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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.