Over the years I've realised how difficult it is for riders to understand what the term "Custom" really means. While the term always highlights a "specialty" or "individual" aspect of a product, the term is now diluted to the point of causing confusion.
We specialise in custom road bikes. So the confusion in the meaning of the term is certainly a problem not only for us, but most importantly for the client. Mnaufacturers are calling so many things "custom" that it no longer defines anything at all. Its a problem for potential riders who miss the benefits of what a true custom ride provides.
Therefore, with the intention of wanting riders to experience the true benefits of a purist custom bike, I'll briefly define the three basic uses. It'll hopefully give clarity for anyone considering a new bike with the aim to enhance performance, relieve pain or discomfort, better their bike handling, or (with the use of experienced specialists) prevent the expense of an incorrect bicycle purchase.
"Custom Paint" : Factory Complete Bike
The term customised bike, at its most recent diluted form, involves paintwork. The paintwork can be altered when ordering a bike from a brand. It's marketed as unique because you get to chose a colour on a designated graphic (usually with limited colour ranges). You may also get the opportunity to choose finish - gloss, satin, matt or raw. At times you can even create the graphic, as well as effects in paint. The clients imagination is tested in this customisation of paintwork.
Regardless of the colour choices, if the frame comes as a pre assembled bike with allocated components we consider it a "Factory Complete Bike".
We've some truly inspiring Factory Complete bikes arriving from Europe and ready to be efficiently assembled and ridden. While we ensure a thorough safety check and inspect all the mechanical details, all the components used to build the bike are chosen by the brand and typically assembled within a factory environment.
As beautiful as a bike may be, the paintwork does not alter geometry or build. Instead this use of the term custom is a beautiful, psychological method to bond an otherwise mass produced bike individually with its rider.
"Custom Build" : Factory Frame, Custom Build
The second term of custom is defined by the components used to build a bike. Sometimes it may be called "customised build", but frequently and confusingly its simply called custom. At Chainsmith we place these bikes in the category of "Factory Bike, Custom Build".
The chosen mass produced frame of a generic size generally arrives at a workshop. Here we sell some incredible frames, Cipollini, Wilier, Pinarello, Orbea, Dedacciai to name a few. Through a process of consultation with the client we establish a selection of components including the groupset, wheels, bar/stem/seatpost, pedals, saddle and even bar tape or cages can be selected and installed.
Above : Campagnolo wheels, waiting for install on a Pinarello "customised" bike build
This process is termed custom because the effect can change the feel of the bike for the rider. The gear ratio, the tyre tread or wheel rim width, the bar drop and even the type of bar tape will alter the experience of not only the road feel or to a degree the handling, but adjust the performance of the rider. Physical weight of a bicycle often plays a large part in the decision process, as well as the aesthetics and status.
Below : Shipped from Italy, a Basso being built at the Chainsmith Workshop
Above : A Wilier OSLR frameset waiting custom build
Below : Complete with Components by SRAM, Carbon ti, Alpitude Components, CeramicSpeed, and Selle Italia
Custom builds can provide a client ways to individualise, yet work within the parameters of a budget. A hierarchy of importance in components can allow for "add on" upgrades at a later date. Essentially, the custom build is accomplished mechanically. Again, the frame itself is a generic size of which no changes can be made. The client depends on the frame serving the intended purpose, their body measurements and their physical needs.
Custom Frame : Historically Custom
The third use of the term custom is, in a sense, a historical reference and what we would deem a true use of the word. Not only can the term incorporate the benefits of choice in paint as well as the decision process of a build, the historic use of the term custom allows extreme refinement in the entire bikes geometry, tubing shape, overall performance quality and comforts.
Below : Cicli Barco recently incorporated the names of the frame builders whose hands are responsible for building the frame.
Using a clients specific body measurements, an experienced frame builder creates a frame geometry that can utilise different frame materials from steel, titanium, alloy and/or carbon.
Every decision that creates a frame is made in the best interests of the client. That means considerations involve design according to a clients comfort, performance needs, handling ability and perfect fit. The way in which a frame is joined, the selection in tube length and width is accordingly fitted to the specific needs of the rider and essentially controls the weight distribution of a rider over the frame.
Below : Made in the Italian workshop of Chesini, a Custom Frameset of chosen materials steel and carbon and built with selected components.
Below : Carbon Custom Frameset by DeAnima with geometry designed for a client's specific measurements and built by the hands of Gianni Pegoretti.
Custom frames are often kept forever due to the level of precision they offer the rider. They're act much like a tailored leather shoe that perfectly fits the measurements and biomechanics of a foot for particular use. In comparison, generic frames are often superseded each year with new models or colours. The result is a rider who often wants to frequently replace the bike. We have seen a rider move through as many as 4 generic bikes within the short space of 8 months. While this is extreme, we commonly see bikes sold and exchanged within 2 years of purchase.
This last use of the term custom has been somewhat buried beneath what Id consider marketing reinvention, where a term is used to signify part of its original intention. Custom signifies individuality, but custom frames provide totally different experience in riding than custom painted bikes. Custom frames essentially alter the weight distribution of a rider over the frame so that, with proper riding skill, they can feel part of the frame. The involvement of purchasing and riding a custom frame connects a rider to both their bike and the road most succinctly. One of our clients Chapman, who owns a custom steel Chesini, commented "The frame is made in such a way that everything is considered. When you ride it, you don’t worry if its right or not right. The ride feels natural. It feels this is my bike, and naturally in position, whether on the drops or the hoods." That level of unison is rarely experienced beyond a customise bike.
Like any profession, there are levels of capability. Custom frame building is no different. So as much as I endorse custom frames, I also advise to know your frame builder. Choose frame builders who do their own work and specialise in every technique required to connect the perfect frame to its rider. Know the hands that built the frame.
To ensure a rider gets a frame that successfully fulfils their needs in every possible way, it is necessary to trust the experience of the builder. This requires knowledge on part of the rider. This requires time and understanding that many riders don't have, and so a trusted bike shop offering custom frames is better sort. Some shops have strong partnerships and a proven history of custom builds.
So, next time we read the term "custom bike" when looking to purchase, we can identify the level of custom and the consequential way it appeals to a rider. Is it a type of custom that allows you aesthetic choice in appearance of paint? Does custom offer altered mechanical performance by providing choice in components? Or is custom used to highlight the control of a rider's position over a frame as engineered by a frame builder versed in geometry and material skills?
Written by Alison McGregor : Co Founder of Chainsmith Bikes