A couple weeks ago Diane and I took a road-trip to Connecticut for Peter Weigle’s French Fender Day event, where I could rub shoulders with other appreciators of fine classic bicycles, and The Outspoken Cyclist would interview a string of guests for her show. Peter and Diane wanted my commentary included in her coverage ( Show #476 ), so Diane and I just finished our chat, which she has recorded and edited for your entertainment.
The whole trip, for me, was full of significance I haven’t felt prepared to discuss coherently, so I struggled with her questions, hearing each one as if I had twenty possible ways to respond, instantly choosing five answers simultaneously in my brain, and so then expressing gibberish, or confused silence. Diane’s own enthusiasm and brilliant editing help tremendously (trust me, I would be far worse without), but I still felt my segment failed to do the event justice.
What is French Fender Day?
To me French Fender Day is a celebration… A gathering of like-minded folks who share similar appreciation of what we at Hubbub like to call “A Proper Bike.” Not all the bikes are French, strictly speaking, although most pay respects to France’s contributions to bicycle design, including the not-so-new 650b tire size. Not all bikes there have fenders either, but most do, and nearly all are designed for an elegant fender installation.
I tend to over-use car analogies, but it usually works, so I’m gonna do it again…
French Fender Day is sorta’ like a bunch of classic car collectors getting together to show off their projects, ranging from century-old rust buckets, to restorations, to current masterpieces, perhaps a trade or transaction here and there; even going out for a countryside cruise together. It’s about exchanging stories, ideas, and history details. There is however one difference from classic car shows, that’s critical in my view, to the spirit of French Fender Day…
Even the most fervent car collector must acknowledge the superiority of modern automobiles. I personally like many body styles from the 50’s thru 70’s, even some in the 80’s, and I grew up enjoying the fact we could literally climb under the hood and sit next to a motor to replace valve seals, but… Let’s face it, the differences in comfort, reliability, longevity, safety, efficiency, and even value between cars then and now are astounding. There is no comparison. Many modern cars can go well over a hundred thousand miles with little more than oil changes, new tires and brakes. Not long ago that was unimaginable, certainly in the Midwest and Northeast. When I was a kid, head-on collisions nearly always resulted in a death, and now occupants often walk away with a sprain and bruises.
Today’s bicycles too are technological marvels. So much carbon fiber, electronic gadgetry and disc brakes, lighter, stiffer, and faster (supposedly). When you enter today’s typical bicycle shop, most of what you’re presented with falls into the category of Jeeps, Corvettes, or even Formula-1. Wondrous toys! Modern mountain bikes roll through obstacles like we could barely imagine 30 years ago. Today’s road racing machines can be made lighter than UCI rules permit, and still perform under the sprints of elite athletes.
Here’s the thing… Remember those six criteria I mentioned? Comfort, reliability, longevity, safety, efficiency, and value? Let’s add a few more, including durability, customization, and elegance! They all add up to real fun, which is what everyone really wants from a bicycle. Attendees at French Fender Day I think tend to lean hard toward the idea that yesterday’s bicycles are in no way inferior to today’s modern marvels. A truly exceptional steel bike – whether it’s a 2016 Bruce Gordon or a 1956 Rene Herse – easily holds its own; and if the questions of style, craftsmanship, and attention to detail are raised, the comparisons might in this crowd be viewed as silly.
Was it as I expected?
On one hand I knew what to expect, from seeing and hearing about prior French Fender Day events. On the other hand I wasn’t quite sure what the balance was between show-and-tell collectors’ items, and showpieces from current makers, so I was careful to go without expectations in that sense. I did imagine it would be loads of fun, meeting new people who share our love of craftsmanship and classic bicycles. That really was the best part… The people were more interesting than the bikes.
Where there any bikes that stood out as unusual and exceptional?
Exceptional, yes of course, many of them. Unusual… They’re all unusual. I can’t think of much remarkable I hadn’t seen before though. For anyone who reads things like Bicycle Quarterly or, like us, has gravitated toward elegant, practical, and classically designed bicycles for decades… It’s all beautiful, but big surprises are rare.
Anyone I met and spoke with who a) I hadn’t met in the past and b) found to be noteworthy?
I thoroughly enjoy spending time with Peter. When we first met at New England Builders’ Ball a few years ago, somehow we struck up a conversation about… Well, almost everything I suppose, because after a few hours of chatting we had to acknowledge we both had been ignoring our exhibitor booths and customers. This time of course I had a blast with him going over his shop equipment and machines… Which reminds me… He asked for photos of my drill-press. I need to go take care of that.
I’ve drawn a library of ideas and inspiration from James Swan for probably 20 years, whether about frame alignment techniques or fork crown making. Although we’ve rubbed shoulders a few times, I think this was the first time we’ve actually met and talked, which turned into hours of chatting and learning (for me). I believe Diane told him to show me his brazing experiment, which lit a long chain of discussion, but was helpful too, as what he’s playing with gave me a boost in confidence with a joint I’ve been figuring out on a couple current projects of my own. The hours spent with Jamie were definitely a highlight.
So many others… Bob, Amir, Wayne Bingham of Mel Pinto Imports, Carlos, Deb Banks, Elton, Sue, and others I can barely remember their first names. Everyone knows I’m not as forward as Diane in a new crowd, so there’s countless folks I did not get to meet, including Johnny Coast and Brian Chapman. I think we left with the impression that anyone there could easily get absorbed into hours of gabbing with everyone else present, and hopefully there’s a next time, for more.
What would I say to anyone listening about the concept of the classic constructeur bicycle?
It’s a fun concept, one I hesitate to define myself but it’s hardly profound as I understand it. The idea is that the bicycle is a cohesive machine, with all the parts designed and made to work and fit together, often under direction of a single maker. Even today’s constructeur might occasionally make a set of brakes, or experiment with a homemade derailleur, but now it seems to include at least fenders and racks made to fit the bike as a complete unit, as opposed to buying parts separately and bolting them on.
When we look at how most bicycles had to be made back in the 40’s and 50’s, without complete shifting groups available like they are now, today’s bikes are incredibly impressive; the way we can buy such exquisitely performing parts, hang them on a frame in a couple hours, and just take off. When we consider this, it seems kinda’ pathetic on those occasions when they under-perform. My point however is the opposite… When we experience a truly exquisite product of a constructeur from the 40’s and 50’s, feel how lightweight it is, how magnificently it handles and performs, see how well it’s held up over so many years and countless miles (something we can expect from few modern marvels)… That’s truly impressive, and something French Fender Aficionados think we should be building on rather than abandoning. For me this is what Peter’s French Fender Day celebrates.