Wednesday 4 June 2008

A Herd of Tin Donkeys: Gitane Gran Sport DeLuxe

Gitane USA Catalogue, 1970

While reading a book of cycling poetry recently–yes, there is such a thing and I will review it on these pages soon–I came across an excellent poem by a woman about her childhood and how she learned to ride a bike. It sounded idyllic, with her father giving her a push and running alongside as she learned to balance and then ride off into the sunshine. But the poem went on to say that it was also completely untrue because her father was a stressed-out creep who just wanted to drink heavily when he came from work and he never helped her learn to ride a bike. But she would have liked the fantasy story to be the true one.

This image of a father helping a child learn to ride and giving that gentle push towards adventure and excitement and independence is a very powerful one. The poem made me reflect on my first attempts to ride a bicycle. I had a small child’s bicycle, much used and thickly painted a deep red, with enormously wide balloon tires. I do not recall ever having to learn to balance since the balloon tires were so wide it did not tip over: imagine something like rubber steam roller wheels. I outgrew this and my father found another used bicycle but it was too big so the jovial Mr. Miller, our friendly neighbour who was an ace welder, cut one end of the top tube, lowered it down and rewelded it so that I could reach the saddle. It was painted dark blue (again, a respray) and I suspect it may have been an old CCM bike but there were no markings on it. It had caliper brakes, which was a bit unusual, and was single speed.

I recall trying to ride it alone on our dead-end and very quiet street and sort-of-but-not-quite falling off several times when suddenly the balance thing worked and I was riding. It was astonishing to me, this feeling of speed and smoothness and soaring. I rode to the end of the street and back and probably annoyed Mrs. Maloney, who lived next door and was talking to some people in her driveway, as I called her each time I went by. It was exhilarating but I cannot recall my father anywhere in the picture. I don’t think it occurred to me that there was any reason not to learn by myself but he certainly did not suggest it either.

Time passed and the blue bike went to Mr. Miller’s daughter when I was in the 6th Grade and I spent my hard-earned money (I had no allowance and I cannot really recall how I earned this $35) on a used CCM Mk II bike equipped with a Sturmey-Archer 3 speed transmission and a cable-operated speedometer. The seat was not in the best shape but had a nice silver and red padded cover; the rest of the bike was in pretty good condition but must have been ancient as one of my friends had a CCM Mk VII and that was already used too. The bike was on the heavy side but it was easy to look after as nothing ever went wrong with the gears.

My CCM was nice compared to the anonymous blue bike (it even had red-and-white braided cable housings on the brake cables!) but it was now the early 1970s and the first mass-market 10 speed bicycles were coming on the market. Friends–first James and then Karl–got these and I recall how when I rode James’ yellow 10 speed that the feeling of exhilaration riding a bike came back all over again. In 1972 we had a holiday on Nantucket Island and I rented a Peugeot UO-8 10 speed and rode around the island, determined to get one of these fast, responsive, good-looking bikes for myself.

The following summer I worked for my father in the construction business, doing the usual mindless work that is suitable for growing teenagers, like backfilling foundations with a shovel or nailing plywood flooring or stapling insulation between joists. My goal was to save enough to afford a brand-new 10 speed of my own and by July I had enough.

I had made several pilgrimages to Oak-Queen Mall, directly across Cross Avenue from my father’s shop, to Oakville Cycle & Sports where the Humphreys brothers featured the latest bikes from Raleigh and Gitane. I had selected a Gitane, since French bicycles were more exotic somehow, and because the one in the store was a beautiful peacock blue with chrome fenders. I did not have any knowledge whatsoever of what I was looking at and had never heard the name Campagnolo in my life. James' bike was pretty non-thoroughbred so he wouldn't have been much help in the advice department either and Karl, who also bough at Oak-Queen, was equally a neophyte.

My father was appalled by the whole idea. He thought it was a waste of money and ended the discussion by declaring: “Don’t expect me to fix it when it breaks.” I was a bit surprised since I had always been impressed by his stories of cycling in Germany at the end of World War II when he was making his way cross-country. He used to tell me how he would take his bike apart to clean it and how he would ride great distances and it all sounded brave and wonderful to me.

But it was my money and the vision of the blue bike was more powerful than any discouragement. On July 27th, 1973 I went back to the store and bought my bicycle, a Gitane Gran Sport DeLuxe. It cost $149.95, with sales tax of $10.48. To this was added a carrier rack for $5.25, a water bottle and cage for $2.50, a set of toe clips for the pedals for another $2.50 and a pant clip for 59 cents, bringing my grand total to $172.04 with tax. I still have the receipt. I could have had a Raleigh Grand Prix for $120, so I felt I was definitely going upmarket.

Everything was installed and two days later I picked up the bike and rode home. I got about a block before the rear wheel shifted and jammed against the chainstay. I walked it back and this time the staff tightened the rear quick release properly. I had a 9 km ride ahead of me and it went without a hitch: I was the proud owner of a truly beautiful bike. My father said he would ride the CCM but he never actually did except once to the end of the street, so I ended up putting an advertisement for it in a local shopping newspaper. I clearly priced it far too low at $35, the price I had originally paid, as I think I received forty phone calls. The first person to see it bought it without even riding it.

The Gitane introduced me to the real joys of cycling, of heading off into the countryside for a full day of roving around. My friend Karl and I would go on day trips to far-away exotic places like Georgetown or Milton or Waterdown, where the famous Snake Road offered a daring, high-speed descent. We rode up to Mountsberg in Campbellville and all around then-rural Oakville and Burlington, north of Highway 5–now all built-up with boring housing developments.

The history of Gitane goes back to a farm equipment machine shop in Machecoul, just outside of Nantes, on the Loire River in France in 1925. The shop made bike parts as well and eventually complete bikes, with the first use of the Gitane brand name in 1930 for assembled bikes and in 1940 for ones made in-house. The company, renamed Cycles Gitane in 1952, remained fairly small but began to expand, adding motorcycles to the line and soon sponsoring pro bicycle racers. The big breakthrough for the company came in 1957, when legendary cyclist Jacques Anquetil won the French National Championship on a Gitane, and the brand became prominent in the next decade.

For some reason, the company name was again changed, to Micmo S.A., in 1960. By 1972 it was France’s largest exporter of bicycles, shipping over 185,000 bikes that year. Most of these went to the United States, which was experiencing the “bike boom” that brought in other famous French brands, including Peugeot and Motobecane. The popularity of these lightweight bicycles, outfitted with French components, made Micmo an attractive target for Renault, which first purchased a controlling interest in 1974 and full ownership in 1976. The Renault-Gitane racing team was a powerhouse in racing, with Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon, Marc Madiot and the team’s American revelation, Greg Lemond, but the bike boom ended and hard times came and Renault divested itself of Micmo-Gitane by 1985. The brand still exists but is not sold in North America anymore.

My Gitane was not the high-end Tour de France model but an entry-level bicycle with stamped dropouts and a fake chrome fork crown and, I think straight-gauge steel tubing. It had Simplex shifters and derailleurs, a Pivo stem and a kick stand, the first thing to go. The Mafac “Racer” centre-pull brakes were fairly effective but were notorious for their screeching. The brake levers had the infamous “safety levers” that let you brake from the flat section of the handlebars but at reduced effectiveness.

Over the years parts were replaced: the Simplex shifters failed pretty quickly and were replaced by excellent SunTour ones, and eventually SunTour derailleurs as well. In 1987 I took the bike to China on my first Foreign Service posting and the locals were astonished by this high-tech, exotic-looking French bike. I enjoyed riding it around Beijing, but before my posting to Hong Kong I sold it to a colleague since I knew I would not be doing any riding in HK.

After leaving Hong Kong and returning to Ottawa in 1991, I immediately bought a new Bianchi racing bicycle. But this was too nice (and impractical) to ride to work and I ended up buying the Gitane back from my colleague, who had also returned to Ottawa. I had to find a way to support the rack–my friend had lost the fittings–but I cobbled some attachments together with the help of the local bike shop. I replaced the brake levers with a nice set of Shimano 600 ones I found in the bargain bin at a big bike shop. Compared to my Bianchi it was heavy but it worked well enough and I rode it to the office until I left for Germany in 1998.

For the last ten years the Gitane gathered dust at my house in Ottawa, in the basement along with my ridiculous Yongjiu black one-speed. In the meantime my stable of Tin Donkeys in Germany and Washington expanded as the Bianchi was joined by the Marinoni, then the Lemond Maillot Jaune, the time trial bike, the cross bike and finally the Specialized Tarmac.

On my return to Ottawa I realized that I had a lot of bikes and although the general rule is that you cannot ever have too many bikes I realized that I was reaching the limit. I also realized that it was unlikely I would ever ride the Gitane again as BlackAdder, the cross bike, had replaced it as my commuter. So I pumped up the tires, which were still pretty good, cleaned it up and put an ad on Craig’s List. I rode it around the block a few times and was impressed with how beautifully the SunTour derailleurs shifted–no indexing, but smooth as silk and very positive. It would have been stupid to turn it into a fixed gear bike, as I was idly considering at one point. The brakes still shriek, though.

Tonight the new owner, a pleasant young man named Jason who was probably no older than the bike, came for it. We hemmed and hawed over the price and although in the end I got enough to buy a bargain pair of bib shorts, I am satisfied it is going to a good home. This is only the fourth bike I have ever sold, including the Dawes I bought in London in 1974 and used to tour Europe before selling it in Vienna at the end of the summer, and while I have some seller’s remorse I also realize that I still have a collection of superb bikes. And I still can only ride one of them at a time.

Les Humphrey sold the shop a few years after my big purchase and moved to the Ottawa area, where he is a fixture in our local cycling club to this day although I have not looked him up. I still have a collection of cycling articles he wrote for the Hamilton Spectator from 1973/4.

So, bon voyage Gitane, with memories of Southern Ontario and Tienanmen Square in your frame! As Jason took it to his car, I wondered what my father would have thought about my judgment and mechanical ability as the bicycle he had no confidence in rolled down the driveway, still looking good, nearly 35 years after I bought it.

1 comment:

GA said...

Had the same exact bike in 1973. Loved it until I took it apart to clean and it never seemed to operate as well. This article made me reminisce and there is a certain poetic romance I enjoyed with that bike, which I got when I was 19. I too moved on to a lighter bike, but never will appreciate one more than my beloved Blue Gitane! Changed many a tire on the road on that bad boy, the old fashioned way!