by Matt Phillips
Imagine being able to choose exactly how stiff you prefer your frame, how agile you like your bike’s handling—to personalize a bike to fit your riding style. Like to climb out of the saddle? The bike will be designed with that in mind. Plan to use the bike mostly for racing? You’ll get the geometry and tubeset specific to those conditions. This bike will be built using all of your body measurements, your current bike’s measurements along with details about your existing bike (what works and what’s causing you pain). And the real beauty is that you don’t have to leave your living room to get it.
A company called Seven Cycles can make this happen. Headed by ex-Merlin designer Rob Vandermark, Seven lets you decide exactly how custom—or not—you want your new bike to be. You can change one or two details on a stock Seven in 14 stock sizes (10-23 inches) available in steel ($1,500) or titanium ($2,600). Or you can create an original blueprint specifically for you. The best news is that any true custom work, whether it’s a pump peg or fully personalized geometry, costs nothing extra. So your Seven is either an expensive stock frame or a reasonable custom frame.
The neatest, or scariest, thing about the Seven custom program is that you do it yourself. Included in the catalog is a set of step-by-step instructions that explain how to measure your body and how to manipulate those numbers for your intended purpose.
To see just how effective the DIY customizing is, I went through the system just as any consumer would. The first thing I learned is that it’s prudent to have a friend help you with the measurements. Trying to do it alone is a pain, especially when you’re attempting to read a measuring tape while holding a book tight against your crotch and standing up straight. This doesn’t yield the most accurate measurements.
Once I had the raw numbers, I started to create my bike. This section reminded me of taking the SAT. You get a number from one chart, then use a set of modifier charts to fine-tune the figure. After working through this set of problems, you come to the multiple-choice section: How rigid do you want the bike on a scale of 1 (comfortable) to 10 (stiff)? How do you want to bias the handling, from 1 (stable) to 10 (agile)? What will you use the bike for? Do you want a 1- or 1 1/8-steerer? Do you want a 135 or a 145 mm rear wheel spacing? How many miles per week do you average? Where do you want your cables routed (four choices), and do you want to add a third set of water-bottle mounts, a second set of rack mounts, a chain hanger or a pump peg? In the end, you supply the component package for the frame.
Total time for me to get through the process: about two hours.
Once you have this info, you send it to Seven. The designers there look at it and call you with questions. You’ve done the initial work, but the folks at Seven are there to protect you from yourself. If your numbers look off, they’ll go over them with you. You receive a final spec sheet to review and sign, and this will become the blueprint for your bike.
This system is especially valuable if you have trouble finding a bike that fits you. While most riders don’t need to bother with the extra time, expense and hassle of getting a custom-sized bike because off-the-shelf bikes work just fine for them, for some people the extra hassle (which is minimal in Seven’s case) is worth it because they know they have a bike built just for them. Custom bikes make sense for riders who know they have an odd body type or who have never felt comfortable on a stock-size bike. For instance, I have longer legs and a shorter upper body than most people my height. Consequently, I have to ride bikes with ridiculous amounts of seatpost or run short stems to get the right reach. Either way, something gets compromised.
Rolling the Seven
My custom titanium Seven Sun came through the door with a 22.8 inch top tube, a 16.5 inch seat tube (center to center, 18.75 center to top), a 3.5 inch head tube, 71-degree head angle, 73-degree seat angle, 16.7 chainstays and an 11.6-inch-high bottom bracket.
I selected “8” for frame rigidity and “10” for agile handling. I started riding bikes in Connecticut and I was raised on East Coast-style mountain bikes, so I like a smaller, shorter bike and I’m willing to trade some high-speed stability for quicker handling.
The numbers were generated by Seven’s catalog, coupled with some tweaking by me and some final tuning that came during a discussion between the company and me. I was confident in the geometry but although numbers and theories are great for paper, in the real world you can’t beat seat of the pants. The ultimate test would be the ride. Had I chosen red when I should have picked black?
The result: lucky Seven indeed—jackpot! I really wasn’t expecting the bike to be this good. It’s nearly perfect for me. Even thought the numbers aren’t radically altered from an off-the-shelf bike, the difference is noticeable.
The bike rides just like I wanted it to, and it fits me better than any I’ve ever been on. It’s stiffer than most titanium frames, which helps with stability and sprinting, but it still delivers the traditional smooth, damped Ti ride. Much of this can be attributed to the gracefully bent seatstays.
The stability is also better than I anticipated, most likely due to the frame’s stiffness and low bottom bracket. The low bottom bracket was my attempt to eke more handling performance out of the bike. Because I do most of my riding in the West, a BB this low works because there aren’t many rocks or logs in your way. If I were back East, it would have to be higher. So far, the low BB has only done good things for my riding.
This bike is and does everything I’ve ever wanted out of a hardtail. For me, Seven’s custom kit was a noticeable improvement over stock sizing.
A bike in the Seven’s price range should be a two-wheeled work of art. And indeed, the Seven deserves to be hung in the Louvre. It’s gorgeous.
As I wheeled it around the Mammoth expo, it was interesting to note that all the people who stopped and fawned over the bike were industry folk. Employees of companies who make nice bikes were impressed with the workmanship and clean beauty of the Seven. The laser-cut head badge and the smooth seat collar got the most attention.
The overall profile also received its share of compliments. The size of the tubes, especially in the rear, are larger than normally seen on a Ti bike. In an age of fat aluminum tube popularity, the Seven isn’t left behind. It’s purely visual, we know, but the Seven looks like a beefy, strong bike—like a mountain bike instead of a road bike. The welds are smooth and consistent, like a tight stack of poker chips held at an angle.
In our search to find something wrong with the Seven, we had to dig deep. There are only two minor complaints. First, the seatstays and chainstays are so large that the dropouts look as out of place as a Mennonite in Vegas. The 6/4 dropouts are nice, but they look awkward against the large-diameter rear triangle. If Seven could beef out the drops a little, our visceral cravings would be satisfied.
Our second issue is that the bike doesn’t do much to distance itself from a Merlin. Merlins are great bikes, and Rob Vandermark had a lot of influence on how they look. The Seven’s finish is almost identical to a Merlin, and the seat- and chainstays are very close. Vandermark doesn’t apologize for this. He says he wasn’t going to risk the bike’s ride just to make it visually different, and calls the similarity, “A compliment, not a plagiarism.”
But he also says that although a Seven might resemble a Merlin on the outside, it’s quite different inside. For example: thicker, stiffer chainstays; brake bosses more on center with the seatstays for better braking; more mud clearance; and more vertical compliance. Plus, the custom kit is a level above Merlin.
When Vandermark and six other people started Seven, they wanted to make purchasing a custom bike easier. The price is high—there’s no denying that—but only if you compare it with a stock bike. A Seven is equal to or lower than many other custom mountain bike prices. And few of those bikes are as custom as the Seven. Besides geometry, Vandermark manipulates tubing sizes and butts (butting is done in-house) to suit individual riders.
This high level of customizing works well—at least for me—and makes the buyer an actual part of the bike’s design. Not only do you get a mountain bike that rides and fits excellent, but you feel especially attached to it because you helped shape it. You have something as individual as you are. Odds are, you’ll like it.