Gravel Culture: The custom-built dream gravel bike – Part 1

Posted By Gravel Union On 8 April 2021

Sander Kuik is the product director at Shimano Europe and is a huge gravel riding fan. He’s in the process of having a custom-built titanium gravel bike made at the minute, so we’re following the process to see what is involved.

I really can’t recall how it all started. Maybe it was the big void of Covid19 or just pursuing a dream that had been there for a long time. Creating my own bike has been on the wish list for ages, but somehow never came to fruition. I have made the journey many times in my head, but now the decision was taken to do it and create a one-of-a-kind bicycle. Not that I don’t love my trusty OPEN U.P.P.E.R., but this titanium dream just became too strong. This dream bike should be a lasting masterpiece combining amazing craftmanship and great components.

Some basic choices were made pretty quickly - it had to be a titanium gravel bike. Consider it old school, but one of those illusive dreams was to own a hand-fabricated titanium bicycle. As I never owned a titanium bicycle before, the internet was my close friend, offering an abundance of information. Jason, aka Jom, from Gravelcyclist.com in particular, offered great reviews on various titanium gravel bikes including models by Moots, Lynskey and Litespeed (some of the better known names in the industry)

The frame material might be considered a little old school, so the search was also on to find a frame builder who could take titanium fabrication to the next level. Here is where I stumbled on Montreal based T-Lab Bikes, a group of ex-Guru Cycles members who rejoined forces to develop and manufacture advanced bicycles based on next generation material technology. In my search for the perfect titanium gravel bike, the T-Lab X3 won.

A first email was drafted and sent to Rob Rossi of T-Lab Bikes and it did not take long before an answer came back from Canada. They would be more than happy to work with me on creating the perfect, one-of-a-kind ride. Ideas, options and geometry suggestions soon crossed the ocean back and forth and an initial setup was created. A custom and aggressive geometry, taking the European ‘terroir’ into account, was applied to the X3. The optional rack and fender mounts where left off and the headtube was shortened slightly to create a more ‘racey’ set-up. To create the clean look, the ‘bento box’ top tube mounts also had to go.

However, the biggest challenge was still ahead: the aesthetic design. For days on end I looked at other bikes’ designs. I considered a fully painted frame, but concluded this would overwhelm the natural beauty of titanium. Half painted? If so, what color? I did not think designing the look of your own bike would be this hard. Again, the friend at T-Lab came to the rescue. The other co-founder of T-Lab Bikes, John Anagnostopoulos, is a graphic designer and was able to create some design ideas for this unique collaboration between Canada and The Netherlands and so marked the birth of the T-Lab X3 CDN x NLD Edition.

The request arrived from T-Lab for a mood board and some input. “Think of Scandinavian design (Volvo, Polestar, POC), clean, elegant and functional. Natural materials, whites and grays as color. Not too much.” These were the directions I shared with the T-Lab team, together with some pictures. Out of these directions a very aesthetic design was created. A full brushed T-Lab X3 frame with custom bead-blasted logos. On the top tube, CDN x NLD text and on the carbon fork, a maple leaf representing Canada on one side and a tulip for The Netherlands on the other.

Some basic facts about the T-Lab X3 CAN x NLD Edition:

  • Frame: Grade 9 Titanium (3AL-2.5V)
  • Bottom Bracket: BB-386
  • Fork: Carbon (395mm axel to crown)
  • Fork Rake: 47mm
  • Seatpost: 27.2mm
  • Dropouts: 142x12mm axle with flat mount disc brake
  • Wheel Size: 700c or 650B
  • Maximum Tire Size: 700x45c or 650Bx51

T-LAB X3 - CAN x NLD Edition

With all the designs formalised, the engineers and skilled workers at T-Lab get started work on the fabrication. What distinguishes a T-Lab bike frame from other well-made counterparts is a proprietary, cold-worked tube shaping which helps to create a frame that delivers 30% more lateral stiffness, without compromising the inherent qualities of titanium. At various key areas on the frame, a sort of anisotropic cross section is created in order to enhance strength and stiffness exactly where it's needed.

Once the tube set is given its form, the next step is mitering. Specialized tooling is used to machine the Grade 9 Titanium (3AL-2.5V) tubing to the correct length, miter it and get it deburred in one go.

The precision welding of a titanium frame means moving millimeter by millimeter at a time. The expert welders painstakingly apply the weld beads to the tubes in order to create a beautiful looking and everlasting frame. After the welding is completed the fit needs to be optimised to take out any small distortion created by the intense heat of the welding process.

Once the frame has passed this quality control stage, it is off to have the finishing touches applied. Multiple steps are needed to create the desired unique finish. The different steps of the process are executed by the skilled hands of some of best experts in the business.

The waiting game is now on. The first important steps have been taken and it is up to the crew at T-Lab bikes to create the frameset. In the next episode of this journey we will look at the build choices for my dream bike, so stay tuned!

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