UP CLOSE WITH AN ENGLISH STANDOUT
It was just over a month ago in the days leading to the Unbound Gravel race in Kansas that Shimano broke news on their new GRX Limited drivetrain. Although the 11-speed drivetrain parts and brakes were no different in function from what was originally released in 2019, the “limited” parts did have a new aesthetic by virtue of a beautiful, polished finish.
To ensure that the frame builders’ work would not go unnoticed, Shimano set up a special tent at Unbound Gravel with each of their 10 bikes on display. No carbon bikes were included, so while each display bike was a work of steel or titanium art, one bike stood out among the rest for both the micro-sized tubes used in the rear triangle and its wild front end that featured an equally slim-tubed truss fork. In a word, wow! But then, anyone familiar with the artistic legacy of Rob English’s eye-popping and jaw-dropping creations would know that this gravel stunner was par for the course.
I tracked down Rob in his Eugene, Oregon, frame shop to find out more about the genesis of his innovative entry in Shimano’s GRX Limited display. As usual, Rob was in the thick of building a new frame, and when I asked what the ratio between road and gravel bikes was, he said that given the still-confusing nature of the two categories, that his most popular frame is simply a road bike with more tire clearance.
ALWAYS SOMETHING WILD
Before we get into the bike, I was curious about what the waiting list looks like for getting one of your bikes. Are you still a one-man show?
Actually, for the first time I’ve reached the two-year wait mark. I build about two bikes a month, and in really productive years I’ve been able to build 30 bikes. I’ve gotten pretty efficient at the process, but owing to the increased hardship of finding parts, it has become a bit more difficult of late. I suppose I could hire somebody to help, but it becomes a lifestyle choice to have employees, and that makes it difficult to just go out for a ride when a beautiful day comes along!
About the bike, when did the process get started?
Shimano called me back in January, and I was excited to be selected as one of the builders. We had some back and forth about what I could do and whether I wanted to use a 1x or 2x drivetrain. Initially they didn’t want me to use an integrated seatpost, but eventually they said yes. I chose the 2x because I make all my prototypes to fit myself, and when I ride, I prefer a 2x. Also, I knew the 2x would invite a bigger challenge to overcome when it came to getting the tire clearance I was after.
The fork is obviously the most visual standout of the bike. I made my first truss fork for a mountain bike a few years ago, and it’s worked out fine. The challenge was seeing how light I could make the fork while still providing the wheel clearance I needed. It uses the same 8mm tubing that’s found in the rear triangle, and it’s actually about 70 grams lighter than the standard steel fork I make for my road bikes. I think the truss fork is a good concept because it distributes the forces and not just on the head tube.
“There will always be compromises, but the trick is to figure out which is the least painful.”
The design goal of the fork was to allow me to experiment with different geometries by setting the offset to what I wanted and not just what the array of production carbon forks offered. I designed the bike to have a longer front-center, with a 71-degree head angle coupled with 56mm of fork offset to keep 62mm of trail for more confidence on the descents.
What about those pencil-thin stays used in the rear triangle?
I used similar seatstays on the mountain bike I made, only those were 9mm tubes, and for this bike I used 8mm tubes. The bike can fit up to 50mm tires, and the essence of the build was to test certain design concepts. The bike was built with 40mm WTB tires on the new GRX carbon rims, but when I get the bike back, I can ride it and find out how the bike performs with bigger tires. I’ve been trying to get real data on my frames now to see how the numbers translate to the ride quality. Sometimes when I design a frame I think it’s going to be stiffer, but the numbers say otherwise. The tests I rely on measure the wheel deflection at the dropouts and the vertical compliance of the head tube.
I noticed that the seat tube has a bottle mount on the backside, but it looks like there is zero seatpost adjustability.
It’s a 1-inch seat tube with a tube welded over it to add reinforcement, and then I re-fashioned a Thomsen seatpost with an internal wedge I made that can only be adjusted by removing the saddle. That seat tube will be another part of the frame that I look forward to testing because, as with the fork, it’s intended to provide some added compliance.
The frame is actually the result of what I called my “COVID discovery” testing, which came about when I would go on long rides but not be able to stop at a store to go in for supplies. The result was making a frame with four bottle mounts and a top tube bag mount. Since I don’t like to see my frames with tabs sticking out all over, I brazed the bag mounts on the inside of the top tube to keep the mounts hidden.
What about the numbers?
The bike has a 105.6cm wheelbase and 41.6cm chainstays. The frame is made from a mix of Columbus and custom 4130 tubing. The frame weighs 1718 grams, and the fork weighs 630 grams.
If someone was interested in the bike and had two years to wait to get one, what would the price be?
I guess around $5000. Since I’m not a big fan of building bikes around a big range of tires, if I built a similar bike, I would prefer to have a more specific tire size to build around. I always like getting the bottom bracket as low as possible. You want to avoid pedal strikes, but I prefer the feeling of being in the bike and not on top of it. I think when you build a frame around using a large range of tire sizes, you end up compromising the handling and geometry. Instead of riding a bike that has too many compromises, I would prefer to just have two bikes! There will always be compromises, but the trick is to figure out which is the least painful.