In the gian–trek–alized world of performance bicycles, it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. Cookie-cutter framesets are produced overseas en masse, and it can be difficult to find something unique that fits your personality. A handful of independent bike makers are setting out to break that mold. In virtually every corner of the country, bike-smiths are crafting custom frames by hand from steel. From color to size to parts spec, you can design and tweak from stem to tires to create the bike of your dreams. In many cases, you can even have the geometry custom tailored to your body to fit your size and riding style like a slipper.
While the custom-tailored aspect is important to each of these manufacturers, these bikes also feel significantly different from others on the market. Some would even say that they have soul. The feeling that you get when riding these bikes is a far cry from the Strava slaves, constantly trying to one-up the best time (though they can do that, too). These bikes are more about enjoying the time spent on the bike, outside in the open air — sucking wind on your favorite climb and feeling the breeze in your face on the way down. Some of the frames may carry a premium, but rest assured knowing that they are durable, custom fit and built by hand.
Thomas Callahan’s Horse Cycles is the perfect blend of artisanship and technical bike-building knowhow. Each bike is hand assembled by Callahan in his small Williamsburg shop. Whether you want a stately commuter or a racy all-road slayer, Callahan can build one custom-fit to your body type and riding style. He uses tubes from a variety of suppliers, including Columbus.
Marin County, California
Fat Chance started out life as Fat City Cycles in 1982, founded by Chris Chance. The brand closed in 1999, but is now being brought back with frames like the Yo Eddy and the Slim Chance. The brand has a cult following all around the world, with original frames bringing high price tags on the secondhand market. If you need proof of the bikes’ quality, dig into the forums.
North Shore VIC, Australia
Though Baum is known mostly for its titanium bikes, its steel bikes are also worth seeking out. The brand’s website reads, “We present the answer to a unique prayer: a perfect 21st-century race bike, in steel.” Baum makes two steel bikes, the Ristretto and the Cortado; the former has more race bike geometry, the latter more fondo genetics.
Dario Pegoretti is one of the most revered steel frame builders in the world. According to Above Category, Pegoretti has built more Grand Tour–winning bikes than anyone else. Pegoretti works exclusively in Columbus steel; if the frames themselves weren’t beautiful enough already, the paint jobs easily put them over the top.
Santa Monica, CA
While Ritte also makes alloy and carbon frames, its handmade stainless steel frames are top-notch. As a smaller bike manufacturer, it ignores marketing trends, resulting in bikes that look and ride great. The Snob is Ritte’s flagship stainless steel model and comes in both a cantilever brake version as well as a disc. While the fit, finish and design of the brand’s bikes are of the highest quality (all of the welds are superb), the brand also has a great sense of humor and enjoys poking fun at the UCI and professional cycling (see this UCI press conference parody).
Speedvagen is the Skunk Works–esque project of the Vanilla Bicycle Workshop. Each frame is a limited-production run that is unlike anything else on the market. Recently, the brand built a 650b urban track bike with swept-back handlebars designed to put you in an aggressive riding position to attack the streets. The brand also collaborated with our friends over at Manual For Speed on a custom bike that captures the unique MFS spirit.
Black Cat Bicycles
The current waiting time for a bike from Todd Ingermanson’s Black Cat Bicycles is over a year. That waiting list is a testament to the quality of the bikes that Ingermanson is building. Any frame your heart desires, from road to mountain to cyclocross, is available. If you’re a mountain biker, Black Cat has started producing 27.5+ hardtail frames that look absolutely next-level.
Wraith Fabrication started building steel frames in Columbus, Ohio, in 2009. Its frames are well built from full Columbus Life tubing, some of the best steel available. The Hustle is its understated road bike that’s performance oriented but still comfortable.
Cinelli has a long cycling history in Italy dating all the way back to 1947. Since 1978, it has been producing quality handmade steel frames for cycling enthusiasts and racers alike. It sponsors a professional cycling team with Chrome that has a history of success, including wins at the Red Hook Crit. It produces a number of steel-framed bikes including its urban racer called the “Mystic Rats.”