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I'm building a new bike for touring while traveling, so I want a break-apart frame with S&S couplers, like the Salsa Vaya Travel, or another steel touring frame retro fit with couplers. I want a bike I can confidently take down the long roads knowing that if anything does go wrong, I'll be able to fix it on the road and get rolling again. I also want a bike that I'll be able to ride for a lot of years, without investing so much in it that taking it out on the road will seem like an unreasonable financial risk.

So, my question is: should I spend the extra money and time on a custom built frame, or will my results be just as good with a well fit stock frame and components? What advantages can a custom fit provide that are unavailable in stock frames? Over many consecutive long days in the saddle, do the benefits of a custom fit pay off any more or less? Are there any risks or complications involved with building and maintaining custom frames that I should be concerned about?

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What is your experience touring? –  WTHarper Feb 25 at 17:49
    
It is true that there used to be several good purveyors (mostly in California) of custom-fit touring bikes that weren't that unreasonably priced (and you could get S&S couplers added to the deal for relative peanuts). But I haven't seen any of them advertising recently (ie, for the past 5-10 years), nor read any articles mentioning them. Dunno how many are still in business, but I see Bruce Gordon is still on the web. –  Daniel R Hicks Feb 25 at 21:02

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Unless you are of extremely uncommon proportions, you won't find much riding advantage in a custom-made bike— there's plenty of room to tweak a mass-production bike for the a perfect fit through component swaps. Moreover, unless you buy from an experienced touring-bike specialist, it's entirely possible that a custom-designed bike might have little annoyances that'd get caught in the prototype phase for production bike.

Most great cycling adventures have been taken on a mass-production bike of some sort. I rode across the USA on a used $300 Fuji, and it was fine (though a better wheelset would have been worthwhile had I had the budget). I've taken medium-distance tours on a 30 year old Schwinn Varsity, too, which meets all your criteria except packability— that bike fits fat tires, has comfy relaxed geometry, and you can fix pretty much everything on it with an adjustable wrench. By all means, if you have plenty of money and would enjoy a custom bike, buy one, but if funds are limited, I'd spend them on travel as opposed to the bike.

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You're almost certainly better off spending that money on going touring.

I'd go so far as to say that until you have done enough touring to have a list of things that you want from your touring bike that you can't get from any production bike, don't bother thinking about it. Well, unless your other hobby is spending money, in which case I suggest buying one from each custom builder and seeing how they compare.

The main advantage of a custom frame is that it's built to fit you and has exactly what you want on it. Long term tourists often develop quite specific requirements and no mass-produced bike will satisfy them. Even simple things like built-in racks are depressingly rare in mass-market touring bikes, let alone more specific things like eyelets for tying things to. But again, unless you already have that list of things you're wasting your money getting a custom bike.

The main risk is that you spend a lot of money then decide that it wasn't what you wanted after all. This is especially the case with people who haven't done a lot of touring, and I know at least one builder who refuses commissions from novices for this reason. Every unhappy customer they've had has been a newbie to whatever they wanted the bike for. The solution is to put them on a cheap bike and wait a year.

With S&S couplers you're likely to need those added after you buy a mass-market bike, which is an opportunity for you to get the framebuilder who does the work to add any little extras you want. It'll very likely be cheaper to buy a new mass-produced bike and have the couplers added than get a customer bike. But it's likely to be cheaper to pay a freight company to ship the bike around the world a couple of times than to get the couplers fitted.

As Alan says, you can tour on any bike. I've done a 5Mm trip through northern Australia with people who rode BSOs (bicycle shaped objects), one of whom did the last couple of megametres with no balls in their bottom bracket (and hence, no front derailleur). They didn't enjoy the riding as much as they could have, but they did it.

As far as comfort goes, you will very likely be more comfortable on the cheapest recumbent you can find than the most expensive upright bike.

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+1 for the recumbent. Especially for long rides, it's much more comfortable. If the OP is not interested in epic speeds, I'd even suggest a tadpole-configuration recumbent trike, because they can pack a lot and are massively comfortable. –  arne Feb 26 at 13:14

Before you decide on a custom frame or coupled bike you should have a very good of idea of what type of touring and how far from home you intend to go. I say this as someone who has made close to 100 multi-day tours since the mid 1980s, none over 14 days long with the average around 7 days. I started with a mid-80s Trek 520 (very different from the current bike of the same name and purpose) and now close to dozen touring/travel bikes later have a Salsa Vaya Travel. Different bikes are appropriate for different with fit and saddle the best measure of comfort. If you drive to your tour start/end point S+S coupling (or folding bike collectively 'suitcase bikes') are not priorities or money well spent. Start with event tours (the sponsor carries your gear from camp site to camp site) on a second hand touring or cycle cross frame that fits well and make decisions based upon your experience.

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Points to consider:

  1. A touring specific general bike is probably better, vs. the custom frame of a generalist shop. Geometry, strength, details (braze ons, eyelets, racks, etc.). If it is a not from a touring expert, your bike can be actually worse for touring vs. a touring expert's general bike.
  2. Is it a custom sized frame of an otherwise stock bike, or is it built from ground up? The latter is a good way to go, for the latter, you need a couple of tours behind you to tell what you need.
  3. The comfort on your bike is primarily determined by the contact points (unless the bike is way too small or way too big): handlebar, saddle, pedals. For example, my experience shows that gel tape improves more hand comfort (30 USD) on touring vs. suspension forks (300 USD).

My advice:

If you have the budget, make a custom built frame. It's expensive, and the price/performance ratio is low (the benefit you get is probably marginal vs. the investment), but why not. It will be your bike, made for you, it's a great feeling, and people easily spend more money to upgrade the stereo in their car.

However, the custom frame has to come from a touring expert workshop, who also manufacture several different stock touring bikes. So the basics about geometry (chainstay, wheelbase, fork angle) are fit for touring. Koga, IDworx, Tout-terrain are good examples.

My own experience is that the more I tour, the less I care about the bike, and focus more on the journey. At the beginning, I worried a lot, now, I just use the bike I have. It has 8 hub gears, but it doesn't stop me to go for several days of touring, even with hills.

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