“Carbon can feel like a one-way conversation, but steel wants to be playful - it encourages you to push on,” says Robert Quirk, taking the opportunity to wax lyrical about his frame material of choice at Quirk Cycles while phoning in before his flight out to ride the Silk Road Mountain Race in a pair of Gran Tourer Gravel Bike Shoes.
Unusually for a bike builder, Robert credits his studies in fine art for his ability to create the custom steel bicycles he brings to life in his north London studio. “I think a lot of time people think it's like drawing and painting,” he explains of his course in Sheffield, England, “and in some universities maybe that's the case, but the one I went to was more about encouraging abstract thought and learning how to approach problems, or ideas, from different angles, breaking them down and communicating them in some way.” And the mechanics of actually building a bike? “I was always practical and hands-on,” he says. “I took a Bicycle Academy course as well, but for whatever reason, thinking about geometry, shapes, and the performance of materials, material science, and stuff like that has always come quite naturally to me,” he adds. “Although I’ve had my fair share of tricky problems!”
Robert will be riding the Silk Road on the bike he built for the 2018 Grinduro event in Scotland
A quick browse of Quirk’s Instagram feed reveals an array of road, all-road and gravel bikes, skilfully painted in deep draughts of colour and immersive, iridescent fades. “Paint is one of the biggest conversations,” he notes. “We use a firm here in London called Cole Coatings Workshop. Dan Cole, who set that up, is probably one of the best painters in the country, and the quality of the finish and execution is just off the scale.” But according to Robert, there’s some disagreement between custom bike builders about the trend towards style over, in their eyes, craftsmanship. “There's quite a secular argument going on in the frame building world where it's like, is it about how good of a frame builder you are or is it about sticking fancy paint on it?” he muses. “You know, some people can be quite disparaging of a fancy paint job, but I think it's about having both. You want something that looks amazing, and you don't necessarily want to focus just on the engineering of the thing.”
With the start of the Silk Road Race only hours away, how did Robert find himself gearing up for the start line? “I heard about it from Nelson Trees, who I first met when we both raced the 2016 Transcontinental,” he says of the Silk Road’s organiser. “Nelson asked if I’d be interested and I replied that I’d love to do it. That was a couple of years ago, and as time went on and he developed the idea he kept popping up to ask if I was going to ride it, and I kept telling him yes. But when it really took form and I looked a bit deeper into it, I was like, "Oh, shit, this is exceptionally tough."
Tough is an understatement. The Silk Road Race tracks a 1700 kilometre course through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, notching up 26,000m of climbing in the process. An unsupported event, Robert and his experienced ride partner, Chris Hall (he of the 107km for 107 days fame), will camp each night, hauling whatever supplies they need in their Apidura bikepacking bags. “With this race there are three sections over 250k long with no resupply opportunities along the way,” he explains. "The distances are substantial, so you have to carry enough food for the time you think it’ll take between supply points, but you also have to consider the possibility of a mechanical while you are doing those sections.”
And their bikes of choice for the ride? Custom Quirk Cycles of course. “Haha, well, there’s not much road, so we better go gravel, I think,” he quips. “We’re riding the Grinduro bike I was invited to build for this year’s event in Scotland. We got the guys at Lauf involved for the suspension fork, Columbus’ Life tubes for the frame, and a SRAM group. We’ll be seeing how it performs during the race, and after the race with any luck it’ll be a model for sale to my customers at Quirk.”
From left: Robert Quirk and Chris Hall test their bike and camping kit with a night bedding down in the UK's Epping Forest
An ‘Adventure’ bike at its core, Robert took the opportunity to move away from today’s road-influenced gravel machines, easing the geometry for long, mixed surface expeditions. “I gave it a slightly longer wheelbase, a slacker angle, kept the reach compact, tall and slightly lowered the bottom bracket,” he says. “Gravel bikes often share the aggressive position as a cross bike, and ordinarily there’s nothing wrong with that, but it can feel like you’re riding a road bike with fat tyres. Adventure bikes sit somewhere in-between. They’re for expeditions where you don't want to go over to a full MTB 29 or ride a gravel bike that perhaps wouldn’t offer the comfort and control over long distances.”
A lucky recipient of one of the first production pairs of the Quoc Gran Tourer Bike Shoe (hand delivered by Quoc founder, Quoc in person no less), Robert had the opportunity to put his new shoes through their paces with a kit-shakedown expedition to the UK’s Peak District region. “I've got these freakishly large feet, and I really hoped they would fit me,” he says of his tan and pink pair. “Thankfully they did, and we headed north for our pre-ride leg stretcher, covering 100k and climbing almost 2000 metres.” And did the shoes fit? “They did, and they were amazing - just amazing.” He even had the chance to try out the Gran Tourer’s level of water resistance, although not willingly. “I was crossing this stream, and before I knew it, my foot sank down and through the water,” he remembers, “and I realised it was a stream on top of a bog! So I was like, "Damn, wet feet right at the start of the ride!” But they weren’t wet; I couldn’t believe it. I was like, "What? These shoes are amazing." I guess the big thing was that I forgot I was wearing them during the ride, and that’s the best thing you could ever wish for.”
To follow Robert and Chris' progress, click here.