The Builder – Bike Fit and Custom Builders

Throughout this series, I’ll attempt to keep my opinions to myself, but please quote me as saying “A bicycle fit (or fitting) by a competent fitter is the best value in cycling.” I say this to anyone who will listen. Perhaps someone else is saying it too … I HOPE someone else is saying it too. I hope you start saying it.

The bulk of the following discussion is primarily pointed at road and gravel riders and triathletes. It’s not because a proper fitting mountain bike isn’t as important, it’s just that one’s position is generally much more dynamic on a mountain bike. Road/gravel/triathlon typically sees riders in a more or less static position on the bike a vast majority of the time, creating much more opportunity for a poorly fitting bike to wreak havoc on riders’ bodies. 

A custom bicycle is a waste of time and money if the finished product doesn’t fit the rider, it was commissioned for, and so this is the first stop on our metaphorical train ride to a shiny new bike. A bike fit is orders of magnitude more than standing over a bike in the bike shop or adjusting the saddle height on a new bike. A comprehensive bike fit in its highest form will take 4-6 hours in the first iteration. It will include an in depth look at nearly every part of your musculoskeletal anatomy. Things you don’t think much about will be exposed. Things like: one foot or leg or arm is shorter than the other; one foot has more volume or is wider than the other; while pedaling, one leg sweeps to the inside and the other sweeps to the outside. When all of these things are combined, they create massive opportunities for pain, discomfort, and inefficiency. Or, in the glass-is-half-full kind o’ way, they create massive opportunities for your custom bike to be extremely special, and you’ll wonder how you ever rode anything else.

All the variables measured and addressed in bike fit are connected. Q-factor adjustments impact saddle height. Saddle height adjustments impact the distance from your saddle to your handlebars. Handlebar angle or hood placement adjustments affect wrist angle … and the wristbone is connected to the … everything else.

Can you see where this is going?

Bob Olsen at Wheel Werks, Crystal Lake, IL

Trigger Warning: Some of you lie. You lie about your flexibility. You lie about your power output. You lie about your weight. You lie about your skill. These fibs can be a massive barrier to a well-fitting bike, and this is where you can’t hide at an in-person bike-fitting. Nearly as significant, but not as brutal an accusation is that you’re also forgetful. Have you ever looked over your medical record and said “Oh yeah! I forgot all about that (insert injury or illness)!” An in-person fitting by a fitter or builder will nearly always expose symptoms of past injuries.

It is very typical for an unsuspecting cyclist to see a fitter and be told their bike and/or their shoes and/or their handlebars are the wrong size. Talk to a fitter a bit and the stories are plentiful and to technically-inclined folks, fascinating. Many would-be cyclists quit riding when new to the sport because their bike is painful to ride, and they think that’s just the way things are. Getting a fitting as a first-time bicycle buyer will save money, time, and pain. Yes, it’s a significant cost and while I don’t want to be insensitive to anyone’s financial challenges, I see money being spent readily (by the entire socioeconomic spectrum) on things with FAR less potential to improve lives the way a well-fitting bicycle can. While this series is focused on custom bicycles, armed with the information a properly executed bicycle fitting can render, finding a used bicycle that fits well is much easier. What’s more, some fitters will help assess potential bicycle purchases for suitability.

All this talk about fitters isn’t meant to dismiss how well a knowledgeable and experienced bicycle builder can fit a rider based on measurements and a comprehensive interview. Some builders are also accomplished fitters, but this is certainly not ubiquitous. Some builders choose to focus much more on the technical side of the building and leave fitting to others. Regardless of how riders’ fit information is obtained, builders translate that information into something unique. While studying rider characteristics for a commissioned build, the ability to envision the bike’s proportions and details specific to the rider can’t be overstated.

A custom bike is a nearly blank canvas, while an off the shelf bike is color by number. 

As riders’ physical characteristics move away from “average”, the value of a custom bike increases exponentially. Custom builders are the OGs of “all bodies on bikes.” Simply put, if you’ve had issues with the fit, durability, or weight (too heavy or too light) of bikes because of your height, weight, physical limitations, or a combination of these, a custom builder can help. Custom builders build tandem bicycles with a rolling weight of more than 550 pounds. A combination of properly sized tubing, custom built wheels, and creative braking solutions allow this. On the other end of the spectrum, a person under 4’10” and weighing less than 90 pounds will find most off the shelf solutions too big or very heavy or both. Custom builders to the rescue!

We humans have a terrible propensity for feeling alone when we don’t see others we can identify with. Trust me when I say this “YOU ARE NOT ALONE.” Perhaps I can update TCI’s tagline, “If you want to ride bikes, you’re one of us.” 

Join the conversation
  1. TominAlbany says

    Any advice on what to look for and what questions to ask to understand if a potential fitter is a good one?

    1. The Builder says

      I apologize for the slow reply. Ask about their experience, background, training, and process. Ask what fit products they sell to fix issues that arise during the fit. These products will include (but are not limited to) cleat shims/wedges, insole wedges, pedal spindles in different sizes where available, handlebars, saddles, and stems. Ask for references and call them. Ask if they specialize in something … road, triathlon, etc. Ask about what equipment they use (your bike vs. a fit bike). If they don’t have a website or social media, ask for pictures of their studio space. If you can talk to several, you’ll likely gravitate to one.

  2. khal spencer says

    “As riders’ physical characteristics move away from “average”, the value of a custom bike increases exponentially. ”
    Also, I suppose, as a rider’s expectations get more extreme, the value of a custom bike fit increases massively. But I would not tell newbies just wanting to ride a bike that they have to dive into this expensive and exquisite realm of bicycling just to enjoy riding a bicycle. Go figure out what you want to do, and then dive into the technical and biomechanical aspects.

    1. The Builder says

      I agree that someone brand new, with a very inexpensive bike should get a feel for the sport first. However, it’s extremely common for some to “get the fever” and throw money at it quickly, without understanding a lot beyond magazine/web reviews. More than anything, I want people to know that there is a massive opportunity to spend money wisely on a well fitting bicycle before injury or chronic pain forces them to see a fitter (likely after physical therapy). My comment about physical characteristics is pointed at people who simply won’t find a well fitting bicycle “off the shelf”. Also, I feel like there is a misconception that custom bikes are uber expensive art pieces. Obviously, they’re going to cost more than imported, mass produced bicycles, but with realistic expectations and a cooperative builder, they can be “affordable”. I realize that is a silly term used for $4K-$14K recreational devices … everything is relative.

Leave A Reply

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More