[This article was last updated on March 20, 2018]
Off the peg bikes have never been better, but for some riders there’s no substitute for choosing every last detail of your bike yourself, and even doing your own assembly.
There are a number of reasons why you’d want to spec or even build a bike from scratch. Maybe you’re starting with a custom-made frame, maybe you’ve acquired a cherished classic, or maybe the frame you love is just not available as a complete bike. Whatever the reason, it’s a chance to pick every part for yourself, right down to the colour of the cable end caps.
There’s a vast choice of frames out there, from inexpensive open-mould Chinese carbon badged under various UK marques, through meticulously-crafted modern aluminium and titanium to hand-laid Italian carbon.
The most romantic option is to have a long chat with a custom framebuilder, work out exactly what you need and then wait a few months while he or she builds it for you. There was a time when that meant you were getting a steel frame, but there are now custom builders working in nonferrous materials too.
Most people don’t need a custom frame. Unless you’re physiologically unusual, a bike built round an off-the-peg frame will fit you just fine. But it’s still appealing to have a frame made to your specific requirements.
The more common option is to start your dream bike from an off-the-peg frame, like one of those in the list below. These frames typically exist because a single visionary obsessive has decided the frames offered by the rest of the bike industry don’t quite match their definition of ‘perfect’ and has either begun making them or found a manufacturer who’ll do the spadework to their exact specs.
In some cases those obsessives went on to found their own bike companies and still offer frames that embody their single-mindedness. Look to the Colnago C60 or Sarto Asola for examples.
Closer to home, the UK has a long history of framebuilders who make both off-the-peg and custom frames. The scene went quiet for a while, but in the last few years new frame companies have sprung up like mushrooms. In some cases there’s a craftsman or -woman wielding a torch to join tubes; in others a designer with years of industry experience has commissioned a manufacturer.
Naming of parts
Once you’ve chosen a frame then you need parts to hang on it. Most marques offer a range of options, allowing you to choose a groupset, wheels, tyres, saddle, handlebars and so on, which they’ll then build up for you.
For some bike brands speccing up your own bike is a major part of their offering. Rose Bikes’ Configurator and Ribble Cycles’ Bikebuilder are two examples of systems that let you choose the spec of your bike. They’ll then do the spadework for you and you’ll get a shiny bike in the post.
The alternative is to hit the Internet, shop up a storm, then build the bike yourself. You can pick up a mechanical Shimano Ultegra group for under £500, and there are plenty of bargains to be had on the bike’s other parts too. That means you may be able to build a bike for about the same as it would cost to buy one off the peg.
Of course, you’ll need to know what you’re doing, and have the right tools. The toolkit you need to to build a bike is surprisingly small, though; most of that vast range of tools in your local shop are for unusual circumstances.
Nevertheless, you can wreak havoc if you don’t know what you’re doing. Back in my bike shop days we sold a set of cranks and pedals to a customer. A few days later he brought the bike in complaining that it wasn’t working right. He’d managed to force the bearing cups into the wrong sides of the frame, and the pedals into the wrong cranks, trashing the frame and cranks in the process. Caveat mechanicus.
Let's take a look at 17 of our favourite frames; any of these would make a great basis for a dream bike.
Kinesis is mostly known for making aluminium bikes and the 4S Disc is crafted from the company's proprietary Kinesium aluminium tubes. The massive downtube is as big as it can be while still allowing a 68mm threaded bottom bracket, which is a much more easily serviceable option for a bike that's going to see some foul conditions. The rest of the tubing is equally chunky, although the 4S Disc uses a 27.2mm seat tube to add a bit of comfort from seatpost flex.
It's a fun bike to throw around, and although the 1025mm wheelbase and 606mm stack height of the 60cm frameset suggest a more stable and leisurely ride that's not the nature of this bike at all. There's nothing it likes better than kicking off in response to a big jump on the pedals, and the big downtube and beefy stays make for excellent power transfer with no hint of flex.
At the front the well-built fork is precise and stable at speed. Our tester could eke some rotor rub out of the front disc when sprinting, suggesting there's a bit of flex in the system, but it never felt like an issue and it's a bike that's happy to pin it round the corners without ever feeling vague.
Although it's called the 4S Disc you don't have to fit discs to it. This Kinesis is one of only a handful of bikes that can be built up either with rim or disc brakes.
If you want something more versatile, then take look at the latest version of the Kinesis Tripster AT (above), which we reviewed in July 2017.
AT stands for All Terrain and that sums up the ambition and capability of the Tripster AT perfectly. I've ridden it everywhere and over everything in the few months I've had it, and apart from very rough mountain bike trails where any adventure bike would be out of its depth, there's really not much that fazes it. You can bimble along the road quite happily and keep up with road riding friends at sociable speeds, yet turn off the road and explore trails and paths to your heart's content.
Delivering astounding levels of performance and excellent handling, the Bowman Palace:R is an exceptional race machine just perfect for pushing you up the points table in your local race league or smashing that personal best on your favourite loop.
Bowman describes the Palace:R as "Refined, Revised, Reborn", having made small tweaks throughout the frame and fork to make the whole setup a little more refined, chucking another 'r' word in there.
Thankfully one thing that hasn't been touched is the geometry. "Handling is the start point of every frame we design," said Neil Webb, Bowman's head honcho and the man behind the design, when we discussed the original Palace with him.
Mason Cycles' Definition is a four season long distance machine with the manners of a tourer and the temperament of race bike.
It's good. So bloody good our tester found it hard to get into words just how a handful of alloy sticks welded together can leave you feeling so excited. You don't get a ride governed by angles and dimensions here; the Definition seems to mutate as the speed/gradient/direction changes leaving you wondering if you are still riding the same bike you were five minutes ago.
With a wheelbase of 1010mm, room for full mudguards with 28mm tyres and a relaxed looking front end you'd be excused for thinking the Definition is some sort of audax-style winter trainer. What you get though is a frame that's mild mannered and easy to ride whether it's doing 16 or 60mph (okay 56.9mph, bloody HGV limiters) in the wet or dry.
The key to a good mile muncher is that you don't notice it. If you've tapped out a steady hundred miles and not once thought about the bike it's doing its job. The Definition can do this, miles and miles can go by and the bike will just roll on with little input through the steering.
In a sea of lookalike carbon sportive bikes, the Alpine stands out a mile.
Ok, so it's technically an audax bike, but what is a sportive but an audax without the cake? If you want a distinctive bike that will be fast and comfortable over long distances then the Alpine is well worth checking out.
If you just want to splat down a wedge of cash and walk away with a flash bike to impress your mates, the Alpine isn't for you.
Rather, the Alpine is a classic example of what's available from a custom builder if you take the time to specify what you want. You end up with your own choice of details in a frameset that has the stiffness to climb well and go fast, but which doesn't beat you up. In fact the defining quality of the bike is the smoothness of the ride, it glides where other bikes would bounce and judder.
Selecting each individual tube rather than an 'off the shelf' tubeset is what gives the Resolution, Mason Cycles steel framed four season speed machine, its identity. Each tube has a specific role and delivers on that with complete precision, the real trick though is how they all unite to deliver what can only be described as a phenomenal ride.
Dom Mason went to Columbus in Italy to handpick each tube individually which has allowed him to fine tune the feel and response of the frame. It's a blend of stiffness and comfort that is so subtle it's barely noticeable until you really require one or the other, a sort of 'Wow, where did that come from?' kind of thing.
Although steel has evolved, many builders have gone with it in the way they use steel tubing, holding on to that traditional skinny tubed look and external cable bosses. Mason has shunned that and brought the steel frame bang up to date with the likes of a tapered head tube and his MultiPort system.
Enigma is best known for titanium frames, but also makes a couple of lovely steel frames. This top model, the Elite HSS, uses the latest Columbus Spirit HSS tubeset and is all the better for it, displaying the sort of ride that would make you question all other frame materials.
It doesn't take many rides to be won over by the Elite's charm. That's not a word we often use to describe a bicycle, a collection of steel tubes and mechanical parts, but the Elite has charm in spades. If you ever questioned why people are still building frames out of steel when there are arguably better materials available, a few miles on the Elite will have you changing your mind.
Steel is well known for its smoothness and in this regard the Elite impresses. It has that quietness that only good steel frames really posses. It floats across rough road surfaces and tracks brilliantly when hitting such roads at high speeds, it isn't bounced around like some frames. It's one of the smoothest steel frames we've ridden.
Yet it has ample stiffness to indulge your appetite for riding fast. We took it along to our local evening chaingang, where as it was surrounded by the latest crop of top-level carbon fibre race bikes and deep-section carbon wheels. In such company you'd think the Elite might struggle. It didn't.
The Kinesis GF_Ti Disc is a jack of all trades – and a master of most. This frame could build into the last bike you'll ever need to buy. For club runs, sportives, audaxing, commuting, Alpine breaks, touring, all-roading it really could be the definitive 'N+1' killer: fast, comfortable, light, tough, good looking. Pick five.
Our tester was impressed from the first ride. He'd planned an hour's shakedown loop at an average pace, but that ride turned into a two-and-a-half hour adrenaline rush, pushing deep into the North Hampshire Downs, seeking ever-steeper hills to ride up – and down again.
The stability and stiffness of the frame and fork rewards every turn of the cranks, with not a hint of flex when out of the saddle from either the front or the bottom bracket.
Not everyone wants or needs drop bars. For some it's health reasons – maybe arm, shoulder or back issues prevent placing a lot of weight forward. Perhaps they want a more upright stance for dealing with traffic, or neck issues come to the fore with more bent-over positions. Maybe they just want to enjoy the view, or prefer thumb/grip shifters.
The Snowdon Paradox is a titanium frame that's specifically-designed to work best with a flat bar. But you can't just bung a flat bar on a bike designed for drops and vice versa, and expect sensible results. You need something fit for purpose.
The Paradox answers all these needs, but with absolutely no compromise to the rarified air of the high-end titanium custom road bike build. Sublime weld quality aside, the smaller triangles and use of a large and subtly-bi-ovalised down tube and hourglass chainstays mean this is a bloody fast bike, period.
Stoemper specialise in handmade steel and aluminium road and cyclo-cross bikes, and they're all handbuilt by Todd Gardner in Portland, Oregon. The bikes have a very clear mission statement, and it's set out in bold on the website: "Designed to be raced the shit out of."
The Darrell Disc is unusual in being an aluminium frame from a small framebuilder, but Gardner has created a very sorted chassis here. It offers a lively ride feel, with a performance that is undoubtedly fast, but beautifully crisp and alert. The short wheelbase produces a very responsive ride and it's easy to move around the road and negotiate corners.
In short it's a lot of fun to ride. Other bikes might be faster, or smoother, or quicker up hills, but the Darrell is simply a hoot.
If your dream is of travelling to faraway places to ride deserted roads in sun-drenched mountains, then the Ritchey Break-Away Carbon can help make your dream come true. This is a lightweight, performance-focused frameset that splits in two and packs down small enough to take as standard luggage when you fly. It really is a clever design.
The Break-Away splits at the top of the seat tube and at the bottom of the down tube, just in front of the bottom bracket, doing a similar job to S&S couplings but at a lighter weight. The top of the seat tube slots inside the end of the top tube, and the junction, which doubles as the seatpost clamp, is secured by two bolts.
I printed off the instruction sheet, got a cup of tea, and set to work. I had the Break-Away packed up in 20 minutes – before I'd even finished my cuppa – and that included stopping to take a few photos along the way. That was without rushing and without stress. Honesty, it's really simple.
On the road, if you didn't already know, you wouldn't be able to detect that it splits in the middle purely from the way that it rides. The Break-Away feels like a bona fide, card carrying road bike that just happens to be able to split in two.
The latest evolution of Colnago's lugged carbon fibre frames, the C60 is in a class of its own. Its handling is sublime.
It tracks smoothly over lumps that see many bikes struggle. In fact it provides so much confidence so it can reach and sustain extreme lean angles. It tracks sharply and cleanly through the bends, and feels safe at the high speeds it makes easy to achieve.
Unlike many bikes in this situation, it lacks the drama, the frisson of fear that can envelop your senses as you near the limits. It's simply calm and reassuring, and that makes it an utter joy to sling down descents.
The C60 doesn't just shine on the descents, but in every situation. It devours big rides in buttery smooth comfort. If you're going to do a 100 mile ride the C60 is a fine choice; you'll feel as fresh as a daisy at the end of it. Equally it's right at home in the frantic high speed peloton of a road race. On every ride the C60 did nothing but leave a huge smile on my face. It's simply an outrageously good bike.
3T boasts that the Exploro is the world's first aero gravel bike. You can file that under 'groundbreaking' or 'madness', depending on your point of view.
The Exploro is an absolute blast on gravel. If you have fairly well surfaced, fairly well drained tracks around your way, you're in for a treat. This is a bike that allows you to get your head down and crank the speed up high. That's when the Exploro is at its best – when you're pinning it across rough but firm roads. It flies across that stuff faster than any other gravel bike I've ridden.
Head onto muddy bridleways and it's still a very capable performer, the proviso being, as it is with any other bike, that you fit the right tyres. The Exploro has plenty of clearance – masses of it, in fact. Our review frameset came fitted with 650B wheels and 47mm tyres although you could go up to 54mm (2.1in) with these wheels or 40mm with 700C wheels.
And it's a blast on well-surfaced tracks and open bridleways it'll leave a mountain bike in the dust, but we were stunned to find it gives almost nothing away on the Tarmac, being perhaps a fraction of a mile per hour slower. We didn't find it to be as quick as the quickest road bikes, but it certainly doesn't hang around or feel unsuitable when you hit the asphalt, so for multi-surface adventures it's a very willing and able companion.
Colnago has wheeled out the big guns in the aerodynamic arms race with the Concept, a full blooded aero race bike that is a serious step forward from the Italian company's first aero road bike, the V1-r, from a couple of years ago.
People sometims accuse Colnago of being a traditional company, and when you look at the C60, the company's current flagship road bike, it's easy to see why. Lugged carbon frames look dated compared to the smooth and swoopy moulded carbon frames that populate the road bike market.
But Colnago has a pioneering drive. Way back in 1986 Colnago developed one of the earliest carbon fibre road bikes in collaboration with Ferrari. Called the Concept, it never actually went into production, but the lessons learned eventually made their way into Colnago’s first production carbon road bike, the legendary C40.
Fast forward 30 years and the new Concept takes the name of that early design, and is as state-of-the-art as it gets from the company. It has been extensively tested in the wind tunnel and proven to be faster than both the current C60 and V1-r
The Sarto Asola is a lightweight, smooth-riding frameset that handles beautifully. It's certainly not cheap, but you can have this Italian beauty made to measure and built with the features you want.
Sarto is what you could class as a boutique brand. You won't have seen many, if any, of its frames around. All Sarto frames are handmade in Italy, only about 2,500 per year.
Most Sarto frames are made to measure, although the one we tested was a standard model. The Asola is built from M55J and M46J carbon-fibre tubes that are assembled into a frame using a tube-to-tube technique.
This is a rare thing then: a custom-built carbon fibre frame. Compared with using a mould, tube-to-tube is a labour-intensive process, but it allows you to choose your own geometry and the bottom bracket standard you want. You can also opt for either a standard or an integrated seatpost, and have the frame built for electronic or mechanical shifting, or have it compatible with both. Additionally, the frame can be finished in whatever colour you like.
It seems like 3T are determined to turn the world of high-end bikes on its head. First there was the dramatic Exploro, and then the radical Strada with its swoopy aero seat tube and mandatory 1 x 11 single-chainring drivetrain. On the face of it, it's a bonkers set-up for a road bike — and then you take it down the road and it all falls into place.
When he reviewed it, Dave Arthur was very, very impressed. "The new 3T Strada has blown me away," he wrote. "It's a truly stunning bike with breathtaking speed, impressive smoothness and fine handling balance. If this is the future, as some people have speculated, I'm sold. Take my money 3T.
"As for the issues about clearance and gearing – the two key talking points since the bike launched – well, they simply fade away once you ride the bike. I was left with the overwhelming impression that this is one of the most exciting road bikes available right now."
Parlee makes some stunning carbon fibre frames and its gravel/adventure model, the Chebacco, is no exception. With its stiff and light carbon fibre construction, space for up to 45mm tyres and dialled geometry, the Chebacco is right at home on the road with slick tyres or churning through the rough with knobblies; regardless of the terrain, the performance and handling really shine through. This is a thoroughly well designed and highly capable bike limited only by your imagination and lust for adventure.
It set out to create a bike that was at home on the road and the rough, a bike that can cover everything from fast endurance riding to commuting, cyclo-cross sportives, gravel riding and any sort of long-distance adventure you might be tempted to tackle. Versatile and do-everything are words and phrases that get bandied around a lot at the moment, but here they seem apt.
What really shines through from riding the Chebacco is the performance, and that's regardless of the tyre choice. It doesn't matter whether it has skinny or fat tyres, the handling is the highlight. The frame is exceptionally stiff in the right places and its transfers power very effectively. Steering is direct with a light action and it's predictable at a range of speeds, with the thru-axle fork giving the front end a very solid feel in its feedback through the handlebar.
Concentrating on aerodynamics and power transfer, the NK1K is a high performance machine that embraces the latest trends in the road cycling world such as room for wider tyres; you can even get a disc brake version.
When you finish a 70-mile ride with an average speed 3mph quicker than normal, you know the NK1K is a fast bike. Well, in fact you know before then – you realise the second you start pushing the pedals.
The thing is, unlike other aero road bikes we've tested such as the Storck Aerfast, the Cipollini doesn't just seem to show its wind-cheating benefits once the speed gets higher, above 23mph or so. The NK1K feels quick throughout the range.
The NK1K is a lot of money, even against other Cipollinis in the line-up, and you can get a lot of other professional-level framesets for a lot less money. You can probably get the Canyon Ultimate CF SLX – a very good bike in its own right – as a complete package for the same money as the NK1K's frameset.
But the Cipollini is a different product, and it's the engineering, the design and the exclusivity that you are paying for here. It's a tough shout, but if you have the money then you won't be disappointed. The NK1K as a whole package is pretty awesome, and you'll never get bored of fellow riders stopping to take a look at it.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.