Monty Young, the founder of Condor Cycles, occupies a position unique in the history of British cycle sport.
Supplier variously to Tom Simpson and to Bradley Wiggins, to Eric Clapton and to Mick Jagger; a wheel builder whose hoops continue to receive use and plaudits long past his retirement.
A pioneer whose business retains a powerful allure for cyclists visiting London, and whose team remains at the sharp end of domestic racing – the 84-year-old looks rightly proud as he crosses the threshold of number 51 Grays Inn Road.
His eyes shine as he looks around the shop, absorbing the culmination of decades of work, a transformation from the earliest days where he traded from premises across the road at number 90, building frames and wheels in a cellar beneath the shop, disturbed by the shop bell perhaps only two or three times in a working day.
Staff and customers approach spontaneously, many commenting on how well he looks. They are stating no more than the obvious. Smartly dressed in tailored jacket and polished leather shoes, the collars of his shirt buttoned down, and a belt with an elegantly off-centred buckle at his waist, Monty Young looks as fit as any of us could hope for at such an advanced age. He is in his element.
As his son Grant, now Condor’s managing director, leads Monty downstairs to his office, it is to a waiting treasure trove of memorabilia, unearthed from the private collections of both men and from the Condor warehouse. Covering the table and piled in numerous crates is the history of a business perhaps unrivalled in the British cycle industry.
There are decorative plates, given as tokens of esteem by the Campagnolo family, surviving examples of the handcut lugs that were once the brand’s signature, and scores of magazines and photographs documenting the numerous races – the earliest incarnation of the Tour of Britain and the now-defunct Six-Day races at Wembley among them – with which Condor has been intimately involved over the years.
Grays Inn Road remains a constant: three times the shop has moved to different premises on the central London thoroughfare, a bustling corridor at the heart of the city’s legal district, but which resembled little more than a village when Monty Young first set up shop. The pair recall clubs from the provinces turning up at the shop in minibuses on Saturdays, one from as far afield as Wales, eager to buy kit unavailable at home.
While early competitors in the bike trade – friends, almost without exception –have deviated from their original modus operandi, racing remains Condor’s lifeblood.
The briefest conversation with Monty Young reveals why this is so, and why it is likely always to remain the brand’s raison d’être. The old man remains a passionate enthusiast for the sport, a key supporter of champions including Dave Bonner, Colin Lewis, John Herety, and, of course, Bradley Wiggins.
Herety continues to be a part of Condor’s extended family: a rider for the Condor-Percy Bilton squad of the 1980s, who returned to the fold as team manager when he sought a supplier for his then-Recycling squad. There has rarely been a period when Condor has not supported a team, even during the economically challenging period of the early 1960s when father and son seriously contemplated leaving the sport.
Through various incarnations (from the Condor-Mackeson team of Bonner, Lewis, and Hugh Porter, via the Anglia Sport outfit of the late-1990s to the current Rapha Condor JLT squad) and with an impressive roster of national road race champions, their teams have always thrived.
Despite the vast changes witnessed by the sport since the Youngs opened their first shop in 1948, Condor’s values remain unchanged. Their approach is the opposite of some who have entered the industry during the current boom, who see racing as a shortcut to credibility. For Monty and Grant, the sport came first.
“It was the racing, then the business,” Grant recalls. “I think for most people back then it was like that. You opened a small shop and you got by doing a few small repairs. No one went into it as a business; it was always going to be about racing bikes. I don’t think me or my dad veered from that.”
Evidence for the cyclical nature of any business, and of cycle sport, can be found in the shop as well as among the boxes of artefacts with which Grant has filled his office ahead of our rendezvous. Handmade steel frames, the ‘lightweights’ commemorated on the head badge, are suddenly back in vogue, a renaissance driven by a new generation of craftsman epitomised by the likes of Tom Donhou and Ricky Feather, and one that has surprised and delighted the father and son duo who for years constructed some of the most desirable bicycle frames in Britain.
A photograph from the now-defunct cycle show in Harrogate shows that the spa town’s moment in the cycling spotlight during the Yorkshire Grand Départ was not its first.
Monty recalls a Condor enthusiast travelling from America to glimpse new models, only to be told that the bikes had already been returned to packing crates. “He bought them not knowing what was in there,” he confides.
Programmes and magazine articles from earlier incarnations of the national tour – the Daily Express Tour of Britain and the Milk Race – offer further reminders that the more things change in cycling, the more they stay the same. Condor, almost inevitably, has been a supporter or competitor throughout the various incarnations, up to and including Sweetspot’s increasingly successful modern tenure.
A third generation of the Young family is now closely involved with the running of Condor Cycles – Grant’s son, Sebastian. The business has become his passion, according to his father, despite the warning that the cycle industry is not to be joined in the hope of quick riches.
Hard graft and unquenchable passion – the prerequisites for success in business and sport – are writ large across the rich history of Condor Cycles.