Beautiful frames: the rise of the custom paint scheme

Few amateur sports are as preoccupied with one-upmanship as road cycling. We are eternally on the lookout for our next upgrade, whilst keeping close tabs on those of our cycling friends. 

We are adept at calculating the cost of an absurdly extravagant build and who doesn’t feel a pang of envy when a club mate rolls to a stop, sitting smugly astride a new steed? 

One can invest many hours and a small fortune searching for the dream bike, but if you want to turn heads, whilst also making an emphatic statement of your individuality, then a custom painted frame will provide the uniqueness that an off-the-shelf alternative can never deliver.

The attraction of a frame, painted to your own specification, is simple: the design options are limitless and even the smallest injection of creativity will ensure that it is unique to its owner. 

In the recent age of mass produced carbon and aluminium frames, road cyclists have been a little slow to wake up to the exclusivity that a custom paint provides, but it’s now a growing trend, with specialist workshops struggling to keep up with demand. Even the larger-scale manufacturers are muscling in on the act, offering their customers a kaleidoscopic palette from which to semi-personalise their stock bikes.

Design options are limitless

Tom Rodi of Parlee Cycles in Massachusetts, believes the interest in custom paint has always been there, but advances in digital technology have aided the design process and the internet provides unprecedented exposure to the creativity and skill of the painters. It’s never been easier to go down the custom route, which in turn generates innovation. “Clients and dealers are always challenging us to do harder and harder things and let’s face it, who doesn’t love looking at lusciously painted bikes!”

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Ali McLean, founder of Sussex-based Fat Creations, has been airbrushing frames since 2001, and believes that road cyclists have traditionally been a little more conservative in their tastes than their MTB cousins. Following the increase in the number of road cyclists with money to spend, they now account for half of his commissions, ranging from simple refurbishments to designs of staggering complexity. For those discerning cyclists for whom off-the-shelf does not provide an acceptable level of exclusivity, McLean even resprays brand new, high-end production frames.

A Mustang-inspired Vaaru by Fat Creations as spotted at the Rouleur Calssic

The increase in demand reflects a general consumer trend for customised products and a reaction against homogenisation and it’s a trend, we shouldn’t forget, that the cycling industry can claim precedent. Bespoke frames manufacturers were collaborating with paint sprayers back when steel was king – long before you could customise your Nike trainers or mobile phone.

Yet the recent boom in popularity has taken many by surprise. Bespoke frame makers, Enigma, established their Paintworks department in 2013, in order to provide the high level finish that owner, Jim Walker, felt his titanium and steel frames warranted and Enigma customers expected.

From the Enigma paint booth via Windmill Wheels bike shop

What he didn’t anticipate was the interest from the wider cycling community, but around 40% of the bikes passing through the paint booth are other brands, all of which has accelerated the development of this side of Walker’s business. “Our level of finishing has got better and better’ he says. “There is no pattern to the paint schemes requested – it’s all down to the individuality of the customers.”

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Club colours, corporate colours, national flags, day-glo camouflage, splatter gun Pollock to geometric Mondrian, retro and sci-fi, graffiti, cartoons or photographs, matt grey, marble, anodised or the shimmering sparkle of glitter. Imagine the most ludicrous, outlandish design, and there’s a fair bet that a custom painter will be able to replicate it over an entire bike. As the old adage goes, the only limit is your imagination.

A data-driven Parlee Chebacco

For Rolo Bikes, the final paint scheme is the climax of the whole custom build they offer their clients: “From our point of view, our customers should be able to have the bike they want, with the components they want and the paint scheme to match,” explains Adam Wais, co-founder of the Luxembourg brand.

For this reason, the price of a bespoke Rolo frame includes a custom paint, thereby ensuring the collaborative process extends from the first consultation right through to that final lick of lacquer.

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An outrageous three-colour fade on a Rolo bike 

A bespoke paint is not overly cheap but with prices for a respray starting at around £400 for a three-colour scheme refurbishment of a steel frame and forks (and rising to nearer £2,000 for a complex design) McLean is quick to make the point that it’s a far cheaper option than buying a new frame. Over half of his commissions are resprays of frames that are two or three years old – they are as stiff and as light as contemporary ones, but in a need of rejuvenation. ‘You can spend in excess of £1500 for a higher end race frame that everyone has, but spend a third of that on a respray and you’ll be sitting on something that no one else has got.’

The paint gun at Enigma

Some of the creations that emerge from McLean’s Chichester workshop, however, will never be ridden. Like contemporary art installations they are destined instead to hang over a mantelpiece or in the atrium of a company HQ. It’s a rather fitting resting place, for in the hands of these masked artisans, when a frame emerges from the paint booth it is no longer simply a component part of a bicycle, but has been transformed into a unique work of art, often to be ridden, but always to be admired.

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