John Lewis: Fit is just the beginning when going custom
John Lewis of Seven Cycles argues that people who think custom is mainly about a well-fitted bike aren't seeing the big picture.
Custom means nothing. So many builders use the word to mean so many different things, that in the end we think many of our potential riders believe a custom build consists only of tubes cut to their specific lengths and angles, that a good fit is the primary benefit.
Let’s not coast past that idea or diminish its value. People who ride regularly will all benefit from a bike that fits them perfectly. Think of it this way, all cycling injuries not sustained in a crash are repetitive use injuries, which means that your ability to stay fit, healthy and on the bike over the long term is related directly to how well your bike fits. Little compromises will magnify themselves over time. What seems fine, fit-wise, in the moment, can turn out to be the source of constant pain and/or lengthy time off the bike.
A custom bike should fit perfectly, but with fit we are really only talking about the top half of the bike. What is the correct saddle height, the correct reach? There is so much more you should expect from a custom builder.
One thing you might look for is a rider-specific tubeset.
We have riders who are 6 feet tall and weigh 150lbs, and we have riders who are the same height and weigh 250lbs. Each of them wants a comfortable ride that performs well. To achieve similar ride characteristics for each rider we pick a tubeset that accounts for their differences. This seems obvious to us. A custom bike should feel perfect, too, and that means selecting the right tubes for wall thickness and diameter.
Some builders go a step further in personalizing ride feel for the individual, butting the tubes to make them more compliant and lighter. This is three steps of refinement beyond geometry, and we feel these steps are integral to delivering a real custom bike.
Consider, also, how you want the bike to handle. If fit only really considers the top of the bike, there is a lot going on beneath the surface that determines how well the bike rides.
There are a number of ways to affect the handling of a bike. Headtube angle, bottom bracket drop, fork rake, chainstay length, front center, they all interact to produce the bike’s handling characteristics. Good builders know how to balance all those variables against one another to deliver the specific handling character the rider wants, from agile and aggressive to stable and solid.
This is a massive value for riders who can’t find a stock bike that handles the way they like. With a stock bike, all of the variables mentioned above are fixed. To change the handling, you only have a few options, like lengthening or shortening the stem. The result may be better handling, but that improvement doesn’t come without shifting your balance on the bike, and a bike always handles best when the rider is balanced over the two wheels.
Being able to descend confidently, corner authoritatively, or simply take your hand off the bars to adjust clothing, can make a huge difference to your ability to enjoy riding your bike. Beyond fit, this is just one more way a custom bike can be a better choice.
Then there are features and options. Every rider comes to a new bike purchase with a set of features in mind. Maybe they’re looking for a disc-brake road bike with fender mounts for rain/winter commuting. Maybe they want an old school cyclocross race bike in their team colors. Maybe they want a bike they can do some light touring on, but can also use for a weekly group ride with friends, or a mountain bike with rack mounts that lets them ride single-track during the week, and go bike-packing on weekends.
All those different purposes can be addressed with specific features, whether part of the frame design or with different aesthetic options such as paint or custom decals. For bikes that straddle categories, it can be hard to find a production offering that meets all of a rider’s criteria. The best custom builders don’t pick and choose which of those criteria to meet.
For example, a customer builder can build a frame with cable routing for multiple brake types. We can paint a bike any color you want or order a screen printed custom decal. We can add rack and fender mounts to any frame, adapt the rear triangle to take wider tires. This sort of customization is often overlooked, and as it speaks directly to how we ride our bikes, it is arguably the greatest value that comes from a custom build.
As you can imagine, it’s hard to find a word, a new word, that captures all the facets of our design and build process. Custom means nothing, but only because it means everything. As long as riders are comparing what we do to what mass-production builders are doing, we have to work to highlight the deep value that can come from a hand-built bike, the things beyond fit, the things that no production bike can reasonably offer.