Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Perfect Custom Frame

For the last couple of months I have been going through the process of having a custom frame built up by Tom Sturdy of and it has been a fascinating and brilliant journey.

The proceedings started after the experiences of the Welsh Ride Thing, igniting the desire to tour longer distances off-road. Dreams began to formulate; riding for an extended period in the UK, LeJog (mostly off-road), and ultimately, wishful thinking of travelling through the USA and Russia before my short time on this planet is up. Not as an adventure racer (well, maybe once or twice), but as a proper tourer, with proper luggage and comfortable sleep set up. However, my long distance full suspension Specialized Rumor may eat up miles, but is really unsuitable for carrying luggage.  

Plus, if I am honest, I have wanted a steel frame hardtail for a very long time, but finding the perfect one for my relatively unique stature (long legs, short body, with a strong dislike of the racer 'lent over position') has made finding an off-the-peg frame impossible. There were a specific set of demands. It had to be:

1) Short enough in the reach for me to upright and comfortable and not aggravate a prolapsed disc in my back
2) Long enough in the wheelbase to be stable
3) Made of straight tubes, as aesthetically I cannot stand a bend in the downtube, or top tube
4) Able to take a big load, for long tours, potentially away from regular contact with civilisation, but fun to ride as an unburdened trail bike.
5) Able to take all my componentary off the current 29er, for, two reasons. Firstly, the boring 'cash' factor (or lack there-of) and secondly, to enable easy swap between the two frames as I forsaw the full suspension bike to remain a likely candidate for any future 24 hour racing, or for more technical long distance riding.
6) Absolutely and uncompromisingly have full toe clearance.

And that's just the overview. Once you get down to the nitty gritty of 'what standard' (is there even such a thing as a mountain bike standard?) the design process becomes really complicated.

Luckily I had Tom Sturdy to talk me through it and answer every question. After the initial phone enquiry, you pay a refundable deposit to reserve a place in the workshop queue and then you meet Tom, face to face, visit the workshop, and talk through the specific requirements.

I took two mountain bikes with me for the face-to-face, the long distance, short travel 29er (A Specialized Rumor) and the long-travel 160 mm 650b Specialized Enduro. The Enduro is a far more comfortable riding position and the reach works much better for me, I feel relaxed and happy riding it. The Rumor covers distance easily, but even with the female specific shorter top tube, and a short stem, it still feels stretched and it aggravates the prolapsed disc in my back terribly, leaving my feet numb after long days in the saddle. Tom watched me ride both, pedalling round in the yard, and from this used his bike fit skills to determine the requirements for the new frame. From the start, the entire process felt like a truly personal service, with extended discussions about my riding style and what I hoped to use the frame for.

The most important thing to remember, when having a custom frame built, is that you won't get a perfect, do-it-all, holly grail of bicycles. There will still be compromise. If something climbs well, it may not descent so great. If you lower the bottom bracket for stability, you may end up clipping pedals. If you shorten the top tube for reach, you may not get toe clearance. Custom builders are skilled, but they are not magicians. The point of going custom, though, is that you get to chose where those compromises are made.

Following the meeting, Tom sent through the designs and then followed an extended rally of emails. Tom responded quickly and with clarity to every question and concern fired in his direction. "That paint fade, can we upgrade to a complicated stencil job?" "Have you allowed for the sag when assessing the BB height of my current full suss?" "I'm wondering about an integrated headset. What do you think?"

So let's talk through some of the specific details.  I will refrain from every minute detail, however, feel free to post questions if you require more information. 

Why steel?
Tom has his own justifications for using steel. For me though, the choice was simple. Titanium, no matter how 'desired' it is by some, has a reputation for failure. Of course, with the right builder this may be minimised, but that notorious reputation is not something I would like to play roulette with. If Ti breaks, you are stuck, it takes a real specialist to repair it and there may not be one in a remote area. At least with steel I am likely to find someone who could bodge a frame failure together to allow me to finish whatever journey I am on. For the cost of a truly bespoke steel frame, made and sprayed by the expert Tom in Crickhowell, I could get a custom Ti. However, this would be designed in the UK, welded somewhere else (Russia or the Far East) and shipped back. There would be no fluidity in the process as there is with Tom. Plus, steel is real, as they say. I like carbon, but bespoke carbon is not currently a realistic choice, and, as with Ti, if carbon does fail, then it fails spectacularly. Nope, for me, the honesty of steel was the only choice; you know exactly where you are with it.  

There were a few issues to make Tom's life difficult (yet he took it all in his stride). 1) my absolute desire for straight tubes, 2) my requirement of a very short reach, and the fact I run flat pedals sat in the arch of my foot coupled with an utter and definite demand for toe clearance. The final spec was analysed down to the last millimetre by riding friends. Most of the downhill orientated riders couldn't see past the head angle of 69 degrees or the average chain stay length. 'Make it shorter at the back so it will turn!' 'Make it slacker!' It seems it is hard for modern trail riders to visualise a bike used for any purpose other than tearing up gravity fed descents. However the bike wasn't being designed to razz steep downhill trails or tight twisty singletrack. It's for long distances, including tough extended climbs, and being stable at speed with luggage.

In the end, the only geometry issue was one I noticed myself, that darned toe clearance. Tom had allowed more than enough for your average clipped in rider, but it was too tight for my foot position, especially in my huge winter Paramo boots. So the top tube was extended (and the stem length reduced to compensate) and the head angle slackened off by half a degree to 68.5 degrees when running a 110 mm fork.

Initially I had asked for a simple two tone spray but later decided on a much more detailed Watership Down' inspired theme. I wasn't sure Tom would want to do something so complicated but, in fact, he fully embraced the idea. The theme has the all powerful Frith at the top of the seat tube, his power shown by dripping blood on the downtube pooling at the base of the frame (representing the field of blood) and the Black Rabbit of Inle showing the transition of the souls beyond the place we know. It's to act as a reminder that life is very short and it's all a journey.

The build process was then left in Tom's hands and it all went quiet for a while. We had discussed the likely arrival time for the frame during the initial phone conversation and eventually I became aware that time was ticking away. I had two events upcoming in July that were reliant on the frame arriving. It became apparent Tom wad behind schedule through no fault of his own (family illness) and was desperately playing catch-up. All was not lost, the multiday bivvy at the start of July was originally to be my big event for the season, but, being a solo adventure, was easy to reschedule. Mid July, however, I was committed to a Trans Cambrian crossing with a group and didn't want to let anyone down. Yet again Tom came through, promising he would at least try and make that deadline. I reassured him I would rather miss the ride than compromise on quality, not that I could imagine Tom ever compromising anything. Obsession in a frame builder is a very good quality!

Photos started to appear online. The frame in the jig, with perfectly mitres. Beautifully welded joints. A video showing the complexity of the spray work. I know nothing of metalwork but engineering minded friends oooh'd and ahhhh'd over the work and the excitement began to build.

We arranged a collection date. Tuesday. Three days before I was due to leave for Wales. It should have all been so straight forward.

However, the bike gods had decided the whole process was clearly going too well. Unfortunately there were a number of issues which put a dampener on the final stage of the process, the actual bike build.

I am going to give an overview of the issues here as I hope it will benefit both frame builders and anyone looking at going the custom route in the future. I've certainly learnt a lot from the process and if recording it here helps others to avoid similar problems then it's been worthwhile.

However, before I do, there is one very important thing to remember.  What signifies a good business is not their ability to never make a mistake. Mistakes happen, sometimes due to the fault of others, sometimes due to ourselves. No. What signifies a good business is the way in which they handle mistakes and what they do to rectify them. At all stages of the process I found Tom to be nothing but a fantastic businessman to work with, and his integrity is second to none.

In addition, all my issues stemmed from componentary rather than any issue at all with the frame workmanship (discussed further below). I barely know anyone who has gone the custom frame route, and of the handful that have, two have ended up with frames unfit for purpose and given full refunds. So a few issues with the endless array of mtb standards are relatively minor in the big scheme of things.

So I'll summarise the issues briefly rather than writing an essay.

1) The headset supplier let Tom down by suppling the wrong one, and delivering it late. I waited around for hours in Crickhowell on the Tuesday with poor Tom constantly chasing the delivery company before rushing off to collect his daughter from nursery leaving me opting to wait for the AWOL truck to arrive, only to find no Chris King anodised blue goodness in the package.  I phoned Tom and he immediately said 'take the one that's there, get the bike built, I'll send the CK on when it arrives. Top notch customer service.

2) As soon as I brought the frame in the yard Steve took one look and said 'there's no way your cranks are going to fit in that. I l showed him the bb provided by Tom. Nope. Still won't fit. We researched fitting BB30 into a 24 mm shell. Even with external BB30 cups it was never going to happen. I mailed Tom and he also suggested the BB30 external cups until I pointed out it was a no go because of spindle length. Tom slept on it. Remember at this point the original specification was indeed very specific that my current components would swap easily between frames. Now it was looking like I'd have to buy some cranks and try and get them sorted with just a couple of days before my trip. Tom came back to me the next day. He could have argued, been awkward, tried to get out of it. Instead he said,."I'll buy you suitable cranks".

3) The biggest issue of all wasn't found until the frame was in the bike stand and Steve was bolting it all together.


Arrrggghhh the steerer on my beloved 110 mm Revelations was no where near long enough even though the forks were used with four spacers on the full suspension bike from which they were removed. With so little steerer showing, even a single bolt stem wouldn't be enough to safely hold the forks. I wouldn't want to go that route either, with the amount of abuse the bike would receive both from trail use and carrying luggage, relying on a single bolt felt like a very bad idea. It would also limit the stem choice massively and I needed the shortest stem I could find. Oh what to do? I sent Tom the photo and started planning some potential options. I phoned our amazing local bike shop UK Cycle Centre and let Matt know the issues. He said "bring the frame down, we'll get it in the stand and assess options".

Time was ticking away and the weekend getting closer, and I really wanted to get something sorted for the trip, but that was only one ride. I was also trying to think further ahead, for eventually I will need to upgrade the drive chain and the wheelset (the Roval hubs I currently own seem to eat bearings for lunch and are known to fail spectacularly). Would it be more cost effective to upgrade now and stick the new wheels and 12 speed cranks on the credit card? The answer to that was no. Unfortunately there was no way I could afford a new wheelset and cranks, especially for a frame that, at that time, I hadn't even ridden. It might ride awfully. Can you even imagine spending out vast amounts of cash on a bike that I didn't really love? Nope, logical thinking took over. Matt did have a secondhand set of cranks for £36. Not as nice as my current ones, battered, and, at 175 mm, longer than I'd like. However as a temporary fix it was the cheapest and easiest option for both me and Tom. I'd not have wanted him to pay out full price for a new set of 10 speed cranks if they were to be updated in the future. No need at all.

So the forks. Firstly we assessed replacing the steerer. Seemed initially like the best option. I'd get to keep using my beloved 110 mm Revelations, it would be the cheapest solution. Then I found out not only was a replacement £185(!!!), there was no UK stock. Goodness knows how long that would take. I wouldn't be able to ride the bike until it was sorted. I needed something for the weekend, but even cancelling that, I didn't want to miss most of the summer's riding. That was the reason I had got the frame built in the first place.

Second hand forks are always a bit of a mine field. Matt had nothing in suitable. Buying secondhand privately is such a lottery to find something that hasn't been heavily abused. I also liked the look of my Rockshox forks. I'm fact I loved them, and the feel of them. They had bedded in so well. But of course I would still need them anyway, to work with the full suspension frame.

I admit, by this time the golden new bike feeling was rapidly tarnishing and I began to feel sad that even a bespoke custom frame appeared to be a money pit of hassle. I may have uttered the horrid words 'I didn't pay that much to have a frame I couldn't  ride without spending even more'. it was starting to feel like the frame was cursed.

You know what though, Tom came through. He mailed and said he would pay for new forks, the cranks AND build a new frame. There was no need for a new frame of course, the current one was just beautiful and with the right components, it should work well (I hoped).

I took Tom up on the offer of forks as I had already decided, whatever happened, I'd buy a new set and worry about the money after. Secondhand just wasn't a happy compromise. I tried to get a like-for-like replacement set. However they were no longer available in the 110 mm travel. Options were all mostly unsuitable or ridiculously expensive top of the range stuff. However UK Cycle Centre did hold a set of 130 mm Revelations at an excellent sale price. Matt assured me he could drop them to 110 mm but that the part needed would require ordering. We assessed weight penalty for carrying extra unneeded fork travel, it was grams, barely worth bothering about. The weekend wouldn't be lost either, I could run the fork at 130 mm, and just get the forks dropped when the part arrived. At least I'd get an idea of how the bike would feel.

I let Tom know the final bill for the secondhand cranks and the forks and he sent the money over by transfer straight away, no questions asked. The headset followed on the next week.

Steve built the bike up for me, but still....the bike hadn't been ridden. It was beautiful, waiting, but I felt a little lost. So much stress and money being banded about. How would that first ride feel? I wasn't even sure I cared that much. The whole thing had made me feel a little guilty (should I have refused the offer of money from Tom? Should I have even risked so much money on a custom frame in the first place - there are starving people in the world and I'm spending out that much on some steel tubes. Could I have 'made do' with something else?).

I needn't have worried. That first test ride? The Thursday night set a smile on my face a mile wide and I spent most of it laughing to myself. The bike cruised uphill, felt so much fun to ride, brought the fast rocky descents alive and had me giggling stupidly at how easy it was to get airbourne. Sure, I'd not be riding the same kind of technical trails as I do on the Enduro bike, but within half an hour I realised, whether the bike was any use for the intended purpose (touring), I didn't care, because it sure was a brilliantly fun bike on it's own.

The next day the bike was packed and taken off on the long weekender for some true battering over miles of bridleways. It was just perfect. Everything I wanted it to be, it was.

As a postscript. The bike feels great with the 130 mm forks on descents, and the longer cranks fine for smashing out miles on wide bridleway. However, for technical climbing and difficult narrow singletrack the bike is just a little too slack, and the pedals are a little too low. I will be dropping the forks to the 110 mm height, and putting on shorter cranks. Tom's original design and head angle judgement was, in my opinion, absolutely spot on, as was his judgement on the top tube length, I have never ridden a bike with such a comfortable pedaling position.

You , I've found this blog entry actually rather difficult to write. It's not easy to put into words the excitement and passion I felt over some metal tubes. Tom, however has managed to take that passion and with some kind of alchemy I don't understand, convert it into a material object leaving me now free to pursue my dreams in real life.  Thank you Tom.

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