Like countless other cyclists, I spend a not inconsiderable amount of time daydreaming about new bicycles. Not to mention ogling images, reading reviews, creeping around bike shops hoping that a sales assistant won’t pounce and I would be forced to admit that I’m, “Only looking, thanks” when in fact I would much rather be walking out with something expensive and shiny under my arm. However, with an ambitious programme planned for 2011 I have finally decided that it’s time to stop dreaming and finally buy a new machine – something racy and exotic, flattering to ride. A masterpiece of engineering that I will enjoy for many years.
I bought my first road bike with a chunk of student loan, back in the late 90s. It was a Cannondale R-series – I think the frame was called the R3.0. It had gigantic oversized tubes and dropouts that were cantilevered about 3 inches away from where the seatstays met the chainstays. I think the fork was steel originally, but I swapped it for a cheap carbon / alloy version. Cheap because it had already been cut down, and with a longish headtube this meant that I had to run the stem slammed down against the upper bearing race. The groupset was fairly rubbish too, so at a later date I upgraded it all to Campag Chorus. It was pretty stiff, but the ride was utterly appalling and it did a good job of putting me off aluminium road bikes for life.
About five years ago I bought a second-hand Litespeed Tuscany frame – virtually immaculate and a great deal. It came with a very tasty full carbon Look fork, and it was a massive improvement over the Cannondale. I remember the first ride in vivid detail – I reached a section of crumpled and badly pitted tarmac which, when riding the ‘Dale caused a good deal of teeth clenched grimacing. The Litespeed floated over it like a magic carpet – it was uncanny. It felt like there was suspension at work, rather than a pair of gracefully curved 3Al / 2.5V titanium seatstays.
The Litespeed has been fantastic, taking on everything from road race and time trial to a lightweight solo tour across Vietnam, the latter achieved with no modifications save a 13-29 cassette and a Carradice saddlebag. It’s got plenty of years left, but I’ve come round to the idea that it deserves a younger, faster stable-mate to share the load.
There are plenty of decent bikes out there, and I’m under no illusion that my “need” is anything other than desirous longing. Still, if I’m going to spend some cash I want to make sure that I’m going to end up with something special. My initial plan was to buy a carbon bike. Something along the lines of a Wilier Cento Uno, or a Cervelo R3. These bikes appeal both in terms of race-proven reputation and visual flair. The Superleggera version of the Cento is especially beautiful.
But as fancy as these bikes are (and both are technological wonders far beyond any requirements that I could ever hope to argue necessary for my riding) there is, to me, still something missing. Maybe it’s because I view the carbon bike experience as something transitory. (Less with mountain bikes, which I see as having a naturally shorter lifespan – with me riding them anyway.) I want a bike that I’ll still want to ride in 20 years time. I say that because a couple of years ago I bought a late 70s Colnago which comes out on special occasions and it is an absolute joy to ride – whilst not as responsive as the Litespeed, it has an arguably superior quality of ride. It’s quick too.
So, a metal bike it would be. My first port of call was Mosquito Bikes, where I had a lengthy and enjoyable conversation with a chap whose name I forget about the various frames on display. With my experience of titanium I rapidly developed a fondness for Moots – the Vamoots looked like just the thing. Then I laid eyes on a Pegoretti! It had only been a few days since I’d been to the screening of the Ben Ingham film about Dario Pegoretti, and it didn’t take much to persuade me that a Marcelo would admirably fit my criteria of speed, suppleness and style.
But I walked away, and in so doing allowed the seed of indecision to set hold. The lead time for a custom Pegoretti is considerable. It might be a year before it would be ready. A not unreasonable delay for a dream bike, but it would arrive too late for the 2011 season. I started to look elsewhere. The De Rosa Corum was a serious consideration for a while too, exuding as it does a compelling combination of tradition and technology.
Then I remembered a chap whose website I had discovered some months before. An Englishman, called (Rob) English, based in Eugene, Oregon. An engineer, bike builder, racer and time trialist of some renown. The gallery of bikes that Rob has built is multifarious, featuring everything from a balance bike for a two-year-old all the way through to what is to my eye the most amazing and purposeful-looking TT bike on the planet (both of which are illustrated below – the kiddie steed is the one being manufactured). Rob builds in steel, and his quest for performance and speed has led to all sorts of developmental cunning in both design and construction. Steel building is obviously big news at the moment, and there are a lot of builders who are making their names by pursuing more retro affectations. Not Rob. Every new bike appears to build on the last. And as I think someone has already pointed out, of all the builders in the States, Rob is almost certainly the one riding and competing at the highest level, which bodes well if you’re paying for performance. Really though, you only have to look at his work to appreciate how amazing the bikes are.
So, the dialogue has begun, but only just. The first step will be for me to undertake a professional cycle fit. I am fairly confident that my position on my current bikes suits my shape and riding style, but I am happy to pay to confirm that this is indeed the case when a good deal more money is going to be spent. Beyond that, I have not thought that far ahead. A compact frame, with an integrated seat post and internally routed cables. Light and stiff. That’s about as far as I’ve got. The custom bike journey might not be for everyone, but I am very excited about it already!