Apr 26, 2019
Buying a whole bike is a much more common practice, but some touring cyclists choose to build out a bike. Specifically, that means buying all the parts individually and putting the bike together yourself. This is already uncommon, and perhaps becoming even less so, as more bike manufacturers continue to offer more options suitable for touring. An entire article could be written on the differences between touring, gravel, adventure, and cyclocross bikes. For now, we’ll examine the pros and cons of building a bike, and if you choose to do so, how to go about it.
The most notable benefit of building a bike is customizability. If you want a high-end carbon road frame, a mountain bike drivetrain, and V-brakes, you can make that happen. Such a bike, off-the-shelf, probably doesn’t exist. Touring cyclists often have specific wants and needs, particularly a versatile setup that can handle almost anything, and few bikes, even touring models, will come with exactly what a touring cyclist would choose.
Even if your tastes are more typical, you can make sure the bike comes with the saddle, tires, bar tape (and so on) you have in mind, rather that taking whatever the bike comes with and buying replacements. This can save you a little money, but probably not enough (more on that later).
Building a bike can allow you to make use of old parts you already have laying around. If you already have a perfectly good drivetrain, set of wheels, set of brakes, frame, etc, you can build a bike around what you have. I’ve been known to cannibalize an old bike when building a new one. This practice can allow you to stick with what you already like, save you some money, and re-using stuff is less wasteful in general.
Even if there’s a stock bike you like, your local shop may not sell it. Or you may not live near a bike shop at all. Ordering a complete bike in the mail can be a hassle, if not impossible. You may be forced to travel to the nearest dealer, which could be an hour or more away. Most parts, however, can be easily ordered online and shipped to your door.
The biggest drawback to building a bike is expense. A complete bike’s cost is much less than the sum of the costs of its parts. As one example, let’s look at the cost of a Surly Long Haul Trucker, a popular touring bike:
Complete Bike: $1,350
Frame + Fork: $515
Front Derailleur: $30
Rear Derailleur: $50
Brake Levers: $30
Cables and Housing: $40
Bottom Bracket: $26
Handlebar Tape: $10
Seatpost Clamp: $20
Parts Total: $1,578
And after all this, you’d still have to either go to the trouble of putting it together or add the cost of having someone build it for you. Granted, these are all retail prices, and you might be able to find a good deal on some of them and bring the total price down. But the same can be said for buying a bike.
Buying a whole bike, if your local shop has one you like, is convenient. Buying all the parts individually isn’t. Not every shop will stock every individual part of a bike, much less the specific brand and model you’re looking for. Whether through a shop or online, you’ll need to order a lot of them. Making all these purchases individually is time-consuming, it can take a while before they all come in, and after that, you’ll still have to build it. It can take over a month to go from “I want one” to “I have one” if you’re building your bike, whereas simply buying a bike can take less than an hour.
Obviously, if you buy all the parts separately, they’re going to have to be put together somehow. You can either pay a bike shop to do it, which is going to cost at least $150, or you can do it yourself. The cost of the tools necessary might exceed $150, so that might not even be the cheaper option, and you’d still have to put in the work to do it. A reasonable compromise would be to assemble most of the bike yourself (70-80% of the work can be done with allen wrenches), then have a bike shop handle the rest.
There’s a lot of other hidden work that goes into building a bike. Compared to buying a bike, you’ll have to make more decisions, which means time researching each and every part, more time bargain hunting, more time considering the pros and cons of every component or combination thereof. You might come up with a particular solution that works for your needs, only to find some of the components aren’t compatible with one another (hopefully, this occurs before you buy them). Building a bike often involves dozens, if not hundreds, of hours spent online obsessing over every detail. This is fine if you’re detail-oriented, but others might prefer simplicity.
And finally, it’s impossible to test ride a custom-built bike before purchasing it. By the time you have a bike to test ride, you’ve already bought all the parts and done all the work. Because of this, it’s not uncommon to wind up purchasing some parts twice after finding out you need a longer stem, wider handlebars, etc.
If you decide building a bike is a good idea, here’s how to go about doing it.
The most important component of any bike is the frame. There, you’ll need to decide between different materials, geometry, and a host of other options. Most touring cyclists prefer a relaxed road geometry with plenty of mounts and braze-ons, which allow lots of options for carrying gear. It’s also possible to use a sleeker, sportier frame if you know you’ll be carrying a lighter load. If you’re planning to stay on dirt more frequently than not, you might consider going with a mountain bike frame.
For a drivetrain, it’s usually a good idea to stick to middle-quality components with a wide range of gears. High-end components are often more delicate, tailored towards a specific use, and less commonly on hand in any given shop (in case of repair/replacement). Their benefits, especially a few ounces less in weight, are hardly noticeable on a touring bike.
Many touring cyclists prefer using a mountain bike drivetrain, even if they’re sticking to roads, for the broader range of gears. A Rohloff hub is another option. If you plan to put a non-road drivetrain on a road frame, particularly with drop handlebars and road shift/brake levers, you’ll want to double-check for compatibility.
Wheels are one of the components where you’ll least want to cut corners. A quality wheelset makes your bike stronger, lighter, smoother, and faster, and more reliable. A cheap stem probably won’t ruin your tour. A cheap wheelset easily can.
Once you’ve selected all your parts, you’ll need to find a way to put them together. Exactly how much work you do yourself and how much is done in a shop is up to you. Having a shop do all the work will cost at least $150 (and possibly much more), and doing all the work yourself will require lots of knowledge, specialty tools, and time.
Some bike shops will guide you through the entire process of having a custom bike built, including recommending parts, ordering them for you, and putting the bike together when it comes in. This option usually costs more, because you’ll likely pay full retail price for everything, and you’ll also have to pay for the build. In some cases, that may be worth it for the convenience and assurance that the bike will be top quality when finished. In other cases, it may end in disaster.
Allen wrenches, patience, and a small amount of know-how will get 70-80% of the job done. A few components, like bottom brackets, headsets, and hydraulic disc brakes, may take specialty tools to install. For those, it’s usually best to have a bike shop install them, but if you have the tools and the knowledge (or willingness to learn), go for it!
Unless you have plenty of bike mechanic experience, it might be a good idea to have a shop do a tune-up before you hit the road on tour, usually after you’ve ridden the bike for at least a few weeks. Even if you’re quite skilled, an extra pair of eyes can find small problems you missed before they become big problems in the middle of a tour.