French Lessons : Randonneur


My Motobecane Randonneur, (or so I thought!)

I recently posted a Motobecane randonneur on French vintage bike forum Tonton Velo to see if anyone could help me identify the model. I was expecting some debate as to whether in fact it was a ‘Becane, or whether it was really Reynolds 531, but I wasn’t expecting someone to question whether or not it was actually a randonneur or not. It seems that in being imported into English, the meaning of the word has been slightly skewed. In English, the term is generally taken to mean a vintage or retro lightweight touring bike with 650B wheels. It’s a style that’s going through something of a resurgence, as was the case with fixed gear bikes did a decade ago. The French meaning of Randonneur is slightly different, randonneur literally translates as ‘trekker’, and can apply to walking, horse riding or biking. The bikes are sometimes referred to as Randonneuse (the feminine form applies to the feminine noun Bicyclette, rather than the masculine Velo). In bike terms, it refers to a bike that is comfortable and practical to ride all day over long distances and varied terrain. Some say a true randonneur must have a custom frame and hand picked components and should be built by someone the customer has met personally.  The fact that the bike is tailored to the user is what sets it apart as a true randonneur.

Here’s a quick run down of other types of bike in French.

Velo de Course A road or racing bike; 700C wheels (preferably tubular), no mudguards, racks or accessories (save for perhaps a frame pump and a spare tire under the saddle)


Skinny tires and high gears make this a ‘velo de course’

Cyclotouriste A general term for touring bike.

Velo de Cyclocamping A true long distance, loaded tourer.

Velo de Ville Town bike. Traditionally had 650b wheels, now more likely to be 700 or 26″.

Demi-Course A road bike fitted with mudguards and a rack. This is something of a poor relation to the Randonneur, the term Demi-Course being reserved for low end gas pipe bikes.


Mudguards, gas pipe tubes and cheaper components indicate a ‘demi course’

Dame A ladies step-through frame. Ladies’ Cole de signe (swan neck) frames have curved top and down tubes.

Mixte In English, mixte has come to mean a ladies bike with no top tube, but two small diameter tubes running fom the head tube to the rear ends. In French the term is a bit less prescriptive, and can mean any ladies-specific frame designed for ‘real riding’.


The greatest Mechanics of all time

There are countless ‘greatest rider of all time’ lists, but what about the men who kept them on the road? I thought I’d do a quick blog on some of the ‘spanners’ (or wrenches) behind the giants of the road (and the rest of us cyclists!). Rather than rate them, it’s simply in chronological order.


Fausto Coppi and Pinella da Grandi

Pinella da Grandi “Golden Spanners” was responsible for keeping Fausto Coppi’s Bianchi team bikes in good order. In the ’40s and ’50s, mechanical reliability was much more important than it is now; the roads were poorly surfaced and there was no neutral support (that’s why riders of this time often carried spare tubular tires around their shoulders). Coppi himself switched from Simplex derailleur gears to Campagnolo’s less comlicated lever actuated gear in order to race (and win) Paris Roubaix in 1950. Even today this race tears tires, wheels and even bikes to pieces, yet Coppi’s Bianchi men probably wouldn’t so much blink at the worst of the remaining cobbled stages. While his main rival Gino Bartali would jump on any bike and race away (often suffering faults), Coppi needed the peace of mind that nothing was going to go wrong; he put his complete trust in da Grandi.


Eddy Merckx and Ernesto Colnago

Ernesto Colnago might be better known nowadays as a framebuilder but he was for many years also a mechanic to many top riders, most notably the great Eddy Merckx. Colnago started out working for Gloria cycles, but quickly moved out on his own, where he built wheels for Italian greats of the ’50s including Coppi himself. In 1955, Colnago came to the aide of former Giro winner Fiorenzo Magni, who was experiencing chronic and potentially career-ending knee pain. Colnago made adjustments to Magni’s drivetrain, and the champion then went on to win that years Giro. Magni was so pleased he took Ernesto on as head mechanic for his team. Colnago joined the Molteni team in 1963 and then in 1970 Merckx, already a Tour winner, was brought in. So began a relationship that would culminate with Colnago building frames and customising parts for Eddy’s 1972 hour record (the bike weighing just 5.5 kg!) Merckx, like Coppi before him, was a perfectionist when it came to his equipment, he would leave nothing to chance. There are stories of him having his handlebars (including cables) changed mid race, or sending a mechanic back to his garage in Belgium to get a particular frame during the Tour de France. Colnago was also a perfectionist, so this worked well. They parted ways in 1974 due to the fact that Colnago wanted his name (rather than Merckx’) on the frames the team rode, in order to build his brand. Colnago moved to the SCIC team as framebuilder, and rival Ugo de Rosa built Merckx frames from then on (eventually helping Merckx start his own frame workshop after he stopped racing). Colnago continued to build frames, regarded as ‘the Ferrari of bikes’ (not least because he often collaborated with the sports car maker).

Julien DeVries What do Eddy Merckx, Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong all have in common? World Championships and multiple Tours de France victories, plus mechanic Julien DeVries. DeVries took over at Molteni following Colnago’s departure, working alongside De Rosa. Like Merckx, he was a perfectionist and somewhat nervous. He worked with a range of teams, working some 50 Tours de France. He worked with Lemond at ADR and Team Z, followed by Motorola and US Postal. Lemond and Armstrong were both innovators constantly looking for a technological edge (the latter also with regards to doping). It makes sense that they would seek out the best mechanic in the business.


The late, great Sheldon Brown

Sheldon Brown Moving away from the world of the professional peloton, Sheldon was the everyman’s mechanic. After spending time in France (begining a life long love of French bicycles) Brown worked at Harris Cyclery in West Newton, Massachusetts for most of his career. Meanwhile he built and maintained, a veritable online bicycle encyclopedia. Seriously, if you’ve got a question about a bike, chances are the answer is on Sheldon’s site. Since his premature death in 2008 the website has continued under the guidance of friends of his. For someone who worked in a bike shop, Sheldon had a very “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude and resisted marketing bumf and commercialism. He saw bikes as a practical machine that must above all fit their user and suit their intended purpose. A keen tinkerer, Sheldon kept a collection of unique bikes that he details on his site.


Lennard Zinn in his workshop

Lennard Zinn, following the death of Sheldon Brown, has a good claim to knowing more about bicycles than anyone else in the world. He rode for the US national cycling team in his youth, and went on to become a framebuilder and author. Zinn Cycles also offers a range of components, many of which cater to taller cyclists (Zinn is 6’6″). As well as his numerous bike maintenance books, Zinn writes a Technical FAQ for Velonews, to which readers can submit questions. Zinn is more of a modernist than Brown, and has closer ties to the industry. Contrary to Brown’s workhorse approach, zinn is performance orientated, he specialises in high end road, cyclocross and mountain bikes. Following a recent heart scare, he has written several pieces on cardiovascular health in older athletes.