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February 10, 2017
Photography by Jason Doyle
In this edition of Bikes of the Bunch, Zak Smiley tells us the story behind his new English Cycles road bike, and proves that it’s possible to be a weight-weenie while riding a steel bike.
By Zak Smiley
I’ve been building bikes for the best part of ten years and over the last two years I’ve become the go-to guy in Sydney for custom bike and wheel builds. My n+1 desires are pretty well kept in check as I build so many dream bikes for other people that it helps get that ‘need’ out of my system. Even so, I can’t be stopped.
I ride 200-300kms a week when I’m motivated (sometimes when your whole world is bikes you do get sick of them when it’s dark and cold outside) and had been mulling over a full custom build for quite a while when the idea of working with Rob English came to me.
I’ve always admired Rob’s work, and when it comes to steel, it’s fair to say he is someone really pushing the boundaries of what a steel bike can be. It’s 2017, and to be honest, there isn’t a bike race in the world that couldn’t be won on a modern steel frameset with Rob himself racking up some national level titles in the USA on his own steel machines.
I’ve owned a couple of nice steel bikes in the past, most notably a Serotta CDA that had carbon seat stays, so I was really interested in what Rob was doing with carbon for his bikes. The whole process started after I asked Jason ‘Madcow’ Woznick of Fairwheel Bikes for an introduction and the two of us took it from there.
One of the things that I appreciate about Rob’s work — other than his very distinctive style — is his racing and engineering background. Rob knows how to build a fast bike and that’s what I wanted… something that rails corners hard and is predictable (aka stable) at speeds up to and exceeding 100kph. I’m not the lightest guy either and that was taken into account with the tubing and the layout of the frame.
My Parlee Z5 SLi was used as the benchmark because my fit was dialled and it’s a joy when pushed hard and fast. The geometry that Rob came up with was pretty aggressive with a very short rear end. The wheelbase is actually shorter than my Parlee, which was pretty short to start with.
In the end, the geometry went through three revisions as the stem, fork and headset were decided. At the end of the day aesthetics matter and a slammed stem was a must; so was a low-stack headset. Each time one of these parts was changed, it was followed up with a new set of drawings. I believe this is an important part of the process when getting a custom frame built. My tip, don’t pay the deposit until you have a set of drawings that you’re happy with.
Working with Rob was amazing. He’s very a passionate guy and responds to e-mails and stupid questions quickly without a hint of annoyance. He keeps you up to date on the progress of the project with e-mails and photos. He’s also the best person to explain some of the thinking behind the design and construction of the bike:
“Zak was super easy to work with. He knows his bike stuff, so was able to verbalise what he was looking for, and give me some comparison bikes that he liked the handling of. He also had his fit all dialled in so I could just create the geometry around that and then select the tubing.
“We ended up deciding to tweak the geometry just a bit towards downhill stability, with a 72.5 degree head angle and 43mm of fork offset giving 60mm of trail (race bike trail is generally 58mm). Short chainstays (405mm) and a 110mm stem keeps the weight distribution centred between the wheels. The bottom bracket height was set for Zak’s 172.5mm cranks.
“Zak chose to go with a carbon integrated seatpost and matching head tube insert. For his size and weight I went with a 31.6mm Enve carbon tube for the mast, with custom-machined 4130 socket and seat-mast cap. The True Temper head tube was machined to accept the Enve carbon head tube inside. The down tube is an oversize aero Life tube from Columbus matched to oval, short taper Life chainstays with a custom internally-butted BSA bottom bracket shell in between. The top tube is Ox Platinum from True Temper, custom-ovalised, while the seatstays are custom-formed 4130.”
Once the bike hit the jig, things moved quite quickly and the constant updates made the time waiting for the jig-slot to open up worth it. Actually, I’m amazed that Rob was able to find the time to send photos and e-mail updates because he’s pretty much a one-man band. Having worked with my customers on their custom-built frames, I can tell you this level of interaction with a very busy framebuilder isn’t that common in the industry.
The paint scheme was conceptualised by my good friend Chris Gillespie, who some may know from his work as the graphic designer for Arenberg. He suggested 75% grey on the stem, fork and all the steel of the frame, while the carbon received a nice thick coat of clear gloss (matte finishes may be popular but a gloss finish is much easier to look after).
The inspiration for the black chrome logos stemmed from an idea for a metal head badge. In the end, the badge wasn’t going to be practical, but the paint was a total unknown in terms of how it would look on the frame. Rob tells me that it wasn’t straightforward for Eric at Colorworks in Eugene, Oregon but he nailed it to the wall because the result is stunning.
Frame: English Cycles V3, fillet-brazed with Enve carbon seat and head tubes
Fork: Enve Road 1.0
Stem: 3T Arx II
Bars: 3T Ergonova LTD
Levers: Campagnolo Super Record
Front Derailleur: Campagnolo Super Record
Rear Derailleur: Campagnolo Super Record with Kogel jockey wheels
Brake callipers: eeBrakes
Cranks: Quarq DZero
Wheels: Curve G4 25/35mm clinchers with V3 Alchemy hubs and Sapim CX-Rays; Curve G4 25/35mm tubulars with Extralite Cyberhubs and Sapim CX-Rays.
Bottom bracket: Kogel
Saddle: Berk Lupina
Bar tape: Busyman Bicycles
Accessories: Fetha Garmin mount; Emporelli Dolomiti cages; custom black Ti bolts for the stem and saddle clamp.
Weight: 6.3kg with tubular wheelset
I have a deep weight-weenie streak, and while the bike’s not crazy-ass light, it’s a (mostly) steel frame, and I haven’t made any compromises in regards to the durability of the build. So it’s all light yet practical gear. I’m not a fan of weight-weenie builds that aren’t practical: there’s absolutely no point building a superbike that you can’t do 3,000km between services or bang out a 200km ride on.
The fork is a good example of this thinking. It is one of the last Enve 1.0 forks made before they were withdrawn from production. It was their lightest fork but it could flex too much for some riders. Since the head tube wasn’t very long, Rob was very confident it would be plenty stiff enough, though. The hardware comprises Extralite’s low-stack headset, eecycleworks eeNut, and an Extralite top-cap that are all very light but also quite durable.
I built two sets of wheels for the bike because the right wheels are pretty important for meeting weight targets; they also have a big impact on how a bike will ride.
The wheelset pictured is a pair of Curve Cycling’s G4 25/35mm carbon clinchers laced with Sapim CX-ray spokes to V3 Alchemy hubs from Wheels Mfg. At 1,300g, these are a rocking pair of wheels for carbon clinchers, stiff and very fast without beating you up or requiring much upkeep. I’ve fitted them with Vittoria Graphene Pro Speed tyres that are very fast with plenty of grip. They also produce a fair bit of road noise but I kinda like that.
The second pair of wheels (aka the travelling/mountain wheels that help the bike hit 6.3kgs) has special-order Curve Cycling G4 25mm/35mm tubular rims laced to a set of Extralite Cyberhubs that have a full set of Kogel ceramic bearings. I could have saved more weight on these kilo wheels by using a 25mm rim for the rear wheel but at my weight, I wanted the extra depth of a 35mm rim to steal back a little overall stiffness to compensate for the lower non-drive side spoke tension that the Extralite hub provides.
These wheels are glued up with a pair of the Veloflex Extreme/Carbon tubs: I have spent years running these tyres and really trust the way they behave when you push them hard. Plus, they really are the gold standard for handmade tubular tires.
As a known Campagnolo guy, Super Record mechanical was an easy choice. The rear mech was upgraded with a set of Kogel’s full ceramic ‘NFI’ jockey wheels, but otherwise the shifters and mechs are standard Campagnolo.
The brakes are from eecycleworks: bit of a no-brainer for me as I’m one of the main retailers for the product in Australia. The cables are a mix of Jagwire Elite Link housing — a system I’m pretty fond of that has zero compression and allows for a fully sealed system by running the liner all the way through the bike — and Aican DLC Teflon cables, pretty much the only coated cable that retains its coating permanently. Together, they really help get the best out of eeBrakes and they are light, too.
The bottom bracket is trusty BSA set up with a pair of Kogel’s BSA-30mm cups holding onto Quarq’s new 386EVO D zero powermeter cranks. The only other powermeter that was going to fit the build was SRM fitted to THM’s Clavicula M3 crankset, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pony up three-times the cash for a unit that wasn’t as user-friendly as the Quarq.
The stem is a custom-painted 3T Arx II running a set of my custom black Ti bolts with one of Fetha Component’s new Garmin mounts to suit the stem. Bars are 40cm 3T Ergonova LTD all wrapped up with my favourite style of Busyman Bicycles tape, soft matte finish tape with a single row of silver perforations to match the black chrome graphics.
The saddle is the one of Jure Berk’s Lupinas beefed up to handle 100kg. He matched the weave of the saddle to the seat tube, which just looks fantastic. It is held in place by Rob’s tidy custom one-bolt seat mast topper kitted out with more black Ti bolts from me.
Finally, there is a carbon Parlee front mech clamp and Emporelli bottle cages (quite rare now). Both had a matte finish so I had them glossed by Tristan at Carbon Bike Doctor. I’m really happy I went to the trouble because it really finishes off the build.
So, how does she ride? At the end of the day, when your dream build is in the hands of a guy on the other side world, sometimes what you expect and what you get can be a bit of a dice roll. But I’m happy to report the bike totally exceeds all expectations: it turns in fast and holds very tight and exact lines even in excess of 90kph. She also changes direction effortlessly without a hint of twitchiness.
I’ve never ridden a steel frame that turns all roads buttery smooth in a way that is normally reserved for very high-end custom carbon frames with custom tubesets. It’s the most comfortable bike I’ve every ridden, no matter how rubbish the road. On top of the comfort, there is a stiff bottom bracket that transfers power perfectly, with precise, razor sharp handling, and perfect manners, no matter the speed or lean angle.
I’m genuinely blown away by this bike.