Rob English grew up in England but resides in Eugene, Oregon where he crafts beautiful steel bikes and races them with grit and passion. He recently won Best of Show for his TT bike at the 2013 Handmade Bicycle Show in Denver, Colorado and we had a few words with him.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Rob.
Rob English: You are welcome! I am a frequent visitor to Slowtwitch to keep up with the latest news.
ST: Several of your bikes have been posted in our forum before with a variety of passionate comments and it is good to finally meet the man behind English Cycles. Are you actually a forum person or were your ears just ringing?
Rob: I rarely have time to explore the forums – too many fun projects to work on in the shop! Once I’ve caught up with email and news that is enough time at the computer for me.
ST: We just featured your personal TT bike and I think it is stunning. How long have you been working on this?
Rob: I have been thinking about various aspects of the design for two years, and finally started work on it last summer. Personal projects have to be squeezed in when I can around customer bikes, so I machined the BB axle in June I think, and then gradually did all the other numerous bits and pieces through the end of the year. Of course it ended up being a rush to get it all done for the show – nothing quite like trying to get all the Di2 cables installed at 2am.
ST: Was the paint barely dry when you arrived in Denver?
Rob: We shipped the bikes ahead of us, which meant my deadline for having everything ready was two weeks before. So the paint was barely dry when the bike went in the crate! It was actually nice - I got all the stress out of the way and then was able to ride my bike a bunch right before the show.
ST: How did you get actually started with building bikes?
Rob: I built the first one in high school at age 15. It was terrible, but the process definitely taught me a lot. Wanting to know more, I went to university to study mechanical engineering.
ST: Where is that first one you made?
Rob: It eventually had to be junked when I left my parents’ place. But the first bike that actually got ‘English’ decals was built in 2008, and it is the TT bike that I have been racing for the last five years. I took the knowledge I gained with that one and applied it to the new build.
ST: Do most folks you race against know that you are a bike builder or do some folks think you just put your name on someone else’s bike?
Rob: I think most of the racers in Oregon know I'm the builder.
ST: You earned the Best in Show award at the Handmade event in Boulder. Were you flattered?
Rob: Very much so, and pretty stunned too – I really was not expecting it. There are so many incredible, innovative and talented builders at the show that I wouldn’t want to be in the judges’ situation of trying to call one the “best.”
ST: TT bikes are really not very common at the Handmade Bicycle Show. Why do you think that is?
Rob: I’m not sure, actually – in terms of position, TT bikes are ones that really cry out for custom sizing. That is what got me started with this run of frame building – my arms are so long that I just couldn’t get the position I wanted on a production bike. It was very gratifying to actually go faster on the bike I had built (due to the improved position). It doesn’t help that it is hard to find good aero tubing for bike building – there is actually less available now than there was five years ago.
ST: The extension position on your personal bike is very narrow and would not work for many folks, but it obviously only needs to work for you. What size is that bike and what are some of your dimensions?
Rob: The top tube is roughly 54cm - I had to go look at the drawing. I've often had people ask what size my bikes are and I don't actually know - I just put the contact points in the correct positions and draw the frame in to join them. The seat height is 760mm, with 20mm of setback. Nose of saddle to rear of pads is 500mm and the drop from saddle to pads is 220mm. I am 5'8.5" and weigh 140lbs.
ST: You mentioned that you had not yet tested the integrated front end on your bike. When do you think you will be able to do so and is there an event you are targeting?
Rob: I’ll be test riding the bike as soon as we get a dry day! Last season I was disappointed to lose my state time trial title (I was third, after winning the previous three years). I’m hoping to use the new bike to reclaim the title and to try and knock the course record down a little more – I think the race is in August this year.
ST: Word has it indeed that you are a very accomplished cyclist and that time trialing is your forte.
Rob: I like to think I am a bit of an allrounder, but having started racing in the UK, where there is this unique sub-culture of time trialling (I use to race over 50 TTs a year), I have a lot of experience with that discipline. A few other highlights from my palmares would be four 12hr mountain bike race wins, the British 200m (68mph) and hour (just over 50 miles) records, podiums in various road and stage races in the UK and Oregon. And possibly my favorite prize of winning a Credit Lyonnais lion at the Duo Normand two-up TT in France.
ST: Why do you think think there is such a fascination with the TT discipline in the UK?
Rob: It is mainly historical – road racing was banned from public roads until (someone may have to correct my history here) the '60s. So time trials took place in secret, early in the mornings, with the courses identified with codes (which are still used today), and the riders dressed in black. Although the ban was eventually overturned, by then there was a big culture of time trialling in place that has remained.
ST: Are you surprised that some folks draw comparisons to Obree?
Rob: Flattered I guess – I was just getting into road racing and time trialling at university during the height of Obree’s career. What a legend; I might hope to compare to him one day as an innovative bike builder, but he will always be way above me as an athlete. Graham is awesome – if you watch the Flying Scotsman you would think it was made up if you didn’t know the story was all true.
ST: You had mentioned a current 22-month wait for one of your creations. Will that go North of 24 months after this show?
Rob: We certainly took quite a few orders after the show last year, so hopefully the same thing will happen this time. It is a long time to wait for a bicycle, but I enjoy working with each individual customer to create their custom build, and that process takes time.
ST: Do you mostly work on road and mountain bikes, or have you done TT bikes for customers?
Rob: I have definitely done more road bikes than anything else, but there have been several TT builds – all the previous ones can be viewed on my website.
ST: What kind of data do you need from you customers to build a custom frame? Stack and reach or do you handle it differently?
Rob: My first question is always to find out if the customer has their position completely dialed on their current bike. If so then I have a fit form especially for TT bikes to capture all the numbers I need. Essentially I need to relate BB to saddle and bars. With all the geometry being full custom, stack and reach doesn't quite give me enough to best match the existing position. Of course, going custom also gives a good opportunity to further refine and improve the position – this is something I can work on with them in person, or can be done with a local fitter.
ST: Maybe your competitors start ordering bikes from you to keep you from training.
Rob: I’ll always make time for riding my bike – actually that is when I do all my best design work. Long rides let ideas mull about in my brain until the solution comes forth.
ST: Are you a power meter man?
Rob: I had some SRMs several years ago, and found them useful to a degree, especially for knowing when to quit during an interval session. But I came to the conclusion that it was only really going to benefit my training if I spent a considerable amount of time analysing the data, and that is time I just don’t have. Perhaps another analogy to Obree here – I train mostly on feel, rather than relying on numbers too much, although I do always ride with a heart rate monitor. It seems recently I have heard several racers complaining at the end of events that they don’t understand why they didn’t go faster as their power numbers were good – I can’t help thinking that if they were less focused on the numbers and more on the feedback from their bodies that might help!
ST: Anything else we should know?
Rob: English Cycles is proudly car-free – everything is done by bicycle and trailer, from fetching gas tanks to delivering boxed bikes for shipping. Lugging the trailers over the hill to town doesn’t hurt the training! I have also been vegan for four years now, and have found that this diet choice has greatly improved my health, leanness and energy. No more eating restrictions to maintain race weight; I eat as much as I want, when I want, and my performance has only improved.
The website for the English Cycles is englishcycles.com