Why do some bikes get up to speed with seemingly less effort than others? Why do some bikes leave me less fatigued after long rides? My idea of the ultimate road and adventure bike is one that has all the wonderful vertical compliance that we know can be built into a bicycle as a system, but that also responds to and rewards its rider by flexing just right in the lateral axis as well.
We all know custom steel bikes have the potential to be a rider’s one and only. And that leads us to Wake Robin Cycles and the subject of this review. The Wake Robin is a low trail, rim brake randonneuring bike, custom built for Chip over at What Bars. If there’s one kind of bike that’s revered to ride smooth over long distances, rim brake rando bikes are it. But, not all custom bikes are equal, particularly those built for someone who isn’t you – so this one’s got plenty for us to talk about.
In my recent review of the Ritchey Outback, I discussed the idea of the bike as a holistic system, optimized for comfort in ways beyond low hanging fruit like tire volume. That bike was fast in addition to being comfortable, and changed the way I think about carbon forks and longer rear ends.
In this review I’ll pick up the other piece of the magical flex puzzle, the idea of beneficial frame flex under power – what’s known as planing. I’ll also dive into a discussion of low trail steering geometry, questioning what pushing too far might look like. As we’ll see, what’s good for me or for the owner of this custom-built bicycle may not be good for you.
In the couple of months that I had the Wake Robin, I was able to get out for two 200 km rides. A bike’s true character will shine through on a very long ride, particularly in its latter stages, when your body is too tired to do the right thing and your brain isn’t capable of overriding. A smooth riding bike has the potential to leave you feeling fresher, and what better way to experience this than pushing yourself to the limits of freshness? Could the Wake Robin do that for me?
Before I get into the ride review, I must mention that this bike has many details that you’ll never see in a production bike and not even in many custom bikes. While Dickson Bou at Wake Robin Cycles is relatively early in his building career, he’s not shy to try his hand at things many builders don’t bother with – and the results are really nice.
The first thing many people noticed about the bike is the black metallic paint with red pinstripes and gold lug lining. The white head tube and clean down tube wordmark are classy and the head tube badge is hand-painted. But this is just the surface of a bike with lots of custom details which I tried my best to document in this gallery.
The bottom bracket and lugs have been carved to elegant and unique shapes. The front rack is custom-built by Wake Robin and the dynamo wires are internally routed through it and the fork. Those fork legs are custom bent with the classic “French curve” intended to offer the smoothest ride.
The rear fender has a rinko nut at the seat stay so it can be removed. Rinko is the Japanese method of packing a complete bike into a bag to be carried on a train. It usually involves modifying more parts than just the rear fender, but for Chip, he just wanted to fit the bike on his 1-Up USA hitch rack without wrecking the fender.
The Rene Herse taillight is internally routed and sits below the non-drive chainstay. The front brake cable hanger is brazed using a steel Sim Works headset spacer. And Chip should never forget his pump when it’s got a super clean permanent mounting location on the non-drive seat stay.
Each of these details are only available if you work with a custom builder, and each of them is going to add to the cost of the bike. And, of course, the bike is built with an intentionally-chosen selection of frame tubes intended to create a specific ride quality.
What Makes a Bike Good?
The old adage that a bike should be “laterally stiff and vertically compliant” is compelling, but doesn’t paint the whole picture. Yes, there is a relationship between stiffness on both of these axes, and resulting “speed” of a bike – but the stiffest bike isn’t always the fastest.
Rim brake bikes with careful tubing selection have the potential to ride about as smooth as anything you can imagine while still going fast over long distances. Rim brakes take out one of the biggest stiffness inducing factors, particularly in the fork, where additional structure is needed to handle braking forces at the axle rather than closer to the crown.
For the types of rides I like to do, which is very long rides on a variety of surfaces, the stiffest bike will have negative effects that aren’t always seen on shorter rides. This goes for both comfort, which can translate to rider longevity – and handling, which is important to consider when a rider pushes long beyond being “tired”. Low trail geometry offers some benefits, but also presents some risk, as you’ll read below.
In the aforementioned Ritchey review, I discussed at length the ways in which a bike can have comfort compliance. I’ll just get this out of the way right away and say that the Wake Robin has that. Where we’re headed today is a discussion of both custom tubing and geometry. Let’s go!
Part 1: Getting Up On Plane
Back in 2006, Jan Heine at Bicycle Quarterly introduced the term “planing” with respect to bikes. He coined the term to draw a parallel to how power boats operate: if you imagine a boat running at low speed, it’s sitting deep in the water, wasting energy displacing a lot of liquid. When you get the boat going fast enough, it will rise up on top of the water’s surface, getting “up on plane”, and becoming much more efficient with its power.
Over the next few years they really leaned into the planing thing at BQ. I’ll be honest: when I first read these stories back in ‘08 and ‘09, I didn’t buy in. I was skeptical. I was younger, with more ego, and wanted to believe that going fast required giving up comfort – even though one of my favourite bikes at the time was an obviously flexy early ‘80s road bike. Since then I have explored the outer reaches of many different bike designs, and have arrived back much more open to these ideas.
In the Outback review I wrote that “every frame will flex under enough load, and when it does, that energy is stored momentarily and then returned immediately to the drivetrain.” I like to think the bike is singing (or dancing) with me, that we are working in harmony to create a sublime experience, where something more than just mashing pedals is happening. Also in that review I linked to a discussion from the Bicycle Academy and a resulting video from GCN as a great illustration of the concept.
A Magical Feeling
When a bike gets up on plane, it is a truly magical feeling. Above a certain power threshold, the bike begins to work with you in a way that is subtle, but significant. It feels like you’re dancing with the bike, its rhythm working with yours, a symbiotic connection between body and machine.
My friend Andrew, who helps me with editing on these ridiculous long reviews I undertake, takes pleasure in seeing folks in discussion forums try to figure out if their bike planes. He likens it to teenagers trying to figure out if they’re high. Does your bike plane? I think so. Can you feel it? Yeah. Yeah? I think so. Can you?
So, at what threshold does a bike begin to plane? Well, that’s a complex question. As I noted in the Outback review, frame design and tubing selection are key, but the effect is wholly dependent on rider weight and power output. So, what planes for you might not plane for me, and vice versa. What planes for me in a year where I’ve ridden a lot may not plane for me as easily when I’ve spent more time off the bike.
With this seemingly moving target, how can you possibly know if a bike has the right frame flex to result in the beneficial effects of planing for you, at this moment in time? No wonder I was willing to write off the idea back in 2008. It’s difficult to discuss something that can’t be measured.
The Wake Robin Sings
My initial impression with the Wake Robin was that it did not have the effortless acceleration that I expected of a bike made from bespoke ultralight tubing. This experience was somewhat clouded by the fact that I was also struggling with the bike’s handling characteristics, but the fact remained: this bike was stiffer than I expected.
I hadn’t really considered the frame’s specific mix of tubes before hopping on and riding. I just assumed that a rim brake bike with Kaisei tubes would be inherently good for my kinds of rides. Finding that the system was stiffer than anticipated came as a surprise. It wasn’t that the bike didn’t ride smooth, but part of me just wanted this beautiful bike to be a more natural fit with my riding style. It was like I was dancing with a new partner, and something was awkward.
About six hours into my first 200k on the Wake Robin, I finally found myself in step with the bike for the first time. I had let go of thinking about what the bike was doing, and found myself pushing a harder effort than I normally do – and the bike began to dance. There was just one problem: that level of effort was not sustainable.
While it would be great to have reproducible data to correlate with this experience, I can only tell you that my heart rate was near my aerobic threshold, and for me, that’s a power output I can only sustain for a few bursts in a long day. So there it is, the Wake Robin does indeed sing, but not fully in sync with my own needs. Of course, that’s OK; it is Chip’s custom bike, after all.
In all this discussion of steel bikes with desirable flex, the frame tubes, particularly in the main triangle, are the builder’s ingredients to create a system with the characteristics they’re after. This doesn’t just apply to custom bikes: production bikes also use carefully chosen tubes, but they’re usually stouter than those employed in custom builds.
There are two main factors at play: the diameter of the tube, and its wall thickness. Larger diameter tubes are stiffer than smaller diameter ones, and tubes with greater wall thickness are stiffer than thinner tubes. The number of possible combinations are many, and the art that goes into tubing selection is often shrouded in secrecy.
Wake Robin was nice enough to share the details of the tubes chosen for Chip’s bike. It’s worth noting that when Chip commissioned this bike, he weighed 220 pounds, had a BMX background, and wanted a rando-style bike that would handle rough roads and the occasional foray into rooty singletrack. Now, I’m not particularly a lightweight either at about 190 pounds currently, and do put down a good amount of power.
Chip’s Wake Robin uses the following tubes: Kaisei “short belly” oversize top and down tubes, which are the stoutest tubes Kaisei makes; a Columbus Spirit seat tube, chosen for its additional stiffness; Kaisei chain and seat stays; Kaisei bottom bracket; Columbus fork blades; Pacenti fork crown; and dropouts and other small parts from Framebuilder Supply. Now let’s jump into how these choices affect the ride.
The Tubing Stiffness Spectrum
In our alternate universe where frame flex is seen in a positive light, the most flex is attained by using old-timey “standard” diameter tubes – that’s a 25.4mm top tube and a 28.6mm down tube – with as long a section of ultra-thin wall thickness as possible. An ultra-thin tube is generally considered to be a “7/4/7” tube, meaning 0.7mm thick at the ends and 0.4mm in the middle.
The Wake Robin’s “oversize” top and down tubes are one step larger in diameter than “standard” tubes: a 28.6mm top tube and 31.8mm down tube. These Kaisei tubes have thin walls at 7/4/7 and 7/5/7 respectively, but it is also worth noting that Wake Robin chose the “short belly” version of the Kaisei tubes, which will ride stiffer than the “long belly”.
Now, the difference between standard and oversize tubes may not seem like a lot – only a few millimetres – but the difference in stiffness is notable. It’s generally accepted among framebuilders that moving from a standard to an oversize tube will result in about a 33% increase in stiffness – and the move to “double oversize” another 3.2mm larger, is another 33% on top of that. That’s a big deal!
Standard diameter tubes are by far the exception these days, particularly as tapered head tubes and carbon forks have become the norm in production “performance” bikes. And, ultra-thin tubes are also not commonly employed, except in high end tubesets like Reynolds 853, and most of those use oversize or double oversize tubes.
All this comes together to say that the vast majority of modern bikes are going to be a lot stiffer than is possible with a custom frame, even if they use ultralight tubes.
Another generally accepted comparison is that an ultralight oversize tube like those used in this Wake Robin is about as stiff as a standard 9/6/9 tube. Back when lugged frames and standard diameter tubes were the norm in racing, Columbus SL was a well-respected tubeset and guess what – it was 9/6/9, and definitely flexy compared to today’s production steel bikes.
What Butts Does My Bike Have?
These days, with many companies having their own custom drawn tubing, you can’t simply find out what your frame’s butting profiles are. To most consumers, that’s totally fine – but I can’t help but feel there’s a percolating desire amongst enthusiasts to know what’s happening under the paint.
If your bike is made of name brand tubing, you may be able to find the possible butting profiles on charts published on the internet. For example, the Tange Prestige in my Soma Wolverine would be oversize 8/5/8. However, there are often many diameters and thicknesses even in a single tubing family. For example, Reynolds 853 can be had in 7/4/7, but also 7/5/7, 8/5/8, and 9/6/9.
Curious about what kind of tubing you have and don’t want to take a hacksaw to your frame? You could use an ultrasonic measuring device. Reed Kennedy already did that, and measured a bunch of bikes at the BQ Unmeeting and JP Weigle’s French Fender Day a couple years ago. See the original thread and explanation on the 650b list here and the spreadsheet with tubing measurements here.
A Compounding of Small Differences
Knowing the details of Wake Robin’s chosen tubes, my initial confusion about the flex characteristics of this frame now makes a lot more sense. To put this into context: most production frames, even the smoothest riding ones, are built with the same or larger diameter tubing, and definitely thicker walls.
The bike is made of bespoke tubing, but at every corner, it’s used a marginally stouter option. The result is a system that rides significantly stiffer than I was expecting it to. While the ride quality is smooth, particularly with that springy rim brake fork, the actual frame stiffness isn’t much different than a good quality production disc brake bike like the Ritchey Outback or my Soma Wolverine.
The Wake Robin’s stiffer tubeset responded positively to me for short bursts at higher power, but didn’t give as much benefit when getting started from a stop, or putting in a lower amount of power consistently over a longer period.
Since the ideal planing threshold is unique to every individual, it’s not useful for me to tell you that this mix of tubing is or is not good. What I can say is I personally like it when a bike has more get-up-and-go at a lower power output.
Part 2: Flying Too Close to the Sun
Now that we’ve discussed the flex characteristics of the bike, we can get into its handling. I personally really like the way a low trail bike handles for rides where I’ll be spending a couple hours (or an ungodly amount of hours) spinning away in the saddle. In the same way that a frame’s flex characteristics can work with the rider, I find low trail steering allows for a more subtle synergy between rider and machine.
I’ve put in decent miles on a number of low trail bikes and my favourite one of all time is my friend Gabe’s custom 7/4/7 Box Dog Pelican, which I borrowed for a few months in 2018 and also did two 200 km rides on. I rode the 333fab AirLandSea 280 km from Vancouver to Seattle when at the end of that review. And the Velo Orange Polyvalent has been my main commuting bike for the past few months since the Wake Robin moved along.
So, with that as background, I was really looking forward to riding the Wake Robin and was expecting a familiar ride experience. To my surprise, I found the Wake Robin was a lot less stable than those other bikes. I’d seen the numbers in advance and expected it to be less stable, but I was still surprised. Just like the tubing discussion, there’s a lot to pull apart here.
While bike handling characteristics can be boiled down to numbers and we will get into that, I want to start with a discussion of the feel of a bike’s steering. The vast majority of bikes – that is, those with higher trail numbers – have self-correcting steering.
A bike that self-corrects is more stable, requiring more force to be pushed away from its direction of travel, whether by rider input or changes in terrain. This means its steering characteristics are more forgiving, and more predictable for a wide range of riders. As long as the wheels are turning, your bike will generally want to go in a straight line.
In contrast, low trail bikes have less self-correction in their steering. This means smaller inputs from the rider are required to steer the bike a similar amount. The difference in moving from a high trail to a low trail bike is immediately apparent, in that the low trail bike appears to not want to go in a straight line.
After some time, however, you adjust to the lighter steering feel, and can steer the bike with less force. There’s some amount of elegance here, and just like how a lighter frame can reward lower power input, a low trail bike can feel like the bike is working with you, rather than against you.
A great analogy that Stephanie came up with while we discussed the handling of this bike, and of low trail bikes in general, is that of power steering versus manual steering. Riding a low trail bike is like driving a car with power steering, while a high trail bike is like a car with manual steering. With power steering, you don’t have to put as much physical effort into making steering happen.
On the Edge of Stability
Bike handling is an interaction of touch points and angles. At its most superficial, we can talk about head angle, fork offset, and wheel diameter – as that’s how trail is calculated. Each of these factors can either stabilize or destabilize the system. Too far in either direction and a bike may not feel balanced.
Steering geometry doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however: other factors like bottom bracket drop, rear end length, front center, and rider weight distribution over the wheelbase all contribute as well. And, a sneaky factor known as “pneumatic trail”, which as you’ll read below, had a larger effect than usual in my experience with the Wake Robin.
Low trail bikes already exist on the less stable end of the geometry spectrum: more sensitive to small steering inputs, and requiring more rider input to ride in a straight line. They don’t naturally carve a singular arc through corners the same way as your average bike does, and don’t self-correct as easily.
As you’re reading that last paragraph, you might be wondering: Why would you choose a bike that does those things? Just like a bike’s planing characteristic can feel just right to its rider, so can the subtleties of low trail steering. Steering happens with less intentional force, and the bike fights back less.
Setting a Standard
As we get into the specifics of the Wake Robin’s geometry, it’s useful to consider a standard to compare against. Today’s low trail bikes generally have geometry that lands in a sweet spot determined by French constructeurs such as Alex Singer and René Herse in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
The established norm of low trail 650b bikes is a 73º head tube angle, 60-65mm of fork offset, a 650x42mm tire, and 65-70mm of bottom bracket drop. Bikes in this category include the Box Dog Pelican, Crust Lightning Bolt, and Rawland’s rSogn and Stag. This creates a bike with notably light steering, which stabilizes somewhat with a bag on a front rack.
You can pop any bike’s steering geometry into Jim G’s calculator to see where it ends up. Play around a bit. You’ll notice that changing each factor will either increase or decrease trail, therefore increasing or decreasing stability. You can also use Bike Insights to compare production bikes.
With rando bike geometry already teetering on the unstable end of the spectrum, there’s less margin for error – and Wake Robin’s choices push this particular bike further into instability. It’s got a 74º head angle, a 65mm fork offset, 650x48mm tires, and 55mm of bottom bracket drop. While the taller tires should add a bit of stability, the steeper head angle and higher bottom bracket push things in the other direction.
How did these changes play out in the Wake Robin’s handling? The bike’s steering was very sensitive: even though it was intended for a front load, I had to work harder than usual to keep it going in a straight line. A normal bike self-corrects. A low trail bike self-corrects very little. This bike self-corrects even less. This was unnerving on pavement, and super sketchy on loose surfaces.
Fix It With Tire Pressure?
I have a pair of the same Rene Herse Switchback Hill tires and have run them on a number of different bikes, so I’m familiar with their characteristics. I have in the past run them at 32-33 psi and they run fast but are admittedly slippery feeling. With this much pressure it took a lot of effort to keep the Wake Robin going in a straight line.
With the other factors in the stability equation essentially fixed in the frame geometry, tire pressure allows one other place to effect change. A tire with more pressure in it steers without as much input, while the same tire with less pressure requires more steering input to overcome the tire’s friction on the ground. Within the range where a tire still performs adequately, there is an inverse relationship between pressure and stability.
With their high volume, you can air down these Switchback Hills pretty far before the casings start to collapse. Much lower than I’d ever run them in the past, that’s for sure. While I’d previously been happy in the low 30s on these tires, I was able to drop the front tire down to 26-27 and get enough friction back into the steering to reduce the instability. It wasn’t perfect, but it was more manageable than before.
Of course, dropping that much pressure meant sacrificing rolling resistance. I was fine with that on the first, more leisurely 200k, which had plenty of dirt and daylight to play with. But the second 200k was all paved, later in the year, and my riding partner was simply too fast for me to give up that much speed. I ended up airing up at the 90 km mark and dealing with the sketchy handling.
Going Too Far?
The established norms of low trail geometry are already far from the average bike. It turns out that there is a sweet spot for this particular school of thought, even though it’s already outside the norm. And, as I think this bike illustrates, it is possible to go too far. I’m sure the French constructeurs built bikes that deviated and learned from this as well.
The steering was too sensitive, and while I was able to dampen that effect with lower tire pressure, this was at the cost of rolling efficiency. In my opinion those deviations from the norm didn’t provide any benefits; they only really took away from the bike.
While I personally would choose a few key differences and stick to the established norms if I were to spec my own geometry, it’s still fun to try out what others choose. Dickson says he has a bike with very similar numbers to this bike, and loves riding it on singletrack. To each their own – this one didn’t work out for me.
Overall, this review might come off as a critical take on a very nice custom bike. The reality is, a custom bike that’s perfect for someone else can be not-so-perfect for you, even if it fits. This Wake Robin is far from a stiff bike in the context of modern oversize and double oversize disc brake bikes, and the build details are absolutely beautiful.
As I mentioned above, my favourite low trail bike I’ve ever ridden was a custom built 7/4/7 version of the Box Dog Pelican. This bike had such wonderful liveliness accelerating from a stop, and left me feeling fresher than any other bike I’ve done big rides on. I’m positive that the average rider would benefit greatly from a bike that did the same for them.
I’m grateful to Dickson at Wake Robin for sending me the bike to review – he’s just a single-person shop and not a big company with a marketing budget. We had lots of great conversation about bikes over the review period and he’s doing really interesting work.
While Chip’s bike may not have fulfilled my own dreams, I would happily work with Wake Robin on a build with geometry closer to the established norms of rando.