Editor’s note: This review originally appeared in our sister magazine, Bicycle Times, but since we got the bike plenty dirty enough, we thought Dirt Rag readers might enjoy it too.
By Eric McKeegan
Paul Sadoff IS Rock Lobster. Building in Santa Cruz since 1978 and full-time since 1988, Sadoff focuses on performance, fit, and comfort while keeping prices and wait times reasonable for a custom frame. Sadoff also teaches a frame-building class at United Bicycle Institute a few times a year. During a recent class he built this “fat tire” road bike, mostly for himself but also with the thought it would make a fine review bike for some member of the cycling media.
I’m a member of the cycling media, I’m just a touch taller than Sadoff, and I happened to have quite a few rides planned for the spring and summer that seemed to suit this bike to a T. After putting a ton of miles on it, riding everything from smooth pavement to singletrack trails, I may be on a mission to change what people think when they hear “road bike.”
Personally, when I hear “road bike,” I picture what has become the de facto standard in the U.S., the road racing bicycle: skinny tires, aggressive position, steep angles, light and fragile frame, super-stiff ride. Great for racing, not so great for everything else. The Rock Lobster departs from almost all of these points without losing the ability to go fast.
Underneath that blue paint is TIG-welded Kasei steel, a high-quality butted chromoly steel from Japan. This is matched with a brazed box-crown fork with Dedacciai blades.
Where does the “fat-tire” part come in? Most road bikes are lucky to fit a 28mm tire, mostly because modern short-reach brake calipers won’t accommodate anything bigger. Sadoff built this bike around Shimano R450 mid-reach calipers to provide room for at least 32mm tires, 28mm with fenders installed. Yes, I said “fenders.” The bike shipped with a beautiful pair of aluminum fenders that bolt right to the provided eyelets. Heck, there are even rack mount fittings.
I didn’t pay much attention to the details when the box from Santa Cruz showed up; I had riding to do, and soon, no time to ask Sadoff for the nitty-gritty on tubing and angles. I decided that I would go for a bit more racy position than I’ve been riding in lately and installed the stem in the negative-rise position, making for a good 4-inches of drop from the seat to the bars. Might as well take advantage of my lack of beer belly while I have the chance. I figured I would flip it upright for longer or rougher rides.
Well, that never happened. The stem flipping that is, not the rides. I rode the crap out of this thing. Four hundred unsupported miles in under 48 hours across Pennsylvania? Check. Seventy-five miles of West Virginia dirt and gravel roads during the Hilly Billy Roubaix? Check. Mixed-surface rides in and around the city, including singletrack? Check. Throw in some commuting and just-for-fun road rides and I’m pretty confident I’ve got enough miles to pronounce this bike spectacular in the most understated way possible. The riding position felt right from the first ride home, stretched out to the bars, with weight well-balanced between the wheels. I discovered that lower back issues I experience on long rides are much improved with more reach to the bars, not less.
This bike sings along back roads. I know “sing” is a pretty vague term, but that is what I often thought while riding. The semi-ag- gressive position combined with the springy and absorbent wheels, cushy handmade Challenge tires, and the resilient steel frame made for an almost magical ride where the bike seemed to speed up on less-than-perfect pavement. Instead of rattling my teeth out on cracks and bumps, the Rock Lobster seemed to want to go faster. The fork shares a starring role here with the frame: it was well-matched, absorbing shock without dulling the input from the road like a carbon bike.
Off the pavement and onto dirt, this thing was almost scary. Not scary in an evil handling way, but scary in an “allez, allez!” way. While the 72-degree head angle is on the steep side, the low bottom bracket (267mm height) and longer chainstays (420mm, same length as on most Rock Lobster cyclocross bikes) make for a bike that is willing and able to outride its tires on rough terrain. It isn’t often I feel comfortable enough to back it into corners on a gravel road, even on a mountain bike, but a touch of rear brake to get the rear end drifting around was a surprisingly natural thing to do. Even some light trail riding wasn’t out of the question, although there is a limit to that on tires with almost no tread and a “road” riding position.
The handbuilt (by Mr. Sadoff) wheels put up with everything I put them through, not a single wobble to be found. The fenders were dead quiet; something I’m coming to appreciate about properly installed modern metal fenders. I didn’t try a rear rack, but I imagine light loads for overnight trips would be fine; just don’t look at this bike as a good choice for long-distance touring unless you want to roll with a superlight kit.
I had a hard time coming up with a conclusion for this bike. It felt most at home being ridden hard and fast on any kind of terrain that could be classified as road, but wasn’t uncomfortable on long road rides either—a perfect blend of cyclocross and road traits. The Rock Lobster has rekindled my love of road bikes, and proves once again steel isn’t dead and never will be.
Rock Lobster currently has a four-to-five month build queue. Besides the fat-tire style road bike, Sadoff also builds just about everything but full suspension, including 26” and 29” mountain bikes, track, and cyclocross, in steel or aluminum.
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Price: $3,284 as built, $1,340 frame, $250 fork
Sizes Available: Custom only
Check out this builder profile we wrote about Sadoff in 2005.
He was also the focus of an Industry Insider interview from earlier this year.