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New bike day!

Jessica Rudd

The Backstory
Let’s face it; once you get your first bike one of your next questions will be, “what should I get for my second bike??” The joke (warning?) in cycling is that the correct number of bikes is always n + 1; the number of bikes you currently own (n) plus 1. I’ve been riding bikes my whole life but purchased my first “real” road bike (a carbon Specialized Ruby compact) in 2011. Since then I’ve also owned a steal touring bike (Salsa Vaya), and a mountain bike (hardtail Diamondback). In fall of 2018, my husband decided he wanted to give this “gravel fad” a try. We had moved close to downtown Atlanta, and quickly realized we were surrounded by hidden trails, gravel, and pot-holed city roads, all things that are not super fun on a skinny tire road bike. A gravel bike is essentially a road bike with a higher bottom bracket and the ability to fit wider, knobby tires. In many cases, if you put on a pair of skinny, slick road tires, the gravel bike is still a super-fast road bike. Honestly, I think a better term is “all-road” bike since, depending on the build, this type of bike is excellent for many road conditions. Also, the idea of finding gravel roads and hidden trails to roam with less cars buzzing by was highly enticing.

With all that in mind, the day before our first gravel adventure/race I bought a Specialized Diverge E5 from Earl’s Bike Shop in Atlanta, GA (because nothing will get you committed for a new activity like spending money). The Diverge E5 is an incredibly fun, excellent value, entry level gravel bike: aluminum frame, carbon fork, Tiagra level drive-train, etc. and no proprietary headset shock system (since my husband does most of our bike maintenance in our home shop, we try to keep the mechanics as simple as possible). I raced it the next day and instantly fell in love. Since November of 2018, Diverge has traveled nearly 6,000 miles throughout the urban wilds of Atlanta, Georgia mountains, Virginia, New Hampshire, and beyond. Once I knew I was committed, the journey to n + 1 began; I wanted the ULTIMATE gravel bike. I’ve spent the last 4 years in a PhD program and decided shortly after falling in love with gravel cycling that I wanted this “ULTIMATE” gravel bike as a graduation present to myself. As the end of my graduate program neared, Specialized also announced it’s new model year of the Diverge lineup, and I assumed I would get an upgraded Diverge (read: carbon, ultra-light, electronic drive-train). Newsflash: I’m 4’11” and ride the smallest consumer-ready adult frames on the market; in this case, a Specialized size 44. In what is certainly a first world problem, but something I experience often, Specialized does not make the new, higher tier Diverge in my size. In fact, many manufacturers do not make their higher-level products for smaller riders (i.e. women). Also, the models that do come in the smallest sizes often have strange geometries to allow for the use of mass-produced manufacturing needs and the most common components. What this all means is that 1) it’s difficult for me to find bikes that fit and 2) when I do find bikes that fit, it’s been at the expense of some amount of efficiency and handling. Since I’ve never had much of a choice, I’ve never known what it feels like to ride a bike that truly fits. In many ways, Specialized handing me a very first world problem also did me a great favor; if I really wanted the ultimate bike, I might as well spend the time and money building/designing one that truly fits. Enter: Atlanta-area custom bike builder, Hoefer Cycles.

The Request

Donald Hoefer has been building custom steel bikes for a few years now and there’s a growing posse of folks cruising around Atlanta and further afield on his builds. I saw a build he did for another small rider last year and had bike envy. When my first attempt at getting the ultimate bike failed quickly, I knew immediately where to go. I messaged Donald on Instagram in May to start the process requesting, “Super fun fast gravel bike, probably 1x (if can still get wide enough for good Atlanta climbing gears), carbon wheel set, carbon fork…I’m sick of the manufacturers not making their high end stuff for us small ladies.” The gauntlet had been dropped and Donald was ready to deliver. This was to be my post-PhD unicorn bike.

The Process

After putting down a small deposit, the next few weeks were spent with long back and forth emails discussing needs, options, questions, concern, etc. I wanted a 1x drive train for easier maintenance, lighter weight, and less chances for mechanical issues on the road. Also, as manufactures develop wider range of chainrings and cassettes, it’s now easier to find a solid range of climbing and faster road gears with no front derailleur. The latest Shimano Di2 electronic system has become known for great reliability, fast and precise shifting, and less likelihood of cross-chaining and dropped chains. The GRX level Di2 shifters/hoods are amazingly comfortable and designed for easier reach of the brake levers whether you’re riding the hoods or the drops, a huge plus for a small rider who often has a hard time reaching the brakes from certain positions. As a tech geek, it’s also just plain cool to have an electronic drive train. At any step of the way if I had questions or concerns about the various options, Donald responded quickly with essays worth of amazing information. As a “roadie” style rider, I definitely had my fair share of type A personality type concerns; is a steel bike going to be as fast and light as I wanted in a carbon bike (spoiler alert: yes), will I be able to handle group rides and hilly Atlanta routes with only 1x (yes), omg…42 wide tires sound huge. Is that going to feel super squishy and slow? I hate squishy. (No and no). Donald was patient, incredibly helpful and knowledgeable, and a generally cool dude. When you go to purchase a new bike, whether consumer ready or custom, make sure to find shops and business owners who are passionate about the sport and getting each individual rider on the right bike for them. It should be a fun, non-stressful experience. Anything less than that, go somewhere else.

The Final Product

It was approximately 12 weeks from the first Instagram message to the final delivered unicorn bike. During the build process it was amazing to receive a few photo updates of the bike in progress from Donald’s shop. It’s not often you get to buy a new bike AND get to see it come to life. I’ll admit, when I received photos of the finished bike I wept. This one-and-only bike was everything and so much more than I could have even imagined. As someone who’s had to ride those “weird” bike geometries small women have to deal with for my entire adult life, getting on a bike made to fit me (rather than me having to fit the bike) was an incredible feeling. For so long I’ve often felt like a passenger on my bikes, riding on designs not quite made for my proportions. I always had the sense that I might be losing some amount of comfort and efficiency. I now know this to be absolutely true. For the first time in my life I know what it feels like to be in control of my riding style and ability. I. WANT. TO. RIDE. EVERYTHING. EVERYWHERE. ALL. THE. TIME.

I have over a dozen long emails back and forth with Donald discussing the build in much detail, it’s too much to cover in one post. If you’re interested in more details, questions, advice on the process, please

feel free to reach out directly. I’d love to chat more about it. Even better, let’s discuss during a ride (social distance measures in place of course). I have so many miles ahead. Let’s roll!

Jessica's custom build