All in his own words – grab a cuppa and some hobnobs!
So. As I write this on a Sunday Morning, I am at the end of a journey that’s taken about 15 -18 months, depending on when you start counting. It all started with the theft of my 6 week old BMC Alpenchallenge. Literally 6 weeks after purchase, and about 40 Kms cycled, some total toe rag cut through a very serious gold rated lock, and made off with my shiny new BMC. The two lessons I learned from this were.. don’t leave your bike repeatedly in the same place overnight. Despite being in a gated area, and well locked up, the thief having seen it, just came back in the dead of night with the right tools to circumvent all the locks. Must have been a giant pair of bolt cutters…. Second lesson. Shiny new BMCs draw attention.
So, when the insurance finally paid out some 8 months later, tsk, sigh, I decided the next bike should be something not covered in fancy bike stickers. No more BMCs for me.
I had had a custom fitting done to my road bike, courtesy of Bespoke in London, (well worth it) and had the measurements. The insurance cheque was burning a hole my pocket, so I set out to buy a not too flashy, non attention grabbing commuting bike, that would hide (i hoped) in plain sight. To some extent I succeeded, and to some extent I failed.
My budget was around £2k, though this evidently swelled, and I eventually blew straight through it. I wanted the best bits of the last few bikes I had owned. The Alpenchallenge had turned me on to belt drives, the joy of cycling silently through the park on my way home was something that seemed hard to give up. And again, disc brakes, once you’ve tried a good set, well set up on a nice bike with plenty of rubber connecting you to the road, the ability to stop in such a controlled, predictable and weather agnostic way, is again something I was not prepared to go without. And just as I started shopping for bikes, people starting talking about two new standards, 12mm thru-axels for road bikes, and flat mount disc brakes.
I loved the Alpenchallenge, but I fancied going a little lighter next time, a bit more ‘flickable’ so perhaps do away with the Alfine hub gears. I’m a fan, they’re simple and effective and required no maintenance over the 6000 kms I put on the last bike I had with Alfine gears. But perhaps for lightness, I’d go back to single speed, a single speed belt would be awesome, fast, quiet, clean, light and maintenance free.
But what if I hated the single speed? or loved the bike so much I wanted to do more than single speed commuting on it? So the option to run gears if needed in the future…
All of a sudden that was a hell of a list of requirements.
Flat mount hydraulic discs
Belt drive (requiring a frame break, and either sliding dropouts, or eccentric hub or bottom bracket)
12mm thru axels
142 mm spacing
Option to run gears
A tapered head tube (aesthetic reasons)
As light as possible.
Internal gear cabling/di2 routing (just in case)
A little over a month of searching later, I resigned myself to the fact that no-one made this bike in early 2016.
Some forum searching led me to the idea of custom, and as anyone who’s ever seen them will attest, naked titanium tubes are just beautiful. Besides, titanium would be both light and comfortable.
Armed with my measurements from my bike fitting, I approached the three Chinese custom frame makers I had heard people talking of:
Waltly, Titan, and XACD.
I’d heard the occasional horror story, of ovalised head-tubes unable to fit a headset, of the, shall we say ‘colourful’ personalities at one of the above manufacturers. So I approached all three cautiously for a quote.
With the same list of requirements, the three manufacturers got back to me.
Now Waltly and Titan came back with the following price offerings:
Titan Product $750
Though there were some things that neither could do.
I had seen a “Legend” bike with an integrated carbon seat tube and had fallen in love.
And neither Waltly nor Titan could do that, and similarly neither could do double butted titanium tubes.
Which left XACD, and here is their quote.
FOB XI’AN USD555.00/set 1set USD555.00
Extra costs of taper head tube: USD185.00
Extra costs of 142×12 dropout: USD95.00
Extra costs of integrated seat post: USD85.00
Extra costs of double butted tubes: USD100.00
Extra costs of opening system for the belt drive: USD85.00
Extra costs of ECC BB shell: USD95.00
Extra costs of internal cables routing for brake and gear: USD100.00
Extra costs of brush finish: USD50.00
Shipping costs(EMS express): USD165.00
(I also liked the look of the slightly flattened Top tube on another XACD bike I’d seen.)
So a lot more money, for a couple more options. A little bit of haggling with Alisa, the Sales Manager at XACD brought the price down to $1350, and a few people suggesting that in their experience, XACD’s quality was fractionally higher than the other two pushed me over the edge.
So I sent XACD a deposit and a few days later received my first frame drawing.
Now, I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself here. Running in parallel with this decision making process was the necessity to find components with which to outfit my bike as and when it arrived. And there was no point having a 12mm thru axel, 142mm, flat mount frame if I couldn’t get single speed hubs to fit. So I started researching this. And back in early 2016, I spent a disgraceful number of hours looking into hub choices, finding only 3 hubs at the time that would work.
Hope, did a single speed/trials hub. It was bombproof but slightly on the weighty side for my needs, being nearly 600 grams as I remember.
DT Swiss did one too, but there was a problem there. I cant remember exactly what it was, perhaps at the time they only did centre lock hubs, or didn’t do a matching front hub with 12mm thru-axel… I can’t remember, but effectively my choice came down to Hope, and the German manufacturer Tune.
Tune make stunning components, drool-worthy pieces of CNC that are all about the lightness. Their single speed rear hub was 12 mm compatible, and weighed a ghostly 220 grams as I remember, around 2 and half times lighter than the Hope version. And of course, once you start investigating the Tune website, you’ll find much to fall in love with. Furthermore, the ability to colour-coordinate all your components was simply too much for me, and I decided to go for just about everything I could from Tune.
Anyway, back to the frame. Having worked out I could get the components I wanted, I pressed ahead with the frame design. Here’s where, in the (exceptionally dull) film version of this story, we’d have the montage bit. The next few months involved around 130 emails with the eternally patient Alisa Huo at XACD, involving 2 major redraws, and about a half dozen minor tweaks. In amongst this montage, you’d see weeks of me trying to get the dimensions for a rear flat mount calliper that TRP was about to release, but hadn’t yet, so I could make sure it would fit under the rear seat stay. You’d see conversations with Shimano themselves, Lightspeed, TRP, Gates, and many others asking about minute details of fit, and compatibility, the worries about which practically kept me up at night.
In the year or so that had passed between starting to think about this and pulling the trigger, the ‘gravel’ section of the bike market had really established itself, and I drew influences from the requisite tire widths, and component use to make a commuter/gravel single-speed hybrid that should handle whatever potholes and curb jumping, and even bridleways I’d throw the bike at.
Finally finally, the drawings were agreed, and I was confident in my ability to obtain the parts, so the balance was sent to XACD and I began the wait. And actually, by waiting, I mean feverishly buying up all the components that I needed. I estimated a 5-6 week build and delivery, though it ended up being more like 7-8 as XACD were very busy.
This gave me just enough time to collect the following list of components;
Gorgeous Tune Hubs (The Singlespeeder at the Rear and the King hub at the front),
Sapim CX-Ray spokes,
Stan’s ZTR Grail rims. (de-stickered for stealth…) Perfect for gravel duties/potholes, tubeless ready, yet light enough to be fleet in acceleration.
Tune built these bespoke for me, (thank you very much Harry Czech at Tune)
Hubs and Nipples in matching Tune blue.
Fork: Lightspeed Carbon 12mm thru, flat mount, tapered.
Cranks: Tune Smart Foot Road bike. 172.5mm, 130mm BCD. (with Tune Blue Chainring bolts!)
Stem: Tune Geiles Teil 4.0. 95mm.
Headset: Tune Bubi
Bottom Bracket: Tune Bottom bracket 68mm.
Eccentric Bottom bracket: Bushnell Titanium. (From my research these appear to be the last word in eccentrics, a byword for reliability, and seemingly impossible for them to creak.)
Axels: The Robert Axel Project. Lighting Axel. Beautifully made, work particularly well with, and have launched a form of partnership with Hexlox
Handlebars: Ritchey Hammerhead Carbon Fibre. (about the most beautiful carbon fibre has ever been)
Brakes: Brand New TRP TT hydraulics. The HD-T910 (feel like these were one of the first sets into the country. Thanks TRP, they’re gorgeous.)
Discs: TRP-13 140 and 160mm.
Saddle: Fabric Scoop titanium.
Pedals: DMR Vaults Black and blue.
Drivetrain: Gates Carbon Drive CDX
55 Tooth Front.
22 Tooth Rear
115 Tooth belt.
Tires. Challenge Handmade Paris – Roubaix (yes they’re a pain to fit… and yes they came up considerably wider than their advertised 27mm, I think they came out at 30.5mm)
Spacers: Halo Single speed hub spacers and Locknut
Tune Carbon Stem spacers
Tune ‘Porteur’ out front Garmin computer Mount.
XACD made the Titanium seat mast topper to the correct diameter for the integrated seat post
It doesn’t look like a lot, but there’s hundreds of hours there in component selection, and competitive price shopping. For example, those Ritchey Handlebars were £568 retail, which I could never afford, but some months after first seeing them, and some diligent searching, and I found someone with 1 last pair, prepared to get rid of them for £100. Utter delight!.
Also, be prepared to surprise yourself with your obsessiveness. When you’ve carefully selected the rim, the nipples, the spokes and the tires, and invested tens of hours in these choices, you’ll find yourself spending a few more reading about the pros and cons of all the different inner tubes, to say nothing of the two different stores I visited to discuss and then purchase rim tape…
Over the weeks, the pieces started to roll in one by one. And finally when the frame arrived, I was all set. So then came the assembly. I had talked to a couple of local bike shops and bought various components from them, including Velorution, Evans, Cycle Surgery and Cloud Nine, but my local Cycle Surgery, in West Hampstead, and particularly Luis the mechanic there, was so helpful and knowledgable, and dare I say he got caught up in the passion project a little too, so I decided to have him build the dream bike.
We had budgeted about 4 hours to build it, but it ended up being more like 12 hours over two visits.
I was amazed at how small tolerances are, how exact machining can be done, so that things click and snap together with ease and purposefulness that is as reassuring as it is satisfying. American thru axles pass through German Hubs, which both slip flawlessly into Chinese titanium Dropouts, probably themselves made somewhere else, and instantly align perfectly. All very impressive. Of course there was the occasional speed bump to be overcome. An extra washer required here, and an extra half mm spacer there to prevent rubbing, and some creative problem solving by Luis when we couldn’t grip the bottom bracket tool to screw the bottom bracket in, so had to grip the tool in a bench-vice, and screw the bike frame onto it…
The TRP brakes were so new, there wasn’t an instruction manual, and we needed a phone call back to TRP to help complete the setup.
Anyway, 12 hours and two BBQ chickens later, we were done and I’m about to go on my first ‘proper’ ride.
I’ve done about 5 miles so far I should think in testing, and so far I’m delighted. I mean really really delighted.
The Tune Hubs are the smoothest I’ve ridden on, combined with the 300 TPI Handmade Challenge tires, and a well set up belt drive, this bike is quiet, smooth, and fleet. Again factor in a double butted titanium frame, a full carbon seat tube, a titanium railed saddle and those 30.5mm Challenge tires, and it’s very smooth. It’s also a wonderful combination of stiff in acceleration and at the axel, and ‘solid/strong’ is the best word to describe it as you hop off a curb. Nothing shakes, nothing rattles, and very few vibrations make it thought the titanium and carbon to your contact points. Of course it’s nimble as well, agile and light, totally the flickable that I wanted. It’s about 8 kilos all told (the frame was about 1.85Kgs), but feels very similar to my BMC carbon road bike in it’s eagerness to accelerate.
I love the feeling of the frame, the look of the naked titanium, I love those Ritchey Handlebars, I love how it stops and goes with such eagerness and obedience, I love the smoothness, and finally, I love all that Tune bling.
My final two purchases will be 6 Hexloxs so people don’t try and unscrew my lovely components on the rare occasions I’ll have to leave it outside for short periods of time, and I’m going to buy a Kryptonite New York Fahgettaboudit lock, (as a second lock to go with my Hiplock gold). Oh, and they’ve just released the Sherlock GPS bike tracker, if I can get one to fit, perhaps I’ll install one of those too….
With 20-20 hindsight, I’m amazed it all came together. I’ll be the first to admit I obsessed over the details, and this was a bike built without compromise. It was a joy, but if you’ve got a long list of custom requirements like I had, don’t kid yourself that it will be either quick or easy.
It has taken as I said between 15- 18 months.
130 emails to XACD, to say nothing of the 200 I fired off to the other frame manufacturers, Gates, Shimano, TRP, Halo, Tune, Challenge and Fabric amongst others. (And my thanks to them all for their patience.) The multitude of international phone calls, and several profound eye-rolls from my girlfriend.
I also estimate 400 hours of time in research. yup. You could really get good at the guitar or something similar instead.
Finally, I’d like to add my thanks to Andrew at Spanner, for his excellent good advice, and the sound and passionate council he provided.