Home > 1.6

True North Custom – Handcrafted in Guelph, Ontario

The waiting list at True North Cycles suggests there's certainly a market for them.

Components: SRAM, FSA, Chris King, Alpha Q

Wheels: Zipp

Frame Material: Steel

Sizes: Fully Custom

MSRP: $1400 (frame only)

In today’s market, performance aluminium and even carbon road bikes are available for less than $2,000 and frame weights are coming in at well below the 1,000 g benchmark. So why would anyone pay more and seemingly get less by going with a custom steel frame? The success and waiting list at True North Cycles suggests there’s certainly still a market for them.

Steel has seen a steady decline in popularity as the construction material of choice for top-end bicycles over the past 25 years, but it remains popular for custom builders and their niche customer base. One major reason for this is the ease with which steel is machined and joined to create a frame. Welding or brazing steel frames can be done with fairly basic equipment, allowing smaller builders without the resources of a large factory to produce frames to custom specifications easily.

What many people don’t realize, however, is that progress has been made in the technology of tubing used to build steel bikes. Compared to the small-diameter steel tubes of the 1970s, steel bikes today are constructed of oversized tubes more reminiscent of aluminum and titanium and are butted (sections of varying thickness) and shaped to provide optimal strength and low weight. Advances in the base material make this possible and also lead to a frame that is less susceptible to corrosion than the CrMo frames of years gone by. The result is a frame that maintains the advantage of being fairly simple to fabricate in a small custom shop, but with the lightweight and stiff properties demanded in today’s market.

Then there’s the question of why riders would want to go with a custom frame? Realistically, for all but those who are extremely tall, short or oddly-proportioned, the big brands offer bikes in enough sizes and geometries that most don’t need a custom frame. A good, professional fitting on the right size frame will yield a result that is completely acceptable for the majority of riders. For the rest, a custom frame is the only option short of great compromise. But custom frames offer more than just this. A custom framebuilder can take into account the rider’s weight, riding style and intended use and produce a frame that not only fits well, but also matches the rider perfectly.

In my case it was slightly abnormal proportions and lower than average flexibility that drove me toward a custom frame, but it was the resulting ride quality and satisfaction with the frame as a whole that had me return when the time came for my next bike.

The True North road bike here was constructed using Columbus Spirit tubes. It was built with nearly typical geometry for a North American-style racing bike, but the top tube is shorter proportionally to the seat tube to accommodate my long legs and short torso and the headtube is lengthened to allow a comfortable position for a less than ideally-flexible rider. The frame is finished in a durable powdercoat paint and is built with a mix of mostly SRAM, FSA and Alpha Q parts. This is another nice attribute of buying a custom bike – you have the ability to choose a build kit that suits your preferences and budget.

Heading out for the first ride on the bike, one of the things I quickly noticed was how smooth it sailed over rough chip-seal roads. I’ve spent much of my riding time on aluminum and aluminum-carbon hybrid frames and the True North offers a totally new experience with its own characteristics. The steel frame seems to wind up in corners or under hard acceleration and then give back when you let up. This, as far as I can tell, is the so-called magical ride quality of steel. The True North also descends like a dream – allowing me to dive into tight downhill corners that would have me braking far earlier on other bikes.

The steel does, however, give up a bit in the way of stiffness and power transfer when compared to the current aluminum and carbon offerings, but it is more than adequate for riding and racing at all but the highest levels. The ride quality, combined with the perfect fit, makes for a bike that can be ridden all day. If you’re not racing Cat 1/2 criteriums every weekend, a custom steel frame might be worth a look.