Today, we’re continuing our coverage of bicycle frame builder Rob Roberson with a detailed look at Zach Small‘s touring bike inspired, in part, by stoner doom band Sleep’s album “Dopesmoker.”With hand-carved lugs, custom racks, and perfect paint courtesy of Jon Pucci, there’s a lot to take in so let’s get right to it!
Getting Rob to build you a bike isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Even if you know of his work or know who he is, he doesn’t have a website, he doesn’t have a cell phone. I’ve even seen business cards that said “Rob Roberson Bicycle Maker” without a phone number.Even then, when you do know him and can track him down to fork over a $500 deposit, he builds your bike on his terms. I consider it akin to getting a job with a cool messenger company or finding that cool punk show/venue – the address is not printed on the flier or company website and your first assignment/test is finding the front door or asking a punk, and then begging for a chance to be let in. Even then, you’re an outsider until you have been fully accepted into the community.
When I alluded to Rob being the most “punk rock frame builder of all time” in my last piece, I was not being factitious or using a figure of speech to exaggerate his lifestyle. Rob literally loves punk rock and, while he may not identify specifically as a “punk,” at 73 years old he still loves discovering and listening to heavy outsider music. This was one of the first things Rob and I bonded over. I found out we had been at the same Melvins show at the Casbah and was like “This old guy likes The Melvins?!” I had prodded further about his musical tastes and found out he liked an array of styles of punk and metal.
We began to share artists and albums we appreciated that either of us had, or had not, heard of. Even when I had moved away I continued to send letters and records of new music I had found that I knew Rob would appreciate. When I caught up with him to talk about his history as a builder I specifically asked him about how he had gotten into punk rock. His era of music was analogous to what Joe Bell would play in the paint shop: The Mamas and the Papas, The Carpenters, maybe the heaviest being Led Zeppelin III in the CD player.
When Rob started with Ibis in Sebastopol in the late 80s he was one of the oldest guys there at nearly 40-years-old. “I felt culturally stagnant,” he told me, “I dressed like I had in my 20s, and I liked the same music [since then]. I felt dated.”
One of the younger guys that Rob worked with would bring his boombox and cassette tapes to work. One day Rob asked what bands he was playing and this 17-year-old part-timer told him about underground local bands and offered to take him to a show. Rob, compelled, started going to punk shows throughout Northern California. I asked him if he ever felt like an odd man out and he responded, “at first people looked at me like, who’s this old guy? Who brought their Dad? But eventually, everyone started to recognize me and accept me in that scene.” Rob, then an outsider, eventually became a regular at famous venues like the Petaluma Theatre. He listed off some of the bands that he saw in their infancy including Fugazi, Green Day, Bad Religion, Black Flag, and The Melvins, to name just a few.
When I decided I wanted a bicycle built by Rob, I knew what music I wanted to send him for inspiration when constructing the bike. As a lifelong punk myself I have always found music to be a huge inspiration to my work. The mood it puts me into craft or the feelings certain bands can conjure will always guide my direction in design. DIY punk especially has always had an all-encompassing ethos that has guided my craft. The music, flyers, logos, cover art, graphic design, fashion have guided how I approach creating things. So when I thought of the bike I wanted Rob to build music was my direct inspiration. I started penning a letter to Rob, I knew I wanted a touring bike and I think I wrote specifically that I wanted, “a bike I could ride to the end of the world, something I could pack all my worldly possessions on and get lost.”
When I daydreamed about riding this touring bike my first thoughts took me to slowly droning up a mountain scape from town to town on a weeks-long tour. Along with a fit sheet and geometry reminiscent of French randonneuring bikes and heavily influenced by Ultra Romance and Crust bikes of the time, I sent him the quintessential four-disc doom stoner metal LP Dopesmoker by Sleep. I said in my letter “listen to this and design my lugs!” I wanted Rob to build every part of the bike as possible.
I had seen racks he had done once, the clean lines and support pieces evoked the simplistic but sturdy designs of truss and cantilever bridges, so I knew I needed those. I requested integrated dynamo wiring and supplied him with Rene Herse Son SL connector-less dropouts, RH’s retro-inspired rear light, and a Son Schmidt Edelux II for the front. I also wanted to be able to have room to fit smaller 27.5″ mountain tires or 650bx48 with fender clearance to give me the option of plowing through rough stuff or to be comfortable on long road hauls. A matching stem and disc brakes were also requested. The bike would be heavy and slow when fully loaded and Sleep as a soundtrack only felt appropriate for a bike that I would be riding with no destination or pace in mind just for the sheer joy of rolling on rubber. I left my phone number at the end of the letter and sealed it in the record box and addressed it to Joe Bell’s Paint Shop “ATTN: Rob Roberson” and awaited a phone call.
The bike of course was always going to be built on Rob’s terms so when he finally called he said: “DISC BRAKES?! What kind of Frankenstein bike am I building? No, I won’t do that.”
I even offered to send him my Anvil disc brake jigs. Rob responded with another hard “No!”
The stem was also something he hadn’t done before and didn’t want to do but I was finally able to convince him to take that one on. It took Rob about a year to complete the bike and I visited San Diego to see the frame before I got it painted. When I finally saw it I was blown away by how he was able to capture that heavy metal spirit and interpret it into lugs. They have an almost medieval look but also a touch of southwestern desert patterns that matches one of my favorite stylistic touches of Rob’s: his cowboy rancher typeface logo.
Rob told me that when he got my instructions to find inspiration through listening to the Sleep album he took it seriously. He said, “My brother gave me this LP, cassette, CD player cabinet that lets me play all my stuff and it also lets me transfer records to cassette. So, I took all four records in the album and transferred them to a cassette so I could play them on my Walkman and take it with me while I camp. When I went out camping I thought I had messed up my recording because the song just went on and on, but then it would change and it confused me at first. Once I got to the end and it was just stuck in my head and I had to listen to it again. Then I designed your lugs.”
Rob included some of his trade touches on the frame too, including his “fleur-de-lis” style seat stay cap and manually machined seat binder. Rob doesn’t thin out his lugs as much as other builders, which makes the lug work very present in their definition only adding to the overall “heaviness” of their look. The racks have integrated wiring ports to conceal the Dynamo lighting circuit. And in order to ensure each bend of the rack is the same he turned small connectors in a lathe that allowed him to bend each part of the rack’s tubing separately and then braze each bent piece into the connectors ensure a perfectly symmetrical rack.
He integrated the front light into the rack but still made it detachable with a bracket to protect it in case of a crash. He even built me an extra front rack because he didn’t think that I would always want to be riding with both of my touring racks on the frame. Because of his use of the turned connector pieces and bending sub-assemblies, it’s an exact match of the upper portion of my front-loaded camping rack. The rear rack has the RH light built in with a structure to protect it from hits and gives the rear end a nostalgic look like that of a 1930s art deco automobile. And, finally, he noted the rear rack can specifically fit a 12-pack of Negra Modelo; his favorite beer.
All of the lugs are cut from stock tubing and tig welded into their respective angles. They are then hand carved, sanded to blend in and hide the tig freeze patterns, and make them look as if they were always a single piece. Other than the dropouts, tubes, and a few braze-ons, the bike is completely designed and made by Rob. It’s absolutely a masterpiece. I told Rob that it was so beautiful that I almost didn’t want to ride it and he swiftly replied “It’s just a fucking bike, ride the thing!” I respect an artist that can make a jewel without forgetting its original intent and purpose: to wear it! After the frame was finished then, of course, came the paint.
Jon Pucci was the logical choice when it came to choosing a painter. He painted my personal bikes in the past, I send clients to him for custom paint on their Amigo frames, and he came up in Joe Bell’s shop around the same time I was there. I had seen a few Roberson’s with what the old timers at JB’s called a “Brian Baylis seat tube fade” and I always loved that element. I had to have it on mine. I can’t remember what colors I originally wanted, but they were much lighter than what I ended up with. I changed my mind when Rob quipped “that’s not really a camping bike color.”
So, after some deliberation with Jon, I thought of the Sleep album cover and I sent him a photo of this Boris/Frazetta Heavy Metal Magazine painting I have hanging in my shop and said “paint the bike like it was the interior of a shag carpet ‘70s surfing van. Like a Frazetta alien sunset.” He had a perfect ’70s green-gold that probably hadn’t been cracked open since the 70s at Joe Bell’s. Perfect. That’s a camp bike color.
Jon, a master artist himself, has perfected color combinations for bikes and I knew without explicit direction I would be in good hands. I let him choose all the other accent colors too. I find when you involve yourself too much in the endeavors of creative peoples’ pursuits you get less of the artist’s true intention. Getting a custom bike, in my opinion, should be no different than getting a tattoo – you go to the artist because you like their style. You may give them points of inspiration, but you don’t tell them how to draw the shapes, bend the tubes, or pick each exact color. You trust them to make something you know will look good without your dictation. Jon has mastered painting and when I received the paint job that looked like a lizard howling at a dying star I was floored, it was perfect.
This bike was one of the most expensive things I have ever purchased. I had never really bought myself super nice or “new” things and since I was graduating from college I decided that this was a lifelong item and gift worth giving myself for one of the hardest things I had accomplished. Even then after the frame, paint, and chrome plating of the racks it took me a lot longer to pay off the bike than I originally anticipated. So, by the time I received the bike, it had been just over two years since I had sent my original letter to Rob and we were in the middle of the pandemic lockdown. Like many others, I was unemployed and struggling with money during the lockdown so finishing this dream project hadn’t been my highest priority. Fortunately, I had been sitting on a fairly large collection of bikes that I had picked up over the years of being in the bike industry. Ultimately, I decided that collecting bicycles to have primarily hung on the wall was a pursuit mostly suited for rich old men and that if I was going to have only one bike in my collection it was the Roberson. So I started selling off all my bikes to kept myself and my business afloat. I even squirreled away enough cash to finish building the Roberson.
The build is nice but in my mind not over the top or blingy. I went for a subdued black and silver mix in order to bring the focus to the frame. I could have easily gone with a respectable high-polish groupset or something modern and all black but I felt like either would have taken the viewer’s eye away from the frame. In my mind, keeping with high quality and made-in-the-USA parts was important too. But, because of delays in the supply chains, buying all new parts wasn’t possible in a timely manner so I scoured for some quality used vintage pieces too.
Since I had to make the compromise of “no disc brakes” I decided that some Deore XT V-brakes with the parallelogram linkage, perhaps as an homage to Rob’s mountain bike building career and their ultimate stopping power, would be a great addition. The Dia-Compe Aero drop bar V-levers were also a used item and found in good condition via eBay. Bar-end shifters are my favorite for touring bikes for their ease of use and serviceability. They hearken back to a simpler era before shifting had to get more complicated than just pulling on a cable. This bike isn’t going anywhere fast; I have time to shift.
This is my dream bike. I spent every penny I had on it and the amalgamation of artists involved is so important to me because Rob and Jon such inspirations to me. It seems silly to relate punk rock to what most would consider a luxury item but this bike and Rob’s work take time and toiling. It’s made with care and intention and absolutely captures the do-it-yourself spirit. To me it’s more than just a bike, it embodies the meaning of “one-of-a-kind.” Like Rob advised, I’ll ride it as hard as possible and when it looks like an overripe avocado with all its knicks and blemishes I’ll be happy for the joy this simple elegant machine has brought me.