Photos: Wig Worland
Based in Bristol, Robin Mather is one of six UK frame builders collaborating with Rapha for the UK Continental project. Robin’s attention to detail, handcrafted lugs and distinctive touches have made his bikes increasingly coveted, on this sceptered isle and beyond.
When did you start designing and building frames?
The first bike I built was a school project in 1992.
You won best in show at Bespoked (UK hand-built show) this year, did you set out to beat the competition, or were you simply building something you wanted to create?
It was a bike I wanted to build. A lot of the bikes I build are touring and randonneur machines and most of the riding I do is on these kind of bikes. Recently, I’ve been reading about old French touring bikes like the ones built by Alex Singer and Rene Herse. Aesthetically, these are obvious sources of inspiration (not just for me) but functionally they also incorporate ideas I wanted to try for myself – the combination of low trail geometry, large volume 650b tyres and the positioning of most of the luggage over the front wheel was prevalent then, but quite different to most modern randonneur bikes today.
I didn’t set out to beat the competition. Exhibiting at Bespoked was not simply an exercise in self promotion, I felt like I had to participate. I don’t think the frame builders exhibiting there need to compete against each other. I believe that collectively, we are competing against large scale producers of off-the-peg bikes and Bespoked was a platform for us to raise the profile of handmade, bespoke bikes. It is in everybody’s interest for the standard of work to be high, new builders should be encouraged, knowledge shared, and established builders reminded that they can not afford to be complacent.
It was a real honour to get best in show, there were some very beautiful bikes there that had obviously had many hours of thought and hard work invested in them.
What kind of frame building do you admire?
The bikes I most admire and aspire to build are those where everything non-essential has been stripped away and what remains is executed with skill and style.
It appears there is a real artisan community in Bristol and a big bicycle culture, has this helped you?
Absolutely. My new workshop in Bristol is in a building shared by 30 artisans and artists. We are a co-op and having a shared mission forces each of us to think outside our bubble occasionally. Also, it’s good to be surrounded by other people on similar paths who have often encountered and overcome a problem I might be struggling with. On a practical level, my new head badge and down tube graphics are both creations of my neighbours.
The bike culture here is also great. I’m fairly new in town and feel that there’s still a lot to discover but I’m really enjoying it.
The UK ‘scene’ seems to be thriving, do you think you and a few other builders have had something to do with this?
There does seem to be an appetite for handmade bicycles at the moment but I think this is just part of a wider interest in craft, localism and the origins of the objects that we use.
What is your favourite part of the building process and which is perhaps the hardest thing involved in building a good frame?
The whole thing. There are parts of the process that are difficult, tedious and do not require much creativity and other parts that are more engaging. The most difficult thing and therefore the most satisfying is completing every part of this process with care and attention to detail. From arranging the workshop and designing and building tools and jigs to checking the tyre pressure and tweaking the angle of the saddle, if any aspect is neglected the end result will be less good.
Do you have a particular tubing that you like to work with above all else?
Not especially. I prefer it to be round and straight. Nearly all the tubing I use comes from either Reynolds or Columbus.
What is trickier, brazing or welding?
I’ve been brazing for a lot longer than I’ve been welding so I’m at very different points on the learning curve. There are lots of similarities, both involve pushing a small molten pool of metal around. I imagine it’s like the difference between playing the violin and the piano.
What kind of design work inspires you?
I like spare, minimalist design and have a bit of a thing for chairs so admire the work of people like Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner. I think I could have happily been a furniture designer/maker. In the bike building world, there are lots of people I admire for lots of different reasons. For his eye and skill Peter Weigle is an inspiration (and I covet his lathe).
Can you tell me a little bit about the bike you built for James Bowthorpe – is the way you started and finished the project the same way you build most of your frames?
It was not the typical frame builder/ client relationship in that a number of the parameters for the project were set by Rapha. I was aware of the fact that the Continental bikes would be viewed as a set and wanted to build something in a style that was identifiably mine. I also wanted to build a bike that would work for James beyond the scope of the Continental project. I found that these requirements fitted together pretty well. James was very accommodating and gave me freedom to respond to these requirements as I wanted. I feel that the finished bike is fairly representative of my work.