Slide back 25 years or so, and you’d find that beneath boldly logoed branding that almost about half of the pro peloton were riding on their very own handmade and rebranded framesets, often paid for out of their own pockets, though few would publicly admit to the practice.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this was a rite reserved for the elite; a custom built frame and bike was pretty well the norm amongst serious, and even not so serious cyclists not so long ago – so what happened?
The first serious shot in the gut of the custom frame builder came from Taiwan, and perhaps more specifically from Giant, who up until then had been more of an OEM producer for other brands than a standalone name. Striking out with bold practicality they started to produce aluminium and also carbon frames at near unbeatable prices.
A huge part of their ability to do this was that they had introduced the compact frame to the market, which instead of coming in half-inch increments came in just 3-4 sizes, meaning that they could effectively tool and produce vast quantities in batches.
Therefore the one (or three) size fits all approach backed by pricing practicality and sound marketing meant that the compact frame, and later the semi-compact took the market by storm – and most manufacturers followed suit out of necessity.
The arrival of quality and well-priced aluminium and carbon fibre also made this common sizing approach all the more appealing, and thus custom builders all but faded into extinction; or at least temporary hibernation.
This approach made and still does make great economic sense.
Overall the shelf life of a modern-day bike is a whole lot shorter than it once was. Why? Technological advances, fear of breakage, fashion, and the fact that it costs almost as much to replace a worn out groupset as it does to buy a full bike with a low-end carbon frame. So why would anyone even consider investing in a handmade bike that costs almost twice as much?
Building a custom frame, then speccing it up to your own requirements may seem like an excessive luxury, and to an extent it is – but only a little.
The truth is that one size simply does not fit all. Just take a look at some of the riders in the pro peloton. They come in all shapes and sizes, which are often disproportionate. Their riding styles, physical and biomechanical ailments are rarely talked of outside of closed hotel doors – after all, they are paid to ride team bikes and equipment. The shift to something more suitable is not always an option, although in some cases it is often a masked necessity.
You can alter stack height, flip your stem, adjust saddle height, tilt and fore-aft position, but if you find that a compact or off-the-peg frame simply does not sit well with you then custom may be the solution.
Struggle with back issues? Can’t stick to the drops for long? Knees out of sync? These are all signs that you really should consider being measured up and considering a custom made frame.
These issues will become even more apparent the older you get and the longer you spend trying to adapt to something that simply was not made for your physique or riding style.
Sizing is just one of the reasons for having a custom frame built, but there are many more. These days most road frames come with a standard geometry, which also affects your comfort and riding.
A simple slacking of the head tube will make for a much more stable bike on rough roads, slacken the seat angle by a degree and the ride becomes so much more comfortable on longer rides, making the strain on your back more bearable.
Weld things up a half a degree and it gets racier. Play around a few millimetres with the bottom bracket height and the characteristics of the bike again change dramatically.
A custom builder with experience will be able to sit and chat with you about exactly what kind of a bike you want and need. This can be as simple as changing the geometry, or even about tubing choices and mixes – they all add up to give you exactly what you need.
The characteristics of a frame can be subtly altered by fine-tuning blends of tubing and choice and build methods as well as by geometry. We're often told that stiff and rigid is key, but for most of us comfort is the most important criteria, an experienced builder can balance each one of those requirements for you.
Nobody likes a heavy bike, so steel has fallen out of fashion over the years; yet a good steel, Chromoly, or stainless steel frame can easily be built with most of the characteristics of a carbon frame and weigh in less than a half a full water bottle heavier. Any weight penalty can often be compensated for in equipment spec and build.
Hand carved lugs, dedicated paint jobs, fixtures and fittings that work for a rider all add up to make a custom frame special and unique to them.
Longevity is also an important factor. A well used off the peg bike will have a shelf life of anywhere between 2-5 years, depending on your riding. A custom frame investment is something a rider is likely to keep for a whole lot longer, although after riding a custom fit bike it is very hard to go back to a standard issue ride.
At the end of the day a custom built bike is an investment, and investment in you, your comfort and wellbeing, and in your cycling.
If that one size approach does niggle with you then you should get measured up, and explore the options. Be good to yourself, it will pay off in the long run.