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.
Independent Fabrication is one of the most respected steel bike makers in the industry. It was born out of the shuttering of Fat City Cycles in 1994. When Fat City closed, a handful of former employees bought the building and founded Independent Fabrication in 1995. Since then, the brand has created bikes respected for their ride quality like the Deluxe and Crown Jewel. While Indy Fab offers some stock sizing options, its custom-made frames are still the way to go.
Adam Sklar first crossed our radar at the North American Handmade Bike Show, where his split-pea green rigid mountain bike took home a best in show award. Sklar, 25, is based in Bozeman, Montana, where he has quite the following. But even outside Bozeman, Sklar is making a name for himself in the custom bike industry. His bikes have a distinct silhouette and aesthetic that is instantly recognizable. He specializes in steel hardtail mountain bikes, but has recently been making a lot of “monstercross” bikes — a hybrid between a cross bike and a hardtail mountain bike.
Santa Cruz, CA
Hunter is based just outside of Santa Cruz, CA, where Rick Hunter crafts each customers’ frame by hand. Most of Hunter’s bikes feature TIG welded construction and chromoly steel tubes. In addition to making gorgeous steel bicycles, Rick Hunter also makes custom forks, racks and stems (his hip packs are well-known in cult cycling circles as well).
Queens, New York
Breismeister Bicycles are immediately recognizable. They are often characterized by bright and vibrant colors as well as a contrasting logo on the downtube. They also share a similar seatstay wishbone design with many Hunter Cycles road and cyclocross bikes. Bresimeister is one of the few frame builders based in New York City and specializes in cyclocross and road bikes, but also builds mountain and touring bikes.
Chances are, you have not heard of Koichi Yamaguchi. Which is too bad, because he is, unquestionably, one of the best frame builders in the US. Based in Rifle, CO, Yamaguchi has been building steel bicycle frames for the better part of the past 40 years. He spent time as a master frame builder in Japan and has built bikes for a number of professional cyclists — including a time trial bike built for Lance Armstrong that features a unique bottom bracket foil banned by the UCI, a feature that you can have on your custom Yamaguchi if you desire.
If nothing else, Breadwinner’s aesthetic when it comes to road bike design is second to none. Thankfully, there’s a lot more to Breadwinner’s bikes than just good looks. Back in 2017 when we first rode the Lolo, Breadwinner’s performance road bike, our tester had this to say: “I’m not one to care a great deal about how aero my bike is or how fast I can sprint off the line. The thing that matters most to me is comfort sprinkled with a bit of performance, and the Lolo delivers. The workmanship on the frame is incredible — the weld seams on the Columbus Life tubing are nearly invisible.” Those comments still ring true over a year later.
If you’re in the market for a classic touring bike with ornate lugs and timeless design, Rex Cycles should be your first stop. Steve Rex has been building gorgeous steel road bikes in the same Sacramento, CA shop for over 28 years. Rex has the skills and knowledge to build you pretty much any bike you want — even a fillet brazed tandem bike if that’s your speed.
Santa Cruz, CA
Paul Sadoff, the frame builder behind Rock Lobster, started building steel bicycle frames professionally in 1988. Since then, his frames have been ridden in both the Olympics and World Championships. As for his philosophy on building bike frames, Sadoff has this to say, “My aim is to build frames that do not hold the rider back from the highest level of performance and enjoyment.” It’s a fairly straightforward ethos, and one that has yielded some of the finest steel road bikes in the US.
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.
Editor’s Note: Dario Pegoretti passed away in August of 2018. He was 62.
Dario Pegoretti was (and still 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 worked 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.”
Santa Barbara, California
Stinner frameworks consists of five people lead by Aaron Stinner. Everything is done in-house, from the frame to the paint: ground-up custom steel frames tailored to your riding specifications. Stinner builds everything from high-performance road racers to mud-crushing mountain bikes.
Kelson Custom Cycles
Brian Williams has crafted Kelson frames for a number of notable cyclists, including Clinton Mortley, who won the 2013 LoToJa Classic — a challenging race over 200 miles long from Logan City, Utah to Teton Village, Wyoming. His frames are durable and comfortable, yet it performs at a high enough level to take on any of the big names. Each frame is hand built and has impeccable attention to detail.
In 1985, Andy Hampsten placed second to none other than Greg Lemond at the Coors Classic Tahoe-Reno Road Race. In 1988, Hapmsten won the Giro d’Italia. He is the only American to ever win the race and is also the mind behind Hampsten Cycles. One of Hampsten’s most popular frames, the Maglia Rossa, is an ode to the win; it translates to “pink jersey,” which is historically worn by the leader of the Giro.
From 1978 to 1982 Chris King operated a custom frame company called Cielo Cycles. However, he realized that there wasn’t any money in the project, and instead focused on his machined headsets. (Good thing he did.) In 2008, King picked up the project again and the business immediately took off. King builds custom steel frames for everything from road riding to mountain biking — all by hand.
Mosaic Bespoke Bicycles
Mosaic Bespoke Bicycles was founded in 2009 by Aaron Barcheck. After working at Dean Bicycles, a titanium bicycle specialist, for about six or seven years, he set out to start his own brand. Barcheck created Mosaic to be competitive with larger companies and bring handmade bikes to the masses. Its bikes cover everything from gravel grinders to thoroughbred race bikes, and each of them has a performance lean to it.