Bob Zeller, a Mariposa customer and friend for more than 40 years who currently lives in the United Kingdom, went to the Donard Bicycles, a custom bicycle workshop in Strangford Lough to have his mudguards replaced on his custom Mariposa, built 40 years ago.  

Bob wanted an experienced and respected builder work on his Mariposa, as all of the fittings are custom made for the frame.  

After completing the work, Donard asked Bob to write a feature for their website on his Mariposa and on custom bikes.  

In Bob’s feature he discusses the merits of custom steel bicycles, highlighting fit and durability.  

Bob’s Custom Bike
By Bob Zellar

The joy of a handmade bike, built entirely to one’s own needs and measurements, is about as good as it gets for someone who loves cycling as much as I do.

I have three bikes. One is a Japanese-made Nishiki, that’s my winter bike, a Specialized Globe which is my go-to-the-shops bike and my handmade Mariposa which is both my road bike and my touring bike. It serves both purposes beautifully. So well, in fact, that I am still riding it almost forty years after it was built.

And that’s the real point of a custom made bike. There are many bicycles being sold these days fabricated from the finest materials and fitted with great components. But everything else is guess work by the manufacturer as it tries to create bikes for people of many different shapes and sizes and who will use those bikes for many different purposes. I like to think I am built much like Chris Froome (actually, I would prefer to look like Bernard Hinault, I suppose). But I’m not. I’m short and chunky with all the accompanying sizing complications. And the bike I want to ride is not a bike designed only for sportives and club thrashes about the countryside, even though I have done many of both.

In fact, what I wanted was a bike that:

  • Handles well while still being comfortable over long days in the saddle
  • Is quick and responsive, but importantly, can handle the extra weight of panniers when I am touring, something I do quite frequently
  • Has proper frame fittings so the panniers and a handlebar bag are secure and don’t wobble. These days I wobble enough without the panniers adding more
  • Has extra low gears available for the times I am hauling those panniers and myself up hills which seem to get steeper and longer every time I go touring in France
  • Has mudguards that are properly fastened to the frame because there is no greater luxury when cycling long distances than keeping your feet and lower legs dry

    As most cyclists know, there are three elements that need to be considered carefully if you are to get a bike suitable for your specific purposes – geometry, materials and components. And of those, geometry, at least in my mind, is by far the most important. Yet, so many new bike buyers start with material. They do this because a bike’s weight has become the Holy Grail of cycling. What a pity those folk are so wrong. When weight is being considered, it is the combined weight of rider and cycle that counts. So if a bike and rider combine for a total weight of say 90kg, then choosing one frame material over another because it weighs a kilogram or so less doesn’t make sense in most cases – unless you are Chris Froome or think bragging rights are important.

    But get the frame geometry right, and you are half way there to the perfect bike. Frame angles determine comfort, pedal responsiveness, steering precision and your upper body’s position relative to the wind and elements. Adjust one, and the others require changing. It’s a bit like a Rubik’s Cube and designing the frame is never easy.

    Only when you’ve got the geometry right should you consider frame material. And goodness me, there are lots of choices on offer. Each one has positives – and some have plenty of negatives. Carbon fibre is seen by many as the very best material. Certainly it is the most exotic. And for many purposes, it is indeed by far the best. But carbon comes with downsides as well. Steel, aluminium and titanium are often very much better for many purposes.

    And then you get to the hoary questions around components. I love Campagnolo, but others prefer others. Again, for each rider there are good choices and not so good choices. Often, the best bike manufacturers supply high quality components, but seldom do they completely match the buyers needs. Wheels, tyres, gears, brakes, headsets are often chosen on a basis of trying to suit a wide range of potential buyers needs. Quite frequently, if not almost always, some of the choices will be wrong for you.

    And that’s why a custom made bike, produced by a first class, knowledgable builder will always be the best. Every decision made in its building will be based on you want and what’s best for you and your riding. Not what the market generally wants – whatever the price. When you first approach your custom frame builder, he or she (and note these days there are an increasing number of women building bikes) will look at the entire picture. They will spend a great deal of time discussing the type of riding you do now, what you might start doing in the future, your cycling idiosyncrasies, budget and so on. It won’t be a decision made by a company’s marketing department in California. It will be your decision and you will get plenty of support and advice in making it.

    And then, you’ll be measured. Much like a Saville Row tailor, the builder will measure you with enormous care. Lengths, angles, weights and so on will all be carefully calculated and noted. And then, when all the information and data has been gathered, the builder will sit down to design a complete package. Frame angles, tubing material, components and so on.

    When you next get together you’ll be presented with the builder’s ideas. That in turn will likely start another discussion and once again the builder will go back to the drawing board. Eventually, after plenty of even more discussion, you’ll say ‘That’s it. Just what I want.’ Well done to the two of you for getting there, but in truth, you’re only half way there…the bike still has to be built. This is the point where the builder ceases being a designer with slide rule and calculator, and more of an artisan. Cutting, shaping, welding, brazing, painting and then assembling.

    But when your phone rings and it’s the builder saying your bike is ready, it will be a day you never forget. I can tell you that it was with some trepidation when I jumped on my new bike for the first time so unsure was I at what I was getting. And yet, within a few turns of the pedals, I knew exactly what I was getting – the perfect bike for me. And here we are, almost 40 years later and I still believe that to be the case. Some components have been changed because they have worn out. Others were switched because newer ones were better than those available in the seventies. Index shifting is one example. And some were components have been changed because I have changed. Gear ratios reflect my ever increasing age for instance.

    But the bike is still the same bike and it is every bit as wonderful today as it was when it was new. It’s heavier of course than some current bikes because while the Reynolds 531 tubing was state-of-the-art years ago, today the state-of-the-art has moved on. But do I worry, or even think, about that when I am out riding it? Absolutely not! What I do think about is how lucky I am to be riding such a superb bike that has carried me for tens of thousands of miles up and down mountains, across the flats, everywhere in fact, I have wanted to go. Nothing has broken (a tube had to be replaced after I was hit by a car), no component has failed, and the paint which was redone twice, the last time 10 years ago, is superbly classic. In fact, that one word ‘classic’ describes my hand made bike.

    Donard Bicycles.

  • Showing 5 comments
    • Peter Leiss
      Reply

      Great article Bob. Your story accurately reflects the way I feel about my Mariposa. When I picked it up and rode around the shop area I knew that this was perfect for me. I told Mike Sr that this was the last bike I needed to have. Certainly not the last bike I would want or even buy but that is another story.

    • Mark Campbell
      Reply

      A beautiful bike and an inspiring article for all of us that enjoy old iron.

      • dede
        dede
        Reply

        Thank you Mark.

    • C. Roberts
      Reply

      Hello Bob,
      Beautiful bike, very stylish which is reminiscent of the British bikes with the pinstriping.
      Are you the writer that was the editor from The Guelph Mercury?

      • dede
        dede
        Reply

        Thank you. It was written by Bob Zeller.

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