Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Custom Bicycle (Part 2): George Washington or Benedict Arnold

If you missed the first part of this post and would like to get caught up, you can find it here. Otherwise, feel free to carry on to part two below.

I was starting to think I was crazy, and that I'd spread my insanity to Sam. Had he just fed into my thoughts of what had been happening? I know that if anything he is a very sound and reasonable person, so odds are he'd sway in favor of the bike being fine and just needing some adjustments, but he seemed to be just as frustrated with his findings as I'd been with riding the bike over the weeks prior.

Expecting that we would experience a ride similar to the Crown Jewel - at least generally speaking in reference to set-up, we went to a bike shop to test a version of my former carbon road bike (my bike would be a now nearly 4-year old version, so we'd have to find the closest match). I couldn't recall with any kind of great accuracy the sensations I had while riding that bike any longer, but I remembered feeling fast and not weighted. Now, I simply wanted to know if I had invented an experience that never existed, or if it really was that I am simply not in the shape I was last summer.

I took the test bike out first, and over some very rough terrain - rougher than anything I ride on the roads locally. The road had huge gaps, cracks and potholes and was covered with chipseal, so I knew it would be an equivalent, or even worse than the rough roads I ride. What I noticed almost immediately was that I didn't feel any of the roughness or rattling like I had on the Crown Jewel. The ride felt soft - not noodle-like or squishy - but it wasn't hurting, and I could actually climb to get up a hill without feeling as though I was going to wipe out and my energy was going toward something that propelled me forward. It was all very confusing and I thought that certainly I was inventing all of this in my head, so I went back to the starting point to let Sam have a try. I said nothing to him and let him set out to make his own evaluation.

When Sam returned he said, "It feels like your old bike - easy to ride and it doesn't cause pain. I can actually pick up speed when I'm on it." He shook his head and said, "Honestly, I really didn't expect to feel such a huge difference between them, but it is more than obvious that something isn't right with the IndyFab."

I had to try it again. I got back on and rode through a shorter version of my earlier test and came to the same conclusion. While this bike was in desperate need of a tuning (it was definitely not shifting well), and it wasn't set up quite properly for me, there was no denying it had a completely different feel than the Crown Jewel. We left, scratching our heads and still thinking that there must be something wrong about the setup on the CJ at home.
An experimental ride with the IndyFab Crown Jewel during a stop off to see Sam at work.
After some reading, we thought the tires I'd chosen for the Crown Jewel were too harsh and perhaps causing some of the rattling that was ringing through my body while riding. We put the softer Schwalbe Durano tires I've had on prior bikes on the IndyFab and decided to give that a try to see if it would dampen some of the road vibrations I was feeling. After all, if we take things one problem at a time, perhaps we could figure out a solution for the whole bike.

During the research, we also discovered the possibility that the wheels on the bike could be causing the heavy/dragging/weighted sensation. I questioned this possibility as the wheels had worked fine on the prior carbon bike without issue. Additionally, when spun freely, there didn't seem to be any kind of drag or stopping taking place. Would I have to replace the wheels in order to really find out?

The next day, I decided to do a direct, back-to-back experiment with the Crown Jewel and the Hillborne. I took the CJ on a 25 mile ride, followed by the exact same ride on the Hillborne. I intentionally took the CJ first because I knew I'd be fresher and ready to take on the ride. If anything, this would give the Crown Jewel an advantage, and since it was currently at a disadvantage, I wanted to give it all I could to stand a chance.

To put it bluntly, the CJ ride did not go well. I had to stop multiple times over the first 12 miles just to get the numbness in my hands to stop. While riding, other people passed me on bicycles as though I was standing still, and while that is often the case for me, I could feel the effort I was putting in, and yet, there was nothing I could do to prevent them from easily zipping by. I was tired by the time I rode the Hillborne, and definitely in pain from the Crown Jewel, but I somehow still managed to travel more easily - even being on a bicycle that outweighs the CJ by at least 15 pounds.

Sam had given up. He stated his opinion as simply as he could when he advised me to give up on this Crown Jewel and get something that would actually ride properly for me. Yes, it would be difficult to lose the money and mentally painful as I had picked out what I wanted, but it was insane in his mind to continue to try to adapt something that apparently wasn't resolvable.  As difficult as it was, I was starting to swing to his side. In fact, as I'd been riding the Crown Jewel during my experiment, all I could think about was being done with the ride - the exact opposite of what I would hope for in a bicycle. I want to want to ride. I don't want to dread being on my bike or make excuses as to why I'm not out using it.

Looking over the information that had finally been e-mailed to me by the bike shop, I realized that the top tube had been made more than two centimeters shorter than I typically ride. I know they had concerns about my weak and damaged hand/wrist, but I had explicitly stated that what I'd been riding was working fairly well with some small exceptions. Why would they randomly change this - and particularly without telling me? It just seemed like a dramatic change and I couldn't help but wonder if this was playing a role in many of the issues I was experiencing.

One of the biggest issues with this custom build is that I wasn't speaking to Independent Fabrication myself. Instead, I was going through a mediator - the local bike shop - and who knows what information was given to whom, and how that information was being interpreted. In that moment, I wished more than anything that I'd selected a company I could speak to directly, rather than playing this game of telephone - for which I seemed to be using a tin can with no string attached. It's a horrible realization to suddenly comprehend that because the bike shop determined that I didn't need to know any of the actual measurements, I was now potentially left with a bike I couldn't use.

I felt all sorts of emotions. I was angry - both at the LBS and myself. I was frustrated - because it felt like there was nothing I could do to resolve any of this. I felt stupid - for having thought that a custom bike was the answer I'd been waiting for all this time. I was in pain - literally from all the weeks - and now months - of riding something that just wasn't right. I was feeling all sorts of craziness and it was difficult to put it into words that weren't laced with profanity.

E-bay searches were quite common for about a week or so. I wanted to know what prices others were getting for their IndyFab's. I had passed the stage of caring what happened with this bike and just needed to know how much money we were going to lose. My searches were a bit eye-opening. It was easy to see that I would be lucky to get half of the cost back I'd spent on the frame and fork. Selling the bike whole wouldn't provide much more return, and with that thought, I was left to ponder whether I was really prepared to give up on this bike.

As we discussed the issues taking place with the CJ and the potential loss, Sam reiterated that he was perfectly fine with losing some money, as long as I got a bike that would work for me. In my frustration, I agreed that the Crown Jewel was not working  - however, in the back of my mind, I still couldn't stand the idea of giving up on it. I'm a bit hard-headed with certain things and this seemed to be my current fixation, but I agreed that I probably needed to look at something else.

People - friends, family, and even occasional passers-by would ask about the Crown Jewel. Those who knew me wanted to know how it was working and if I was still happy with my decision to get a custom bike. Honestly, I never knew how to respond. While I wasn't sorry about the actual act of working on a custom bike, and I wouldn't discourage anyone from moving forward with their own, I was really struggling many days to find the good in this new bike. My responses were always vague and non-committal. What else could I do at this point? I wasn't ready to bash the bike or its manufacturer because some small part of me still believed it was possible to get it to a place that worked. I know how finicky I am about bike set up and maybe this was just part of the process, even if it seemed like it should be going more smoothly.

The next decision was to try switching out the wheels on the bike. We had another set that were of supposed lower quality from a past build that had since been parted, but maybe it would make a difference. The wheels were supposed to be heavier, so I was doubtful it was going to improve the situation, but when trying to find solutions, it's better to give all avenues a try, rather than stubbornly avoid something.
At least the summer wetness left us with beautiful greens that lasted much longer than is typical.
As much as I believed there was no way the wheels were going to make any difference, they in fact made a change to the bike - enough that the Crown Jewel felt rideable - for at least very short distances - without causing me to break down in tears on the side of the road. We'd also switched the stem again, and put a different (though exactly the same model) saddle on the bike (this saddle has more miles on it, so it's a bit softer in feel than the previous one). This particular outing was better than many I'd been on with the CJ and I was glad to feel that the wheels did seem to resolve some of the problems. A lesson to be learned - no matter how expensive a set of wheels, it doesn't necessarily mean they are the best.

Of course, the wheels didn't fix or lessen all of the problems, and the twitchiness still remained. I figured this was merely something I would have to make peace with because even the longer stem we'd switched to wasn't entirely helping. The extreme hand problems seemed to have slightly lessened, which was great, but they were still present to greater or lesser extent, depending on the day/ride/route. In part, some of the pain may have been caused by the wheels, but I think it was also the roads I chose to ride (which are often chipseal and/or full of large holes) and the fact that I wasn't giving my body a break between experiments/rides. I also believed some of this was due to the reach on the bike.

One day I decided to just go on a quick spin in every day clothing - no gloves or padded anything - just to see how I felt. I wanted to pay particular attention to anything that seemed odd or out of place. I didn't take a GPS because I didn't care how fast or far I was going. I just wanted to know if there was any possible resolution. The things that were almost immediately noticeable:

1) The pressure on my hands was greater than almost any other road bike I've owned. This would explain (at least in part) why my hands go numb quickly into rides.

2)  I found myself wanting to move my hands back from the hoods about 2 inches. When they were sitting on the hoods, I had no bend in my elbow, which I know can create problems as well. This caused me to think that even though the top tube is shorter than other bikes I've had, the reach was somehow too far (I'm sure adding a longer stem hadn't helped matters).

3) When I'd scoot my rear end closer to the handlebars, I could avoid the "stretched" feeling, but then my knees felt as though they were going far too forward over the pedals. When I moved back to a proper pedaling position, the arm/hand issues began again.

Even though I traveled a fairly short distance on that ride, it was evident that there are flaws in this build for me that I wasn't sure could be resolved. We thought about a shorter stem (which we'd already done), but it had made the bike even more twitchy and it hadn't seemed to resolve the numbness either. The seatpost has a very small amount of setback, so we pondered putting a zero-set back seatpost on the bike, but I thought that would only result in the same pedaling issues I had during my experiment and would definitely affect power when riding.
I was fairly convinced that the numbers on the areas with purple arrows were the major contributing factors to my problems
Overall, the fit on the bike had improved somewhat from our initial days and weeks together, but I was not at all prepared to say that it was perfect (or even close - or for that matter workable) at this juncture. After reviewing (yet again) all of the measurements that had been sent, we realized that the reach seemed wrong. On prior bikes, this measurement had been several centimeters less, but I wasn't sure if it was that number alone or that number and other angles/measurements combined. It seemed strange that the actual top tube could be much shorter, yet the reach was so much longer. Something was wrong, I was sure.

At this point, it is more than safe to say I was disillusioned about the custom frame process. As of that moment, I couldn't state with certainty that it was worth the cost to have my own frame built. Many of the problems I had prior to the build persisted, and while I didn't fault IndyFab or the LBS for this entirely, I had serious doubts as to whether any custom frame would make enough of a difference to ever try this again. The problem is that the only way to really know would be to have another go-round, and I knew I was not prepared for that option (financially, physically, or emotionally).

I also had a couple of regrets as far as my decisions during the process of the build (again, these were my decisions, and not the fault of anyone but me). I wished that I had purchased a matching steel fork and that I'd had the frame built with eyelets for fenders and racks. As time progresses, who could know what I may want to do with the bike? While it's possible to attach racks by other add-on means, it would've been nice to have a bike with a top tube that isn't too long (eg: the Hillborne) for longer sorts of rides... but, at the time, my purposes for this bike were not focused in that regard. I'm not sure any of this would've mattered anyway, as the fit for my proportions just didn't seem to be working.

There are times when I really beat myself up (not literally, of course, because I'm not some crazy Jim Carrey wannabe), but it's hard not to think back on some of the things I do and wonder where it all went wrong and why I seem to make such bad decisions. IndyFab is not a poor choice for a custom build, and in fact they have a great company with lots and lots of very satisfied customers, but it was the wrong choice for me at that moment in time. As I wallowed a bit in my self-deprecating thoughts, I had to regroup and figure this out.

At this point, the IndyFab was being dismantled. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it after my final attempt to see if I could make it work. I had gone on another short ride after my plain-clothes test and returned home with aching hands and other various problems. As I had headed out on that ride, I thought to myself that this was the Washington vs Arnold test and there would be no turning back. When I returned and uploaded the ride, I titled it Benedict Arnold it is then, and decided at that moment that as much as I didn't want to give up on the CJ, the bike had won and I wasn't willing to sacrifice feeling in my extremities because I was crippled from pain.

It was a tough day to watch as the bike was taken apart. I felt as though I had failed in this attempt to find something that really would work. I was upset because I knew I had talked Sam into letting me do this and now it was a gigantic failure. He was angry, and I was back and forth between tears one moment and anger the next. Suffice it to say, it was not a good time for us. I knew Sam didn't blame me for it, but it was hard not to take on the guilt from such an expense and feel completely responsible for its demise.

Sam was encouraging me to go and try out bikes again locally. We went one weekend and I rode a few different models that were similar to bikes I've owned in the past. I wanted a road bike again that was at least somewhat comfortable to ride because summer was screaming by and I knew I didn't have much time left to get in longer rides. However, I wasn't ready to make a decision based on what I'd tried in the local bike shops. Something inside me knew I had to go back to the start and take another look at my options.

One day as I sat pondering all of this mess I decided, with much trepidation, to type a couple of notes to bike builders. I honestly wasn't sure what I was doing or why I was even bothering to try to get answers from someone else, but I knew that it was important to figure this out. Bicycles are a huge part of my life and not having the one bike that allows me to put in more miles was causing a lot of anguish. Frankly, I don't know what I expected out of the e-mails. Perhaps I was looking for some validation, or maybe I just needed to believe that it was possible to find something that would work. Not really knowing what would come from it, I sent the notes off to builders who I thought might be able to offer some input.

This will be the stopping point for round two of this tale. I'm fairly certain I can get the rest of the thoughts up in the last of this series very soon.

Part 3 can be found by clicking here.


  1. I'm amazed that something can "look right", the photo in this post looks right, the bike looks like the correct setup, but it's wrong. I see it, and think "I could ride that". Nope.

    1. Well, you could ride it, and did, but it was easy to see that something was not quite right.

  2. Thanks for posting the extensive story. I've always been afraid of going custom for all the potential issues you outline.

    Regarding numbness in your hands. Numb hands are caused usually by too much weight on the hands. Weight on your hands is a function of reach and handlebar height (relative to seat height). I've found riding time can help build up a resistance to this kind of numbness. That is, with more riding time, you adapt somehow. Grip the handlebars differently, or whatever and the numb feeling does not occur so readily. Since you ride frequently, I don't think riding time is your issue.

    Sometimes, numbness can be caused by vibration. I've ridden washboard dirt roads on a bike without front suspension and felt my hands quickly go numb from the vibration. I notice your CJ has a large section, straight blade fork. Although racy looking, I am always leery of this kind of fork for use in more causal riding than racing. They can be very stiff and transmit a lot of vibration to your hands. Obviously, tires and wheel plays into the equation too.

    Good luck with solving this problem.

    1. There's a bit more coming soon in regard to the bike. I'm just trying to get the last post wrapped up.

      Going custom is always a risk unless the builder/manufacturer offers a money-back guarantee or is willing to work with the rider until problems are resolved. I don't know why that thought didn't occur to me until much later in the game.

      Numbness in hands for me has generally happened because there is too much weight on them, and I think that is the case with this bike - partially anyway. I do think that having more time on a bike can resolve some of the issues too. Sometimes there is just an adjustment period, and I think it's why I was just continually riding to see if I could adapt.

  3. Oh, G.E.! What a complicated frustrating experience!

    I had so many thoughts while reading this - one being, "there but for the grace of God..." (!) but fortunately I paid attention to the alarm bells that went off during my attempt to get a custom Seven. Intermediaries never help!

    Having read through this post several times now, I do wonder if it all came down to errors in the fitting. Not to "blame" your LBS but... just a few centimeters off either when measuring you, or in passing the data to IndyFab... or an insufficient understanding of your biomechanics and hand issues... who knows. But it just sounds like the plan that got drawn up was not the right plan for you. And then IndyFab built a bike to that plan.

    Hmmm. I hope something positive comes out of this for you. Looking forward to your next post.

    1. I think there was definitely a breakdown in information between the LBS and IndyFab. That is my best guess in regard to what went wrong. I truly don't fault IF for what took place because of course they would only do as directed. I think the original fit numbers were accurate, but I think the changes that took place after I went back in to ride the fit bike (or at least, this is my suspicion) became the largest problem because a lot of changes that took place (specifically, top tube length) during that test. There are other issues at work here though, at least partially which have to do with making a smaller sized bike (seat tube angles, fork rake, wheel size, etc).

      I wouldn't wish this on anyone (it's beyond frustrating - I keep using that word, but I don't know how else to describe it), and I am so glad you had your alarm bells ringing, as you said, that set you off in a better direction.

  4. I read both Part 1 and Part 2 of this post with interest. I kept looking for the part where you took it back to your local bike shop and told them about the problems, but didn't see it. Did you do that? I'm sure that they would want you to be happy with your purchase and would work with you.

    1. We addressed all the possible fixes, as I'm a pretty adept bicycle mechanic. It just didn't make sense going back and fourth to the bike shop, which is in a neighboring city about 20 miles away. They would have done, and thought of the same things that we did, it just would have taken longer due to schedules, and travelling. Ultimately the geometry problems with the bike were not setup related, but the geometry itself, which lent to an incorrect saddle/pedal position, and a reach problem that could not be compensated for with adjusted setup. It's something that has come close to my knowledge in the past, but I never really believed it was possible to get a seemingly correct geometry (On the surface), but no matter what you do, you just can't get it "right". Bottom line, the geometry of the frame cause a fitment issue that could not be corrected, and what I would consider poor handling, and slow response. It was just wrong.

    2. I'll pretty much "ditto" Sam's comments. There are some additional factors at work here as well, but I don't want to get into all of that because it could be an entire series of posts all its own. I'll just say that we did everything we possibly could (and that a shop would've done) to get a proper fit/ride.

  5. What a huge disappointment this must be. I'm so sorry this happened this way. I'd been watching for news of the new custom bike and was wondering what was going on. So sorry to hear that it was this.

    Did you ever get the measurements and angles from the builder and compare them to a bike that works better for you? Maybe that's what Sam means by a bike that "looks good on paper" but doesn't really work?

    Anxiously awaiting another installment.
    I'm very interested in the

    1. I know. I'm usually so excited about bikes that I feel the need to jabber on about them right away. Perhaps that should've been my own sign? I'm not really sure, but I did have hope that it was just a matter of getting everything in the right position, so I believed time would be my friend and would work everything out.

      As for comparing measurements... well, that is definitely coming in the last post. When angles were compared, it was easy to see that the IF was not built for me to functionally travel the long distances I was hoping to do on this bike. It's amazing what just small angle changes or measurement shifts can do on a bike.

  6. Oh my gosh, you've got me on the edge of my seat! This is making me crazy, and I find myself wanting to yell at someone but not sure which person should be on the receiving end of my wrath. Can't wait to read the final installment.

    1. I'm giggling reading your response, Kendra. I read it aloud to Sam who was in the next room (he wanted to know what I was laughing about) and he quickly responded with, "Yes, welcome to my world!! It's irritating not knowing who to yell at."

      All I can do at this point is smile and let it go (and hopefully learn something in all of this). I should have the last of this up tomorrow, so not too much longer to wait for the end(ish) of this saga.


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