Tuesday 23 June 2009

Cirque du Cyclisme 2009: Good Friends, Old Bikes and A Few Beers

Gitane tubes, from Mel Pinto Imports, Fairfax, Virginia--
The one on the right is the same design as was on my 1974 Gitane Gran Sport

Having enjoyed my previous visit to Le Cirque du Cyclisme in 2007 in Greensboro, North Carolina, I decided to attend this year’s event in Leesburg, Virginia, giving me an opportunity to visit friends in the District of Columbia and to do some riding in green Virginia before joining others to ride the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The drive down to Washington on Thursday, June 4th, was uneventful as I left Ottawa early in the morning in beautiful weather but this was not last. As I came out of the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania it began to rain hard and by the time I reached Hagerstown, Maryland, it was a deluge. I stopped at a Panera Bakery which I had always found conveniently located before and chatted with a group of older cyclists, in their late 60s at least, who were on their way to ride for a few days in the Shenandoah Valley. Their van was outside and I noticed some high-end titanium bikes on the roof rack. The group, from Long Island, were are strong argument in favour of cycling since they all looked to be in incredible shape. I finished my coffee and offered them some suggestions on where to ride around Staunton and Lexington before I got back in the car and the heavy rain.

Of course, rainstorms in Washington always bring out the worst in traffic and when I reached the I-495 split everything slowed down and it took me around 45 minutes to cover the last 3 miles of my 11 hour trip. I spent a quiet evening with my hosts and reorganized the ton of equipment I seemed to have brought.

Friday, June 5th did not start out too well. It was still pouring rain, which meant that the rides scheduled for Cirque were probably going to be scrubbed for the day. I checked the Marinoni over and when I pulled the front wheel out of the wheel bag I saw that it was flat, the only time I have had a flat with the bullet-proof Schwalbe Marathon tires I used in the past for touring. I had been a little concerned when I put them on since they were last used seven years ago when I rode the Camino de Santiago and had been hung up ever since but they looked fine. In fact, it turned out to be a failure of the inner tube at the valve joint. At least I was indoors and could have a cup of tea while I worked. But on the way to Leesburg I stopped and bought another inner tube since the Campagnolo wheels on the Marinoni need a long valve stem. I also thought it might be a good idea to buy a lightweight rain jacket for the GAP tour in case the weather was not entirely cooperative.

The 45 minute drive to Leesburg was pretty miserable but when I arrived in Leesburg I had a chance to hang out with some of the old bike folks and look at some of the great machines they had brought. I go reaquainted with people I had met at the last Cirque, including Dale Brown, who had run the show in Greensboro, and I met Wayne Bingham, who is now the keeper of the Cirque flame.

The 2009 edition of Le Cirque du Cyclisme, billed as an event “celebrating vintage lightweight racing and touring bicycles, and the artists and craft persons carrying on the traditions,” marked the 12th year of the event. This time I was the only Canadian present but there was an impressive representation from far and wide in the United States. There were all kinds of interesting bicycles strung out in the reception area of the Best Western Hotel with racing bicycles from the 1950s interspersed with touring bikes, one-of-a-kinds and even a highwheeler. Of course everyone was busying photographing or else chatting and we enjoyed some food and drink while getting registered. I had mentioned to Wayne that I wanted to register my Marinoni and he encouraged me to do so as he wanted to see one in the show. As noted in previous postings, I had the Marinoni repainted last year and it looks wonderful, although not nearly as flashy as some of the bikes in the show.

The Sheldon Brown Memorial Ride prepares to leave

A brave group of cyclists decided to ride the Sheldon Brown Memorial Fixed-gear Ride (and one of Sheldon’s Raleighs was on display) but it was all too wet for me so I drove back to Washington and had a nice dinner in the Palisades area next to Georgetown.

As much as I had wanted to ride with the group, all the driving in the rain over the previous two days had quite exhausted me so I slept in on Saturday and once more made the trek along the Dulles Toll Road to Leesburg. There were some new bikes to look at and some new arrivals to chat with. Lunch was served and we all sat down to hear the presentations by three speakers.

Dave Wages, Ellis Cycles, with a customer's single speed randonneur bike

The first, Dave Wages, was previously a framebuilder at Serotta and Waterford and went out on his own in 2008, operating as Ellis Cycles. He brought several examples of work he had done over the years and even had a Powerpoint presentation to illustrate his career. At one point he seems to have become obsessed with carving lugs and one bike bore lugs that were way over-the-top, all in a flame motif. He described this as his “call for help.”

One gorgeous frame!
Photo by Steve

There must have been some kind of intervention as earlier this year one of his frames won Best Lugged Frame at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) and a photo of the frame showed why it had captured the judges’ attention. The frame, made from Reynolds 953 steel tubing, uses polished stainless steel stays and fork and is beautifully understated. He brought a similar frame, but unpainted, to the Cirque for us to look at and anyone who thinks that individual artistry in metalworking is a thing of the past need only look at this. While not inexpensive (and the whole ordering process seems to be a very hands-on, individualistic thing since Mr. Wages went out on his own as he wanted to work directly with customers), prices are comparable to high-end Taiwanese carbon frames but you know that if you order one of these it will be the only one.

Jan Heine, getting technical

This enjoyable discussion was followed by some history as Jan Heine, the creator and editor of Bicycle Quarterly magazine, talked about the technological development of the competition bicycle. The talk was based on his superb book, “the Competition Bicycle,” which I reviewed for www.pezcyclingnews.com shortly after it was published. He had had that opportunity to measure many bikes ridden by famous riders and his fascinating talk was based on the fact that bicycles, such as Fausto Coppi’s 1949 Tour de France-winning Bianchi, did not use the latest technology, such as aluminum components or better shifting systems that had already been available for years.

The last speaker for the afternoon was Connecticut framebuilder Peter Weigle, whom I had met at the 2007 Cirque. He has become focused on touring/randonneur bicycles and Cirque always seems to have examples of his workmanship brought in by customers. But this time he had two bikes of his own as he spoke about attitudes to restoration. He mentioned the famous Masi restoration that fellow Connecticut framebuilder Richard Sachs undertook in which the bicycle was brought back to period correctness, a process illustrated here on Richard’s website in awe-inspiring detail. The goal was to rebuild only with New Old Stock (NOS) parts, to bring the bike back to what it looked like before anyone had actually ridden it. Peter doubted that the Masi has ever been ridden after the restoration but I cannot imagine anyone would want to be responsible for scratching it!

Peter then showed such a “period correct” bicycle, a Frejus belonging to one of his customers, John Drake. Then entire frame had to be rechromed, a project not for the faint-hearted, and of course all the right components found. It is a lovely bicycle and won the Cirque 2009 award for the Best Restored Bicycle 1960-1967. Peter then turned from the idea of “period correct” to going with your own ideas and had two bicycles to illustrate this. One was an old French utility bicycle that was pretty much ready for the scrap heap and that Peter turned into his own ride-around-town bicycle. It had incredible style, set off by the most wonderful Art Deco chainguard the world has seen. This was not as the original maker sent it out into the world but it was a success as a personal statement.

The second bicycle, a Schwinn Paramount, had essentially been dropped off at his shop to do with as he pleased. Paramounts were the top-of-the-line bikes for the company but probably not comparable to anything like a Masi. By the time Peter had finished reviving it, it looked more like a J.P. Weigle than a Schwinn. This “creative restoration” had brought about something new and unique and it looked good enough to win the Cirque 2009 award for Best Open Class Bicycle 1974-1980. I found Peter’s remarks very encouraging as I am proceeding with the restoration of my own old racing bicycle, which will be the subject of a posting (probably several) soon, and did not want to be forced into the idea that it had to be “period correct” and a sort of museum-piece. Bicycles are meant to be out on the open road and enjoyed unless they are impractical or unsafe but I can understand, having lusted for Richard Sachs’ Masi (he actually has two of them!), how someone would want a bike they could just simply admire and polish.

Unless connected to a famous cyclist or exhibiting some kind of unique technology, most of these bicycles are not really very historically significant. For example, most of the Italian racing bikes of the 1970s and 1980s use Columbus tubing and Campagnolo Record or Super Record parts. The name on the headtube might be different but there is a certain similarity to them. What makes them special to their owner is some association that gives them pleasure. One of the participants at Cirque mentioned to me that as a hobby collecting lightweight steel bikes was not very serious since you could generally buy the bicycle today for less than it cost when it was new. I think this must be true; an English gentleman sold a beautifully refinished 1983 Colnago Mexico frame (in Saronni Red, be still my heart) recently on E-Bay for under $1000, which, adjusted for inflation, would be about the same price as it would have been in 1983.

After the seminars we enjoyed a lavish dessert buffet (I was worried that my weight was going to go up because of all the eating and the fact that I had not even assembled the Marinoni yet!) and then we had yet another speaker, Keith Anderson, who had moved from framebuilding into the exacting world of painting. He talked about the how frames are stripped and prepped and the kind of detailed work that goes into masking. Some builders do their own painting but others farm this part out to specialists and I can see why some of these custom paint schemes are so expensive. Again, major time and skill must go into this.

At this point I got into the car and drove over to the local hotspot, the Tuscarora Mill, where I met my friend Tom from Pennsylvania for a beer. He had read that I was coming to Leesburg on my blog and since he was going to be in Frederick, Maryland he suggested we meet up for a beer. He was in Ottawa last summer and I introduced him to Creemore Springs Lager. He returned the favour with a sampler pack of Troegs craft beer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We know each other as contestants in the Fat Cyclist’s Weight Loss Competition a few years ago and I hope to lure him onto one of our European trips yet.

Bicycles all corraled

On Sunday, June 7, I got up early. The weather was great and after I said goodbye to my friends in DC I headed out on the Toll Road for the last time this trip. I drove to the Loudon County Fairgrounds where the Cirque Bicycle Show & Swap Meet was being set up. I planned to ride with some of the other Cirque participants on the Potomac Pedallers group ride, rejoining my old bike club, but instead I ended up riding with a local rider on a Gios (repainted orange, and surely the target of those “period correct” types who believe a Gios simply must be blue) and Steve from Indiana, who actually has built a goodly number of frames himself. We took advantage of the W&OD Trail, and rode from Leesburg to the end of the trail in Purcellville, Virginia. The Gios fellow wanted to be at the swap meet by 10:30 when the doors opened officially to be in early for the bargains so we just did this short ride before coming back. This suited me as it was getting quite warm and I did not want to overdo anything. But at least I finally got to the end of the W&OD Trail, a rails-to-bikepath route from Shirlington/Arlington, Virginia, past the Dulles Airport to Leesburg and onwards. I had ridden it only from Shirlington to Leesburg soon after I arrrived in DC in 2002, so this completed the route for me.

The 4-H Fairgrounds had plenty of room for all the bikes, divided up into their own corrals by era. I had brought along a stand and happily set up the Marinoni in the post-1987 group, sitting near a group of Colnagos in Mapei colours and a pair of Mariposa bicycles, the only other Canadian bikes in the show besides mine. It was a bit dusty from the ride in the morning but since there was no floor in the hall I figured it was going to get a lot dustier by the end of the day.

A leather-covered racing bike with its creator

I walked around and took lots of photos and spoke with many interesting characters, including the man who was a leather craftsman and had actually finished several frames in exotic leathers, such as ostrich and snakeskin! I chatted with Jan Heine, who had his books for sale along with the 650B-sized randonneur tires he offers, and who has lots of interesting things to say about cycling. Although I had vowed to keep my wallet unopened, I found a superb unused Nitto handlebar and stem and could not resist them. I have a used Cinelli handlebar for my project but no stem but I am a bit hesitant about using old used handlebars or rims with an unknown history. Taking Peter Weigle’s comments to heart, I have decided that the Nittos looks so good I can “hot rod” my bicycle in good conscience with them.

There were many beautiful bikes to look at, old and new, and I enjoyed cruising around all of them. I was particularly impressed with a restored Raleigh Super Ace and even more so with a gorgeous Raleigh track bike. There were a number of Peter Weigle bikes on display (and they took home lots of awards) and I was struck yet again about their just-right proportions.

Parts at the Swap Meet

By 2:30 p.m. I was feeling hot, dirty and ready to go, so I packed up the Marinoni and my time at Le Cirque du Cyclisme 2009 had come to an end. I drove off to Montgomery Village where I picked up a wonderful set of new wheels for my project, made up with Campagnolo Super Record hubs but new Mavic Open Pro rims, from Travis Evans, who has just set himself up in business as a mechanic. Between the wheelset and the new handlebars and stem, my old bike project is already starting at a pretty high standard. And after seeing so many wonderful bicycles at Cirque I am motivated to keep on going!

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