It’s a Lifestyle, Not a Career: The Legend of Rob Roberson

Rob Roberson is an enigma in the handmade bicycle world. Some would consider him “the greatest known unknown bike fabricator” of the American frame building movement. His career, which spans nearly 50 years, puts him among a very small pedigree of builders that have both mass-production experience and have also built custom bikes under their own name without giving up the ghost. Yet, with such a significant trajectory, Rob has remained largely unknown. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring bikes made by Rob and the stories about them. Today, however, Zach Small and Josh Weinberg are honored to introduce you to Rob Roberson. 

Rob specifically asked me not to glorify him in this piece. “Don’t make me sound like a frame building god” he said, “to me it’s just been a job and way to express my creativity.” It’s a humble statement coming from someone who, mortal like us all, could easily be considered one of the greatest to ever pick up a torch. While other builders have come and gone, and while he never actively pursued the business of frame building in the traditional sense—just working, with no regard for marketing or self-promotion, for in-the-know or word-of-mouth clients—Rob has persisted, which certainly makes him the most punk rock frame builder of all time.

Man, Myth, Legend

I’ve known Rob for over ten years, first meeting him when I was around twenty years old. Already having worked in a bike shop for six years at that point, I found myself pretty over bicycles and was looking for other things to do, like fixing motorcycles. That new hobby led me to Joe Bell’s paint shop in Spring Valley, CA near where I grew up. I needed to get two fuel tanks sandblasted and, aware of JB’s shop, I went in looking to see if I could trade work for fixing up the tanks. Joe obliged and in exchange for some sweat equity stripping bike frames, he gave me the necessary pointers for bringing the tanks back to life. However, upon stripping and sandblasting the tanks, we realized that quite a few small rust pinholes had formed in the thin stamped walls. Joe wasn’t worried about them, though. “Maybe Rob can fix it,” Joe commented, “he’s a wizard with a torch.”

I had tried my hand at brazing previously, wanting to build my own bicycle a few years prior. I picked up a copy of the Paterek Framebuilding Manual, bought some tubes, and even went as far as to buy an oxy-acetylene setup from some tweakers in east county San Diego. I scoured early internet Google listserv frame building communities in search of tips on how to get a torch fired up, burning dozens of scrap pieces in the process, only to get frustrated and set it aside. It’s comical to think I was trying to research all these techniques online in a city that has such a rich and diverse history of bicycle fabrication.

San Diego has always been a place with an excellent riding community; its nearly perfect year-round weather solidifies it as a great place to ride bicycles. Sure, I knew about Masi’s Carlsbad-based factory during the 1970s, with none other than Italian master Mario Confente spearheading those operations for a handful of years. But I was completely unaware of the clandestine community of the finest bicycle makers in the country who had gotten their start in that factory and still resided throughout Southern California. Rob is one of these ex-Masi builders and I knew right away: he was going to teach me how to build a bicycle.

After Rob fixed the holes in my tanks, I told him about this tube set I had and that I wanted him to teach me how to put it together to which he swiftly and sternly replied “No, no. I don’t teach people to build frames.” But I wasn’t discouraged. To me, this was a challenge. I have a knack for being persistent (honestly, I’m actually annoying) when I want something. So over the course of a few weeks, I started bugging him.

At first, it was: “Hey! I have a torch setup. I could never figure out how to fire it up right. Can you show me?” A grumble or two from Rob “Ah. Yeah, okay, sure… this is the psi you need, match the cones, etc…”

The following week I asked, “I have a few hand files, but I wasn’t sure which ones were best for mitering. Do you have any suggestions?” He’d usher me into the back room at Joe’s paint shop and rifle through his drawers, showing me the various lengths, shapes, cut profiles, and the advantages of each.

Then, bringing in some scrap tubes I had mitered and amateurly tried to braze together, I asked, “How’d I do?”

Finally, I brought in a front triangle that I had mitered together, insisting that I would braze it in my backyard and just wanted to know if it was straight enough to continue. Rob finally conceded, “It’s pretty good, we need to file it a little bit closer, but I think I’ll show you how to build a frame on my jig at Brian Baylis’ shop.”

That’s what gave me the frame building bug and started my relationship with Rob. I never finished restoring those gas tanks; instead, I built a bicycle. Meeting Rob and Joe, masters of their craft, elevated bicycles to another realm for me and reinvigorated a passion for something that had become a mundane routine of sweating in a bike shop all summer, tuning up old junk garaged bikes, and working for an unfortunate and less-than-professional shop owner. I had known that frame building and reaching high levels of craftsmanship were a possibility, but Rob and Joe made it a reality and jump-started my career path as a metal fabricator.

They also imparted a piece of sage advice: “Don’t think about making a career of bicycle frame building.” Coming from two people that had been in this industry for so long, had seen its ups and downs, and had known how hard it was even in the boom of the 70s, I took heed of that warning.

I recently called Rob on the phone to catch up and learn his full background. Even after all these years, I only knew the basics of his timeline involving this craft, some fantastic stories he’d told me, half-truths I had heard from other folks while hanging out at Joe or Baylis’ shops, all things that had, in my mind, given him mythical status compared to anything that preliminary internet research would divulge.

Rob was a recently graduated student in a junior college program in Art/Architecture when he found himself inspired to ride a bicycle on Earth Day in 1969. He dabbled in racing first on a Schwinn Varsity until he met Frank Appel who sold him a much swifter Gitane and eventually hired him for his first job as a mechanic at Old Town Bikes. Frank, a retired engineer from IBM, wanted to follow a passion and try his hand at the bicycle business. He had a few small manual machining tools, and, during the short few years in business, Rob, under Frank’s tutelage, learned the basics of machining and built his first bicycle. After the shop folded, Rob worked at Wheels ‘N Things, a BMX shop in El Cajon and he continued honing his newfound frame building craft in his garage at home.

The Masi Years

After building a dozen or so bikes, Rob was approached by Ted Kirkbride, who had taken over the manufacturing operation of Masi Cycles, and was asked to build bicycles at their Rancho Sante Fe location. “I didn’t think I was the man for the job, but I decided to give it a shot; it was kind of a sink or swim thing.” Masi had been in trouble; they had shut down their large Carlsbad facility, had to move everything on to investor Roland Sahm’s “Ranch” property, and—combined with contentious relationships between workers and the departure and untimely death of their phenom builder, Mario Confente, Masi was left on unsure footing. But under Kirkbride’s control, Masi could continue production by subcontracting other builders.

According to Rob: “They needed to make the business work; they were finally at a point where they couldn’t keep claiming it as a loss on the books…the move to [Roland Sahm’s] estate helped lower those costs.” It was “sink or swim” for both Rob and Masi. I had heard lore about those hectic years and had Rob validate a wild tale about training migrant ranch hands to assist him including one that had lost his leg in an accident on the property.

“They called it a ‘Ranch,’ but really it was a big mansion on an estate with avocado groves and small farming, this was something they did so they could write off the property as a ‘farm,’ for tax incentive. But that meant they had to have actual farm workers year-round as employees to prove it was a farm. I had two workers assigned to me. The guy you’re talking about didn’t lose his leg. He was trying to get a truck unstuck from mud and, while trying to get it out with a steel plate, the plate shot out and hit his leg breaking it pretty badly. So they sent him to me, and I had them helping me. I didn’t speak Spanish but could use a few words and show them how to do things. I taught them how to build from scratch – filing, mitering, and everything else. Like anything, you learn and hone skills through repetition. Just like I did over time, they picked it up well.”

After hearing these stories, and all the time and repetition that goes into actually teaching the craft, I started to get that sense that maybe Rob’s experience at Masi had contributed to his reluctance in offering me his tutelage so many years later.

Rob produced approximately 300 frames at Masi’s Rancho Santa Fe location from 1979-1981. Then, Rob was laid off and the Masi organization went through some changes relocating to San Marcos under a slightly different name where he was rehired in 1984 and made another 50 bikes.“The new Masi wasn’t for me and my buddy Brian Maloney owned Adams Avenue Bicycle shop, so I left to work for him and built my frames in my garage again.” Rob fabricated another sixty-five frames, and did hundreds of repairs (which oftentimes are more difficult than building a new frame from scratch) in the five years that he worked in association with Maloney, establishing his rapport with the locale of San Diego riders “in the know.”

Adams Avenue is a long-serving and well-regarded shop in San Diego, but even it has seen its ups and downs and transfers of ownership since its establishment in 1978. Maloney, wanting a change, decided to sell AA and move to Santa Rosa and eventually convinced Rob to follow along and work in a new shop he planned to open.

Ibis Cycles in Sonoma County

Rob did move to Santa Rosa, and in his first few months there realized the bike shop idea was not going to pan out. Being in the right place at the right time, his friend Rick Reynolds mentioned Ibis Cycles was growing and might need some help. So Rob called Scot Nicol, had a brief interview, and was hired as a fabricator. At that time, Ibis was just Scot, Wes Williams, Erika the painter, and Rob. They were working out of Scot’s garage on an orchard he owned, and eventually, the brand moved to a larger manufacturing space in downtown Sebastopol.

I had heard somewhere that Rob invented the famous “Hand Job” cable hanger while at Ibis. I, of course, asked if that piece of lore was true, “Well, invented is a strong word. As far as I’m concerned, Scot [Nicol] invented the hand job. He went out and found a jeweler (Mike Cherney) to design it and make casts for production. Still, as far as I remember it, hanging out after a few beers past shop hours, I mentioned that the cable hanger looked like a hand holding a can of beer and it would be cool to make a hanger that looked like that. Scot went and made it happen.”

I also asked him if he contributed in other ways to those early designs or geometry. “When I moved to Santa Rosa, those early years of mountain biking had really blown up. Being in that environment, a mecca of mountain biking, I did meet a lot of cool people in the business. Bruce Gordon, for example, would come by and check out the little fixtures I was making for braze-ons and stuff. But me, I was a worker; it was a job, and I did the fabrication.”

In 1994, Rob left Ibis and moved back down south to San Diego. As Rob tells it, “I saw them [Ibis] getting bigger and bigger and [didn’t know] how I fit into all that. I didn’t see myself moving further up or benefitting more from that, so I decided I wanted to move on. Coincidentally, I got a call from my old buddy Brian Maloney again, who had an opportunity for me. This time it was at Hooker Headers who were initially looking for a fabricator to help make steel forks for their aero aluminum bikes.”

Hooker Headers Aero Aspirations

Hooker Headers, famously known in the muscle car world for their exhaust headers that dominated Super Stock racing circuits and produced the legendary V8 Rumble, had dabbled in making many things outside of the car racing world, including aluminum aero bikes. Gary Hooker and Dave Spangler (both avid tri-athletes) had been competing in Ironman Competitions throughout the 80s. They wanted to use their header manufacturing facilities in Tijuana to create the most aerodynamic alloy frames available.

While experimenting with bicycle aerodynamics and technologies, they hired other famed bicycle builders, including Dave Tesch, to prototype and produce the Hooker Elite. Rob, who succeeded Tesch, helped run the bicycle operations of Hooker, building the steel forks and, later, aluminum frames that were way ahead of their time.

When I first saw Rob’s Hooker in the back of Joe Bell’s shop, I was amazed at how technologically advanced it was. It had formed Aluminum aero tubes, a custom aero seatpost that matched the seat tube profile, Campy downtube shifters with specially machined standoffs to sit in the center of the downtube, integrated cable routing for the stem through the headset, and machined center pull brakes similar to Campagnolo’s Deltas.

Rob’s time building bicycles for Hooker didn’t last long, though, “Here I was again working for a pet project for some rich guys…like Masi, they were at the point that they needed to make that side of the business work, and they eventually shut it down. But they liked the way I worked  and moved me into R&D for Harley exhaust pipes and other projects.”

“It was a cool experience, I got to learn more machining and metal finishing techniques… This was pre-NAFTA, so I commuted to Tijuana every day. Gary, myself, and the production manager were the only gringos in this big Mexican factory with 250 employees. They even had their own soccer team. Fridays after work, we’d go to this soccer arena, and our factory team would play other factory teams; the workers’ wives would make food, and we would drink beer and watch them play.”

Back to the Garage (Shed)

In 1996, after three years with Hooker, Rob was laid off and has since been working with his long-time friend Joe Bell doing frame repairs, paintwork, and building bicycles under his personal moniker “Roberson.”

One aspect of the craft that is often overlooked in frame building (at least from the consumer’s side) is the number of tools one has to create in order to construct a frame. We are fortunate to be in a golden era of tool availability specific to frame building. In some ways, it’s made frame building a lot more accessible and easy, and in others, it has started to do away with the tradition of having to build a myriad of personalized tools that, like the frame itself, is the builder’s personal calling card.

During Rob’s era, only large factories could afford expensive premade fixtures and tooling from the likes of Marchetti or Bicycle Machinery. These expensive fixture tables and machines wouldn’t have even been an economical choice for a medium-sized startup like Ibis and out of the question for a small single builder shop.

A one-person builder would have to design and make all their own tools if they wanted to streamline a process that many at the time still did in a rudimentary sense of using just a vise, a hacksaw, and some files. Besides basic machine tools, like mills and lathes, Rob’s frame building-specific tools had to be hand designed and made to suit each specific part of his own personal process.

This was also long before the internet was mainstream, Rob’s tool may have been inspired by peers and experience from working at Masi or Ibis, but in general, he created something completely unique according to his exact personal specifications. I used a few of Rob’s tools when he guided me in building my first bicycle frame.

His centerpiece and most valued piece of equipment is his frame fixture. Its incredible stature — made of aluminum and manually machined steel, dials, and stand-offs — was designed holistically through Rob’s experience of building hundreds of bicycles.

The backbone, a 4″ x 4″ piece of aluminum, has linear rails built off the side, loosen the lockdowns, and use the dial, machine screws, and a pair of calipers to measure from offsets to set your rear center or front center lengths down to the exact millimeter. Rob told me it took him about a year to construct, all manually machined and crafted by himself when at the time, only a few startups had started making commercially available CNC-machined fixtures.

Then there are the other multitudes of hand tools he has conceptualized: Fork length and offset measuring devices, braze-on clamping jigs, front derailleur alignment guides, brake post holders and horizontal dropout alignment, and many more. The tools he created are nearly as incredible as the frames themselves; another signifier of his remarkable craftsmanship.

Reflecting on a life and a career that many would consider serendipitous, his fate seemingly always putting him in the right place at the right time, I asked Rob how a life spent building bikes had impacted him. He responded: “When I graduated from college I wanted to be an architect. I wanted to be like Frank Lloyd Wright and start designing and building houses. But I realized you couldn’t just go out and be Frank Lloyd Wright and start making buildings, so bicycles allowed me to create the things I thought up. I see a lot of bikes that are the same, use the same lugs and parts, and I just wanted to make something uniquely my own, and I think that’s important. You have to ask yourself – what do we do this for? For me, it was a lifestyle choice. I don’t have the same responsibilities as many people, but I’m free to do what I want.”

I think, in a way, Rob is like the Frank Lloyd Wright of bicycle building. He’s created his own unique style that is profoundly different, instantly recognizable, and unapologetic.

I often call this craft of bike fabrication a curse. It’s an obsession that drives its creators to limits most outside of it would be unwilling to commit, and, at times, it can seem insurmountable in difficulty to break even. Rob has experienced the struggles himself and witnessed his peers go to great lengths to follow this path. He has worked for the “rich guys” who, even with all their disposable income, struggled to make a business in the cycling industry work, no matter how revolutionary their ideas were. But maybe that was Rob’s point.

Remembering those cautionary words he offered so many years ago – “Don’t think about making this a career” – maybe it should be seen less as a career and more as a way to have a lifestyle that allows you to participate in an industry with a microcosm of diverse folks who all share a guided passion for the love of cycling.

He’s slowed down on making bicycles these days and hasn’t been able to ride as much but has been hiking. His passion for creating, however, hasn’t dwindled. He has been making pipes designed after famous lug sets and leather bags for bikes all expertly crafted out of his little shop in Spring Valley, CA. That’s right; he makes lugged smoking apparatuses that ain’t cheap, but still more affordable than a lugged Roberson frame. You can check out the selection on this eBay page run by il famoso Larry Ravioli.

All three major bicycle manufacturers that Rob worked for eventually transferred ownership, were dissolved, or went bankrupt at some point in their history. Follow your bliss.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a full gallery of Rob’s personal bikes, so stay tuned!