A (potential) customer came by the shop to see what happens and get some questions answered yesterday, and after asking lots of detailed questions about S&S couplers, sliding dropouts, Rohloff hubs, and all manner of other esoterica, he asked why he should buy one of my bikes, rather than a (insert name of well-known mass-produced bike here).
It's a fair question, and I think the answer I came up with is a pretty good one. Nobody *needs* a custom bike, with the exception of really big, small, or physiologically different (ie, long legs and short torso, missing an arm, fused vertebrae) folks. If all you want to do is ride, and you're Joe average, it's hard to make an argument that you'll get all that much from a custom bike - mass produced stuff is relatively cheap, available *right now* (no waiting), and fits and rides about right for easily 90% of the general public.
So why would you want to buy one?
-Knowledge. The info I gave the fellow I spoke with yesterday would have taken him hours and hours of research to come up with online - and it's solid info, not internet gibberish. I'm not some 14 year old BMX punk, or 300 pound dude in his parent's basement. I'm available on the phone or email or even in person almost anytime, and I've ridden and built about a zillion bikes in a wild variety of different configurations. Most other framebuilders have equivalent (or better) knowledge of the bike world, and I have no particular axe to grind regarding SRAM vs. Shimano, hydraulic vs. mechanical, etc. I'm not a shop rat working on commission, and I regularly give advice which costs me profits to make sure folks get the most for their money.
-Fit. I've fit a lot of people over the years. Most of them don't need a custom fit - but I can still tweak things to make sure that the way they fit over the wheels is optimized for the riding they want to do. You can "fit" on a 23" toptube with a 130mm stem - but if you're riding around Boulder, you're not going to be too happy. A 24" setup with a 110 or 105 stem is going to work *way* better. And of course, there are situations (Vermont?) that are the opposite. In other words, all fits aren't created equal.
-Handling. Once again, I've ridden and raced all over, and I know quite well exactly how to make a bike handle any way the customer wants. Yes, a Stumpjumper, or a Karate Monkey will ride ok everywhere - but if you're in BC, we can tweak things one way, and if you're in Tucson, we can do something else - bottom line, I can optimize *everything* about the bike to make it work the way the customer wants.
-Cost. It might amaze you to realize that for $3k, you can get a custom frame, full XT and bits of XTR thrown in, and custom built DT/Stan's wheels (that's just an example). Production bikes don't really end up being much cheaper, honestly. In fact, they're often *more* expensive, because to get them spec'd the way you want, you've gotta buy a lot of the parts for retail. Better yet, I can tell you where it makes sense to spend your money (hint, LX cranks are the same as XT - with steel chainring bolts).
-Intangibles. I love bikes, and I love to talk about them, and if you call me for new decals 5 years down the road, or to find out what will happen to the handling if you swap to a 46mm rake fork, or whatever, I'm around to answer the question, and I have all your original fit info in front of me (it's all on the computer) to pull up anytime I need it. I go riding with customers when they're in town, I take people on "tours" of the 600 sq. foot shop (these usually end up at the brewery down the road) and if you ride a lot in CO, chances are you'll see me on the trail someday. In other words, I like to think that buying a bike from me is like buying a bike from a friend - that's how I started this business (building a zillion bikes for my friends) and that's how I'd like to keep it.
Long story short, it's easy to plunk down a few hundred bucks for a frame made overseas. And for most people, that works out just fine. I'm pro-bicycle no matter what, and as long as people are riding, I'm happy. But it's worth considering where you want your money to go - and what you're getting for it, before you make any purchase.