Saturday, May 30, 2009

Do you know your builder?

Niner, Vassago, Salsa, Surly, etc...names new and old that hit the radar each year with products touting to be new, innovative, and the best money for your fun dollar. With a plethora of bike brands consistently flourishing and adding to the mix, you gotta wonder where all these frames are coming from. Unfortunately, not from our shores.

Truth be told, bicycle manufacturing in the US has changed significantly in the past 50 years. The big manufacturers have been unable to keep up in the cost wars with the Asian market's efficient, accurate, inexpensive workforce. The mid sized production shops where many of todays established builders cut their teeth suffered under the changing market place, rising benefit/salary costs, and have since scaled down, leaving single builder operations. Serrotta, Vicious and IF are fine examples of mid sized shops that have sustained, even thrived, despite the changing times.

So, with fewer builders out there with the skills to run a production scale business, who is driving these new bike lines? Creative designers who are following market trends, anticipating changes, and working in production numbers that allow for fluidity in business models, that's who.

The folks who are bringing these ideas to fruition on a daily basis are contract manufacturers overseas. Giant is one of the largest contract manufacturers worldwide, building for literally a hundred other name brands. Add in a host of other smaller companies, and you've got the parents of many of the most recognized brands out there and many more you've never heard of. You've had an opportunity to check out what goes on daily in a one guy shop through my eyes, here's a look inside a contract builders floor...

I like to run through promotional vids like this, not that I'm really interested in the product, but I'm constantly looking in the background at the fixturing, processes, and shop floors. What I constantly come back to is the realization just how similar the large and small scale workplaces are. Fabrication of a bicycle really distills down to a methodical process, with required checks and balances, and a focus on creating a functional product. In that vein, big and small are much alike.

Where the differences lie are in the attention to small detail for the individual customer, the fact that one set of hands attend to the whole process, artistic flair, and that you've got a personal relationship with the guy making your dream a reality. Try calling the chick with the glasses in the video on a Sunday afternoon to ask for advice on components or set up...somehow I don't think she'll be picking up the phone for ya.

So where am I going with all this...I don't know. Just thought I'd put it out there. I guess when I see folks post on forums touting the superiority of their bikes, I wonder how much they really know about their origins, the people who built it, and why they choose it to be the one for them. I want folks who ride a Groovy to want to be on it because they took the time to know me, trust me to take care of them, and like the vibe coming out of the shop. Maybe a little self indulgent, but I guess there is some silent validation in there somewhere.

Leave me a comment, tell me why you chose the bike you are on... an inquiring mind wants to know.




Jay said...

I have a Groovy BigWheel 29er. There is no finer bicycle than a custom made american ride. It is great to know your builder and to have someone who stands behind their products.

Anonymous said...

I am riding a fisher full suspension 29er and I like it a lot. I have had mine for 2 years and plan on getting the 2010 model when it becomes available. I tried going the custom route just before I got my Fisher and got burned. The bike wasn’t what I asked for, the quality was worse than a production bike and all the special stuff I had him do became standard features on the production bikes the very next year. Plus there was the long wait. I told the builder very gingerly about the problems right after I pulled it out of the box and I got a lot of attitude in return. I was really bummed. I rode the bike anyway and made the best of it and then the bike cracked. Then it took months to get it fixed. Sorry, I was just completely over custom bikes after that. I love your site for the frame building stuff. I am really fascinated by the process and have been to the handmade shows and have been studying the frame building process for 2 years now and would like to make a frame of my own someday. But there are so many production bikes out there that unless you have really strange body dimensions then you can find a bike that fits really well and probably has the geometry you want or very close to it. I am a pro bike mechanic and have been for years so I will admit that I am a little picky but at the prices that you get a production bike for and the fact that it is engineered means a lot to me. Sure they still break… a lot. I’ve never broken one but I have helped many who have. But that is where a good production company is going to help you out and there is a shop to advocate for you and do any arguing that may have to be done.

I don’t mean to be a kill joy or to hurt your business. I hope that you are really successful as you seem to be a great builder. If I ever got another custom, which is really unlikely, it would be from a guy living in the same town as me that I really connected with personality wise and who I could ride with and who would really know me and what I am looking for in a bike. Where I could go to his shop and really make sure that everything was right. No scratched up finishes, crooked braze-ons, oval head tubes, incorrect geometry, or alignment issues to deal with. Yes, my custom had all of those problems. Live and learn.

I was talking to another custom builder in my area that is very well renowned and he told me he has problems with getting seat tube I.D.’s right on his bikes with a full machine shop. That just doesn’t happen with production bikes for the most part. That kind of thing would sink a big brand. I won’t go on. Anyway, I love the blog. Keep up the good work.

-Larry S

Rody said...


You are no "kill joy", you are speaking from the hip based on your experience, and the truth should never be suppressed just because it is not popular. Unfortunately, your experience is not an isolated one. That's one of the reasons that it is so important to know who you are working with and be able to have a one on one, honest relationship with the builder. I guess that's why I try to be as transparent through the blog as I can; everyone screws up, has successes, or just muddles through at times...that's part of life. Striving to provide the best product possible and insuring the customer is smiling should be the minimum goal.

Production bikes, by their very nature, must be straight, true and functional for a company to succeed. They are designed to fit the median, and do well at being adjusted for differing body types. All points you have made are spot on and well expressed. Given that, who is the custom bike really marketed to?

The custom bike really is for the one who needs a special fit for their specific body type, the customer who is an athlete and desires a performance oriented ride that can only be created for the individual, or the enthusiast who desires a bike that is unique and is the culmination of their dreams.

In todays internet driven society, it's all to easy to create the persona of education and success in framebuilding. A nice website and some flashy paint goes a long way towards catching the customer eye. Unfortunately, those attributes don't carry you on through the years...good customer service does. Those that can't provide, don't stick around long. It sucks that you had such high expectations and was left feeling so low, but the lesson you learned truly benefits us all.

Thanks for sharing,


MartinH said...

Ok, I followed your site for a while. If I wasn't on the other side of the world, then I would have popped in for sure to say Gday.

The vibe from groovy, is totally in tune with why I got in mountain bikes in 1989... I used to lust after a FAT, because they were just about fun, and riding in the woods!

Fast forward, I see your video on You tube
and the enthusiasm just pours out of the screen, this coupled with the amazing attention to detail (for form or function), that's the vibe that I'm looking for. So what more can I do then order a frame from you? - just a few weeks ago :-)

Like Larry, I've also been down the custom route before, and also got burned, but the builder bent over backwards to make me happy after all the problems. And now I'm happy with the bike. The root cause was a middle man ('dealer'), who was not knowledgeable or interested in the end product, just his cut....

Happy trails Rody.


rmb said...

I ride a Curtlo 29er softail. I had a very good experience with Doug and wanted to try a softail as my local trails are very tame. I wanted a bike that would take the edge off the roots when I'm not riding my rigid singlespeed, which is most of the time. Doug can be hard to reach and his wait times are long but my frame came in 8 weeks and showed up at my door before I paid in full. The bike is exactly as he said it would be. I had some upgrades to the basic frame and he did not bill me for them by mistake. I pointed it out to him because it is the right thing to do, but also because I felt like he put a lot of effort into the build for not so much money. (disclaimer: I was not aware of Groovy at the time ;)

I am mostly riding a Rawland DSOGN set up as a rigid singlespeed with your luv handles. It is a very quick steering versatile bike that fits my trails well. I was able to get a cosmetic blem frame and fork for $350 so I figured it was worth trying out the geometry (never found the blem). I love the bike but it is really only for buff trails (73 deg head angle, 51mm rake, 11.5 bb-height with 650b's.) I love the bi-plane fork. In addition I really like the guy behind the Rawland bikes.

In the future I want a custom 650b frame like the Rawland but lighter and a bit different. I am riding/racing this bike on buff twisty trails and it is very fast. Oh, I want a custom ti bar stem from Groovy (email sent) so I can move my other bar to the softail.

My next custom will be a Groovy as I am very happy with the bars and the fact that you give very sincere advice, like when I called about the used ti frame.

I intend to build a frame or two and have tubes, files and the Paterek manual but I am far from building. This will not affect my next Custom frame purchase though.

IF52 said...

When the majority of the buying public demands everything for nothing manufacturing gets sent overseas. Overseas manufacturers have not so much regard for the environment not their workers. And the pay rate is much lower because the standard of living is so low (this to will change). Jobs leave, people get paid less and can't afford what they once could, demand decreases, more jobs go away... So goes mass-consumerism.

IF52 said...

One more thing

I guess what bugs me about some of the outsourcing is how little the name has to do with the production anymore. I'm sure Tom Ritchey and Gary Fisher still have something to do with the products that carry their names for example, but those products ultimately are using their names as marketing tools. How much does Ross Schafer have to do with Salsa these days? Maybe more than I think, but not as much as I would like. What I like a lot about Rody's philosophy as I understand it, is that he IS involved in everything from start to finish. He doesn't have some grunt cutting or milling or painting, he does it all. Groovy bikes are all Rody all the time. So yeah, you may wait for your frame, but it is worth it in my opinion.

And frankly why can Rody charge as little as he does for his 'stock' work while some outsourced asian something or other costs the same?

Anonymous said...

It should almost be compulsory for small custom builders to go to factories like Maxway to see how things get done. Not just from a micro process POV, but also from an efficiency POV and also how you/they can differentiate their business.

Differentiation and keeping prices high is the key. If you don't have a point of difference, then people will not be able to tell the difference between a Groovy and a Surly, and if you don't keep your prices high, you won't have the profits to be able to reinvest in yourself to improve that differentiation.

You touched on the biggest point you can learn from the larger OEs - differentiation through personal customer service. In times like this where people are increasingly alienated and disassociated with how things are made and happen (in the real world), custom framebuilding is one area that can 'exploit' that disconnect.

Great video, thanks for linking it.

steve garro said...

from IF52: " How much does Ross Schafer have to do with Salsa these days? Maybe more than I think, but not as much as I would like." Ross has had *nothing* to do with Salsa Cycles since he sold it to QBP. they are likely built at one of the factories that Rody speaks of. just clarifying.......thanks for the great insight you provide as always, Rody! rock on, Steve Garro, Coconino Cycles.

Bushpig.vrc said...

I love riding bikes and when it gets down to it, just about any bike'll do. That said, part of the passion for me is not being content with just anything. Beside the joy of riding, another facet of bicycles that keeps me fascinated is how they can represent the drive for perfection of a hand-made thing. I have a lot of bikes and for all but one, I know or could find the person or people that crafted the bike, and in many cases made or modified the parts. I have bicycles by Ken Beach, Rod Moses & Ray Baldwin, Jim Moulden, Charlie Cunningham, Steve Potts, JP Weigle, Jim Merz and Steve Potts. One of these days I really need a bike from Rody!

I recognize that you need to have patience to get a custom bike, but in the end it is very much worth it to me.

DougM said...

My current bike is a steel Redline 29er. Once I had established that I wanted a 29er and wanted it to be steel, then it was time to examine my budget. Unfortunatley, there just was not money available for a custom or semi custom setup from builders like yourself or I.F. The next question was 1. How can I support my LBS and 2. how can I get the most bike for my budget.

I greatly admire your work and love reading your blog as you build. I hope someday to place an order with you for a custom frame.