Chas Roberts and his team have a deserved reputation as frame builders at the top of their game building in Columbus and Reynolds and often a mix of both brands of tubing. We tested our first Roberts back in March 1992. The Roberts Life uses a new steel that is alloyed with manganese, chrome, nickel, molybdenum and niobium and is claimed to offer superior resistance to atmospheric corrosion than other steels. The Life tested here comes in custom only for which there are eight body measurements taken.
The Roberts is built from Columbus' second rung Life tubing, hence the name, this has a 0.45mm wall thickness and represents a good balance of lightness and durability. Spirit, the top Columbus tubeset has an unbutted wall thickness of 0.38mm and Columbus reckon it can be built up into a frame weighing a nudge over a kilo.
While this metal is designed to handle the greater heat of TIG welding it is built by Roberts using a brazed construction using Newvex lugs that are based loosely on the attractive Nervex Professional lugs that were a common sight in the 1960s. While they have aesthetic appeal, using lugs adds weight compared with a TIG welded frame.
The true hallmark of a good steel frame is a smooth-fitting seatpost and that is what you get with the Roberts. Peering inside the bottom bracket shell doesn't reveal any hidden signs of skimping either, as the tubes are very neatly mitred where they are joined, and the braze-ons are positioned so that the cables avoid brushing the paintwork.
There is a common misconception that steel bikes are somehow lacking in stiffness but in fact, just like carbon or aluminium they can be built for a soft or stiff and unyielding ride according to the tubing diameter used. The change to oversized tubing means that steel has come a long way since the days when all steel tubes were of a stock 1in diameter and there was a greater difference between these three bikes than we have noticed when comparing frames made using other materials.
Roberts have used a long top tube which will favour the serious racer who likes to stretch out a bit. Since Roberts will supply their bikes with the stem of your choice, we took the opportunity to order the Roberts with a longish 13cm stem to compensate for what we thought would be slow steering given the 6.6cm trail. This worked well as while there was a tiny degree of flop when riding out of the saddle on steep climbs, the slowed steering was a confidence booster when cycling alongside heavy traffic at high speeds.
While being a little on the heavy side compared to the others on test, the steel forks have good lateral stiffness and the Roberts was rewarding to descend with.
We love the Ritchey Logic pro traditional bends that are fitted to the Roberts. They typically cost around £40 to buy individually, and seem to be more popular with the pro riders than the anatomic type.
The jury's still out on the lugged and brazed steel stem and it would look odd if turned the other way to point upwards, but its torsional stiffness is excellent. The PMP titanium setback seatpost is a simple two-bolt affair that is similar to the ITM clamp design and adds style and exclusivity to the package. While the post is quite short and was on the height adjustment limit a couple of times during testing, its flexible nature is appropriate here given that the frame does little to dissipate shock.
The Shimano Ultegra gears needed fettling during the test period to keep them changing sweetly under pressure. On the plus side though, while the 11- tooth sprocket is becoming a common sight on 10-speed setups the 12-25 cassette used here is a better choice for competitive cycling in hilly areas. Hopefully Roberts will make the compact version of the Octalink 2 chainset an option in the near future.
Aesthetically the Harry Rowland wheels on the Roberts work well with the retro theme of the bike and both ran perfectly true during the test period. He uses 32 spokes per wheel which should suffice for all but the heaviest of riders. The spokes are of the butted type that are more resilient to the effects of vibration than a plain gauge spoke. Rims are the ultra lightweight DT1.1, which goes a long way to explaining why this wheel package is 300g lighter than the Condor's base-level Mavic Aksium Race wheels. In the past we've been given cause for concern by cartridge bearing hubs which can develop rough bearings in a very short time but the Taiwanese Ambrosio hubs used here appear to be one of the better designs.
The Gommitalia Calypso tyres are expensive, have delicate sidewalls and therefore aren't really ideal for winter riding but have sublime grip and feel on fast descents.
The cost of the Roberts is fairly reflected in the amount of labour involved and that you are getting an eight-point custom build. It will appeal particularly to those who raced on lugged steel frames in the 1970s and 80s but with the more up-to-date handling that a modern tube provides.