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In the 1960's to the early 80's French bicycles were extremely popular. And to be a really popular bicycle it had to be a French bicycle made with English Reynolds 531 tubing. So popular was the 531 tubing that lesser breeds of tubing could not be sold and an entire industry arose counterfeiting the Reynolds labels. Some of these labels were so good that Reynolds couldn't identify them as counterfeit. Some of the more popular brands were Peugeot, Gitane, Mercier (not to be confused with the English Mercian), Motobécane, Bertin, and many others.
The vast majority of these bikes were cheap transportation with hardly an artistic addition in the lot. However, there were specific models that were sold in relatively small numbers that were well worth keeping and riding to this very day. The most noted were generally the Peugeot PX-10 and the Gitane Tour de France models. Though not the very top of the line they were the models most often found under experienced riders. [also Mercier 300, Motobécane Grand Record...]
The bicycle designs of those days included rather long wheelbases for stability and rather long trail that reduced the force needed to hold the front wheel straight. On rough roads this was a sometimes-precarious method of deriving handling and as roads improved the wheelbase came down and the trail decreased to improve directional stability.
Yet these bikes all had a certain feeling that was attractive and hard to deny. Even to this day it isn't unusual to see well kept PX-10's or Tour de Frances being ridden through the hills and across the dales. Sold, some of these bikes fetch more than they did new. [$158 in the early '70s!] And the aficionados still speak of them in a hushed voice that implies that they were somehow superior to what is available today.
This isn't true, but some of these bikes most certainly had a feel and a handling that would be considered enviable even today. Bicycles, after all are more than a hundred years in development and the technology is not rocket science. There are many designs that came out right if not perfect.
Many people want to restore these bikes to their original pristine glory and many more just want a nice handling bike that they might have inherited from their fathers or uncles. Or maybe the relic of a teenage lustful memory that someone is trying to relive.
The idea of this page is to give you information on how to rebuild a 30 year old French bicycle into a useful modern bicycle that can live easily for another 30 years and not seem dated while you're riding it.
Older French bikes had some very odd sized components compared to modern bicycles.
In short about the only thing on a decent French bike fit to keep is the frame. Sheldon "I like everything about a French bike" Brown http://sheldonbrown.com/velos.html might disagree with me on this point (and WOW has he ever!) but that is my opinion.
This is also a problem with small time painters as they charge prices that hardly pay for their services and then can't afford to put in the amount of time on a job that would properly prepare it. They take shortcuts. So don't just go to a painter and look at the work he has there at the moment. Talk to people who have gotten paint jobs of the same price and quality for which you are paying. Look at his facilities. If he has a welding torch next to his paint booth he is probably going to reach up and move a frame with a greasy hand in the middle of a welding job. And your result will be paint flaking off of a strange area.
Adding a modern fork clears up just about every problem that the French fork presents. The exception is that the original fork will have the original geometry built into it. These older bikes generally had lots of trail and arrived at that by having long fork tubes with a great sweep forward. Modern forks don't have this trail and consequently the handling will change when you go to a modern fork. My experience is that the change is always for the better so I wouldn't worry about it. The owner of one Peugeot that I rebuilt followed me down a long fast hill in his car one time and then remarked that he was never able to get the bike to go that fast around those chicanes. It was because of the shorter, stronger fork. I talked to several previous owners of PX-10's and they all had the same comments about how the front end would wander under heavy loads. My PX-10 never gave me a problem, but then it had that new fork.
[For touring applications, a decent CrMo "hybrid" fork can be had inexpensively. This will preserve the existing front clearance and basic frame geometry, bottom-bracket height, etc., but will allow you to use a standard headset/stem, and install cantilever brakes.]
If the threads are completely bunged from some ham-fist trying to force the BB in there is still another possibility: you can generally have the BB shell cleaned up and re-threaded to take an Italian bottom bracket and these are still a standard item. This won't work for every bottom bracket shell ever made, but most of the good bikes have thick enough shells to handle the re-threading.
French bikes have a feeling and a ride that is all their own. The long wheelbase of many of the models rode smoothly, or I should say, reasonably smoothly over quite rough roads. On the other hand, in larger frame sizes it caused speed wobbles to occur at a lower speed. I have never resolved just what it is about French bikes that make their handling so much different feeling than an American or an Italian bike, but it is there and plain if you have a stable to choose from and can compare at your leisure.
There is also quite a variation from brand to brand and Gitanes, for instance, had quite modern geometry very early compared to other French manufacturers. Short wheelbase, short trail in the steering, steeper geometry, etc. These bikes tend to make a machine that is so close to a modern bike that you cannot tell the difference. Others, such as the PX-10 from the 1970's is about as French as you can get.
Today one of my favorite bikes is the Vitus 992 aluminum bike with glued construction. It's a great bike, but will it still be riding people about 30 years hence? I doubt it. But the Peugeots that I rebuilt will be.
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