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Words/images: James Startt
(image above is at Bicloune)
So off I went to the Bois de Boulogne, where I like to do laps around a closed bike circuit. To get there, I go down a familiar path, along the city’s internal beltway of sorts. I have ridden this path countless times. So down the long gentle descent I went toward the Porte de Versailles, arriving just as the lights turned green. The traffic accelerated and so did I, knowing the timing of the lights here well. But, as we picked up speed, two pedestrians paying little attention to the traffic signal made their way across the roadway. The car in front of me hit the brakes. I yelled, fully aware that its back windshield had my name on it. At speeds coming off the descent nearing 50 kilometers per hour, there was simply no room to stop, and into the back of the car I went. In what can only be termed a miracle, the driver apparently released his brakes just before I made contact, hence I avoided making contact with a fully stopped vehicle. Instead, as my front wheel hit the rear bumper, I was catapulted on the roof before falling to the ground.
Instantly, the driver got out to see if I was okay, while his partner, along with several other drivers at the scene, offered their best French insults to the pedestrians. And, almost as instantly, four Parisien police officers were on the scene. They managed to get me to a nearby sidewalk where, still stunned, I collected my thoughts while others assessed the situation.
Soon enough I understood that, while a bit traumatized, I somehow managed to escape any serious injury. But my bike? Looking at it propped against a signpost, something did not look right and I feared that the front fork had suffered from the sudden impact.
Now, the bike in question is no ordinary bike. It is certainly not the most expensive by today’s standards, but it has sentimental value. It’s a vintage Team GAN Eddy Merckx MX Leader, perhaps the last great steel frame to grace the professional peloton back in the 1990s. This one was actually the bike of French racer Philippe Gaumont that I inherited from a friend. For doing laps around the park, it is hard to beat.
With obvious damage to the bike and uncertain damage to me, the police insisted that I get the driver’s phone number and that I take the license plate number for any insurance claims.
“What about the pedestrians?” I remember asking the authorities.
“Les piétons, monsieur?” one of the gendarmes responded.
“Oui, les piétons,” the pedestrians that caused the accident, I insisted.
“Oh, they left; you know it is only a four-euro fine for walking through a red light.”
“Yeah, but they left the scene of an accident; what if I’d been maimed?”
Little matter, I soon learned. My recriminations against the “jaywalk and run” offenders were simply met with what the French do so well: a puckering of the lips and a shrug of the shoulders.
Although I was momentarily outraged, assessing the entire situation, I considered myself more than fortunate. But still there was the question of my bike. How would I fix it? Could I fix it?
In the end, it was not seriously damaged, but the front fork was evenly jammed a centimeter behind the head-tube angle. I could still ride it, but I felt like I was on a bike with very compact track geometry. Back in my racing days, of course, a bent front fork was a common occurrence and any number of bike shops would have the equipment and savoir faire to fix it, to bend the steel back into place. But that was back in the day, well before the carbon era. Where today would I find a shop capable of removing the fork and possessing a cast-iron realignment table?
Obviously, Paris has an abundance of bike shops. But to find one that was well-versed in reshaping steel was another question. My first thought was Cycles Laurent, a historic bike shop near the Place de la République. Cycles Laurent has been around much longer than I have. Its founder, Marcel Laurent, was a formidable pro racer between the two World Wars, twice winning the epic 600-kilometer Bordeaux–Paris. I always love stopping by this time capsule when I am in the neighborhood, because it still has the old derny moto that paced Laurent in the final half of that now defunct classic. In some ways, Cycles Laurent is a living museum. Looking for a vintage wool jersey? Look no further.
After calling them up they were encouraging: “Bring it in!” And so I did. I found the clientele as varied as the shop. Hipsters with fixies were lined up alongside husbands and wives looking for an electric commuter bike, while an amateur racer tried on the latest pair of Giro racing shoes.
The staff was more than amiable and intrigued by the vintage Merckx. Inviting me into the basement workshop, no less than three mechanics studied the situation. We discussed various options and they understood the value of this vintage Merckx. We discussed the possibility of replacing it with other forks, even though it would forever change the look of the bike. Finally, in what can only be described as the “if it ain’t (too) broke, don’t fix it” mentality, the staff suggested I just ride it as is. After all the bike did still hold a straight line!
While I understood their reasoning, the bike did not ride the same way. My toes more easily hit the front wheel on a quick turn and I was concerned that there was internal damage that I was not aware of. They did, however suggest that I check out La Bicyclette, a store by the Gare de Lyon train station specializing in vintage bicycles and parts. Worth a try, I thought. So off I went….
Arriving at La Bicyclette on the Rue Crozatier, and seeing wheels and frames from the 1980s and early ’90s, I was immediately hopeful. Lorenzo Savarino, the soft-spoken owner greeted me. “I’ve always been interested in old things. I worked with old cars, old motos and finally bikes,” he said, his arm draped over a vintage blue Gios Torino. “I really love the bike. And trying to find old bikes and old parts I’m rediscovering how these old bikes were made. I especially like old handmade French bikes like René Herse or Charrel. They were really beautiful machines. Going back through the ages you discover how the bike is really the origin of modern transportation.”
Taking stock of my situation, he knew the MX Leader frames well. But he was troubled. “You know we could find that fork in Belgium where Merckxes were built. But it will be hard to find that color since it was a team-issue bike. It might take some time.” We discussed different possibilities, a chrome fork, a carbon fork, or perhaps an MX Leader fork and then painting it. We discussed many options, but there seemed to be no immediate solution. I took his card and we agreed to remain in contact as we would both look for a solution. Leaving the shop, I was resigned to the idea that there was not an immediate solution.
But as I headed home I remembered one other shop in the area: Bicloune. I had bought several Dutch three-speeds there over the years, getting-around-town bikes, but steel just the same. They had recently moved from Boulevard Beaumarchais to Avenue Daumesnil behind the Bastille Opera, and underneath the arches of an old viaduct that now houses different artisans. With its restored brick façade, the new address fit them well.
Stepping inside, I was greeted by Joel François who has worked with Bicloune for the past decade. “We opened in 1982 and we are known for collectors’ bikes,” he said. “Any historical movie set around the World Wars will use our bikes. In addition to our shop here, we have a warehouse and repair shop in the suburbs with a huge stock and an enormous amount of parts.”
Joel took one look at my Merckx and was immediately confident. “Honestly, I think we can fix your fork. Leave it with me. We’ll send it to the repair shop and see what they can do. I think they can very likely pull out the fork, put it on a realignment table and straighten it. Call me in two days.”
“Wow,” I thought with a certain sigh of relief. Maybe it would not be so difficult to salvage my Merckx. Calling back two days later my hopes were confirmed. “Yes, we have it and they were able to straighten it,” Joel said.
Grabbing a bus, I was at Bicloune within the hour. “Here it is,” Joel said. “I think we did a pretty good job. But take a look. Take if for a spin first.”
It looked perfect, and to my amazement, it rode perfectly as well. Returning to the shop, I was only too happy to pay the 35 euros service fee. And with a smile on my face, I rode home. Now, springtime had really come to Paris.
From issue 67. Buy it here.
The unique demands of gravel riding have spawned few innovations... Read more →