I’m having the wood floors refinished in the house that my lady and I have just purchased. I know absolutely zilch about such tasks. Despite this, the contractor, a super friendly dude with the best intentions I’m sure, asks me to make a lot of decisions.
In thinking about that, I’m reminded of the first custom bike I ordered.
It was (and still is) from Mercian Cycles, in the UK. I chose them mostly because my mom has an old lugged Mercian race bike that I’ve always adored, and also the exchange rate at the time made it quite affordable.
It’s tough to see, but that’s her light blue Mercian. My pops’ orange Pogliaghi was pretty killer too.
When I placed my order, there were lots and lots of decisions to be made; there was the usual list of things like frame model, fork type, paint scheme and colors, and then additionally I was allowed to pick tubing type, a few tube diameters, and I was given full control over geometry. I was already deeply in love with bikes and racing, but I would say that, while I was fully qualified to pick out colors and pretty lug shapes, I didn’t really have much – if any – business getting into the geometry beyond asking for a specific stack and reach measurement, and for tubing type and diameters I was doing little more than flipping a coin.
A wiser man than 22 year old Tiny would have acknowledged this, and asked either for the decisions to be made for him, or at the very least some advice from the builders. As it happened, though, I seized the opportunity to take full control and play the role of bicycle designer. With every detail left up to me, every decision I made – no matter how small, unimportant, or uninformed it was – felt deeply personal.
Months later, when I received that huge and instantly recognizable box on my front porch, I assure you that what was inside was a very good bike. It’s still my primary winter bike, I ride it throughout the year with and without fenders, and I’ve even chosen it over my old race bike to bring on riding vacations. I keep it clean, and dressed in properly functioning Italian components. When I cracked the top tube, I paid to have it replaced and repainted. By all measurements, I love this bike. Currently. On the day it arrived, however, with a tape measure and calipers in hand, I tore open the box and found shiny, steel, lugged disappointment.
The bike did not match up to my order. It was off by a couple millimeters here, 5mm there, and something like 10mm in one particular spot. The decals were not exactly where I’d specified. It had braze-ons that I wasn’t expecting. The control freak that had sprouted inside of me completely and totally lost his shit.
Eventually I built the bike up anyway, months and months down the road. I still remember the first ride, and god damn was it lovely.
Please note, the ugly stem is temporary. I just might have a more appropriate and much more custom steel stem on the way…
I’m not sure if communications broke down between the builders and I in the back-and-forth-Tiny-takes-control emails, or if they just corrected what they saw as silly decisions by me (and weren’t expecting a fresh out of engineering school dork with a love of trig), but the end result was fantastic. The differences from what I’d called out were largely for the better. The extra chainstay length lets me get wheels in and out when I have fenders on (horizontal dropouts) and also probably helps with the delightful feeling of stability I have on that bike. The lower than asked for bottom bracket is fantastic, because a crit-style BB drop on a skinny tubed, 1″ steerer, lugged road bike would have been silly. The extra bosses let me mount up my go-to-favorite SKS fenders without needing to use the rattle-prone metal brackets that they come with. The altered decal position meant that my cable housing wouldn’t rub the head tube badge transfer off. In short, it arrived on my doorstep a well thought out bike frame, no thanks to me.
And that’s where I’m going with this. Since then, I feel that I’ve gained a much better sense for when I’m a helpful contributor and when I’m just some dummy getting in the way. When the floor guys ask me to pick a wood color, I can do that. When they ask me if I want a true stain or a tinted sealer, I tell them that I haven’t the foggiest clue, and that I trust their expertise. When I ask a client if they’d like their drawings done in inches or mm, I’d like them to take part and give an answer. When I’m tasked with designing my 15th IP68 sealed battery compartment for that same client, I expect that what I deliver will be trusted, and I won’t need to humor too much input during the process. We hire the experts because they’re the experts, and for me it was a huge relief when I acknowledged that and learned to willfully give up control.
I know for certain that the Speedvagen crew will work with you if your fancy is gettin’ hell of specific, and they will most certainly steer your decisions to make for a sane bicycle design. I also know that if you’re like me, you can go in for your bike fit, give a thumbs up to the proposed geometry, say “yellow,” “purple,” or “surprise me,” leave it at that, and the experts there will deliver a most excellent ride.
PS: While I’m on the topic of fun folks to give control over to, I’d feel incomplete if I didn’t mention cool Mr. Slawta. Before my bodacious relationship with Speedvagen began, Slawta’s Landsharks were my go-to jam for race bikes. He’s the exact sort of guy that can delight you if you just trust him to come up with something far out. Thanks, John!