Classic Lightweights UK
A personal view on the Evolution of Classic Lightweights through the yearsPeter Underwood
My first-hand knowledge of club cycling centres around the late 40s and early 50s and then from the 90s to date. In the early 50s I was conscripted into the RAF and then carried on cycling for a while when I came out after my two years of national service. Sadly, I soon succumbed to the joys of motor cycling and then cars.
I vaguely followed cycling news, as one never completely lets go of the interest. From time to time I would acquire a decent second-hand road bike and do some reasonable rides on my own. During this period I had some 30 years of involvement in competition sailing which took up most of my spare time. This went on until I started wave windsurfing in Cornwall, a hobby which involved a lot of hanging around on beaches waiting for the right wind and wave conditions. Some of my fellow windsurfers spent part of their year competing in events in Hawaii and brought back to the UK some of the first mountain bikes to enter the country before they were imported commercially. We used to ride them around the paths through the sand dunes and it was not long until I acquired one of my own. This was what got me back into cycling in a big way. I met Patricia in 1992 and although not a cyclist she soon took to it (on a mountain bike) after some practice on Dartmoor. After a few months we completed the London to Brighton charity ride which was a very hilly 62 miles crossing both the North and South Downs. This was followed by a 2-week holiday cycling down the Romantische Strasse in Germany. We also took part in a few Audaxes and soon decided to start riding road bikes as well. Eventually I traced some of my cycling friends from the 50s and one, Mick Thompson, had restored a beautiful Ephgrave which he had owned from new in 1953. Thus started my, and indeed our, interest in classic lightweights as we attended a jumble a few weeks later and found an Ephgrave in my size.
But back to the beginning. I had started cycling as a schoolboy in about 1947 when I acquired a very bog-standard mass-produced roadster style machine, possibly a Hercules, stripped it down and replaced the upright bars with drops. In my sweet innocence I figured that if I put a 12-tooth fixed sprocket (no locknut as the wheel was built for single-speed freewheel) I would be able to go like the wind. My father had no interest at all in anything cycling as he was an obsessive radio ham – G5UD to those who know about these things.
In those days, even as a schoolboy, one could earn some money as a part-time parcel sorter for the Royal Mail in the run up to Christmas and I did this in the evenings and at weekends. One day I pedalled into the garage of the local sorting office on my 99.66 inch gear when a friendly postman asked me why I was grinding round on such a high gear. I explained my theory that a big gear must mean fast speed and he started to explain to me the errors of my schoolboy theory. It turned out that he had been the King’s Lynn CC champion in the pre-war years and was still a keen racing member – his name was Tish Legget.
The outcome was that I lowered my gear and went out on my first club run with King's Lynn CC a couple of weeks later. Club runs were very long in those days but I got round and was hooked. I soon realised what a bike should be like and bought a very cheap second-hand frame (Claud Butler – much too small really ) and some bits to build up a half-decent machine, probably using some of my money from the Christmas sorting. I can’t for the life of me remember how I learned to dismantle and reassemble bikes with virtually no proper tools other than a hammer (and a nail to split chains!).
From then on I spent almost every spare minute on a bike and slowly replaced the frame and components with slightly better ones bought second-hand, mainly from Wisbech Wheelers riders who were relatively well off as they worked on the land and were paid men's wages although they were mere teenagers like myself. Labour was very hard to get in these days but the youths who had decided to learn a trade by apprenticeship got paid peanuts in a form of legalised slave labour. Cyclists were a ‘picky’ lot in those days and it was everyone’s ambition to get the cream of equipment. Only two mass-manufactured frames were acceptable: Dayton – just about - and Carlton, who produced some very classy machines. Due to the tax system in place, virtually everyone purchased a frame and then built it up with their own choice of components – this way they paid no purchase tax whereas a complete machine had the full tax levied. Many of the mass-produced bikes were only available as complete machines.
Left: Peter Underwood on new Claud Butler in 1950. About to compete in 12-hour time trial the following day.
You may notice in period adverts that a frame often included headset and chainwheel in the specification. I think you could just keep out of the tax band with these components as they were considered part of the frame. This was at a time when all classic frame-builders tried to sell to the clubman with their quality and craftsmanship. Their advertising would extol this and sometimes also listed the ‘dodgy’ practices which they accused other builders of employing (such as lug bending or pulling).
A great percentage of the racing done in this era was time-trialling and the almost universal set-up for a machine was fixed-wheel, one brake, and no mudguards, although everyone had to have a bell to time-trial. The pusher-off and timekeeper would check this as every rider came to the start. One serious competitor had one side of his handlebar break off half-way through an event. Not only did he finish the race using the in-situ half but he carried the broken piece with him as it had his bell on it!
It was fashionable at this time for time-triallists to ride the biggest frame possible. The seat pin would only protrude an inch or so and the bars and stem would be set as low as possible, resting on the headset. Some riders realised that they wished the bars to be lower in relation to the saddle than was possible with this set up, hence the Merkens ‘droopy’ stems and bars with severe drop. Major Taylor stems were used with the adjuster suspended under, rather than on top of the slider. Adverts for racing machines of this era show this configuration, as can be seen with this Paris.
A study of Continental ‘Tour’ riders such as Coppi and Bartoli will show that the stem was almost on the same plane as the seat whereas today the difference can be 15cm or even more on much smaller frames which allow this difference. It would be impossible to list the frame builders around at this time as there must have been hundreds, from the one-man concerns to the larger builders who employed up to thirty workers. The ‘big’ names such as Claud Butler, Ephgrave, Hobbs, Hetchins, Bates, Paris (Rensch), Carpenter, Gillott, Holdsworth, Macleans and Mercian plus Flying Scot in Scotland were to be favoured in clubs all over the country. However, in addition to this, many clubs also had ‘fashionable’ (to them) smaller builders which they avidly supported. This was often the place all their members would gravitate to, rather like a second clubroom where they would hang around for hours on end. Frequently the owner would provide a very simple method of credit for the larger purchases. Often this was no more than a small folded customer card on which payments were recorded and a shop ledger in which the owner or his wife would enter the payments. (Even house rentals were often done in this simple way - I can remember my father paying his landlord this way).
Many of the small cycle shops also sold radios and had a service to re-charge acid accumulators (like a small version of a car battery) which were half of the power supply to the period radios. The other half would be a non-rechargable battery. I believe the accumulator suppled low power to the valves? This combination of bikes and radios helped to provide custom all-year round as some cycled less and listened to the radio more. It must be remembered that the cycle was used as an everyday form of transport as well as being used by the sporting fraternity.
Some shop owners were very friendly but many were grumpy or even downright rude, probably due to the amount of time taken up seeing to time-consuming riders who didn’t even buy anything. At this time the main subject of conversation amongst any group of cyclists would be frame angles and dimensions down an eighth of an inch. As most would have frames built to their perceived ideal the poor frame builder would have to endure hours of discussion on the dimensions before securing the order. Probably at this point the rider would switch his attention to the paint, lining and chrome finish, as each frame was finished to the individual owners choice.
There was of course hard and grass-track racing in the country and often riders had a road/path frame which they used both for time-trials and track racing. Thousands of these frames were also sold just to be used for time-trials as their lively and rigid structure was regarded as ideal for this purpose, especially considering that virtually everyone was on fixed-wheel anyway. Most also had mudguard clearance and eyes so the same frame could be used in the winter for training. I have one such machine, an Ephgrave with track ends, (see image below) which even has pump pegs under the top tube and I know that the original owner used it for grass-track racing from time to time.
It is interesting to examine photographs of events such as international track meetings on the Continent taken in the late 40s/early 50s. The British riders will stand out as they would use what were called in the UK, Continental '27' sprints which were actually what we now know as 700c. These were being used in frames built also to take the larger 27" HP wheels with mudguard clearance for the winter which resulted in great gaps between the wheels and the frame when fitted with the sprints.
You will notice that the European competitors at these events would be using frames with a 'fag-paper’s' clearance between the frame and the wheels. I have seen images of both Eileen Sheridan and Dave Keeler using such ‘gappy’ frames at World Championships. Reg Harris of course, being an out-and-out trackie, had his frames built with minimal clearance but such frames were in the minority in the UK, as you will realise if you try to find one.
Most club riders, especially in the South, were time-triallists and they were the ones looking for the fancy-lugged frames as this was the must-have feature for them. Others took to road racing, mainly through 'The League', and they opted for the 'Continental' way, and had frames built with well-finished but much plainer lug patterns. Some frames in British catalogues will be described as 'The Continental' or listed as the builder’s answer to this up-and-coming style. Often builders described their frames as 'Continental' style but with true British craftsmanship. This description of traditional was carried over to components as well, i.e. Chater chainsets, Harden Hubs, and GB brakes for time-triallists. These were contrasted with the road racers 'Continental' Stronglight and Simplex chainsets, sprints built on French and Italian hubs, Universal brakes and to add insult to injury (wash your mouth out with carbolic soap) – gears!
If you get hold of a late 40s/early 50s edition of Cycling Weekly you can bet the main subject on the letters page will be fixed versus gears. The old brigade would defend to the bitter end the superiority of fixed and proclaimed it an act of comtempt akin to treason even to mention the dreaded word 'gears'.
The relationship between builders and riders carried on well into the 50s but soon the market would start to shrink, allegedly due to availability of motorised transport on 2 or 4 wheels. Firms, both large and small, started to close down as fast as they had started up, which resulted in a consolidation within the trade. Eventually this settled down with a few of the old brigade such as Condor, Mercian, Pennine and Bob Jackson surviving the storm along with some of the smaller builder/dealers who often supplemented their trade with mopeds, motor accessories and the like.
Many of the well known 'names' were bandied around between larger manufacturers, who merely badged up some of their inferior machines with names such as Claud Butler, Holdsworth and Macleans. For the lightweight enthusiast it was less painful to see names such as Ephgrave disappear rather than be used on mass-produced inferior frames.
A few reappeared much later when the names were used on what could be called retro reproduction machines like Paris, Bates, Hetchins and Baines produced by builders such as Condor Cycles (who now own the Paris name), Tom Board, Ray Etherton, and Trevor Jarvis.
Obviously the club scene was changing with fewer makes being ridden but it was still possible to purchase a well-built lightweight frame, although the rider by now was more willing to accept what was best described as an off-the-shelf machine. Things carried on in this way for a long time, with makes and names coming and going into and out of fashion. Most machines were fairly conventional but in 1984 Francesco Moser broke the hour record on a revolutionary machine with disc wheels and a smaller wheel at the front. This enabled the frame 'top tube' to slope dramatically down to give the rider a very streamlined position. Some two years later in 1986 Greg Lemond went on to win the Tour using an early version of tri-bars.
A noticeable change was now to come with the acceptance of welded frames. Using such techniques, the constraints of lug usage would disappear. Images of Eileen Sheridan racing in the 50s show that she was stretched out on a 21" frame both too big for her and with a top tube much too long. This was all the builder felt he could do in those days. By contrast Patricia now has a beautiful custom-made 45cm (17¾") frame with matching sloping top tube to give a good step-over height and a shorter 'reach'. By utilising 155 cranks it was possible to have this machine built with 700c wheels. The frame could only have been built by welding. It used the latest Reynolds tubing at the time, 'Millennium 531', which was specifically built with welding in mind. It would of course been possible for this machine to be built without lugs in the 50s but builders couldn't or wouldn'Wt think 'out of the box', as they say. Patricia was talking to Eileen at a V-CC event and she said that she really would have coveted such a frame had it been available in the 50s.
The same builder, Paul Donohue, built me a welded 58cm frame in 853 tubing and to this day it feels like a racehorse when I ride it. Eileen told us how, as soon as she was comfortable on the bike, she would be compelled by Hercules to take up a lower position again.
To recap, as the 1990's approached, a visit to a large time trial would still show most riders on UK built machines, but a big change was in the offing. In the Far East, frame building factories were being set up in answer to the demand for large-scale production (including mountain bikes) in the States and some British frame builders realised that they could have a frame built abroad for a fraction of the cost of building it themselves. Also alloy was fast becoming the material of choice. These factories in countries such as Taiwan were either state-of-the-art concerns with fully computerised building facilities or, at the other end of the scale, labour intensive businesses where large numbers of operatives were producing hundreds of frames each week by hand.
The UK cycling publications would show that more and more suppliers here were purchasing such frames and merely spraying them up and fitting decals. To some extent this still goes on today. A visit to a big club event or a time-trial today will reveal a marked change in equipment in that the majority of riders will be on 'big name', off-the-peg machines made by firms such as Giant, Trek and Specialized from the States plus Italian machines such as Colnago, Pinarello or De Rosa. Some makers now merely supply small, medium, and large frames, doing away with sizing as we knew it – to some extent this is due to the expensive business of tooling up exotic carbon frames. The all alloy frames are now fading away to be replaced by composite frames with carbon forks and perhaps carbon rear ends to make them more comfortable.
Carbon frames which were very exclusive a few years ago are being sold in greater numbers now as are, to a lesser extent, titanium frames. Specialized for example now sell a very attractive looking 'Tarmac carbon frame with good middle of the range equipment for £1500 but it is possible to pay £5000+ for a top of the range Colnago C50 with top equipment. In spite of this there are plenty of these around. Top of my wish-list here at the end of 2009 is the Colnago CLX 2.0 Ultegra, which is one of their cheaper models but has the monocoque main triangle giving a very stylish smooth look to it. The more expensive Colnago frames have tubes which are 'butted' at the joints and this doesn't have the 'flow' of the CLX. Having said this, Colnago know what they are doing and the C50 is the machine of choice for many of the top professional teams.
This has been a very anecdotal view of bikes throughout the years and isn’t intended to be comprehensive.
There are still a few frame builders in the UK who build to order rather than import Taiwanese frames and badge them up. We were pleased to see the current Mercian Vincitore on our Mercian Ride a year or so ago alongside my 1954 version. I think they are the only builders producing a current model with fancy lugs, apart from one or two concerns who are carrying on with 'retro' production of classic frames from the UK such as Hetchins, Paris, Bates and Baines. I assume they are quietly plugging away in their small niche markets. My 1954 ex-Dave Keeler bike was built with what were then the Vigorelli track-frame lugs, later on used on road frames as the Vincitore right through to this day.
What is surprising is that there are probably more classic frames being built in both the States and Australia than here in the UK. In the USA many collectors of classic bikes go for French machines which often come complete with mudguards, front and rear carriers, dynamos, etc. There are some builders over there who produce modern versions of the French audax/tourist machines. Classic Italian racing bikes are another favourite across the pond – and who can blame them. I think some collectors there opt for the newer classic Italian machines and Campagnolo componentry is a must.
There are however also collectors who favour British frames and machines, some in a big way. I am often amazed when a collector sends me details of his collection which holds just about everything on the UK enthusiast’s wish list. I guess these collections must have been built up over the years and surely must pre-date eBay as a source. A spin-off from this trend is the core of builders in the States who now produce stunning classic frames built to a standard which would not have been commercially viable here in the UK in the austere post-war years. Some cut, build, and shape their own exquisite lugs and the frames are finished with an attention to detail unheard of before. They do not line the lugs to hide the edges of the paint but instead go in for masking of such a high quality that when the frame is completed the paint is crisp and clean edged, even within the trickiest of lug cut-outs.
Another feature in the States is the use of very expensive Silver-brazing. The ubiquitous Nervex Professional lugs are also very popular and there is an almost identical lug currently manufactured over there under the name of Newvex made by frame-builder Richard Sachs. If you wish to view some American lugwork for yourselves, check out http://www.bikelugs.com. One noticable fact is that many of the top headlugs have an extension to cater for the American style of mounting bars much higher than is common in the UK. Meanwhile, in Australia there is a frame builder Darryl McCulloch, trading under the name of Llewellyn, who is also producing some stunning frames using, I believe, stainless steel lugs cut to intricate and artistic patterns, some details of which are asymetric, which is both new and aesthetically daring. Keith Hellon from Chicago owns one of these frames, the only one I have seen, and told me:
“You are absolutely right. The lugs were supplied to Darryl McCulloch (Llewellyn) who then reconfigured them for his own design. The frame I have was built for his own consumption. He took it to the U.S. for the Classic Rendezvous "Cirque du Cyclisme" and since it was my size, I convinced him not to bother carting it back to Australia. There are so many details on this frame I wouldn't know where to begin. Inside the BB and seat tube are clubs and diamonds cut inside; the rear drop-out has stainless replaceable surfaces for the nut seating damage; decorative stainless pads on the seat stay closures to void rubbing the paint by the brake cable, a carved stainless bridge between the seat stays etc. (image below left)
The latest incarnation is the ubiquitous 'fixie' or fixed-wheel machine as we know it. These machines have evolved in the UK via the cycle courier world - a group whose style and influence spreads beyond the actual couriers themselves to others who latched on to the charisma and style associated with the messenger/gladiators seen battling with and against the traffic in many cities. Several years ago the more daring couriers switched from their multi-geared mountain bikes to the simpler and 'different' concept of the fixed wheel. From this has evolved the world of the 'fixie' with machines ranging from 'Paul Smith' designer Mercians through to very bread and butter Raleigh/Peugeot (to name but two) machines stripped down and rebuilt as a cheap and cheerful aid to posing.
We recently attended the UK National Bike Show at Earl's Court in London and very soon I realised that the whole make-up of the show had shifted towards the road. Last decade the show was predominately focussed on mountain bikes and BMX with the odd road bikes here and there. At this year’s show there was still a goodly selection of BMX machines but the big difference was in the road bikes. There was just about every make of carbon road and time-trial machine on display but the major shift was in what is now the ubiquitous ‘fixie’. There is now a complete genre of these machines from custom-built versions to those introduced by major manufacturers not wanting to miss the boat. Makes such as Bianchi, Colnago and De Rosa had ‘retro’models, many of which were the modern incarnation of the fixed wheel machine. There is even a spin-off fashion industry which provides clothing for the new clan.
Readers will know that my initiation to the world of cycling was at a time when virtually every serious cyclist used fixed wheel. I must have ridden tens of thousands of miles on fixed, using it both for time-trialling and club riding. Somehow this initiation instilled a feel for fixed wheel riding which never goes. When I returned to fixed after decades on more modern machines with gears, it still felt such a natural thing to do. Funnily, if I ride with gears in a group and just one other rider is on fixed, I feel as if I am riding fixed as well and am amazed when I actually freewheel. This seems to suggest that the fixed phenomenon is contagious and maybe should be reported to the World Health Authority.
The new ‘fixie’ iron comes in a variety of styles, some have ‘cow-horn’ bars whilst others have straight bars of various widths; one even having a short straight stubby wooden version. Wheels come in a variety of guises with the wooden rim making a comeback in both sprint and high pressure format. These are made in Italy and Mick Madgett sells them from his shop in Diss.
Colour coding is the name of the game and rims, chainsets, saddles and even chains come in a variety of shades. Frame colours are quite different too with panels on all three main tubes quite common. There were several variations of a very pale grey/green which is obviously next year’s shade so don’t be seen with anything else. My ‘fixie’ of the show was the Demon Frameworks model, made in Southampton by Tom Warminger. His frame was beautifully finished and was using the modern version of the Nervex Professional imported from the States. Rather than having the lugs lined, the frame was finished in cream with the lugs contrasting in brown – the paintwork was immaculate. Rob’s aim is to revive the art of superb frame-building in this country and any lover of fancy lugs should look at his website www.demonframeworks.com under Custom Frames>Lugs. I think you will be as amazed as I was.
This has been a very egocentric view of the cycling world seen through my eyes over the years and I realise that others may see things from a different point of view. If you want to put a personal point-of-view relating to the forties, fifties or sixties please submit copy by email, ideally with some images if you have them.
© 2009 Classic Lightweights