Seeking advice on buying a frameset and having a bike built up
August 31, 2014 2:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking that, for my next bike, I'd like to buy a frameset and have it built up. I've never done this before. What should I know?

All of the bikes I've owned have been older used bikes, or new low-end complete bikes. I'd like to get a nicer bike, and it seems like the best way to get what I want (light-ish steel) is to buy a frame and have it built up. At the moment I'm mostly looking at frames from Soma or Gunnar. There are local shops that deal in each line.

Some things I'm wondering:
  • Did you pick the parts? Did you let the shop pick the parts? Some combination?
  • Were you able to get an accurate estimate ahead of time of the total cost, or is this something where I should allow extra room in the budget?
  • Did you ride a built-up version of the frame before ordering it, or did you pick your frame and sizing based only on published geometry and hope for the best?
  • Were you happy with the result?
I'm not somebody who has ridden dozens of bikes and can tell you his precise ideal geometry down to the fraction of a centimeter and it makes me a little nervous to spend so much money on something that I can't test until it's too late to back out. So I guess I'm looking to either be reassured or dissuaded.
posted by enn to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I did this in March - with a Gunnar Sport, no less!

I picked the parts. I sourced them from all kinds of places - it's basically a Rival/Velo-Orange build. So I got most of the Rival parts at swaps. They were all new or near-new. It's good to have cash so you can barter a bit. I ordered the VO stuff directly from them, and picked up a few odds and ends at my local shop.

Because of the way I did it, I went into it with an open budget. You should get used to the idea that this will cost you more than an off-the-rack bike - there are essentially HUGE groupset discounts on new, fully-built bikes. If you're like me, you have a good reason to pay more. Mine was that I'm a giant-sized person, and very few builders have stock sizes that fit me. That said, I spent less than $2400 overall, which I consider to be very reasonable, especially for a bike that's 90%+ bought from American manufacturers. Also, I built up the bike almost entirely by myself - my favorite local shop did the crown race, plus cables and housing. I don't know if that saved me any money (I had to buy a few tools), but now I can do most service myself.

I did not ride a built-up version ahead of time. For various reasons, I didn't want to buy from my local Gunnar dealer, so I bought from a guy I know that runs a great shop. It just happens to be 700 miles from me. As for geometry, I compared the published numbers against what I rode previously, while planning on making adjustments for better fit. In this case, the 66cm Gunnar was not meaningfully different from the 63cm Serotta (from 1987) that I'd been riding.

I am endlessly happy with the result. The bike fits well, rides like a dream, and I've put almost 2000 miles on it in the 6 months I've had it. Fit is very important, though - you've got to know what you want.
posted by god hates math at 3:06 PM on August 31, 2014

I did this in fall 2012 through spring 2013. I ordered a Boulder All Road with semi-custom geometry. I had dialed in the fit of my other two road bikes pretty well for the kind of riding I do (long day rides and touring), and I talked things over with Mike Kone at Boulder Bicycles, but I didn't actually ride the frame (since it was semi-custom, there wasn't one to be ridden). I am happy with the frame sizing and geometry.

I picked the components myself, though I consulted with Mike, who designed the frame, about the headset and the fenders. I had a particular idea in mind of what the bike would look like. I put together a spreadsheet and priced the components, so I had no sticker shock. Since I built the bike myself, mixing drivetrain components from Shimano, SRAM, Tektro, SKF, and modern René Herse, and I wanted to spend my limited time working on the bike rather than seeking deals, I paid retail. If you're having your LBS build it up, I expect they would get the parts wholesale and give you a better price than if you bought everything yourself at retail. It's definitely something I would discuss with them. If you're willing and able to stick with one manufacturer's stock groupset, you might get a pretty good deal.

Here are some photos as I built it up: Boulder All Road.

Like god hates math, I built the bike myself. The frame maker pressed the headset races, and I got a local wheelbuilder to make the wheels, but otherwise it was my own work. I enjoy tinkering, could do the work over the course of several months, am confident in my mechanical skills, and took a bicycle maintenance course before undertaking the task.

A final point: A Soma or Gunnar frame in good condition has a fairly high resale value. If you decide after riding for a while that you need a larger/smaller/more relaxed/sprightlier/whatever frame, you could order a new frame, move the parts over to it, and sell the old. You'd be out a few hundred bucks, but not the whole cost of the frame.

If you'd like my component list and an explanation of why I chose what I did, PM me.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:19 PM on August 31, 2014

Ugh, I tried to do this. I knew enough to know the frame I wanted, and I bought one used off of Craigslist. And then the frame sat in my basement for more than a year and I ended up selling it. It was too overwhelming of a project for me. If I had brought it to a bike shop and been willing to pay to have the whole thing built up, it probably would have been fine (and wouldn't have been any cheaper than buying a whole bike outright), but I wanted to make lots of decisions, try to track down different options myself, and it was just too much. I've been a casual cyclist for years, and more into it the past few years, but, without much knowledge, it was too much to learn.

Having said that, I have actually thought about trying it again! In a year or so, I hope to have a new commuter bike, and, if I get something built up, I'll go to my trusted local bike shop in advance and talk to them about the whole thing, and let them manage it. I've also had a good bike fitting in the past year through this shop, so I can use that information to inform the build. In this approach, I don't expect to save money -- I just think I know enough for this kind of bike (everyday commuter) to know what I want and get it right the first time.

If you have a friend who is way into bikes, that can also substitute for a good local shop, but tread carefully there.

If you don't have the mechanical skills to build up the bike yourself, I'm not sure there's a lot of money to be saved in this approach. Also, if you buy a bike with a good, steel frame but cheaper components, you can always upgrade the components after a year or two.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:03 PM on August 31, 2014

I've always admired the frames made by Torelli. I rode beaters for years until I leveled up to a light steel frame bike. That bike was a fixed gear, since I was living in Chicago at the time (fewer parts to theft, didn't get fussy despite salt and grit in the drivetrain nearly every day). For my first bike that I could shift, I went with stock parts. The new 105s are a lot like the Dura Ace of 5-7 years ago. The stock parts that come with higher end entry level road bikes are pretty sweet. As others have mentioned, it's a lot more expensive to put together a bike.

If you really really want to DiY your build, I'm not sure why you would mix and match parts except to try to save a few dollars. If you are going to put the bike together yourself, try sticking to one manufacturer for your drivetrain. It saves a lot of headaches. And, parts that were built to work together work better together.

I don't think that you need to seek out custom geometry so much as find a bike that you like the feel of. That means riding a few and finding the one that clicks. Different steel bikes feel...different. Lighter bikes have a little bit of pop to them. Some are slightly springy. Also, bikes that I thought would be a good fit after reading the specs turned out to be total nightmares when I rode them. Giant OCR, I'm looking at you. I have long femurs, which means that things can sometimes get weird with bike fit. Unless I'm on a bike, I have a hard time gauging whether it's going to annoy my hips or not.

Also, it really helps to work with a shop whose mechanic you trust. I've been fit and then re-fit on a couple of my bikes and it makes a world of difference.
posted by batbat at 7:14 PM on August 31, 2014

Just a followup: The stock Boulder Bicycle TIG welded frames are very nice, and a good deal. If you want a bike for riding long distances on anything from paved roads to fire roads, consider the All Road model (I love mine). If you're thinking long rides mostly on pavement, the 700C Brevet model might feel faster (though Bicycle Quarterly's tests suggest that the difference is subjective, not objective). If you want a go-fast bike without fenders, lights, or luggage other than a saddle wedge and bento bag, consider the Road Sport. Even if you just want a stock frame, Mike Kone will be happy to discuss the options for you (including oversize vs. standard tubing on the Road Sport). He's been in the business long enough that if you tell him what old steel bikes you've been riding, and what you like about them, he could help you make an informed decision.

[Disclaimer: my only relation to Boulder Bicycles is as a satisfied customer. I appreciated Mike's help with my frame purchase and component questions, and I did meet him at the 2013 D2R2 ride, on which I rode my Boulder bike.]
posted by brianogilvie at 7:38 PM on August 31, 2014

Oh, and P.S. in response to Batbat: the main reason to DIY a drivetrain is to give yourself more choices for gearing. I got a modern René Herse double crankset with 44/28 chainrings, and a Harris Century Special custom 9-speed 13-30 cassette. That gives me a useful gear range of 24-89 inches: a low gear for climbing those 15-18% grades that we get on dirt roads in western Massachusetts, and a high gear that lets me cruise at up to 30 mph (albeit with a 115 cadence!). I combined those with 105 derailleurs (the 2012 105 medium-cage RD will take up to a 32t rear cog; a cyclocross FD might have been more sensible, but I really wanted a silver and gray FD!) and Dura-Ace 9-speed downtube shifters (friction for the front derailleur, indexed in back).

I think few cyclists need an 11t or 12t cog, especially with even a modern compact double, and they know who they are! For most of us, once you get over 25-27 mph, you're going downhill and you're better off tucking in and coasting.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:48 PM on August 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you all, this is very helpful. The Gunnar Sport is one of the models I've been looking at (and I have definitely been eyeing the Boulder bikes as well). It sounds like it might do me some good to ride a few more bikes of different sizes to dial in the fit before I place an order (although the point about being able to sell the frame is a good one).

It's interesting that everyone here seems to have done the build themselves. I'll have to consider that. I have taken some bike maintenance classes and understand the basics but I don't have confidence in my ability to know when things like headsets and hubs are correctly adjusted.
posted by enn at 7:04 AM on September 1, 2014

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