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Ben Spurrier at Condor : Interview

Ben Spurrier Condor
James Spender
8 May 2015

Condor's head designer discusses the past, present and future of the bicycle, from the commuter's hack to the silver screen.

Cyclist: What does a typical day as head designer at Condor involve?

Ben Spurrier: Well, there isn’t really a typical day. There’s all the bike design – refreshing existing bikes or creating new ones. Then there are things like the team [JLT-Condor], which means creating new branding, new kit, a new bike and all the graphics for the team vehicles, plus little things like accessories – we’ve just done an Ass Saver and team cap. I also do a lot of custom bikes for people, about 150 a year, anything from a simple colour to a ground-up custom design. It really varies, from a one-off time-trial bike built for a guy for whom money is no object, to a custom Ti Condor for TV presenter Jon Snow. He’s so tall we had to use a section of seat tube for the head tube, as the standard head tubes aren’t that long.

Right now I’m working with a customer who wants a bike with S&S couplings [where the frame screws together in two halves]. That will need a whole frame drawing from me, and I’ll work on the bike together with our production manager, who liaises with our factory in Italy to select the tubing and assess the particular build.

Cyc: What about the stock bikes in the Condor range – how and when do you create new models?

BS: I suppose it’s like any design process. A new bike is driven by need – demand from the customers – and right now there’s demand for a gravel bike. We’ve already got two cyclocross bikes, one high-end and one that sells mainly as an all-purpose commuter. So we’re considering phasing that model out and replacing it with an all-purpose gravel bike. We’ll have a brainstorm, and once we’ve got a reasonable idea about how we want a bike to ride and what kind of features we want it to have, we’ll get some samples made up in Italy.

We don’t have the same R&D resources as someone like Specialized, although we do use FEA [Finite Element Analysis]. When we’re refining, say, a carbon race bike we’ll make adjustments based on what we think and then what the team [JLT-Condor] thinks. Older guys like Ed Clancy and Kristian House are super-experienced and great at detecting subtle nuances like bottom-bracket stiffness or ride quality. In fact, that’s how the Super Acciaio [Condor’s steel race bike] got made. We gave it to Dan Craven to test and it must have gone through 10 different incarnations before the production-level bike was decided upon.

Cyc: Which manufacturers impress you the most with their bike design?

BS: I think there’s some interesting things being done at Charge, like using 3D printing. I’m not saying in a year’s time we’ll be printing our new bikes off in the living room, but in 10 years’ time, with the increasing availability of 3D printers, who knows? Also, Charge’s development of its Fabric saddle range is interesting. It uses some really innovative new technology borrowed from other industries, but which is proprietary to them in the bike industry.

For a relatively new outfit based in the UK, that’s really impressive. And if you think back a few years ago there were just a handful of people like Chas Roberts and Dave Yates making bikes in the UK. Now you go to shows like Bespoked and there are, like, 250 guys all turning out serious craftsmanship and charging a proper price for it, and that’s impressive too. Of those guys, Field Cycles have really stuck out to me, and Wold Cycles. With Wold it’s not just about frames – it’s also got a subdivision called Bentley that makes fixing points and dropouts for frame builders. Parts you could normally only get in the UK from a company called Ceeway… who are great by the way, but have this brilliantly dated website where it’s literally a series of photographs of the old catalogue pages!

Condor paint

Cyc: Condor’s history is in steel and you’re still promoting it as a high-end material with models such as the Super Acciaio, but do you think it could ever seriously make a resurgence in the pro ranks?

BS: I don’t see why not, but the thing is, steel lends itself to a particular style of racing – fast crit stuff where weight isn’t so much of an issue, but strength and stiffness are. So it’s great for guys like me, whose peak might be racing Tuesday nights at Crystal Palace, but for whom the idea of writing off a five-grand carbon frame is a bitter pill to swallow. Steel is robust, and all those scrapes and dents add to a frame’s history and are worn like badges of honour. But you’d struggle to get WorldTour riders onto a bike whose frame is 800g heavier than a carbon one, and to get their heads around steel as a worthy and aggressive material.

Cyc: Do you think the market and riders’ attitudes have become choked by carbon?

BS: Carbon has gained a bit of a bad name for itself in the past few years with open-mould frames, where you can see the same frame with different graphics selling for a variety of prices, so in that respect I think the market is saturated with those bikes. There are many people on the street who can’t tell the difference between a £500 open-mould frame and a £5,000 handmade one, and I think that’s something people like us can find hard to communicate – that our frames aren’t cheap rebadged frames from the Far East, but closed-mould, genuinely handmade just for us. But don’t get me wrong: there are lots of open-mould frames out there that are every bit as good as high-end closed-mould. It’s just tough for consumers to know the difference, and it’s given carbon a bad rep lately.

Cyc: Who do you see as giving carbon a good rep?

BS: BMC has made big leaps in carbon manufacturing with bikes like the robot-built Impec. There’s really two ends to the scale. There’s a lot of marketing fluff with bikes today, but it’s wrong to say the industry isn’t being pushed forward with innovative new technology. I remember speaking to one of the engineers at Specialized about the McLaren Venge, and he said the lay-up manual [instructions for how to lay the carbon-fibre sheets] for that compared to the regular Venge was four times as thick. I’m not sure what that says about F1 and the bike industry, but it’s a really good example of that kind of relationship crossover, and the innovation going on in bikes.

Cyc: There’s a lot of talk about the costs of moulds and tooling for bikes, and how that justifies the pricetags. How much is a mould, really?

BS: A single mould is in the region of £20,000, and let’s say you have six sizes of bike, so you need six moulds – so yes, that’s where a lot of the money goes. And it’s the same with stainless steel. You need almost diamond-hard tools to work with the tubes, which are expensive and need to be replaced regularly.

Condor design

Cyc: If the UCI lifts various sanctions regarding bike design, do you think the shape of bikes is likely to change?

BS: Possibly. I don’t see why not. If they lift restrictions and it turns out a Trek Y-Foil-type shape is in every way the best frame design and we’d all be missing out if we didn’t have one, then yes, why not? That would be something, wouldn’t it?

Cyc: Carbon and high-end steel aside, you’ve also been busy with a fleet of retro bikes recently. What can you tell us about those?

BS: We did nearly 40 replica bikes for the upcoming movie about Lance Armstrong. Our lugged Classico frameset for things like the Motorola team Merckx bikes, steel Pinarellos, Looks and De Rosas, and Italia RCs – alloy bikes with carbon stays – for the Giant TCRs and Cannondales. Those Saeco Cannondales were a tall order – down tubes like Coke cans with four logos round the tube. I did the whole lot on this little A4-size vinyl cutting machine.

In the end I decided that the best thing to do was to use three logos to get the same effect. It was funny: some of them absolutely looked the part, but there were still brilliant comments on websites saying that this is a travesty, these bikes look nothing like this or that. There was a bit of artistic licence on some, mind, but then you only see them for a few seconds here or there as they whizz past you on the cinema screen. The hardest part was tracking down the logos. Ever looked for a hi-resolution image from the 1990s on the internet? You find a thumbnail and you’re like, that’s the one! Then you click on it and the next image is the same size as the thumbnail!

Cyc: Will you look to bring such retro bikes back into the Condor range?

BS: We are looking at bringing back the Paris Galibier. Monty [Young, founder of Condor in 1948] was friends with this guy called Harry Rensch. It was just after the war and Harry thought his surname sounded a bit Germanic, so he changed it to Paris, and made bikes under that name just down the road from Monty. When Harry died, Monty bought the name from his widow solely to keep the brand alive. We’ve been making about one a year – Dave Yates makes them for us as special orders – but we’re looking to resurrect it properly and have our guys in Italy make them.

Cyc: As a bike designer, is frame building a road you’ve been down?

BS: I have built my own frame in the past. I was a mechanic, and the guy I was working with was going to this old boy’s garage on a Tuesday evening. All very hush-hush; it was like Frame Club. I was allowed to go along, and I built a frame and still have it. No doubt that was a very valuable learning experience for what I do now.

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