You don’t have to look very hard to find a bicycle that costs five figures these days, which is pretty insane. The fact that a human-powered machine costs more than a used car is indicative of many things, one of which is that there are a lot of very rich people. But having a lot of money doesn’t make you pedal faster. More importantly, no matter the cost, the bike that is exactly right for one person may be exactly wrong for the guy next to him. It’s easy to get mesmerized by carbon fiber weave patterns, but the end goal should always be finding the bike that’s the right fit for you and only you.
Nothing accomplishes this better than a custom bike, where the geometry, materials, and style are all fashioned to meet your body type and objectives—whether that be climbing hills more efficiently, descending hills quicker, or being more comfortable on rides ranging from daily commutes to weekend centuries. For example, a different type of steel may be used on each frame tube to provide optimized stiffness and feel. The measurements on those tubes will also be tweaked to match your body’s idiosyncrasies.
Custom bikes are not cheap. Prepare to spend a few grand on a frame and fork set. But the prices are in line with the high-end offerings of the big boys in the bike spice. And for a similar price you get a piece of equipment that is 1 of 1. It doesn’t hurt that that they look amazing, too. Few creations merge form and function better than a custom bike. The craftsmen who fabricate them tend to have an appreciation for the old way of building things while also knowing how to utilize modern technology.
There has been a significant growth in the custom bike market in recent years, as cyclists have sought out bikes that stand out from the pack. As the field gets more crowded, it’s important to know who’s making great bikes and who is just putting on a fancy paint job. So if you’re looking to get into the saddle of a new custom bike, the builders below are a great place to start.
Seven has been cranking out its prized bikes in Massachusetts since 1997. Although “cranking out” is the wrong term to use, because Seven places a ton of care and attention into every detail of its bikes. Seven’s craftsmen only work on a single bike at a time, hence the company motto, “One bike. Yours.” Perhaps best known for its work with titanium, Seven also makes beautiful bikes out of steel and carbon fiber. The current wait time on a painted frame is seven weeks—so if you want to get riding this summer, you better put your order in now.
Should you be lucky enough to throw a leg over one of the works of art that is a Richard Sachs bike (the wait list is years long), you can pedal confident in the knowledge that Richard Sachs isn’t just a brand name. Sachs, the man, works alone. If a bike has his name on it (rendered in an elegant typeface by design shop House Industries), Sachs built it. He has a no-bullshit approach developed after decades of frame building and racing. Sachs admits his bikes won’t necessarily make you faster, but they will help you understand what is (and what is not) important in a bike.
Portland, Oregon-based Breadwinner took home the award for Best City/Utility bike at the 2016 North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) for a version of the Arbor Lodge seen above. Owners Tony Pereira and Ira Ryan, who were building bikes independently before they met at a cyclocross race, have crafted bikes for Rapha and developed prototypes for the first Shinola bikes. Breadwinner’s offerings aren’t limited to city bikes. Its range includes mountain bikes and road bikes that all have a “everything you need, nothing you don’t” appeal to them.
Chris Bishop came up as a bike messenger before deciding to try his hand building bikes of his own. Despite not having decades of experience, the bikes Bishop builds are absolutely exquisite. Custom bike aficionados can wax poetic about welds and lugs for hours, and when you see the details on one of Bishop’s frames you immediately understand why. Everything just flows. The unique paint jobs only add to the appeal. These bikes are really nice to look at, but they are more than just another pretty face. They are built to be ridden hard and they can take all the abuse the most demanding riders can dish out.
Sacha White, who started Vanilla and its offshoot Speedvagen, is one of those figures in the bike world who inspires cult-like devotion. While White’s brands are now offering ready-made options, they are still best known for their custom creations that are as beautiful to look at as they are enjoyable to ride. The bicycles receive a lot of attention for their style, which feature a lot of handcrafted details that all serve an important purpose. As is noted on the company’s website, “If your Speedvagen isn’t racing, attacking, bonking, crashing…if it hasn’t been scratched, scuffed, marred and covered in dirt and snot, you’re simply doing it wrong.”