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.
- The bottom bracket was French threaded and had right hand threads on both sides.
- The French standard tubing was metric sized. The seat tube was a slightly smaller size than the English standard and so the standard clamp-on front derailleurs would slip and a French compatible derailleur was necessary. These are now almost impossible to find.
- The fork steerer was threaded to a French standard and the French headsets were necessary.
- The steerer also had a slightly smaller ID and the French stem was a 22 mm instead of the standard 22.2. Not much different, but a real pain to get these days.
- Since bicycles were considered to be normal transportation by the French, the brakes on all of these older bikes were long-reach center-pulls with enough clearance for fenders. It is difficult to get a modern brake in this size though there are a few made.
- Many of the French bikes were designed to use Simplex rear derailleurs and if they had a rear derailleur hanger it was probably of the non-threaded, non-stopped variety. Most French bikes used the removable derailleur hanger.
- Almost none of these bikes had any reasonable sort of braze-ons and many had those ugly pointed old-fashioned pump pegs.
- The French had only the most basic idea of what paint was and their chrome was so notoriously bad that even the most meticulously kept French bikes have rust pock marks all over the chrome.
- Most of these bikes use cheap components that are highly unlikely to be useful even as conversation pieces.
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.
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.