Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A custom steel build experience: Independent Fabrication Crown Jewel

At the beginning of the year, I started a more focused contemplation on a custom road bike. There has been much talk over the years, but as winter rolled in, I found myself believing it was time to look at this option more seriously. I've had several different types of road bikes over the last few years that were made of steel, carbon or aluminum. The problem with each road bike I have tried is that I never seemed to find quite the right fit. While I'm on the shorter side of the spectrum, I am not freakishly below the average female height at 5' 3.75", but my proportions and finicky/hyper-aware tendencies with minor adjustments, as well as a pre-cycling damaged hand/wrist seem to cause a lot of trouble with road bike fit. To top things off, I have a questionable knee and a completely jacked up lower back. I have come close to a good fit with the Trek Madone (from 2012 - it was modified in later models), but it still wasn't quite right and I have just never found a love for carbon frames.

For years, I have looked into various brands and possibilities for a custom road bike build, but it always seemed like such an extravagant or last resort kind of avenue to take. Surely, I could find something on a bike shop floor or we could build something from a stock frame that would work - or so I thought. After several attempts and many changes and adjustments to each bike I had, we finally started a serious look at having a custom frame built.
*Images from respective companies linked below
While my initial research took me through many, many possibilities, the main brands I was considering were Dean, Seven, Rodriguez, and Independent Fabrication, but I seriously pondered a titanium Eriksen as well. They each had their positive and negative aspects, but I wanted to remain open to as many possibilities without driving myself insane with too many options. I liked Dean because they are local and I've seen some very lovely frames, but I'd also heard some not-so-great stories about experiences with the company, so I wasn't sure I wanted to head down that road. The same was true for Rodriguez (not the local portion, but the rest of the reasoning). A lot of people have had success with Seven and there are a few local bike shop partners, but I also see many of these bikes for sale (both on CL and eBay), so I was a bit leery to go this route. My knowledge of IndyFab was minimal. I knew of them, have seen their bikes in person, but honestly didn't know anyone who'd bought a bike through them. All paths seemed to lead into the unknown, so I looked into all options to see what made the most sense.

As luck would have it, one of the local bike shops just happens to have recently partnered with IndyFab. We have known the manager for a bit now and although a custom build wasn't something he was used to doing, one of the owners has completed several builds with IndyFab and was ready to take on the challenge.

I was still very unsure of what I wanted in regard to material. Initially, I thought titanium might be the way to go, but not being able to ride a bike made of titanium before it was manufactured was a little unnerving. Some people seem to really love their ti bikes, while other do not (although I've yet to read anything negative about the titanium Crown Jewel). But, after some discussion and back and forth, the consensus was to go ahead with steel.

In order to get a proper fit, lots of measurements were taken. Everything from arm length to body height and just about every other part of the body one can imagine was measured (side note: I learned one of my arms is actually almost 1/2 an inch shorter than the other - go figure). All of the numbers were sent off to IndyFab and communication between their end and our local shop got underway. I was told I should have the bike by the time the Tour started, and that was pretty much where things were left.

Several weeks later, I went into the local shop for another fitting on their trainer. The folks at IndyFab wanted to be sure that (particularly due to my wrist issues) the measurements were right for the frame before they made their cuts and started welding. Honestly, this was my first moment of panic. When I got on the trainer, everything felt wrong. The bars were far too low, I felt too stretched, and I worried they had mistaken my measurements for someone else entirely because it just felt so off. I began wondering if it was a horrible idea to have a custom frame built, knowing that I was putting full trust in a company I would never speak to directly.

As luck would have it, one of the shops' pro fitters happened to be in house while I was on the adjustable trainer. I still wasn't feeling as though things were quite right in regard to fit, and he made a stop in to check on me. We went through an interesting experiment during which he had me sit up on the saddle without touching the handlebars and close my eyes while he made adjustments. Then, I'd open my eyes, get back in position and see how things felt. Ultimately, his help resulted in the bars being lower than I'd normally have them, but they were closer to my body to help keep a bend in my elbow. It was quite an interesting experience, actually, but my primary concern was that I would be comfortable in the end on the frame being built.

The one thing that kind of surprised me during this process is that the experience of a custom build was not exactly what I expected (though I don't know that I really knew what to expect either). Perhaps it would've been different if I'd chosen a local builder over one that is 2,000 miles away, or... maybe it would've been exactly the same. It's honestly hard to say as I don't have much of a frame of reference for custom builds. It was by no means a bad experience, but after the initial measurements, everything was kind of quiet. I'm not sure precisely what I expected. Photo updates of progress? An e-mail to let me know how things were coming along? I realize none of these things are required/necessary, but I suppose I thought there would be more chatter during the wait time (I even joked with a reader with whom I'd been e-mailing and who happens to live in NH that I should send him over to check on my build). Sure, I annoyed the local shop just about every week, but that's just part of the fun of dealing with me. :O) I don't think I was too much of a thorn in their side, and they haven't banned me from the shop yet (some gratis beer may have helped with that), so I think all is still well. Regardless of what was going on locally, I knew things were underway and I did my best to be patient as the frame was built.

After the tests on the trainer, I waited again. I had been told that I would get a call from the local shop when the frame had been shipped from IndyFab so that I could bring my parts into the shop (We had stripped the parts off of my former road bike for the new build). Then, when the frame arrived, they would build up the bike and have me come in to take it for a test. I waited (somewhat patiently) for a call. Then, we were up in Leadville as Sam prepared to participate in the Silver Rush 50 and ran into one of the bike shop employees who was also doing the race. We had stopped in a coffee shop, as had she, and as it turns out she actually sees all of the shipments coming into the shop. She made a passing comment about my frame arriving any day (so much for a phone call), and I was ecstatic to hear the news. Less than a week later, the whole bike would be in my hot little hands.
I was a little shocked at the brightness/intensity of the paint color initially (which is not to say that this color is obnoxiously bright, but simply more so than I'd anticipated), but it grew on me quickly. Having only viewed the color swatch on the computer screen, it seemed a slightly more muted/lighter color (which is a good lesson to always get a paint swatch before saying yes to a color viewed online - as a painter myself, I should definitely know better). It is a beautiful paint job though and while I didn't dislike the color, it was simply a bit different from what I'd imagined would arrive. The color also seems to change in appearance based on lighting, which is true of most things in life. I don't know that the purple bar tape was necessarily the route to go, but it is an easy switch at a later time, and I think there is enough difference in the two hues to not create too much clash for the time being.

From the start of "real" information being shared to the date I picked up the bike, the total wait time was about 3 months. Really, a speck in time, especially for a custom ride. Of course, there are many factors that played into this, and in all reality, it could've taken much, much longer. I didn't want any fancy paint jobs (with fades, multiple colors, or special blocking - which is where a lot of time can be spent), so that helped speed things along. I didn't request lugs or anything that would require excess amounts of time either. What I did want is a well-constructed frame that would withstand the tests of time. I believed that simplicity would be my friend in this regard.
I will refrain from much commentary about the bike itself until I have had more time to ride it (it's difficult not to say anything, but I really do want to give it time before throwing out a lot of thoughts), but I will say that right after receiving the Crown Jewel, I took it for a nice test run of just over 40 miles, up some decent climbs, down some substantial descents, out on some flats, and didn't notice anything odd about the bike or the fit. In fact, I found that I had to pay attention to how I was feeling most of the time because I seemed pretty comfortable. That is good news in itself. We will see how the Crown Jewel does over the coming weeks and months, but I am hopeful that this was the right decision.

At this point, if I had it to do over again, I would, even knowing the price involved. The most difficult cost was giving up my most-comfortable-to-that-point road bike in order to fund the start of this frame/fork, which gave me a bit of anxiety during the wait time (and was a bit challenging in the midst of spring/summer training), but I think it was well worth it (or at least I hope). I think for anyone who has difficulty with fit, having the opportunity to build a custom bike is a great option, and I think IndyFab did a beautiful job.

Additionally, I can see very easily how this could become addictive. Who wouldn't want every bicycle s/he rides to be made specifically for him/her, or to his/her specifications? Of course... funding that sort of thing is a completely different story. Maybe when the money tree finally starts to grow? In the meantime, I am glad I waited to do this build because I am far more aware of what I need and want in a road bike. I'm not sure that would've been the case a few years ago. But... time will tell what the outcome will be with this bike. I went into it knowing full well that it could just as easily end up in disappointment or as a huge waste of money. Thus far, that doesn't seem to be the case, so I am very grateful.

Have you been through a custom bike build? What was the outcome? If you haven't done a custom, have you considered it? Who would you select to build your frame if you could choose from any custom bicycle artisans/companies?


  1. New Bike Day, congratulations! Oh, it looks delicious! Also, great questions at the end of this post. We have a custom spec'd tandem and I am SO GLAD because we could not find a standard size that fit me. They were all too small in the stoker zone. I rode on 1200K on a standard tandem and it was so painful by the end because the small size meant I was constantly compensating. Since our tandem is our main randonneuring and touring bike it was totally worth it. I have idly considered custom for a single bike, but because of my dimensions I don't really need it and I'm really happy with the bikes I have. I do have a Bike Friday Pocket Rocket with a custom stem so that's sort of custom.

    1. I can definitely understand needing a custom tandem bike for many couples/friends/etc who ride together regularly and/or on long distances as you and your spouse do, unless the couple just so happens to have perfect measurements that align with a standard size. We (as a couple) would have issue, I have no doubt. We actually spotted an old tandem bike at a bike swap that seemed made for very small people (not kids, but definitely shorter adults) and I said, "Hey, I bet we could actually ride that one!" :O) Anyway, it's good to know that getting the right size helped ease your pain. I can't imagine riding a 1200K on something that was completely wrong, so kudos to you! I'm sure you were extremely happy to get the right fit.

      What do you think of your Bike Friday? Have you had it long and how do you use it? I'm very curious.

    2. I've had my Friday since 2005, and it's what I consider my fast bike. I initially purchased it to be my main travel bike and imagined doing multi-day supported tours with it-- rides like RAGBRAI. Then I met my now-husband and we started riding tandem and tandem touring together. However, I kept the Friday because it is such a great bike and it's travel-ready. My Friday is very comfortable yet rigid in feel, and the steering is slightly twitchy compared to a larger-wheeled bike. I rode it for a fleche (24 hour, minimum 360K ride) and it did great-- better than I did, ha! Now that I've had it a while, I wish I had purchased a Friday that could take wider tires, like the New World Tourist. That would make it a little more versatile. I'm wondering if maybe I could retrofit slightly smaller and wider tires, but that is a future project.

    3. What an interesting potential project. I'll have to keep my eyes peeled to see if you end up doing so. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on the Friday. I see more and more of these sorts of bikes on the roads. I did a trial run with a folding bike several years ago, but it was not much to my liking (but that could've been more due to the fact that I - at my size - felt ridiculous riding around on a seemingly tiny bike), but I know many really love their various versions, so I was curious. You've had it quite awhile, so you must really enjoy it! :O)

      I'm still entirely fascinated that you tour on a tandem with your husband as well. I'm fairly convinced Sam and I would strangle each other before we made it 10 miles... but, we've never tried either, so I guess it's difficult to say without direct experience. Really loved reading about your latest round.

  2. Congratulations on your new acquisition! I have owned steel and aluminum framed bikes over the years, and I do like the steel best. I'm curious, once you picked your fit, did you put in an hour or two of saddle time on the trainer to test it?

    You bring up some good points on bike purchases - custom or not. Purchasing local gives you more options if you have any issues with the new bike. It costs $200 to $300 to ship a bike across the country, so you don't want to have to do that if you have a warranty issue. Even though there may be little chance of an issue with a new frame, the bike's components might have issues. You can end up paying a local shop to troubleshoot and repair a new bike if the only other option would be to ship back to the builder. I bought three bikes via mail order because no local shop carried them. I ended up doing all the tune-up adjustments after 50 - 100 miles myself. I was OK with that, but people that are not will be paying someone at a local shop to do what would likely be free from the builder or shop where purchased. Obviously the advantage of buying from a distant builder is more choice on the end product than may be available locally.

    The other issue you mention is color. Oh yeah - the guys that invented the internet did not care much about color rendition. Actually, it is possible to have accurate colors on a website, but most vary from terrible to pathetic. The web designers tend to strip out all the color information from photos to make for smaller files and faster webpage loading. I try to find out the details on the color's name or make, and then search Google images or Flickr to find good images representing the color. Luckily, most of the time someone out there has uploaded a high resolution photo with good color accuracy. Obviously, there is the limitation of the computer monitor or screen you are using. Some are much better than others. And of course, if you can find a sample of the actual coating on metal, that will be the best.

    Related to color is the type of coating. Powder coat vs. paint. My experience is powdercoat is absolutely bulletproof - that is, very durable. Colors of powdercoat are better than they used to be, but don't come in the same range as paints. Do you know what you got with your bike?

    1. Powder coating a frame is definitely more durable, as you stated. This IndyFab frame is painted and clear-coated. Because it's a road frame (rather than mountain bike or something that would potentially see more brush scrapes, potential falls, rack-rubbing, etc), I wasn't particularly concerned about it being painted. Of course, having said that, my Rivendell is also painted and it has a number of chips in the paint that started occurring almost immediately after it was assembled. The paint job is beautiful on the IndyFab, but I have no doubt it will start to chip as I use it - which, of course, will likely mean that it will end up needing to be repainted (or powder coated) at some point down the line.

      The actual color is called "Light Lavender" which could run an entire span of intensities in my mind. I had no idea which color charts they could be pulling from, so I had to kind of go with something that I thought I could like - at least for a number of years.

      I would prefer to have bought local (which in a way did happen, as it was purchased through a local shop), but IndyFab just made sense to me. Since parts were coming off the former road bike, and we can do tune ups here at home, I was more concerned that the frame was the right geometry/fit above all else. It was great that the shop was able to build it up and do an initial tune up though, definitely.

      There was a good chunk of time spent on the trainer, for sure. I wanted to know that it would be right in the end - and even after doing so, I still had doubts (but that's primarily because I tend to worry about spending money on something that doesn't work out in the end). I remain hopeful that the time spent on the trainer will result in a positive outcome, but I suppose only time on the bike will tell for sure.

    2. I think a painted frame looks awfully nice, and I've never had a serious problem with the longevity of paint on a steel frame, anyway.

    3. There are definitely pros and cons to either, but a good paint job is really gorgeous. Hopefully, the paint will stay put (at least for awhile). :O)

  3. Oh G.E. I am so excited for you! Your journey bears so many similarities to mine - especially the doubts and anxieties about whether it will in fact fit and make you comfortable (the second does not always follow the first) and whether it'll all turn out to be a waste of money in the end and "do I deserve this?" somehow.

    I don't know if my body proportions are like yours but my main issue is reach. I too tried as many stock road bikes as possible. The Surly Pacer was my "last ditch" attempt to find a stock frame that I thought I could make fit "well enough". I studied geometry charts til my eyes hurt and my head spun and researched every stem and handlebar on the market and plugged them into geometry diagrams and crunched the numbers... and managed to get the contact points set up within a few mm of what my bike fitter recommended. But I couldn't get the basic bike components e.g. groupset all put together in a package that let me have crankarms shorter than 170cm. With my arthritic knees, that was a compromise.

    Anyway.... I too went custom! I considered steel as I do like the ride qualities, but I have a problem with buzz/vibration so thought I should go with titanium. I got an Enigma Etape. I researched a lot of builders and talked to a lot of owners, both people I know personally and experienced cyclists in forums where I feel comfortable (CycleChat, YACF, Team Estrogen). In our circle of cycling buddies, there are people riding: Planet X, Lynsky, Van Nicholas, Enigma, Sabbath, Burl, Spa. Everyone who had gone custom though had a tale to tell! The lesson seemed to be, deal with the framebuilder/manufacturer directly to avoid delays and misunderstandings that are almost inevitable the more people are added to the communication chain.

    So I went straight to Enigma. My first visit was ostensibly to test ride a stock bike, because like you I was so nervous about ordering a bike in a frame material I had absolutely no experience with. I came back after 45 minutes grinning ear to ear and went straight off to a full fitting and placed my order that night. Of course, I had gone to see them thinking that if I got a good feeling about the bike, the people and their process, then I would be ordering. I thought I might want to come home and "sleep on it". But I didn't need to. I knew Mark Reilly was the man to design my frame and Joe Walker the guy to build it.

    The other framebuilders who made my "shortlist" were Sabbath and Burl. At the time I was making my enquiries, Sabbath were going through a rough patch (nearly going bankrupt I understand) and never returned my e-mails or phone calls. As for Burls, even though owners rave about his bikes, I already had two reservations: Justin Burls doesn't build his ti frames himself (they're done by colleagues in the Russian aerospace industry) and.... I don't like his graphics!

    Sorry, this is turning into an epic story for a comment to a blog post!
    My story is on my blog. First, what led me to go custom:
    Then my journey getting the Enigma:

    Oh and one more thing: I too couldn't figure out at first how to describe how the Enigma felt to ride. Friends would gather and ask excitedly "Is it wonderful? Does it fit you like a glove? Is it smooth as silk?" and I'd just be kind of speechless and finally say "Well, um, I don't want to call it 'boring'... but well, there's not much to say, really". I think there's an expectation that the ride will make you feel all sorts of huge, positive emotions and you'll gush with superlatives. But maybe what's important is for the bike to NOT HURT you. To not draw attention to itself. To not interfere with your enjoyment of just being out on a bike ride. I don't know. I need to blog out this myself, a kind of bike review about my Unremarkable Bike. Which is Remarkable for being just that.

    1. Rebecca,

      I'm heading out the door in just a moment, but wanted to thank you for your thoughts and links to your own experience (I will definitely read up later today). I think finding the builder that just feels right is important in this process - or at least it seems that way to me - and it sounds like you found the right one for you, so I'm anxious to read up a bit later.

      I think others expect a bit of gushing about the bike because they know that it's custom and that there's been a waiting period for it, so perhaps it just seems as though we should have - as you say - lots of superlatives to describe it. I am far more interested in the bike simply not hurting me, so if it does that job, I will be very happy. I'm sure at some point I'll be ready to say much more about it, but for now, it seems too soon and having had issues with others after initial rides in the past, I suppose I feel a bit of need to really give it some time.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

    2. I agree. It took me a good 3 months before I felt ready to talk about the bike, at all. Up til then, I hedged and didn't say much. I think Lovely Bicycle felt a similar way about her Seven. I found it funny when she said that to her, her bike is just a set of purple-wrapped handlebars as that's all she sees. I relate to that a little, although I do sit and look at my bike a lot... and still feel a little bit of shock at the proportions, since aesthetically it's very different from the norm and also not quite what "looks right" to me. But then I say to myself "hey, it fits", shrug my shoulders and go for a ride. :)

      Really looking forward to reading your thoughts about your bike, once you're ready.

    3. I'm hoping for exactly that - just a set of purple-wrapped handlebars. :O)

  4. Nice color. Will look forward to see how you like the fit.

    1. Thank you! I will definitely update as I have more time to ride the IF. :O)

  5. Hey, GE, congrats on your new bike! There's something quite thrilling about taking the maiden voyage on a new set of wheels, isn't there? The colors look great, by the way-- quite distinctive!

    Hope you have many fine days piling up the miles!

    By the way, I still love my Seven! Thanks for your encouragement through that process!

    1. Thanks, Andy! It's been fun to ride thus far.

      I'm glad to hear you're enjoying the Seven, too! I was happy to chat with you through your process and hope you continue to find it comfortable and efficient for your riding. :O)

  6. Don't know how I missed this earlier, but a hearty congratulations!

    My custom roadbike experience with Seven Cycles 2.5 years ago was so good, that if I were to get another bike I'd go to them again. Either that or build my own :)

    1. Thanks, Velouria!

      I'm glad to know you are still enjoying your Seven - and that you'd do it all over again as well. It's always great to hear about others who have had longer term success with a custom.

      By the way... I think that would be so cool if you built your own frame. I have a brother-in-law who was getting into welding frames for a bit, but suddenly lost interest. I was hoping for lessons, but I fear it isn't meant to be. :)


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