A Life of Custom Bicycle Fabrication: Fifty Years of Rob Roberson’s Personal Bike Collection

Yesterday, we shared a profile of Rob Roberson that traces his storied bicycle fabrication career from the 1970s to present day. Today, we’re taking a look at seven bikes Rob built during that impressive 50-year window, from early track bikes to road frames and his most recent personal all-road build. There’s a lot of intricate eye candy here, so let’s get to it!

A consistent thread through all of my conversations with Rob this year has been his insistence of us not treating him as some sort of framebuilding icon. Rather, he wants to be clear that becoming proficient (some would say masterful) with a craft such as bicycle fabrication takes years of persistence and dedication. Thus, his body of work, in part, can be seen in the hundred-ish custom frames he’s made either during or outside of larger-scale production jobs at Masi, Ibis, and Hooker. Each new build iterates on the previous, incorporating various degrees of artistry and responding to trends of the time; from thin to bold lugs, compliant to stiff tubing and back again, growing tire sizes, and more compact geometries. Rob’s seen it all and the bikes he’s managed to keep for his personal collection represent a classical and coherent approach to bicycles within an ever-changing industry.

Rob never had business cards or a website. Hell, he still doesn’t own a cell phone. In the past, he has showcased his work for prospective customers in person, of course, or through catalogs of assembled photos that highlight recent builds and featured accouterments. To this day he still uses this “marketing” method and has managed to amass a variety of bikes representative of his work across the decades, starting with some of the earliest ’70s examples to the more recent framesets that he’s built for himself. Many of these are kept at his home, while others live at Joe Bell’s paint shop. On a recent visit, Rob pulled out one such timestamp for me to document.

Rob’s Late 1970s Personal Track Bike

While working for Old Town Bikes from 1972-79, Rob built 13 frames. While he didn’t track serial numbers or exact build dates over the years, he kept a logbook that paired build number with his customers’ names. This track bike, which he built for himself, is the 9th frame logged in his notebook which means it likely dates back to ’76 or ’77. The historic photo above was taken at the San Diego Velodrome shortly after the facility opened in 1976. This frame has been repainted a few times and didn’t originally bear the “ROBERSON” script on the downtube. Rather, the only markings were the RBR seat tube lettering. Rob’s thoughts on logos and markings have evolved over the years, but he’s always been a humble guy and wants his artistry to stand above his branding.

Like a painter’s canvas, Rob used blank French-made Prugnat lugs from which he carved out ornate shapes. Thin lugs to begin with, he filed them down even further (as was on trend during the 70s) to blend with the equally narrow Reynolds and Columbus tubing profiles of the day. In what would become an often-utilized trademark detail, this was the first project in which he incorporated his decorative seat stay cap design, made from round bar stock with a hacksaw and file. This was an option available on all of his custom builds but didn’t become more popular until later on when he raised the add-on price from $30 to $100.

At first glance you might think this fork crown is backward, but long before “aero” was a sought-after concept, Rob made extensive modifications to what was originally a flat stock sand-cast blank to create a truly unique-looking design. The front filing creates a sloping leading edge with sculpted rear. The design was all about aesthetics rather than performance.

Sandy’s Late 1970s Custom Track Bike

This 10th Roberson frame would be the successor to his own track bike pictured above and the second to incorporate the decorative seat stay caps. Sandy Whitaker was Rob’s partner in the 1970s and 80s and he built this bike for her. An artist of other mediums, Sandy sketched out a pencil line drawing to illustrate the lugwork she wanted Rob to use.

Like an architect giving a design to a builder—not knowing how or if it could actually be built—Sandy’s asymmetrical flame-like sketches proved challenging for the young fabricator. But, as an artist himself (and a determined one at that) Rob accomplished the difficult task and learned that a jeweler’s saw is an invaluable tool, even for building bicycles. The first-of-its-kind Sun/Moon head badge was another challenge Rob gave himself. He carved the star from a section of stainless steel tubing, while the moon was sculpted from brass. This frameset also features the same stunning sculpted fork design seen on his track bike.

Mid-1980s Custom Track Bike

Originally made for a local San Diego-based customer in the 1980s, this track bike has nearly all of the bells and whistles Rob offered at the time. Interestingly, however, this didn’t include decorative seat stay caps. It ended up in Seattle and was purchased by a track racer who didn’t know what he had until he saw Joe Bell’s logo on the chainstay and called the paint shop to learn more. The owner conveyed he wanted to sell it, to which Rob immediately responded he wanted to buy it back. After all, it was his size and represented some of his most exemplary craftsmanship.

This was during the 1980s after Rob was laid off from the Masi factory and was trying to make custom bike fabrication his full-time gig. The lugs are elegant stock Cinelli investment cast—very popular at the time—and the tubing is all Columbus except for the Reynolds fork blades. Rob admires the long gradual bends of the stock Reynolds blades, as that sort of craftsmanship is not something he’d be able to achieve in his shop, but instead are something only the factory could do.

For a simple track bike, it is adorned with many incredible details. The chrome head tube lugs are bold yet refined and the chrome bands are Rob’s unique artistic statement that create dimensionality on each tubing section, even giving a sleeved appearance to the fork blades and chainstays. The wrap-around seat stay reinforcement was another popular option of the era, which has since made a comeback on some of Rob’s more recent designs.

Rob’s 1986 Personal Track Bike

Right before moving north from San Diego to start working with Ibis Cycles in 1986, Rob made himself a new track bike. This bold yet simple frameset is another example where Rob utilized refined Cinelli cast lugs with fluted seat stay caps and gently bent Reynolds fork blades.

Again with Sandy’s sketching assistance, Rob utilized the substantial amount of real estate on the fork crown’s face to experiment with a new emblem for his Roberson moniker. Using his jeweler’s saw he carved the stylish ROBERSON logo from a single piece of silver. This typeface, originally sketched by Sandy, would later become the basis for the downtube logos used in many of Rob’s modern bikes. Another unique detail on this build was the pantographed seatpost. Rob had a friend working at the nearby North Island Naval base at the time who made the template with block-style Roberson lettering, which was then passed off to a pantograph machine to engrave. Additionally, the early clip-in Cinelli M81 pedals are another relic of the era.

Rob’s 1997 Personal Road Bike

In 1997, after moving back to San Diego and working for Hooker, Rob built himself a new road bike with a Tange Prestige tubeset. The bike shares the exact same dimensions as his earlier bikes, but the tubing was thinner and lighter than the material he’d grown familiar with, yet heat treated for added stiffness. The “generic” cast lugs are simpler than those he’d use for a commissioned build and he originally painted it himself with a can of purple spray paint.

Once he started regularly working at Joe Bell’s shop, Rob cooked up what he thought was the ultimate paint scheme of the time. He wanted it to look like an older Raleigh he’d once admired while also having the pop of a modern low rider that was all the rage in early 2000s SoCal automotive paint. Thus, the pearlescent white blocked sections with bold red accents and heavy metal flake paint made a strong statement and turned heads everywhere he rode it.

To illustrate his first experience riding a lighter, thinner, and stiffer tubeset, Rob tells a story of a cold winter ride up to Alpine, CA from El Cajon. He and a group had stopped for coffee at the top and, before they could warm up, turned around and headed back. On the descent, he got super cold and began to shiver while at speed. His shaking movement must have reverberated through the bike because before he knew it, he’d “set up a wobble” and was, understandably, pretty sketched out until he could brace the bike enough to smooth it out. While he continued to ride the bike for years after without issue, he attributes the wobble to higher tensile strength tubing and because the top tube was only 1″ diameter. Soon after, builders began using 1 1/8″ top tubes in this new material, which Rob speculates is likely in part to compensate for ride quality.

Rob’s Mid-2010s Personal Road Bike

By the mid-2000s, Rob thought it was time to build himself a new road bike and take advantage of some of the contemporary trends that favored compact and more upright geometries than he was used to in previous generations. But there weren’t many, if any (?), lug sets available to achieve the modern angles he wanted, so he made his own.

Inspired by vintage Marastonis, Rob sculpted each lug, in addition to the fork crown to achieve his desired aesthetic for the complete frame. Additionally, this build features the custom leather saddle bags and supports Rob’s been making in recent years.

While the geometry might be slightly modern, the rest of the build is decidedly classic. It clears up to a 25mm tire, utilizes downtube shifters, and a triple crankset. Rob knows what he likes and he likes what works. While he says he’s interested in possibly building another bike for himself around a wireless drivetrain (as he has for other customers, just not himself yet), he’s not quite ready to give up reliability for convenience.

Rob’s Late 2010s Personal Custom All-Road Bike

Have I saved the best for last? Some might think so. But, hey, I’m just following the chronology. It’s Rob that just gets better with age. Anyway, this is Rob’s most recent personal creation and he has the bike we’re featuring next week – commissioned by our buddy Zach Small of Amigo Frameworks– to thank for it. Zach will go into detail about his build, but he basically set Rob loose design-wise for his frameset. Rob enjoyed the results so much that he ended up making two more in a similar style, plus this one for himself that he’s close to building up.

Drawing inspiration from French-made Terrot and Peugeot bikes from the ’60s this time with a stepped-down squared design, the lugs on this frame are thick, bold, and full of character—quite the opposite of the thinly filed lugs of his early handmade frames. Similarly, the fork crown is all handmade from scratch using two plates with tubing going through them. The reinforcing plates on the inside of each blade appear decorative but are actually structural.

The geometry of this build is similar to his silver road bike, but he used some stock Reynolds chainstays that will clear a 32mm tire. Borderline for an “All-Road,” I know, but it’s a leap for Rob who rode on 23s and 25s for the past half century. And the details are almost too many to list. Rob really went all-out with this one: chromed logos with intricately filed embellishments, a chunky seat stay bridge with fender mount, decorative seat stay caps, and carvings galore. I could go on, but instead will leave you to drool over these images and all the rest in the gallery above.

I’m grateful to Rob for opening his shop to us in addition to Joe Bell, Zach Small, and Jonny Pucci for being superbly accommodating and equally stoked about Rob’s legendary work. If there’s one takeaway from my short time with Rob, it’s to never give up. Perfection, er… precision, doesn’t come easy but if you continue to follow your passion, you will eventually be rewarded with a level of satisfaction that was seemingly unattainable when you started.

We’ll be back next week with a look at Zach Small’s Roberson!