In this edition of Bikes of the Bunch, Sydneysider Sean Lybrand tells us about his new custom English Cycles steel road bike that was picked up in person from US-based builder Rob English.
Growing up in Townsville and riding bikes with my twin brother, my bike was my freedom machine.
Moving to Brisbane in the early 1990s and riding across town to university was a good way to see a lot of the city. Brisbane in the ’90s offered a strong showing for custom builds (both frames and wheels) and while off-the-shelf bikes were common (or, for me, rebuilds of whatever bikes and wheels I could afford), the keen guys spent their money on Van Werkhovens (Gold Coast-based, gone), Llewellyns (Brisbane, thriving in the custom scene), or Sorensons (Gold Coast, also gone).
I still recall a friend’s Sorenson in purple and green, and thought it was a beautiful combination. And at some stage in my life, I decided that a custom steelie, in the same colours, was going to be for me.
I’ve been on a lot of bikes since then: mountain, road, cyclocross, and more recently gravel, although a custom build stayed a long way out of reach due to cost. Responsibilities of growing up and buying a house ensued, then kids, and while bikes have always stayed a central point in my life, they have always been production varieties (albeit with a fair amount of customisation in recent times).
Reading quite a number of online sources like CyclingTips, The Radavist, Bikepacking and others somewhat perpetuates the interest in tinkering, and over the years I’ve enjoyed watching the resurgence of custom, and steel, against a societal backdrop that seems to have returned to an interest in craftsmanship and the origin of things.
At the beginning of 2017 I could see the light at the end of the mortgage tunnel and started to think about a bike to mark the milestone of leaving debt behind. Two of my bikes from the past 20 years have stuck with me – a 1998 Cannondale R300 and a 1994 Marin Pine Mountain. Both mark important milestones in my life and are hanging in the shed as rebuild opportunities.
I bought the Marin during a working holiday in the US, and carried it with me on a drive from one corner of the US to another. It came with a White Industries front hub and crank, which I have always looked at as uber-cool. For some time I’ve had these two parts in a custom build list as an homage to this bike and trip.
The Cannondale was purchased when I quit work and went back to study a Master’s degree. It was my only form of transport for some time. It was a US-made frame, and it has hung around (literally) for many years after its demise as a functioning bike (back when it seemed easier and cheaper to buy a new bike than to rebuild one).
Discovering Rob English
I first came across Rob English while surfing the NAHBS galleries on CyclingTips, and decided to do some further investigation. Baum had been right up on the list, as had a number of other Aussie manufacturers, but I decided that I wanted to get something that was going to be fairly uncommon, and to come from a small business (to be fair, Aussie builders fit the bill on both counts).
Rob English makes each bike himself, with only painting outsourced, which fit my interest in supporting low-volume production. The fact that we had a great conversation about bikes, riding philosophy and preference was a further tick.
The deal was sealed after making contact with Rob, and subsequently making a visit to his home in Oregon for a discussion and fit in March 2017 (including a stay at their other business, Velo B&B). The long lead time provided a chance to plan my savings, become debt free, and most importantly, consider what the build list would be.
The bike was fitted up according to the type of riding I was planning on doing, and accounted for my relatively short stature by using 165mm cranks to prevent undesirable toe overlap.
Something that had been bubbling in my mind was a paint job Rob had previously created: a two-sided bike, with one primary colour on each side. On testing the idea with riding buddies, I found myself at the receiving end of a lot of unkind comments!
The core of the build brought together the three things I had long dreamed about: a green and purple paint job; a custom steel frame; and a MUSA [ed. Made in the USA] build. The 165mm crank options were addressed by White Industries, and to add to the hubs and bottom bracket that were already available, the Californian-based company released matching headsets during the build year.
Also during the build year, Rolf Prima released their Astral Rims brand, and being made right in Eugene, Oregon — the very same town as Rob — they became a natural addition.
I wanted to try an aero handlebar, mainly as I find that flatter bars tend to treat my hands better than round ones (after some unfortunate incidents with kitchen knives and resulting nerve damage.)
While not made in the USA, SRAM eTap was the only real choice for the American-themed build, with the other upside being a significantly simpler cable run and much cleaner front end. The Cane Creek eebrakes were an indulgence and Speedplays are my usual choice of pedal. A set of titanium King Cages were a natural choice. Paul skewers were a fun addition, another product from California in an appropriately high-polish finish.
Well before Rob started on the frame, I spoke with Mick Peel of Busyman about combining the Union Jack on the seat and saddle bag, mainly to reflect Rob’s company name and heritage. Following a few samples from Mick, I settled on a grey leather, something that set the tone for the silver centreline of the bike. After a few design choices and few months, I went to Melbourne and collected Mick’s contribution to the project. Subsequently, I had Fetha make up a set of bar ends to reflect the English theme.
When the time came to build and paint the frame, Rob kept me up to date with photos. We decided to do a few sample sprays as I was a little concerned my primary green choice wasn’t going to work out as I’d hoped. Rob posted me painted poly tube samples, and I was super thankful for this as my originally requested green was nowhere near what I was after. I can’t quite imagine turning up to see a new bike that wasn’t the colour I was expecting.
Rob’s handiwork is all on display here, including the custom-made stem with Paragon parts, the polished Paragon dropouts (as I wanted to ensure I didn’t end up cracking the paintwork with the skewer heads), and the custom tube ovalising and butting. Being somewhat known for crashing my bikes from time to time, I figured a replaceable hanger was a prudent investment.
I had Rob make the frame with the aero downtube and oval seatmast to show off the paintwork, rather than for the aero benefits. The carbon insert for the headtube was purely ornamental, a nice piece of detail work to absorb with the rest.
I went back to Oregon in May 2018 to pick up the bike, a trip that coincided with the Oregon Grand Fondo. My first impressions were that it was both beautiful and fast-feeling. With a shorter wheelbase than my existing road bike, it was whippy on the road and sharp on the descents, and I could pick up the significant differences in ride feel with a lively steel chassis.
The Oregon Grand Fondo ride was a great day out in the mountains with, ultimately, very few people around at the latter part of the race. I had anticipated that I would be a little stiff in the shoulders moving to a steel frame with greater drop, but that certainly didn’t eventuate. I finished both comfortable and certainly very satisfied with the comfort and ride quality.
Now back home, it’s my Sunday bike. The build sits at 8.16kg (18lb) with pedals, cages and saddlebag. I didn’t build the bike with a specific focus on weight, and if there’s any weight to be lost, it’s probably easier, healthier and less costly for it to come from me.
Performance-wise, it is yet to get a screaming workout on a complex downhill, but from what I have been willing to try, it’s as precise as any bike I can remember. Having dreamt about such a thing for almost half my life, I really couldn’t be happier with the build. The memories that are beneath my hands are all good with me.
Frame: Custom English Cycles road
Headtube: True Temper, custom machined, cutout and Enve carbon tube added
Downtube: Columbus Life Aero
Seattube: Custom externally butted 4130, ovalised post-machining. Cap machined and shaped to match
Toptube: Nova 28.6mm (similar to Columbus Zona), 0.8/0.5/0.8. Custom bi-ovalised
Seatstay: 9.5mm, 0.7mm wall 4130, custom shaped
Chainstay: Columbus Zona s-bend
Dropouts: Paragon Machine Works stainless
Bottom bracket: Custom internally butted 4130
Fork: Columbus Futura SL 50mm rake
Paint: Colorworks, Eugene Oregon. House of Kolor Organic Green/ Violette/ Platinum
Groupset: SRAM eTap shifting, White Industries crankset, Cane Creek eebrakes G4
Wheels: Astral Cycling Radiant rims, CX-Ray spokes, White Industries polished T11 hubs, built by Rob English.
Tyres: Schwalbe Pro One 28c tubeless
Seatpost: Custom ovalised seat cap with Enve component head
Saddle: Selle Italia Turbomatic Gel Flow with Busyman custom leather
Handlebars: Zipp SL-70 Aero
Bar tape: Busyman custom leatherwork
Stem: English Cycles custom stem with Paragon Machine works compo