NAHBS 2016: Rob English reinterprets Graeme Obree’s Old Faithful

by James Huang

Without a doubt, Rob English is one of the most creative custom bike builders of the modern era, deftly blending art, science, and engineering into some of the wildest steel creations on two wheels. Seeing an English in person tends to bring forth a sense of intrigue and curiosity, as if such a thing couldn’t possibly be real — and yet it is, and more often than not, you somehow find yourself wanting one (or at least wanting to ride one for yourself).

At this year’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show, English looked back to when he first got into cycling in the early 1990s. One of the most dramatic scenes of the time was the epic Hour Record battle between Scotsman Graeme Obree and British Olympic champion Chris Boardman. Obree established a new record in the summer of 1993, only for it to be toppled by Boardman days later. Obree would ultimately triumph over Boardman, though, retaking the prize the following spring.

That back and forth would have been drama enough on its own but the side story of Obree’s radical position would also provide its own narrative. Instead of using a conventional drop handlebar or outstretched aero extension, Obree folded his arms beneath his chest, tucking them tightly up against his flattened back in a contorted form that seemed horrifically uncomfortable but was nevertheless extremely efficient in terms of aerodynamics.

Even better, Obree built the highly unusual bike himself.

“Obree was an engineer and an athlete, and he did both to a very high level,” English told CyclingTips. “I’ve always wanted to try his position and racing in Oregon, we’re not subjected to UCI rules. So I used this show as an excuse to get this done.”

English prefers working in steel, which he says can be easily manipulated to suit and joined in a wide range of techniques as needed.
English prefers working in steel, which he says can be easily manipulated to suit and joined in a wide range of techniques as needed.

Like Obree’s original bike — which bore the nickname, Old Faithful — English turned to fairly pedestrian steel tubing that he could freely manipulate as needed to mimic the original frame profile. And just like Old Faithful, English’s interpretation is radically narrower than typical track machines.

Down below, the ultra-skinny bottom bracket shell features a total width of just 50mm (including the bearings), filled with a custom eccentric and one-off machined aluminum crankarms built by a friend in England.

Maintaining the narrow theme are HED three-spoke carbon wheels that the company custom-made for English with 80mm spacing up front and 110mm out back — 20mm narrower than usual — as well as a sprocket interface that’s offset further inboard than usual to maintain a proper chainline.

The bottom bracket measures just 50mm between the crankarms.
The bottom bracket measures just 50mm between the crankarms.

Interestingly, the bike also features an unusually low bottom bracket but English insists that cornering clearance isn’t an issue.

“It’s amazing how much you can lower the bottom bracket when you make the cranks narrow. It makes a huge difference! I was able to drop the bottom bracket by 30mm so in terms of frontal area, everything went down.”

English admits that he has yet to actually ride the bike given the last-minute completion just days before the start of the show. Nevertheless, he plans to race it in Oregon’s local time trial series.

“It’ll be interesting to see if I can hold this tuck or not.”

For more information, visit English Cycles.

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