Custom bikes vs. mass-produced ones -- which one would you pick, and why?

We just discussed the topic of custom bikes vs. off-the-shelf bikes on the Nerd Alert podcast we recorded earlier today, and I wanted to open the floor for discussion.

At least at the mid-to-high end, it’s more often the case that a production bike from a mainstream brand will offer more performance on paper (weight, stiffness, etc.) than a custom one of similar price – particularly if you’re comparing a carbon fiber mainstream bike vs. a custom bike made of metal.

Custom bikes nevertheless have their appeal, though. So I’m wondering: If you already have a custom bike, why did you choose it over an off-the-shelf model? And if you don’t, what sort of qualities in a custom bike would make you overlook potential downsides like additional weight or cost and choose that over a production bike?

If I were ordering custom:

  1. weight wouldn’t matter to me (to a degree)
  2. I would order rim brakes and threaded BB
  3. and I’d tweak geometry to suit my riding style

Point 2 is getting harder to have from off-the-shelf bikes and point 3 - not that huge (for me), as long as size is right, all else can be adjusted.

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For road bike on 32C or less tires. Frame ← truss + cantilever. The proper place to design/engineer in most of the flex/compliance is at the cantilever. However, standard for production now is 1 1/8" CF fork, in disc, which is far too firm and which effectively makes that a hack or a kluge. Design-wise, the 60s rando and race bikes were closer to an optimum - though need to be updated to current components and materials. I’d start with 1" steerer steel fork on thinner than standard blades, in rim brake + maybe a custom threadless stem for 1" steerer + frame something like the Ritchey triple butted tubing with asymmetric butt profiles. 60s geo with 72-73 deg seat and head angles.

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sounds like you’re talking about ride quality, not pure performance. there’s a reason the race bikes of the past decade and a half to current are what they are.
try pushing your average metal bike with a 1 inch steerer through a very high speed hairpin sweeper as hard as a modern carbon bike, it’s limits will be reached much sooner.

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personally, the only way I’d go custom is if I was a physically proportioned freak of nature or I had too much money burning a hole in my pocket.

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I ride a custom bike currently. It ticked all the boxes I had, and given the state of the supply chain at the time, it was actually a shorter lead time and similar price to buying a top end production bike from a large manufacturer. (Specialized, Trek, Cervelo, etc)

For disadvantages, there’s cost, which is admittedly higher, but there’s also more risk/anxiety involved. I’m the type of person who really likes to understand every part of what I’m buying and being certain I’ve made the best decision I could for my situation. However with custom geometry, it can be really daunting, you don’t want to go through the whole process and then get a bike you can’t stand. So the other disadvantage I would say is there’s a larger knowledge/experience barrier to entry with regard to understanding what you do and don’t like about previous bikes you’ve owned.

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I have a custom bike. Because a Ti bike was on my wishlist for a (very very) long time. And all of a sudden, when looking for a new bike, an affordable opportunity presented itself for a custom Ti frame.
So I had the opportunity to have a comfort-oriented, hand-crafted and timeless-looking frame. The latter preventing me from going N+1.

Furthermore, I am a tweaker - which is basically a hobby by itself -, so the custom part was very appealing. It required a lot of researching and contemplation. But I could determine almost every aspect of the frame (within boundaries), from geometry over tube sizing and features like BB type, cable routing…
So I have a unique frame tailored to my desires, but in my case it is also an experiment.

All of the above does not mean that I could not be happy with an OTS frame or bike in Ti or another material, from a factory or from a hand-builder. But it would not be the same experience and result.

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I got a custom bike once - an Independent Fabrication. I did it because of two reasons:

  1. Uniqueness - ride something that was customized for me (colors and what I wanted out of the bike) and rare “in the wild”.
  2. Affect some design decisions - I wanted an all-road bike (this was 2009) that could serve double duty for fast group rides and could also handle fenders and racks. At the time, clearance for 30mm which was “huge”.

If I were after performance only, I would choose from a big brand. I don’t think a small builder can get anywhere near the amount of R&D and expertise with carbon which includes testing. However, for a steel or titanium build which have fairly standard tubes supplied by companies that know what they are doing, I would go custom purely for the individualization options.

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+1 (and some text because you need to have at least 5 characters to post)

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I’ve just taken delivery of a custom steel bike, so I have made my pick, as it were. Here’s why:

  1. I have rather short legs for my height and certainly custom makes it easier to get the geometry right; there are OTP options that would work, just not loads that wouldn’t involve lots of spacers/weird length stems and post setbacks etc.
  2. Like others have mentioned above, I wanted something different in terms of paint/look.

I’ll offer some feedback when I’ve got some more miles on it!

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When I bought my Festka, it was simply because the market did not provide the kind of bike I wanted : road race bike geometry using disc brakes[1], a unique paint job and that would fit me like a glove.

The performance aspect was irrelevant as the difference was marginal and mostly attributed to weight, a consequence of the many paint layers. Stiffness was on par with mainstream carbon offering as I was offered the RS version whose carbon tube selection was designed for their world cup track bicycle and aero wasn’t as big as it is now. Aero bikes did exist but they had their share of issue like a so so ride quality for some, heavy for others or horrible brakes like those of the early Giant Propel.

I am unlikely to buy a new bike anytime soon, as it is just wrong to do so when there are so many alternatives available second hand with the current climate emergency. For this reason I doubt I will ever buy a custom bike again unless I develop a medical condition that prevent me from using my current fit and can’t find an alternative in the second hand market.

[1] I ordered it when disc brakes were still only authorized in CX by the UCI so pure disc braked road bikes were rare and those that existed had an endurance/touring geometry.

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The biggest thing I’d go after a custom frame for these days would be a travel bike–something built up with S&S couplers or similar, probably in steel or ti to better withstand the abuses of airports.

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Custom doesn’t always mean expensive. If you know what you’re doing and are confident about the geometry that suits you, you can have a titanium frame from Waltly for no more than an off the shelf bike.

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If going custom meant that I could get a frame built within reasonable tolerances, then I’d surely go that route. I had a custom ti bike prior to my current bike and never appreciated how perfectly it was built and how durable it was until I began buying production carbon frames. All of the frames I’ve had since then have had issues - out of tolerance bottom brackets, misaligned dropouts, rivnuts for water bottle screws failing, etc.

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I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, across many facets. Where marginal gains are concerned, typical top-end production road bikes are the fastest thing out there and will continue to be.

Still, I own 2 custom bikes and I build custom frames. I can’t keep up with the demand. In the end, the marginal gains of aerodynamics and the shrinking weight advantage can never replace the ride quality and feel of a bike designed around exactly you.

There’s a reason riders keep their custom bikes exponentially longer than their mass-produced rigs.

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I chose to go with a custom bike (a Bishop) I appreciate the unique aesthetic for one thing. Secondly I wanted to avoid the constant product upgrade cycle and hype. this years new bike it 4 watts more blah blah blah. I don’t race just don’t feel like I need a bike that is optimized for areo, weight and stiffness. My bike rides smooth and handles great and that all I wanted.

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Custom all the way for me. I have a fleet of different custom steel( and one Ti) road and track bikes. Biggest reason is fit. I sit very low and long so a longer top tube than comes on stock bikes my size make the bikes much better handling and comfortable for me. Then there is also the ability to customize paint/graphics etc.

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Custom is personal. And it’s probably also harder to resell.

Apart from that: finding the right builder for your needs, can be a quest. You have great craftsmen and women out there. But depending on what you want, you may need someone who also

  • understands geometry
  • really understands how specific tubes affect ride quality
  • knows more on bike fitting

or a combination of the above.

Could the difficulty of resell be a factor?

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There isn’t a clear dividing line as I tend to swap components, but a mass produced frame kit will have better performance characteristics than a handmade one for the same price. So I have a Venge with aero everything and ride it when I want to go fast, or need all the help I can get to keep up.

My stainless steel Stelbel was bought because I wanted a mechanical and rim brake bike that looked good, and at the time wasn’t interested in racing. The paint matches my car, it flows well on bumpy roads and it looks like a bike and cost about 2/3 of the Venge. It also has none of the Di2 and disc brake BS and I can easily fix any issues myself. I am pretty average, so any 54/M bike will fit, but I do appreciate the slightly laid back steering as the bike is more stable downhill and putting a jacket on when it’s windy.

Surprisingly the steel bike is not much slower than the Venge. I expect the difference is in the region of aero/non aero helmet. Speed comes down to how many watts you’re willing and able to put out and how skilled you are downhill. The bike is almost irrelevant at amateur/general group ride level. If you want to go 5kph faster, buy a non-UCI tri bike.

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