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The case for a custom kit - for the un-average rider

My take on the bike building dilemma is that it’s worth the expense to build up a bike with your custom parts kit.

If I asked you to picture a mountain biker who rides a bike with a custom, aftermarket tuned suspension, carbon wheels, and aftermarket everything, you're probably envisioning a pro rider schralping a berm at 3x the sane speed... right? Otherwise, they must just be a poser...?  I can't fully rule out the latter but hear me out here on why and your DadBod needs a custom spec'd and tuned whip, and if we're playing the long game, it'll end up saving you money. And it works just as well for the riders on the other, small end of the spectrum: your kid.

Let's just get this out of the way: building a bike from the frame up costs way more than buying a complete bike. Michael does a great job of breaking down the economics for you here:

Buy or Build? - What is cheapest? - DadBodMTB

I'm not exactly trying to argue for doing a frame up build here either; instead, start with a complete bike and keep the components you love and replace what you don't - aka do the "frame swap" as Michal explains in his post. It's taken a couple years of bargain hunting, but now I've got my kit of parts that's dialed for me, and my son has his, so on "new bike day" we immediately pull off the new bike's wheelset, drivetrain, cranks, saddle and dropper post. Sometimes I sell these take-offs but usually I just put them in a box for safekeeping so when I go to sell the bike, I can put these brand-new components back on the bike and it becomes a really attractive deal for the next buyer, or just as often, I find that I need them for spares.

Do you really need a custom tune?

Yes, and here's why:

Generally speaking, modern mountain bikes are built around the average male rider (let’s call him AMR) that is around 160-180lbs and 5’-9 to 6’-0 tall; The rest of us oddballs are all riding AMR’s bike, it’s just been stretched or shrunk to create a complete product line.  And don’t get me wrong here - this scheme works pretty well as long as you’re within say, one standard deviation of ‘average.’  There’s a lot of adjustments to be made, from dropper posts of varying sizes and ‘shimmability’ to air suspension that can get finely tuned (within the range of normal), so these resized bikes tend to work great… to a point!

Recently brands have begun offering women’s specific bikes that are tuned to their smaller, lighter frames (hopefully they’re not just “pinked and shrinked” as pinkbike puts it).  And there are even a couple of manufacturers out there that are only building kid’s bikes - shout out to Spawn, Early Rider, TrailCraft cycles and our son's new favorite, Propain - and these outfits seem to get that it’s more complicated than just a shrink job, so kudos to them. 

But then there’s me, Mr. DadBod: 6’3 and 250lbs. And on the opposite end is my son, who rides the shit out of his adult XS bike but weighs in less than half of our AMR.  We went to set up my son’s last bike and found that we had to run his fork at the 50psi Manitou stated was the minimum, which was less than 15% sag.  And we were running his rear shock at 15% sag as well - that’s a far cry from the 28-33% range you typically shoot for in a rear shock, or the 18% sag you’re ideally running in your fork.  Also consider: his bikes are still typically running north of 33lbs, and he weighs only 85 lbs.!  Over a third of his weight!  The AMR’s bike probably weighs a pound or two more at most so that’s more like a fifth of his weight.  That’s a lot of heft for a kid to muscle down (or up) the trail.  We’ve gotten a couple (or a few) standard deviations outside of the norm.  Too far in other words.

After dealing with a pretty significant amount of arm pump / fatigue, I came to the realization that I just couldn’t dial my fork into my size; I’m too far away from the norm... my Fox 36’s Grip 2 damper just doesn’t have the range I need.   And my son is at the opposite end of this, we typically find that we need to increase the pressure in his fork to the manufacturer’s minimum recommended pressure even though it means he’s running less sag than is ideal.

So instead of buying off the shelf, we’re having to build our own kit of parts to deal with our unique bodies.

My son's custom kit:

-a fork with a damper tuned to his (light) weight.  And right off the bat, I’m swapping in SKF’s lower friction seals to help deal with that stiction.

-a rear coil shock - air shocks are great but the issue of stiction is amplified for a lightweight rider. Note that the lightest coil rate out there is 250lbs so that means your rider needs to be in the 80-90lb minimum for this mod.

-a saddle that fits his little butt.  The SDG Fly Jr. saddle works great on my son's bike, and it has a lot of color options so you can really customize your look.

-A PNW Loam Dropper that we can easily shim to the perfect length for him and continue to adjust as he grows.  One Up’s droppers are also easily shimmed, but I love the tool-less no fuss shim that PNW has now.

-Shorter cranks: I found a great deal on RaceFace 165mm cranks, so we immediately swap these onto his bike instead of the 170 or 175mm cranks that most new bikes are spec'd with. I'm pretty sure that 165mm is still way to long for him so I may be going with a 145mm set by Spawn's component line, Brood.

-Once he grows enough to ride a 29er, I’ll eventually buy a set of lightweight Santa Cruz Reserve Carbon wheels to really reduce that critical rotational mass on his bike.  They come with a lifetime warranty so for a 10-year-old, this investment will undoubtedly pay for itself over the years.  For now, we found him a great set of Eclypse Carbon wheels on the Pinkbike marketplace that we'll get years of use out of as they'll get handed down to his little sister.

For me, the DadBod, my custom list of parts includes:

-A Fox 36 fork with a custom tuned damper (shoutout to Diaz Suspension Design) and with their Runt air spring that better supports my weight. Look at it this way: either your suspension is doing the work for you or you're doing it yourself.

-PNW Loam Grips in the XL size fit my big hands better and help to reduce arm pump.

-a Box Prime 9 drivetrain: the 12 speed drivetrains are awesome, but the extra speeds mean a much skinnier and weaker chain. Box's Prime 9 gets you a similar range to the 12 speed drives but fewer steps with a burlier chain. I will say that I've taken a hit in shifting performance compared to the Shimano XT shifting I love, but I don't chew through cassettes and break chains like I used to - the peace of mind it brings me is worth it.

-Beefy Magura calipers with my beloved Shimano XT levers give me awesome brake feel and a class leading braking power. I'm running 203mm Magura rotors front and back as well.

-A Sprindex coil that I can dial into the conditions on my rear shock.  It's amazing to be able to increase my bike's 'pop' at our flowy local trail system and then back the spring rate off when we're riding rocky & rooty enduro trails.

-and finally, I just installed a 240mm One Up dropper post and I love it! Getting my saddle all the way down while riding really reduces the unwanted kick in the butt you saddle can give you if it's up too high!

-speaking of saddles: the WTB Volt saddle comes in a Wide size and is pretty dang cost effective.

-I also plan to acquire a set of carbon wheels for myself with a lifetime warranty as I’ve bent more than my fair share of alloy wheels and so the lifetime warranty means it’ll be cheaper for me in the long run. Reserve's new lifetime warrantied alloy wheelset is a no-brainer if you don't want to plunk down the money for a set of carbon wheels though.

I'll soon be adding the amazing OneUp carbon handlebars to both of our kits once I get around to figuring out the correct width, rise and sweep for our respective bodies.

And the economics of this?

Yes, there’s the issue of the initial expense of buying these parts, but think about the long run:

-If I keep the same fork then I can stock replacement fluids, tools and seals and then do my own maintenance - you just have to figure out how to care for that one fork. Bonus points if you can get your whole family running similar forks!

-Carbon wheels are eye-wateringly expensive to acquire but considering that I tend to destroy a wheel every year or two, that lifetime warranty that Reserve's and Crank Bro's, and even We Are One's wheels come with an amazing Lifetime Warranty, so after just a couple of years, it would pay off. And for your kids? The economics of a 10-year-old getting a lifetime warranty on their wheelset is looking really good. I'm just waiting for the next sale to grab a couple of sets!

-Cost of maintenance: in the long run I think I’ll spend less money to keep our own individual parts kits that are custom tuned and much easier to maintain for each of us.  I now only need to stock two chains as spares, the Shimano XT 12-speed chain everyone else runs, and then the Box Prime 9 chain that I run both on my Ripmo and also my ebike.

-Same story for brakes: I just need to buy one spare for the entire family, I don't have to buy one of absolutely everything in the bike shop anymore.

What do you think?  Let me know in the comments, I'm forever learning and would love to hear what tricks you, the reader might have!

Zac Blodget

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