The decision to become a custom bike builder is definitely not an easy one. You have to be tough and unrelenting to make a name for yourself in the world dominated by corporate companies with armies of engineers and designers, and even larger teams of sales & marketing specialists. Yet there are those who succeed nonetheless and who are sought out by cycling enthusiasts from all around the world. We talked to three of them to explain why so many believe a custom-made bicycle will always beat one from the production line.
Mass Market vs. Custom-Made
When looking to spend top dollars for a high-quality road bike, adjectives such as “stiffer”, “lighter”, “faster” and “way-more-aero” come around the minute you check the promo materials from well-known bike manufacturers. After all, those are the arguments we expect to hear when paying well over 10,000 euros. Carbon is the name of this game, with each brand creating fancier designs on a regular basis. Then, using their Taiwan/China-based manufacturing partners, they make bikes for the masses.
However, if you start to dig a bit deeper into what is available at such price point, you will hear rather familiar words such as steel, aluminium, and titanium. Three materials currently widely used by custom-made bike boutiques, the other side of the industry. A world filled with quality, craftsmanship and bicycles that usually last for decades. This is the kind of products Doriano De Rosa, Richard Sachs and Julie Ann Pedalino produce.
For anyone remotely in-tune with custom bike building, the name Richard Sachs needs no introduction as he is by far one of the most respected builders/designers around. For those less aware, Mr. Sachs is an American producing a very limited number of units each year and specializing in designing road and cyclocross bikes. In this sense, his work resembles more that of an artist rather than a businessman.
In the words of Richard Sachs:
“I don’t believe in… all the tech one expects. I’m not making or selling appliances or a This Year’s Model bicycle. That’s the difference between what I do (and people like me) and (the rest of) the industry.”
So what are the biggest challenges and hurdles these custom bike builders face today? Is it a question of access to market, marketing budgets spent by the large manufacturers? How could the custom bike market grow better?
Richard Sachs: In 2017, there are no hurdles (for me) facing any of these brands because my work and brand are firmly planted and predate all of these new labels. In essence, it’s part of my calling card, the experience thing, the history. I’m not fighting for a seat at the table.
On a related note – and this is part of the theme – I come from the sport, the racing side of the ledger. There was a time when all of frame building had a similar tether. Funny. All my life I assumed that Enzo Ferrari said “Racing improves the breed” but only recently I came to find that it was Soichiro Honda. Either way, I believe it to be the case.
The sport legitimizes design and the correct choices no matter what the ultimate use of a bicycle is. When I started in the industry, all maker’s shops were labs. And whatever worked for the teams they each supported became part of the fabric their finished bicycles were made from. I came in as an 18-year-old and drank all of this up.
Moving the reply forward to the present, the average Y2K frame builder is at a loss because he/she doesn’t recognize sport for the proving ground that it is. If nothing else, if NOTHING else, a liaison with bicycle racing on just about any level is a fast(er) track to earning the confidence of a wider public.
Despite that, it’s 2017 and the “large bike brands”, as you call them, own the sport, that world didn’t exist when I started. To that end, I think it’d be a tough row to hoe for a contemporary bicycle maker to compete with Big Box Brand based on abstract features such as craftsmanship, or individuality, or one-of-a-kind, or bespoke, or any of the qualifiers people use to differentiate.