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French Bikes
by Thomas Kunich
with comments by Sheldon Brown
Spoke Divider

Introduction

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.

Chapter 1. What to Keep

Older French bikes had some very odd sized components compared to modern bicycles.

  1. The bottom bracket was French threaded and had right hand threads on both sides.
  2. 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.
  3. The fork steerer was threaded to a French standard and the French headsets were necessary.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Almost none of these bikes had any reasonable sort of braze-ons and many had those ugly pointed old-fashioned pump pegs.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

Chapter 2. What to Do

There are a few things that you should do to get everything going:
  1. Strip all of the parts off of the frame.
  2. You could strip and paint the frame yourself but the smart thing is to get the paint and braze-ons done by the frame builder at the same time. It saves on both ends. When you take your bare frame in here are the braze-ons to order:
    1. If the bike doesn't have a rear derailleur hanger have a modern one brazed on. If it has an old Simplex derailleur mount have it cut off and a new one brazed on. If you have a Dremel tool you can copy the measurements from a standard derailleur hanger onto the Simplex version and cut it on yourself. The dropout steel isn't very hard and it's pretty easy to work. But it is a somewhat tedious job. The hole in the Simplex hanger will also have to be threaded. Most bike shops have the proper tap since it isn't terribly uncommon to cross-thread them and require chasing.
    2. I suggest having a front derailleur mount also brazed on also since this will negate the requirement for finding a French sized front derailleur. Some people will use a standard English-sized front derailleur and shim it out to fit. My experience is that the thing will slip at the least welcome time -- such as in a rainstorm in the middle of a flashflood at midnight when you are sprinting for the finish line and half a wheel ahead.
    3. You can hacksaw off the pump pegs if the bike has those awful old mounts and file the stubs smooth against the tubes. I've done this so well that it is impossible to tell where they had been placed. It is bad form to use a torch to de-braze them unless you are experienced with brazing on thin-walled tubing.
    4. Have all of the cable guides brazed on. Road bikes should have cable guides brazed to the top of the top tube -- not the side or underneath. In the even you want to carry the bike, top cable guides are out of the way and don't gouge your shoulder. It isn't too important whether you run the shift-cables above or below the bottom bracket, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. If you plan on mounting unified shifting and brake levers be sure and have those nifty additional guides added to the sides of the head tube. Don't forget the chain-stay rear derailleur stop.
    5. Remember to add the shift lever braze-ons and make certain that they are placed properly. Builders often tend to set these by eye instead of measuring and that can lead to shifters that are so high that you cannot reach across from side to side if you are a one-handed shifter as I am.
    6. The rear brake-bridge should be moved down to take short reach brakes on 700c wheels if you are building a road bike. If you are building a cross or off-road bike have cantilever/v-brake bosses added to the rear triangle.
    7. Water bottle mounts are often forgotten in the rush.
    8. A pump peg so that you can mount a real frame-mount pump is very convenient. Nothing beats a Zéfal HpX for pumping up your tires at the side of the road. Under-the-top-tube mounting also allows the use of two water bottle cages. If you are a Camel Back user you might want to leave off the seat-tube water bottle mount and mount your pump vertically between the bottom bracket and the top tube along the seat tube. On very small frames you might need to make decisions about how to balance your needs in this regard.
  1. While the builder has your frame have the rear triangle set to the modern standard spacing of 130 mm. This is simple and cheap for him to do and expensive if you forget it and mess up the paint job getting it done later.
  2. Painting the frame will really show how clean (or not) your builder keeps his work. Older paints needed good preparation but modern paints require an almost surgical cleanliness in order to keep them stuck to the frame. If your paint job sits around for a couple of weeks and then starts to show chips and marks in places where it would be difficult to have hit, you probably have a problem with the cleanliness of the preparation work. Another problem is if the painter is in a hurry and over-catalyzes the pain in an effort to get it to harden faster. The faster the paint hardens the more brittle it becomes. (Though, strangely enough, very over-catalyzed paint may turn rubbery.)
  3. 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.

  4. Forks are a problem. If you keep the original French fork you need to find not only a French headset and a French stem, but you are stuck with needing a long-reach brake. There may be certain times when you want such a thing, but unless you are mounting fenders etc. I recommend against it.
  5. 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.]

  6. Bottom Brackets are a problem on French bikes. There were so many French bikes around that you can still pop into many old bike shops and get French cup and ball bottom brackets for a reasonable price. It is still possible to get Phil Wood to make French adapters for their long lived bottom brackets. YST, a Taiwanese firm, makes a cheap copy of the older Mavic bottom bracket that has it's own internal sleeve and doesn't require using the bottom bracket threads at all. You merely tighten the ends and they pinch the bottom bracket into place. Some parts houses still have expensive French threaded bottom brackets such as Campagnolo [or even Stronglight or TA. Sugino cup sets are available in French dimensions. Your local dealer can order them from Quality Bicycle Products.]

    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.

Chapter 3. The Ride

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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Copyright © 2005, 2007 Thomas Kunich

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