Where is the value in a custom-made frame?
There is no denying the fascination cyclists have for custom-made frames, but only a fraction ever contemplate buying one for themselves. For most, expense is a major hurdle; another is the limited availability of these niche products. Why pay more and wait longer for something that is readily available at the local bike shop?
However, there is more to a frame than simply satisfying a nominal price point and consumer impulses, like an accurate fit, the perfect combination of specifications, and a personalised finish. How could anybody resist an individually crafted frame?
Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom has spent time in both camps, and in this article, he takes a close look at all of the pros and cons for a custom-made frame.
In today’s market, a handcrafted frame is something of a curiosity. Some might even call it a throwback to an earlier time when the bicycle industry comprised nothing more than small bespoke workshops and traditional handcrafting techniques. This was the environment where our understanding of frame design and geometry was forged, and for decades, the evolution of bikes was driven by innovative framebuilders working to satisfy the needs of their customers.
Mass manufacturing has been hugely successful in bringing the modern bicycle to a much larger audience. And on the whole, the companies and brands responsible for this effort have done a fantastic job creating frames and bikes that satisfy and enrich the cycling lives of millions of people. This alone is evidence enough that a made-to-measure product is not necessary, and yet, custom-built frames and bikes still persist.
Indeed, there is a thriving global community of craftspeople dedicated to bespoke frame production. Curiosity alone cannot account for its existence. The demand for made-to-measure must extend beyond fascination, and while a craft will always attract some patrons, it needs paying customers to thrive. So what is it that encourages a shopper to open their wallets and wait months (even years) for a custom-built frame?
The mass market cannot satisfy every need
The range of mass produced frames is truly impressive, with some brands bringing dozens of different bikes to market every year. Consumers are truly spoilt for choice, helped in part by the drive to update those bikes on a regular basis. New catalogues are launched annually, and many designs are refined or overhauled every 3-5 years, making for a very dynamic marketplace.
All of this effort does very little to compensate for one major shortcoming: mass produced frames are only offered in a relatively small number of sizes. While variations in frame geometry from one model or brand to another compensate for this to some degree, a change in the length and/or position of the stem is often needed to modify the stack and reach of the frame to suit the individual. At the same time, a change in seatpost with more or less offset may also be required.
On paper, these kind of refinements will allow a rider to assume their ideal position on a variety of frames. The industry even offers a generous range of stems and seatposts to make this possible, however some alterations can have an effect on the handling of the bike. For example, a short stem (e.g. 60mm) will accelerate the steering response of a road bike to the point where it may become unstable at high speeds.
For those riders that fall within the norm, stock frame sizes will often work well, but it’s the outliers that will suffer the most. That includes individuals with unusual body proportions, pronounced body asymmetry, or an injury that limits their range of motion. In all of these instances, a custom-built, made-to-measure frame will have a lot to offer, because it will be able to achieve a comfortable and effective position without compromising the handling of the bike.
Fitting the bike to the rider, not the rider to the bike
Our understanding of the importance of marginal gains to cycling, especially performance-oriented efforts, has grown a lot in recent years, and this notion applies equally to the fit of the bike. A few millimetres can have a profound effect on the comfort of a rider, especially in the context of long hours on the bike on a daily or weekly basis.
A custom-built frame is normally designed in the context of the rider’s ideal fit. There is no need to abide by whole-centimetre increments in stem length when the geometry of the frame can be adjusted to the millimetre. Moreover, a custom-built frame is designed around a specified stem length, fork rake, and saddle type with the length of the chainstays and wheelbase adjusted for perfect weight distribution.
In absolute terms, each refinement in frame geometry may only have a subtle effect on its own, but they can add up to more than the sum total to produce a bike that satisfies all of the regular clichés (e.g. “fits like a glove”, “corners like it’s on rails”, etc). That does not mean that a mass produced frame can’t offer the same thing, because they can, but it’s not something that is guaranteed to all consumers. It’s just a hope, which is why a test ride is so important for shoppers in the mass market.
More than just the fit
A custom-built frame provides enormous opportunity for personalisation in a variety of ways. On one level, there is the fit, as discussed above. On another, there is the final finish, including colour and paint scheme (or lack thereof). Yet another relates to the choice of building materials, then there is the choice of brakes, powered or unpowered derailleurs, and the amount of tyre clearance. Other options may extend to the preference for a horizontal or sloping top tube, choice of bottom bracket shell, number of bidon cage mounts, and the provision of fittings for racks and/or fenders.
There is no other setting where the customer gets the opportunity to work closely with a framebuilder to decide the specifications for the frame. It makes for an enormously satisfying and empowering process, and likely explains the very high level of customer satisfaction. Importantly, that satisfaction not only applies in the short term; it typically plays out over the life of the bike in the form of ongoing contentment. This is in stark contrast to the mass market that almost fosters dissatisfaction in its customers by constantly marketing new and improved frames.
When viewed as a whole, the custom framebuilding industry can accommodate nearly any request, including one-off concepts that might shatter the mould for a modern bike. At the level of the individual, though, every framebuilder has a set of strengths and will only go so far to accommodate some requests. For example, there is no point in trying to convince a builder that specialises in lugged steel frames to weld up a titanium frame, or vice versa. Likewise for the specific choice of tube shapes or diameters. Both are akin to taking hold of an artist’s brush and forcing them to adopt a new style for their work.
It is the style and flavour of the work that really distinguishes one framebuilder from another, and finding a suitable framebuilder is really a matter of compatibility with the customer’s brief. Some might argue that technical excellence is also important, however this is an intrinsic part of the profession (or at least it should be). Nevertheless, reputation is important to the profile of any framebuilder, but keep in mind that their prices and/or lead times are likely to grow with it.
The allure of exclusivity
As a niche product, a custom-built frame will always exude an amount of exclusivity. After all, most won’t recognise the brand and owners are unlikely to spot another example when out on the road or trail. Of course, there is always the risk that onlookers may dismiss the bike on the basis of unfamiliarity, but for those riders that enjoy swimming against the mainstream, nothing can rival the uniqueness of a bespoke frame.
Opting for an unique finish will only heighten this sense. In the realm of custom-built frames, this often entails eye-catching paint and a dazzling scheme, both of which have become hallmarks for the industry. Customers can draw upon all sorts of inspiration for the final finish, and the results are often as distinct as they are personal.
Aside from the paint, a framebuilder will often add distinctive details and embellishments to the frame as part of the construction process. In this regard, traditional lugs are highly effective, since they can be shaped in a variety of ways, and even polished to a mirror finish (if made from stainless steel). TIG-welding, fillet-brazing, bilaminate construction, and the hybridisation of materials (e.g. titanium/carbon) all work in the same way, too, adding to the exclusivity of the product, because they are rarely found in the mass market. And in every instance, they serve as distinctive touchpoints that highlight the framebuilder’s skill.
The distinctions go even deeper because at the very heart of a custom-built frame, there is a unique ride quality that will set it apart from mainstream offerings. Custom framebuilders often work with materials that have been eschewed by the mass market — steel, titanium, and stainless steel — and that is often enough to provide a noticeable difference. However, many framebuilders will go further, butting, shaping, and tuning their preferred construction material (including carbon fibre) to suit the customer.
In strict terms, the differences may only be a matter of nuance, but the net result is a frame that is not only unique in appearance, but also in how it feels to the rider.
Time to consider all the possibilities
Every custom-built frame requires time to be built, and if the framebuilder is busy, then the customer must wait even longer. At face value, this might seem like a curse, but it allows the customer to contemplate all of the possibilities for the frame and the build.
There are a lot of decisions to make, and the process is not unlike renovating or building a house. The framebuilder will be on hand to discuss the options, and will often challenge the customer to get a clearer picture of what they need. This includes the parts that will eventually be installed on the bike, because they can have an impact on the specifications for the frame. This process can be a challenging intellectual exercise, because there is no physical model, and no chance of a test ride, to help with visualising and assessing each option.
Previous experience can be important to this process, and indeed, framebuilders will normally ask their customers about the bikes and components that they have enjoyed as well as those that have disappointed them. After that, it becomes a matter of research and contemplation as the customer delves into each facet of the project to arrive at a considered decision.
As time-consuming as this process can be, the effort will not be wasted. It gives the customer the chance to engage with the creation of their new bike in a way that is not possible with a mass-produced product. Speak to anybody that owns a custom-built frame/bike and there will be a story behind every decision, and it makes for deeper connection with the final product.
The price of highly-skilled labour
Custom-built frames are expensive, and with good reason. The production of a made-to-measure product is very difficult to streamline, and as a result, it simply requires more time to construct the frame. Many of the prized construction processes, like shaping lugs or filing fillets, are also extremely time-intensive, which only adds to the cost of labour.
Much of it is highly skilled labour, too, with an emphasis on the most stringent standards of construction. The extra attention to detail makes for a straighter frame with more accurate fittings that are much less likely to fail or interfere with the performance of the bike. In this context, it is much easier to justify the use of high quality (and more expensive) materials, yet those materials are often more demanding to work with, adding further to the final cost of the frame.
The addition of intricate details and thoughtful touches adds another layer of expense, as do detailed paint schemes and/or polished surfaces. For those that appreciate the craftmanship involved, these pricey touches become something of an investment because they elevate the quality of the frame.
That all said, it’s important to point out that custom bikes don’t always have to be outrageously pricey. Many bespoke options can be quite reasonable, especially if you’re willing to forego extra filigree and embellishment.
A bike for life
It should be clear from the discussion above that a custom-built frame is not a hasty purchase. It’s not a disposable product, either, destined to become redundant after just a few years of use. Fashion cannot compete with a personalised product, so a change in mass market trends has no effect on the connection with, and the devotion to, a custom-built frame. As a result, it often makes for a bike for life.
When viewed from this perspective, the extra expense of a custom-built frame becomes much easier to justify. The extra effort, too, starts to look like a worthy investment, as does the choice of high quality materials. However, a custom-built frame is rarely a rational decision; rather, it is normally born out of a deep appreciation for what the craft of framebuilding has to offer.
It may seem a flippant notion, but a custom-built frame can be likened to a piece of art. It fills the same space as modern sculpture and is as personal as a portrait. The work of the late Dario Pegoretti was often regarded in this way, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t apply to his peers. That each sculpture/portrait is put to use on the road (or elsewhere) may offend the connoisseur, but it adds a functional, and arguably transcendent, dimension to the work: a piece of art that refuses to be tethered to a wall.
Too much for the regular customer
For most cyclists, though, there is simply no need for the artistry and exclusivity of a custom-built frame. After all, a bike is a piece of sporting equipment and/or a means of transportation that is defined by its functionality. The extra time and effort that is devoted to a custom-built frame is, at best, futile in the eyes of many, and at worst, a vanity, because it does little (if anything) to improve its functionality.
In this regard, mass manufacturing has been a triumph, creating highly functional products at a readily affordable price. The industry has also evolved to meet a spectrum of demands, wooing the consumer as much as proving to them that there is no need to spend more on a custom-built frame. And in strict terms, there really isn’t, because the quality of mass produced frames and bikes is generally very high.
Cost is not the only excess that afflicts a custom-built frame. All of the various bespoke options and choices will be lost on the novice, overwhelming for the uninitiated, and completely unnecessary for the pragmatist. They can also add some ambiguity to the final price, which will unnerve shoppers on a tight budget.
If that isn’t enough to turn off a prospective customer, then having to wait in a queue will. It is not unusual for a framebuilder’s lead time to be measured in months, during which, there may be very little communication from the framebuilder. On one hand, this can add to anticipation, but on the other, it can cause immense frustration as the forecast delivery date is delayed due to hiccups in the supply chain and/or unforeseen circumstances in the framebuilder’s life.
Yet another hurdle is one of access. Bespoke framebuilders do not populate every town or city, so it can be difficult to meet one and view their work (which is why shows like NAHBS, Handmade Bicycle Show Australia, and the Philly Bike Expo are so worthwhile to attend). Beyond that, it becomes an exercise in the ethereal, because the framebuilder cannot provide the final product for consideration, let alone a test ride, until it has been bought and paid for. Clearly, a leap of faith is required to place an order, and for those unconvinced by the merits of the bespoke process, this will be a deal breaker.
Mass manufacturers, by contrast, are unmatched when it comes to the ease and convenience with which they are able to deliver their products to the consumer. For most shoppers, that typically means a short trip to their local bike shop, where deciding upon a new bike is a satisfyingly corporeal experience. A variety of brands and models can be inspected at close range, picked up and considered, even test-ridden for an impromptu shootout.
Confidence in the mass market
For many, there is enormous comfort and security in dealing with a major manufacturer, especially when the price of a new bike extends to thousands of dollars/pounds/euros. Custom framebuilders simply lack the same kind of profile, presence, and appeal as the major brands, and they can’t compete with the widespread marketing campaigns and high-profile sponsorships that work so well to build consumer confidence.
Personal recommendations are often key when it comes to making a big purchase decision, and in this regard, most shoppers won’t have to look far to find a friend or family member that has had experience with a major brand. The general dominance of these brands out on the road (and elsewhere) only reinforces this notion for another bump in consumer confidence.
Then there is the matter of innovation. The mass market has invested heavily in research and development with very public demonstrations of its achievements in the form of new products, fresh catalogues every year, and regular overhauls for its most popular platforms. While much of the fanfare may simply be a matter of marketing, it consistently outshines the efforts of custom framebuilders, creating the impression that the major manufacturers are responsible for all of the breakthroughs in bike technology.
This is certainly true in the realm of aerodynamics. This was a space originally populated by exclusive bespoke products, but the rate of development accelerated once mass manufacturers started devoting their resources to this challenge. The results have been spectacular, too, and now consumers can revel in all sorts of marginal gains. A custom-built frame may be able to offer a perfect fit, but it will only go so far towards improving the performance of a cyclist when compared to an aerodynamically-astute frameset.
That does not mean custom framebuilders aren’t innovative, because they are, however their achievements often go unrecognised. They simply don’t have the resources and market penetration to showcase their innovations like the major manufacturers. Be that as it may, they still have an influence on the industry, and over the years, there have been many instances where the major manufacturers have taken inspiration from custom framebuilders (and vice versa).
Custom framebuilders find themselves in the same situation when it comes to safety and product testing. This is something that all framebuilders, big and small, take very seriously, however the major brands are in a better position to demonstrate the extent of their efforts. The end result may only be a matter of perception, but the major brands have a stronger track record, at least in the eyes of the general consumer.
At face value, there seems to be a lot that separates a custom-built frame from a mass produced one, but fundamentally, it is simply a matter of scale. The major manufacturers work hard to address the needs of the population, while custom framebuilders choose to concentrate on the individual. Materials and methods may vary, but the outcome remains the same: a frame that has been created to meet a set of specified needs.
For those cyclists that fall within the norm, the mass market has a lot to offer. This is also true for newcomers and developing cyclists where cost can be a barrier for entry into the sport. And in recent years, a high-end niche has also developed to meet the needs of experienced riders (and consumers), so for most, there really is no need to look elsewhere.
The bespoke framebuilding industry really exists to satisfy the needs of the outlier and discerning consumers, and for those that already understand this, few words will ever be needed to convince them of the value of a custom-built frame. They cannot resist the draw of the craft or the prospect of collaborating with a framebuilder to create the ideal frame.
That just leaves those that fall in between, the evolving cyclist that might be experiencing growing frustration and dissatisfaction with what the major brands have to offer. Every cyclist evolves over time, and it can affect their position on the bike as much as their riding style, motivation, and ambitions. A custom-built frame may not always be the best choice for somebody in this situation, but concerns about the asking price should not be enough to stop anybody from considering the possibility.