Hitchhiker Bikes

George Merrill, co-owner of Hitchhiker Bikes in Stowe, puts a cycle through its motions.

Dissatisfied with the bikes you see on display, whether at the big box store or your local shop? How about building your own? It will likely be more expensive. But it will be uniquely yours.

“There’s a level of customization that most everybody does to their bike at some point, whether it’s changing the grips or the saddle all the way up through a total rebuild,” Joe Drennan, owner of Earl’s Cyclery in South Burlington, says.

Most people seeking a custom build have already logged countless miles and know how they ride, whether it’s hairpin turns on singletrack or grueling climbs through Vermont’s steep, windy roads.

“Usually, it’s not their first bike, so they’ll have some pre-existing preferences that you can start with,” George Merrill, co-owner of Hitchhiker Bikes in Stowe, said. “But for the most part, I’m asked for a recommendation.”

Multiple ones, actually. He’ll often put together a few different builds based off the same frame, fork and wheel foundation, which will give customers some different price ranges.

“I think a lot of what drives the custom build thing is not people trying to save money or spend more money, but them saying, ‘You know, if I’m going to spend this much money I might as well get exactly what I want,’” Merrill said. “Right down to some sort of blingy highlight colors.”

Custom bikes are likely to have nicer parts, and not just top-of-the-line brakes, tires or shocks.

“For example, a lot of new bikes just come with generic grips, house-branded handlebars and an uncomfortable saddle,” Merrill said.

Drennan said you’ll pay about twice as much to get what you want in a custom bike versus a “stock build” from a manufacturer. And the sky is the limit when it comes to full custom builds. Drennan said Earl’s will perform anywhere from three to 10 custom builds per year.

Matt Niklaus, co-owner of Bootlegger Bikes in Jeffersonville, said he starts with an interview process, either in-person or over the phone, to figure out the customer’s needs. He’ll “dig in and take measurements” of the rider’s various attributes, whether it’s their leg or torso length or their wingspan, or their level of flexibility, any injuries they have or physical disabilities.

“Bike fit means something different to everybody,” Niklaus said. “We’re not going to put somebody who is just looking for a comfortable all-day riding bike on a race bike that we fit for someone who’s performance-oriented.”

Frame game

Bike shop owners tend to agree that the frame is the most important part of the bike and thus the most important choice to make. It’s the skeletal system.

The big names like Trek or Specialized or Gary Fisher keep their frames for their bikes and, while there is a mind-boggling number of other companies that manufacture frames, there is a caveat.

“The tricky part is finding them floating around in a sea of junk,” Merrill said. “It might look really nice on the outside, but it could be a little scary on the inside.”

Bike shops have their favored frame brands and will typically push those frames — Hitchhiker likes Ritchey and Chromag, while Earl’s and Bootlegger suggest Salsa and Kona — but they’ll usually do what they can to satisfy a customer’s preference.

Drennan said he’s currently working on a full custom road cycle built around an Italian-made Casati frame. Shipping alone was $400.

“There are a lot of custom domestic builders that are really, really good. I mean, world class,” he said. “This gentleman just happened to want something from Italy.”

Mix and match

Niklaus said while supply chain issues have wreaked havoc on the big companies getting their stock builds to market, there is flexibility in building your own.

“For any particular model, they need one, two, three, four thousand sets of the exact same components to build that bike,” he said. “Whereas if I can just get the right frame and I stock up on a bunch of various parts, I don’t have to build a bike to their specs. I can build it based on what I have and what’s available.”

Bike shops try to keep as much inventory as they can, but there’s a balance between keeping a bunch of everything and having stuff that just gathers dust.

“The joke with bike shops is, ‘We don’t have that, but we can order it for you,’ and obviously customers are just gonna hop online and get it faster,” Merrill said. “The way you compete with that is just by having it in stock already.”

There are other limitations. Drennan said today’s technology is so far advanced from bike tech in the late 1990s and early 2000s that it can be hard to find modern components to put on those frames. For instance, disc brakes are the norm now, but you can’t just slap those on a fork meant to hold caliper-style brakes. And caliper-style brakes are tough to find nowadays.

A well-stocked bike shop can be like a candy store for people who want to upgrade their ride, whether for performance or for pure aesthetics, or “bling factor.”

“Basically, anything that’s aluminum can be made any color,” Niklaus said. “They’ll seek out these parts and try to put together something that’s either matchy-matchy or, in a lot of cases, just totally clashes, like the bike’s got any color and every color.”

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