Journey by Bike: Framebuilding 1 (Genesis)

I was sitting at my computer trying to figure out what type of bike to make. As is the normal way of doing ‘research’ these days I was searching the internet for terms like ‘framebuilding’, ‘bicycle construction’, ‘how to make a bike’ . . . At that time I, along with most people, thought there were only two types of bike: mountain bikes and road bikes. But it was turning out to be anything but the case. For a start, there was a significant group of enthusiasts, and not just commuters, entirely in favour of folding bikes, largely based on the Moulton design. This was a revolutionary bicycle design of Dr Alex Moulton who departed from the traditional diamond frame, instead using an F-frame configuration, which allowed a full-size bicycle to have small wheels. The company is still making bikes today, and there are many small-wheel imitations of the original design which make it ideal for folding and taking on commuter trains or stowing in the car boot. The more I searched the more I found that there were many other variations in-between, all of which were designed with a particular purpose in mind: there were carbon racing bikes for lycra-clad road-warriors; city bikes for riding in the city while, apparently, wearing long scarves and high heels; cargo bikes for doing the shopping and carting the kids – if you lived in the Netherlands; BMX bikes for getting multiple fractures on; tandems for touring with you partner (and getting a divorce subsequently I would imagine); and so on. But one thing that stood out: most of these bikes were sold on the basis of marketing rather than practicality. The mountain bike is a good case in point. The advent of mountain biking sparked a cycling revolution in the 1980s. Mountain bikes were originally adapted city bikes, used for breakneck downhill rides on the gravel roads of Repak, Marin County, California. In order to stand up to the battering they received they were modified and strengthened by the riders. Gradually, more innovations were introduced, such as suspension forks and twist-shift gears, until they resembled the mountain bikes that we see today. But how many of us have a mountain bike which has never been off road, let alone near a mountain; most people use them for riding on cycle paths, for which they are eminently unsuited! So what kind was the perfect bike to make? I wanted a bike to ride on the road but also on rough paths; I wanted to be able to go on touring adventures but also use it around town; in fact, I wanted it to do everything.

The answer came in a book called ‘The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles’.[1] During my searches I’d turned up a fair bit of information on building bicycles and found some books on the subject . . . then I came across this photographic history of the ‘Constructeurs’. These were French framebuilders who specialised in making bikes before and just after the second world war for the pastime of ‘randonneuring’, a sport which is still enjoyed today. The bikes were designed to go anywhere on un-made roads but also be able to carry luggage and simultaneously have excellent steering characteristics. They could be ridden for miles in comfort – a best of all worlds sort of bike. The Constructeurs achieved this by refining their designs through a series of ‘Technical Trials’, which were convened to test the newest bike technology over long distances, much like the innovations made to create mountain bikes many years later. The bikes were all handmade and the parts completely integrated – that is they were designed and made from scratch to include wide tyres, low-trail geometry, mudguards, racks, lights and the lightest and most durable components. Many of these innovations, such as lightweight frames, certain types of gears and lighting systems, are used in bike components to this day. Luckily, there are some enthusiastic proponents of this type of bicycle who promote its use, and a magazine dedicated to the design.[2] A modern manifestation in some respects is the ‘gravel bike’ design. So, I decided to make my bike based on the geometry of a randonneuring bike from the 1950s.

[1] Heine, J. and Praderes, J., (2009). The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, Rizzoli International, New York, USA.

[2] Bicycle Quarterly, (J. Heine Ed.) Seattle, USA (ISSN 1941-8809)

One thought on “Journey by Bike: Framebuilding 1 (Genesis)

  1. You need to send all of these blogs to a publisher, to have published in a book. They are excellent. They remind me a bit of Bill Bryson type books.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

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