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Book Review: The Golden Age Of Handbuilt Bicycles by Jan Heine

Posted Jan 22 2009 5:32pm

goldenagehbbikes Summary: Lovingly photographed and well written,  The Golden Age Of Handbuilt Bicycles by Jan Heine will satisfy the velo-Francofile and handbuilt framebuilders in every way but may be of limited appeal to general cyclists.

Rating: 3.5/5

Price: $60

Availability: Order directly from Vintage Bicycle Press or purchase at finer local bike shops

Jan Heine, the editor of Bicycle Quarterly (formerly Vintage Bicycle Quarterly ), has done more than any person other than Rivendell’s Grant Petersen to resurrect the touring bicycle in all its original glory. I’m not talking about some aluminum road bike with racks thrown on it. I mean real honest to good touring bikes, bikes designed from their inception to be ridden with loaded bags in all types of weather on the road less traveled.

So it is with this background passion that Heine teamed up with photographer Jean-Pierre Pradéres under the Vintage Bicycle Press label to produce  The Golden Age Of Handbuilt Bicycles, his tribute to the best hand made French tour bikes, or randonneurs, from the early 20th century to today. These bikes are lovely to look at but first a little background on these bikes’ significance in the development of the bicycle.

Now days, cyclists are used to all the innovation in cycling products coming from professional racers. Pro teams have contracts with big bicycle manufacturers (and their R&D departments) where new, bleeding edge technology in components and frames are designed and tested which then eventually trickle down to the humble consumer. It was not always this way. In fact, for the first half of this century innovation came from cyclotourists, not racers. Roads were bad and race organizers unsympathetic (Tour de France founder, Henri Desgrange, did not allow derailleurs in the Tour until 1937.) Racers had to use bullet proof technology or risk loss, so innovation was not encouraged.

goldenagehbbikesinside Instead, cyclotourists pushed the boundaries because when you are cycling for fun, you want to climb mountains with ease and have dependable breaks when you descend. To encourage new product development, French cyclotourists established a set of technical trials, long distance amateur races where all the bikes had to carry luggage and lights and support vehicles with replacement bikes were not allowed. In response to these races, innovations such as cantilever breaks and the modern derailleur were produced. In addition, a whole crop of custom framebuilders, called constructeurs, emerged to build light weight, reliable touring bikes all to meet the challenge. So competitive were these constructeurs that they often fabricated their own brakes and drive train components when commercially available products weren’t up to snuff. The constructeurs reached their pinnacle in post World War II France, sandwiched between the return of prosperity and the arrival of the automobile as transportation for the masses. From the late 40s to mid 50s, a bike built by builders like Alex Singer or René Herse were real status symbols.

singercsukadetail The results were incredibly high quality, light bikes that are beautiful even 60 years later. In  The Golden Age Of Handbuilt Bicycles, Heine chooses 50 French touring bikes that are representative of the different offerings, styles (including tandems), and product advances. Pradéres photography is exquisite partnered with Heine’s detailed accounting of each bike and its place in cycling history. Highlights include a 1947 René Herse that weighed in at 17.4 pounds with rack, lights, and fenders (eat that, carbon fiber!), a 1946 Herse tandem that raced the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris to come in first place in the mixed gender tandem category, and 1951 aluminum Caminargent with Allen bolt impregnated lugs that allowed you to completely take the bike apart, tube by tube. I love that fact that all of these bikes could be competitively raced one day and used to commute to work or go camping the next. There is a certain mix of utility and performance missing from most of today’s offerings. 

As an aspiring framebuilder and transportation bike connoisseur, I really enjoyed this book and appreciate that someone out there has taken the time to round up these wonderful bikes and record them for posterity. Much like Betamax and Macintosh, you realize that not always the best technologies get adopted by the mass marketers, and I think cyclists benefit by looking back at the solutions developed in the past instead of just accepting today’s offerings at face value.

While I enjoyed  The Golden Age Of Handbuilt Bicycles, I am not without some criticisms. First, Heine chose to cover 50 bikes which seems an arbitrary number and is an awful lot for the length of this book. The high number means we only see three or four pictures of each bike, sometimes missing any close-up pictures at all. This is especially irritating when Heine mentions some distinguishing detail about a bike but there is not a good close-up of that detail. Also with this many similarly designed bikes that often have only subtle differences between them, it feels like this is more a collection of the author’s favorite bikes than a history of the evolution in production. I wold have preferred about half the number of bikes and twice the close-ups of each.

My other critique and the main reason this book did not get at least 4 out of 5 in my rating is its limited appeal to the general cycling public. Unless you are a bicycle framebuilder or lover of French touring bikes, you will probably find this book of only passing interest, certainly not interesting enough to pay $60. Indeed, I had to order the book directly from Vintage Bicycle Press as none of the bookstores in Austin carried it, even as a special order. (Please note that I do not find the price unreasonable considering its high quality and undoubtedly relatively short print run.) While I don’t think this would be a bad gift for any bike geek, those willing to pay the price and jump through the hoops to get it will be limited.

Still, if you think “steel is real” and your cycling wardrobe has more wool than spandex, this may be the book for you.

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