Classic French Cyclotouring Bicycles: Impetus for Two-Wheeled Innovation


The Golden Age of Handbuilt Biycles: Craftsmanship, Elegance and Function

Written by Jan Heine (Vintage Bicycle Press/Rizzoli, 2009)

Review by Jeffrey Morseburg

Historically, the sport of cycling has suffered from a poor press, especially in the English language.  Cycling books have tended to be either annuals devoted to a racing season, short biographies of famous cyclists, training manuals or modest picture books.  The mediocre quality of cycling books was probably due the sport’s modest roots.  Cycling was once a major sport in the United States, especially on the high banks of the indoor velodromes, where track races drew thousands of spectators to places like the original Madison Square Garden, which was actually constructed for cycling.  This period of popularity lasted from about the 1880s through the early 1930s. However, as cars became an affordable and efficient form of transportation and recreation, popular interest in cycling faded. Finally, it was the Great Depression that seemed to put the last nail in the sport’s coffin. Eventually, bicycles came to be thought of as children’s toys and bicycle racing was seen as an eccentric European sport; its deep roots in American culture were almost completely forgotten.

Despite the size of the United States’ book market, for many years there were few cycling books to choose from, and the offerings that did exist were modest efforts from specialized publishers. Interestingly, things were not a lot better for the literate cyclist abroad.  In Europe, there were sports like rowing, motor racing, horse racing and yachting for the upper crust, and so during the postwar years, football and cycling were seen as sports for lower-class participants.  Lavish books like those  produced for yachting or motor racing were rare or non-existent, even for continental cyclists.  Fortunately, the quality of cycling books is changing, both in the United States and Europe.  As cycling has become more attractive to the affluent, there has been an increasing market for well-produced cycling books. After all, an enthusiast who can afford a bicycle that costs as much as a good used car can afford a book that costs fifty or seventy-five dollars for the coffee table.

One of these beautiful new coffee table cycling books is The Golden Age of Handmade Bicycles, a stunning production devoted to the exquisite mounts of French Cyclotourists of the 1930s.   Even a veteran bicycle racing enthusiast with a solid knowledge of the sport will find some of the bicycles here a revelation!  This is because most of us whose knowledge and interest in cycling began with competitive cycling have never mixed a great deal with the touring crowd.  Historically, there was little overlap between the touring rider and the competitive cyclist.  To the racer, riding may be enjoyable, but ultimately, the countless miles on the bike serve a purpose, and that is to prepare for races.  Even after a competitive rider stops racing, his riding may have a social aspect, but he remains a competitive person. Riding still revolves around gaining or maintaining fitness rather than just seeing the countryside at a good clip.

This tourist/racer divide also existed in Europe, and the most interesting aspect of this division between cycling sportsmen was that racing bicycles and touring bicycles evolved and developed on parallel tracks, with the technology of touring bikes actually advancing more rapidly than that of racing bikes. This will be the major revelation from this book for racers… that the technical development of the bicycle did not begin with our patron Saint, Italy’s Tullio Campagnolo.  While most of us tend to think that it would be racing that would lead the way to superior materials, construction and components, this was not the case in Europe in the years following World War I.  It was actually cyclotourists, riders who rode great distances for pleasure, who pioneered many great advances in the development of the bicycle.  Racing-bicycle development was hindered by a retrograde mindset that is unfortunately still with us, the minimum weight for U.C.I. sanctioned races being just one sterling example.

In 1920s France, which was slowly recovering from the devastation of four years of war, automobiles were still relatively expensive to buy and, then as now, the petrol to run them didn’t come cheap.  At the same time, there was a growing lower-middle class who was beginning to enjoy their time off.  Even a factory or service workers could save up and buy a nice bicycle.  So, voila, the bicycle became the device that tens of thousands of French men, women and children used to explore their beautiful country.  Every summer, families packed their velos with tents, spare clothing and, because this is France, cooking implements, and pedaled off to a week or two of sweaty leisure.

By the time velo tourisme was hitting its stride, the “diamond” frame had already been the standard of bicycle construction for several decades.   Chain-driven and equipped with two wheels of the same diameter, which enabled the rider to carry spare tires and tubes of a single size, the diamond-framed bike enabled the rider to cover great distances efficiently.  Furthermore, it could be made on a small scale by custom builders or put into assembly line production, with both types of bike builders able to use interchangeable components, making bicycles affordable and replacement parts readily available.  The bicycle of the 1920s was relatively light, easy to ride, didn’t require much space to store and, once mounted, the rider was high enough to be visible to the automobiles and motorcycles he had to share the road with. All these qualities made the traditional diamond-framed bicycle the standard choice for cyclists of the early 1900s, as it remains today.

The transformation of the bicycle from a device for transportation and local recreational rides to a human-powered vehicle that could be ridden long distances over almost any terrain was in large part due to the efforts of a man named Paul de Vivie, the mustached Prometheus of the cyclo-touring movement. De Vivie became a cycling enthusiast in the 1880s, often riding hundreds of kilometers at a stretch, which gave him plenty of time to wish for improvements in the primitive single-speed bicycles of the day.  He soon began writing under the pen name Velocio and became a poetic advocate for paid vacations for all Frenchmen and the leading proponent of cyclotourism.  Something of an Anglophile, de Vivie was a member of the Cycling Tourists Club in Britain, imported mass-produced English bicycles to France and published the landmark French magazine Le Cycliste.  By 1889 de Vivie became a manufacturer, creating the La Gauloise brand and then, in search of a better method of climbing inclines through changing the gear ratio, he invented the “BI-Chain” system and created one of the first primitive derailleurs.  The philosophy of Velocio permeated the early years of cyclo-touringin France:

After a long day on my bicycle, I feel refreshed, cleansed, purified. I feel that I have established contact with my environment and that I am at peace. On days like that I am permeated with a profound gratitude for my bicycle. Even if I did not enjoy riding, I would still do it for my peace of mind. What a wonderful tonic to be exposed to bright sunshine, drenching rain, choking dust, dripping fog, rigid air, punishing winds! I will never forget the day I climbed the Puy Mary. There were two of us on a fine day in May. We started in the sunshine and stripped to the waist. Halfway, clouds enveloped us and the temperature tumbled. Gradually it got colder and wetter, but we did not notice it. In fact, it heightened our pleasure.

The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles is a wonderful pictorial guide to dozens of French manufacturers of touring bicycles.  One was the mass-market company Hirondelle, which at its peak boasted 5,000 employees.  Their affordable Retro-Directe model, marketed from 1903 to 1939, used a primitive gear changing method that wound the chain in a figure eight around a set of two freewheels.  In contrast to the mass-produced bikes, there were also custom builders like the innovative Jacques Schultz, who anticipated monocoque construction with his single-backbone frame with a one large diameter tube.  He also created an early indexed derailleur system and his own pedals.

In 1934, a group of enthusiasts created the Groupe Montagnard Parisien, which translates to the Mountaineer Group of Paris. These were riders who were not interested in simply riding on flat or rolling terrain, but in climbing over the steep alpine passes. This organization created a “Concours de Machines,” or “Test of Machines,” which meant a series of technical trials that served as motivation for manufacturers to create lighter weight, more responsive bicycles that climbed more efficiently.  So, soon constructors like A.I. Reiss from Lyon were creating bicycles with full touring equipment – lights, fenders, pump – that weighed less than 25 pounds.  These lightweight bikes enabled riders to climb much faster and even featured improved brakes than could arrest the speed of a plunging bicycle more rapidly because there was less mass to stop.

In 1936, the French union movement achieved their goal of a 40 hour work week and two weeks of paid vacation and this led mass-market companies like Charles Longoni to create singles and tandems that were affordable for the growing movement of cyclotourists.  Unfortunately, World War II began in 1939 and it wasn’t until after another long conflict that cyclotouring could make a real comeback.  Some of the most beautiful bicycles in this book are ones made by the acclaimed builders Rene Herse, A. Faure and Alex Singer, all of whom created wonderfully detailed, hand-brazed frames with their own hand-crafted racks and lightweight components that were screwed into beautifully brazed-on mountings rather than clamped to the frame.  These bicycles, which could weigh less than twenty pounds, featured “drilled out” components, “engine turned” surfaces and frames which were often plated in stunning nickel alloy. The book concludes with a fascinating series of bikes from the 1950s and 1960s from the established custom builders that were created for specialized uses like commuting, deliveries and bicycle messenger services, and then finally with examples of the current French cyclotouring bicycles.

Some of the most stunning examples of the bicycle-builder’s art were produced for the Councours de Machines. A number of these bikes have survived in remarkable condition and are featured in The Golden Age of Handmade Bicycles. Each of the bicycles was shot by photographers Jean-Pierre Praderes and Eric Svoboda and have been reproduced on a white background. There is a great amount of detail in the medium-format photographs, detail that both enthusiasts and frame builders will enjoy. There are also a number of historic images that help illuminate the eras when the bicycles were produced.

These historic cyclotouring bikes have had a profound influence on a number of the artisans that are part of the new handmade bicycle movement.  Builders like Sacha White, Bruce Gordon, Robin Mater and Peter Weigle are not only crafting their own frames, but, like the French constructors before them, creating their own stems, handlebars, racks and other accessories, an assemblage of beautifully-formed function.  To the handmade movement, the humble bicycle is a vehicle for innovation and a means of self-expression.

The author of this 168-page book, Seattle-based writer Jan Heine, is the mover behind Bicycle Quarterly, which is the bible of the modern American cyclo-touring movement.  He originally published this book himself.  The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles also features contributions from Neville and Helen March, who are prodigious Bordeaux-based collectors of historic bicycles and Raymond Henry, a cyclotourist who heads the Cultural Heritage Commission of the French Federation of Cyclotouring.  The writing is fine and clear, with just enough detail on each bicycle and builder and a chronological format which creates a narrative of bicycle development.

My only criticisms are that I would have liked to see technical data for each bicycle in an index, including the materials used, with the size and weight of the frame and the components.  Exact frame specifications would also be a good addition as I am sure this data would be welcomed by bicycle builders who would like to know the actual wheelbase, top tube length, rake and trail of each frame.  In conclusion, with The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, Heine and his contributors have created a stunning monument to the passionate enthusiasts and wonderful craftsmen who helped drive bicycle development and innovation.

Rating: 5 Stars

Copyright Jeffrey Morseburg 2010. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission.
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This entry was posted in Bicycle Design, Bicycle Frames, Bicycle Technology, Bicycle Touring, Bicycling History and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Classic French Cyclotouring Bicycles: Impetus for Two-Wheeled Innovation

  1. Great Blog! Great information!

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