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.
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.
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 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.