Saturday, May 23, 2009

David vs. Goliath

In March I added a new bicycle to my stable. R&E Cycles of Seattle built me a Rodriguez custom steel bike. I picked it up, and three days later headed to Northern California with Justin Angle for a five-day, 475 mile shakedown ride.

R&E Cycles is a local builder of fine custom bicycles. Known for working with steel, they have recently begun to fabricate frames in titanium.

Given that carbon fiber dominates the high end mass produced bicycle market, one might be tempted to say that it’s about time that R&E is working with titanium, the new wonder material (of the 1990’s!), but there is so much more to the story than raw materials. R&E is small when compared to some of the industry giants , but they aren’t that small, as they build around 400-500 frames per year.

Many long time cyclists still wax nostalgically for the “old days” when steel ruled, and for an era when there was less emphasis overall on the technical aspects of bicycles, and more on the strength of the legs that rode them. Even today, magazine reviews occasionally will proclaim that the ride of a new bicycle feels “almost like steel”, and no one ever said Eddie Mercxk was dominant because he had the most advanced equipment of the day.

Let me assure you, I am not the nostalgic type, but I like the simplicity and elegant look of a classic painted steel bike, and steel frames do produce a different “feel”.

I have used R&E for service work, but I really didn’t know much about the custom bike side of their business. My perception of R&E was that they built mostly tandems, touring, and commuter bikes. I discovered that they will make you any kind of bike you desire. You can check out to see some of the high end light weight road racing bikes they have made, as well as some pretty fancy fixed gear track bikes. You see a lot of women on Rodriguez bicycles, and I think it’s because R&E was ahead of the curve with women’s bicycle design.

Having R&E build you a custom bike is not inexpensive, but you can spend a lot more money dealing via email with a giant “out of town” company with a big reputation. Besides brand name recognition, I’m not really sure what you pick up. Buying a Rodriguez is a chance to save a few bucks, and support the local “little” guy as well.

Perhaps the "out of towners" use superior raw materials? Steel is not like carbon fiber, in that it doesn’t require a lot of strength to weight engineering to optimize the structure for light weight and ride characteristics. In addition, carbon fiber layups must be designed for specific frame sizes and applications, and the high cost of the carbon molds must be spread across a large volume of frame units to make economic sense. Carbon tubes can also be shaped and laid up to provide the exact characteristics required at each spot along an individual tube.

It’s not quite as simple as “steel is steel”, but R&E will build you a bike out of any type of steel you desire, just like the other fabricators will.

Could the more exotic names in the business be using higher quality paint? I have no idea, but the paint on my bike looks spectacular. R&E took the paint scheme that I brought to them and painted my frame using my design with no extra charge. Yes, there was a $100 upcharge for a two color paint scheme, but try taking your own cosmetic design to Seven, Serotta, or Independent Fabrication and see what they say. They will build you a “custom” bike, as long as you use one of their “custom” styles, meaning that your bike will largely look like every other Seven or Serotta on the road. Considering the enormous premiums these companies charge simply for two colors, I can only speculate that a true custom paint design would be extremely expensive.

Do the companies with the fancy reputations use better welding or construction techniques, or is there something else that mythically separates their build process from R&E that justifies the big premium in price? Once again, I have no idea and I’m not an engineer, so I don't know the answer.

What I do know is that R&E has garnered a reputation for building durable high quality bicycles for over 35 years. I was personally given a tour of the shop by Dennis, the fabrication and machine shop manager. Dennis built my bike, and the welds are beautiful, smooth, and true.

Teresa, who has been with R&E since 1995, is “the paint department”; therefore she did the paint work on my bike. Teresa had to work with a rather complex scheme, but she is a perfectionist, and she viewed the masking and intricate two color paint application as a challenge. As any of you who have seen my bike know, Teresa deserves to be proud of the stunning quality of her work.

Scott spent two hours with me in the store taking my measurements, and those of my S-Works Tarmac SL2. He also inquired as to how I liked my current bike fit, and how I might be using the Rodriguez . Scott then used the proprietary R&E fit system to do the custom design work. We discussed frame geometry options, and how changing the angles, rake, trail, etc. would affect the handling and ride of the bike. This is in addition to the many emails to iron out the details.

For example, I was concerned that the horizontal top tube I wanted for aesthetic reasons would not allow enough seatpost above the top tube. I needed a certain minimum seatpost length to fit my Moots Tailgator rack/pack system that I use for fast and light touring. Rather than using a standard seat tube clamp, R&E custom fabricates an integral seat tube collar to secure the seat post. Scott simply modified the design drawing, reducing the height of this collar as much as possible, and giving me that extra increment of exposed seatpost that I needed.

When I picked up my Rodriguez, it was obvious that John had carefully attended to every detail while installing components on the frame. Each bolt had been carefully greased, my saddle was in the correct position, and despite the well used components, the bike shifted flawlessly from the first moment I rolled it out the door for a quick test ride.

Everybody at R&E is a pleasure to deal with, and I would highly recommend you stop by and check them out. John, Beau, and the other mechanics at R&E will treat your bicycle as if it were their own, and while service work at R&E is not cheap, rarely does one of my bikes leave the shop requiring a return trip for a correction.

My Rodriguez is…well, it’s My Rodriguez, built for me, with the colors and paint scheme I wanted, by people I know. And yes, my Rod bike does have that ride quality that only steel can give you.

If the clock were turned back 20 or 30 years, back to long before carbon fiber or titanium were being used to construct bicycle frames, I would be very content to ride a basic steel framed bicycle full time. I truly love riding my SL2, as well as my trusty singlespeed, but there are certain types of rides where I will automatically grab the Rodriguez. It’s a nice problem to have to decide which bike to ride on any given day.

If all I had to choose from were beautifully elegant steel bicycles, I would be totally fine with that.


Gerald said...

That really is a beautiful bicycle, Tom!

Jammie Tai said...

Hello Tom,

Thanks for walking me thru your Rodriquez bike because I am considering one. I have problems unexplained to me as I think I have unusual anatomy with the XS it still doesn't fit well. So, I wrote an email to Rod Bikes to take a look at my measurements and their artisan design is beautiful. Appreciate your review. Jammie from Malaysia