My descent down the slippery and seemingly never-ending slope of bicycle enthusiasm has a few major milestones: street clothes to lycra; removal of leg hair; and an ever increasing arsenal of mass-produced, application-specific bikes. I had one for commuting, and racing, and gravel (and a few more racing)… the desire to add another variant would be an incessant itch I needed to scratch. I scoured and obsessed over head tube angles and bottom bracket heights like a pseudo-savant.
But despite churning through off-the-peg bike models like days of the week, I had always thought that a custom-built frame was not a sign of knowing what you wanted, but the smoke signals of financial largesse; or even worse, that your bicycle addiction had truly and wretchedly bottomed out.
This is the story of what I did when I found myself at the very pathetic depths of my own reckoning.
But first came the intervention.
There is a point when you have too many bikes. One day I surveyed the quiver, and really wondered, Well, how did I get here? It wasn’t that I acquired one dud bike after another — I truly enjoyed them all — but there wasn’t one which was perfect. Either the geometry, or tire clearance, or the material it was built from hovered uneasily outside of the golden intersection of my wants and the bikes actual features.
To be clear, it was a self-intervention, perhaps best expressed as an epiphany: pick the favourite aspects of each bike and roll them into one. What would best suit the kind of riding I really enjoy ninety percent of the time? It was so head-slappingly obvious.
First I had to work out which boxes I wanted checked. I looked over the eight under-used steeds. The 2002 Merlin Cyrene, a US-built titanium beauty was perfect, aside it coming from the era of narrow tire clearance and EPO. The Tom Kellogg geometry could impossibly be both racey but not too steep.
My two carbon race bikes were things of beauty — light, rigid and fast off the mark — but pitched me forward into a position only used when pathetically chasing Strava segments and missing the prime at a SoCal criterium.
My gravel bikes evolved from a Niner aluminium frame to a Santa Cruz carbon frame — each of them felt a touch sluggish, slow off the mark, stable under load, but not entirely exciting to me… on the other hand, they worked well over gravel and touring, and the wider disc-brake wheels could accommodate a variety of of plush rubber tires. I mean I not only liked that, I had grown to appreciate it, and missed it when it was not there.
I needed all the good bits, in one.
This brings me to rule number one when going custom: get a bike fit. There are actually no other rules. Just that. Find out what fits you and why. Try and understand the why, and you’ll be more equipped than eighty percent of the people you see riding out there today. I have had bike fits, and also owned a variety of frames and geometry.
So true to form, I broke rule number one basically immediately, and went it alone on this project. That was largely thanks to the extensive and expensive experimentation over many years, so for better or for worse, I felt I knew my magic measurements. I wouldn’t rule out getting one done in the future, however, because you know, bodies change…
But what form was this bike going to take? There are so many options from the current fashion to cutting edge technology. I knew I wanted a titanium frame. Titanium is having a moment again these days, 20 years after its peak. I wanted it for not only retro-cool looks, and a slick paint job, but also durability.
I have never had a carbon failure, but I was going to expect more from this bike — it had to cover a number of different uses and environments. It had to be snappy off the mark, whippet-like but an all day ride. It needed to be able to use both 700c and a smaller-but-wider 650b wheelset for touring and where the pavement gives way to dirt. It had to accomodate modern features like electronic gearing and a not-so-modern creak-free bottom bracket. No other materials preclude any of these things, but I just settled on titanium as my best fit.
By the time I got to this point, I thought it sensible to sketch it out. I used BikeCAD to start plotting what described the salad of ideas in my head. Of course, a bike builder does this too, and there is absolutely no need to take this step. However, I wanted to know this bike. I wanted to get everything out of the swirling ether and down on paper (or pixels) and see if it made sense.
As a sanity check, I also used Geometry Geeks to compare my variety of random scribbles with what actually happens in reality. A Beautiful Mind this was not, more likely a bike builder’s impending nightmare.
As it happens, I had been looking for a bike builder. I looked around the world. As an expat Aussie living in the US, I’d considered my motherland, China, Czech Republic, Canada, Japan and of course multiple states of the USA. If they made titanium frames, I considered them. There are so many great builders and options, it can be overwhelming.
I settled on Haley Cycles for a number of reasons. I liked how their frames looked, but it wasn’t just that. I read their frames were contract-welded by Dean Titanium in Colorado (who also now own the Merlin brand) and whom I had also considered. What swung me was how responsive Ming Tan, the owner is. He was succinct but accomodating; and given how neurotically precise my specification was, he was extremely helpful in refining it into a buildable form. Also, his stock “production” frames aligned closely with what I liked. I even have the spreadsheets to prove it.
But there was a catch, and I explained to Ming in excruciating detail, my conundrum.
I didn’t want a road bike. I didn’t want a gravel bike. I wanted, to use an increasingly popular term, an all road bike. It didn’t fit either category. To me, it is a road bike that can take fatter 700c x 35mm tires, or 650b x 47mm tires. A mix of thinner, compliant tubes and bigger, stiffer ones. Short chain-stays for faster off-the-mark accelerations with a slightly longer wheelbase for stability under load and downhill.
It was no race bike, but it was no gravel bike either. I fully understand that in the history of bikes, this is not something new. The difference was simple — it was something specific to me.
Ming had just one answer: Yes.
So at that point, it was off to the races. I commissioned the bike, paid my deposit and sent through my overly-detailed geometry wish list.
And then the global pandemic hit. Lockdown.
The early days of the pandemic were strangely uncertain. I love music, and I spent that inside time restoring and playing my old vinyl records, making playlists and going down musical rabbit holes. Of course, the production line for everything slowed as the world adjusted to the new reality of being COVID safe. The bike, in turn, was going to take much longer than expected.
I filled in that waiting time mocking up paint designs (this is a tale of obsession, after all). One of the musical rabbit holes I went down was early Bowie. I remembered how in my teens, over 10 years after his gender-bending heyday, I discovered Ziggy Stardust; The Man Who Fell to Earth; The Thin White Duke.
I loved Bowie for his transgressive shape-shifting, constant re-invention, and ability to look forwards and backwards at the same time. It struck me that this was really what this bike was: a shape-shifting, retro-future reinvention of what a bike needed to be, at least for me. So Bowie became the paint theme.
From that point, I needed to make component choices. I had not been convinced by electronic shifting up until that point, but was itching to try it out. I was a Campagnolo mechanical shifting die-hard. At least I thought I was. In the spirit of the bike, I reinvented that part of me.
I hedged on the expense and chose Shimano Ultegra Di2 instead of pricer Dura Ace or SRAM Red. It was perhaps the most tepid decision I made in the process, but I was betting a round of updated groupsets could be expected in the coming year. Upgrading two derailleurs and levers was the least of my worries.
I wanted to include as much from companies in my adopted home-base of the US West Coast as well, so of course chose Chris King everything in limited edition matte bourbon. I selected the impossibly robust yet lightweight EC90SL carbon crankset from Easton. And moving slightly east to Utah, American-made carbon forks, handlebars, stem and seat post from Enve.
I already had wheels I wanted to use, that were built by Ryan Morse at Diablo Wheelworks for an earlier bike. Fun ass wheels he calls them, and they are. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that wheels from a local builder are definitely the way to go.
So what did it cost? The frame, with paint and custom geometry was $3,999. By comparison, my stock standard mass-produced Santa Cruz Stigmata frame cost $2,530. Similarly, the Canyon Ultimate SLX $3,300 for the frameset. The carbon Merlin Empire frameset (as I mentioned, an oddity built by Sarto) originally retailed at $4,300, although I bought mine for much less.
So the basic Haley bike frame cost a little more, for sure — but given that it is custom build, custom painted, and tuned specifically for my body — it doesn’t take too much to account for the marginal overhead.
What didn’t cost any more were the parts — the groupset, and various elements from the handlebars to the seatpost, cost the same as they would for any of my other bikes. Ultimately the bike cost $7,435, not including the wheels I already had.
That might be an eye-watering amount at first glance, but this was a definite replacement for two bikes (actually, 4 bikes left the stable), and there’s no way that those bikes could each be built for half the price above. Add at least $2500 to those frame costs I mentioned earlier for the total bike cost with lesser components and a generic frame size.
I think the percent increase in means for the Bowie bike is more than justified by the ends. Perhaps significantly, I really want to ride this bike. Given it is built for decades of service, and I ride each year more than I drive, the cost is ultimately just a pragmatic choice.
Ming delivered the bike partially built at my request. I actually really enjoy building up bikes. It’s the culmination of research, careful selection and the chance to connect with the details of the bike that I really relish. When I first opened the package, I couldn’t believe how much the paint popped. I had specified all Porsche paint, which I think must be some of the nicest looking vehicular paint available. Porsche. Just by association, I should wryly add, my middle-age crisis bike deserved nothing less.
The first moment on a new bike. That moment. If you’ve sat on a few it usually instantly informs you if you are going to get along. There’s always something. Maybe it’s an adjustment to the fit that requires a new part or postion, or a period of settling in where you and the bike get to know each other. But this bike, the Haley, from the moment I got on it — was just, wow. I get that fitting like a glove might be an overused idiom, but I really don’t know how to describe it. This bike just fitted perfectly — almost like it was made for me.
Tarmac or dirt (I’ve now done plenty of both), the bike behaves exactly how I had hoped it would. A shuffle of pedals and shoes; a change of wheels and route; and it becomes a whole new bike, cheerfully modal. Snappy from the get-go, but not a bucking bronco on steep gravelly descents like other bikes were. It has slowed me none, despite not being a feathery lightweight build.
And here we are. Over a year after commissioning, and almost a year into some form of pandemic lock-down. The bike and I haven’t nearly adventured as far and wide as I would have hoped, but I am just as enamoured as I was that first day. I look forward to taking a long post-pandemic tour, my worldy needs strapped to it and following an obsessively combed-through route (there’s a pattern here, I’ll admit).
In retrospect, all aspects of the build were worth it, and I know now that nobody could really ever regret going custom. Words to live by, I think.
To be fair, it is easy to spend a lot more than I did on a custom bike — or custom anything. You have to find a craftsperson that suits you, and consider that you should suit them too. Choose carefully, for sure. Talk to people. Create a working relationship. Contribute where you can, and listen when you should.
Funnily enough, that’s exactly what I would say to someone in my professional domain. I am lucky enough to work in a creative industry, in film & tv. It strikes me as odd that I didn’t carry that process immediately across to other aspects of my personal life. That is going to change.
Now, if it comes to price, I honestly wouldn’t flinch. Whatever it is, if you can stretch to it, it is worth it. Custom, local, or artisanal; they don’t have to be derided as hipster indulgences. They beat mass produced every time, I have no doubt about that. Ultimately, you spend less. Unavoidable world events in 2020 demonstrated this by constraining and slowing consumption, bringing that maxim into sharper focus for me.
If this bike project in the time of the pandemic did anything, it changed me: I’m committing to a more throughtful, careful path of engagement and consumption for the rest of my life. My only wish is that I had done it much, much earlier.
I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.
– David Bowie