I recently completed building a custom road frame for a friend of mine: Deon Jordaan. His frame graced my stand at the 2014 Africa Cycle Fair and caused some excitement among local steel afficionados. Deon wrote the following article to give a glimpse into the experience of buying a custom bicycle:
WHY YOU SHOULD BUY A HANDMADE BIKE
I’ve wanted a custom steel road bike for many years.
For a long time, I had my heart set on one day placing an order for an Independent Fabrication. Their bikes always seemed to me to be not as overtly ornate and more functional. Not as arty or ‘show bike’ as some manufacturers.
When my friend Dave Mercer started progressing from building beautiful steel bike racks I was certainly intrigued. However, I felt that I didn’t want a frame built by a ‘beginner’ when someone like Independent Fabrication had decades of experience among their team of builders.
When another good friend, Daniel from iRideAfrica, stepped up and ordered the very first Mercer I watched with keen interest, but was still sure that one day I’d have my IndyFab. Upon seeing Dan’s frame in the flesh for the first time, I was impressed but not swayed. However, the steady demise of the ZAR certainly made me question the viability of dropping what would be close to 30k on a steel road frame. Every couple months I’d do the mental calculations and every month it became harder and harder to justify the huge chunk of change that would be required to make my dream a reality.
Then one day, over a year later, I popped by Dave’s house to discuss some repair work he was going to do on an old Italian frame of mine. After we ran over the details, he said “Hang on, there’s something I want to show you”
He went inside and a few moments later stepped out holding ‘Rolfe’ in his hands. Rolfe was a 29er hardtail mountain bike painted in a lush, deep black paint with the slightest hint of red metallic glistening in the sunlight. I was taken aback, caught off-guard even. I wasn’t expecting this. I stood in Dave’s backyard and was smitten, holding another man’s frame in my hand, feeling slightly naughty, kind of like I was groping his wife’s bottom.
That set a snowball of thoughts and scheming into motion in my head. It was another couple months later, after an awesome off-road hack with a couple of mates, that Dave, my friend Raoul who designs bikes for a living, and I sat in the car park at Tokai forest and for at least an hour discussed the intricacies of frame building and geometry and the sheer love the simple act of riding a bike brought to us.
A couple of days later I made up my mind to put on hold the purchase of a new mountain bike and decided to send Dave a message asking him to please put my name on the waiting list. He predicted that I would wait 2-3 months before my frame would be built. Initially I expected this wait to be a time of pure torture. In hindsight, what it really became was a long, outstretched process of slowly eking out every possible moment of emotion, joy, excitement and pride that this whole process involved. I became more patient than I ever thought I could be. Whenever I looked at the calendar and counted the months and weeks remaining, I would simply visualise it in my head and soak up the sheer excitement, smile and then just patiently go about my day. I wanted it more than anything, RIGHT NOW, but I was totally content to sit it out and enjoy the process.
It was a major process. Being indecisive does not help when every detail offers a multitude of options.
The first major decision was the choice of groupset. Although I’ve always been a fan of Campagnolo, I’d decided to give careful consideration to the other options on the market. While I couldn’t get on with Sram’s shifters, a long road ride on an Ultegra 6700 equipped bike had me seriously considering switching from my old Campy groupset. When the new 6800 group was introduced my mind was all but made up. It looked great and once I had the chance to feel the reduction in lever travel when shifting, my mind was made up. Truth be told, I ultimately wanted a Di2 groupset, since the mere clicking of a button to shift really appealed to me. However, even calling in a few large favours and pulling some strings to get a groupset at cost price, I still considered it an unjustifiable expense. Queue my dear brother. Sitting at home one Sunday night my phone rang and I heard some words I’d heard before and since:
“Have you checked CWC’s website today?”
“They’re running a special on Ultegra Di2 groupsets”
I immediately went online and a few clicks later the deed was done. A few days later I sat in my office, very unproductively, with my new Di2 shifters, leaving greasy fingerprints all over them.
Once an item or area of components had been settled on, ordered and bought, the process would start all over again on the next component. You don’t want to know how many pictures of handlebars I looked at, how many reviews of wheels I read, how many forum posts on carbon forks were dissected. Every single item had to be absolutely perfect.
If that was hard, it pales in comparison to the process of deciding on a paint colour and design! About 2 months before Dave was to start on my frame, I met with Jared, who is responsible for the paint on most Mercers, at BMC Cycles in Woodstock. I wanted something a bit more interesting. Not outlandish, not showy and not particularly original, but something to my own tastes. A visit to Jared’s shop revealed what I’d heard to be true: that the man knows how to wield a spray gun. I was genuinely surprised at the level of detail he could paint and liked that he simply refused to use stickers. Every decal is painted and it was here that the crispness of the lines really impressed me. Not a single imperfection was visible. This got me thinking about some other ideas I’d had and I went home from there and emailed a British designer named Richard Mitchelson about using one of his designs on my frame. I simply love Richard’s interpretation of some of the great figures in cycling, especially that of my favourite cyclist, Marco Pantani. I don’t know whether it’s truth or fable, but I believe Pantani once said, when asked about his choice of gearing: “A real climber would never fit a 25”. I decided to use Marco’s figure as a form of inspiration when I’m suffering up a long climb, suffering on the bike being something I do frequently.
It was Friday in the third week of August, around the time that Dave originally said he hoped to start on my frame, that I decided the see how things were looking. I had most of the details sorted, with a few components still to source, and wanted to know what sort of time frame we were looking at. The news was better than I’d hoped. Dave had delivered a frame that week and was ready to start a new one. The customer in line before me was away for more than a week and still had several details to iron out on his frame design. As a result, I jumped the queue and serial number (sweet)016 would be mine.
I was out of town and Dave needed my measurements to start the design of the frame over the weekend. I sent them through and we agreed to meet on Monday when I was back in Cape Town to hash out the details of the frame. After sending through my measurements, I got a reply that more than anything else affirmed that going custom was the right decision:
“One other thing- you have very long legs! Were you barefoot taking those measurements?”
I was indeed. The sentiments of Dan Dobinson resounded in my head, after his first ride on his Mercer and realising what it felt like to have a bike actually fit him properly for the first time in his life.
That Monday night I sat in Dave’s house, moving back and forth between his study, his lounge and his workshop, measuring my old Eddy Merckx and my setup.
What felt like 20-30 minutes turned out to be 3 hours spent deciding every single design detail of the frame:
“Horizontal top tube or sloping top tube”
“Standard dropouts or Breezer-style dropouts”
“Internal or external brake cable routing”
“Cast brake bridge or hand formed”
“Lugged or fillet brazed construction”
“Diamond shaped or round water bottle boss mounts”
“Painted head badge, or a hand cut, brazed-on head badge in either polished stainless steel or brass”
“How much head tube showing above the top tube joint, how long the head tube should be, head tube angle”
“Seat tube angle and if we make it 74 degrees we have a bit more room so we can shorten your chain stays by 2mm”
It was during this process, while in his workshop, that Dave pulled a box from under his worktable. In it was the tube set he’d ordered for me. He explained the differences between my tube set and other variants, pulling out examples to show me the differences in the finish, the unbelievable thinness of the walls of the tubes, letting me slide my hand over and inside the tubes to feel the butting. I looked at every tube and when I didn’t like the shape of the chain stays that came with my tube set, he pulled out another box and showed me some different options. I chose the ones I wanted and placed them in my box with the rest of my tubes.
All the while, his wife Annabelle was putting their new baby boy to sleep while preparing us dinner.
The intimacy and relationship involved in sitting down with the guy who is going to cut the tubes and form them into a frame runs so much deeper than buying an off-the-shelf bike. It’s a painstaking process of ironing out every single detail and it makes the whole experience incredibly satisfying. We all know its exciting buying a new bike, doing some research, riding a few demos and then walking into a bike shop and buying the one you want. Going through the process of designing and specifying every single detail of a fully custom bicycle multiplies the pleasure derived from this process exponentially.
Over the coming days, I would be tempted by tweets and pictures of the progress of my build. I ordered the last few remaining components, got together the final few items for my wheels and arranged to get everything to the wheel-builder.
Dave kept teasing with the odd progress photo and it was a few weeks later that the frame made it to BMC for the paint. After agonising over different designs and colour combinations, I decided to stick with one of my firm life-beliefs: Simplicity. I let go of the idea of adding any lines or panels and went with a single colour finish, adding only the aforementioned design to the top tube.
On 20 October I finally got to see the finished product. We built it up in Dave’s workshop and then I handed it to Dave so he could take it with him to exhibit at Africa Cycle Fair. This was perhaps the only part of the process that was slightly torturous.
It would be 2 more weeks until I finally got to ride it for the first time. The first little spin around the city left me feeling nothing short of delighted. Everything just seemed perfect. I thought I was comfortable on my previous bike and I thought it rode well, but riding a bike made for you and to your exact specifications and needs really does take things to a whole new level. Several weeks in I am still smitten. Whenever I ride it I’m still slightly amazed at how good it feels under me. I’m riding the same hills I did before in heavier gears and descending with more confidence than ever before while genuinely feeling less fatigued after long rides. That besides, I still spend several minutes at a time just staring at it from different angles and soaking in the details. I still can’t quite belief how perfect the paint is and how smooth the joints are and how perfect the lines of the frame are. Whenever I look down at Marco I cannot help but smile…it really does look like that stern gaze is directed right at you with a look of “What do you mean you want an easier gear?”
Sometimes I wonder if I should’ve spent less money on it. Downgrading the wheels or using a mechanical groupset or the standard tube set probably wouldn’t have made the experience any less exciting. Inevitably though, at some point I would’ve upgraded to the parts I really wanted. So whenever those thoughts cross my mind, I just think ‘fuckit’. If you’re building a dream bike, you can only really go all-in, right?
Mercer #016 ‘Kenny’
Fork: Ritchey WCS carbon
Groupset: Shimano Ultegra Di2 6800, 11-28 cassette, 53-39 & 175mm crank set
Wheels: Chris King R45 laced to carbon rims, 20/24 Wheelsmith DB14 spokes
Headset: Chris King NoThreadset
Bottom Bracket: Chris King
Handlebar: Thomson KFC1 Carbon 44cm
Stem: Thomson X2 100mm x 10 degree
Seat post: Thomson Elite 27.2mm
Saddle: Selle Italia SLR TT
Bottle cages: King Cage stainless steel