We know, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. But there are definitely some questions too embarrassing to ask your local shop or riding buddies. Ask A Stupid Question is our weekly series where we get to the bottom of your questions – serious or otherwise. Hit the link at the bottom of the post to submit your own question!

There comes a time in most every cyclist’s life when they entertain the notion of a custom bike. While even most custom builders will tell you they can fit 90% of riders with a “stock” geometry, the truth is, we all want something special. But where do you start?

We definitely have some ideas on the best way to order a custom bike. But we wanted to hear from someone who actually builds them for a living. So, to answer this week’s AASQ, John Caletti chimes in with his advice on ordering a custom handmade bicycle. Take it away, John…

Caletti Cycles founder tells us how to order a custom gravel bike

Getting a custom bike is an exciting, educational and enjoyable process. Let’s talk about how to go about it and what to expect.

Finding a Builder

There are a lot of builders out there, each brings a unique perspective to the craft and delivers a different product and custom bike process. Spend some time looking around at builder websites, photo galleries and Instagram feeds to get a sense of they type of work the builder does. While there are some small companies who offer handmade in the U.S. bikes with some options for customizing, for the purpose of this discussion I’m going to assume you are after a truly “custom” bike from a Framebuilder. Since these builders are small, independent operations it might take a little digging around to find them – they probably aren’t going to make the first page of your Google search. Ask around, you probably have someone in your riding community who has a custom bike or has looked around themselves. (Ed. Or, ahem, just search “NAHBS” on Bikerumor and peruse years of coverage of hundreds of builders!)

The type of bike you are after will narrow your search a bit. Likewise if you have a material preference that can narrow the field as well. Some builders work with multiple materials. If you are undecided that’s great – let your builder be your guide as you explore that topic with them, selecting a material to meet your priorities.

As you browse around, some builders will pop out as their design sense and aesthetic style resonates with you. Ok, you’ve narrowed down a bit to a few who build the type of bike you’re after and you’re excited by the bikes they’ve built for other riders. Time to pick up the phone. Talk to the prospective builders a bit, tell them what you are after, ask a couple questions, find out how long they have been building bikes, understand the costs involved, the timeline, if they can supply a complete bike, or whatever you want to know to help you understand what they do and if that will work for you.

By now it’s probably become apparent which builder is the best match for you. Time to put down a deposit and get the ball rolling. You are on your way.

Caletti Cycles founder tells us how to order a custom road bike

What do you need to know about ordering a custom bike?

You do not need to have it all figured out to get going on a custom bike. You probably know what sort of bike you are after and will select a builder who can deliver that. If you have timing and budget constraints be sure to check that out as well. Otherwise I think it’s great to come into the process with an open and collaborative attitude. Don’t be intimidated by the options and all the parts and technical stuff. Let your builder be your guide and you can sort through the options with them.

Along the way you will be making choices in a few areas that likely include:

Bike Type: These days we can’t just say “road” or “mountain” and the beauty is you don’t need to. Your builder can work with you to find a fine-tuned, customized solution for your unique riding aspirations.

Fit and Setup: Some people know exactly what they want here, some have been on a funky, ill-fitting setup for years. I think it’s a good opportunity to work with your local fitting professional to assess your current setup and see what’s working that you want to keep and where you want to make enhancements. You or your fitter can send pertinent information (like saddle height, saddle setback, reach to the bars, drop to the bars, etc.) to your builder to integrate into your design. Talk to your builder and work out how you want to handle this. Part of this discussion would include crank length, bar width, reach, drop; saddle preference.

Caletti Cycles founder tells us how to order a custom road bicycle

Bike Design: You don’t need to know about bike geometry or technical stuff. Just talk to your builder about your riding strengths and weaknesses, how you like to ride, the terrain you ride, what you’ve ridden in the past and what you liked and didn’t like about it. You’re an expert on you, the builder is an expert on how to make a bike for you and will advise on geometry and tubing selection to meet your needs.

Parts: This overlaps with some other topics, like the type of bike you’re after and some of the design, but you should think about parts. Do you want disc brakes on your road bike? Do you want electronic shifting? Do you know what size tires you want to run? How about carbon wheels? Again, don’t feel like you need to know all this ahead of time, but going in with some ideas is a good place to start.

Cost: As you make a plan keep your budget in mind. Again, I think flexibility is good. And remember what a wise man once said about budgeting for buying a bike: “Decide what you want to spend, then add 50%.” I guess he saw Di2 and carbon wheels coming….In seriousness, if you have a budget, let your builder know so you guys can find a solution that fits within it.

whats the first step in ordering a custom bicycle

Paint/Powdercoat/Finish: I saved the best for last. This is what keeps people up at night, this is the hardest decision. We somehow keep telling ourselves “it’s not that important….” as we know it doesn’t affect the ride and handling of our bike, but people always care a lot about the color and finish of their bike. I say embrace it, accept it IS important, have fun with it. Think a bit about what you want and talk to your builder about options.

I hope this was informative and gets you thinking about your own custom bike project. What I’d like to leave you with is that getting a custom bike is best way to get a bike. It’s fun, personal, educational and results in parts, design and colors tailored to the unique YOU; which results in the most fun on your rides and a joy of ownership that lasts. You don’t need to be an expert, just let your builder be your guide. Oh, and now is a good time to get those orders in so you can get your new whip in time for the summer riding season!

Bikerumor: Thanks a ton, John! Everyone, be sure to check our coverage of Caletti’s bikes from NAHBS 2016 and 2017 and you’ll see why he likes the paint and finish so much! And should you be in the market (or just feel like blowing off work) give his website a visit.


Got a question of your own?  Click here to use the AASQ form, or find the link under the Contact menu header up top anytime a question pops into your mind!

17 COMMENTS

  1. Order brushed Ti or stainless to avoid having to pick a color.

    My sweat removes paint so I would not want to ride an artwork quality paint job.

    • Yep, titanium is great in that regard – it does not rust or corrode, so it does not need paint. We have done some color anodized graphics as well as polished logos on the satin/media blast finish of the titanium frames so you can have a really durable finish with no paint or decals, should you want that.

  2. Nice article John. I think the thing that people really miss in ordering a custom bike is the interaction you get to have with the person who designs and builds your bike. Choosing a builder you really trust is key, and being open and forthcoming with them can allow you to work together to make something really cool. It is all about the collaborative and interactive process of building a dream ride.

  3. “You don’t need to know about bike geometry or technical stuff”

    I get your jist, but… seriously?! That’s not good advice! A half degree might not matter much, but you should know a little about bike geometry if you’re going custom! :0)

    • I believe people thinking they need to know about all the technical stuff might be what could turn them off of buying a custom bicycle. It’s the builder’s job to find out how the individual rides, and what they need from their new bike. Then the builder can explain what geometry, etc., will help achieve that. It’s not strictly necessary for a buyer to know about rake, trail, wheelbase, headtube angle, etc., beforehand as long as they have good communication with the builder. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to know this stuff, of course, it’s just maybe not a requirement as long as you are dealing with a builder who has a trove of knowledge and experience to guide them toward what would work best for the client.

    • No, your average Joe doesn’t need to know bike geometry to get a custom bike. IMO the less they think they know the better. This is how brand new custom bikes are produced with 1970’s geometry and a new bike feels a lot like an old bike.

      While I believe there is a LOT of snake oil for sale in the cycling world, geometry isn’t one of them.

      • Agreed! Too many average riders have terrible ideas of what “ideal geometry” and fit is you only need to rock up at group ride and see how many 140mm -17 stems there are out there that do not fit their riders to illustrate this point. A custom bike should be made to suit what experience the rider is looking for the builder should truly only concerned about the geo, the rider should just be concerned with if the bike allows them to experience what they want to experience the best way possible.

    • If you know a lot about geometry that’s great, if you don’t know much that’s fine too. The point is that it is not a requirement to get a custom bike. Sometimes folks are a little intimidated by the prospect of a custom bike, or think they “don’t know enough to go custom.” My suggestion is for the rider to bring whatever knowledge they may or may not have to the conversation with their builder. Builder’s should be expert in bike geometry and have experience in fine tuning to suit the rider. I’d rather have someone give me notes on how they want to the bike to feel and then I propose some geometry tweaks to suit. It’s a great learning experience.

  4. Well written article. The interaction/experience the customer has with the shop/builder is as important as the end result (frame/bike) you end up with. R+E Cycles out of Seattle, Wa makes killer steel, stainless, or Ti frames for any type of riding (except full suspension, but they could do it!). They’re a fit to finish builder specializing in touring, gravel, race, tandems & long bikes, and anything for any size rider. Check out their sweet builds here: https://www.instagram.com/explore/locations/15816686/r-e-cycles/
    or: http://www.rodbikes.com

  5. As a repeat customer of an east coast frame builder I have to say that this is perfect advice for the custom-curious. A good builder will listen to what you say about your riding style, terrain, strengths and weaknesses and will figure out how to put a bike under you that does exactly what you want. I’ve had two road bikes, three cross bikes, and a SS mtb from my builder and each one rode exactly how I told him I wanted it too (as it turns out, I didn’t actually like the super stiff iteration of the road bike but that is exactly what he and I planned on).

    Nice read John.

  6. My dream is to build a custom geometron roadbike. 67º headangle, 510mm reach, 40mm stem, dropper post, space for 40mm x 622mm tires, 450mm chainstays, 160mm discs. Got to save some money up!

  7. I just put my deposit down on a custom bike from Hamilton Frameworks here in the UK. I was surprised how affordable the quote was (very similar to other steel frames on the market) only for that I had the joy of talking to the builder and choosing the geometry to suit! (Choosing a colour still to come) I had completely written off the idea of going down the custom route as I thought it would be far out of my budget! So I would advise people to at least explore the option if you’re struggling to find an off the shelf bike that ticks all the boxes. Wait time will be around 3 months for me, and I am SO EXCITED.

What do you think?