The Economy of Vintage Bikes

Like many bike aficionados, I trade bikes and components. I’m not looking to make any money, just funding my hobby. It’s easy enough to buy a bike, strip it and sell bits I don’t need for more than I paid.  In the past I’ve built up bikes from spare frames and components and sold them. Anyone who’s into vintage bikes will tell you that it’s not something you do for the money. Even if I make a ‘profit’ on something, it quickly evaporates if I calculate the hours I’ve put in (let alone the cost of tools).

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I sold my Geminiani in 2014, I would have lost money at the same price today!

I know there are many people out there who make something of a living from buying vintage bikes in France and selling them in the UK. However, recent economic changes mean this is becoming a less interesting prospect. The pound is very low against the Euro at the moment, and both French postal costs and Ebay/Paypal fees are higher than they were a few years ago. With Vintage bikes a la mode right now, I get the impression that the supply down here is starting to wane. Many of the old ten speed every family had in the garage have made their way to a flea market or pawn shop and on to a new owner.

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If it says Campagnolo on it, it will usually sell at a decent price!

Unless something is higher end (Reynolds, Columbus or Vitus frames, top end French components, anything that says Campagnolo on it) and in good condition, it will likely not fetch a high enough price to make selling it worthwhile. It takes time to list items, package them, take them to the Post Office. Even then, a mistake in a postage calculation can leave you out of pocket. I did this recently, underestimating the postage, I sent a brakeset to the Far East essentially for free! The cost of shipping a complete bike runs into the hundreds; this needs to be considered before trying to sell.

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This 531 Randonneur is too small for me, but there are plenty of parts I can use, and the frame will sell on its own.

The long and the short of all this is that I’ll be trying to sell fewer items in future. I’ve got plenty of my own projects to focus on, I’ll be much happier devoting my full attention to those!

Vintage French Bicycle Guide : Part 3 – Components

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, and part two goes into more detail on frames. This part focuses on what to look for (and avoid) in terms of Componenets.

Brakes:

Functional, reliable brakes are essential to safe and enjoyable riding. Most French vintage bikes come with centre pull Mafac type brakes or Weinmann type side pull brakes. These older brakes have a reputation for poor stopping power, a lot of this is down to their long, alloy arms which flex under load. They can give good enough performance if set up correctly with quality cables and pads (such as KoolStop Salmon pads or leather faced pads designed for chrome rims). As discussed below, the rim material also has a massive impact on braking.

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Simplex and Huret derailleurs are functional, reliable and look good, so no need to change these.

Rims:

Wheels are the most important part of a bike, and also one of the bug bears of vintage French bikes. Most period French bikes have chrome steel rims with textured breaking surfaces. These are heavy and offer poor braking performance (especially in the wet). Aluminium rims are much lighter and offer better braking, however until the 1980s they are only made for tubular (glue on) tyres.

Fitting and changing tubular tyres is much more complicated than clinchers (standard tyres with inner tubes), so they are not appropriate for all applications. They may be fine for a sportive bike, but would not be ideal for a commuter. One way to check if a wheel takes tubular or clincher tyres is to squeeze the tyre – a clincher will push back to show the wire bead, a tubular will only show it’s canvas base tape (you may have to let some air out to do this).

Vintage aluminium clincher wheels are less common but by no means rare and these are by far the most practical type of wheel. Unless your bike comes with a pair, this is an upgrade that should be seriously considered – be aware that this may cost more than the bike itself though! (If you’re on a tight budget you could consider changing just the front to improve braking).

Most French bikes have 700C (622 mm) wheels, the same size as modern hybrid and racing bikes, with the second most common size being 650B (584 mm). 650B has a bit of a cult following, and has recently been reborn as ‘27.5 Inch’ for mountain bikes. Despite this, tyres can be tricky to find and replacement wheels almost impossible. The size is however similar to 26 inch (559 mm) mountain bike wheels, so those inner tubes can be used. Depending on brake reach, it may be possible to convert a 650B bike to 26 inch wheels.

A Rigida Superchromix steel rimmed wheel

A Rigida Superchromix steel rimmed wheel

Hubs and Freewheels:

The second problem with vintage French wheels is that the hubs are usually made for obsolete French threaded freewheel cogs. French standard freewheel production stopped in the ‘80s as the British/ISO standard became universal. French freewheels are therefore only usually available in 5 or 6 speeds, and only ever with traditionally shaped cog teeth, meaning shifting is less smooth than modern Hyperglide type sprockets.

Another problem is that French freewheels are most commonly found with 14-24 teeth, with larger cogs being rare. This means it can be difficult to get a practical low gear for anything but flat roads. In addition, there are many types of French freewheel removal tool (at least 3 in common use, and none of them the same as the Shimano type). These are expensive and difficult to find (VAR is the only company that still makes them). Your local bike shop may have the right tool, but I wouldn’t count on it!

As with rims above, the problems associated with French freewheels can be fixed by replacing the wheelset for one compatible with ISO threaded freewheels.

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French freewheels : L-R Maillard Course 14-20, Maillard 14-24, Atom 14-22 (each one uses a different removal tool!)

Handlebars and Stems:

Most older French bikes come with steel drop handlebars or moustache handlebars and alloy quill stems.  Stems tend to be on the short side (typically 70 mm), and drop bars on the narrow side (often 38cm c-t-c), making them less comfortable for prolonged road riding. The stem diameter and bar clamp size are slightly different to international standard, combinations can however be made to work with sanding or shimming.  AVA brand stems have a risk of failure so should be replaced – they’re nicknamed ‘death stems’ – need I say more?

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.

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.

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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.