Choosing a Builder for Your Bike

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: Testing and Tech

Choosing a Builder for Your Bike

When you choose a builder for your bike, consider their experience with the type of bike you plan to order.
Above is one of the first “compact” cars made in the United States during the early 1970s. Seeing that smaller European cars were becoming more popular, Detroit’s car makers decided to make their own small cars. The motto seems to have been: “If those Europeans can do it, so can we. How hard can it be?”
Well, it turned out harder than anticipated. Simply cutting a few feet out of the center and off the back of a typical 1960s American car did not result in a product that could compete with the best European cars, which drew on decades of experience.
The Japanese were more diligent and analyzed (some say: copied) the competition before making their own entry into the market. Even so, it took them decades until they were among the best in the world.

Similarly, when randonneur bikes first became popular, a lot of framebuilders seemed to think: “How hard can it be. You attach a front rack to your fork, and people will line up to order your randonneur bikes.” More than one framebuilder soon realized that making a good randonneur bike is a lot more involved than that:

  • Fitting wide tires without resorting to wide mountain bike cranks requires careful optimization of all clearances.
  • To obtain a graceful fenderline and rattle-free attachment, the bridges should be spaced with precision.
  • Front racks should be triangulated to provide a stiff support for the load.
  • The bike’s geometry should be adjusted for the load and wide tires.
  • Selecting components that work together seamlessly is harder for randonneur bikes than for racing bikes. For racing bikes, there are many component “gruppos” designed to work together seamlessly. There are no “gruppos” for randonneur bikes.

None of it is rocket science, whether making a compact car or a randonneur bike. Today, American car companies build small cars that compete with the best in the world. Similarly, many framebuilders have made the step toward becoming a constructeur, and  build fully integrated bikes that are among the best ever made. Others have returned to making the racing bikes that they know well and feel passionate about.
As the editor of Bicycle Quarterly, I often hear of somebody in love with a certain framebuilder, but planning to order a full randonneur bike. Or they want to work with a local builder, but don’t live near an experienced constructeur of randonneur bikes. Placing an order for a custom bike means buying a product, sight-unseen. I would not have ordered Detroit’s first compact cars without a test drive. Similarly, I would make sure that a builder has experience with the type of bike I want to order.

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