Times are tough for everyone just now, but no more so than for small independent businesses. Enforced closures, vanishing orders and economic uncertainty make for hard going for any non-core business.
Custom bike builders – which are more often than not a solo endeavour – definitely fall into this category.
With that in mind, and with NAHBS and Bespoked (two of the year’s biggest custom bike shows) cancelled, we thought it was an apt time to reflect on BikeRadar’s favourite custom bike builders.
From beautiful new-school constructeur bikes that meld old with new, to uncompromising go-fast aero bits, our selection of bikes and builders is a delightfully diverse one.
However, before we take a deep dive into custom bike eye-candy, a request: speaking as the son of a bespoke cabinet maker – a similarly precarious non-essential craft – I ask that if you’re lucky enough to have the disposable cash and have been considering a custom bike, now is the time to act.
Your custom (eyy) and the security it will bring to these businesses will make a world of difference in these very weird times.
Lastly, if there are any custom builders you feel deserve a shout out, or if you simply want to show off your own beautiful bike, be sure to leave your thoughts and photos in the comments.
Simon Bromley – Wattshop
Wattshop is a manufacturer of parts and components uncompromisingly designed to save you watts. Created by Team Ribble and Huub Wattbike professional/boffin Dan Bigham (the guy who made the POC Tempor cool and played a role in Denmark’s recent smashing of the team pursuit world record).
Wattshop started out making small parts, such as tall-sided time-trial armrests and waxed chains, and offering aero testing and consultancy services, but it has expanded.
Super-expensive custom carbon cockpits? Yes please. WattShop
With the Tokyo Olympics in mind (now sadly postponed due to the global Covid-19 pandemic), Wattshop partnered with UK-based composites manufacturer Pentaxia to create the Anemoi Olympic Edition Pentaxia Cockpit.
With claimed savings of up to 36 watts versus a standard tri-bar setup at Olympic team pursuit speeds of 64kph, it’s designed and manufactured in the UK. However, perhaps most importantly for a slow rider like myself, it looks so cool.
Since the basebar is specific to the Argon 18 Electron Pro track bike, I’d just like a set of the £4,000 aerobar extensions (and an aero testing session to go with them, if that’s not too greedy).
Yes, they would look absolutely ridiculous on my Planet X Exocet 2 time-trial bike, but embracing the absurdity is most of the fun in time trialling after all. Why else would you squeeze yourself in to a tiny Lycra skinsuit, don a pointy helmet and ride up and down a dual carriageway in the early hours of a Saturday morning?
Jack Luke – Chapman Cycles and Meerglas
I have a real soft spot for contemporary custom bike builders that continue to carry the torch (in every sense of the word) of the classic mid-century constructeurs.
A constructeur is a loose term used to describe a group of custom bike builders, primarily based in France, that were active from the 1940s until the mid-seventies.
They specialised in randonneuring/brevet bikes that were impeccably designed as a complete system, with beautiful custom-fabricated derailleurs, racks and lighting often being made in-house. Alex Singer and René Herse are the two best-known names from this era.
(This is an extremely brief overview that does a disservice to a fascinating era in bicycle design. For further reading on the subject, I recommend Jan Heine’s excellent The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles and René Herse: The Bikes, The Builder, The Riders.)
Peter Weigle is often considered by many to be the modern day equivalent of these two legendary builders (after all, he is the man who hosts French Fender Day, a celebration of all things mudguard and constructeur).
But, for me, it’s a toss-up between Rhode Island’s Chapman Cycles and Groß Lüben’s (formerly Berlin) Meerglas as my favourite.
Both are, in my opinion, some of the finest builders out there, but it’s the extensive customisation of the components they fit to their bikes that truly sets them apart.
Chapman’s bikes often include amazing custom details, such as the dynamo-charged Di2 drivetrain on this light touring bike. Brian Chapman
Chapman is best known for his custom handmade cranksets, often wince-inducing yet ingenious modification of vintage parts and wonderful in-house paintwork.
The component choice on this fully-equipped 8.2kg (8.2kg!) randonneur bike is simply sublime. Meerglas
Thomas Becker of Meerglas bikes stands out for his tasteful selection of modern components that wonderfully complement the classic lines of his bikes as well as his use of anodising.
If I had the money to spend, I’d be ordering a go-fast lightweight Meerglass or Chapman randonneur bike with – among other ludicrously exacting requirements – direct-mount Paul Racer brakes, a full dynamo light setup, space for 35mm tyres, paint-matched mudguards, a custom front rack and decaleur setup, and a glittery pastel pink finish.
While we’re at it, we may as well throw in a full complement of matching C. Brenn Cyclotouring Bags, which are made back home in Glasgow, Scotland. Continuing with the locally sourced theme, I’ll also dictate that my bags are made from Halley Stevensons waxed canvas because why the heck not?
One can dream.
Warren Rossiter – Sven Cycles
It’s tough to narrow down such a broad field to just one builder. I’ve been lucky enough to be a judge at the UK’s Bespoked custom bike show since its inception and had the chance to see some seriously clever and beautiful bike designs from across the globe.
Dario Pegoretti’s svelte sophistication and one-off painting, Ricky Feather’s glorious attention to detail, or brands such as Bastion Cycles with clever multi-material integrations are all impressive. However, my favourite builder is Dorset’s own Sven Cycles.
Darron and Mog – the brains behind Sven – have a simple mantra: that bikes are built for purpose, and chroming, ornate lugs and visual stylings are one thing, but foremost a bike needs to be built to do a job.
They offer plenty of superb standard bikes – the Pathfinder is simply a superb gravel bike, but what I really like is the truly bespoke offerings they have produced in the past.
The Stingray tricycle built last year was truly a bike – sorry, trike – built for one purpose.
The ‘Forager’, built for campaigner, writer and chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his executive group chef is another great example.
This variety is what I love about Sven’s work – Darron and Mog are people who don’t like to say no and are truly up for a challenge.
They’ll even take your neglected vintage bike to either restore or reimagine it for daily use. This waste-not want-not approach is admirable in an era of disposable products.
Rarely do utility ebikes look this good. Warren Rossiter / Immediate Media
As for which of their bikes I would want to own? Well, I actually own it – the Swift ebike.
I first saw this bike at Bespoked in 2018, and after chatting with Darron, we agreed that I should run the Swift as a long-termer.
My commute to BikeRadar towers in Bristol is a 30-mile journey each way, and my usual working week comprises four days of bike and product testing, and one day in the office.
I don’t much like the commute by train – it’s expensive and overcrowded – and the drive involves Bristol’s heinous traffic, so an ebike was ideal.
The Shimano Steps system is good for around 65 to 70 miles on a charge and the Swift’s Reynolds steel and fat 650b slicks make it comfortable too.
I added an old modified beer crate to the front porteur rack for my bag, and it was the perfect commuting machine.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, after running it for a couple of years, it came time to return the Swift commuter truck and I couldn’t bear to part with it. So, after a few conversations and a bit of negotiation, the Swift is now mine, and I think it’s absolutely the most fun you can have on a commute.
Matthew Loveridge – Speedvagen
I love the look of the Speedvagen Rugged Road. Speedvagen
As someone with a surfeit of opinions about bike design, it might surprise you to learn that I don’t actually have a favourite custom bike builder.
Is it because I’ve sold out to big bike and only like boring mainstream carbon things? Not at all, I’ve just never been in a position where spending thousands on a beautiful custom bike was a fiscally responsible thing to do.
And that’s why I’m making the lamestream choice in custom bikes: Speedvagen. Given the legions of small builders out there, opting for a Speedvagen is a bit like saying you like coffee, and choosing a Starbucks.
It’s not that Starbucks is bad (it’s fine), it’s just incredibly unimaginative because they’re one of the biggest players in the game.
The thing is, Speedvagen makes absolutely stunning bikes, and they particularly appeal to me with their colour-matched Honjo mudguards – I have a real fetish for fenders done right.
A Speedvagen Rugged Road looks just the ticket. It’s a big tyred road bike that oozes style and all-weather capability. I’d have mine with mechanical Dura-Ace.
Alex Evans – BTR Fabrications and Swarf Cycles
We loved the BTR Ranger Tam when we reviewed it. Mick Kirkman
Based out of Frome in cider-drinking Somerset, BTR Fabrications is run by what has to be one of the most enthusiastic and talented – both on and off the bike – people in the cycling industry, Paul Burford.
Anyone that knew Paul when he was a teenage lad will remember him always talking about his plan to one day design, build and ride bikes that he’d built.
In 2011, with the help of his business partner Tam, the journey to making that happen became a real reality.
BTR’s bikes were well ahead of the curve when they first launched, with long, slack and low geometry. At the time, a 63-degree head angle seemed bonkers, but now it’s common on a lot of mainstream big-brand production rigs.
His bikes are built with such meticulous attention to detail and fine, carefully crafted tubes, the beautiful welds are a real highlight on every build.
BTR Fabrications’ range currently has eight different models spanning in price from the Ripper hardtail starting at £750 all the way up to the starting price of £3,000 for the full suspension Pinner.
Went back to the drawing board. Wasn't getting the leverage ratio I wanted with the yoke, plus I had a load of people…
Posted by BTR Fabrications on Saturday, March 21, 2020
It also looks like BTR is in the process of designing a brand-new downhill bike. Stay tuned to its social feeds for more.
While we’re at it, I’ll nominate another custom builder. Like a lot of smaller bike brands, Swarf Cycles is a rider-owned one-man outfit with a passion for bikes at its very core.
Adrian Bedford, Swarf’s owner, designer, frame builder and, almost certainly, resident tea maker, hails from an aerospace and engineering background, giving him exceptional technical knowledge that shows in the fantastic bikes he creates.
It will come as no surprise that the first Swarf-branded bike was a technical masterpiece with a high main pivot, a chain idler wheel and featured a steel front-end matched to a carbon fibre swingarm – this level of technical intricacy and know-how is rarely seen.
Since the first bike, Adrian has toned things down a tad. His range of beautifully hand-crafted hardtail and full-suspension bikes, of which there are two at the moment, are now constructed entirely from steel.
The bikes he makes are truly stunning, with clean, straight lines from front to back and fuss-free joins where tubes meet. All of the details are simple but painstakingly designed and lovingly crafted.
Adrian can also build bikes to order, no matter your requirements and prices start at £1,200 for a TIG-welded steel frame.
You can pick up a Contour full-suspension bike starting at £1,950 with a RockShox rear shock and a Spline hardtail from £1,020.
Robin Wilmott – T-Lab bikes
I’ve long been blown away by the creativeness of so many custom bike builders, and how they can make something that’s fundamentally a utilitarian tool into a truly beautiful object.
But I don’t just want a bike to look great, it needs to back up its looks with equivalent performance.
There are many builders making custom titanium frames, and all have their own style, but they almost always use round tubing. Some crimp or flatten it, bend or twist it, but the frame tubes are generally round because working titanium tubing is hard.
I’ve never been disappointed with the ride of a titanium frame because the material’s natural characteristics are its selling point, but when Montreal’s T-Lab told me about its unique frames, I was intrigued.
The tube forming on T-Lab’s bikes is amazing to look at in the flesh. BikeRadar
T-Lab has developed methods of cold-working titanium tubes to create the sort of extreme profiles and shapes usually only possible with carbon fibre.
Co-founder of T-Lab, Roberto Rossi, says its frames maintain the ride quality and durability of titanium, but with the performance of carbon fibre.
It’s a bold claim, and one I wanted to investigate, so after many weeks of trans-Atlantic conversations in 2019, my custom T-Lab X3 arrived.
It’s a versatile all-road frame, with clearance for 700 x 45mm or 650b x 2in tyres, mounts for mudguards, three bottles and luggage on the fork legs, and has my chosen geometry and frame finishes.
I built it with a 1x Shimano GRX groupset, Mavic Allroad wheels, Michelin tyres, plus Easton bar, stem and seatpost, topped with matching Fabric saddle and bar tape.
It rides like no other titanium bike I’ve ever tried, with real kick-in-the-pants acceleration, razor sharp response and a taut feel, as well as the expected inbuilt float.
I still marvel at the tube shaping and the workmanship that went in to creating the frame, but most of all, I love riding it because it’s just so lively and informative, enhancing rather than dulling my rides.
Cycling Plus magazine will have a feature on T-Lab, and more on this bike in a forthcoming issue.