Tom's London Classics: Roberts bicycles

Part of the ongoing 'Tom's London Classics' series, London Cycling Campaign's Tom Bogdanowicz looks at London’s vintage bike brands — it’s the turn of Roberts

Marks of Distinction:
finely detailed lugwork (left); smooth filletbrazing; an early complete Roberts ‘hybrid’ bike (top far right);Tom Bogdanowicz (bottom far right)

We all know that British cyclists struck gold at London 2012 but few will be aware that the British team won five medals at the London Olympics in 1948 (none of them gold) and that the bikes they rode were made in London. Working on the Olympic frames at the Claud Butler workshop was an up and coming framebuilder by the name of Charles Roberts. Claud’s went bust in the 1950s, but Charles Roberts built on his experience, first working for the new owner of Claud Butler, Holdsworth, and then striking out on his own in a nearby Croydon workshop.

He brought his sons Geoff and Chas into the business and they, like most apprentices, started out building bike racks and polishing lugs. By the 70s the Roberts shop, moved to nearby Penge, was a hub for aspiring club cyclists who could admire the rows of immaculately painted frames hanging off the ceiling and adorning the walls.

Getting measured up for custom-fitted frame was a ritual and choosing the colour scheme invariably a dilemma (my first Roberts was pristine white). Charles Roberts died in 1979 leaving Chas at the helm of the operation, which moved back to Croydon. The firm’s renown attracted cycling celebrities to its doors. The Roberts brand was not displayed on the frames built for world pursuit champion Tony Doyle, who had a different sponsor, but they propelled him to two world titles.

In the early 80s the Roberts workshop produced the first mountain bike in the UK — for a Californian Roberts fan, who sent over an early US mountain bike and asked for something similar. With an early start, Roberts mtbs were in high demand by the cognoscenti. More world champions rang the doorbell with both David Baker and Tim Gould riding Roberts-built mtbs to victory.

Unlike almost every other London frame-maker, the Roberts workshop has survived, even prospered — the popularity of budget aluminium and affordable carbon-fibre frames not stopping the orders for tailor-made steel frames. The recent fashion for track frames has enabled Roberts to continue producing frames that are, in some cases, unchanged since the 50s.

Tourists, too prefer custom steel, which can be repaired in Timbuktu or Kathmandu, to the fragility of carbon-fibre: globetrotting author Josie Dew is one of many long-distance tourists whose photographs adorn the Roberts shop wall.Chas attributes the longevity of the business to quality beneath the paintwork —“what you don’t see” — the accurate mitering, painstaking selection of tubes, careful filing and skilled brazing.

Perhaps the most distinctive attribute of Roberts frames is their minimalism — smooth joints, often with only a discreet badge (inspired by a vintage football logo) to reveal their identity. From the outset the Roberts workshop has been known for its fillet-brazed, or lugless, frames — once rare but now popular on factory bikes. Unlike modern TIG welded lugless frames, the hand-made variety has flawless smooth joints, rather than a thin line of metallic chewing–gum, at every junction.

Among the most-collectible bikes from the Roberts workshop are the low-profile time-trial frames whose improbable angles were made possible by the lugless-brazing technique. Older Roberts lugged frames generally used the minimalist Prugnat lugs; but in recent years decorative designs like the Fleur de Lys have appeared.

As expected from a custom builder, the exotic is common at Roberts: for a decade a giant Roberts, built for Britain’s tallest man, was the signpost to Covent Garden bikes; a bicycle for a one-handed rider had all the controls on one side; and an extraordinary hand and foot cranked Roberts recumbent went like the wind, as long as you didn’t get confused.

To see London’s longest surviving frame builder, visit 89 Gloucester Road, Croydon.

 

Tom Bogdanowicz is London Cycling Campaigns Senior Policy and Development Officer and regulary contributes to London Cyclist magazine.

This article first appeared in London Cyclist Oct/Nov 2012 magazine, delivered free to LCC members every two months.

Replies

Hi

These articles on London Classic cycles are extremely interesting to me.

What about one on A(Arthur).S.Gillott who were located in Southampton Way in Camberwell? I bought my first frame from them in 1951 for around £13 and carried it home to Harrow on my bike, drapped across my shoulders! We had to be careful not to get our wheel stuck in the tram lines! London trams were still operating them!  I recently purchased a 242 Gillott frame and wonder if there is any listing of frames numbers etc which would enable me to trace it?

Let me know please and thanks

Neville

Hi Neville,

We're glad you're enjoying the London Classics series.

There is some more information on the Gillot on this website here though the frame numbers they mention have a lot more digits? http://www.classiclightweights.co.uk/gillott3.html

  • By Robert at 1:08am 22 January 2015

Excellent piece, Tom. 

One thing. I met three of the 1948 Olympians and none of them rode a Butler frame. They got them made elsewhere and had transfers placed on them.

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  • By Thomas at 6:29am 26 March 2015

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  • By Afferore at 11:48am 14 November 2015

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The jump manual program is generally accepted as one of the best vertical jump systems for increasing that facet. Coaches that preach using a jump manual are usually aware of the benefits it has for the quickness and explosiveness of the legs. This is why a vertical jump manual is something I'm going to try for my cycling efforts.

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Roberts Bicycle is a good bicycle in London

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1. Look through turns. When heading into a turn, always look through the turn to where you want to go, rather than into the middle of it. Your bike will go where you're looking, so if you look at the curb you're trying to avoid, you'll likely run right into it. If you need to slow down going into the corner, brake before the turn rather than in the middle of your turn.

2. Lean your bike, not your body. As you head into the turn, push the handlebar that is closest to the inside of the turn slightly so that your arm straightens a bit. This will automatically lean your bike into the turn. At the same time, keep your body upright; don't lean into the turn with your bike. best gun safe

Make sure your outside foot is pushing down hard into the pedal at the 6 o'clock position (your inside foot is at the 12 o'clock position). This will ensure that you don't scrape your inside pedal or lean the bike too far.

3. Position yourself for the downhill. Keep your weight over your saddle on downhills. If the descent is particularly steep, scoot your butt toward the back of the saddle to keep traction on your rear wheel.

Keep your focus ahead of you rather than right in front of your wheel so you can plan ahead for changes in direction or obstacles in the road. And, of course, control your speed by "feathering" your brakes evenly rather than hitting them hard at the last minute.

4. Be smooth on the pedals. Think about turning circles with your pedals rather than pushing down on them. Imagine you're gracefully wiping mud off the bottom of your foot each time you come to the bottom of your pedal stroke. This will help you apply force throughout the stroke and make your pedaling more efficient.

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