I always assumed that a custom built bike was the surefire way to guarantee a perfect fit. After all, if the frame is built to your specific dimensions, it has to fit like a glove, right?
Er, no, not quite. At least, not according to Paul Hewitt. He tells a tale of a customer turning up with a frame that they’ve had custom built, a boxful of components and a hopeful expression. What they don’t have is any measurements for how this expensive frame is supposed to be set up and without those it’s just another collection of tubes welded together. That’s the key to visiting Hewitt Cycles – you might not end up with a bike that’s custom built, but you will definitely be buying one that’s a custom fit. Paul explains it all very patiently. “If a customer wants a custom built frame, we will build them a custom built frame, the misconception is that the vast majority of cyclists think that a custom built frame would be more comfortable, this is not the case, as if you know the position dimensions you need then a bike set to these dimensions would feel just the same, on either a custom frame or suitable sized off the peg one.”
I’ve travelled over 250 miles to visit Paul Hewitt at his shop in Leyland, Lancashire. I’m going to be testing a Cheviot SE (a touring bike built around an off-the-peg frame) and an Alpine (fast Audax and fully custom) and Paul is gently insistent that to get the best fit I need to come to the shop. It’s not an idea that immediately appeals. I’ve never measured a bike in my life and have no idea of the set-up on my existing fleet. The only dimension I care about is frame size and, quite frankly, the idea of fussing about with tape measures and jigs and plumb-lines just sounds like a huge pain in the bum.
My idea of bike fit is finessing saddle height and angle by feel over the course of a few rides, nothing more. Over the course of several e-mails I try to convince Paul that if he could just send me a bike built with a 54cm frame it'll be fine, no really, I'll make it fit as well as all of my other bikes, not a problem. Very politely but firmly he explains that position matters more than just frame size. If I send him certain measurements, taken from a bike I find comfortable, then yes, he can set a bike up to those measurements and send it on, but it’s clear that this is a compromise and a long way short of a proper fitting session.
Now, I may be an ignorant ape with the sensitivity of a sack of spuds [he is – Ed] but I’m not completely stupid, and to be honest by this point it starts to sink in that I’m being disrespectful and more than a little rude. As any number of people on bike forums will attest, an essential part of the process of buying a Hewitt is the pilgrimage to Leyland for a fitting because the end result will be worth the effort. Paul is a master of making sure that bike and rider are in harmony, so for this grunting novice to think that a quick fiddle with the saddle would be adequate, well, really….
One Burger King and Krispy Kreme fuelled road-trip later we're parking up outside the shop. My wife Gill has come along too because she loves bikes, is curious about the process, can take photos and likes measuring things, being a precious princess who can quote the measurements for her bikes without needing to look them up first. To be honest, I'm a bit nervous about the whole thing, so it's reassuring to have someone with me who really gets it. Besides, I like her company and this is an exciting day out for a pair of bike geeks like us.
I’ve never been in a bike shop like Paul Hewitt Cycles before. There are no upright hybrids, no kids bikes, no on-trend city bikes, no MTBs, no cargo bikes and no assistants buzzing about trying to sell stuff, jst lots of very, very nice road bikes (with the occasional cyclo-crosser and tri bike thrown in) and a complete Aladdin’s cave of wheels, frames, shoes and assorted lovely things. Paul is with a customer when we arrive, so one of his staff makes us a brew while we wander about, stroking things and wondering whether it would be worth selling a kidney. Gill is particularly taken with a beautiful Hewitt racing bike – Campag EPS, steel, painted in Kawasaki Green and utterly gorgeous.
Once Paul is free he takes us on a tour of the workshop, all the while explaining the philosophy and principles that underpin his business. He's an engaging host and has some pithy views on things such as bikes being sold as being specifically suitable for women or sportives (misleading marketing spin, because you still need to achieve a proper fit, irrespective of gender or intended use) the accuracy of frames built by some prestigious big-name manufacturers (clue: not so great actually) and many other topics.
Name and reputation are all-important to Paul and, of course, maintaining those requires making sure that the customer gets what the customer really needs. A framed 2004 world champion’s jersey with “thanks for the wheels, Bradley Wiggins” makes it clear that this is the cycling equivalent of a Savile Row tailor, not M&S. If you need any more clues that this is a serious business run by people with a deep love and understanding of what they do, just take a look at the frame-building jig, where someone has written 'Gethin's tube width' in felt tip. That's Gethin, as in Gethin Butler, and that's his frame hanging up. And that wiry chap behind the counter is the man himself. Not only does Sir Wiggy get wheels here, you can be served by a TT legend and (still) End to End record holder.
It's most definitely not the kind of shop where cash-rich MAMILs can just rock up, point at the most expensive bike in the shop and walk out again five minutes later. It's so serious that Paul ignores the arrival of his lunchtime sandwich in order to get on with the fitting.
I’ve brought some shoes, pedals and a jersey, as requested, so while I get changed Paul sets up the jig with the measurements that I’ve sent him. To start with we’re going to sort out the fit for the Cheviot. Choosing a saddle is the first thing to do as each one will affect the measurements, some being squishier than others. We go for a Selle Rolls. It’s a classic touring option and seems like a good choice for the Cheviot. Besides, I’ve not tried one before and it’s a change from my usual Brooks or Rivet.
Once that’s fitted Paul can start assessing saddle height, distance to the hoods, tops and drops and so on. I just have to pedal, stretch my leg, bring the pedals to 3-9 o’clock, drop my heel a little, move to the drops and generally do as I’m told.
To start with I feel a bit self-conscious and tense, but Paul’s softly spoken commentary is soothing and instils confidence. Throughout the process Paul constantly adjusts the jig, moving the bars and saddle forward, up, backwards… Although the initial set-up is done with precise measurements, the alterations are done by eye and a plumbline with Paul assessing whether my knees and arms are at the proper angle. It’s a mixture of science, art and years of experience.
To be honest, I don’t actually get everything he says, about how all of the different measurements relate to each other, but I don’t really have to. Besides, Gill understands this stuff far better than I do and she’s nodding and chipping in with astute observations and questions. It isn't a painful or difficult process, although it does mean I have to think about things like how my arms feel or whether I'm lower or higher than I would be on my regular bike.
The process is repeated for the Alpine, albeit with a different saddle. Once we’re done I spot that there is barely enough saddle rail showing for me to fit my usual Carradice Bagman support bracket. Of course, my solution would just be to shove the saddle back a bit, ghastly ape that I am, but as the Alpine is being custom built Paul simply changes the seatpost angle on the spec sheet by half a degree and… voila! There’s an extra 5mm of saddle rail available.
Once the position has been determined he can also change the look of the bike to suit. As this bike is going to be used for some pretty long rides I'm going to need as much comfort as I can get, so I'm going for a dropped top tube to leave more seat post showing but if I wanted a more level top tube I could have one. The length of the top tube can also be set to accommodate your preferred stem length (and of course, avoid toe-overlap).
Obviously an off-the-peg frame means that many of the dimensions are pre-determined, but once a suitable frame size has been chosen the right fit can be achieved by moving the saddle, choosing an appropriate stem length and setting the bar height correctly. The various measurements have a close interplay with each other and position changes can be achieved by a number of means, for example you can get a higher position by building up the spacer stack, putting in a shorter stem or moving the saddle forward. It can be a minefield for anyone, from novices to experienced riders, so I'm glad to be in expert hands.
Fitting over, it’s time to discuss wheels, groupsets and finishing kit. The Cheviot will be built with some straightforward Deore kit, much as you’d expect on a touring bike, with some handbuilt wheels. The Alpine will have a 105 groupset – anything higher would be overkill – and some very nice wheels built up with H Plus Son rims, which look fantastic. Genesis have specced the same rims on the new Equilibrium Disc (being thrashed on test by road.cc’s David Arthur at the time of writing) so it will be interesting to see how they perform.
When it comes to tyres I ask for Gatorskins on the Alpine as they've served me well across my entire fleet. Paul doesn't say anything, but he has a definite Look on his face and after a brief discussion the bike will be coming with Conti GP 4000S. Paul reckons that they're a sportier option without sacrificing too much puncture resistance and are a better match for the bike than Gators. I'm also dead chuffed that the Alpine will be coming in the same shade of Kawasaki Green as the race bike we've both been drooling over – it's going to be a stunning looking beast and I can't wait to show it off..
Overall, we were in the shop for nearly three hours and by the time we left Paul still hadn't had his lunch. That’s not because a road.cc hack merits any special treatment, it just seems to be the normal level of customer service you can expect (as verified by several friends who have been) and if you’re going to be spending a fair chunk of cash on a bike, why not?
Both bikes will be stopping off at road.cc's new HQ for pictures before they get to me, but by the time you're reading this the Cheviot should be in Devon, set up precisely to Paul's measurements. The Alpine will take a little longer, being custom built, but that should be here early next year.
I've got a rigorous testing regime of commutes, touring and day rides planned, so it'll be a while before I can report back, but I'll let you know how they perform and whether that trip up North made a difference.
In the meantime, check out the entire range at www.hewittcycles.co.uk.