I'm bit overdue for an update here. Hope everyone hasn't been waiting on the edge of their seats!
The tour is over, which means new bike/product season is in high gear. Manufacturers bring many products out during the tour, then there's Interbike at in the fall. Between these two events are a whole series of PR announcements of new and improved products. Virtually all of these are distinguished as being part of the upcoming mode-year - whether they are immediately available, or not.
This phenomena is one proof (if one is needed) that custom builders are in a different business from the big guys. It's possible that you can tell the build date from the serial number on a custom frame, but custom builders don't have model-years. And, manufacturers don't necessary build a given model-year of a bike during the same calander year. So what's going on here?
Both framebuilding and bicycle manufacturing are businesses. And in some cases, the process of sticking bits together to create the frame, and bicycle, are similar. Apart from scale and 'model year' what justifies my contention that framebuilders and manufacturers are in different businesses?
Let me say that I don't (even for a minute) think that the manufactured product is less than great. At the lower price points, a good framebuilder is pressed to compete with manufacturers on a function points per dollar basis. And at the upper end of the range, riders can purchase a variety of bikes ridden to victory on the pro-tour. Now days, the Pros generally ride the actual bikes sold by their sponsoring manufacturers - so this isn't a fiction or a fairy tail. Combine this with the fact that most riders don't have difficult fitting requirements, and the question can be raised: "Why have custom framebuilders?"
As a business, I think that framebuilders have more in common with the cats who build custom hotrods than the Trek & Spec's of the world. We touch our riders in a way that no manufacturer does - and the stories of the various builders here at Smoked Out is evidence of that.
Framebuilders offer, first and foremost, something unique. Working with a framebuilder, you're nearly guaranteed not to see a matching bike anywhere out on the road. As a rider, you're making a unique statement no manufactured bike with custom paint can offer. Framebuilders have no need for yearly model introductions, because each bike is unique. Framebuilders don't need abstract mechanical benefits (600 gm frames that need added weight to hit the UCI requirements) to set them apart from the field. Instead, they can focus on meeting a riders needs: mechanical, aesthetic, and pyschological. And make no mistake, customers select their framebuilders based on unique needs. Some want a frame from a giant in the field, others want to discover a new up and comer. Some are concerned with classic looks, others want to push the envelope of paint and decoration. Some are looking for a cohesive, even branded, look from their builders - others just want input on color. All these riders insist on performance and fit, that's a given. But there are so many ways to achieve these ends - each similar to and different from many other bikes - but unique to the rider in question.
Every framebuilder can't meet every need. Selection of one's builder is a key part of the process, and a good builder helps by noting up front if the fit is questionable. But the product received goes deeper than the actual bike - there is the relationship established with the builder which endures, often beyond the bike itself. And if the means exist, the rider can establish these relationships with more than one builder. Consequently, some riders create a collection of bikes, not because they need to, but because the variety if fun and rewarding.
It's possible to collect modern manufactured bikes. I think that the value in such a collection, however, is more in terms of finding bikes ridden by famous pros, than in enjoying varied solutions to the given problem of how to ride quickly from place A to place B.
Not everyone covets the custom frame/builder. Many prefer to chase the fleeting latest and greatest. For them the annual model-year is a great invention. For those of us looking for something more enduring, however, a custom builder offers a great solution.
And that's what I've been thinking about this morning as I worked to sand the filets on some chain-stay/drop-out joints.