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Why am I Doing THIS?!?!?!: Concours de Machines 2019
Randonneur Bike 2019 Concours de Machines
What is a ‘Randonneur’ Bike?
And how do you make one?
The damn thing went into emergency mode…again. That should teach me right. Relying on something inherently made to be a gadget rather than a tool. I took my glove off and cupped my hand over the cold metal to warm it up to (working temperature???) yet again. It was near freezing and the second (third?? who the f*** knew) night of the 2019 Paris-Brest-Paris with my battery powered lights doing what all electronics do in the extreme cold – refuse to work…
It was not just the cold, or the 30min of total sleep for the last 2 days and the sporadic sleep and the unrelenting clock in my workshop, or the hunger or those friggin endless damn stupid neverending Brittany hills. It was all of it and the once little demons in my head were full blown monsters causing me to cry and sob (sometimes literally!) and ask Why the FU** am i doing this?
Let’s rewind a bit
This is how the bike I was supposed to be riding looked at 9am in the morning the day before the 2019 Paris-Brest-Paris. Notice the mess of a workshop around it. Frustration, panic or genius, i’ll let yo decide after you have read the following paragrahs.
Let’s rewind a bit more.
I had to build a bike, that must be (successfully) ridden across the 1200+km from Paris to Brest and back.
Let’s rewind again
I had to qualify (or find somebody willing to go though their own variation all that i already just mentioned at the very beginning….Brittany hills make large men cry like little girls….ask me how i know)
In addition riding sanctioned 200, 300, 400, 600km events AND then build a randonneur bike and ride said bike as part of the 2019 Concours de Machines.
Ok let’ really rewind..to where it all started.
The best bikes you’ve never heard of. The cyclotourism or randonneur bikes of the many French constructeurs such as Rene Herse, Nicolas Barra and others you never knew existed.
What is so special about them (randonneur bikes) and if they are so good?
Why isn’t everybody riding one of them…
Well so I read it on the internet, a guy named Jan Heine has been publishing a Magazine called Bicycle Quarterly which in a way is going into places (pun intended) where the mainstream (cycling media/industry) choses to consistently ignore (I pass no judgement here..i really don’t). One of those places is the great French cycling boom.
Obviously, I am just giving you the VERY abridged version…Long before cars were bumper to bumper, the bicycle was made to order rather being a stock keeping unit in the local supermarket; the true expression of freedom was to explore the countryside on two wheels. While the Tour de France and the like at the time could make any ‘gravel’ cycling enthusiast jealous, they still rode fixed gears – yes all those wall looking climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees were done with ONE gear. Everybody had the same handicap so if you had to walk, most likely so did your opponents. Racing cyclists never were the most progressive types and if ever there was somebody opposing change (gears, derailleurs???!?!? what is this sorcery?) racing cyclists were at the forefront of it.
Well none of those ego driven things were standing in the way of the guy who wanted to ride in comfort (and actually descend being able to brake on the other side, but that is a whole another story) across various terrains, being able to ride day and night, in all weather conditions, carry food, water, possibly shelter. And this is how cyclotouring was born. Being the competitive monkeys that we all are, we decided to test each other in organised events, now known as Brevets (de randonneurs mondial) BRMs or audaxes in the UK with the crown jewel being (probably the oldest organised cycling event) the 1200 km Paris-Brest-Paris.
Competition was not limited to just riding but also into innovation and various Technical Trials (Concours de Machines) were organised where innovative features such as lightweight aluminum parts etc. were used. Unlike your typical bike show where it is just an exhibition (akin to an art show) the bikes had to also be successfully ridden over some distances (over predominately gravel roads, mountain passes, etc) and/or challenging events (Paris Brest Paris on some occasions as well) and survive without defects otherwise they lost points. While I am sure France and the french builders or constructeurs were not alone in the world of hand-built bicycles at those times. There are two things that struck me as quite specific for the French constructeur era.
- Total integrations and customisation: The bikes just looked like one piece with everything fitting nicely, quite often made specifically to fit that one bike – parts such as racks, light, fenders all fit seamlessly. Granted, bike components and accessories were not as plentiful as they are nowadays, internal cable routing is about the ‘peak’ of integration we see nowadays. Just look at a Rene Herse bike from the 70s and you will see what I mean.
- Low trail/front loaded geometry. Horse for courses as they say and this is something that in my opinion evolved out of necessity. How do you have a bike for touring and have it not beat you up and ride nicely? The answer was (is?) low trail geometry or low wheel flop front end which in simple terms is the exact opposite of a twitchy bike (pretty much 99.9% of bikes sold/made today)
- While not the most important a lot of those bikes were around the 9-10kg mark with ALL equipment (lights, fenders, rack) which is nearly as impressive since a bare road bike today easily weighs in the same range! That was *before* carbon fiber, titanium and the like became available to the garage workshop dwelling likes of me.
For many resason, historical and social the so called Technical trials disappeared and were recently reborn in 2016 by some French frameubilders. After a number of succesful editions the 2019 Concours de Machiens was supposed to take to the holy grounds of Cyclotourimse – the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris.
And we come to how it all started for ME.
This was too good to be true. and right next door to me!!!! As an aspiring framebuidler myself, having the opportunity to participate into something that continues a decades old traditionwas too good to miss. So I signed up for the 2019 Concours de Machines. Now I had to make a bike to meet all the requirements (my own translation and commentary from French:
- The bike should carry the esthetics and pay homage to the esthetics of the history of the event
- The 2015 edition left many riders with tingligng fingers (aka peripheral neuropathy my note). You need to come up with a solution to avoid that problem
- The cockpit is free of cables and it takes no time to change a cable, charge a GPS, light etc.
- The Brevet card (for stamping at controls) is easily accessible and protected from the rain
- Similarly the food is stored in such a way that it ca be accesesd while riding WITHOUT risk of crashing
- The bike can carry small camping kit (for sleeping on the side of the road)
- The bike has lights that fit the rules of the event (NO blinking) and that they can be switched/intensity adjsuted without stopping and getting off the bike
- The rear wheel can be easily removed for repairing a flat
- The bike protects other participants from road debris (read fenders=))
- The bike is detachable/foldable and can fit in the trunk of a compact car.
While an unwritten rule, the weight of the bike was certainly a point and by seeing the 9,1kg J.P Weigle bike from the 2017 Concours de Machines I set a goal for myself. That bike was basically a vintage bike reborn today so while it does tickle the vintage lover crowd – it is still a steel bike with (replica) vintage components – you can’t tell me that nowadays when we are talking about space tourism we can’t make anything better or at the very least lighter – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.
My rules to add to the above as well
NO NOS/Vintage parts
Call me vintage averse, though chrome and shiny has moved on. And I do not believe “They don’t make them like they used to.” At least not for things bike. That one set of NOS shiny parts saved for generations to be on that ONE bike have their place, though my goal was to make something that you can get readily available from stock.
Sub 9.1kg Fully Equipped
The JP Weigle above was lauded over and over ad nauseum how lightweight it was, so while it is easy talking smack, this IS the internet after all, can I actually do better – I was fully convinced I could do better!
NO drillium/gutting of levers, chopping parts, etc all stock or made to order.
I never like the drilled out look, maybe ‘back in the day’ that was thing, nowadays there are plenty of ways to avoid that with what is available off the shelf without spending precious hours (or your teeth) drilling out (a touch too far) material.
So on to making the bike.
Steel is Real…..Heavy
While builders will argue until foaming in the mouth and will go down with the ship, and die on the hill yelling that Steel is real… yes it is real….heavy. Yes there a paper thin tubing that has ‘magical’ qualities though even so it is still heavier than the equivalent titanium or aluminum frame. It is no secret I am a huge fan of building with 7005 aluminum so that kinda decided it. The frame will be made from aluminum.
Also the whole low trail geometry thing made sense to me and intrigued me quite a bit so while keeping with Rule#1 i decided to go ahead and base the bike on what Alex Singer has been doing. Notably something in the low 40mm trail figure, front or rando rack. So that lead to…
To get the low-geometry I needed to make a custom steel fork, any stock/lightweight/carbon options do not fit any of the criteria.
However here is a twist that I blatantly copied from the aforementioned 2017 J.P. Weigle Bike which was copied from other French bikes. Thats how things go…at least i am honest about it.=)
Vitnage bike used threaded headsets. The fork steerer or column was threaded and that was used to tighten the two headset bearings together. The stem was inserted inside. The steerer tube was not empty. How is that important – stay with me here…
Modern headsets dispose of the threads and as such are called threadless. The sterer tube is largely empty except for a star nut which is used to prelaoad the headset bearings.
Still with me?
The stem cap is the perfect place to put a button or a switch to control your lights (Rule #7). So if you combine both systems you can accomplish that. Hold your fork in the frame and have the steerer tube avaialble to run wires for switches etc.
So far, nothing new, just a copy of the vintage. I agree.
And here is something that I had been wanting to get and was ‘forced’ to while doing the PBP qualifying events.
I can still remember shifting down to my lowest gear 170km into the 300 BRM and hearing the snap. My rear derailleur cable broke leaving me with two gears (by using the front derailleur). It was a sunny day, over VERY rolling terrain (which I later discovered was the first part of PBP). As I passed the various villages I could see people milling around their gardens. I am sure If I had asked, they would have been willing to help, however, the simple gear cable is not something you would find in the average house.
While huffing and puffing on a hill I had an enlightenment moment – If i had had electronic gears with a dead battery, almost everybody at home has a 5V wall charger (for smartphones, etc) so for a 15min stop I would have been on my way.
In my head and among the internet ‘experts,’ batteries were not reliable, well neither are cables when they break and unlike on previous occasions (when my gears became ‘sticky’ I had no warning that the cable was failing. Visual inspection was not possible since it is hidden behind a cover (that requires 3 tiny screws to remove) Later on as I was replacing the cable it was a real surgery to get it all out of the shifter and not something I would have been able to do in the field even if i have had a spare cable. So that decided it – Di2 it will be!
IIn addition the Di2 rim brake levers are probably the lightest levers out here since the electronics do not weigh as much as the shifting mechanism so that decided my next piece of the puzzle
While the whole disc vs rim brake thing is something that people with a lot of free time on their hands will argue time after time… the reality is that in 2018-19 a rim brake bike was lighter by usually 500g and when having lightweight as a top priority, disc brakes did not figure in it. I decided on cantilever brakes since they are readily available and unlike centerpull brakes where each model has its OWN standard, they are also the lightest brake system out there that takes large tires and fenders.
Here I ran into a HUGE roadblock. While there are some really well designed headlights that utilise the same technology as the ones on your car, when it came to taillights I hit the same roadblock when i ordered my first touring bike many years ago. Rear lights were either:
- Ungodly ugly plastic mess or
- Battery powered or
- Required a massive rack to mount on or
- All three at once.
So for this project I initially ended up making a light which was still quite heavy (100+g) and quite bulky and in retrospective not very bright, also not terribly efficient. It used the electronics from the Dutch Vanmoof bike. Well even so, I wasn’t so satisfied so I ended up teaching myself (basic) electronics, ECAD (Kicad) software and ultimately, coming up with my own design which uses a LED specific circuit, dedicated LED optics and is lightweight (~25g!!!!) and matches aesthetically with the bike. The best Dynamo LED rear light money can buy!
In addition I designed a MOSFET (read extremely efficient at low speeds) triple LED front light with a standlight (single LED). Ii also came out MUCH lighter than stock options, another added bonus.
From previous editions of the Concours de Machines, I noticed that a lot of the bikes did not use the ubiquitous hub dynamo/generator hub but rather a tiny rim dynamo. Granted my rim/bottle dynamo experience is that same as everybody’s – heavy and draggy, so I was I was intrigued.
Apparently a German company called Velogical has remade the bottle dynamo and it weighs just a mere 75g!!!! (so ~300g savings compared to a hub dynamo) and they sell three models and unlike other manufacturers they actually publish their electrical data! In addition it was much cheaper (almost 2.5 times less) and would not require me building a new wheel so all in all a massive win – I was sold. I opted for the Special (Blue) version which can put out a massive ~17W at 40kph which is hands down the most powerful dynamo out there is I could run a charger and lights at the same time. An added bonus is that i could integrate it neatly into the frame.
Circling back to where this article started
All in all projects are never finished, just abandoned.
Every framebuilder (hobbyist or professional) should build at least one truly integrated randonneur bike in their lifetime, even if the challenge proves painful and they never ever want to hear about this type of bike again. In my humble opinion, in the end the many hair pulling solutions were all worth it for a truly amazing bike
Going back to it…the most important lesson I learned is that
Finished is better than perfect
All the rules made up for a very ambitious project that I could not finish on time.
I wanted to ‘craft’ every little detail (in the limited time I had) and as the final weeks before the deadline (Paris-Brest-Paris 2019), the stress increased exponentially and I almost didn’t sleep. The final two weeks were spent in massive panic and until the very last minutes I still thought I could complete the bike on time.
Most importantly, I learned an important lesson that to finish first, first you must be at the starting line. I ended up bringing it semi finished bike with a bag of parts to the jury and on a positive it was the lightest bike….that no one heard about.
The next day, I ended up riding the 2019 Paris-Brest-Paris on my road bike fighting the sleep deprivation and fatigue demons for 86hours and 13minutes (therefore successfully finishing below 90h). I cried, cursed and cried again wanting to just pull on the side of the road and….sleep….
Shortly afterwards the world shutdown (Covid 19 pandemic) and the semi finished project remained on the back burner, some parts got sold, others got improved or replaced, so it was about time to ‘abandon’ it at 9,22kg. I technically met and surpassed the 9.1kg goal since I sold the ultralightweight (160g!!! vs 330+g one I have now) SRAM Red cassette and for the actual Concours de Machines 2019 I was planning on using a different (about 200g lighter) wheelset.
It is beyond words how much difference a dedicated rando/lowtrail bike makes as compared to just a ‘big tyre road bike.’
- Frame: Purple Dog Custom Randonneur, 7005 aluminum with custom dropouts
- Fork: Purple Dog Custom, Steel , Low trail, Pacenti Paris-Brest-Paris crown
- Headset: Chris King 1 inch threaded
- Stem+decaleur: Purple Dog Custom
- Front Rack: Purple Dog Custom CrMo
- Brakes: TRP EuroX cantilever
- Handlebars: PRO PLT Alloy Compact drop
- Seatpost: Easton EC 90 carbon painted to match
- Saddle: SMP Forma Carbon
- Groupset: Shimano Ultegra r8050 Di2
- Crankset: Shimano Ultegra r8000 50/34
- Bottom bracket: Chris King Threadfit
- Cassette: Shimano 105 custom assembled (14/32)
- Wheelset: Handbuilt custom (see below)
- Tires: Grand Bois 30mm Extra Leger
- Quick Release: KCNC stainless
- Luggage: Custom Randonneur bag
- Fenders: Honjo Hammered 38mm silver
- Front Light: Purple Dog Custom Triple LED
- Rear Light: Purple Dog Custom – ‘The Poppy’
- Pump: Zefal HPX
- Bell: Spurcycle
- Weight: 9.22kg as pictured (no bag)
In house made. Latte mentha (a Fiat 500 color) with Pantone Purple painted logos and highlights.
- Mavic Open Sport rims 32f/36r – 700c
- DT Swiss Revolution/Competition spokes
- Brass nipples
- Chris King Classic hubs in pink/stainless steel driveshell
This is not the wheelset I was going to actually use for the Concours de Machines, however, I ended up rebuilding the Chris King Classic pink hubset on their third!!! set of rims. The rear hub has a stainless steel driveshell (50g heavier) as compared to an alloy one that gets eventually chewed up by the cassette cogs. It was an opportunity to try some new things, notably black spokes that really matched the aesthetic of the bike giving it a modern touch as well as using the very thin and lightweight DT Revolution spokes for the front wheel and non-drive side of the rear. The thin spokes even at 32 front and 36 rear shaved a LOT fo weight and made for a quite lightweight, yet very durable wheelset which is something you want to have when you are not chasing every gram saved.
It is Not all Sunshine and Rainbows…
No project is ever perfect so what is imperfect about my Randonneur V1?
BIG thigns to change
As the eternal 6th in the Bulgarian national championships , I am well aware of the value that aerobars have as far as aerodynamic efficiency (ie going faster (1-2km on average) for the same effort.. On top of that they give you an extra hand position (my 6month post PBP numb and tingling fingers was not an experience i want to repeat…ever). For the 2019 edition of Paris-Brest-Paris the organizer (Audax Club Parisien) allowed aerobars, albeit short ones, though it was a a successful experiment so I can reasonably hope they will reappear, even so aerobars are a staple in distance riding. I always thought clip on aerobars were butt ugly so sticking the on a highly integrated bike would be even worse so this is something I will definitely improve in V2.
FULLY integrated dynamo wiring.
I don’t mean the cable to run in the least obstructive way and inconspicuously entering the frame. I mean REALLY having no wires sticking out. Impossible says you…Well this was an idea made practical by the late Rene Herse that used a copper ring glued on the fork steerer and a contact brush. The (metal) frame of the bicycle served as the other. While the fork does have the copper ring for some reason the epoxy did not insulate it from the fork. I had it come unglued once (i think i broke a couple of perfectly good lathe tools as well) and it required some shall i say creative setup on the lathe..and it didn’t work. Third time is (will be) the charm? I have not given up on making this work.
For now i am left with the ‘industry/framebuilder standard’ of internal dynamo routing of the cable entering the downtube behind the fork.
One of the requirements did state that the bike had to be able to fit in the trunk of a small car. I was planning on doing the so-called Rinko modifications that allow the fenders to split, the fork headset to be released by hand for fork removal.
Rinko as it sounds you can imagine originates in Japan. That makes for two things:
- Your bike should be small and unobtrusive to fellow (train) passengers. This is very Japanese
- Japanese people are of much smaler stature (i know that since i have visited Japan). Small frames are even smaller when compacted so it is a win-win. In my case the frame is quite large so without some kind of frame ‘coupler’ or folding option, in addition to the detachable fenders is in order.
Currently as the bike is it has zero compactability mods (I REALLY wanted to finish it), which bothers me as I try to load it inside my car, let alone trying to use multi-modal transportation (train, bus, etc).
Medium Things That Bother Me
While mostly fixed by using hard brake pads, lots of toe-in and the headset bedding in, the front shudder and squeal under prolonged braking is a MAJOR pain in the ass. It all is a ‘feature’ of cantilever brakes apparently. Of course i found it post factum. The flexible fork makes it worse – when you apply the brakes and the fork flexes it pulls the exposed brake cable from the cable hanger tighter. Sometimes has to give – me over the bars or the pads releasing and biting many times per second = squeal and shudder. The solution is either a fork mounted cable hanger or stiffer fork. Neither would work with a front rack, etc so I am almost certain for V2 I will go to my trusty dual caliper medium reach brakes BR-650.
I like the current fender tyre combo; I am not looking for squeezing anything larger than 32mm tyre/40mm fender. There are centerpull brakes though each model has its OWN unique mounting standards so not going down that road. Disc brakes are reserved for a completely different project=) so the above is just to my rim brake rando bike.
Rando bag/Decaleur combination
Bike weight for the Concours de Machines was going to be WITH (empty) bags which undoubtedly caused some real custom and high end fabric designed bags. I chose the classic front randonneur bag made out of run of the mill ripstop nylon. While lightweight (~150g), it is a bit too fine for any kind of hardware; surprisingly a simple sewn in button worked wonders.
The handlebar bag attachment or decaleur as it widely known is a thing of custom design in itself with millions of possibilities. While very practical and functional my solution lacks a quick release possibility so taking the bag on and off the bike involves unscrewing the two custom bronze nuts. In addition you need to unhook the closing straps to do that
While nice and ‘classic’ there are nowadays solutions sans decaleur…V2 will for sure improve in that department. To follow.
As it is setup now the wiring is double since it is setup for lights AND a dynamo powered charger. Without going into too much detail about future projects, having the lights and charger integrated into one will make the wiring MUCH simpler and even neater.
The bike is Di2 or wireless gear compatible ONLY. The fact that I like Di2 a LOT and that it is quite expensive, means I will move the parts to future projects, which means it will render the current bike to wall ornament status. So something for V2 is dual compatibility for mechanical and electronic gears.
The Fork/TT combo
The flexible fork is REALLY nice to ride, though for some reason the combination of the extremely lightweight scandium top tube, the 1in steerer causes the bike to ‘oscillate’ when ridden no hands over bumps. It is not what is referred to as shimmy since it doesn’t get worse past a certain point and even a small touch on the handlebars cures it, though it is something I will try to avoid. After all I am bigger than average so i might have to change the front end to suit and use a regular ‘gauge’ top tube.
BSA Bottom Bracket
While the lightest and most sane choice in terms of avalable components out there, the BSA bracket is a tight fit for all the Di2 and light cables, not to mention the extra filling i had to do on ALL tubes in order to clear the BIG weld beads that are typical for aluminum.
T47 threaded bottom bracket might add ~50g extra, it would save me hours of filling, checking, and fitting.
Pump Peg Misalignment
The pump peg is couple of millimeters too low so the pump does not sit perfeclt parallel to the top tube. Nitpicking and you wouldn’t know unless I told you
Chain Hanger Misalignment
The chain hanger is a bit too low (on my other bikes it is fine) so it does not really ‘pull the chain taut’ when the wheel is out so it kinda of defeats the purpose of having it there, though the wheel will be out of the bike 0.000001% of the time so no big deal.
Mild Steel Dropouts.
Kinda like above, as you fix a flat tyre, tighten the quick release the paint will eventually wear out. Even though the epoxy primer I used is quite tough, the bare metal will eventually get exposed and start rusting. Stainless steel dropouts would be a solution for this.
The tubes I chose are much closer to the sweet/nice riding/planing spot, rather than not. I can probably go a size under the 42mm downtube (40mm). The rear end is plain gauge (read heavy). This was what I could get when i was building the bike, nowadays I have sources for much lighter weight butted chain and seatstays that can (potentially) add more nice characteristics to the ride and save ~100g off the frame.
Di2 Holes Drilled Wrong
Somehow I put the cable exit holes for each wire on the *opposite* side of where they should be. Maybe I was looking at the previous generation Di2, (quote) possibly I was (very) sleep deprived. In any case the difference is just cosmetic if that though since this is a ‘no detail is small enough type of bike,’ this is bothersome.
All in all we get to the point again
Projects are never finished, just abandoned.
With all that being said I consider this project finally ‘abandoned’ 1.5years after it was ‘supposed to be ready.’ I am lucky to have the tools (and now) largely (improved) knowledge on how to do things better. It is infinitely easier to start from scratch, rather than try to duct-tape an Old design. Version 2 is already in the making (at the very least in my head). As usual it will appear on this website and my YouTube channel of course.
Thank you for reading and I hope to see you back on those pages again.
Additional High Resolution photos can be found on my Flickr page HERE
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