Rob Roberson Retrospective Party Recap: Past Meets Present

Rob Roberson has had a storied career as a bicycle builder for over fifty years and, until relatively recently, despite his incredible craftsmanship, he’s flown under the radar. A few weeks ago, Rob’s longtime friend and colleague, legendary painter Joe Bell, organized a party at his paint shop that was part Roberson retrospective (with nearly a quarter of Rob’s 100ish custom bikes on display) and part celebration of San Diego‘s cycling community.

Josh stopped by the festivities on his way home from Sea Otter to document this momentous event. Check out the full gallery from the party below, including detailed looks at several bikes on display.

Roberson Retrospective

I’m honored to know Rob Roberson through various projects we’ve worked on together, including profiles of his frame-building career and personal bike collection and documenting two of his recent builds for our friends, Zach Small and Jonny Pucci. We’ve already spent plenty of digital “ink” documenting Rob’s lengthy history in the bicycle industry, so I won’t belabor that aspect too much in this piece.

A few weeks ago, Rob’s longtime friend and colleague Joe Bell helped to organize a Roberson celebration at his Spring Valley paint and refinishing shop. Over one hundred people showed up, most of whom were friends, customers, or second-hand Roberson bike owners. I left Sea Otter early to drive south and document the nearly forty bikes on display (a mix of Rob’s personal collection and commissions), along with festivity snippets.

“10,000 Hours”

Through my time getting to know more about Rob and his work over the years, I remain blown away by the fact that he’s still relatively unknown outside of Southern California and some circles of bike collectors.

There are many reasons for this, one of which is certainly Rob’s humility, as he seems to shy away from the limelight. He also spent long stretches of time building bicycles in a production capacity for brands other than his own, like Masi, Ibis, and Hooker. He took in custom commissions on the side but didn’t prioritize self-promotion, which is often required for framebuilders engaging directly with customers for a living.



Click “play” above to scroll through a Roberson sampler

And while Rob’s list of just over 100 custom bikes during his fifty-some-year career might seem low (some builders complete that number in a year), he amassed considerable skill by building hundreds of bikes in a production capacity for other larger brands. If you ascribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour theory of achieving expertise through lots of practice, then it will be clear that when Rob did build custom bikes, they were damn good.

In the days before the internet, Rob relied on word-of-mouth for exposure. He had a stream of customers over the years thanks to his close ties with local bike shops, contemporary local framebuilders such as Bill Holland and Bryan Baylis, and painters like Joe Bell. For a time, Rob was the go-to repair guru and custom builder for Adams Avenue bike shop. If a customer needed (or wanted) a frameset beyond what was available from the shop’s stock options, they would connect with Rob for a tailored fit and bespoke design.

The Roberson Way

Rob didn’t just stick to making one style of frameset. The Roberson typology ebbed, flowed, and evolved with rider preferences and technological developments in componentry. Early on, though, road and track bikes were predominant requests. Rob’s San Diego locale had a vibrant road racing scene during the ’70s and ’80s, in addition to a popular outdoor velodrome constructed in 1976. Depending on tubing profiles and rider type, Rob would choose appropriate stamped or cast lugs from fabricators like Cinelli, Nervex, or Prugnat as part of the foundation for his bikes.

While many pre-made lugs had inherent stylistic elements, Rob has always experimented with his frame and fork details. Some might say Rob’s overall bike designs are generally understated, but look closely, and you’ll see his artistry. From sculpted seat stay caps and head badge logos to fork crowns, seat stay bridges, and integrated top tube protection, Robersons have a strong identity and visual congruence. Towards the latter 1990s, when traditional lug fitments were no longer suited for oversized tubing or changing geometry trends, Rob started making his own lugs. His style continues to evolve to this day, and some of his most recent lugs, in my opinion, demonstrate an unparalleled mastery of the craft.

And, to note what might be obvious to many readers, working with lugs has generally fallen out of fashion as of late. While plenty of phenomenal artisans still build with them, advances in tooling, premade fixtures, and additive manufacturing have made brazed and welded construction methods far more popular. Thus, we are getting closer to lugged frames becoming a lost art. And this makes bikes like Rob’s all the more special.

The Clubhouse

The Roberson Retrospective wouldn’t have been possible without Joe Bell and his paint shop, which some would call “The Clubhouse.” Joe’s story is a project for another time, but in a nutshell, when I describe him as legendary, I’m not exaggerating. Joe started painting around the same time Rob began building bikes, and his skills also sharpened over the years, becoming renowned for vibrant designs and flawless finishes. Pro cyclists and top-tier builders have sought him out, bringing countless grand visions to life. JB’s books are closed for general commissions, but you can still get one of his paint jobs if you buy a bike from Richard Sachs, Holland Cycles, Dave Kirk, Rob Roberson, or some custom Rivendells.

And his technique is as storied as his finished products. Joe doesn’t paint bikes in a stand like most others. Rather, he suspends a frame from his paint booth ceiling and dances with the bike as it dangles from a suspended wire.

Tucked back in a Spring Valley retail/industrial area, JB’s paint shop has served as a home away from home for a revolving cast of characters. From current and former employees to general appreciators of craftsmanship or cycling ephemera, you’ll often find folks in the shop socializing and reminiscing.

Rob has worked with Joe for years and used to have a space in the shop for building bikes but has since moved the operation into a workshop at his house. Nevertheless, Rob is often in the shop helping with all sorts of projects, including repairing and finishing frames that come in for paint. And part of buying a Roberson during the last 30ish years meant you also got a Joe Bell paint job!

Thus, JB’s shop was a perfect place to celebrate Rob. While Rob had his collection of self-built bikes to show off, there were nearly 35 others brought in by original owners and folks who purchased second-hand as either collectibles or breathed new life into the bikes to serve as daily riders.

While we don’t have space to highlight each bike from the party, let’s look at several below that have particularly interesting stories.

1961 Masi Special Replica

In 2007, Richard Byrne, founder of Speedplay Pedals, was gifted a 1961 Masi Special from his brother, who found it at a rummage sale. The bike had definitely been used over the years and had what some might call a lovely patina. But Richard was pretty determined to restore the bike to its original glory. At least he was until he turned to his friends at Joe Bell’s shop, who convinced him to leave it as is to retain historical provenance while Rob and Joe took on the hefty project of building Richard an exact replica of the Special.

Since those old Masi lugs were long unavailable, this was one of Rob’s first projects where he had to make his own lugs. Additionally, he built it on a flat table with an old Masi standoff using the original bike as a template. Seeing these two bikes next to each other is pretty wild and realizing the painstaking accuracy both Rob and Joe achieved in the final product.

Black and Chrome Road

This bike is currently owned by Evan of The Bicycle Stand in Long Beach. Evan is a tall guy, and this is a tall bike, so he got super lucky with the second-hand find. Rob believes this was one of the bikes he built working through Adam’s Ave Bikes for a Los Angeles police officer, hence the black and chrome motif. The head badge is most likely a one-off, as it proved super challenging to carve out, and after it was done, Rob didn’t make another and moved on to other designs.

Excelsior Art Piece

This Excelsior very much is a Roberson, even though it doesn’t say so anywhere on the bike. This artist client commissioned the bike from Rob to adorn it in his unique assemblages, as displayed on the head badge and seat tube. No doubt, this is a beautiful bike and a great example of the partnership between Rob and his artistic client, but it also demonstrates Rob’s willingness to work with his customers and give them what they want. Rather than being too set in his ways, he’s always down to experiment and try new things.

Early/Mid 80s Masi and Early 90s Hooker Elite

Rob built hundreds of bikes in Masi’s Rancho Santa Fe and San Marcos facilities during the late 70s and early 80s. This striking white with gold highlights is an example that was built by him during that era.

Later, after finishing out the 80s building custom bikes in his garage, Rob went to work for Hooker Headers at its Tijuana bike operations facility. There, he built steel forks and, later, Hooker Elite aluminum frames that were way ahead of their time. This blue/neon yellow fade example, now owned by a local So Cal collector, represents what a ready-to-race Elite would have looked like back in the day.

For more on Rob’s background, check out our in-depth profile.

Di2 Road Bike Duo

These road bikes were made for a couple fairly new to cycling and represent examples of Rob’s take on modern road bikes. The owners were introduced to Rob through Joe Bell. Cody Stevenson at Holland Cycles did the bike fitting. Rob used lugs he’d call off-the-shelf, which were sold by Nova, and the seat stay caps are his design that I think resemble a fleur de lis. These are also excellent examples of Rob and Joe’s partnership, where Joe’s finishing skills really lend to highlighting the details in Rob’s builds. The purple one, inspired by the movie Maleficent, is quite the show-stopper.

Twin Axle Tricycle

Rob’s had tricycles in his life for a while now. Starting in the ‘80s he acquired a Gobby with a 3-speed hub and sprockets welded to flanges connecting to freewheels on two axles. At the time, he figured the drivetrain was homemade, and just recently, found an old Gobby advertisement showing that it was a factory build.

He enjoyed the system, which was essentially posi-traction with one wheel driving at all times, and it stuck in his mind even after the trike had moved on to another owner. Years later, Rob was with his brother in Yuma, AZ for a road race and happened on another tricycle that was used as a vendor cart. Intrigued again, the brothers thought it would be cool for Rob to build one they could use for local errands around town. So he did.

Drawing on his memory of the Gobby, he built his own drivetrain that allowed bolt-on rings and a 7-speed freewheel with a derailleur. His take on the Gobby also used two separate axles, but is much sturdier and operates smoother than the original.

I want to thank Rob, Joe, Jonny, Lorenzo, Zach, and everyone else I’ve met in your community over the past few years. You all embody a special combination of bicycling, artistry, and craft that is becoming harder and harder to find these days. It’s an honor to be able to document and share these stories. Thankfully, you are all still in it, and there will be more stories to tell. And this includes Rob, as I hear he has at least three more bikes in his build queue this summer!

And if you’re looking to procure a Roberson artifact other than a frameset, look no further than his handcrafted pipes inspired by classic lug designs. Shoot Rob’s middleman, Lorenzo, a DM if you’re interested!