By Colin Dennis
After meeting, Grant Young, Condor’s amiable Managing Director, at September’s NEC Cycle Show, it was agreed that the next time I was up in London I should give them a call and visit the shop.
So, never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and tying in nicely with my ‘already booked track session at the Olympic Park Velo Drome’, Claire Beaumont, the Marketing Manager for Condor arranged for me to get an access-all-areas pass to Condor Cycles.
First, the history lesson...
Situated on what was the old route north to Hampstead, Gray’s Inn Road is home to one of the four ‘Inns of Court’ where Barristers have learned their trade since before Elizabethan times.
But London’s Grays’s Inn Road is also home to one of the most famous and respected family owned cycle shops in the UK, Condor Cycles.
Originally set up way back in 1948 by, Monty Young, in a small shop a little further up Gray’s Inn Road from Condor’s current location.
Monty’s reputation as a provider of bespoke bicycles grew far and wide and has included making custom built bikes for no lesser mortals than, Tom Simpson and more recently, Ed Clancy and Mister Mod himself, Bradley Wiggins.
After a short spell away from Gray’s Inn, Monty moved Condor Cycles to nearby, Balls Pond Road, but with that building being soon outgrown, the move back to their current location on Gray’s Inn Road finally enshrined, Condor Cycles as ‘The Gray’s Inn Bike Shop.’
But it’s working with individual professional racers and teams that have kept the Condor name seen at the very highest levels of cycling, including the Tour de France.
Feedback from pro-racers and teams, such as the Percy Bilton Pro Team in the 1980s, to the current collaboration with British based, UCI Pro Continental Team, JLT-Condor, is unquestionably the most direct route to fine-tuning the design and qualities of a race bike.
Although carbon is the bike material of choice for many riders today, Monty Young and Condor crafted their name refining and pushing the limits of what was possible using lightweight, steel-made frames.
‘Steel is real’
As any die-hard touring cyclist will tell you, steel is the only way, and in many ways they are correct. A custom built, lightweight steel road frame can almost match carbon when it comes to the gram-count.
A custom built steel frame provides a ride-quality that will be both forgiving and incredibly strong at the same time. Steel is the easiest of frame materials to fix on a round the world bike journey. Think about that one!
And if to add countenance to this, Condor’s best selling bike is the steel framed, Fratello.
Always moving forward and embracing the latest concepts if proven to advance the qualities of a bike, rather than fashion-led, the latest Fratello models come disc ready.
Take Condor’s Stainless Steel Acciaio frameset for instance.
Aside from the incredible levels of workmanship, the properties of the Italian-made, seamless Columbus tubing on the Acciaio Stailess Steel frame will give you a ride quality that is akin to Titanium in strength to weight.
Plus, you'll experience a whip-like spring to the frame than only a lightweight steel frame can provide when putting power to the pedal.
Like you though, I wondered why Italian craftsmen and steel were used to build the frames, rather than UK based materials and welders?
I posed this question to, Greg Needham, the manager at Condor Cycles.
Monty was the original torch man for Condor frames, as the business and demand grew for his frames he had to find a reputable expert to continue making frames to the required standard.
He teamed up with Dave Yates, and that relationship lasted for many years until Dave decided that he needed to slow down and take things a little easier.’
A glint in Greg’s eye appears as he recalls an anecdote that has worn well over the years …
‘Monty, and Grant, would be in the basement of the shop at 90 Gray’s Inn Road busily finishing off Dave’s frames, the bell would ring upstairs, and one of them would have to scurry off to serve the customers. Clearly something had to change.
With Dave Yates heading towards retiring, it meant that Condor frames were becoming a bit of a scarcity with some customers waiting up to six months for a bike. This wasn’t acceptable and a new frame builder was needed – pronto!
‘When the majority of UK and European bike manufacturing headed to the Far East to swamp the market with cheap bikes and frames, there was a void left when it came to quality frame building at the quantities that we found we still needed.
Monty and Greg came across a small Italian frame making company that had found themselves with very few customers, Condor soon filled that void, and the partnership with our Italian friends, who are now very happy of course, has lasted over fifteen years.
The quality of the frames is exceptional, and the passion of the Italian frame builders is as fresh as when the first began. You can’t buy passion.'
I feel a little humbled by Greg’s answers. I look around at the vast range of bikes that surround us in the basement of the current shop, and I wish I was in Italy.
As a postscript, Greg brings me gently back to London
'At Condor, quality has always come before price, and we were lucky enough to find exceptional frame builders in Italy that had all the experience necessary.’
Italy’s loss, our gain, you might say?
there’s clearly a strong sense of nostalgia around Condor Cycles, but Condor don’t live in the past.
Sitting comfortably next to all the steel bikes are bang-up-to-date carbon racing bikes that carry the likes of the JLT-Condor Continental Pro Team, including, Ed Clancy.
I look around hoping to see the 150th Anniversary Leggero that I’d seen at the Condor stand at the NEC Cycle Show. I ask Greg where it is?
‘Locked away in the Tower with the rest of the Crown Jewels,’ smiles Greg.
I’m not sure if he’s joking or not. I don’t press any further.
Talking of the Tower of London reminds me that I’m about to sit upon Condor’s frame-fitting bike. I soon put aside any torturous visions from my head as Greg sets up the ‘Juteau Cantin’ with the practiced eye equal to any Tudor executioner.
There are rows of stems and handlebars and saddles of varying lengths and width sitting on the wall behind me, and I feel as if I’m sat comfortably on my current bike at home.
With a few minor adjustments, Greg has me ‘tweaked’ into a riding position that’s stretched long enough to make me aero without any vertebrae being pulled, but also comfortable enough to last at least six hours on a bike.
As a bike shop owner in a previous life, I know that any anyone who sells bikes for a living eyes-up, or visually fits any potential customer as soon as they walk in the shop. I ask Greg how long he’s been doing this?
It’s the second time I’ve felt humbled in almost as many minutes.
The bike-fitting service is standard practice when purchasing a bespoke frame or bike from Condor, and I feel a sense of involvement with my imagined and un-built frame already.
From the measurements and advice that Greg dangles in front of me, I continue the fantasy of swapping the bike-fitting frame for a custom-made, beautiful, Stainless Steel Acciaio; just like the one a few feet in front of me.
I might need to speak to the bank manager about that one though …