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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Building a Custom Frame (Part 1)

As I mentioned before in my recent trip report, I am done with the Heron as a touring bike. The next touring bike had to have long reach caliper brakes, which meant either a production Rambouillet frame, or a custom frame of some sort. (I had previously test-ridden a 650B Kogswell, and found them unacceptably slow and sluggish)

Ramboouilllets new, however, are exceedingly costly: $1400 for a frame and fork, which puts them into the realm of a custom frame from reputable builders for $1200. Furthermore, my desire was for a bike that rode as nicely as my 1993 Bridgestone RB-1, which meant getting as close to its geometry as possible while turning it into a suitable touring bike.

Ironically, I consider the Heron Road geometry to come extremely close to this ideal. The Heron road frame, which Roberto used in our recent alps tour to good effect feels fast and light, and would be ideal, except that once again, for $1200, it's sjust as costly as a custom job and heavy! I've ridden heavy bikes all my life, but the Fuji Team SL taught me that weight matters to a 145 pound rider, no matter what Grant Petersen says.

So it came down to a custom frame made out of Reynolds 953 Stainless Steel, some other lightweight steel, or Titanium. I consulted with Bob Brown and Carl Strong, and found that Bob did not want to talk about the weight of the finished product, while Carl was straightforward about it: he thought a 953 frame would come in around 3 pounds or so, while a Ti frame would come in at less weight with the same cost. A titanium frame would also have thicker walls and be quite a bit more dent resistant.

At this point, it came down to selecting a builder. I immediately ruled out the boutique builders like Seven, Independent Fabrications, Moots, and Merlin Metalworks. While I understood that titanium would be costly, at the prices those manufacturers would offer me a frame I would be paying more for brand name than for performance. (Folks at work were proudly telling me about the deal they got for an independent fabs steel frame at $2000!)

I eventually narrowed it down to Carl Strong and Lynskey Performance. I got turned into them because Stefan had become a big fan of Litespeed and their shaped tubes. Calling a Litespeed dealer at random indicated to me that I didn't want to work through a dealer, but since Lynskey started Litespeed, it was worth talking to them. Lynskey assigned me a salesperson and I walked through the process with them. Ultimately, however, between all the additional upcharges and a salesperson who didn't really understand what I wanted built, Carl Strong seemed like a better choice.

After all the measurements were taken, Carl and I sat down on the phone and discussed what we wanted out of the bike. I presented the geometry that I discussed above, and we talked about the modifications. After a week, I got the first draft of the frame design, and we'll work together some more to finalize what we want out of it. If this bike works out the way I think it would, I think it will be ultimately replace both my touring frame and the Fuji. There's no reason I wouldn't want a bike with this geometry to be the bike I want to ride all the time!
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Jim G said...

The Soma Speedster lugged frame has very similar geometry to an RB-1, and also uses 57mm reach brakes. It's around $700 for frame+fork.

Piaw Na said...

Nope. The Soma's close but doesn't cut it. You want a 73.5 degree head tube angle in the 56cm frame to get the same light steering feeling as the RB-1. The RB-1 even had a 45mm fork rake, so it felt super fast. As far as I know, there are no production steel bikes with the RB-1's geometry today, though the carbon Calfee comes close. The Heron Road was good as well, but Heron's shutting down production.