French Lessons : Randonneur

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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)

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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.

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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’.

Olympique ‘Path Track’ Singlespeed

The majority of bikes I come across here in the Perigord area of South-West France are low end ten speed racers typical of the ‘bike boom’ of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Even these cheap bikes have a certain charm to them, but are not necessarily for everyone. I was keen to do something a little different with a bike, and when I came across this Olympique I knew it was a good candidate. It’s a nice looking bike, but nothing special in quality or equipment – I wouldn’t want to mess with the configuration of a higher end bike.

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Front end view, showing the “path racer” style handlebars

I believe this brand was built by Gitane at the time, with the spec of this bike originally being identical to Gitanes ‘Tour de France’ model. Olympique was also the name used for Gitanes top model, so Gitane may have had rights to it (although things like that seemed to have mattered a lot less in ‘70s France than in today’s more litigious world.)

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Although from the ’70s, the bike has a much more classic feel

Although the bike is likely to have been built in the late ‘70s, the style is more classic, reflecting the ‘50s or perhaps even earlier. I wanted to try and capture the spirit of a pre-war path track racer. The racing bikes of the belle epoch (early twentieth century) predate derailleur gears and drop handlebars, having fixed gears and moustache handlebars. I chose to rebuild this bike as a singlespeed, as a fixed wheel bike is not for everyone and is a more involved rebuild process. Path track is an English term that refers to early grass racing tracks or ‘paths’. Bikes of the day would be dual purpose, ridden to races, perhaps with panniers and mudguards, which would them be removed in order to race.

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Chrome steel cottered 46 tooth 1/8 chainset

The first step was removing the gears and double crankset, replaced with a 46 tooth single. I re-dished the rear wheel to correct the chainline and fitted an 18 tooth singlesppeed freewheel, giving a relatively easy gear suitable for most terrain.

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I love the art deco style of these CLB brakes

I swapped out the drop handlebars for moustache bars, and the Mafac brakes for CLB. The levers are from the ‘50s, and the callipers more recent, but they have a timeless quality to them. I’m very happy with the finished bike, I really like it’s retro look and I hope it brings it’s new owner many miles of happy riding!

Relooking – Look KG 223

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The original spec… Relooking is the ‘French’ word for makeover – appropriate enough for my Look rebuild.

My old Townsend has been out of date since it was built. I’d bet it’s older than I am, and even if it isn’t, the technology it’s built with certainly is. What I’m saying is that I needed a new bike – it’s come a long way since it was £17 on Ebay, but it’s time for a full upgrade. I’d built up a reasonable set of components though, so I was considering just changing the frame. I wanted to stick with steel, so I was on the lookout for a bargain Reynolds or Columbus frame. I could just go out and drop €400 on a Sora equipped aluminium bike, but I want something with more character. I want the smooth ride and durability of steel. I ended up spotting this Look KG 223 at a Troc (pawn shop) – it ticked most of the boxes: Columbus frame, Carbon fork and Campagnolo 8 speed with Ergoshifters. At a price of only €90 I couldn’t say no.

Look is famous for pioneering carbon bikes and clipless pedals in the mid eighties. They started out as a small company producing ski bindings, and were bought by tycoon Bernard Tapie. Tapie also owned a line of health food shops called La Vie Claire, and sponsored a cycling team under that name led by Bernard Hinault. Look developed a clipless pedal, and marketed it through La Vie Claire. Bernard Hinault won the 1985 Tour de France with Look pedals, and within the next five years they became ubiquitous within the peloton. In 1985 Hinault rode a steel handbuilt frame branded as Look, and in 1986 he and Greg Lemond rode the new groundbreaking KG86 carbon frame. It would be twenty years before the rest of the peloton caught up, with most manufacturers making steel bikes into the mid nineties, and aluminium for some ten years after that.

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I changed the Gara decal as it was peeling.

Look never made aluminium bikes. Apart from the 1985 team bike, their steel bikes were aimed at recreational riders; in the mid nineties they offered a range of lugged Columbus tubed bikes. The KG 223 was the bottom of the range, made with plain guage Gara tubing. The higher end KG 243 shared the same geometry but was made with Brain butted tubing, intended for more serious amateur racers. I really like the look of these lugged frames, a classic steel frame that doesn’t look out of place with modern parts.

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The old campag 52-39 chainset – too much for my knees!

The wheels were a bit of an issue; the Rigida DP-18 rims were ok, but the 14-23 Sachs freewheel wouldn’t work for me in the hilly Perigord where I live. I could have re-space the cassette on my Shimano 8 speed wheels to index with the Campy shifters, but that just wouldn’t seem right (Shimano and Campy don’t mix!). In the end I opted for a bargain pair of handbuilt Campag 8 speed cassette wheels on Mavic Open Pro rims. Not only were the wheels a bargain, but the guy selling them ‘threw in’ his old 8 speed Athena levers too (they must be worth about as much again!) Along with the wheels, I changed the handlebars (too narrow), saddle (too firm) and switched out the 52-39 chainset for my 48-34 Stronglight compact. I sold any parts I didn’t need, keeping the build within the original €90 budget (although this doesn’t count parts I already owned). I built my cassette from individual sprockets, including a vintage Campagnolo Off-Road 30 tooth sprocket to get the gears right – I had to turn round the B screw to get the derailleur to shift into it, but it works fine (the Avanti derailleur is officially rated to a 28 tooth max).

The finished bike

The finished bike

Once I’d got all my parts together, I stripped the bike down and rebuilt it (including new cables). I’m very happy with the end result, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first few rides. I’ve built a bike that’s as capable as a new Aluminium road bike, at a fraction of the price, but with a lot more character. And I had a great time building it up too!

Specs: 1997 Look KG 223

  • Frame: Columbus Gara lugged
  • Fork: Look LDS Carbon with aluminium steerer
  • Groupset: Campagnolo Avanti 8s, Athena levers
  • Crankset: Stronglight Impact compact 48/34
  • Pedals: Look PP137
  • Cassette: Miche/Campagnolo custom 15-30
  • Wheels: Campagnolo Athena hubs with Mavic Open Pro rims
  • Saddle: San Marco Rolls
  • Handlebars: 3t Forma SL
  • Stem: 3t Stylus
  • Weight: 10 kg

Raphael Geminiani

When I saw this bike hanging from the roof of a pawn broker’s warehouse I knew it was something a little bit different. I immediately recognised the name on the frame – albeit as the name of a rider rather than framebuilder, and it was fitted with exotic parts that I’d never come across.

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Raphael Geminiani was a French champion (of Italian extraction) in the ‘50s. He is one of only two men to have finished on the podium of all three grand tours in the same year, and was a teammate of Fausto Coppi, and later directeur sportif to Jaques Anquetil and Tom Simpson. Geminiani Bicycles were originally made by Gitane in France before production was moved to Italy – I’m not sure which company took over.

“Gem” wears the French champion’s jersey

This bike was also in really good shape when I picked it up – more servicing than restoration was required. It originally was built up with decent quality aluminium components -mostly Italian; ITM bars and stem, Ofmega crankset, Gian Robert derailleurs and Weinmann brakes with Belleri levers. The wheels are lightweight Record P.R. tubulars (on noname chrome hubs – the only bottom-dollar component) keeping the total built weight under 10kg / 22lbs. The frame itself is a lugged construction from unlabelled tubing – nevertheless it has a nice feel to it. The bike dates from around 1980 – the style is definitely that of the 60’s/70’s though. It seems to have been stored indoors all this time, and either meticulously taken care of, or more likely, hardly ridden (original Weinmann brake pads had very little wear).

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As found…

I was able to keep the bike in almost it’s exact original setup. Thanks to the Italian freewheel threading, I was able to fit a modern Hyperglide type 14-28 freewheel in place of the Regina 13-21, making the bike much more rideable day to day. The plastic Simplex shifters were broken, so I replaced these with a set of Huret.

The Ofmega chainset and Gian Robert derailleurs on this bike are pretty rare – they have a Campagnolo air to them (though they are not as light, or as expensive). It is even said that Campagnolo Gran Sport was copied from Gian Robert design – regardless of who came up with it, it’s a great looking derailleur.

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Once reassembled, the bike is a very nice ride – even though 42-28 is a bit of a high bottom gear for the hills where I live! This bike will make someone a lovely Sunday rider or period sportive bike.

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Peugeot J-8 Randonneur

Randonneurs are something of a French Classic.  As the name implies, they are for Randonées, a type of sports cycling also known as Brevet or Audax riding. The French term Randonée itself is rather general, literally meaning ramble or trek. The Randonnee style of riding evolved in early 20th century France, and consists of organised rides over long distances (200km or more).  Riders are expected to be self-sufficient and Randonnees may involve an element of orienteering, however there is no competitive element.

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The Randonneur bicycle evolved around the requirement for a sports bike that could be ridden all day long, and carry everything a rider would need. As such they are generally relatively lightweight, with full mudguards, provision for lights and panniers. The resulting machine is something akin to a cross between a road bike and a touring bike, and as such they are very practical everyday bikes, leading to their recent resurgence in popularity.  They could be described as the ‘original hybrid’, and make a great commuting bike for those who prefer a retro aesthetic. Able to handle a variety of terrain and riding styles, they are a good choice for those looking for one bike that fits all.

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Randonneurs had to be able to cope with anything old European roads could throw at them, with surfaces varying from dirt tracks to cobbles. They generally have 650B wheels, which are halfway between modern 26″ mountain bike and 700C road wheels. This allowed them to use fat tyres which would cope on anything from grass to gravel. Lauded by many as a happy medium, 650B is now making a comeback on mountain bikes.

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I found this example at a charity sale, I was instantly drawn to it’s super ’70s orange paint job (reminiscent of Eddy Merckx hour record Colnago – to me at least). It’s actually a youth bike, with a 50cm frame and 650A wheels. 650A wheels are slightly larger than 650B, but take a skinnier tyre , meaning the overall size is very similar (around 650 mm – hence the name).  It was in excellent condition and only needed cleaning and servicing before moving on to its next adventure – even the tyres were still in good condition – which was good news for me as 650A tyres are a pain to find these days!