What is a Custom Road Bike?

What is a Custom Road Bike?

Over the years I've realised the confusion the term "Custom" in the cycling industry creates for clients. While the industry uses the term to highlight a "specialty" or "individual" aspect of a product, the definition is now diluted and losing its intended origin. This confusion and contemporary use of the term custom bike is unfortunate. Many riders fail to reach their cycling potential because their equipment is based on custom expectations that generic bike sizing cannot offer. And instead of fulfilling their athletic pursuits with well fitted custom frames, riders choose secondary customisations. As we will see, buying a bike for its colour or components alone falls short for riders wanting to enhance riding goals.

We argue many riders have options to better their riding experience but are distracted by luring promises in mere personalisation. The issue is that marketers freely use the term "custom" to sell bikes to the point the words original intent has lost meaning. This is a problem for the many potential riders whose bodies do not fit a generic standard, such as larger rider without flexibility, average height riders with long torso or legs, or particular for petite riders.

Chainsmith specialises in fitting clients to custom road bikes using long standing experience and the use of the Idmatch bikefit lab. So here we demystify what custom is in three contemporary and historical guises.

With the intent to provide riders the opportunity to experience the true benefits of a custom bike, I'll briefly define the three basic uses which are as follows :

  1. Custom Paint : Aesthetic Personalisation
  2. Custom Build : Configuring components
  3. Custom Frame : Historical Reference

Defining the types of custom will give clarity for anyone considering a new bike with aims to enhance performance, relieve pain or discomfort, better their bike handling, and prevent the expense of an incorrect bicycle purchase.

Custom Paint : Aesthetic Personalisation

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 choose 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 that offer colour customisation. Cipollini has a service that personalises your frame's colour. Cipollini advertises, "Be Creative, Be Colored, Be Unique".

Cipollini personal colour palette

But there are also painters that now advertise their services to personalise your bike with colours. Lumar Colors for instance, uses the tag line "Customise your bike" and specialise in bike frame painting. The frame remain generically sized and the components used to build the bike are chosen by the brand then typically assembled within a factory environment.

As beautiful as a bike may be, the paintwork does not alter geometry or build. This use of the term custom is a beautiful method to bond a production bike individually with its rider through personalisation. Of course, regardless of the exquisite quality in paintwork or the incredible innovation in technology of a frame, other than the paint the frame itself cannot be altered for the individual rider.

Custom Build : Configuring components

The second term of custom is defined by the variable components used to build a bike. These components can adjust a rider to the frame to add comfort or performance. Sometimes this process is called "custom build", but frequently and confusingly its simply called custom. At Chainsmith we place these bikes in the category of "Factory Frame, Custom Build".

A Factory Frame, Custom Build allows a bike shop to choose a manufactured frame of a generic size. Once ordered the frame arrives at a workshop and is assembled by mechanics with chosen components. For example, here at Chainsmith we've access to frames by Cipollini, Wilier, Pinarello, Orbea, Dedacciai. 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.

pinarello campagnolo customised build
Above : Campagnolo wheels, waiting for install on a Pinarello "customised" bike build

This process is termed "custom" because the effect can change the position and condition of the bike for a 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


zeroslr wilier frameset Above : A Wilier OSLR frameset at Chainsmith, waiting for a customised build
Below : Complete with Components by SRAM, Carbon ti, Alpitude Components, CeramicSpeed, and Selle Italia built by the Chainsmith Team

wilier zeroslr


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. The frame itself remains a generic size of which no changes can be made.

There are many brands, marketers and journalists who also use the term "custom" to express the ability for a client to choose components such as groupset, wheelsets, bottle mount position. The Terra by Orbea has been heralded by Bike Radar as possibly the most "customisable gravel bike in the industry". However, much like the incredible Rave by Wilier, Manufacturers using the term custom refer not to the frame but the adaptability of components. Wilier calls their system of adaptable parts, Acufit. As accurate and beautiful as this system is, the principle of using parts and accessories to fit a client is not in line with personalised custom qualities offered by frame builders.

The third use of the term will stretch custom back to its original roots and refer specifically to the heart of the bike, the frame. For manufacturers such as Orbea and Wilier, the frame must remain generic because it relies on the configuration of parts to adjust a rider to the bike. For the frame builder and for us at Chainsmith the most important part of a bike, the frame, weighs most heavily when it comes to rider feel, experience, performance, efficiency and comfort.

Custom Frame : Historical Reference

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 and resulting overall performance quality and comforts.

Below : Cicli Barco recently incorporated the names of the frame builders whose hands are responsible for building the frame.
cicli barco frameset

Using a clients specific body measurements and levels of flexibility, an experienced frame builder creates a frame geometry that can utilise a variety of 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. This in turn greatly affects how the bike rides while cruising, while cornering, descending or climbing.

Below : Made in the Italian workshop of Chesini, a Custom Frameset of chosen materials steel and carbon and built with selected components.
cicli barco frameset
Below : Carbon Custom Frameset by DeAnima with geometry designed for a client's specific measurements and built by the hands of Gianni Pegoretti.
DeAnima Custom Frame

Effectively the total geometry of a frame is created around the rider, rather than the rider being forced to fit a generic frame. For more information on geometry and how it affects your ride, head to "Road bike geometry explained"

Custom frames are often kept forever due to the level of precision they offer the rider. They 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.

deanima custom frame

A client requested a custom gravel bike built by Italian frame building partner Gianni Pegoretti of DeAnima

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. 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. I also wrote an article, “Custom Road bikes : Where to start.”

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?


your best bike form



Written by Alison McGregor : Co Founder of Chainsmith BikesAlison McGregor

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