Interview with founder of Thorn cycles – World leader in Touring bicycles.
Here is a great interview I did with Robin Thorn, head of Thorn Cycles, the trusted brand that we will using on the Cycle for Change project. It’s a short one but we cover all sorts of topics including what you need to think about when you’re buying a touring bike. The benefits of steel vs aluminium, Rohloff hubs and some of the challenges that you might face when on a long cycling trip are all covered. Robin is an engaging , informative guy who was more than willing to pass on his knowledge and experience. So if you are thinking about doing a cycling adventure and are thinking what bike you might be buying for the first time or ugrading to, have a listen and make use of his years of experience.
Listen to the interview here
Gavin -Today we have got Robin Thorn, founder of Thorn cycles, one of the best touring cycle manufacturers on the market. And Robin has been kind enough to answer a few questions for us. Hello Robin and thanks for joining us today.
Robin – Thanks for ringing me it’s great to talk to you.
Gavin – Can I ask by asking about your touring background and what got you into manufacturing your own touring bikes?
Robin– Well I started the business 23 years ago as a normal bike shop and we started to mend other peoples bicycles and sell other peoples bicycles, we decided that other peoples bikes just really weren’t good enough. We used to bikes custom built by a frame builder, we used to sell Dawes bicycles, and we would recommend, especially to Dawes, “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?” and they would say, “look, we design the bikes, you sell ’em”. So we thought o.k. We’ll do that, we’ll design the bikes and we’ll sell ’em. Over the years we have become pretty good at I think.
Robin – We and try and give good value. That’s not to say that bikes are cheap, because they are clearly not cheap. But we want the things to work properly, so we work the other way. We don’t think what can we make for this money, we say what do we want for this purpose, we make it, and alright we to keep the price down, but the price is the price it is because that is the stuff we need on the bike, we don’t compromise. Fork off sets for example: We use different fork offsets for the different size frames, it gives a variable geometry so the top tubes can be shorter on the short ones and truly longer on the long ones, and the fork offsets adjust to suit the head angle. Other manufacturers, cant or wont do it, one fork does the whole range.
Gavin – Which does pose its own problems in the long run. What would you say for someone who is coming to touring cycling, what are the fundamental things to consider when you are buying a touring bike, or a bike that is specific to touring for the long rides.
Robin – Well obviously, if you have no money you can cycle around the world on a bike from the dump for £10, you don’t need to buy a great bike. If you have something awful you will me loads more people because you will be mending it all the time and you know people are interested. But if you want the thing to give you more chance of getting there, with less effort, then you want the least amount of maintenance necessary, you want stuff that’s durable, you don’t want anything tripped, and there is something that is going to go wrong, you need to be able to replace it. So you need a sensible wheel size. Steel….
Gavin -I’m sorry that brings up the next one, the steel frames. I see you are really going with the steel frames and there is a lot of argument these days between steel and aluminium, and whether or not you can get things mended out on the road. You have gone with steel, what is the main reason for that?
Robin – Unless you let the thing rust away or unless you crash the bike, so you take the steel past it’s elastic limit, steel has got an infinite stress cycle, you can spring it as many times as you like, and as long as you don’t bend it or take it past that limit, it’s just like it was when it was new. Unless it’s rusted away. So a 25-year-old Butler racing bike is just as good now as it was when it was new. There wouldn’t be a 25-year-old aluminium bike available. Even if they made them as well as they do now, then, it would have worn out. Now obviously people say that has got to be nonsense they make Boeing 747’s out of aluminium, they do but they X ray the components on a regular basis and count the number of hours they use them. It’s not an option on your bicycle.
Gavin– That’s very, very true, so also with your new range you have gone with the Rohloff hub, and there is obviously the longevity to those things, why have you gone with them and what is the major benefit with the Rohloff hubs.
Robin – Well the Rohloff hubs have got all the gears internal, so there are no moving parts except for the cog and the chain outside, they designed the thing initially with a service life of 50000 km, its got easily a service life of 100000km, they have got a lot of customers that have done over 100000km, on their hubs and all they have done is every 5000km is change the oil. Now obviously any mechanical thing can go wrong, sometimes there are shifting issues with a new hub, but generally speaking once the hub’s there and running, that’s it.
Gavin – Now with that hub there is a fairly significant cost factor that goes into that, vs. the traditional derailleur, over the life span of the bike if money is an issue, is it really worth it if you are going to keep that bike for ten years?
Robin – If you mountain bike and you read our website, Andy has written some stuff about the costings for mountain biking, without question it’s cheaper on a mountain bike, on a touring bike, maybe it is maybe it isn’t, but most people buy these bikes for an expedition, your giving up four months salary to go on this expedition, whether the hub is £800 or not is not really the point
Gavin – For me its definitely not an issue, but I have been speaking to a lot of people and they immediately recoil at what is £600, or in that ball park, I, mean I am convinced that Rohloff is the way to go, but for anyone who is ummiing and ahhring, what would be the major selling point, no service but what about weight and durability as far as how does it affect your wheels, how does it affect your spokes. That sort of stuff
Robin – there is not weight saving to be had, it maybe around about the same weight as a derailleur, obviously you could the derailleur lighter if you tried, spokes, well the wheels are dish less, so you haven’t got 18 or 16 spokes at one high tension and 16 spokes at a lower tension because the wheel is symmetrical, there have been issues about the angle the spokes exit the rim, notable guy Mark Bowmont who cycled around the world had some spokes fail with his Rohloff probably one hundred miles into the ride, that was about the exit angle of the spokes, that’s the thing we address when we build any wheel, that’s no longer an issue, and we have never had a hub break a spoke at the hub end.
Gavin – getting back to the bike in general for someone who is just coming to touring, what’s the biggest consideration do you think?
Robin – For the bike? The whole bike? The biggest is that the thing works properly and it wont take you by surprise. Its all very well chucking luggage on your bike and riding off and it seems fine and its seems absolutely fine when you are going down the road but when you are going down a mountain pass and you are doing 40 mph the thing has still got to handle properly, the brakes have got to work, and you don’t need surprises in handling, shimmying, toe overlap so you cant steer it needs to be dependable, you could say boring, you know, the bike needs to be a nice stable, boring ride, that just is important, if it only stops you once falling off once and killing yourself, its worth having.
Gavin – That’s a big win in any favour there. Now as far as racks and carrying panniers, a bike like yours, is it better with panniers or can it go with trailers, or is it neither here nor there?
Robin – You may as well take it with the panniers because it will take a sensible amount of luggage, we make racks that match the bicycle, particularly our front racks, phenomenally stiff and strong and when your on an expedition having a trailer is not always that easy, because a bicycle with some luggage you can pick it up an run with it, climb, you can run up steps, you can do all sorts of stuff, a bike with a trailer you have got two things, you have you, the bike and the trailer (sic) and if you are in bother and you can get in bother, you know the world is not all nice is it? You know if your in bother and you need to go somewhere that doesn’t involve cycling it would be nice to get hold of the thing and go with it. That’s why I don’t like trailers.
Gavin – I am with you on that one, but it seems more and more people these days, I was riding in the north of Japan not so long go and saw a group of about six or seven people all with trailers hanging of the back and my immediate feeling was that on the roads of Japan its OK but as soon as you got off road a little bit, you mind yourself in a bit of trouble.
Robin – well off road its not so easy, obviously the Yak trailer, which is the favourite trailer, comes with a suspension version, which helps it a bit off road, but if you have got a bicycle, say you have got MTB, a front suspension, or full suspension MTB and you want to go on a tour then you’ve got to use a trailer because you cant take the luggage on the bike. There is no choice.
Gavin – It’s an interesting proposition. Lets get back to you if I may? In your travels around the world, what do you consider to be the best destinations and why?
Robin– Andy B. is really our world traveller, our bike designer and he is currently in south America or he is going this week, for two months,
Gavin – easy for some
Robin – yes quite, well its part of his brief, he gets big long holidays, to test the bikes you know?
Gavin– If you need a new person to do that, I am your man there.
Robin – I’m sure- So he likes Argentina and South America and places like that, but the whole world is phenomenal, some of the boring places are just expanses, you know big bits of America.
Gavin – Even my country, Australia, there are 1000’s km’s of nothing but it’s the most beautiful nothing in the world.
Robin – I didn’t like to mention that, but it is all the same that’s the point. When you walk through the English countryside you go from countryside to countryside, on a bicycle many more countries because of the type of distances you cover you get a varied countryside during the day.
Gavin – As far as touring cycling goes, are you finding it’s becoming more popular? Are you selling more bikes, without getting trade secrets out of you, are you selling more bikes?
Robin – We are selling a lot more bikes with the rohloff, when people are thinking expedition they are thinking durability and long life.
Gavin – its interesting what with the way the worlds going at the moment, with economy and stuff, I wondering if more people would be thinking about going riding and taking time out from the whole mess that’s coming around. Are you finding that?
Robin – I thinks it likely, we have certainly has no diminishing in business, we are busier I think than we where last year. Now there must some effect with recession so people aren’t spending money in that regard, more people are changing their spending habits to buy something sensible, who needs something that is made in the far east on a whim, that’s wrecked in no time, when they can something solid that lasts. People are buying bicycles and I hope people are buying properly made craftsman made furniture, instead some nonsense flat pack. It’s the same thing.
Gavin – It is the same thing, there is a choice between IKEA and a beautiful Italian design in the furniture world and it’s the same thing in bikes. Just one last thing if I may, if someone is coming to touring cycling what do you think a some of the things must consider first?
Robin – Well, whether they have got the mind set to do it, a long tour by yourself particularly, cycling is ever so psychological and you have got to get your head around it. Its not for everybody, we have seen people go off and well come back, they just couldn’t cope with it. And the other thing of course is that if you go with two people, if you started off as a couple, especially on a tandem, the question is will you end up a couple at the end of it? Your either much more of a couple or your not.
Gavin – it’s a bit hard to get away on a tandem. When you say that about the right mindset. What is the right mindset?
Robin – Well you have got to be open minded, you have got to be adventurous, and if you are going by yourself you have got enjoy solitude. Be happy with your own company or if you are going with other people get on with people. Because people are going to at their worst when they are tired, wet, because that is the thing cycling is hard work, its cold or it’s hot, it’s hard, and it’s difficult. There is no easy cycling. No one can sell you a bicycle and make it easy. Unless you buy a motorbike but that’s not easy, Car is easy.
Gavin – Yeh a car is easy but rather boring and doesn’t do the environment too much good. Do you get to do much cycling yourself? Or are you too busy working?
Robin – Have done a fair bit, mainly in Europe though, I7ve got three kids now so we tend to stick slightly tamer things. But we have done some pretty good tours.
Gavin – Kids do tend to do that sort of thing don’t they?
Well, Thanks very much for that insight. Very Interesting