Long established in the minds of the cycling cognoscenti, Rourke Cycles took an unexpected step into mainstream consciousness earlier this year when Isle of Man TT rider, Guy Martin, knocked on the door of their Stoke-on-Trent premises and asked for a bike on which he might exceed 100mph.
“There’s a lot to go wrong, and we’re busy anyway – why do we need the stress?” Jason Rourke laughs at the memory from his stand at Bespoked, the UK’s handmade bike show, on which Martin’s machine takes pride of place. It speaks volumes, however, for his reputation, and that of his father, Brian, a once top-class road rider who established the business 42 years ago, that Martin should seek them out for such a demanding challenge: to break the British bicycle speed record.
Rider and frame builder worked closely together to create the machine, eventually piloted to 112mph by Martin after being towed behind a 1000bhp lorry for the Channel Four series, Speed. Rourke, notably, is the one member of the party featured in the film to sound a note of caution. “At first, I thought, there’s a lot of risk,” he remembers.
“I said, ‘If you fall off, seriously – it will hurt’. And he was like: ‘No, no,’” Rourke recalls. “He was purely looking at it as: ‘You work with bikes from 30 to 40mph; 60mph down a steep hill, possibly. I’m used to 200mph, so 100mph is a doddle.’”
There’s nothing better than someone coming back and saying, ‘I love that bike you’ve done’. That’s enough. No more, no less – Jason Rourke
At rest, on Rourke’s stand at the London Olympic Velodrome, the enormous gear on Martin’s bike is the only sign of its previous deployment. The broad tyres and flat handlebars are not immediately redolent of speed, but a billing of “one careful owner” might be stretching things a little. “Forget the TV and all the rest of it,” Rourke says. “The best part of the whole project was making friends with Guy, really. He’s such an interesting, fantastic person. He’s as brave as a lion. Unbelievable.”
More obviously speed-oriented machinery decorates the stand. A striking red and white machine, fashioned from Reynolds 953 and dressed in Campagnolo Super Record, represents an aesthetic departure for the Stoke-on-Trent firm, which Rourke admits has brought little other than frames with ‘stealthy’ finishes to previous shows. The paint scheme is always the customer’s choice, he jokes, and so of the least importance to him.
The other most notable aspect of the bike’s appearance is its geometry, which is unmistakably racy. “Fast racing bikes” are Rourke’s stock-in-trade, he confides. Asked to identify the quality that makes such a machine and Rourke chooses balance, a characteristic he says results from the “measure up” – the process of placing rider on bike and assessing his position. “I’m a frame builder,” he laughs. “I should tell you it’s all about my building of the frames. It’s not really. It’s all about being sat on the bike right,” a facet he admits that the staff at Rourke Cycles are obsessed by.
Forget the TV and all the rest of it. The best part of the whole project was making friends with Guy, really. He’s such an interesting, fantastic person – Jason Rourke
“Obviously, it’s got to be made out of the right tubing – the art of the frame builder is making sure you put those tubes together without wrecking them, or losing any of the strength – but really it’s being sat on it smack, bang, right. When you are, you feel balanced, and that’s when you go quick.”
The ‘measure up’
With the ‘measure up’ then commanding so much importance, how is it achieved at Rourke? Brian Rourke and Gareth Owen are responsible for this area and the process is conducted entirely “by eye”. The skill is central to any bike fitting system, regardless of the increasingly popular digital accoutrements that characterise many of the newer models. “We’ve tried different systems, but we’ve never been happy with them,” Jason confides. “We always feel we get that better shape when we’re looking at them on a bike.”
The customer is invited to bring their existing bike, shorts and shoes, and a visual assessment is made; in the absence of the customer’s own machine, an appropriately-sized machine from any of the brands stocked at the Stoke-on-Trent shop is used. Measurements are taken and passed to Jason, who begins the task of turning calculations into machinery. “They give me the dimensions the customer wants,” he says, “and then I can build a bike as I see to make it right.” This is his art.
Rourke agrees that builders working in steel have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. It has always been the material of choice for Rourke and always will be, he says, before adding, “unless something better comes along”. Characters as open as Rourke aren’t given to implication, but whether intended or otherwise, the obvious inference is that steel has little to fear from carbon fibre.
Dad comes back from riding his 953 and he’s always on about it, to me or to Gaz, or whoever’s around: ‘I bloody love this bike’ – Jason Rourke
The most tangible measure of steel’s renaissance among a new generation of cyclists, he continues, is the number of “young ‘uns” now coming to the shop. He laughs aloud when asked what they come for. “I’m never quite sure,” he chuckles, before gathering himself and deciding that it is the complete package – the measure-up, and the finished article – that provides a bike they will not have to alter.
“We do somehow instill a belief in the customer,” he explains. “We must do something right there. They don’t say: ‘I love my bike, you made it for me 12 months ago, but I’ve changed my stem and I’ve put my saddle up a bit.’ They do trust us, and they usually come back and say, ‘Yeah, brilliant. Thanks very much.’”
Place your order
The process of obtaining a Rourke begins in a bar located in the upstairs of the shop. “It’s nice and quiet and we can spend as much time as you want,” Rourke explains. It is here that the ‘measure-up’ takes place. As well as recommending a geometry for the new frame, Rourke also recommends the material. He is typical of most frame builders in believing that the best tubeset – Columbus, Dedacciai, Reynolds etc – is the one most appropriate for the task, but he also readily admits to patriotism and believes that Reynolds currently holds a margin of superiority over its rivals.
We do somehow instill a belief in the customer. We must do something right there. They don’t say: ‘I love my bike, you made it for me 12 months ago, but I’ve changed my stem and I’ve put my saddle up a bit’ – Jason Rourke
The Birmingham firm’s flagship tubeset – the famed 953 – is one Rourke describes as “pretty magical” – light and responsive, but not excessively hard or stiff. It’s a material that has found favour with his father too, one of the most experienced frame builders in the country and a cyclist to whom the bicycle is simply a tool, according to his son. “He’s always had bikes, and he never really says much about them,” Jason explains. “He comes back from riding his 953 and he’s always on about it, to me or to Gaz, or whoever’s around: ‘I bloody love this bike.’”
The Rourke customer base is “a pretty trusting lot,” Jason smiles – perhaps with good reason. Recommendations for geometry and materials are usually taken on board despite a broad spectrum of would-be owners ranging from those with little idea of their requirements to those who “know every bit – all the components.”
And the most satisfying aspect for the frame builder? “There’s nothing better than someone coming back and saying, ‘I love that bike you’ve done’. That’s enough. No more, no less.” Colours don’t make a bike, he says. A correctly set-up machine, one the customer “does not have to mess about with” is of greater value.
Rourke describes the 26-week period between order and delivery as “a bit embarrassing” for a company with such a proud history of service to racing cyclists, but it is an obvious sign of demand and a thriving business. “We’re working hard to get that down,” he admits, though if the interest shown in the stand at Bespoked is a guide, orders are unlikely to dry up any time soon.