Time to look at frame building from a different angle, today we’re going to look at the human rather than the mechanical…
Manoj got in touch with me to share his experience – he’s an actor that’s been in stuff I’ve heard of which I think makes him Spanner’s first celebrity framemaker! His story about finding a bike to fit him will resonate with quite a few people, particularly those who aren’t hard core bike geeks. I think they’re called ‘normal’ people.
Well here I go. I used to cycle a lot many many years ago and then for various reasons it became a hobby that I left on the back burner with the intent to revisit one day. That day came 20 years later when I decided to get back into cycling. I quickly saw that everything had changed and that bikes now came in many more shapes and styles. I realised that for me, someone who rides primarily on roads but also on light off-road trails and lanes, that a ‘gravel/touring bike’ should fit the bill. I also decided that a SRAM single chainring setup would suit my wish for simplicity.
So I started off by purchasing a 2017 Kona Rove ST. It is a great bike for the $$ and it suited me perfectly in terms of the drivetrain and max tire width etc. but the frame fit was not right. I knew I wanted a steel frame or ‘better’ but there was no other off the rack frame that really fitted my body type. I’m 5’8” with a 33” inseam and short torso, so the only way I was going to get a frame to fit would be to have a one custom built.
While I love cycling I did not want to pay many thousands of dollars for a custom frame. After much Googling I realised that one solution would be to have a titanium frame built in China or Taiwan. This led to an interesting exploration of perspectives on how people in North America feel about Far Eastern products. I would talk to ‘experts’ and bike shops about Chinese frames and I’m disappointed to say I heard disturbing phrases like ‘why would you buy a ‘Chitainium’ bike?’. Really ignorant redneck stuff. I enjoyed replying ‘I don’t care where the bike comes from as long as it’s what I want and the price is fair’. I also enjoyed pointing out that my iPhone and MacBook are also made in those countries as are likely 2/3 of the things they sell in their stores!
Probably half the people I feature have a custom frame made as they couldn’t find anything to fit off the peg. It’s just a weird quirk that one of the most cost effective ways of doing that is by going to a Far Eastern titanium manufacturer. The rest of us are just messing around looking for a combination of design and details that we can’t find elsewhere.
Now, one of the toughest parts of the deal, how to pick who to work with.
Quite simply, I wanted a road bike frame, built for comfort and long rides that could take wide tires and disc brakes. I had initial email conversations with Titan, XACD and Waltly. All gave me pricing that was close.
Andrew at Spanner also gave me much appreciated advice and I respected that he would not recommend one manufacturer over another. He also pointed out important features I needed to be thinking about that directly helped me shape all of my final design decisions.
In the end I choose Waltly because of Amy’s outstanding courtesy, speed of communication and knowledge. I am by no means even close to being a bike expert and Amy was very pleasant with me, always pointing out various aspects I needed to consider before making my final decision. When I made my choice and told the other makers I was buying from another company, I got some real pointed attitude from one of them. This person, who you all know, could learn a lot in terms of courtesy from Amy at Waltly! Price offerings were all very close but Waltly was by far the most pleasant to deal with.
Boy, I can’t imagine who you might be talking about there 😉
It’s interesting to note that all three companies were close on price, I think it helps that you were looking at a fairly straightforward design. If you’d been thinking about additional features like custom dropouts, butted tubing, a tapered headtube etc. then the cost difference between them might have been more noticeable. In general Titan and Waltly will accommodate more custom work in their designs while holding the same price.
I had a local bike fitter help me with my final frame design. I took the Kona Rove ST geometry and tweaked it to suit my body type. Basically I shortened the top tube length but kept the bike high enough for my long legs. I decided on a few extras from Waltly, like internal cable routing and they also sold me a headset and carbon fork at a very good price. I also decided to have them engrave an ancient Sanskrit “OM” symbol as a headtube badge.
Clean lines and features there, Manoj’s job was made easier as he didn’t have to worry about cabling for a front derailleur. I think we’ve done the ‘internal cables potentially weakening the frame’ bit before but… Lots of people seem to be doing it though and nothing’s broken yet, we’ll have to see how things fair a few years into the future. I’d still perhaps be tempted to run the cables in the top tube and seatstays as there’s less stress going on there, but the downtube/chainstay run does look neater! Nice detail from Waltly on the straight headtube, the external butting will save a bit of weight and makes it look a little more trim.
Getting the design sorted is the hard part, how long did the delivery take?
I placed the order just before Christmas and a week later I had the CAD drawing for me to approve. It all seemed fine to me and I signed off on the drawing. In the weeks that followed Amy kept in touch with me and I also added some Titanium headset spacers to the mix. On January 20 Amy advised the frame was being shipped and it arrived on January 26. It was very well packed and I was able to track the shipment along the way.
Just over a month is good going, and over Christmas and New Year too, although I guess it’s less of a holiday in China! When you consider that many Western custom builders often have waiting lists of three to six months I think that’s pretty excellent service.
And now, the ride?
My bike shop friend did the component swap the next day and it all went smoothly. Its been raining so I’ve only ridden it once, but right away I felt more comfortable on this frame and… WOW… is titanium smooth! I thought steel was a smooth ride but this bike feels like it floats.
Overall Im very pleased with the process. My only fear was my own lack of knowledge about frame design and bike styles so if this frame is not 100% right for me the fault is all mine. I take solace in the fact that 5 different fitting experts gave me 5 different opinions on design and geometry so in the end I went with a little bit of all of their advice and a whole lot of my own instinct.
I think the frame looks great. For me, its a good as the frames made privately here in North America, and it cost me around 1/4 of the price. A great experience that so far has a happy ending but when I lose 20lbs from all the cycling I plan on doing I will be even happier!
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Another happy ending! It just shows the importance of following your instincts – both in terms of design and who you work with. At the end of the day though you’ve just got to take the plunge and accept that it might not be quite 100%, especially if it’s not something you’ve done before. I always think that’s a good excuse to go for a ‘Mark II’, don’t forget that designing your own frames can become addictive!
Manoj was on the money there when he based his bike on something he’d already tried out. He was also lucky to find a local bike shop that would help him with the build. Many shops are worried about going out of business because of the shift to online shopping and buying direct, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a shift to a workshop based business model. If there’s one thing people will always need it’s a man with a spanner and the knowledge of how to use it!
You can find out more about Manoj’s day job over here: http://www.manojsood.net/
Have you had a frame made in the Far East? Do drop me a line via the contacts page if you’d like to share your experience too.