Over the years I have owned many bikes. It has not been a great experience. Every single one was bought as the “this is it” bike and much time and money spent on tweaking the setup to get it just right. But it never was. Every bike started out as someone else’s interpretation of what best looked and had to be adapted to what I wanted. I had to work around head tubes being too long; or top tubes too short; or frames that could not take the tyres I wanted to use; or bottom brackets to high / too low or frames too flexible or too harsh. Having made all the modifications to get the fit right, it was then learning to deal with how the bike handled which invariably was not quite how I would have liked. In short, I knew how I wanted the bike to handle and the position I wished to ride. What I needed, was someone to take all these inputs and convert it into the ideal bike. You’d think it would be easy? But it’s not as straightforward as you would think.
The challenge of bespoke
It doesn’t take much research to uncover a large number of bike builders here in the UK and around the world. Many of whom build gorgeous bikes. If you pockets are deep enough the paint schemes are breathtaking. But when you begin to dig underneath the surface of the custom bike industry several surprising things emerge. Firstly, anyone can set themselves up as a framebuilder regardless of their background, knowledge or experience. Secondly, most custom builders use the same software – and it’s very good – you enter in the bike fit details plus a few more bits and pieces and it calculates for the builder the geometry they need to build. It’s designed for non-engineers and does not allow the framebuilder to work from first principles. Thirdly, and most importantly, very few manufactures are actually by backed by product liability insurance – to get this requires submitting extensive detail of qualifications, knowledge, experience and design, build and testing processes. Unless you are aware of these points you could have a bike built by non-engineer, with no insurable production processes that looks brilliant but handles terribly.
The best bike builders are experienced, qualified engineers that can start from first principles with software that allows them to specify the design from scratch. But even this is not enough. Humans are not machines. We are all different shapes and sizes, have varying degrees of flexibility, fitness and appetite for risk. An over enthusiastic desire to be aero could result in bike that slips through the wind but causes problems with nerve compression or requires the rider to adopt an unsustainable riding position. The best bike builders have a deep understanding of the human body and can translate the proposed design into what the impacts will be on the rider and adjust accordingly. This goes beyond knowledge of bike fit to an understanding of physiology, kinesiology and biomechanics. Even better if they can understand problems you may have had from a medical perspective and thus avoiding guesswork or incorrect assumptions.
With these lessons in mind, I sought a bike builder who:
- Built bikes that were protected by product liability insurance.
- Are qualified and experienced engineers
- Could design from first principles – to fine tune exactly the characteristics I wanted
- Had a deep understanding of the human body (validated by qualification)
- Understood my precise requirements and could take my inputs and convert them into a design that factored in what I wanted – i.e. they listened to me
- That was willing to push back and challenge my requirements based on proper evidence
- That built beautiful bikes
And in case you wandered, I ride with a low cadence (65 – 75 rpm). I can produce significant power (quantified using a power meter). I am able to rider in an aggressive aero position for many hours at a time (I race ultra-distance). I am not afraid of descending at speed, and prefer climbing out of the saddle. I wanted a bike as light as possible that would not break, that provide sufficient compliance to take out road and trail buzz but still allowed me to transfer my power efficiently. I wanted to be able to ride aero most of the time including off-road and wanted the steering geometry to work in all these conditions. I wanted the largest triangle possible to carry bike bags for bikepacking. Speed matters, so I needed to be able to run the right type of gearing. I wanted wheels as light as possible with as fewer spokes as possible to keep rotational weight to a minimum.The bike needed to be able to handle single track when necessary but be stable and fast on gravel roads and roads. I needed a design that was calculated to deliver this as opposed to thinking it should handle right.
I short listed eight bike manufacturers whose reviews on the web suggested they may tick some of the criteria listed above. Three refused point blank when I told them I had broken 5 frames over the years. One sent me across a form asking me to supply pictures of things I liked so he could get the look of the bike right. One was not prepared or unable to adapt their basic bike design to what I wanted. Of the remaining three, only one ticked all 7 of the criteria, they were ‘Paulus Quiros’.
Jonathan Paulus is a medical Doctor and in addition has qualifications in engineering. Jose Quiros is an engineer. They design bikes from first principles, are insured, have had their designs tested by a University to explore and validate their thinking. They also build award winning stunningly beautiful bikes.
Getting a one-off design right, takes time. The conversations and emails exchanged were extensive and lasted for several months as we debated specific elements and design considerations. They brought their technical knowledge and cycling experience and I brought my knowledge of ultra-distance and cycling experience. Together we iterated to the final design.
Was it worth it?
Yes. Not just because the bike is sublime to ride and has delivered exactly the experience I sought, but more because I have confidence in that the design has been very carefully thought through and is the result of a detailed scrutiny of every aspect of the design with careful measurements and calculations to ensure it would deliver each aspect of the riding experience sought.
I have seven guiding principles I suggest you adopt when ordering a bespoke bike:
- Begin with the end in mind – what exactly do you want the bike to do?
- Be honest with yourself about what you really do on a bike, not what you would like to do.
- Don’t get hung up on one type of material or another, they are only inputs that will deliver the outcome you seek. Let the experts in the materials dictate the right choice – it may mean a blend of different steels for example.
- Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand”.
- Building a bike is a team thing – don’t pay for expertise and the tell them what to do – listen to the expert advice, consider it, and own the decision you take
- Recognise the final design has to balance many variables, ultimately it’s a judgement about how to trade off the different factors.
- Enjoy the process. It may take longer than buying a bike from your local bike shop but the outcome is so much the better.