The Technical Trials

The Technical Trials are best known for the incredibly light bicycles that constructeurs built in the 1940s. (The 1946 Alex Singer above weighs a little over 17 pounds fully equipped.) More importantly, the Trials advanced bicycle technology by serving as a test bed for new bikes and components.

Low-trail geometries, braze-ons for all components, front derailleurs, low-rider racks, aluminum fenders, wide and supple 650B tires, aluminum cranks, cantilever brakes, sealed-bearing hub and bottom brackets, even aluminum frames: Almost everything we like in bicycles today proved its worth during the Technical Trials of the 1930s and 1940s.* These innovations did not come from racing, but were used first on cyclotouring bikes.

The laboratory for French cyclotouring bikes were the Technical Trials. What were the Trials? Simply put, they were competitions for the best bicycle, rather than the best rider. The Trials were started by a group of riders from Paris, who were loosely organized in the Groupe Montagnard Parisien.

These riders were dissatisfied with the bicycles available in the early 1930s. The heavy mass-produced machines of the time had many features, but were lacking in performance and handling. The riders from the Groupe Montagnard Parisien (GMP) envisioned lightweight bicycles with precise handling, excellent performance and utmost reliability.

In 1934, the GMP organized their first Concours de Machines (Technical Trials): an event where bicycles were judged based on features such as light weight, number of gears, etc. The rules required certain geometries (<50 mm trail, relatively short chainstays), wide tires (>35 mm) and braze-ons for all accessories. To stand a chance at winning, the bikes had to be much lighter than was the norm. “It can’t be done, superlight bikes would never hold up in everyday use,” said the many detractors.

To show that such bikes could hold up under the harshest “real-world” conditions imaginable, each bike was ridden over 460 km of rough gravel roads in the mountains of the Massif Central. This ride was done in three stages, and after each stage, the bikes were checked carefully for defects (below).

Penalties were assessed for any problem, whether a wheel was out of true, a bearing had developed play, or a derailleur no longer could shift every gear. After three days of hard riding, the winner was the bike which offered the best combination of:

  • most desirable features
  • lightest weight
  • fewest problems on the road

The result was truly amazing: At a time when most cyclotouring bikes weighed 20 kg (44 lb.) or more, the winning Barra weighed just 10.35 kg (22.8 lb.), fully equipped with fenders, lights, a rack and wide tires. Keep in mind that this was 1934. This is lighter than any of the current bikes that Bicycle Quarterly has tested.

Not only did the Trials prove that the GMP’s vision for lightweight, high-performance cyclotouring bikes was achievable, but the event also provided an opportunity for a new breed of builders to showcase their talents.

Builders like Reyhand, Barra and Uldry had tried to make racing bikes before, but with the big manufacturers sponsoring professional teams, they found it hard to sell their machines. The Technical Trials provided an opportunity to prove their worth without investing much money. A builder could make an excellent bike, have it ridden by a good rider, and their efforts would be noticed by a nation-wide audience of riders. (It’s a situation similar to today, where most young builders make cyclotouring bikes again, rather than trying to compete with the big names in the racing bike market.)

Progress was swift during the 1930s. Not only did the bikes become lighter, but they also suffered fewer problems on the road. The undisputed leader in the 1930s was Reyhand, who won the Trials three times in a row (above: the winning bike from 1936).

The bikes were ridden by the strongest randonneurs of the time: You got extra points for high speeds, because riding fast stresses the bike more. Among these pilotes were riders who soon would set up shop under their own names: Alex Singer, René Herse, Jo Routens, Lionel Brans, René André and others. Most of these builders then used the Trials to make their own names.

After World War II, little time was lost, and the next Technical Trials were held in 1946. Alex Singer won this event with the ligthest cyclotouring bike ever built. This machine weighed just 6.875 kg (15.16 lb) – without the tires. Quality tires were available only on the black market, so the bikes were weighed without tires. An Alex Singer bicycle from the 1946 Trials has been preserved, and is shown in the Japanese Alex Singer book (top of this post).

In 1947, it was René Herse’s turn to win the event. One of his bikes also still exists (above). It is featured in our book The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles.

Daniel Rebour documented the amazing features of these machines. Every part was modified to reduce the weight. Alex Singer even cut away the pedal bodies (No. 5 above), exposing the spindle.

The Technical Trials consisted of only nine major events (and a few smaller ones in the Paris area), spanning just 15 years. It was an amazing time, when every year saw huge progress. The high hopes of the constructeurs were either rewarded or dashed on the road. The list of the names who won the Technical Trials reads like a Who’s Who of the best constructeurs of the time: Barra, Reyhand (3x), Narcisse (2x), Alex Singer, René Herse, Jo Routens.

The technical innovations that proved their worth in these difficult events are still with us today: aluminum cranks, sealed cartridge bearings in hubs and bottom brackets, low-rider front racks, powerful cantilever brakes… The Concours de Machines were a resounding success, and their influence still is felt more than 60 years later.

The story of the Technical Trials was told in two consecutive issue of Bicycle Quarterly: Vol. 1, No. 4 and Vol. 2, No. 1, with details of each year’s Technical Trials. Photos bring you the atmosphere of these events. Result sheets allow you to find out who won and why. Translated reports from participants and spectators make a gripping read. More than 90 drawings by Daniel Rebour show the intricate details of the machines that competed for the title of “the best bicycle.” To find out how the bikes we enjoy so much today were developed, order your copies here.

* Some of these innovations were offered earlier, but had not become widespread, either because the technology did not yet exist (modern aluminum alloys) or because no one promoted these innovations.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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10 Responses to The Technical Trials

  1. I cannot wrap my head around the sub-25lb weight of the fully equipped, wide tired bicycles from the 30s and 40s. What accounts for the inability of the top framebuilders of today to accomplish this? After all, some do make custom racks, braze-ons for everything, their own stems, etc. Today’s tubing and components are lighter in weight as well. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I want a 25lb bike with dynamo lighting and 650Bx40mm tires!

    • I used to be amazed at the light weights of those old bikes, too. However, one has to realize the superlight bikes from the Technical Trials had every part modified – just look at the brake levers of the Singer at the top of the post. They even used a thin coat of paint to save weight. Those bikes were far removed from the machines you could buy.

      That said, 23 pounds was a reasonable weight for a lightweight machine back then. Part of that was the result of the technical trials. Much of it was due to really well-designed components, which put the material where it was needed, without any extra.

      Today’s components generally are heavier than those in the past, especially when you look at non-racing components. A 4-speed Cyclo derailleur weighs the same as a modern Campagnolo Super Record derailleur, and a Singer front derailleur weighs half as much as the lightest modern derailleurs. Forged Mafac brakes weigh less than most brakes you can buy today. The lightest tubing back then had thinner walls than almost all tubing you can get today.

      Modern bikes can be light. We tested a sub-24 pound Weigle (albeit with narrow tires) and a sub-24 pound Herse with wide tires (but a few exotic components). 25 pounds for a 650B bike is achievable with standard, but carefully selected components. In fact, that is the weight of my new René Herse, and if I had made a few compromises (and if the chrome-plater hadn’t been so generous with the copper layer underneath the nickel and chrome), it could be a pound lighter yet.

      • Harald says:

        I also continue to be amazed by the weights achieved back then. It would be interesting to have a list of components and their weight, comparing these classic machines with state of the art modern components side by side. Thanks for the great post.

      • We did that in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 6, No. 4 (the “lightweight issue”). We compared every part of three bikes: a Crumpton carbon randonneur, a 1947 Alex Singer 650B randonneur bike featured in The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, and Mark’s modern 650B randonneur bike. The Crumpton had the lightest frame and fork. The Singer’s frame was a little heavier, but the components were lighter. Mark’s bike lost a little ground everywhere, but was not far behind in the end.

  2. Willem says:

    About 24 pounds is quite possible for a modern randonneuring bike with lights, fenders and a front rack. Getting below that is still difficult if you do not want to compromise on reliability and longevity. In fact, my hunch is that the same applied to the older bikes (there is no magic here). It is one thing to design a special bike for these trials, and something quite different if that bike has to endure more than a few hundred miles with a lightweight rider. Yet I marvel at the ingenuity displayed at these trials.

  3. Tom in Seattle says:

    “The list of the names who won the Technical Trials reads like a Who’s Who of the best constructeurs of the time: Barra, Reyhand (3x), Narcisse (2x), Alex Singer, René Herse, Jo Routens.”

    I remember hearing of most of these builders through your magazine. But the name “Narcisse” is unfamiliar. Can you tell us anymore about this builder – apparently one of only two to win the Technical Trials more than once. Are there any surviving examples of his frames still extant?

    • Narcisse Manevitch started building in the early 1930s. He participated in the first technical trials in 1934. In 1938, René Herse worked with Narcisse and presented a bike with Herse’s new components (stem, cranks, brakes) that was a whole kg (2.2 lb) lighter than the next-lightest bike. Herse’s bottom bracket developed play, so he didn’t win, but another Narcisse took the prize. The results of the 1939 trials never were published in detail, because the war intervened, but we know that Narcisse won, and Singer presented the lightest bike.

      Narcisse was Jewish, so he fled to the “unoccupied zone” during the war and continued to build there. You can read about that in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 1 in the interview with the “aunt”, Madame Porthault. We also featured a wonderful Narcisse tandem with tapered tubes in the “tandem issue”, Vol. 2, No. 3. There is a photo of the Narcisse tandem in the Bicycle Quarterly Image Archive.

  4. David Yu Greenblatt says:

    Jan,
    Fascinating info about Narcisse Manevitch, a worthy subject for a future BQ article.
    So, when will the 21st Century Technical Trials commence?
    – David

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