An unconventional holiday, opting for grease and blowtorches over sun cream and Martinis

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10.12.15 at 11:35 am

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I wanted to share with those who are interested the truly amazing week I’ve just spent building my own Steel framed road bike.

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For those who don’t know me I spend my working life travelling, and make about fifty longhaul trips a year as an airline pilot.  I am often living out of a suitcase and battling time changes.  Whilst I enjoy my work very much, glamorous it is not, and airports and hotels can start to wear a bit thin. When it comes to holidays I often don’t want to go away and I seek alternative activities that are a complete contrast to the day job.

This craziness was born from my desire to have a hand-built, traditional, lugged steel bike to ride as my Sunday best. After ringing round a few frame builders and perusing some of the more specialist mags, I was undecided on who to choose. By stroke of luck, I met a guy on a bike maintenance course (that’s right …I have no social life!!) who recommended the Enigma bikes Frame Building Academy.

Enigma are a family firm that build beautiful custom titanium and steel bikes at their factory in Hailsham, East Sussex. In collaboration with Geoff Roberts (more of him later!) they run a 5 day course whereby, under his watchful eye and expert guidance, you mitre, braze, file, polish, and track your own beautiful steel frame. Unlike other similarly priced frame building courses that either donate your frame to an African charity (a worthy cause no doubt) or leave you with a shoddy amateur frame, the Enigma course effectively guarantees you a bike that you keep and will last you for life and is overseen by Geoff every step of the way.

Geoff Roberts is an ex pro racer whose family shop Roberts Cycles in Croydon, now sadly closed, used to produce 25 hand built steel frames per week. Geoff was his Dad’s apprentice and is arguably the UK’s most experienced and prestigious frame builder, having grafted at the trade for 42 years. What he doesn’t know about bikes isn’t worth knowing. He still trades on his own as Geoff Roberts and his frames are simply beautiful.

The course is full on, Monday to Friday, 8.30-5.00.

  • Day one starts with an expert fit and technical drawing based on your specification, ie road, track, audax etc. You then immediately start mitring tubes and setting up your frame on a jig.
  • Day 2 is brazing. That’s basically melting brass into all the lugs to hold your beautifully cut tubes together.
  • Day 3 is more of the same, whilst constantly checking the alignment.
  • Day 4 is fitting all the small brazed on parts such as water bottle bosses, brake bridges (I didn’t know any of these words till last week) and cable eyes. You then sand blast and file the entire frame.
  • Day 5 is polishing, and more polishing and then just as you thought you’d finished, you guessed it…..more polishing!

Then comes the most critical part, choosing your colour scheme with Enigma’s own spraying guru Jaco…painter to the stars of our sport (clue, they’re brothers!!). At the end of this process you are left with a stunning steel frame to accessorise and then ride and boast about forever more!

My frame is now finished and in the queue for Jaco to paint. In early January they’re letting me work in the workshop alongside their mechanic to fit all of the finishing kit, and come January I’ll be showing off my beautiful steed on club rides and boring you all round the Kent and Surrey hills with tales of days spent filing and brazing with Geoff.

All in all the week is amazing, and the 5 days literally flew by. Enigma’s owner Jim Walker, a great guy who is passionate about all things to do with cycling, regularly pops downstairs to check on your progress, and his wife Christine is a constant source of hot drinks and home baked cakes. By the end of the week you’ll know all the lovely team that work at Enigma, but best of all, you’ll have spent a week hearing Geoff’s tales of racing back in the day and training whilst working for his Dad’s firm.

He’s full of anecdotes and heaps praise on his students where it’s due, scattered with ample mickey-taking and a fair amount of moaning! He’s a true character and great fun to work alongside.

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Guys like Geoff are sadly a dying breed. Whilst some excellent young frame builders have emerged in the last few years, many start up solo after literally scratching the surface of the subject on a few courses like this. Their bikes win prizes based more on style over substance, but soon come apart or develop problems further down the road. To learn as Geoff did, the hard way over years and years of working for his Dad, you just know you can trust hurtling down a hill on anything carrying the Roberts name.

Whilst the course doesn’t come cheap, a good steel frame will set you back in the region of £1600 before any kit is even on the bike (some may be upwards of 3k). The course is £1200 based on 2 students (there is a £1500 one to one option), materials are £180….all Columbus tubing for the benefit of the bike geeks, sorry aficionados! Paint job is £200ish depending on the elaborateness of the design, so for what I believe is a great price, you not only learn new skills but meet great people and can ride your very own hand built frame. A bargain I reckon.

Steel is the new carbon.

Happy cycling and Merry Christmas

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