Buy a custom bike. Anyone who considers themselves a cyclist should strive to have at least one custom bike during their lifetime. Put it on your “to do” list. I don’t mean custom, like, I bought my Trek/Specialized/Giant and spec’d new bars and tires, now it’s custom. I mean, have someone select tubing for you, weld it, and make the bike fit you and your wild desires.
I think about riding far more than I actually ride. It’s part of my job and my lifestyle. However, riding too little and thinking too much does allow questions to form. Why do we ride, why do we purchase certain bikes, why do we choose to suffer, why do we choose certain routes, and why do we constantly want the next best thing?
Why do we constantly want the next best thing? It’s perplexing. I’m certainly guilty of it, as are most. I admit it. In this context, the next best thing is the newest, bestest, most awesome, radical, stiff, light, smooth, strong, expensive wonder of inventive cycling engineering that we can’t afford. It looks like a friggin Lamborghini, rides like a rocket-ship, makes our friends envy us and drool, and makes us feel like we are flying up those hills. Or does it?
The next best thing is a necessary evil. The idea pushes engineering by leaps and bounds. “If you build it, they will come” type of stuff. This is not Field of Dreams though; and these dreams happen constantly. The industry is clever, and knows just when to release the right product at the right time, constantly leaving you in a state of frustration over your last purchase. However, does it really need to be this way? I might present an argument against the next best thing…… sometimes.
Go custom. I’m speaking about a road bike here, for the sake of simplicity. Have it built from steel or titanium. Forget carbon frames for a minute. I realize that sounds preposterous to some of you, but hear me out. Carbon certainly has it’s place. Hell, I like carbon, it’s possibilities, it’s weight, it’s strength, it’s look;….. but only in the right applications. Having your pretty carbon bike is like having your centerfold. Unbelievable and yet somewhat empty. You get it all right there in front of you; hot damn it looks good! Then a newer model comes out and it’s lost some of it’s appeal, or maybe it’s just not what you really wanted in the first place. A custom steel or ti bike is like having that classic pinup poster instead. It’s a little revealing, a little mysterious, yet still very sexy and timeless.
Steel is still the original benchmark. Old faithful. Anyone that tells you otherwise hasn’t experienced it fully. It could just be my opinion, but steel is what all other frame materials strive to be. Not to get off track, but I like to consider titanium as steel’s genius offspring. Modern ti bikes are amazing in so many ways, as long as it’s a properly built one. Cheap ti will make you want to quit cycling; as can cheap hi-tensile steel. So let’s just pretend in our magical world they don’t exist. Years ago, I had a love affair with a steel Pegoretti frame hand painted in white, black, and red. The paint told a violent, passionate, yet sad story about killing of whales if I remember correctly. I can say nothing of steel the way he can. I’m not an Italian craftsman; but from an artistic perspective I can understand his passion for a material. It has certain smell, it changes along with the temperature, it sweats, it rusts; it’s alive, it’s bendable, malleable, and can be made to do nearly anything. How many people gush about carbon?
Steel and Ti do have limits though, which to some extent is part of their appeal. You can’t have it all. I always go back to something I heard a long time ago, and still tell picky people to this day. “Light, cheap, strong; pick two”. The day we can have all three is getting closer all the time with carbon and very close with Ti. When we achieve that goal; then what? How about purchasing and caring for something that really has a meaning to you? This may not be your last bike, but it will be the one you cherish the most; if you stay honest and make the right decisions. A reputable custom builder can make you nearly anything, but let them have some degree of control to make it feel alive.
About 8 or 9 years ago I had made up my mind I wanted a custom road bike, or at least as close as I could get to it. After many various bikes in various materials and configurations, I had continued to get bored with each one. It was like eating candy. At some point I knew I needed something to sustain myself for longer than the initial sugar rush. I suddenly had a goal. I was still relatively new to the cycling world, but I understood that this bike would really mean something to me. I needed to work towards it, save money. I needed to not rush the decision. I needed to decide on what parts I would build it with ahead of time, and how I might want to change it down the road. About 3 years later, I had my Independent Fabrication steel Crown Jewel in the works. I told them what I liked and what I didn’t, and I was honest with myself about my goals with the bike. Maybe I would race, but probably I wouldn’t. I didn’t care about weight, but I wanted the ride quality and stiffness to be perfect. I put my faith in able hands. In the end, and after waiting about 6 weeks, I had her. Beautiful. Elegant. Made for me. I even ended up with a steel fork, which I thought for sure was a silly idea in the beginning. I was wrong, it’s pretty ideal. Nearly 6 years later, I’ve passed nothing similar in looks, and still love the ride quality. It’s not the stiffest, lightest, or the fanciest. Maybe I should have gotten tire clearance for 30’s, but in a way, 25’s keep me riding the way the bike was intended. The strange thing is that I’m torn between being somewhat bored with having the same bike all the time, but not really wanting anything else after I test ride another machine. I’ve come to the conclusion that if you get bored with a bike because it’s exactly what you need, then it’s not boredom. Now, rather than buy new bikes, I buy a new build kit or new wheels from time to time. Or change the stem length, or saddle. It’s the best bike I’ve owned. I get sad when I’m away or if I can’t see it for a while. It means something to me in a way that no alloy or carbon bike can. Oddly, it has saved me money over time as well.
People still seem to get confused as to how one can pedal a “heavy” steel bike uphill. I don’t know; maybe try harder? Learn to suffer, man up, embrace failure, embrace growth, and quit buying your way to the top and coming up with excuses. Is one extra pound really going to make you not get over that next hill?
All I’m saying is, a bike can be so much more than just a thing you buy off a shelf because it looks cool, or it’s supposed to be the hot shit. It can be your escape, your savior, your nemesis. If you allow a custom bike into your quiver, you just might have better memories of riding than the next person. Enrich your experience. It doesn’t have to be your one and only bike, or your last bike, but I bet it will be your favorite, and the one that has a permanent place in the garage while the others come and go. Hell, I’ve had many bikes, but the IF sees them all come and go. Depreciation doesn’t exist; it’s more like appreciation. Many riders may not understand where I’m coming from. There are those people that aren't interested in having a bike for a long time; or maybe they don’t feel like they’ll appreciate it enough to justify the price. Well, that’s fine and dandy, you guys/gals can keep wasting money on limited returns by buying disposable, empty centerfolds. Someone has to, we do live in a disposable society after all.
It is about the bike……
By the way, NAHBS is coming up, and if you need some ideas; look no further. Keep an eye out for a follow up article with the good folks at Mosaic Cycles also….
by Leif Kruse