By Jim Kish
It used to be that only oddly proportioned weirdos, or millionaires − or millionaire weirdos − rode custom bicycles. Over the past 10 years or so, though, the cost of high-end production bicycles has gone up dramatically, while custom frames haven’t quite kept pace.
The playing field is now pretty well levelled. Moreover, cost is often no longer the driving factor in cyclists’ decision whether or not to go the custom route.
So, should you buy a custom for your next bike? Maybe.
In my experience, riders usually call on a custom builder for one of three reasons. They may have a hard time finding a bike that fits their body well. Or, options may be limited for a bike that suits the type of riding they want to do. Just as often, though, a rider fits perfectly fine on an off-the-shelf bike but is passionate about the idea of a bicycle built just for her or him.
Let’s dissect each of those primary reasons to see if they resonate with you.
Body Type, Shape and Fit
If your height is very far off the middle of the bell curve, or if you are put together much different than Joe or Josephine Average, you will need to make concessions with your fit on a stock bike.
In the case of a shorter- or taller-than-average rider (anyone under 5’2” [157cm] or over 6’ [183cm]), your choices may be quite limited, and you may find yourself marrying odd components to your already marginally-fitting bike in order to make it tolerable. Shorter riders are especially unfairly penalized, due to the widespread use of the relatively large 700c wheel on road bikes of all sizes.
Even if you’re of average height, but oddly-proportioned (torso, arm or inseam that deviates more than an inch or two [2.5-5cm] from average for your height), you’ll probably be able to find a bike sized acceptably in either the X axis (reach) or Y axis (height), but it will be ill-fitting in the other axis.
Is it better to have a frame that you can’t stand over, but doesn’t hurt your back, or one that shows a normal amount of seat post but demands a freakishly long stem? These are great things to obsess over during the boring parts of your next double century.
Type and Style of Riding
Other folks are perfectly normal in size, but their preferred riding style, or habitat, may be eclectic enough that it’s not well-served with a stock bike.
Do you want to ride across the country solely on gravel roads? Do you want your internally-geared road bike’s handlebars to sit four inches taller than your saddle height? Well, I have bad news for you.
Just as a large manufacturer can’t justify building thousands of bikes that fit a 6’5” (196cm), T-rex-armed road cyclist, neither can they justify graduating the differences between categories too finely.
There is a lot of space between a road racing bike and a touring bike, between a cyclocross bike and a mountain bike. The best bike for you may borrow frame geometry from one discipline, components from another, and fitments from yet another.
It’s Made Just for You
Finally, wanting a custom bike because you like the idea of the process and result of working with an individual (or at least a small company) to make a bicycle just for you is perfectly legitimate, too.
To many cyclists, a custom-built bike is the final destination on a long journey of obsession and justification of spending overwhelming amounts of money (but, you know, in a healthy way).
I’ve built bikes for people celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, new jobs, victory over diseases, and any other milestone you can imagine. I’ve built plenty more for folks who just want something unique, or want to keep their money local.
Do you need a custom bike to be your fastest, or most comfortable, or generally get everything you can get out of cycling?
Of course not.
If you want a new bike right now, or need a 13 pound carbon wonderbike, or don’t want to associate with the sort of person who would devote her or his career to building bike frames in the most inefficient way possible, you may want to bypass the custom route.
But if those things don’t scare you off – and you have specific needs that just can’t be met by a production bike – it may be worthwhile checking out your custom options.
Jim Kish has been building custom frames and bikes for nearly a quarter century. His shop, Kish Fabrication, is located in Carrboro, N.C. Jim can be reached via his website, www.kishbike.com.