Bob Brown might be considered young in the chronological hierarchy of frame builders. However, his ability to mine the root base of classic construction belies any doubt as to his place amidst the best "The Tree" has to offer.
Hailing from Minnesota, ("what is in the water out there?" Ed.), Brown has that rarest of qualities in that beyond just tradition he can push the envelope comfortably with his triumvirate of skills: building, engineering & pure fabrication. Simply put, he can create what does not yet exist. Bob Brown, in his own words...
1. How old are you?
30, soon to be 31
2. Where were you born?
St. Paul MN. Coincidentally about 4 miles from where I now live.
3. What's your earliest memory of a bicycle or something bicycle related?
This little green bike I had when I was probably about 4. It must have been about a 12" or 16" wheel, but the distinguishing feature of it was the brake. It was actuated by a steel lever mounted on the downtube. You could take one foot off the pedal and press the "brake pedal" with it to stop!
4. What was your first cycle?
Probably a tricycle before the green one above. My first bike without training wheels though was "The Star Spangler" (seriously, it was written in the decals!). A white banana seat 20" wheeler with stars and stripes all over the thing.
5. How about first "high-end" cycle?
That would be my Fuji Credenza. It was a mountain bike. I always liked riding off-road more than on-road, even as a kid. I saved several years of paper-route money to get that bike (I delivered papers on a Columbia cruiser for years, the same cruiser my Dad delivered papers on when he was a kid). It could hold about 50 newspapers in the huge front and rear baskets, we dubbed it "The Papermaster 5000". I think that was 1988-89ish. It was a great bike for me, Tange steel, LX components. That frame bent after a few years, and was replaced with a Fuji Nevada frame.
6. Did (does) your family (parents, siblings, etc) ride also?
Yes, my Dad was my inspiration, though he might not know it. He rode his Huffy cruiser bike all over. On Saturday mornings he'd go out for 10-20 mile rides on that bike. I started riding with him when I was old enough. I loved that. A couple years ago for his birthday, I built him a new bike which he loves (he was still riding the same Huffy cruiser), so he's still riding. My Mom started riding more in the last few years, and she's even now riding to work a bit. I'm proud of her for doing that.
7. Did you like to tinker with bikes back then?
Yes, always. I loved to tinker with everything though, but my bike was always around, so I got to mess with it the most. I had a little neighborhood bike repair shop as a kid. I'd work on all the neighbor's bikes and did a few rattle-can re-sprays. It was crude, but a lot of fun. I really have always learned by doing things, and I learned a lot about mechanical things by working on bikes.
8. Did you ever work in a Bike Shop... if so, where/how long?
Yes, a few. While not a bike shop, I worked at a hardware store for four years during high school and early college. They were a very big power-equipment dealer and service center, so they had a big shop. They also serviced bikes, and inevitably those all fell my way. So between rebuilding carburators on a lawnmower and helping customers find 6-32 socket head cap screws, I did bike repairs. That was by far the best job I ever had in terms of learning skills. I learned how to fix nearly anything by the end of my time there. My first real bike shop job was working at BJ's Bike and Ski here in MN during college. I began there assemblying bikes, and quickly became one of their main service people. I also worked at a shop in the U.P. of Michigan during college. That was Cross Country Sports in Calumet, Michigan. That was a fun job, pretty basic work assembling bikes and doing repairs, but the other folks at the shop were a blast to work with. I still stop in to visit when I make it up there.
9. Have you ever done any organized racing?
Lots of that. I still race on a regular basis. Mountain biking has always been my preferred form of race, and it's how I got started. I entered my first race in 1995. I entered the sport class, and started dead last as I was worried I'd block all the "good" riders if I was up front. It was a hilly course (I like hills), I ended up finishing 8th overall and decided I better start more towards the front next time. Moved to expert soon after, which is where I race today.
I started road racing in about 97, did a little, but it wasn't as fun to me as off-road. I raced Cat 3 and finished mid-pack, which is about what I can do today on the road if I train a lot, but it doesn't do much for me.
Cyclocross though, that's where it's at! I love 'cross and am addicted to it. I hope I never stop racing that sport. The last few years I've only raced singlespeed in 'cross and I think that's a great use of a one-speed-bike. I've managed a few wins in the state championships in the singlespeed class, but there aren't that many of us in that class. Ultra-endurance racing has been pretty good to me, endurance sports in general have always treated me better than short events. I've done the Leadville 100 three times now and I do a lot of 24 hour races. I never thought I'd do well with 24 hour racing as I don't function well without sleep, but once I got my stategy dialed in I've had great success with them including a 3rd solo overall at Afton two years ago (riding a singlespeed of course!) and a few team placings at 9-mile. I still race actively with my club, Kenwood Racing. My favorites these days are the Thursday Night mtb. races at Buck Hill, and occasionally showing up for the Opus Crits in the Spring.
10. How about cyclo-touring?
I've done a bit of touring but I'm certainly more of a racer than tourer. I've done some local touring in the midwest and toured down part of the West coast a few years back. I love cycle touring, it's just tough to take the time for a long tour these days. My wife and I are hoping to tour more of the West Coast this Summer on tandem and we'll probably get in a few shorter tours as well.
11. What job(s) did you have before frame building and also-do you have any other job currently besides frame building?
I think I covered most of my previous jobs in the bike shop question above. Currently I do have a "day job" as a Design Engineer for the 3M company. I'm working on making that part-time though to dedicate more time to framebuilding. Right now I work about 70 hours a week between the two jobs (framebuilding and engineering) and I need to get that down to a more reasonable amount.
12. When did you start building?
I started in 1998, building frames for myself and a few friends.
13. Who would you say is your greatest influence in designing & frame building?
In terms of designing frame geometry, I don't have a lot of outside influences. Designing a traditional double diamond bike frame is not exactly rocket science. I think the design and execution of the details is what can make a frame. In terms of building skills and detail work, Curt Goodrich has probably been one of my biggest influences. He's a good friend and lives and works pretty close to me. He's built more lugged steel bikes than pretty much anyone and he knows his stuff. Seeing his work always inspires me to keep improving mine. His execution is fantastic, and his brazing is cleaner than any I've ever seen. Cranking out Rivendells for years has given him far more practice than I'll probably ever have. He's taught me quite a few tricks along the way and I really appreciate it. Fortunately our businesses seem to mingle very well (he does more touring and general road frame type work) and I tend to do more unusual frame work (really custom lugs, tandems, mountain bikes, and paint) so I never feel like I'm competing with him. In fact I often send people to him if I think his product will better suit their needs, and he sends folks to me in the same manner.
14. Did you apprentice... if so, with who?
Nope, but that doesn't mean plenty of folks didn't help me out. I think everyone local to me who's built a frame gave me pointers in some way.
15. What's your idea of the "perfect cycle" regardless if you built it or not?
I'm not sure on this one. I like almost all bikes. I guess for me personally, my favorite ride is my lugged 29'er singlespeed mtb. It's all you need!
16. Shooting a guess... how many frames would you say you've built?
I'm not sure but I seem to average about 8-12 frames per year. So probably in the 60-70 range. I'd like to make more but the painting side of things keeps me too busy. I'd say I've done about 300 paint jobs or re-paints.
17. Any cycles out there that you secretly wished, "Darn, I wish I'd built that!"?
Hmm, that's a tough one. While I've never seen one in person, I wish I had the same creativity to carve lugs like Darrell McCulloch. His work looks stunning in the pictures I've seen.
18. Your idea of the perfect client?
Someone who communicates what they want for form and function but lets me be creative in how it's accomplished. The really hard frames (with lots of details and carvings) are the most fun for me despite how much work they are. Oh yeah, they also should not care about cost and how long the delivery will be : )
19. What defines a nightmare client in your experience?
Don't worry Scott, I won't say you! My least favorite clients are those that want to take away my job. By that I mean specify every last detail down to the part number of every braze-on put into the frame (yes, I've had people try to specify every braze-on down to the bottle bosses, by manufacturer and part number). I usually end up having to waste my time then talking them out of the bad specification they made since they have no idea how a certain part or geometry will work with the rest of the frame. I don't mind a customer being very detailed in telling me how they want the frame to look and function but the builder is the one who knows how to make that happen best.
20. Any words of advice to up & coming frame builders?
Don't quit your day job if you like eating food other than Ramen. Seriously, most of the folks I get looking for advice are looking to build a frame, not be a professional framebuilder. To them, the best advice I can give is to not shoot for the moon on the first frame. They all ignore me and try it anyway and usually end up dropping $400 on materials for a frame that's a pile of junk. Expect your first frame or two to be less than perfect. If you want a masterpiece you better plan on building quite a few to get good. Every frame I build is better still than the previous, you'll never stop improving.
21. What do you find most funny or peculiar (in a kind way-not brutal) about the cycle-buying public... what don't they get or aren't they seeing?
I think the thing that gets to me is the amount of money spent on bikes that only see the neighborhood sidewalks. People dropping $3000 on a bike to ride down the street when a $300 bike would be more than adequate. Folks buying Lance's bike simply because it's Lance's bike. That kind of thing bugs me. I obviously don't have a problem with people spending a lot of money on bikes (I'm the king of that), but only do it if you're going to get that amount of enjoyment out of the bike. Buy a bike appropriate for what you're doing.
22. What do you think of mass-produced bikes (without naming names)?
Quality-wise, I think most are very good for what you're buying. I repaint lots of frames so I get to see them all bare where you can't hide manufacturing problems. The vast majority of mass produced bikes being made today are of far better construction than the old "classic" bikes from Italy or England that people lusted after (some still do lust) years ago.
Aesthetically, I think they're horrible. Bikes keep getting uglier and they keep selling more. I guess it's good for me as it just means more repaints (I get a lot of folks bringing in brand new frames for paint because they hate the factory paint that much). I believe that's the main reason people buy my frames, to get something aesthetically that simply isn't available off-the-shelf.
23. What cycle don't you have anymore that you wished you did?
None really. I'm selling my MB-0 right now and I'll probably regret that. I don't ride it anymore and I don't like owning bikes that aren't ridden. I do miss my Bontrager 'cross bike but it didn't fit me so I don't regret selling it. I'd rather see someone else riding it than have it hang in my basement.
24. What cycle do you currently ride most, even if it wasn't built by you?
Right now my Bridgestone RB-1 fixed gear gets the most duty. I commute on it and run errands on it. In Spring I do all my road rides on the fixie, so it gets a lot of miles. I still love how that frame feels and looks.
25. When did you last ride your bike and for how far?
Yesterday, road ride, about 40 miles with the Kenwoodies. I'll probably do the same tonight.
26. What's your idea of the perfect ride?
An all-day ride, off-road preferably. Sunny and 70, with one or two friends, cover lots of miles with stops in there for lunch and/or dinner. I've got a great route across the twin cities on about 70% singletrack. It covers about 70-100 miles depending on route.
27. Could you ever see yourself being Car Free... just using mass-transportation and your bike to get around?
Possibly, but the business actually makes it tough. I ride to work a lot and run errands by bike pretty often. However I bring bikes or frames back and forth to Kenwood a lot and it's tough to transport a freshly painted frame while riding a bike. If the light-rail system here expands and puts in a line between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul that would help a lot but otherwise it's pretty tough for me. I prefer to drive as little as possible and when I do, I drive efficient vehicles.
28. Why do you think so many folks have romanticized bicycles & bicycling?
I'm not sure. For many I think bikes remind them of their youth, or college days, and they are nostalgic about those already so the bikes just fit in.
29. Any (other) passions or hobbies in your life?
Jeez, almost too many to name. Besides riding and building bikes, I race and coach cross-country skiing (I coach a local high-school team). I like fitness in general: I run a bit, lift weights, skate, anything outdoors. Camping and hiking are a favorite of my wife and me. We try to get out a couple times a year with that.
Music is a big part of my life. I'm a drummer/percussionist. I play in a local rock band and enjoy making all kinds of music. I also really love singing. I've sung in a couple of choirs and occasionally with my band. I'd really like to play another instrument but I just don't have the time to learn another one. I've had a little bit of guitar and a few years of keyboards but I think I really want to try the accordian next. There's not enough accordian players left in the world! I also like to play with cars. I'm obsessed with making my '92 Miata go faster while improving efficiency (that's the engineer in me).
30. If you could say one thing to Lance Armstrong what would it be?
31. In a pinch... McDonalds or Burger King?
Probably Chicken Selects at Micky-D's but either will do if I need some gut-rot.
32. What kind of shampoo did you last use?
Head and Shoulders Dry Scalp. Keeps my head from itchin' when I sweat under the helmet.
33. Favorite libation: wine, beer or fire water?
I guess fire-water. I rarely drink and I'm not much of a beer fan so when I drink it's usually whisky. Bell's or Boulevard Wheat are tolerable though with a little fresh squeezed lemon in them.
34. Even though there seems to be a real tradition to it-what do you think of folks who spend more time setting up their cycle with just the right color saddle, bar tape, bags, hoods, etc than actually riding or at least commenting on the ride?
Bugs me a little. Bikes should be ridden. That's fine to get it the way you really like it but once it's there, ride it and smile.
35. Did you go to college... if so, what was your major?
Yup, BS Mechanical Engineering from Michigan Tech.
36. Your favorite music while working (if any)?
Depends on my mood. Could be Country, 90's hair rock, NPR, who really knows? The new music-based public radio station in town is great for variety (89.3 for locals).
37. If you had it to do all over again... would you be building cycles?
Yes. Actually I think I'd be building more cycles and less engineering. I'm working on that now but it's harder once you're entrenched in the day job for years. I think working as a consultant 2-3 days a week and building frames the rest would have been a good way to start.
38. What's your favorite lunch food during a work day in the shop?
A full pan of brownies.
If I don't have that, the pastrami sandwich from the local meat-market is awesome.
39. When it's all said & done-what kind of legacy will you hope to have left behind?
A lot of happy customers who feel like they were treated well and got exactly what they wanted.
40. How can folks get in touch with you to order a custom cycle?