People who've only ridden an old Schwinn cruiser on a bike path at the beach can find it hard to fathom riders' willingness to happily drop $8,000 or more on rolling titanium and carbon fiber sculptures. They tend to dismiss it as a manifestation of the Southern California must-have-more attitude: Why drive a Honda when you can take out a loan and buy a Mercedes?
But for those who spend weekends zooming along the Pacific Coast Highway wheel-to-wheel with other riders in a wind-cheating peloton or flying down a twisty canyon road in the Santa Monica Mountains, a custom bike is worth every penny.
"I'm in it for life," says Bob Perkins, 54, explaining his decision to buy a custom bike. "I brush my teeth twice a day and try to ride my bike once a day." The Simi Valley resident has the same feeling about his 17-pound titanium bike that a National Rifle Assn. member has for his Colt .44: He'll never let it out of his hands.
Hard-core riders say it isn't ego-driven bike lust that causes them to invest that kind of money in a bike. For them, it's about comfort, efficiency and dialed-in handling. And if that kind of ride costs thousands of dollars, so be it.
"I can ride it 50 or 60 miles and know I can go more," Perkins says of his custom-built bike from Seven Cycles. "With my old bike, the party would be over."
After years of mountain-biking enthusiasm, road bikes are making a comeback. According to the National Bicycle Dealers Assn., the road bike market share has grown from 5% of bikes sold in 2002 to 16% in 2005. Much of that growth is in the sales of high-end bicycles, dealers say.
The trend may be part of the Lance Armstrong effect -- the cancer survivor's seven wins of the Tour de France brought road bike racing to the attention of the general public. But it's more than that. Aging baby boomers with bad knees and the cash to spend on fancy bicycles are now taking up road cycling as a low-impact alternate to running for cardiovascular exercise.
While the average road bike costs about $1,200, serious riders can easily spend $4,000 to $10,000. Although stock bikes can cost that much, for many of the growing number of cyclists who think nothing of riding 50 or 100 miles on a Saturday, the custom-built bike is the only way to ride.
Almost any bike can be adjusted to the average cyclist's shape to provide a more comfortable ride, but ordering a custom bike allows the buyer to specify ride qualities such as how the bike should handle and how stiff (for hill climbing) or comfortable the ride should be.
Minor changes in the bike frame's geometry can have a profound affect on how the bike responds. Quickly and nimbly or slowly and steadily can be a matter of a few degrees difference in the angle of tubing. And of course, a custom bike is tailored to the rider's body to fit like an Armani suit on Michael Jordan without sacrificing desirable ride qualities.
Michael Bright, 41, of Calabasas, spent eight days riding from San Francisco to Santa Monica last year. He says he wanted a bike that fit well and was comfortable to ride long distances. He achieved that goal with a $7,500 custom Serotta titanium and carbon fiber bike designed to be more compliant to soak up road bumps and fit right. "I don't shift my weight an inch, I don't fidget," says Bright. "Once you have a custom frame, you won't go back."
Tailored to riding style
Two riders with identical measurements and weight can end up with very different frames, depending on what they want the bike to do.
"If one loves to sit and climb and the other guy is sprinter, you'd want the bike different for those people," says custom bike builder and cycling author Lennard Zinn. "For the climber, you'd focus on light weight. You'd want the bike to be stable at speed for descending and slower turning -- less twitchy. For the sprinter, weight wouldn't be as critical, but lateral stiffness would be a really big deal and you'd want it quicker turning."
Building a custom bike is a technologically advanced and labor-intensive process.
"It's more akin to car manufacturing. It's not two guys in a basement making custom bikes," says Rob Vandermark, founder and president of Seven Cycles, the 10-year-old Massachusetts company that made Perkins' bike frame. The company's bike frames start at $1,700 for a custom steel frame and cost about $3,200 for all-titanium models.
Materials for lightweight, high-end bikes are expensive -- titanium and carbon fiber tubing costs eight times more than steel, the traditional material for bike frames. But then titanium, used to plumb nuclear reactors, is very strong and does not corrode. One cyclist jokes that the only way he can justify getting a new titanium bike is to "accidentally" back his car over the old one. Carbon fiber composites (the stuff used to build Stealth bombers) have come into favor as a bike frame material because of their high strength-to-weight ratio and their ability to soak up vibration. Until recently, most carbon frames were built in stock sizes because of fabrication complexities. Now bike builders have found ways to make custom carbon fiber frames, but the cost can be steep. One carbon fiber frame model from Serotta Competition Bicycles, builder of bikes for Tour de France riders, costs $7,000, although lower cost carbon frames are available from Serotta and other companies. Some bikes combine titanium and carbon fiber tubing.
Whatever material a rider chooses, buyers of a Seven Cycles custom bike, for example, spend several hours at a dealer being measured and filling out a two-page questionnaire on what riding characteristics they want, existing injuries and any pain they experience when riding. The company then compares the responses with information in its database of more than 16,000 riders and follows up with customers as necessary.