How To Buy A Bespoke Bike
953 Stainless Steel Disc Equipped Gravel Road Bike built for the Design Museum’s Cycle Revolution exhibition. Photograph by Mr Sebastien Klein, courtesy of Hartley Cycles
Why a personalised frame is worth investing in.
At MR PORTER, we understand the benefits of splashing out on a bespoke suit. After all, you get an end product that will last a lifetime – and one that is made to measure.
But a bike? While you’re unlikely to need one on your wedding day, a bicycle is also a high-value investment item that you’re going to get a lot of mileage out of. So why make do with what you can get on the Bike2Work scheme at a generic bike shop when you can have one hand built to your own size and specifications?
The growth of cycling has seen a rejuvenation in the small-scale manufacture of bicycles in cities such as London. A frame hand-built by a good local craftsperson will likely cost you upwards of £1,600 – and that’s before you add components such as wheels. But it can be worth it. With a bespoke bike, rather than having to sift through a rack of standardized models, the rider is the first consideration. “You start by putting the person in the right place and design everything else around that,” says framebuilder Ms Caren Hartley (hartleycycles.com).
You also get a ride that is unlike anything else on the road. Here, then, is what you need to know about getting a bike built just for you.
“With custom builds, it’s about trying to have the perfect bike,” says Mr Matt McDonough (talbotframeworks.co.uk), a fellow southeast London-based framebuilder who has teamed up with Ms Hartley on a new line of bikes, called Isen. “If you spend that long on it, you want something that looks exactly right and handles exactly right – if you’ve got the money, there’s no reason not to.”
Go for a fitting
Before building a bike, Mr McDonough strongly urges getting a professional fitter to take your measurements – he recommends thebikewhisperer.co.uk. “It’s quite involved,” he says. “Is like three hours. He will tell me where the customer’s hands, arse and legs need to be – he puts that in a drawing.
“Anyone can benefit from a good fit,” says Mr McDonough. “It’s the little things that’ll catch you out – my whole riding season last year was ruined by my cleat position [the clip-in contact point between the foot and the pedal]. You don’t need to be having a custom bike to have that, but if you are having a custom bike, it’s madness not to spend £75 to have that done because you’re going to know that it will be perfect.”
You don’t have to be technical
Don’t worry, an in-depth technical understanding of how a bike works isn’t necessary – that’s what a framebuilder is there for, after all. All you need to know is how and where you plan to ride the bike. “The first question I always ask is what do you want to do with it?” says Ms Hartley. “How long do you want to ride it for? Do you want to carry luggage? Do you want it to be comfortable for 200 miles or are you going to be doing short Sunday 50-mile club runs? After a conversation about what you want to do with the bike, we start building a picture of what would fit those needs.”
You don’t need a specific reason
It is worth noting that not everyone goes down this path for the same reason. Ms Hartley says that her customer base roughly falls into two camps: riders (usually smaller, disproportionately women) who can’t find a high-end bike that will fit them; and those (“generally an older guy”) who “just wants something really, really fancy”.
For anyone fortunate enough to be covered by the standard size range, a bespoke bike can mean ironing out the compromises that come with all-inclusive solutions, such as components that are too small or big for the frame or rider, or aren’t quite what you want. Or you could be after a TVR-style iridescent paintjob and detailing fashioned from silver or gold (handily, Ms Hartley comes from a jewellery-making background).
Mr McDonough has even made a bespoke balance bike for a toddler. “I can do that for you, but it will cost the same as an adult bike,” he says.
Consider a steel frame
Your size, shape and the way you want to ride the bike will give you a rough framework (pun intended), but the rest is pretty much up to you. Both Ms Hartley and Mr McDonough use steel to make their frames, but carbon fibre and titanium are both lighter options. “Modern steels are pretty amazing,” says Mr McDonough. “You get a bike you can use all the time, treat badly and not have to worry about it – you can repair it.” Then there’s all the components, such as rims, brakes (disc or caliper?), gear shifts (mechanical or electronic?), not to mention the paintwork.
The colour of your frame is perhaps the one aspect of your bike that is totally up to you. A framebuilder won’t be able to give you a definitive answer in terms what will work best for you (it is entirely subjective, after all), although they will be able to offer an array of options. “Paint is always the worst for me because you can’t say anything is right or wrong,” says Mr McDonough. “It is often the thing that makes people freak out. ‘I don’t know what to do.’”
It’s good to talk
Mr McDonough points out that with a custom build, “every single possibility is open”. As a result, he estimates that as much as a third of the time taken up by each bike is spent just talking to the customer – in some cases, more so.
As with any high-value transaction, the customer will want to get things just right, especially given their personal involvement in the project. But Mr McDonough thinks that part of the fun is in the anticipation of what you will get – after all, when else in life do you get to indulge in such a fantasy purchase? “If I was buying it, I’d be a nightmare,” he says. “I would change my mind every five seconds. So I’ve always got sympathy for it.”
“I’ve actually got a customer who ordered another bike before I’d even delivered his first one because he liked the process so much,” Ms Hartley adds.
Ms Hartley and Mr McDonough have teamed up on a off-the-peg bike line, called Isen. To find out more or pre-order an Isen bike, click here