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  • 09.04.15

    Flight of the Condors: a photographic history of Condor Cycles

    Bike suppliers to a Prime Minister, Bradley Wiggins and Mick Jagger, alongside numerous British pro teams. A brief history of Condor Cycles with founder Monty Young and his son Grant  

    Words
    Timothy John
    Photographs
    Cathal Macilwaine

Monty with his original wheelbuilding jig.

Monty took weight lifting seriously, as you can see, and trained regularly at a gym in Kings Cross. A chance to represent England at the Maccabiah Games in Israel was thwarted by a call-up to national service and a posting to Egypt.  

From Grays Inn Road to 10 Downing Street: Condor Cycles was an early stockist of Alex Moulton’s groundbreaking designs, and Monty was a key influence on their development. “Whenever Alex had designed something new, he would phone me up and say, ‘What do you think of that?’ A bicycle with a suspension system was quite revolutionary. They built us a special ramp to sit the cycle on to show the suspension of the front and the rear, and that was on display day and night in the window.”

It was Mary, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s wife, who telephoned Monty to order a Moulton for their son. “I was shaking – I thought it was someone messing about,” Monty recalls. “She was a lovely lady. She said, ‘Don’t forget to send the bill on to me.’” 

Flanking the cyclist in front of this fine van are Monty Young and his brother-in-law, Wally Conway. Together, the pair came up with the name Condor, inspired partly as a corruption of Conway, but with a strong desire for a striking head badge.

Condor Cycles’ connection to road racing took them beyond the confines of their own team to providing mechanical support for entire races. Grant believes the Lada pictured was their chariot for the now defunct Sealink International. While the Soviet-era machine suffered no mechanical issues on course, its performance left something to be desired. “It handled like a tank,” Grant remembers.

Carbon fibre is de rigueur in the peloton (although some members of the JLT-Condor squad sometimes use Condor’s modern steel racing bike, the Super Acciaio). For Monty, however, the most beautiful bikes sold at Grays Inn Road were those with hand-cut lugs. “The lug was just a blank,” he says. “We’d scribe around it, and cut it all by hand.” Trained as a cabinet maker in London’s East End, Monty was no stranger to intricate work, and he and Grant would set to work with tiny fret saws, often for hours at a time. In later years, Condor would use a specialist craftsman, who still cuts lugs when required, Grant reveals, though nowadays working from home. 

Monty lists the great frame builders who worked in his area of London alone: Claud Butler, Jack Denny, Alf Hetchin et al. While Condor’s bikes gathered plaudits, profits were often harder to find. “People value craftsmanship more now than they did then, in terms of the cost of something,” Grant reflects. “I’m sure they appreciated the workmanship then, but it was a struggle to make money – any money – from building a handmade frame. I don’t think people appreciate how long a handmade frame takes; the labour that goes into it. Nowadays, these youngsters – and good luck to them – are charging £2,000 or £3,000 for a frame, and they’re getting it, which is brilliant.”

Few anecdotes give greater insight to the changing eras through which Condor has traded – and Monty’s reputation – than his ‘consultancy’ for Czech firm Barum, for whom he redesigned an entire range of tubular tyres. “They were too large and the treads were wrong,” Monty says. His designs included an entirely slick track tyre – the G2 – and the PBW, incorporating a puncture protection belt. Barum donated tyres to the Milk Race, Grant remembers, and gained a high profile exponent in Hugh Porter. Monty and Grant are shown with packing crates full of the tyres.

Trips through the Iron Curtain to Barum’s Prague HQ were not without incident, however. “They took the wheels off the vehicle and everything!” Monty remembers of a particular border crossing, supervised by an overzealous female guard, whom he recalls as “a real stern fighter.” 

Condor’s involvement with racing extended to the track. This photo shows Grant Young with Patrick Sercu and Eddy Merckx at the Rotterdam Six. When Six-Day races were held in London during the 1960s, Monty and Grant would travel by bus to Wembley after a day at the shop, where Grant would work in the soigneur’s role, ‘looking after’ the riders. “Do you know what that means?” Monty asks Rouleur, with a glint in his eye. Grant raises his eyebrows and smiles knowingly. “I took them off the track, washed them down, dressed them again, fed them, stood there while they peed in the bucket, and carried it away.”

 

Extract from issue 51. Part two to follow.

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