By Jan Heine & Jean-Pierre Pradères
Vintage Bicycle Press
Reviewed By Bill Bryant
One of the nice developments in the American randonneuring scene in recent years has been the arrival of Jan Heine's Vintage Bicycle Quarterly. As the title suggests, it encompasses a wide range of old bicycles, riders, and events, but Heine's passion for randonneuring gives a strong emphasis on our favorite kind of cycling too. There have been many useful and interesting topics in VBQ the modern randonneur will want to read about, such as articles on generator lighting, fenders and touring bicycle steering geometry. Now comes a fine new book from Heine that is sure to become a favorite of VBQ readers and other randonneurs. The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles is a rich compendium of French touring bicycles, many of which were used by our elders during the halcyon days of the French randonneuring scene in the middle part of the 20th century. The book displays 50 classic bikes in detail; the photography by Jean-Pierre Pradères is quite good and compliments Heine's commentary well.
The book has three main sections. "The Formative Years 1910-1939" shows some of the earliest touring bicycles, and how the technology evolved in those years. Some standouts are one of Vélocio's La Gauloise "Bi-Chaîne" bikes from 1909-1910, an interesting attempt at multiple gearing before derailleur technology took over, and three different Reyhand randonneur machines from the 1930s. "The Classic Age 1940-1959" includes wonderful bicycles a contemporary rider wouldn't mind using. Some of the craftsmanship on these bikes is exquisite; unlike most racing bikes of the time which tended to be a little more crude, these touring rigs were among the very best bicycles of their day. The various bicycles and tandems presented here by Alex Singer, René Herse, André Maury, Louis Pitard—among others—are simply outstanding. "The Tradition Continues 1960-2005" shows how the basic form established in the previous era stabilized and gradual refinement continued into our times. This was, alas, also the end of an era. Many of the master builders either retired or went out of business. The book takes a loving look at the workshop of the sole survivor, Cycles Alex Singer, run by Ernest Csuka and his son Oliver. This section also has a very special Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle worth seeing: One of the two René Herse machines that arrived back in Paris first after a little over 44 hours is here. To view Maurice Macaudière's 1966 PBP bike in such detail is a real treat. All in all, the 50 different touring, randonneuring, tandem and work bicycles shown in The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles are a feast for the eyes and the intellect.
Contemporary riders raised on a steady diet of nothing but Treks, Cannondales, Litespeeds, and the like might not find these old machines interesting, but this book is, in my opinion, worth a look nonetheless. Randonneurs in the modern era still need racks and bags for carrying some extra clothes, lights for night riding, and fenders for enduring wet weather. These machines were designed to do all those things from the start; they weren't afterthoughts bolted onto racing bikes, as is the unfortunate custom these days. And even if the reader isn't inclined to emulate an older randonneuring machine, woven throughout the narrative accompanying the photos is a solid portrait of the French cycling scene that our sport came of age in. Randonneuring has been around as long as the bicycle itself, but many of the regulations and practices we still ride by today were formed in the decades the bikes of the 1940s & 50s personify. When randonneurs take the road on a brevet in 2005, a rider from 50 or 60 years ago would instantly recognize the format of the event and the reasons why we do it. This book gives a wonderful visual portrait of the machines of that bygone era as well as some action shots of brevets and tours of the time with some of the people who did them. So, when someone reads The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, they are seeing the origins of our sport too. I found it comforting that whatever sporting challenges we face on brevets today, they have been faced—and overcome—in the past too.
Overall, this is a fine book and I have few complaints about it. Probably not a fault of the photographer but more that of the printer, some of the color photographs seem a little washed out or off-tone and that is a disappointment. But that shouldn't detract from what The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles offers us. Here modern readers can see the types of bicycles that formed the sport of randonneuring and that is worth a lot. Jan Heine ably reminds us that our elders pursued randonneuring with the same passion and determination that we do, and that we carry on a wonderful cycling tradition. At $60 it is not an inexpensive book, but this randonneur found it well worth the price and has gotten many happy hours from reading it. In addition, anyone contemplating ordering a custom randonneuring bicycle would do well to loan a copy to his or her framebuilder; some of the features on these classic machines are timeless.