book review
The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles


The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, text by Jan Heine, photography by Jean-Pierre Praderes, published 2005 by Vintage Bicycle Press, 140 Lakeside Ave., Seattle WA 98122, USA. Hardcovers, 31x25 cm, 168 pages, profusely illustrated. 60 USD plus postage. Available online from:
http://www.vintagebicyclepress.com



The cover foto gives a good foretaste what the reader will find inside: a full chrome Rene Herse from 1952. I took a magnifying glass to the jacket cover photo and could make out the stitching on the tires, so detailed are the photographs and the printing. On other pages I could make out the manufacturer's stamps on crank arms and chain rings, the engraving on chain links, fine knurling on knobs, polishing marks on chrome surfaces, and so on. The bicycles were photographed in a studio with studio lighting, using mid-format negatives (not 35mm), and it shows. This minimizes flares from chrome (and there is a lot of that), and shows detail from the darkest tire treads to the brightest polished aluminum components. I have worked as a photographic laboratory technician myself, making enlargements from mid-format commercial film up to 24x36cm glass negatives (for the German National Museum in Munich), and, in my professional opinion, this is simply the best quality photographic work, and printing, I have seen in any book devoted to the bicycle.

The photographer, Jean-Pierre Praderes, also has a keen eye for what is important about a classic bicycle. In addition to photographs of each bicycle in full, there are close-ups of many fine details: for example, the repair kit on a 1950 C. Daudon, concealed inside the stem; wing nuts and gear changers; saddle bags and paniers; and many, many of the wonderful bits which go into a proper randonneur or camping bike.

Below, 1952 Rene Herse, detail (p.114):



In all, fifty bicycles are featured in chronological order, ranging from a 1909 La Gauloise to a 2003 Alex Singer, thirty-six of them from the years 1930 to 1955. All fifty are of French make. There is a good reason for this; the French have been enamored of the bicycle since the 19th century as no other people on earth. Cycling is not only the national sport in France, it is the national passion. Possibly the national religion. The French developed multispeed bicycles with all the necessary components (effective brakes, lights, panniers, and so on) for serious long-distance cycling while most other nations were still dabbling with semi-motorized carriages. The French constructeurs built not only custom-made frames, but many of their own components, as well: panniers, brakes, stems, fitments, hubs, gear changers, and so on. Many modern so-called touring bikes are basically racing frames with some touring parts bolted on as an afterthought (maybe they fit, maybe they don't). A proper French randonneur (long-distance amateur bicycle) is conceived as a functional unit, with the necessary features thought out in advance and incorporated into the frame design itself. The best of these were (still are) beautifully done, elegantly refined and innovative pieces of engineering. The Golden Age Of Handbuilt Bicycles documents the best of this tradition, featuring fifty exceptionally fine machines, all in splendid condition.

The French raced such machines over public roads and set rigorous standards for "technical trials." Particularly noteworthy of the book is that some of the bicycles featured have race histories; for example, a Rene Herse ridden to victory in the 1966 Paris-Brest-Paris race by Maurice Macaudiere. Macaudiere and his teammate, Robert Demilly also riding a Rene Herse, set a record, and racked up the fifth consecutive win on Rene Herse machines in this gruelling annual event (1200 kms without sleeping). Macaudiere's machine below (p.139):



One of the special delights of this book is the realization how little is new. Various French cycles of the 1930s featured internal brake cables and lighting cables, braze-ons for shift levers and front derailleurs, cartridge bottom bracket bearings, cantilever brakes, oval chain rings, quick release mechanisms for hubs and brakes, and much use of aluminum components. What surprised me most is that these bikes weigh between 11 and 14 kgs for a fully equiped long-distance tourer with paniers and lights, which is comparable to the best bikes made today.

Featured bicycles include: Reyhand, Caminargent, Bailleul, Follis, Mayeaux, Maury, Barra, C. Daudon, Longoni, eleven Rene Herses and eight Alex Singers, as well as others. There are period photographs of racers and constructeurs, advertisements and other memorabilia. At the end, there is a list of the serial numbers of the bicycles featured including a list of non-original equipment, making this a useful reference work for those who may wish to restore a bicycle of similar vintage.

Each bicycle is accompanied by explanitory notes by Jan Heine, providing both historical and technical information. Jan will be known to readers as the editor of Bicycle Quarterly, which first appeared in the summer of 2002 and quickly established itself as one of the few intelligent cycling magazines.

I learned a lot from this delightful book. I see now that I simply must have another bicycle ... a randonneur. And a proper French one at that. Since all but one of the constructeurs featured are out of business, I guess you know which one it is going to be. Below, Alex Singer (p.55):



I have just one wish to express to M. Praderes and Heine. More! Please, carry on. I would love to see a sequel, possibly covering British, American, and Japanese builders of note. (I have a couple of bikes lined up for you ... call me any time.)


Post Script 2007:

Vol.5, No.4 of Bicycle Quarterly was a 'British issue'. It followed shortly after this review was first published and featured articles on a 1957 MacLean Eclipse, a 1953 Claud Butler Jubilee, a 1951 Flying Scot International, a kaleidoscope of unorthodox frames (Bates, Baines Gate, etc.), Frank Patterson prints, an article on Hetchin's, and much more. Copies available from Vintage Bicycle Press.

cover of BQ


Review of  The Competition Bicycle by the same author.



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