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I've been riding a Marin San Anselmo hybrid for some 13 years and I'd guess I've done over 7000 miles on it almost exclusively on the road (and it's not my commuting bike).

I'm gradually doing more cycling and longer distances and I'm finding myself increasingly uncomfortable (neck and inside leg). So I'm starting to wonder if it's actually suited to the kind of riding I do. I'm already looking to get a proper bike fit, but I'm also considering a custom frame in steel or titanium with higher spec components and (gulp!) drop handlebars.

I'm 5ft 8in (174cm), 30inch inside leg, 10 stone (140lbs/64kg). A bit small for a bloke, but not that freaky for a cyclist perhaps!

At the level of bike I'm looking at, the cost doesn't seem to be much more than something off the shelf, but it is a lot more hassle. Then again I hope this bike to last me the rest of my days, so maybe it's worth the effort to get it right.

So I'm wondering if a custom frame will make me more comfortable and/or faster and what experiences similar-sized people have had.

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With regard to drop bars, there's a wide range of options even there. Some are wide, some narrow, some with a lot of drop, some with relatively little. And several other parameters. –  Daniel R Hicks Nov 24 '12 at 2:09
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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

As a cyclist who had a hard time getting comfortable on road geometry with drop handlebars, I will recommend that you ride as many different bikes as possible for a long time before you consider dropping money on a "custom" bike.

Considering frame material and construction, geometry quirks, wheel sizes, brake types, drivetrain compatibility, tire clearance, frame lifespan, braze-ons, so on and so forth....there are LOTS of different bikes out there. To illustrate this, consider:

  • A lugged steel touring bike with 650b wheels, cantilever brakes, ample tire clearance, and brazed-on fittings for racks, pumps, bottles and whatnot
  • A carbon fiber race bike with integrated headset/bottom bracket, tucked in rear wheel, seat mast, 700c wheels with aero-spokes, etc. etc.

These bikes are two very different creatures. You can find shops who can fit you to either with great aplomb, but in reality these bikes are not interchangeable (regardless of whether you think one is better than the other.) The issue is less of fitting a bike to a person's body parts, and more of fitting it to a person's needs and wants.

You're just about my size, maybe an inch shorter, and I usually ride a 56 cm frame - a very common frame size. Being an average size (yes, you are an average size guy) you essentially have the bike world at your disposal.

Some people may feel like a "lifetime" bike exists for them, but I'm of the opinion that there is no need to be wedded to a bicycle because they are so very diverse - bicycles fill more of a use than fitting your body properly (and the inescapable truth is that your body will change just as surely as your cycling needs will.)

My short recommendation is to invest in a good-fitting touring or sport-touring bike with a steel frame. They're comfortable, versatile, affordable, long-living, and easy to service. It'll be way easier to get comfortable on this than an aggressive road bike and it will also be easier to sell down the road (because touring components use pretty much the same technology now as over the last 25-40 years.)

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Thanks, I appreciate that there's no one bike for everything and I doubt this will be the last bike I buy, but I'd like it to be a good one. –  JamesBradbury Nov 24 '12 at 16:41
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All good answers and all upvoted, but this one is the best all-round. I especially appreciated "ride as many different bikes as possible". I've more-or-less taken your advice. –  JamesBradbury Feb 21 '13 at 9:22
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I have very little experience regarding road bike fit, but I have asembled several mountain bikes, some of them for other people. I'm obviously happy with my setups, but also are my "customers" (not that it is a big deal, but I do it just because... I do not work at a shop or anything like that).

I have learned two very important concepts:

1) Bike fit does not only corresponds to your body sizes, but also personal preferences, riding style, technique, and personal goals about riding.

2) For almost any frame, as long as it is not too unusual or too far from the apropriate size, component exchange makes a radical difference in bike fit and can give you a wide range of adjustability and even change the way you ride the same bike. Stems for example come in a wide range of angles and extensions, and most of them can be used pointing upward or downward. Handlebars have diferent widths, angles and curves. Seatposts have different setbacks and saddles may have railings that allow for wider or narrower range of adjustment.

With these two aspects, the same bike can be converted in a whole different vehicle, to the point that two identical frames can be perfectly adapted to different people and they will be non interchangeable (none of those people would be comfortable riding each other's bike).

All that is a sum of arguments to reinforce that you should try as many diferent bikes as possible, surely you will find one that fits you for the purpose you need it, but, the ideal bike will fit you rather in the middle of it's adjustment possibilities, that way, if you buy that bike, you'll be able to further modify it by adjusting or exchanging smaller components only.

That is: the bike should fit you with the saddle near the center of the railings and using a seatpost with normal setback. The stem should be average length and have a modest angle. Also, if the fork has threadless steerer tube, it should be long enough so you can choose to put spacers above or bellow the stem. If the bike has quill type stem, it also should fit in the middle of its range.

Having that said, you can devote up to six months to find the sweet spot of your bike fit. Every time you ride, you may feel you need an adjustment, but you can overadjust, adjust too little or your adjustment may need to be compensated by adjusting something else... and the circle begins again... Patience gives big gains here, you'll get to know your bike so well that you will be completely comfortable riding it, and will be able to fine tune it in less time every time.

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From what it sounds like is that you've been trying to do sportive 'road' riding on a hybrid bike which has a geometry that doesn't fit your riding style well. It may feel fine for more casual riding, but not for your more sporty style. You need bikes that works for the types of riding which you prefer to do.

Many places can do a pre-purchase bike fitting. They can put you on an adjustable machine that will identify the frame size, stem-length, etc that suits you. If this is done at a shop, they will then likely be able to help you choose a bike that fits you and perform a second fit where they will dial in seat height, cleat position, and correct any fit issues.

Will they recommend a custom frame? Maybe, but I'd try to do a fit like this first (don't just get fitted on your existing bike, it's not ideal for your current riding style). Get your fitter's recommendation and go from there.

Alternatively, you could just go find a good road bike that seems to fit well, and ride it for a while. It will likely be way more comfortable for your riding style and may address some of the issues you have. If you have any pain / discomfort, then take it in for a fitting to correct those shortfalls.

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Custom frames are better, but for many people there is enough adjustability in standard components to get a good fit.

If you can, find a fitter who is also a physical therapist. Getting comfortable on a bike for longer distances is often a matter of fitting the bike to you and fitting you to the bike.

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Some manufacturers these days have one more parameter besides the pure frame "size" (S-M-L-XL, etc.). Trek, for example has H1, H2 and H3, the higher numbers being a more upright position. –  heltonbiker Nov 24 '12 at 0:53
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