Classics Celebrate the Tour de France

During its last week, the Tour de France heads for a final showdown in the Alps. This year’s race is incredibly close, with less than 30 seconds separating the first three riders. The penultimate stage is a time trial, so we may even see an almost-repeat of 1989, when Greg LeMond won the big race on the last stage by just 8 seconds. Anything remains possible – a welcome change from previous Tours that often were all but decided by the half-way point.

Yesterday’s stage began in La Mure – a small town in the mountains above Grenoble that we visited a little over a week ago. Already, the town was preparing for the Tour.

The mairie (town hall) was decorated for the occasion, with a big count-down board over the entrance showing the time left until the start of the stage, down to the very second!

Many businesses in town were decorated for the Tour…

Dozens of yellow bicycle wheels were distributed around town, with the names of famous racers from the past and present. Local children and teenagers were engaged in a game of finding them all to win prizes. It was fun seeing the name of one of my heroes, the Eagle of Toledo, next to a Peugeot Demi-Course kid’s bike similar to the one I had when I was ten years old.

It seemed that every other resident had pulled an old bike out of their barn or basement to celebrate the Tour, creating a veritable museum of cycling history. Le Mure is in the mountains, so all the bikes were interesting machines with derailleurs and good brakes – to ride here at all, you need at least a decent bike.

Just like the local children had fun finding the yellow wheels, we enjoyed discovering bikes during our evening stroll around town. (Click on the photos for high-resolution images to see the details of the bikes.)

One display had a full complement of Mafac brakes, from the lowly Racer on this Liberia…

… via the Raid model on this lovely Peugeot 650B mixte…

… to the top-of-the-line Competition brakes on this neat Jeunet.

It was getting dark when we stumbled upon a real treasure: a 1940s women’s bike leaning inconspicuously against a wall.

I’d never heard of Belledonne, but this mixte was a very nice cyclotouring bike with quality components. A little more Internet research found that Belledonne was the brand of a cycling wholesaler in nearby Grenoble.

The fillet-brazed frame was nicely made, with the single main tube and extra set of well-braced stays that make for a much-better performing frame that the more common twin-lateral mixtes (as on the Peugeot above). The minimal fillet joining the seat and diagonal tubes may have been inspired by Jo Routens, who was also in Grenoble… Or perhaps both employed the same framebuilder?

Originally, this bike had front and rear derailleurs, with the popular Cyclo at the rear mounted on a brazed-on support made from two tubes. The front derailleur was missing, but otherwise, the bike seemed complete and original, with only a thorough overhaul required to get it back on the road.

The more I looked, the more I discovered neat parts: custom racks and powerful Jeay roller-cam brakes…

… and full generator lighting courtesy of the sought-after JOS components. Even in France, where bikes that we might revere as classics remain in daily use, the “Belledonne” stood out as a quality machine. It was sad to think that, some day, it may end up in a landfill.

In fact, most of the bikes on display looked like they should be ridden, rather than just
serve as display pieces. Let’s hope that some of their owners will be inspired by the Tour to get them on the road again!

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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6 Responses to Classics Celebrate the Tour de France

  1. The same happened in my area of Lower Normandy when the Semaine Federale was hosted nearby. I happened to be at our local mini- supermarket when a member of staff was taking down their exhibit. I asked if I could have it and they gladly gave it to me rather than have the hassle of taking it to the dump. On inspection later at home, it was a middle of the range Peugeot racer, but it had immaculate MAFAC racers and Normandy professional hubs laced to Mavic arc en ciel tubular rims. Not bad for free. There are still lots of bicycles waiting to be discovered, I’m going to look at a top of the 1970’s range Gitane this afternoon, the vendor says he’ll throw in two others but he’s unsure of their make, dare I dream ? The asking price is – 35 Euros.

  2. Michael Toohey says:

    That Belledonne is beautiful, and Tony Oliver would approve of the direct lateral frame design. Also, the rear brake positioning is perfect. As an ex cycle mechanic, I detest rear brakes fitted to the seat stays of mixte frames. Sidepulls are the worst since rain water collects at the bottom of the extra loop of conduit, soon rendering the back brake inoperable. Centrepulls on the laterals are the only sensible option. Kudos Belledonne!

  3. Sam Carlson says:

    I found similar gems in the rough on my recent trip to Paris. Bikes we’d stop and gasp at here in the USA are commonplace commuters in France. As you point out, Jan, some even may have been built by the same people who put together the frames for certain constructeurs. The irony of it is that they aren’t worth much at all if they don’t have a recognized name.

    By contrast, the roof has blown off the market for anything that can be associated with the tags “Herse Singer Routens Goëland”. I tried to buy an old, rusty Herse listed on “Le Bon Coin” (the French equivalent of Craigslist) and competition was on par with what you’d expect for a San Francisco apartment (and the buyer later flipped it on Ebay for an order of magnitude more than he bought it for). Your Belledonne, which is 90% of what that Herse was, is either cheap or free.

    But nobody knows anything about the French bikes that aren’t “haut de gamme”, of which many are worth saving not for collection, but for riding. This is a problem for the potential buyer, who has no idea whether a given bike is going to plane and handle well, or be an ungainly tank. The usual telltale signs (braze-ons, quality of components, frame geometry) only tell you so much, and components could have been changed over the bike’s life, and it’s impossible to know or even infer which tubeset was used, to give any idea of whether the frame is going to plane. What we need is a comprehensive book on the classic French bicycle, as produced by the thousands of builders furnishing the market below the top of the line, to go with the René Herse book. It would be a reference on great French bikes that are actually affordable. However this would be a huge project, much harder than writing about a few great constructeurs.

    So in response to your post, Jan, many enthusiasts want to ride such bikes to their fullest potential – down gravel roads, with your tires – and would love to save them from landfills. We just don’t know what’s worth saving.

    • What’s interesting about France is that there appear to be thousands of brands, but there weren’t that many builders. It was common for bike shops to stick their own headbadge and decals on production bikes. In fact, factories delivered them already painted and pinstriped, with room on the downtube for the decal…

      The Belledonne is a cut above those bikes, but it’s unlikely to be a true thoroughbred on par with the great bikes from the best constructeurs. Grenoble is full of Routens bikes that were just mass-produced machines sold through the Routens shop. A tier above, there are bikes built by production shops in Saint-Etienne (compare that to Waterford in the U.S.), and then, at the very top, you have the truly hand-built bikes made by Routens in Grenoble. It’s the second-tier bikes, which usually were equipped with decent components, that can be great-riding, especially if they were made from lightweight tubing. In fact, I have one of those Routens machines, which used to be my “gravel bike” way back in 2004 when we first started exploring the unbeaten paths of the Cascade Mountains.

      In the U.S., you could compare it to Schwinns, which were available at every level, all the way to the hand-made Paramounts.

  4. Your comment is perfectly accurate Jan; In the case of Belledone brand, it was ,with Ycenna, a lower brand of LIBERIA. As you pointed it many contructeurs also sold industrial bikes made by other brands and assambled in their shops, with their decals and badges. It was the case for Singer, with CLC made bikes and for Routens, with Liberia and later Méral made bikes. This did not turn them away from making their jewels, they just became rare and more of a privilege product. Another Grenoble based (not for long) artisan was Etienne Bernadet who worked with André Reiss (REYHAND) and later with Villemus (LEWIS and ROYAL SAVOIE). Grenoble is small town located in the Alps foothills between Lyon and the Italian border but close enough to what was called France’s Coventry, the Saint Etienne area. It was a major military town where heavy guns and canons where made. This developped a large range of iron craftmen wich of course helped the bike but also the light motorcycle industries (MAGNAT-DEBON).

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