Skip to main content full screen background image

Museum Piece

They walk into CyclArt, glance over the display of restored or original vintage bikes & say, "Wow! it's like a museum, in here." They look at their reflection in the finishes of the custom & art bikes & declare, "That's too pretty to ride!"

I've seen bikes we've worked on go in collections never to be ridden again. I don't get it... bikes come in to get restored to original condition, then are put away as if this can never happen again. Road bikes can be maintained indefinitely. Evidence of usage is not unsightly, neglect is. Crash damage makes a good conversation piece. Damaging one's showpiece is painful, but what is life without risk? Make your safe investments in mutual funds; a bicycle is for experiencing the real world. Search out the old parts, send the frame out to refinish when needed, but stop using it? Not me. Not even the ones that DO go to the museum.

My brother, Wayne is beginning his second race season. He rides a Cannondale Super V off road, a 1995 Specialized Allez off dirt. (this was written in 1995),  He lives in Boston, a long way from San Diego. We rarely see each other, but we call. Like the day he described the sound, carnage and the painful compound fracture aftermath of his first serious peleton crash. The remote park access road led down a rocky slope in bright sun, plunging into dark maple woods where roots and water tore at it. Sudden darkness made the surface hard to see. Nine bikes ground pavement after slamming water filled, foot deep wounds in the road. Wayne was uninjured; concerned about those who were and surprised bicycles could generate such a shower of sparks.

One call, after he's given me the full story of his race, Wayne announced he's going to visit. His airline charges $50 for a bike. Wayne says, "Got to ride the road to be ready for the next race." "I'd like to show you a few favorite routes," I say, "Measure your bike, I'll have something ready to go when you arrive... Do you mind an old bike?" "No, just so I get some miles," says Wayne, "I'll bring my shoes and pedals. "

The San Diego Automotive Museum's annual motorcycle and bicycle show was ending the day Wayne arrived and he helped me pick-up the bikes had I had lent them. "Here's your ride". I said lifting the 1951 Frejus Tour d' France up to Wayne in the truck. "You're not kidding?" he sputtered. A gift from a retired racer, I'd really enjoyed riding it, and it was just Wayne's size. All original; Champagne colored frame with blood red accents, intricate decals and metal nameplate between the lugs. A square shouldered, chrome fork crown behind "MAFAC Dural Forge" brakes. "Ideale" leather saddle, with sew-up tires cinched to its belly. Slender, steel, cottered "Stronglight" cranks turning "TA" rings that look like old movie reels. "FB" high flange hubs and soldered spokes. "Simplex Tour d France" rear derailleur, a prewar French design, by 1951, even the Italians would use it. Four cogs on the freewheel. Cloth tape on the bars. Aluminum water bottle up front with a real cork. The "Simplex Competition" front derailleur sans cable, its lever is directly on the seat tube. Things sure have changed.

Back at the shop, I spun the toeclip and leather strapped pedals off and handed them to Wayne as he handed me his clipless ones. He looked puzzled. "How can these be so much lighter than mine? I got the magnesium model!" He exclaimed, "I guess there's weight in the latch, not to mention those big cleats." looking at his shoes. "I thought you'd want to use your own shoes and pedals" I said, teasing a bit now, "I have a pair of shoes that came with the bike, they might fit, and they're lighter too." Wayne backed away, concerned now. "Ohhh, no..."
The bike was... interesting, but he sure did not want his feet strapped to it. With a simple turn of the ankle, snap in pedals had forever banished the embarrassment of forgetting to loosen a toestrap by hand before stopping. I slipped into big brother mode, and said, "I'm putting on your pedals. You'll be busy enough figuring out the derailleurs. The front derailleur is easy; just slap it to the left for the big ring, to the right for the small. Have you used down tube shifters?" "Of course, my old junker even has non-indexed ones." Wayne had found something familiar. I said, "It's hard to break the habit of downtube shifting the rear derailleur forward for speed, back for climbing, this one is opposite... You'll like this bike, really, it feels great!" Wayne looked doubtful, "What are you riding?" "One of the other bikes from the Museum, the 1960 Carlton International," I nodded toward the bike with flowery chromed lugs and huge fork rake.

So, I had him practice shifting on a windtrainer for a few minutes and confirmed the fit. Little brother had grown up. He looked good on a bike, even a 45-year-old bike with 6-month-old pedals. "What does this thing weigh?" he asked. I shrugged, "Don't know, what does your race bike weigh?" Wayne stepped off, "21 pounds, but this fits OK. Let's go. " I released the trainer, mounted the front wheel and stopped at the UPS scale on the way out of the shop. "21 pounds" Wayne grinned. Some things never change.

Ten miles out, I asked, "Any problems?" Wayne said, "None. Shifts easier than I expected... Brakes take allot of pressure, but they stop OK. The bike feels... umm... comfortable but fast, lively but stable... Really like it... I mean I wouldn't race it... not enough gears... but... it's great." I nodded, "There's nothing like riding a fine old bike to develop a healthy skepticism toward throwing money at new equipment. "

Twenty miles out we were sprinting for signs. He blew ahead each time then sat up to let me rejoin. It was great to see him go. The fifth sprint was just over a twisting climb 300 meters down the long descent on the other side. Nearing the top, I dropped back, shifted my 1960 Campy Record (silently) and used the element of surprise. I attacked over the top forcing Wayne to jump from the casual climbing pace we'd been doing and to make at least two (slow) shifts before the sign. At least he'd have to work for this one. It was close, a euphoric side-by-side rush to the line at full speed. I think he got it by a tire. Wayne rolled ahead, grinning, one hand on the bar, the other holding a silver alloy bottle. Graceful, flexible, a dancer, still and poised at 45 miles per hour. Standing out of the saddle on one foot, turning back to say something, blonde hair blowing toward his chin. That's when it happened; SNAP! A pedal released, and there was a shower of sparks.

Jim Cunningham is the founder of CyclArt, North County Cycle Club and the now defunct Vintage Bicycle Association. He does not ride much anymore, but if you ask you maybe able to get him on a bike and he will let you borrow the Frejus.  all him at 760-599-1016.