Friday, July 2, 2010

Review of my buying experience with Sanner Cycles

My intention was to review the actual frameset that Tim Sanner custom-built for me earlier this year, but having only ridden it about 50 miles before it failed, I actually spent quite a bit more time dealing with the ordering, delivery, remediation and return processes than actually riding the bike, so my review leans more toward examining what happened and what went wrong with the transaction.

I have no axe to grind with Tin Sanner or Sanner Cycles. He eventually made good on his 'no questions asked' warranty. Still, if any previous buyers had similar experiences prior to my purchase, I'd have been glad to read about them, before I went to the trouble of ordering.

When I began planning a 2,000 mile cross-country bicycle tour that would involve a significant portion of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, as well as dirt roads between Texas and the California Coast, I knew that my current touring bike lacked both the brakes and the tire width to accommodate the trip. I began looking for a suitable factory frame or custom framebuilder to provide what I needed. At the time, there were few factory options for a 700c road frame with disk brakes, clearance for tires over 40mm wide and rack and fender mounts. Those frames that were available, such as the Salsa Fargo appeared to be built for heavy touring – carrying 40+ lbs of gear, which made them over built for the types of loads I was planning. I hoped my search would lead me to a frame that would serve as a very comfortable all-around commuter, light tourer and fun ride bike that I could ride forever.

While I had a decent budget for the trip and the bike I needed to make it, I didn’t seriously consider the well-known frame builders due to my relatively short lead time to have the bike ready and the stories of long delays in completion of the orders. The very last thing I wanted to do was to have to tour on a bike that I had not had the time to get the fit dialed in, or worse, delay or cancel the trip because the frame wasn’t finished in time.

This combination of factors and a couple of positive reviews led me to contact Tim Sanner of Sanner Cycles. Sanner is a touring cyclist himself and his web presence refers to a dedication to attention to detail in each step of the build process. Because he was relatively unknown and ‘small’ as well as understanding of the needs of a touring biker, I hoped he could work within my budget and 6-month time window and provide the frameset I was after. Additionally, in looking around the internet for reviews of his work, I saw several instances where Sanner made it clear that his powder coat finishes were highest quality, which was also an attractive statement to me.

At Sanner’s request I filled out his .pdf- based fit form with careful measurements and complete details of the trip I was planning, the components I expected to use, the load I intended to carry, and issues I faced with my current touring bike. I made it a point to ensure that communications of specifications were by email to ensure that Sanner had exact wording and context of my needs. On occasion I felt it necessary to press a little to be sure that he was clear on what I needed.

Initially a price was quoted for the frame and fork and an amount for deposit, to begin the work, which I accepted, then I forwarded the deposit amount. Shortly he contacted me again to tell me that he actually had touring forks made in batches by a ‘large manufacturer’, but that he had forgotten to mention that he couldn’t use them for a disk brake bike because they have curved blades. He offered to build a straight-blade disk fork for the frameset for an additional $400, or buy a different one wholesale, for $120.

I was surprised that he would advertise a ‘custom’ frameset with a factory-built fork, and a little put out that the additional expense would put his price up with several other, better-known builders, but hoping for the best build for my money, I asked him to proceed with building the fork and frame. Going back through emails to help write this review, I see that I was careful at this point to remind him and get confirmation that the details, I’d asked for - rack, fender and low-rider mounts, as well as disk brake tabs - would be present on the fork. (To clarify, I don’t think he was pulling a ‘bait and switch’ to get more money, but in retrospect, it appears that he had not given a great deal of consideration to the details of the project and so was caught by surprise.) In a later email, he stated that the fork would necessarily be a bit heavier than a typical touring fork, due to using hefty blades for stiffness and rigidity for the disk brake. I approved this, asking him to build it strong but avoid excessive overbuilding and he began work.

Two weeks passed without hearing back. It was now Mid-March, with my tour to begin at the end of May. I was aware that Sanner was planning his own cross-country bicycle tour starting at the end of March, so I began to be a little a little anxious about the timing. I contacted Sanner and he said the frame was almost completed and we discussed finish color and details. I opted for a blue powder coat with silver logo graphics and matching silver outlines around the frame and fork lugs. At this point the time between my emails and his responses was beginning to stretch out to a full day or two or three, which didn’t help my anxiety.

Eventually, he said the frameset was ready to ship, telling me that I would be pleased because the fork came out lighter than he’d initially thought it would. I sent the balance owed via PayPal. He said he had not had time to pick up the frame from the powder coater, but the frame would ship three days later, on March 15.
On the 15th, he emailed to say he’d just picked it up and he’d box it and ship on the 16th. On the 23rd, at my request, he sent the FedEx tracking number which showed it had not shipped till March 19th. During this time, all my family and friends asked daily about the status of the frameset as I had told them of the earlier promised shipping dates which were long past. It was embarrassing that I had to make excuses for why the frame had not arrived yet, and I truly hoped the final product would make it worthwhile.

The frame and fork finally arrived on March 26th, after Sanner was away on tour, and 2 months before my tour was to begin. I received the box at work and opened it immediately. I was alarmed that the box ‘clanked’ as I moved it to my office.

Opening the box, my initial impressions were very disappointing. Here is the text of the email I sent to Tim Sanner upon receipt of the frameset:

I realize you're on tour, I assume you're checking email from the road. Please understand that I chose you to build what will probably be the only custom frame I ever contract, because you placed emphasis on paying close attention to detail throughout the build process. For my part, I tried to provide you with as much information as I possibly could to allow you to do the work I contracted.

The frameset arrived Friday, March 26, days later than you told me to expect. The plastic wrap that was used to secure the fork to the frame had loosened in shipping, and allowed the unpadded steerer tube to batter the seat tube and the seat stay, causing ugly damage to the powder coat in both places.

That was disappointing, given the cost of the frameset, but I could live with that, it's a tour bike and it's going to be knocked around.

However, looking at the fork I paid $400 extra for, I see that you neglected to install either the rack and fender mounts or the low-rider braze-ons. I made it clear in writing, repeatedly, that these were to be part of the order.

Given the lack of attention to detail evident so far, I'm really not looking forward to building the frame up, fearing that the disk tabs may be out of place or other issues will cause the frame to be unusable for my purposes.

My own tour starts in 9 weeks, on Memorial Day weekend. I ask that you find a way to honor your part of our deal and provide me with the fork I contracted in 7 weeks or less. I will build up the frame over the next few days, and will let you know immediately if there are any additional matters that need remediation.

Please reply soon. Obviously, the content of any reviews of your work that I might publish will be driven by your positive response to these matters.

Respectfully, David Hill”

In light of the major issues that needed fixing, I didn’t mention in the email that the powder coat job on the frame and fork looked like fairly mediocre work, especially given Sanner’s claims of his work being well above the quality of similar finishers. Additionally the hand painted outlines around the lugs were done in a transparent gray paint which might have come close to matching the vinyl stick-logo graphics on a chip, but when painted over the blue powder coat, took on a distinct green tone that looked nothing like the color on the graphics.

The fork Sanner shipped was by all appearances a standard, lugged, curved blade road fork with a disk tab brazed on and none of the details we’d discussed. Without the fender and rack mounts, actually building the bike up was pointless so it hung in the work stand waiting on response from Sanner. In his response 2 days later, he stated that he couldn’t do anything about the fork himself, but he would refund the cost of the fork and help find a local frame builder to attach the mounts I needed. While the $400 was refunded, I was eventually left to my own devices at finding someone to make the fork right in a short time. Meanwhile the forkless frame languished in the work stand as time ticked away.

Eventually, through the help and friendship of a couple of local frame builders and yet more delays at the powder coater, I had the frame and fork completed and ready to build up with two weeks remaining till my tour was to start. The impressions of the frame builders who did the work on the fork and helped with building up the frame were not at all favorable.

In addition, while attempting to put the components on the frame, it became clear that although Sanner had clearly stated that all the frame preparation steps would be done before delivery, they had not been done. This forced yet another delay while I found a shop that I could pay for prepping the bottom bracket shell and threads, as well as the headset faces.

I finally got the frameset completely built up on a Friday night and the next day took it on a short unloaded, shakedown ride with my daughter on a gravel rail-trail nearby, using 36mm cyclocross tires. My initial riding impression was of a reasonably agile and responsive steel frame, but it needed some attention to saddle and bar positioning before it would be really comfortable. The ride was brief, everything appeared to work, and I went about installing the racks, fenders and 32 mm road tires I’d be using on tour for more testing and fitting. Sunday, I took the bike out with a friend for a 45 mile ride on the local paved bike path. At this time, I made a couple of adjustments to the saddle position and loaded the bike with 18-20 lbs of weight in the rear panniers (several pounds less than my anticipated touring load) to see how it would do with a load. During the ride, I applied the brakes hard several times to seat the disk pads and improve their performance.

The next day, I rode the bike on my usual 22 mile commute to and from work. Looking at the front wheel, I noticed that the top of the wheel was significantly closer to one left fork leg than it was to the other. I initially thought I had not seated the axle firmly in the fork dropout so I stopped and tried to fix that, but it changed nothing. It wasn’t till I had the bike back in the work stand that evening that I finally noticed that the left fork leg with the disk tab on it had bent backward at the top of the tab. Presumably this occurred under the hard braking force I’d applied while seating the pads and rotors. Clearly the fork would not withstand the force of braking with a full touring load on a steep downhill grade, which is exactly the sort of forces that were to be put on the frame during my planned tour along the Great Divide Trail.

I contacted Sanner to tell him my intent to return the frameset to him and my expectation of a full refund. His response stated that, despite our agreements, he had contracted the building of the fork to another frame builder in his area and that frame builder would fix the fork. Given that I was now one and a half weeks from my tour departure date, even if I’d had any faith in the rest of the frameset, there is no way that would make an adequate solution to my problem. I responded with a clear ‘No’ to that solution and repeated my desire for a refund. Again, Sanner’s response was that I should send the fork to the shop where it had been built and that he could not refund my money. My next email carefully detailed all the issues noted in this review as reasons why the frameset he sold me did not perform as required or even meet the agreed-upon specifications.

Throughout these communications, I was careful to remain very calm and not indulge my inclination to threats or recriminations, but I did close with the suggestion that legal action might be necessary should his next response not be in keeping with his 100% satisfaction guarantee. Shortly after that, Sanner responded with apologies and a promise to refund my money if I would ship the frame back to his shop. I shipped the frame immediately and received the refund via PayPal, a few days later.

All of the above are the facts of the transaction as fully as I can recreate them from saved emails and memory. What follows is pure opinion and conjecture.

Given the conditions of the tour I’ve just completed (on a factory-made ‘Vaya’ frameset from Salsa), I am truly grateful that the fork failed on a shakedown ride near my home, and not at ~40 mph flying down through Gore canyon.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend the work of Tim Sanner of Sanner Cycles. While I suspect he can and does make functional frames, his clear lack of attention to detail in my case causes me deep concern for others riding those frames in less-than-perfect conditions.