Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Custom Bicycle (Part 1): When Excitement and Frustration Collide

I feel I must preface this post with a bit of a deep breath. I'm always happy to share my personal experiences with a bicycle, but this has been one I've tried to keep to myself for at least a small amount of time because I really needed to work through some things. I've had a number of requests to share more about the IndyFab and how it's gone thus far for me, so I suppose I'm caving a bit in that respect.  Believe me, it isn't that I haven't wanted to provide additional information, but sometimes time allows things to be resolved (although sometimes it doesn't), and what might feel like an enormous trouble initially can turn into something surprisingly small in the rear view mirror. I'd hate to start rambling about something early on, only to find that it was easily solved down the road. The time has come to share more, however, and with that said, I've been keeping notes along the way so that hopefully it will provide a realistic re-telling of what has happened. It's a long story and I don't want to overwhelm anyone, so it is probably going to be split up into multiple parts (apologies in advance to those looking for a full-dumping of the story here and now). But with that, here we go...

In July, I wrote about a custom bicycle that had been built by Independent Fabrication for me via a local bike shop. That post had more to do with the actual experience of the build than information about the bicycle, so I figured it would only be fair to write a bit more about the bicycle and the experience after a small bit of time has elapsed. My goal here is not to provide every single small detail since obtaining the bike, but to hit upon some of the points that have seemed important along the way, or that at least provide a bit more of the story.

Prior to receiving the new bike, I had been debating for about a year and a half as to whether or not it would be wise to move forward with a custom frame (and contemplating-from-a-distance the idea of a custom even longer). After lots of back and forth and chatting with potential builders (or representatives for builders), I opted to go with Independent Fabrication. I was also unsure as to whether I wanted to try out titanium or stick with the material I have known to suit me well: steel. Ultimately, after some convincing from the local bike shop owner and the realization that our budget would handle it a little easier, I opted to go with the material I've known to work in the past.
My first ride on the Crown Jewel was a distance of 40+ miles. I wanted to know how it would feel on something longer than a few miles of testing, so it made sense to try it out over a more substantial distance. When I returned home, I was a bit fatigued, but I was still on the high of having a new bicycle. I had mentioned to Sam that there were likely some adjustments that needed to be done, but I was still happy and overall I was pleased with the bike. It hadn't been my fastest average as far as speed, but I knew I was just testing things out, so I wasn't overly concerned. I'd completed a climb that I never enjoy, though it had been on the difficult side, and I was confident that things were going to be great.

I didn't ride the CJ for another eight days after that initial ride though, other than to quickly test parts that were being adjusted. I was riding, but I kept choosing my heavier, slower, steel bike (the Hillborne). At the time, I honestly couldn't exactly explain why I kept opting for the Hillborne instead of the new lighter bike. I was just enjoying the feel of the Hillborne and I wasn't ready to dive into dealing with the Crown Jewel because I knew there were some things that needed to be addressed. I assumed my choice to ride the Hillborne had something to do with the fact that when I'm on a lighter bike, I find it more challenging to just enjoy riding. It can feel like a race or a challenge to see what I can do and frankly, I was happy doing my slightly slower rides on the Hillborne. I wasn't prepared to commit to "working" on riding.

On that eighth day though, I decided I had to actually ride the CJ. I couldn't keep ignoring it as though it wasn't there. We'd spent a lot of money to get this bike ready for me to ride, and I'd lost a lot of my training season on bikes that were attempting to substitute for a lighter road bike. I set out with the intention of doing somewhere between 40-50 miles. I had a sort of plan in my head as to where I was going and told myself to just enjoy it. I ended up setting 3 personal time records and received a QOM (Queen of the Mountain) on Strava over a quick section on a local road. However, I only completed 22 miles of my planned ride. I'd averaged a pretty decent pace (for me), but I was beat and there was no way I was going to get in another 20 miles that day. I was also still having foot problems, hand pain, and I just couldn't seem to find a position to actually get any power on the bike.

I kept telling myself that it was me. I knew I hadn't done the time in the saddle I had during previous summers, and I just needed to make more adjustments. The thing is, when I'd received my custom bike, part of me truly just wanted everything to be right from the get-go. I didn't want to have to put in time and effort to get things to a place that worked. Why couldn't it just work right straight out of the gate? In reality, I could see that it was a starting point, but there was definitely some work in front of me to be completed. I kept reminding myself not to be a wimp about this and to suck it up and do what needed to be done. On the rides to follow, I would focus on what was happening so that I could attempt to explain the issues and find resolution.

A couple of days later, I got back out on the CJ. This time, there was a storm rolling in, so I knew I wouldn't get very far before I'd probably need to head home. While I don't mind getting rained on, I'm not a fan of lightning and thunder storms, so I knew it would have to be another short ride. I went to climb one of my least favorite hills, knowing that the return trip would be fast and downhill. I had one of my worst average times in quite some time on any bike, but I was starting to really understand the things that weren't quite working with this bike.

One of the things that really bothered me was that the front end of the bike felt twitchy and kind of scary. Every time I'd reach for a water bottle, I'd feel as though I was going to lose all control. My hands were absolutely killing me at the end of a ride and were numb beyond belief. I expect this somewhat when it comes to my "bad" hand, but even the good side was having a lot of trouble. I also noticed that I just felt heavy and slow and went back to blaming myself and my body for its failure to cooperate with what I wanted to get done. It's difficult not to get down on myself when there seems to be so many problems taking place. My feet were also continuing to go numb on every ride, but I'd told myself that this was likely due to back issues that have gone unresolved.

My next venture out was with a local friend. She was looking for someone to ride with and even though I was pretty beat up, I thought it would be nice to actually have someone to talk to for a bit. I warned her that I wouldn't make it very far and that it wouldn't be fast, but I was up for some time together. As we rode, we chatted about the Crown Jewel. She mentioned that it looked really great and appeared to fit me well. We also spoke about her potential desire to have a custom bike built. I told her I'd be happy to send her a link to some information, and our conversation continued on in this manner for the 25 miles we rode together. What she didn't realize is how much effort I was putting forth during our ride. I had shared that I was tired, but even when I'm not exactly up to par in regard to energy, I've often put out some of my fastest cycling times. That would not be the case on this particular ride. No matter how hard I struggled to go faster, I just couldn't make it happen. I apologized several times during the ride for being slow, while she simply smiled and said I was doing fine. I knew better though.

Routinely on these rides I had been experiencing somewhere between 1-2 miles average per hour slower (sometimes even more), and it didn't seem to matter if they were shorter or longer distances. Yet, I felt as though I was putting forth all I had in my tank. I returned to the self-bashing, insisting that my body was failing me. I try so hard not to go in this direction, but when my body appears to be the problem, I can't help but think it's the engine failing to keep up.

We had been having some conversations in our household regarding not having seen the specs for the CJ frame. During the process of having the frame built, I'd been told that I would receive a kind of cut sheet of what they planned to do before it would be done, but that never happened. I was a little miffed about this because I thought it was crucial to get this information myself before any welding or cutting actually began, but I let it go, assuming that others who are experts would know better than me. I also never received any kind of information about the geometry or measurements when I picked up the bike. At the time, I was so deliriously happy to have the bike that the thought hadn't struck me as important, but as time was moving forward, I really wanted to know what they had decided was going to work for me. Besides that, it's always good to have measurements for a bike for future use. I went by the bike shop and asked if they could get me the information. It wasn't readily available, but they said they'd work on e-mailing it to me.

I continued to ride on my own and occasionally with other cyclists, and at home we kept making adjustments to the bike. Sam was convinced that the stem was too short and replaced it with a 20mm longer version. It seems like a big jump, but it was what we had sitting around, so we thought it was worth a try. Sam moved my saddle too (which always seems to be a big no-no for me, but I was game for anything at this point). At various points we moved the stem up and down as well.

My riding was continuing to progress as far as distance is concerned, but it wasn't happening on the Crown Jewel. I was still finding myself choosing the Hillborne over the lighter bike and it was frustrating me. In reality, I was so tired of being in pain that the thought of going on another "test ride" to see what would happen on the CJ was not something I wanted to do. I was riding the CJ, but I did my best to keep the rides around 20 miles to not inflict any more pain than necessary.
Six days before I was supposed to participate in a local organized charity ride, I was really sick. However, I knew I needed to put in a longer ride on the Crown Jewel if I had any intention of riding it a few days later. I pulled myself together and managed a 53-mile ride that day on the CJ. I was so out of it on this ride that I hardly paid attention to anything that seemed wrong with the bike. I figured if I could make it through that distance while ill, there was no reason I couldn't do a similar distance when I felt better. Unfortunately, the sickness progressed and I actually experienced a worse version of being ill the day of the ride. I did complete the event, but it was slow and a bit painful at times. I chalked all of it up to being ill. The bike did better than I'd expected, which I suspected had to do with the change out to a longer stem, but it was hard for me to notice much of anything as I coughed and wheezed my way through most of the ride. The good that came from it, however, was that I truly believed this bike was getting to a point that was improving. If I could ride this distance on it, there must be hope.

One weekend morning, Sam wanted us to go on a ride together. I was feeling bad about the reality that the summer had consisted of a lot of pretty horrible rides together. Ninety percent of our rides had involved me whining about something that was hurting - and this had all started prior to even obtaining the IndyFab - but it hadn't seemed to improve after its arrival either. I have admitted several times to Sam that I've been exhausted by the time the weekend comes around, and the idea of going for any length of ride by weeks' end was low on my list of priorities.

On this particular day, we decided to go on a shorter ride of about 25 miles. As we got going, I knew things weren't great, but I wanted us to be able to ride together. Summer is short and I wanted to take advantage of the time we had with nicer weather. As we rode, I just couldn't stop the pain from coming. At about 8 miles in, I had to pull off to the side of the road. I mentioned to Sam that maybe he should just go on without me, and I'd meet up with him on the return trip since I didn't seem to be able to get any sort of momentum or speed and the pain shooting through my hands was becoming unbearable. He wanted to stick things out together though, so we continued on.

By the time we returned home, Sam was mad about the pain I was having. I had been frustrated and at times angry, but it was disturbing to see him so upset about something I was going through. He decided he was going to take the Crown Jewel for a ride and see if he could reach any conclusions from his perspective. It may seem a bit strange to do this, but we often ride each others' bikes for comparison purposes. Sam is acutely aware of my patterns of likes and dislikes, pain-free and painful positioning, and proper geometry for my bicycles. When something is off for me, he seems to be able to tell almost immediately when he rides, despite the fact that we prefer different setups. He returned from his test with a variety of thoughts.

First, he believed that we are capable of resolving anything. This gave me hope. There have been plenty of bikes in my past that seemed completely off and yet we were able to execute solutions to get a given bike to a point that was at least tolerable -- and this bike was made specifically for me, so there definitely should be solutions to everything taking place.

He also found that there were a variety of issues happening. He could feel the rattling sensation through his entire body from the road, and his hands - which are normally pain-free and strong - were aching (and they'd continue to hurt days after this short trial ride). The front end of the bike seemed twitchy to him, and no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't seem to get any momentum going on the bike. He'd even taken the CJ up one of the short neighborhood hills he likes to race up and discovered that he just didn't have the momentum or ability to stand to power through to the top as he normally would. He's done that hill on much heavier bikes (and bettered his own records on them in fact), but there was just something "off" about the Crown Jewel.

Although there is more to come, we'll leave off here for now. Part two can be find by clicking here.


  1. Now *that* is a cliff hanger! I can't wait to read what has happened!

    1. No kidding!

      I was worried that the bike wasn't working out when you didn't write much about it. I'm so sorry about the pain. Your experience with this bike sounds very frustrating. I had assumed that a custom build would result in a bike that worked for you right away.

    2. Frustrating is a good word. I assumed a custom would provide excellence from the start as well, but as I thought about it, I realized that really any bike is going to require a bit of tweaking and adjusting.

  2. So sorry to hear this ... Sounds like a custom bike is as much of a gamble as any other bike. Must be so disappointing after all your hopes and excitement about this build. I am hoping Sam will manage to solve everything in Part 2 of your account :)

    1. Still no resolution in part two, but there is finality coming in part three.

  3. That's a nice performance bike. If the handlebars are a comfortable reach and at saddle height, I don't know what the problem could be. Numbness in the feet usually means you are too forward and putting more pressure there. Lighter performance bikes are twitchier. But if it is overly so.... My twitch limit is a bike that weighs no less than 20-21 lbs. I have to pay too much attention to my shifting weight, otherwise. I have much more fun on my 25 lb. bike and can relax more. I just had a custom build and I'm still tweaking a bit, but overall satisfied.

    1. This bike is light, but not overly so - particularly by the time I get my saddle and accessories on which gives it even a bit more added weight. It was around 20 pounds when we weighed it (without a bag or water bottles, etc), so not too light, but not too heavy either.

      I agree with you... I have had far more fun riding a heavier bike, even if I am a bit slower.


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