The Carpenter business was sold when Frank retired, and continued for a while, selling the growing range of mountain bikes becoming available. Colin Capes Cycles initially provided frames, but eventually just included a ‘Carpenter Olympic‘ model in their own range. Eventually the bike shop closed. 52 Surbiton Road is now a letting agency.
Had Frank Carpenter not reached retirement age, would his bike building business have survived? Almost certainly not. He was a meticulous exponent of the craft of making precisely built lightweight cycles within the established pattern. Conservative, he was reluctant to follow the latest ‘fads’ let alone indulge in experimentation. Yet it was just this that marked out the next phase of the evolution of competitive cycling. The era of the multi-purpose road/path/commute/tour bike was over, as the market fragmented.
In 1963 Alex Moulton had launched his F framed bike with 16″ wheels and suspension. After early publicity as a competition mount it found a burgeoning market with those looking for a means of local transport in towns and cities, stylish and modern (much like the Mini, which also incorporated his rubber block suspension).
1967 was marked by the tragic death of Tom Simpson, who had progressed from a promising time-trialling teenager to a precocious track pursuit rider to become Britain’s best roadman for many decades. Britain’s integration into the Continental racing scene was moving forward; clubmen increasingly looked abroad for the specifications of their bikes and accessories. 1967 was also the annus mirabilis for Beryl Burton. Frustrated at losing her title as women’s world pursuit champion, she compensated by promptly winning the road race championship, was uniquely invited to compete against the top pro’s of the era in the Grand Prix des Nations, then set a new 12 hour record of 277 miles, beating Mike McNamara’s efforts and setting a mark that stood for 50 years. These two outstanding athletes showed the world that Britain was no longer a competitive back water, it could indeed compete on the world stage. On the track, between 1968 and 1973, Hugh Porter won the Professional World 4000m Pursuit championships four times, continuing Britain’s strong performances in this discipline which doubtless stems from the tradition of club riders concentrating on time-trials in their early development.
1973 was the year of the global oil crisis. For the first time in decades the inexorable rise in car traffic paused. Britains transport planners realised that cars and lorries may not be the only consideration, rail and cycles had a role to play. All the same a shift in attitudes was a long time coming; after a brief pause the growth of car numbers continued. Traditional club riding was becoming more and more difficult to accommodate on our crowded roads.
In response thrill seekers established the BMX scene. Off road bikers escaped the car filled roads and quickly established cross country Mountain Biking then downhill racing. Japanese component suppliers like Shimano expoited this to challenge Campagnolo, who tried too late to follow this trend. Roberts Cycles addressed this market with their D.O.G.S.B.O.L.X. bikes; few other small builders did so.
On the track, Francesco Moser broke the mould with his outrageous big-wheel hour record bikes, lifting the record beyond 50km in 1984. This ushered in a new appreciation of the importance of aerodynamics, plus a new world of exotic materials – carbon fibre at first in disk wheels then forks and frames. Low profile geometry came (even small front wheels) with bull horn bars to afford the rider support in these extreme positions. In 1986 Tony Doyle used all this to good effect in his second world pursuit championships.
Triathletes, less bound by convention, became the first to pick up on Scotts ‘ski-bars’ which actually led to a slight relaxation of steering angles to improve tracking. Once Greg LeMond had famously won the 1989 TdF with his last-gasp timetrial effort the new shape of bikes had been set, at least for TTs and endurance track events.
Brazed steel frames were still the order of the day into the early 1990s, but experiments with new materials like Frank Kirk’s cast magnesium frames were underway.
Mike Burrows worked with Lotus to build a carbon fibre frame for Chris Boardman‘s revolutionary 1992 Olympic-winning pursuit bike, the 108. Giant snapped up Burrows and full carbon bike frames hit the market, soon to be mass-marketed in limited size ranges. If Moser had shaken things up, Graeme Obree, the brilliant maverick, shattered the mould completely with his home made bikes and radical riding positions. The big-name producers were worried. How could they mass produce for a market fragmenting into so many different formats? Only the intervention of the UCI protected the basic ‘diamond’ frame shape brought in by Starley 100 years earlier. All the same the genie was out of the bottle. Bikes may no longer have been the main method of personal transport, but they met a multitude of different leisure pursuits, each with its own differing design needs.
So 100 years of painstaking refinement was swept aside by a couple of decades of experimentation, innovation and new biking disciplines. The hundreds of small artisan builders had no answer to the new breed of mass-market producers with their multi-million pound investment in the tooling needed to make carbon fibre frames. Almost all closed (though Roberts survived until very recently). It is hard to imagine Carpenter would have been any different.
After such a rush of radical improvements it would seem that another period of slow refinement must surely follow. But along the way, some of the joys of custom-built bikes have been lost. The whole business of buying a new race bike was once analagous to getting a new suit tailor made at Savile Row. Careful measurements, discussions about use “Road race, Time Trial or Track?”; “Grass track, cement or boards?” The debates about frame angles and dimensions. The choice of components, even the colour scheme. Is it possible these delights will be brought back to us by new manufacturing techniques like 3D printing of one-trip moulds and formers? Already Reynolds are showing 3D printed dropouts, formed from sintered steel, ultra-light yet robust. At the same time the UCI are cautiously relaxing some of the constraints imposed on bicycle dimensions and formats. New hour records have been the reward. Bradley Wiggins‘ 54.5km mark is more than double Frank Dodds 1876 record. His carbon composite bars were fashioned in custom moulds using 3D printing. It may well be that the period of innovation has not yet ended, new materials like graphene are appearing in bespoke carbon frames. Carpenter Cycles held their place through a complete chapter of history, a chapter now closed; the future will progress without them and the scores of other artisan makers of their time.