TAKING THE TIME FOR A CUSTOM BUILD GOES RIGHT TO THE SOUL OF LOVE.
WORDS & PHOTOS BY OLIVER TOWNSEND
Crack is bad for you
“Hi, it’s Alan from the bike shop. I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you – the bike you brought in has a crack in the top tube.”
I developed an instant cold sweat, bounding pulse and sick-to-the-stomach feeling.
“But she’s only ridden it for less than an hour. How can it be cracked?” was my feeble, dry-mouthed response.
A short while later, I was standing in their workshop looking at a barely visible, but very definitely real, crack running along the top tube of my wife’s basically-brand-new bike. No matter how I looked at it, it was definitely a crack – not huge by any standard, but big enough that you could feel it with your thumbnail.
In the few seconds it took to realise that this was a real crack, and that I hadn’t dreamt up the whole thing, I also realised quite how much time I’d spent getting the bike to its current state.
Gift from the heart
It had been my wife’s birthday a few days before, and I’d decided that what she really needed for her birthday was a huge pile of cardboard boxes and jiffy bags containing what would eventually become a custom-built cyclocross bike.
I’d spent weeks and weeks researching what to build. A few hours of initial research revealed what I wanted just wasn’t available off the peg – or at least it wasn’t available in the size I needed, with the spec I wanted and the price I could afford to pay. Big bike companies have massive overheads, need to pay their staff, have monster R&D budgets, take out costly attention-grabbing adverts in glossy magazines and have to comply with the working time directive. This means their bikes aren’t cheap.
What the headline price doesn’t show you though is the hidden cost of doing it yourself…
Hours and hours (and hours) of research, sending emails, comparing postage prices, working out exchange rates and import duty rates, reading reviews, deciding on the minutiae of the all important details (like what colour disc rotor bolts would look best), tracking deliveries on different courier websites and trying to keep stuff hidden when it arrived so that she didn’t spot it too soon. And this doesn’t even include the actual build time. This is the just the planning and the shopping.
But, you say to yourself, ‘The final bike will be unique’, ‘It will fit her like a glove’, ‘It will improve her riding enjoyment immeasurably’, ‘She’ll love me forever’, ‘And it won’t cost the GDP of a small oil-rich north African dictatorship’. As birthday presents for a dedicated cyclist go, a spangly new bike, custom-built, with every last widget thought through to a ridiculous level of detail takes some beating.
Just Riding Along. Honest.
But then what happens when, after less than an hour’s riding, the bike develops a crack that renders it unrideable? If you’d bought the bike from the your local friendly bike emporium, you’d take it back to them, explain to the disbelieving sales assistant/manager that you were, ‘just riding along’ (even though in this case it was the cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-ride-a-pink-Emmelle-with-stabilisers the truth) and they would hopefully sort it all out for you.
If, on the other hand, you’ve bought your bike frame online direct from a factory quite a few thousand miles away, this is how it goes:
“Hi, you know that new frame I bought from you a few weeks ago?”
“Well it’s got a crack in the top tube.”
“Ah, very sorry to hear that. Just strip all the components off it, pop it in a box, courier it back to us and we’ll have a look at it. If it turns out to be a manufacturing error, we’ll refund the postage and send you a new frame. If it turns out that it wasn’t a manufacturing error, then we won’t.”
To be fair to the manufacturers, what else could they do? If they just shipped a new frame to every Fred who emailed saying they’d found a crack in their frame, they wouldn’t be in business for very long. On the other hand, I was now left with a choice – spend more than £100 shipping the frame back to foreign lands in the hope that the crack would be something they would offer a warranty replacement for, or stump up nearly double that amount and get it fixed by a specialist repair place in the UK.
A Labour of Love
In the end, the only sensible choice was to not take the gamble. No matter how much it galls you, sending the frame back will cost you a lot of money and you may not get it back. At least by getting it fixed in the UK, you know you’ll end up with a perfect frame at the end of it.
As I thought about it afterwards, I realised that the whole process of building a custom bike was somewhat of a gamble. It’s not that much cheaper than an off-the-peg one (particularly when you add in the labour ‘cost’). And what if the final build doesn’t actually work as well as a mass-produced one would (or you find a crack in a brand new frame)? I could have just walked into my local bike shop with my significant other, picked a perfectly assembled, ready-made beasty from the rack and signed on the dotted line. It would have taken no time or effort and wouldn’t have cost that much more.
But then in the time after the problem was fixed and the bike was rebuilt, I realised that it wasn’t the cost (in either money or time) that was the important thing.
The reason for building a bike yourself (even if it isn’t actually for you) is that you knew that every single bit has been chosen for a good reason, that an immense level of love and dedication had gone into making it as good as you possibly could, and that hopefully a little smidgen of the soul that had been put into it might shine through in the way the bike rides, or the way it felt or even the way it looked.
And that made all the heartache and brain-ache of the process worthwhile.