Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bike Talk: Build vs Buy

Dean H. Saxe (@n3rd1ty from twitter) asks:

When is it better to build a bike vs. buy complete? Advantages/disadvantages to either?

This is, at its core, a bike geek question. Only folks who geek out on details and like to think about each little part of the bike even think about building a bike. And by build, in general, we're not talking about building completely from scratch, like the guy who built a toaster and wrote a book about it, we're talking about getting a frame from some place, a nice set of wheels from somewhere else, a seatpost, deraillers, shifters, cables, etc and putting it all together. If you really like to geek out, you can build your own frame and lace up your own wheels.

Here, as I see it, are the advantages to "building" your own bike:

You'll get to spend A LOT of time and effort doing it. If you find this kind of stuff fun, you'll have A LOT of fun. You'll get to talk to A LOT of folks about it. You will learn A LOT. Do you know about seatpost diameters and setback? Do you understand the relationship of seat tube angle to front shifting performance? Do you understand what the chain wrap capacity is of various derailleurs? Do you understand the relationships of bottom bracket spindle length and crankset design? These and a few thousand other questions will be asked and answered as you build your bike.

You will stimulate the economy. You will learn by experience and unless you are very, very good, very, very experienced, or very, very lucky, you'll guess wrong and buy some stuff twice. And if you are very, very experienced, you're well past the point of asking if this is a good idea.

The biggest theoretical advantage of building your own bike is that you get exactly what you want. In practice, your bike, like any real object in the real world is constrained by budget, time, and the laws of physics and mechanics.

Despite my pessimistic tone in the past few paragraphs, if you're a true bike geek, you're going to go for it. If that's you, go for it, you'll have a ball.

But here's the other side of the coin and the route I recommend:

Buy something off the shelf with something wrong with it. This is astoundingly easy to do because everything has something wrong with it. And by wrong I mean it has some feature you don't like or that doesn't work for you. Buy the flawed thing and fix the flaw. Or even better, try the flawed thing and see if the flaw really messes up the bike for you. It might not and you might be surprised.

Here are some of the advantages of buying off the shelf:

You can test ride. The bike is right there, you can ride it. You can feel how smooth or rough the shifting is, you can see how tight the brakes feel, and see how the bike handles a corner.

You take advantages of the economies of scale. Guess what? When Trek or Specialized buy a derailleur from Shimano, it costs them less than it costs you or me. Because they buy thousands of them at a time and they put them on thousands of bikes. If you buy one frame and one rear derailleur and one seatpost and so on, you'll spend a lot more money than you would if you buy a whole bike from the big guys who buy in volume.

By the way, those folks at Trek, Specialized, Giant or whomever? They've got a lot of experience figuring out what components work on what bikes. Yeah, they want to hit a price point and that may be why the bike doesn't have component X that you wish it had. So buy the bike and change out component X.

If you want to find a good deal on a bike, find last year's bike on close out. If it was a good bike then, it is still a good bike now even if something newer is out. And your local bike shop is motivated to move it.

The best way to buy a bike's worth of components is to get a whole bike. I once bought an entire bike that was completely the wrong size for me, transferred wheels, drive-train, etc to a proper sized frame and then sold the big frame and came out money ahead on the deal. I bought an entire bike at a thrift store once just to get the pair of Phil Wood CHP pedals that were on it. I came out ahead on that deal as well.

In the end, I think every bike is a bit of mix of build vs. buy. We buy when we like the bike more than we like the money it'll cost to buy it. And I think we really make the bike our own not in the buying, but in the ways we tweak it to make it our own and make it last.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Rick said...

I have stripped down hundreds of bikes through the years and sold the parts. Kinda like a junk yard.

keithmo said...

Here's another advantage of building your own. (This is theoretical -- I haven't actually "built my own" yet.):

You can completely avoid oddball custom-made components.

Specialized (I assume other companies do this as well) likes to have component manufacturers make custom versions of their products. For example, my Stumpjumper has a Fox fork that is not available to the public directly from Fox -- they OEM it to Specialized, and it's only available from them.

Whenever I read through a bike manufacturer's website and I read "custom xyz" I always feel apprehensive.

Is this rational, or am I over analyzing?

Kent Peterson said...


I think that's a good point. I also get nervous about proprietary parts, things like the Cannondale Lefty fork or the odd size Moulton tires make me worry about down the road or on the road replacement parts.

PsySal said...

Spot on, Kent!

I think there's another important point, too, for those wanting to build their own bike: first, spend lots of time fixing and customizing what you already have, or as you say, get a new bike and make some changes.

Do this enough and then one day you'll have a pretty good idea what it takes to put a bike together. More than likely, you'll still want your shop to do a few things for you. But it's a great way to build up confidence and knowledge bit by bit.

Don't underestimate the intricacies of bikes! I think because they interface so closely with the human body, everything has to be tuned and balanced very finely.

You can't just throw more weight or more power at every problem in designing a bike. A car can be comfortable by just putting in comfortable seats. But for a bicycle to be comfortable is really a holistic problem.

Making some of your own adjustments is also a great way to gain a better appreciation for the true breadth of knowledge and skill of a goood bike mechanic. And when you do take your bike in for those more challenging things, you'll know why, and you'll be able to understand better what's going on :)

For the most part, the more I learn about fixing bikes the more I appreciate and don't mind paying somebody more skilled than I am to fix them. And I *am* a person who has built quite a few of my own bikes.

<3 Bike Mechanics.

RoadieRyan said...

Bike Geek? Hey now your pickin' on my hobbies! Having built up a couple bikes from scratch and rebuilt quite a few, a few words of advice on building your own; be prepared to take your time-have patience, do you have all the tools you need or know where to borrow or rent them? the right tool can make a HUGE difference, have a good resource for questions either a person or book -I really like Zinn and the art of Road bike maintenance. Mostly have fun with it!

HappyCampers said...

I am continually amazed that I can read your blog postings, which I quite enjoy, and come away with books to read (The Toaster Project), and parks to visit (Oak Bay). Thanks for such an interesting blog.

tacomee said...

Nice and thoughtful post! As a bike industry guy my advice is to buy something off the rack, ride it until most of the parts wear out, then go custom on the rebuild. More riding bikes, less messing around with them! (this advice is from a guy with, oh say, $3000 dollars of bike parts in his basement, so I don't always practice what I preach). My 2nd question is this- is it better to buy a $4500 bike or buy a $1500 bike and spend $3000 riding it somewhere really cool?

Glenn said...

I've built a few bikes in my mind but haven't taken the leap. I'd probably build a cheap urban bike if I actually went ahead with it. Building it from separate parts would be ridiculous so I'd probably buy a parts bike or two plus the odd part for finishing touches. So far it's a mind exercise, so it's not costing me much - Mind you, I've slipped and bought a cheap part or two for my "thought exercises". Hopefully they'll be useful for whatever I finally decide on (if?). I have to admit, it's a lot of fun to think about.

Steve said...

Yep...I'm a bike geek then,but kind of a hybrid of sorts. I'll buy an inexpensive bike for a complete budget parts pack,pic the frame I want,transfer the parts over and slowly as $ allows replace the cheaper parts with hand picked parts I want,and eventually have 2 complete bikes (the "donor" bike to resell). I'm about to do that to get myself another 29er SS since having sold a beloved Jabberwocky to finance a Xtracycle build earlier this year (1st time I've been without a mtn SS in a decade and a half,and I'm having withdrawell symptoms bad I tells you!).

On the other hand,the afore-mentioned Jabberwocky and my Bandersnatch (the latter I still have),I bought the frames,and picked every single part with with upper-mid range parts that I hand picked (not the least expensive way to buy a bike I may add,LOL,but I had some extra cash I normally wouldn't/don't have).

Other than my CX'er which was bought off the floor (but had the parts hand picked for quality vs budget by the shop owner,BTW),I haven't bought an off-the-rack bike in over a decade....but not intentionally so or that I have anything against that way of buying,mind you,if the right bike on the shelf catches my eye....

Anonymous said...

I bought what I hope is my first and last frame. Built it up from parts I had taken off other bikes. Some of those parts are 20+ years old but in good shape. My main reason was I couldn't find an inexpensive complete bike that met my wants. Inexpensive steel frame, threaded fork/quill stem, 700c wheels, ability to use wider tires, non disc brakes. Surly met everything except the fork/stem issue. One manufacture I know of now meets those wants in a complete bike but wasn't available at the time. I had previously learned the hard way about bottom bracket/crankset width and rear dropout spacing among other parts compatabilities. I am happy with my decision. BTW I maintain by myself a few bikes and have been riding 50+ yrs.

Ἀντισθένης said...

I'd suggest to do no building up of your own, or paying someone else to do it, until you are on maybe your third good bike as an adult. Prior to that you have not yet discovered your needs and style. I had a bike assembled for me, but soon found out I wanted everything changed...

Don S. said...

I love that you take the time to answer this question respectfully. It really suits your niche as accessible, technically proficient, and outside the realm of commerce, or at least able to render unto Cinelli what is Cinelli's.

I would argue that there is a geek quality, certainly, but also a hobbyist quality to compiling parts and contemplating preferences. My current project finally tipped over from mind game to actual bike when I realized all my cherished prospective frames were extremely close to the two-decade-old Bianchi Cross-Terrain frame in the basement, so I went ahead and got it powdercoated. My theme for the build is bang for the buck city bike, so either something I already have or something that is budget friendly and good enough. In this way I humor my enjoyment of those simple pleasures related to a given component that are almost too trivial to mention to anyone else but have meaning to oneself.

And the self-sufficiency piece is also meaningful, especially when one is isolated from those with true bike expertise. Between conversations at the LBS and trolling the blogs and just trying stuff, I have managed to do about everything there is to do with a bike. And as stated above, the fine-tuning possible with a bike are a lovely diversion for a father on the edge looking to sublimate. Certainly beats a lot of the alternatives.

scottg said...

There is no such thing as buying the "wrong" part, you have just bought a part for the next bike. Once enough of these so called "wrong" parts accumulate, then you go find a frame.

The Velo Hobo said...

A couple of years ago I decided to rebuild an old POS mountain bike, just to learn more about wrenching on bikes. Pretty easy and I learned a lot. One thing I learned is to never press a headset with a homemade contraption. The blasted thing twisted and creaked and moaned as I forced it into its new home. I had to send it to its final destination with persuasion from a large wooden mallet. After I whacked it into place it worked, but I had the luck of the Irish on my side. All desire to press a headset has left me. I’m cured. But, now I have an overwhelming urge to build a wheel.

The good thing about having a supportive LBS is they may be willing to offer guidance, order parts for you and even do the final set-up on your bike if you do decide to take on a project bike. I’m looking forward to doing another bike soon (Surly Pacer) and I’ll be ordering all my parts and frame from my local bike shop and paying the shop to do the stuff I just don’t feel comfortable doing.

Great post, Jack

Phil Miller said...

There are a lot of levels to "building" a bike. Most are easy, some are not. Compatibility is something you have to research; get a caliper, some wrenches and a good book with some historical depth to it. (Zinn's are pretty good).
It is a project. My single speed was pretty easy, but even then I farmed out rebuilding the Headset and the bottom bracket.

Phil Miller said...

nismachi One more thing: before you even consider rebuilding an older French bike, read Sheldon Brown's articles. Component compatibility and availability can be problematic, though eBay can save you if you KNOW what you are looking for, and have patience.
"An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. - GK Chesterson"

Andres said...

Another thing to consider is resale. Are in plugged into a community that buys lots of parts? Do you enjoy ebaying? If you build your own (and buy the wrong part), maybe it's real easy for you to turn around and sell or trade that part for something you can actually use.

On the other hand, if you're like me and tire of ebaying stuff but don't mind craigslist, buying a prebuilt bike is a no-brainer. Some design flaw about the bike bugs you after a year of riding it around? Buy another one, sell the old one on CL. I've gotten a new bike (well, some are new _used_ bikes) about every year for the past 5 years thanks to the ease of CL sales, and my changing tastes.