Should you buy a custom bike frame? Some thoughts

I’ve had a quite a few emails from readers since I posted about my Woodrup Sportivo asking about the process of specifying a custom frame.

Now I have few hundred miles under my belt on this lovely machine, I feel it’s time to offer some thoughts on going custom which may be of help if you are considering a similar project.

Why do you want a custom frame?

Woodrup SportivoThis is an important question and one that requires some thought. In my case, my height, back trouble and aesthetic considerations were key factors in opting for a custom frame.

Your requirements may be different…

Do you want the ultimate touring machine to carry you around the world?
Do you want a superlight titanium racer?
Do you want a sharp, individualist fixie?
Is the bike simply a tool or a thing of beauty… a perfect marriage of form and function?

The list goes on.

I think the latter question is important. Is the custom frame or bike just a pragmatic manifestation of a set of perfunctory requirements, or do you seek a deeper connection with the result. Will it mean more to you than something to clock the miles on?

In my albeit-limited experience, I found some builders were more engaged with the overall aesthetic than others. I needed to find someone who understood how important this bike would be.

Make a list

Even if you are in pursuit of that elusive ‘thing of beauty’, I think it still pays to start with a list of what’s important. Mine looked like this:

Steel frame
Comfortable ride, predictable handling (yet sprightly)
Oversized tubing
A frame that looks in proportion
Steel fork
28mm tyres
Traditional look but with modern components
Proper headbadge
Lug lining
135 OLN
Pump peg on the stay
Two bottle mounts
No rack mounts

I realise this is quite detailed, but it’s the product of riding a bike for a number of years. I knew what I wanted.

Take your time

The financial investment in a custom frame can be considerable. While this weighed heavily on my mind, more pressing was the need for the result to be an expression of me as well as my selected framebuilder.

Consequently, I believe it important to take your time when selecting a builder. If you can, see their work first hand and speak to the person who will be lovingly mitring your tubes.

A trip to Bespoked Bristol is a worthwhile investment (and a great day out if you love your bikes). Failing that, do your homework on the web and visit some frameshops to discuss your requirements.

I spent three years thinking about who should build the frame (although lack of finance caused most delay) before making my choice.

Simply put: find someone who understands your requirements… and someone you trust.

My choice

Woodrup Headbadge
(Pic: Woodrup Cycles)

I eventually selected Kevin Sayles at Woodrup Cycles for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I think Kevin’s work is superb and much of it is available online through his excellent Flickr site. Kevin is a real cycling enthusiast and, more importantly, a real bike enthusiast.

What really sold me was the hour and a half I spent in his frameshop. I took my old Thorn Audax as a starting point and it was no doubt helpful that Kevin used to build for Thorn (when they used to produce custom framesets).

This gave us a head start as to the kind of ride I was after. He could judge where the Thorn was lacking while sizing me up (Woodrup does not have a frame-sizing jig but prefer to see riders on an existing bike. They draw on experience if you have no current machine).

We then talked through details one by one. This too was an agreeable process. Kevin would listen to what I wanted and advise me accordingly drawing upon his considerable experience. He suggested the tubeset (Reynolds 853), the oversize top tube, recommended fork lugs, and ‘relaxing’ the geometry of the seat tube to better accommodate the short rails of my preferred Brooks saddle.

By the end of the process, he had a picture of the frame right down to decal colour, detailing and motifs (drawing down the seat lug point to the heart-shaped ‘S’ logo being a particular favourite of mine along with stainless rubbing strips on the head tube).

Be patient (!)

It’s gratifying that the skills of a good frame builder are in demand these days. Once you’ve placed your order, it’s highly likely you will have to wait. My wait lasted about three months.

Kevin kept me in touch with progress through pictures on his Flickr site.

The wait was a good thing in my view though…reassuring almost.

The result

Sportivo SaddleworthDespite investing time, effort and money in this project, I was still anxious about the result. I needn’t have been because my Sportivo is pretty much perfect.

I spent a while building the bike, recycling components from my Thorn and replacing others. It’s all middle of the road stuff (including MTB hubs!) but the overall result is sublime.

The fit and ride are superb. The bike feels immediately comfortable and everything is in the right place on the flats, drops or hoods – despite my posture problems. Tweaks to the geometry mean I can apply power more effectively – or so it feels.

The frameset is comfortable for hours on end and the ‘squishiness’ of my Audax is gone. Stand on the pedals and there is keener sense of power being transmitted to the wheels. The bike is no lightweight, but it climbs beautifully and feels very planted on steep descents (and there are plenty of those in these parts).

In conclusion

I am delighted with my Sportivo. Every outing feels special on this bike and I look forward to spending many happy years riding it.

The only potential drawback of going custom is that it forces you re-evaluate your other bikes. I’m certain I could specify a sweeter-riding yet still rough-stuff capable replacement for my Surly Troll if funds allowed.

Maybe one day.

10 thoughts on “Should you buy a custom bike frame? Some thoughts

  1. I went through much the same process with Dave Yates (now in Lincolnshire) and had my trekking frame built by him, in his workshop at the bottom of his garden. Interestingly, he didn’t have a stand at Bespoked, because he was one of the judges…….and given he is a master framebuilder, he knows a thing or two after 40 years in the business.

  2. Hi Matt, congrats on your build, excellent bike. I noticed you want to “get rid” of your Troll. Any comments on such decision? You mention something about a sweeter ride. I have one and I think it’s one of the most versatile bikes I ever owned and I think it is more nimble than dedicated touring bikes (e.g. LHT). Of course, I am biased but would like to know more on the “negative” sides of the Troll, thanks.

    1. Hi there, The Troll is a very good machine no doubt and I have pedaled many thousands of miles on mine. The Troll is my utility and touring bike. I like the rear dropout for running my Rohloff and the fact it is 26″ wheeled which makes it easier to transport overseas for trips (it fits in my bike bag – just). However, it is a wee bit too small for me, the fork steerer could do with being longer and the seat post geometry tweaked. The front fork thuds into potholes and jars (in my opinion). Off road, I much prefer my ECR. Rather than changing the frame, I may have a custom steel fork built for it. I may lose some of its off road ability, but hope to gain mile munching comfort.

      1. Thanks for the reply, I think the Ogre would fit your height requirements although since you already have the ECR you can use that as a touring machine (I have tried both and IMO the touring capability difference is very minimal). But then, if you want a 26″ touring bike made for tall riders Bruce Gordon Rock N’ Road Tour might be a good option (bit hefty on the price though).

  3. Thanks Matt for those kind words, I guess making someones cycling become more pleasurable is one of the perks of framebuilding. I’m pleased you like it so much. cheers Kevin

    1. I certainly do. I’ve swapped the stem for something with less rise now as (for the first time in my life) I’ve found a more comfortable, efficient position with slightly lower bars.

  4. Hi Matt, I appreciate the thread is a little dated but I’ve just discovered Woodrup and I too am replacing my Thorn Audax (it’s an original 1996 531C and built in Italy I believe) and it made me think to ask what you meant by ‘squishy’.
    Anyway your wish list is far from too long(!) and not majorly dissimilar to mine, even though I’m thinking discs and 32-35mm tyres, and your thoughts to a custom frame seem closely related so this article was a good find. Enjoy those hills.
    (hopefully this isn’t a double-post)

    1. Forgive me… ‘squishy’ is not a helpful term! Basically, when I used to stand up in the pedals on the Thorn I could feel the frame flex. I wanted something that would be comfortable yet transfer the power solidly. I totally got what I was after at Woodrup. The bike continues to be an absolute delight and I hope to ride it for many years to come.

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