seven, Serotta, and IF have begun offering a slate of complete comment finish kits you can order for less than a la carte, but your dealer still usually gets the parts and assembles the bike. This makes the bikes a bit cheaper unless you want to change something, like the wheels, in which case you might have to buy all the parts separately.
For these reasons, the most important choice in the process is not actually who builds your frame, but where you go to get fitted. High volume custom specialists like Fit Werx in Vermont and Massachusetts, Bespoke Bicycles in San Francisco, or Signature Cycles, a passionate custom fitting expert in New York City and Greenwich, CT are excellent choices, but wherever you live, you should be able to identify a shop that does a lot of custom fitting, and usually they will have a special “fitting bike,” a stationary bike that is highly adjustable. Not only are these shops better skilled to measure you and assess your needs, they often sell more than one brand of custom bike and can help you compare. For instance, FitWerx carries Serotta and IF, and also smaller Moots and Parlee, all custom. Signature Cycles offers Seven, Serotta, IF, and Parlee.
So what’s the bottom line? Seven and Serotta both have an entry level steel road bike frame ($3,295 Serotta or $2,095 Seven). Step up to titanium and the frame price roughly doubles, while 100% carbon fiber is the priciest ($9,000 Serotta or $5,495 Seven). While carbon fiber models are better for time trials, triathlons, and wind cheating, the less expensive titanium is lighter, more durable, and rated better by Seven for centuries, touring, and recreational riding, another reason why it is important to consult a knowledgeable bike shop when deciding just what to buy. The titanium Axiom SLX is Seven’s lightest model, period, will last a lifetime, and can be purchased complete and ready to ride for $5800. If you start with the frame only, a good finish kit from either company runs $1300, and the best $5000. So basically, you can get a high quality entry-level total custom road bike for $3,700 from Seven or $5,000 from Serotta, or easily spend up to $14,000 for the supercar of road bikes. With an upper level component package and higher quality frame material, a good estimate would be $6-9,000 all in.
If you crave a high-quality, truly custom handmade bicycle without breaking the bank, consider a small local framemaker like Vermont’s Penguin Cycles.
If this is too rich for your blood, the alternative is going with a smaller but not famous custom bike maker who emphasizes fit over technology, which will give you the advantages of a bespoke bike without as much cache and likely at a slightly higher weight, though you will still have something truly unique other riders will certainly ask you about. There are tons of such companies across the country, and the annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show website is a good place to start. Where I live in Vermont, we have a local husband and wife company that several of my friends have bikes from, and everyone swears by them, at much lower prices but still totally custom – and significantly lower than quality off the rack frames too. It’s called Penguin Cycles, and all its frames, road and mountain and cyclocross, run $1275 including a high-quality Chris King headset, seat post clamp, water bottle mounts, brake mount, all necessary cable stops and guides, and a 2 color paint job with clearcoat. Penguins are all lightweight high quality steel and totally handmade, but since they sell direct and not through distributors, the best bet is to make an appointment and visit them in Vermont for a fitting. They can also get whatever components you want and build a total bike. This is a lot of bang for the buck: walk into a nice bike shop and try to buy a frame for less than $1275 – it’s not easy and not custom.
Wherever you get your custom bike you are going to be very happy with the fit, and anyone who knows anything about bikes will tell you that the fit is the single most important thing.