Vintage French Bicycle Buying Guide : Part 2 – Frames

I’ve written a three part buying guide for those interested in vintage French bikes based on my experiences over the last few years. Part one gives a general introduction and talks about things to consider before making a purchase. This part talks about frames, and part three will go into more detail about what to look for (and avoid) in terms of components.

You might find a nice frame or bike (in this case Italian made in Columbus SL) for less than a mass produced frame from a better known maker.

You might find a nice frame or bike (in this case Italian made in Columbus SL) for less than a mass produced frame from a better known maker.

What’s in a Frame?

The first thing one usually looks at on a bike is the name on the downtube: Peugeot, Gitane and Motobecane are three common French examples. However, just because you have heard of the maker does not necessarily give any indication of the quality of the bicycle. When all bikes were hand built, the skill of the person putting the bike together was the most important factor. An unknown maker from a small village might have built bikes as good as any in the world. Although big name brands were used in the Tour de France, companies like Peugeot built thousands of cheap mass market frames for every race grade frame. It was in fact common practice for pro riders to have personal frames custom built by master craftsmen and repainted to look like their team sponsor’s bikes.

A lot of French bikes are named after former pros such as Jaques Anquetil, Louison Bobet or Bernard Hinault. Generally these were mass produced cheap bikes cashing in on the rider’s name. Decathlon is another name that pops up a lot, it’s a massive sports megastore based in France. In the 1980s they sold rebranded lugged steel bikes made by other companies. Some of these earlier Decathlons are of relatively high quality, and can be bought at a decent price because of the generic name.

A quick Google may shed some light on the maker...

A quick Google may shed some light on the maker…

If you haven’t heard of a framebuilder’s name, a quick google may shed some light, if not, there are other factors that can be considered.

Tubing:

Although a frame builder worth his salt could make a nice frame out of anything, the choice of steel tubing used has a big impact on the weight and feel of a bike.

Most vintage French frames are built from heavy no-name tubes, often known as chauffage centrale (gas pipe). Better quality frames may be made with lighter Reynolds, Columbus or Vitus tubes. These will be identified by a decal; look for a small square sticker on the down tube or seat tube. Bigger companies like Peugeot had their own brands of tubing (such as Carbolite) which fall somewhere in between the above categories.

Look out for Columbus, Reynolds or Vitus tubing decals

Look out for Columbus, Reynolds or Vitus tubing decals

Seatpost size:

The size of a bike’s seat post can give some indication of the quality of tubing used where there is no decal, or if you don’t know how good the tubing labelled actually is. This may sound bizarre, but the logic is that the seatpost size gives you the internal diameter of the seat tube. The external diameter of the tube is usually going to be 28mm (the French standard, 28.6mm for others). Subtract the seatpost size from that, divide it by two and you have a rough idea of the tube thickness. For example, a 25 mm seatpost indicates 1.5mm tubing (28 minus 25 = 3, divided by 2). The thinner the tubes, the lighter and generally higher quality the bike will be. Anything around 1mm is going to be on the better side. There are limits to this, as seat tubes are reamed out to rectify any deformation from brazing, and some builders brazed sleeves inside the seat tube.

Weight:

As a rule of thumb with bikes, lighter weight indicates higher quality, showing that stronger alloys are used in place of cheaper steel. Lighter does not always necessarily mean better –heavier frames can still give a very comfortable ride, and don’t forget that once components and more importantly rider weight are added, frame weight becomes pretty insignificant.

Bare frames will generally weigh 2.5-4 kg. Built up bikes usually weigh 9-12kg, depending on components and accessories.

Dropouts and Lugs:

Another way to check the quality of a frame is to look at the dropouts. Higher quality frames have chunky forged dropouts. The best will feature the name of the dropout manufacturer, such as Campagnolo or Simplex. Cheaper frames will have dropouts stamped from a sheet of steel.

The lugs are the parts of the frame that join the tubes together where they meet. Like dropouts, the best ones will have the makers name stamped on, look out for Nervex or Cinelli.

Take a look at the dropouts and forkends - these are stamped.

Take a look at the dropouts and forkends – these are stamped.

Appearance is everything…

Bearing in mind the above, 90% of vintage French bikes are mass produced from gas pipe tubing. They won’t break any records for weight, but will probably ride quite nicely. All things being equal, sometimes you just have to go on looks, so the paint job and decals are as likely to factor into your decision as anything else.

How much should I pay?

This is not an easy question to answer, as it of course depends entirely on the age, quality and condition of the bike.

Ready to ride (although not necessarily restored or recently serviced) bikes generally go for anything from €30-200, again depending on age and quality. Incomplete or ‘for restoration’ bikes go for €10-40 generally. As ever, bargains and turkeys can be found in equal supply.  It’s rare to come across a bare frame at anything but a specialist shop, but on these rare occasions they are usually cheap as people don’t perceive their value. You may get lucky and find a well made frame on the cheap because the seller had never heard of the name on the downtube.

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Vintage French Bicycle Buying Guide : Part 1

I’ve written a three part buying guide for those interested in vintage French bikes based on my experiences over the last few years. Part one gives a general introduction and talks about things to consider before making a purchase. Parts two and three will go into more detail about what to look for (and avoid) in terms of Frames and Components.

A typical Vide Grenier find, in need of some TLC.

A typical Vide Grenier find, in need of some TLC.

As Spring and Summer approach, tourists will no doubt be flocking to France. Vides Greniers (communal street sales/flea markets – literally ‘empty the attic’) will pop up on Sundays all over the country, and old bikes will be wheeled out of garages and barns to be put on sale. Some owners will know what their bike is worth and charge a premium, others will be happy to make a deal or just get rid.

Here is a guide listing things to consider when buying vintage French bikes in France, particularly with a view to restoring them. Although some of the information is specific to France, much will apply to any vintage bike anywhere.

Here are some things to consider before buying a vintage bike:

Why do I want a Vintage French bike?

I’m a fan of retro style, and a fan of French culture. Names like Motobecane and Alcyon have a ring to them that cannot be matched by other languages (except perhaps Italian). I love the way steel tubed bikes look with chrome or aluminium parts. I think carbon, weight weenie, pro peloton obsessed bike culture has lost its way in terms of aesthetics, and I’m not alone – there is now a growing counter movement.

I feel that you don’t need a race bike unless you ride competitively, you don’t need a mountain bike unless you ride cross country. Nobody needs 11 speeds or suspension forks for their city commute or shop run. France has a tremendous cycling culture, and once had a massive industry that built everyday bikes, for everyday people, to be ridden every day.

Peugeot1

A bike ready to ride!

How will I ride it?

Are you just looking for a pub bike or beater? Are you going to ride period sportives or are you looking for a stylish commuter? Someone aiming more towards the latter two will want to spend more time and money making sure they get a suitable bike, and will want to make sure it is truly solid and serviceable.

You might even be looking for a decorative object to hang on the wall or put in the garden, in which case it’s just a question of aesthetics. Bizarrely enough, rusty old clunkers destined for this purpose often command a higher price than rideable bikes!

Where will I ride it?

Most vintage French bikes have a lowest gear ratio of 40*24, making them unsuitable for most riders in anything but flat areas (modern road bikes often have 34*28, hybrids and mountain bikes even lower). Upgrading this usually involves replacing several parts – the cost may be prohibitive and should be considered before buying.

Do you have the tools and knowhow?

Do you have the tools and knowhow?

Do I want a restoration project or a finished bike?

You’ll pay several times more for a bike that’s ready to ride, but it may be worth it as the cost of parts may make a restoration a false economy. The term ‘restoration’ of course covers a wide range of activities, from just fitting new handlebar tape and tyres, to full stripping and rebuilding (perhaps respraying too).

If you do want to do a restoration, do you know how to go about it? Do you have the tools required and a source for parts? Bear in mind that old French bikes are built with a number of now obsolete standards, which are generally incompatible with non-French or modern equipment. Special tools not found in a regular bike workshop may also be required.

Ask yourself if you have the time to restore the bike. How many rusty frames are hung up in garages all over the world, waiting for the day when their owner ‘gets around to it’? However long you think it will take, it will always take longer!

Oh, and don’t take the seller’s word for it when they tell you “il faut juste gonfler les pneus” (you just need to pump the tyres up)… I’ve been told this of bikes that were so far gone that even I would be tempted to let them rust away.

How much do I want to spend on my project?

This is entirely down to you! If at all possible, scope out prices as much as possible before buying. Even at vide greniers, people will often be happy to give you their phone number or email address in order to buy a bike after the fact – giving you time to think and research. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is (there are exceptions!). Be sure to factor in any necessary repairs or upgrades so you know if that bike you’re looking at is more bargain or money-pit.

The long and the short of it is that you could probably find a Vintage bike for €20, and spend €40 on tyres, tubes, bar tape, brake cables and blocks, maybe give the bearings a grease and have a unique, fun, stylish Sunday rider. The lowest I’ve paid for a complete bike is €10, and I wouldn’t pay more than €30-40 for a restoration project, unless it was something really special.