Columbus Tube Decal Timeline

Until relatively recently, all bike frames started life as a box of steel tubes. Like any components, there are expensive, sought after brands and cheaper, generic types. Three frame tube manufacturers stand out; Reynolds from England, Ateliers de la Rive/Vitus of France, and Columbus of Italy. Being Italian, Columbus was the obvious choice for builders like Colnago, Gios and Masi. Reynolds tubed bikes have won the most Tours de France; 27 for their ubiquitous 531 tubing! However many riders claim to prefer the smoother feel of Columbus (see this blind test conducted by Bicycle Magazine in 1987). I ride my Columbus tubed Look weekly, and am in the process of restoring a Columbus SL Coppi.

The goal of this timeline is to help with the dating of Columbus frames based on their decal, or to find the appropriate reproduction decal for a refinished frame (although unlike Reynolds, Columbus does not have an official distributor of repro decals). The date under each decal gives its year of introduction to the best of my knowledge. Until the late seventies all Columbus tubesets shared the same decal; I have not listed all tubesets. For simplicity, I have only listed Italian versions, although English and French versions exist. Original fork decals are very rare prior to 1980.

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Columbus tube decal timeline for the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s

The first decal appeared in 1953, red on gold foil. The basic design remained unchanged for two decades, however the colours were updated. The background became gold, there are subtle changes to the colour of the border around the red oval. The final incarnation with the gold dove also appears in oversize versions, about 1.5 times the usual size.

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Columbus tube decals of the ’70s

The first major change happened in ’72 with the introduction of a simplified dove logo. The text ACCIAO SPECIALE is in bold on the ’73 version. In ’75 the dove became white for the first time. The 3 Tubi (main tubes only) decal from ’77 is the first time the tubeset was identified on the decal – full Columbus frames continued to use the gold one.

80

Columbus tube decals of the late ’70s and early ’80s

In 1977 Columbus tubing separated from its parent company and introduced a new single winged dove. Within a year or so a purple border was added to the decal. Columbus then diversified with new high end tubesets: SLX, Air, Record, which got their own decal. Entry level tubesets like Zeta, Aelle and Tretubi (3 tubes) got new decals too, with the mid range tubesets like SL and SP using the generic purple decal. 1984 brought along separate decals for all tubesets, with COLUMBUS now written at the top and a funky ‘80s metallic backround.

All graphics are proprietary. Reposting permitted for non-commercial purposes with credit & link.

For further information on Columbus tubes see the Columbus website for history and current tubesets or the Equus project for info on ’80s/’90s tubesets.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 SheldonBrown.com, 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.

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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.

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!

Campagnolo Record

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Campagnolo Record/Super Record Groupset

Among bicycle groupsets, none is more revered than Campagnolo Record. It has been the Italian component manufacturer’s professional grade set since its introduction in 1958, having won 32 Tours de France (more remarkably, Campagnolo Record was used by all but five Tour winners 1963-1998).

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1978 Super Record rear derailleur

 

Record has come in various guises over time, Nuovo Record was introduced in 1967, so called C-Record in 1985, Titanium Record in 1996, but perhaps the most famous is Super Record, introduced alongside Nuovo Record in 1974 (the Super Record name was also revived in 2009 for the current top-end group). From 1967 to 1987 Record, Nuovo Record and Super Record were sold concurrently. The rear derailleur is the only part that is specific to each group, the other parts being shared across two or all three of the groupsets.

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Painted crank arm flutes.

I was lucky enough to pick up a noname frame with an almost complete Nuovo/Super Record mixed group recently. Aesthetically it’s a pretty stunning groupset. A previous owner has cut out the gear levers and front derailleur band, and painted the crank arm flutes with “World Champion” colours. Going on the stamp on the rear derailleur, this is a 1976 group. I’ll be saving these components to one day build up a Sunday bike for myself. I need to source some brake levers as the bike was fitted with first generation Dura-Ace (sacrilege!)

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Cutout and painted shifters and derailleur.

*Update* : a couple of months later I found the matching levers – see Part 2.

What a difference a wheelset makes

A couple of months ago I picked up a pair of wheels at a Vide Grenier.

Wheelset

Cassette on and ready for tyres!

My wife begrudgingly pointed them out to me so I wandered over to have a browse. I’m always on the lookout for alloy rimmed wheels for my vintage builds. They turned out to be rather more modern – 90’s Campagnolo 8 speed aero wheels, no good for my vintage bikes, but maybe for my 90s Look. I asked the price, expecting something around €100 (sets like these go for €150-€200 on Ebay)… but the guy said €20. Whether I was planning to keep them or sell them on; I couldn’t say no at that price (even my wife agreed).

They are from the lower end of the Campag spectrum, the hubs being perhaps Stratos or Mirage (older campy hubs don’t say), and the rims 22mm Delta. Back when they were made these were perhaps considered aero, even though nowadays carbon rims of this depth are for climbing wheels. They are neither eyeletted nor anodised, which should keep the weight down where it matters.

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I’m becoming a bit of a Campy addict.

My current wheels are handbuilt Athena on Mavic Open SUP, a very nice and sturdy wheelset. It would be useful to have two sets ready to go so I can swap over if I have a problem, and the spare pair could be used on another bike for houseguests to ride

This weekend I repacked the hubs, mounted tires and took them for a spin. Although they seem a bit more sporty than my Mavics, I didn’t know how this would translate into ride quality, or even if I would feel a difference. I certainly think their bare alloy colour looks better than the grey anodising on the Opens.

Delta

Delta is most closely associated with Campy’s record brakes from the late ’80s. Their rims in the ’90s were named with Greek letters.

I was surprised to find the ride incredibly smooth and fast feeling (although this may be partly psychological). I never really gave too much thought to how the wheels could affect the ride of a bike. I was aware of the effect tyres, tubing and geometry, cockpit and saddle, but I had naively ignored this vital element. I guess I’d just assumed that a given rim depth and spoke count would feel similar across different builds.

They look and feel smooth!

They look and feel smooth!

I suppose part of me is surprised that my flashy ‘new’ aero rims run smother than the famous Opens. I’ll be using them as my go-to wheelset from now on, keeping the Mavics for spare/winter riding.

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.

Black Widows

Here’s a recent bargain find from a vide grenier, a pair of classic leather cycling shoes, often nicknamed ‘Black Widows’.

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My Loano lace up black widows

To the untrained eye, they might look like Jazz dance shoes; lightweight, perforated and thin soled. They are designed to be used with toe clips and straps, which have been replaced on all but period replica bikes by automatic clipless pedals. Unlike steel tubes, downtube shifters and 5 speed freewheels, this is a throwback that I don’t really agree with. As toe clip and straps hold the feet in the pedals until the strap buckle is pulled by hand, they make unexpected dismounts trickier and as such are potentially dangerous. I therefore do not agree with period sportives and races banning the use of clipless pedals.

The bare soles - note the dark line worn in by the pedals.

The bare soles – note the dark line worn in by the pedals.

These are the kind of shoes worn by Coppi, Merckx, and Kelly, with their design varying little from the 1900s to the 1980s, when synthetic materials appeared, and then clipless pedals replaced toe clips. They were used with ‘trench’ cleats – cleats with a groove running along them that engaged the back plate of the pedal. A rider would generally ride them new for a few rides without cleats, after which time a mark from the pedal would be worn into the sole of the shoe, indicating where to place the cleats. The cleats were then nailed in by a bike shop or cobbler, and were not adjustable. Unlike modern pedals and cleats they did not allow any float (rotation of the feet on a vertical axis), potentially leading to knee problems.

Jacques Anquetil and Rik van Looy wearing black widows. (Wikipedia)

While the cleats may have been superseded, the style has not. There has been a spate of modern shoes designed with laces and perforated uppers, reminiscent of the glory days of cycling. The Giro Empire is one such example, which arguably kicked off the trend in the mainstream. They have been worn by Bradley Wiggins and Taylor Phinney, among others. While they are certainly stylish, bike tech supremo Lennard Zinn believes that laces are far less effective than velcro or ratchet straps at holding the foot in a comfortable, efficient position for any amount of time.

Giro Empire modern lace up shoes (giro.com)

My pair didn’t come with cleats fitted (they never have been) and I don’t intend on fitting them. That way even if I use clips and straps I will be able to pull my foot out of the pedal. I will lose a small amount of power transfer this way, but in addition to being safer on the bike, they will be much easier to walk in this way too.

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Modern trench cleats for use with three bolt road shoes. (a bit of a silly idea if you ask me!)

The shoes were a great find, in great condition at a bargain price. Importantly, they are size 45 (UK10, US11) which is rather rare. Cycling is a sport that until recently was largely the reserve of 5 foot 6 Southern Europeans who weighed 120 lbs – finding vintage cycling shoes any larger than 42 is exceptional. Loano is actually a French brand, but with a definite Italian flavour to their shoes. Although these shoes have a fifties/sixties feel to them, they’re more likely a seventies or eighties low end model. I was in two minds whether to sell these of keep them, but I think I’ve become rather attached to them. They’ll come in handy for riding bikes with cranksets for French threaded pedals, which I can’t fit clipless pedals to.

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