Those that have followed this blog over the past couple of years will be aware of my penchant for micro-managing my bike builds. I have always liked tinkering with bikes, basically because I like to know how things work, but also because the precise mechanics of a bicycle are subject to a lot of abuse from the environment they are used in, and to keep things running smoothly requires constant tweaking, adjusting, repairing.
I can't begin to count the number of times I've taken my bike to a shop mechanic with a problem that I can't figure out, only to then find out that it was something embarrassingly minor I could have fixed myself in less than 5 minutes. I live and learn. It happens less these days.
When I first got into bikes in my youth, my process was to buy a ready-built-up bike with a decent frame but basic components, and upgrade parts little-by-little. With limited funds, and expensive tastes, this would often see a fairly average frame gradually amassing professional components. Perhaps satisfying at the time, but completely impractical, both from the point of view of replacing the rapidly-wearing top-end parts (chains, cassettes, chainrings, brake pads, tyres), and money spent against accumulated value for possible future sale (hard to get a good price for a no-name frame with Campy Record components!). However, the seed was planted for a lifetime of bicycle-nerd obsession.
Now that in my old age I've become what amounts to a semi-professional cyclist, my practicality in choosing the right elements in a bike build has gradually eroded my expensive tastes. I now temper my aesthetic and nerdy zeal with a focus on functional specificity, and I spend a disproportionate amount of my free time investigating bits of equipment. I've also put together a pretty well-equipped bike-mechanics workshop. Heaven! :)
Until a few years ago I still believed that there was a solid logic behind buying a frame from a reputable high-profile industry brand, despite the heavy over-pricing (they put the inflation down to R&D, but it's mostly marketing and advertising in reality). The logic being that their after-sales service would be reliable, since they had a reputation and image to uphold which would surely safeguard the consumer. Right?
Wrong. After my experience with one such frame, which the manufacturer refused to replace when it failed after 5 months of normal use, I made the decision to investigate the new breed of DIY frames coming out of China. Of course, many of these are copies of well-known bikes, possibly using the same factories and carbon moulds, some of which even infamously masquerade as the real thing. Many are not though. Many use their, by now extensive, R&D experience working for the big brands, to produce excellent new designs of their own. It's a natural process of evolution of the industry and market. Chapeau!
With several recommendations from friends and further investigations I settled on a company called Velobuild - you can read the details of this experience in a previous post. They have a great selection of frames for various types of riding, and you can specify carbon-weave type, finish, BB type and other customisations to get the exact beast you want. They respond quickly to enquiries, and in good English, and seem generally fairly flexible to your needs. The products arrive within a few days, well-packed, exactly as described, and ready to build.
The concern with a no-name frame is that it may somehow be lacking in proper R&D or build, and either has weak points, or is unstable or jittery to ride. I say no-name, but actually Velobuild are quite meticulous about their on-line presence and most products are backed up by customer reviews, so it's less of a risk anyway. My choice was the VBR-016, which, at the time of this writing, I've put 5,373km into, and I can testify that it's still the best bike I've ever ridden. No issues. Light, super-stiff in the BB, forgiving of road vibration, and descends on rails.
With most of these frames going for between US$3-400, this now brings the cost of frame and forks into line with anything else on the bike, and means that, whatever happens, replacing any one damaged element of your bicycle should not be an arm-and-a-leg job.
When it comes to components there are 4 considerations that have to compete for predominance:
Weight: Every cyclist wants lighter stuff of their bike. Every gram is going to be your enemy as you grapple with gravity up a hill. However, the difference of a few grams saved on a cassette can mean a 4-fold price increase. The difference between a mid-range cassette and the pro version is mostly about those few grams saved in using high-tech materials, not an improvement in function. Given that most cyclists could easily shed at least a couple of kilos of fat, the weight of components is really the last of the remaining 3 to be considered.
Durability versus cost: I would pit the other 2 considerations against each other, and say that the longer something is expected to last, the more money you can be justified in spending on it. Durability is a hard thing to assess from the outset though. You might think that a set of handlebars, for instance, should give you at least a good 100,000km - 10 years or so for the average serious amateur. Given the fragility of some materials like carbon, plus the possible mishandling in build or repair, or some unforeseen mishap or accident, you have to build confidence in the stuff you use to know it's strengths, and you have to know who you can trust to work on it.
At the bottom end though, there is definitely stuff which you should plan to replace regularly. A chain is probably the first of these. Chains stretch under normal riding stress, and no matter how much you spend on your chain, or how well you look after it, you should not expect it to last much longer than about 5-7000km. Failure to replace it in time will have an extra wearing effect on all the other components of the drive chain. This means it's pointless to buy a top-end super-light chain, unless you're happy to buy it again 6 months later.
The same goes for tyres, cassettes, chain rings, cables, brake pads, bar tape, cleats (not to mention shoes, and of course clothes). These are all things that, unless you take extra special care of them, you should expect to have to replace at least once a year, so these are not one-off purchases, but a part of your annual cycling budget.
Then there's the once-every-couple-of-years stuff like pedals, headset and wheel- or bottom bracket-bearings, or slightly longer-lasting things like wheels/rims, shifters and derailleurs. Stuff that moves repetitively and wears out gradually. Their durability is less predictable, but they may need to be replaced within a few years, and may develop problems or get damaged sooner. They will present a sudden and sometimes unexpected need for replacement, and it's best if you can plan for it, or at least be able to find and buy them easily. Again, pointless to spend on pro-level stuff just to shave weight unless it really is very affordable for you.
If you do develop a taste for unusual or hard-to-find components, you had better have the time to spend browsing around for these on a general basis, and buy them well in advance of any urgent need. You don't want to have a bike sitting around redundant because you can't find the right bits.
Other things like handlebars, seat posts and stems, should be as strong as your frame and forks themselves, though as I say, you try-and-test these things until you develop confidence in them. If you're confident that the super-light bars will withstand a good innings, then by all means....
Saddles are in a different category, and are about comfort, and very particular to each rider's anatomy. If you find a model that nails it for you, you might consider getting the lighter version, but bear in mind that the difference in padding might completely change the experience. Saddles with padding or leather covering have more to go wrong than the simpler ones.
I would think I have ridden at least 30+ different types of saddle in my life. I'm usually only willing to spend good money on ones that I'm sure will work. However, our bodies change over time, especially as our fat percentage drops, and I'm still not convinced after a lifetime of riding bicycles, that I've found the perfect saddle for me.
So the bottom line to those looking to build themselves a bike from scratch is:
- get the best stuff you can afford to replace, and expect to
- develop confidence in the equipment you use and stay with it
- research carefully into new equipment before buying
- learn how it works
BIKE BUILD CONSULTANCY
I have become aware of a gap in the market for a bicycle build consultancy service completely independent of commercial ties. There seems to be a dire need for people that can give advice based on real-world experience in the aid of those who wish to get a completely custom-built bike for their demands and budget. No stock to get rid of. No bias towards anything except that which works best for the given job.
I think that I'm in a perfect position to do this. I have no affiliation with any brands or access to special job-lot deals with budget component providers. Through my experience I am able to assess exactly what a rider is looking for in a bike and construct one based on my awareness of the available options, their strengths and weaknesses.
For those that would like a bespoke road bicycle designed specifically for their needs, I am able to offer several levels of consultation, and design what you need, according to your size, strengths, type of riding, terrain, aesthetics and budget. I will source the best stuff online, and can either leave you in charge of assembling the pieces, or build the bike up for you.
My insistence is that there is no need for you to spend more than USD$3000 on a complete, top-notch, sub-7kg road bike. In addition, I can build one using different, but equally robust, components for USD$2000 that will weigh in with an increment of at the most 1kg. All this depending on your acceptance of my advice for selection of component parts.
For information: firstname.lastname@example.org