There are parts of London that aren’t all glass fronted. Parts where there isn’t a Costa on each corner. Out the back of the Olympic Park, just past the Copper Box (which isn’t really copper anymore and frankly I haven’t a clue if it was in the first place) and over the canal in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium lies a little creative community within Hackney Wick. The beautifully tended canal barges that tell a story all of their own about our city but it’s just past here, guarded by a very large dog and a giant plastic turtle, where Rob has just moved into his new workspace. Rob is Quirk Cycles, he’s moved into this workshop in Hackney Wick from Clapton only that week and already it’s looking like home. Jigs all over the place and a plethora of tools and machines that all go to creating the dreams that Rob makes lie around the room in an orderly disorder. And let’s be fair; this is where dreams are made. I don’t say that as an off the cuff remark.
Off the beaten track.
Rob has been operating as Quirk for around the last four years after a degree in Fine Art and makes exclusively custom frames (mostly) from steel for a range of uses. He rides what he builds and completed the now legendary Transcontinental race in 2016 and more recently The Silk Road Mountain Race this summer. He’s an unassuming guy but the rosettes on the wall behind his jig tell a different story to the one that you might assume on first impressions. He has been awarded honours for technical excellence, design and the best new frame builder at the prestigious Bespoked bicycle show in Bristol, some of the highest praise in his field and one of my first questions to him is over his aptitude for self-promotion. His dry response summed up his outlook but won’t be repeated here. Safe to say he is not one to blow his own trumpet.
Steel as a material easily falls out of trend in the age of stiffness and weight. It’s a material that has and retains certain ride characteristics. Lively and responsive steel bikes retain a distinct personality that other materials simply don’t possess. As mainstream consumers aluminium and more recently carbon catch the eye and are pushed more commonly to us. These days steel bikes do hold something of a niche but one that is close to the hearts of many. Steel, as they say, is real and the frames that Rob and other frame builders like him build are personal, or at least they should be. It’s not just a bike. These frames are something that the new owner has a lot of say in and the finished product is something that is designed and built to be loved and treasured.
Getting jiggy with it.
You can buy and be fitted to a range of bikes made from a range of different materials in different sizes with different components. But that isn’t really the reason to have a custom frame made for you. If you want a custom paint job you again don’t need to have a frame built for you. You can get that done aftermarket pretty easily should you wish. Not everyone has been there, but we certainly have, a frame doesn’t align, something isn’t right, the wheel doesn’t sit right in the dropouts, there’s paint in a thread… Rob and frame builders of his calibre use specialist equipment to help with alignment and work with tolerances that production frames cant assure. We are talking millimetres, measurements you are very unlikely to notice in the real world. Each frame is finished personally with the frame builders pride and craftsmanship going into each one but again that alone isn’t necessarily a reason to buy a custom frame. Getting a frame built for you means more than that.
A Quirk in the making. Puns aside seeing the laid out forms of the process is truly inspiring.
The process is as much an investment in the frame builder as it is the frame itself. The expertise that the frame builder brings to the process of the fitting and the geometry of the end use of the frame is of course crucial to the end product. An end product that will take centre stage in whatever collection of bikes it eventually joins; because through this process something unique has been born. Something even experienced riding partners might not notice at first but something that is unique to the collaboration between the rider and the builder.
Rob builds almost exclusively from Colombus steel tubing which in manufactured in Italy. Over the two hours I spend with him he shows me around the various bits of machinery and hardware that makes an operation like Quirk work. Amongst the traditional methods there are laser measuring devices and jigs that measure to the smallest margins. Indeed things like frame tolerances and alignment are fascinating and something so crucial to a frame but also something that can get past even the strictest QA systems of mass produced frames. From the first contact with a customer Rob obtains the numbers from a bike fit and through the conversation between the builder and the rider about the purpose of the bike and characteristics of the rider angles are devised and the shapes and lengths of tubes are selected before being assembled.
A design for life.
In a world of continued innovations Rob will continue to build frames steeped in heritage. Of course they will often now come with junction boxes, disc brakes and all the other mod cons but movements such as e-bikes aren’t his cup of tea. Indeed bikes are bikes, but within that there are other bikes and within those bike there are other bikes that set themselves apart. And that’s the thing isn’t it really? This piece isn’t an advert for Rob or Quirk Cycles, it’s a nudge to independents. Guys like Rob who do it for the absolute love and have a real passion and knowledge for what they are doing. Custom frames aren’t necessarily for everyone but of course they are.
A finished Quirk.Photo credit: Nikoo Hamzavi
Not everyone’s journey will take them to Rob or another frame builder. But it might and if it does putting trust into the skills and knowledge that Rob and other master frame builders possess will doubtless be an investment that is worth its weight in *steel.