Bicycles are remarkably personal and intimate items, so why do so many of us accept the notion of ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to shopping for one? I recently attended the Baller’s Ride – a small, private gathering of custom builders and friends in Nellysford, Virginia – where I quizzed both builders and buyers about the appeal of custom bikes. Are bespoke bikes for everyone? No, of course not. But you may be surprised at why so many people want one, as well as how well within reach one might be.
You can’t find the features you want
By definition, mass manufacturers have to design bikes for the mainstream as it just isn’t economically worthwhile to develop new models for a minority. If you fit within the bell curve for fit, features and aesthetics, you’re in luck; but if not, you might find yourself stuck in a perpetual search for something that just isn’t out there.
Enter the custom builder, who only has to answer the needs and wants of one person: you.
“I’m in the queue for a French-style randonneur bike that I’m hopeful will ride like a regular road bike or better with 650b wheels for big tires, fenders and lights because I commute full-time,” said one custom buyer at the event. “And the commuters that you find in bike stores suck. They’re ugly, they’re heavy and they ride like crap. I have one but it’s terrible; I hate it.”
Custom builders are uniquely positioned to provide customers with bikes that aren't available through mainstream channels
Smaller builders are also oftentimes able to respond more quickly to hot new trends – or voluntarily ignore ones they don’t feel are worthwhile. I just covered my tenth North American Handmade Bicycle Show, for example, and it’s reliably served as a bellwether for emerging categories. All-road bikes, fat bikes, 29ers, higher-end commuters, and disc-equipped road and ’cross bikes all made the rounds in the custom marketplace years before they were common on shop floors.
“For me, a titanium bike with Di2, an English bottom bracket, disc brakes, and handbuilt wheels was a no-brainer,” said another customer owner. “Nothing ever goes wrong.”
You want a certain look
Aesthetics are no small piece of the puzzle when it comes to bikes. To some degree, bikes are extensions of ourselves and no one wants to ride something they think is ugly. Stock bikes, though, are often offered in just a handful of different colors – if there are any options at all. And increasingly so these days, there’s been a backlash against bikes turning into rolling billboards of marketing jargon.
Special paint is often the hallmark of a custom bike
With most custom builders, there is far more flexibility in terms of what your bike will look like. Want your bike painted in the same colors as the car of your dreams? Maybe there’s a certain shade of green that you absolutely love? Or perhaps you’ve always been dying to have your name emblazoned in huge comic sans letters on the top tube? A good custom builder can make that happen.
“The bikes are cleaner looking with the custom paintwork," said another buyer. "There aren’t as many acronyms as the bike."
You want something different
By definition, custom bikes are a rare bunch. Whereas a company like Trek might build thousands of just one particular model, even a well established custom builder might only churn out twenty bikes in an entire year. The chances of seeing another one on your group ride are slim, at best, and if you’re one to prize a sense of uniqueness, that’s certainly worth something.
“I live in an area where there are a lot of Specialized dealers and they’re really good bikes but I head out on a group ride and 90 percent of the people are on Specialized or Trek,” said a custom bike buyer.
High-end town bikes still aren't widely offered by major labels but custom builders are happy to oblige
Many of the custom buyers I spoke with openly acknowledged that they easily could have found what they wanted in terms of features from a major brand but they didn’t want to ride a cookie-cutter machine.
“All of mine I can get [from a major brand]: my Crumpton, my Spectrum, my Lobster, my Zanc[onato], whatever else," one rider said. "I’m 61cm x 58cm and I can get that anywhere. But I like the guys, I like the process, I like being asked what I’m riding. I think I have the only Crumpton in France! Everyone here can be on a production bike.”
You want a connection with the builder
Major labels are masterminds of mass manufacturing and have far more resources available to pursue technological developments. But that said, you’re buying into a brand whereas with a custom builder, you’re investing in particular person, and that may be important to you.
More than a few custom clients at the Baller’s Ride event mentioned how much satisfaction they got from the process of having a bespoke bike built: the conversations, the back-and-forth with specs and geometry, the simple act of getting to know someone.
“It’s really nice to be able to pick up the phone and talk to the person who’s putting torch to metal. We want something different, something that doesn’t say Cannondale or Specialized or whatever," another buyer said. "Why not go through the process and get exactly what you want?”
Custom builders often tout the process of getting to know their clients and learning exactly what they want out of their bikes
Others echoed the fact that while many bikes are built with a certain type of rider or riding in mind, that doesn’t always correspond to what they’re actually doing on home roads or trails.
“Every bike brand out there is advertising the pro team that they sponsor. Nobody that’s buying those bikes is riding for that pro team," a rider pointed out. "The people that are buying the bikes that these guys are making are doing the kind of riding that these guys are doing.”
“I care a lot about handling. I live in a really flat area where I might only do a couple hundred feet of climbing in a month, and so these ‘marginal gains’ of these ultralight race bikes don’t matter.”
Stock bikes just don’t fit
Stock bikes aren’t just built for the center of the bell curve in terms of features; they’re also built with the average rider sizes in mind and not everyone is average. Being at the extremes of height or weight is a possibility for sure but there’s also a lot of variation in terms of proportions. For example, one rider might have abnormally long legs for a given height that simply aren’t accommodated by standard geometry.
“I’m 6ft 6in and 200lb,” said one custom owner. “No bike fits me well. I had no idea that I’d eventually end up on a bike with a 66cm top tube, a 140mm stem, and a yard of drop and that it was going to be incredible.”
They’re not always super expensive or heavy
Finally, there’s the issue of cost. For sure, custom bikes – on average – cost more than stock bikes of similar performance. That said, every major manufacturer now has a healthy range of models at the ultra-premium end of the pricing spectrum where there’s much less of a disparity.
You'd be surprised at how reasonably priced some custom bikes can be
In fact, some custom builders are remarkably reasonable in terms of cost with complete builds coming in surprisingly competitive, even at midrange price points.
“There really isn’t a huge price gap any more,” said one custom owner with multiple bikes in his stable. “There was at one point. Stock bikes nowadays are US$3,000! You can get a high-end stock bike and it’s just as much as getting a great custom bike so why not enjoy the process and get exactly what you want? I’ve got the cheapest bike in my group!”
As for weight, modern custom bikes can not only be competitive on the scale but they can sometimes be even better. One titanium road bike I saw at the Baller's Ride was barely UCI-legal at just a hair over 15 pounds, and that was with handbuilt aluminum clincher wheels.
Is custom for you?
This all isn’t to say that everyone should go custom. I have plenty of off-the-shelf bikes that I absolutely love and just couldn’t be replicated by a cottage shop. But I’ve also been fortunate enough to have several custom bikes made and they’re invariably just that little bit more special.
The point is that with so many options out there, there’s just no reason to settle for something less than exactly what you want. Life is too short to ride a bike that doesn’t make you smile every time you ride it.