My soulful, 1956 French Randoneur needs a new headset. I should’ve replaced it when I brought it back to life 4 years ago, but it worked reasonably well and it’s an odd size to find a new replacement. I bought the bicycle as a ‘project’ on eBay from a location in the South of France, and it arrived safely in Switzerland in a big box. The big box was strapped down onto the roof of a small, Swiss Poste 4×4 Fiat Panda, as there clearly wasn’t any room inside for it, so it made quite a grand entrance into my life. It’s a great, soulful bike and very original. It’s carries the name and brand of the famous, French racing cyclist and raconteur, Raphael Geminiani.
Raphael Geminiani, born in 1925, was and still is, one of cycling’s special dudes. He was an aggressive and successful racer who went on to become a successful team owner-manager, and then, a respected cycling journalist. Like a lot of past and current successful racers, he had a range of bicycles bearing his name from kids to leisure to touring to racing cycles, and his bicycles were produced in Nantes by the MICMO cycle and moto manufacturing company. There’s a really great interview article in Rouleur magazine from September 2016 with the man himself that really illustrates his approach, style and views. I’ve also got a signed photograph of him from 1958, and the original MICMO brochure that has my bicycle in it. How cool is that?!
I’ve covered a lot of distance on this bicycle, and on road, tracks and a bit off-road when needed and it works everywhere, so it’s become special to me. It first featured in a previous post, which was set in Tuscany (see link at the bottom of the page). It has also been used to do a couple of epic Alpine rides, and one was in late January, salty wet roads as well. Riding it requires some mechanical sympathy and respect. The brakes are average, and the back brake screeches like a banshee on descents, but hey, people do hear me coming, so I reckon it contributes to my safety with regards to other road users. I need to try a different brake block material because I’ve tried every other anti-screech fix in the book and internet, and failed spectacularly! It only started screeching when I had new wheel rims built onto the original hubs. It was fine on the old rims, except the chrome on the old rims had ‘long left town’ and the pads had to connect with bear metal.
The Simplex gears are smooth in operation, assuming it’s done slowly and respectfully. The ‘suicide’ front derailleur needs to be used with care, and I think it’s one of the things that makes it a really cool bicycle. Reaching down to activate the lever whilst watching where you’re going isn’t easy, but it is cool. I reckon it’s the equivalent of the hand-gear change on an old, 1950s Harley Davidson, and everyone knows that the really cool girls and boys ride these models in the moto world. In fact, changing gear on my bicycle provides the same experience as changing gear on an old Harley Davidson, or even a tractor. It is a very mechanical experience and on correct gear selection, there is a positive ‘clunk’ noise that resonates satisfyingly through the whole frame. I know modern cycles are super smooth in changing gears (fortunately), but it’s just not the same experience.
The saddle has been worn in and polished over many years by several derrières, of which mine is just the latest. The original, French Rados Dynamo lighting is just fine, if a little dim, and the Sogreni copper bell on the handlebars stem is the only new part, and that was bought in Copenhagen, so that’s cool just by origin. On the downside, the left crank has the slightest bend in it, which is noticeable on the first few pedal strokes, but not an issue after a few kilometres. I’ll replace it when I find another. It also needs a new headset, which brings me to this journey, and more saddle polishing.
The only place that I know will have the correct, new, 1950s headset and bearings in stock, is at my friend Stefan’s place. If you haven’t read about the most amazing bicycle emporium on the planet, you should (see link at the bottom of the page). I could go there in the car, but that would be too easy wouldn’t it. Stefan’s garage is about 3-4 hours hilly cycle away from our house and as I’ve got a few days off work, what better way to go, than to go on the bicycle that needs the parts. I call Stefan to make sure he’s around, which he confirms, and I also arrange to meet a friend, Terrance, to see if he can get there for a catch-up as well. We have a plan!
Of the cycles that I’ve got, this one is the most relaxing to ride. It is very unhurried, which helps me enjoy the journey because sometimes I can be a bit impatient and ‘am ready to get back before I’ve got there’. It only has eight gears, so I’m not spoilt for choice and changing gear all of the time. Bottom gear gets me (slowly) up the big climbs and rest of the gear range just works. These bikes were well thought through 64 years ago. It covers distance really quite quickly, but doesn’t appear to. It feels like I’m going slow to go fast, just like the Hare and the Tortoise story.
I leave the house at 8:06 precisely. However, I’m not timing myself, nor using Strava or any other electronic devices to measure ‘cycling stuff’. I don’t care how fast, how long etc. It’s late May and it’s blue sky over Switzerland. I have my phone as a ‘just-in-case’, my parts list, some cash and some emergency food. As I’m going through a lot of different villages, which will all have great patisseries and boulangeries, I’m going to ‘stop-buy-eat’ when I feel like it, or if the place looks great. One bottle of water is all that’s required as most Swiss villages have running, drinking water by the big stone, communal troughs, and this free liquid tastes (nearly) as good as the cakes.
Point of note No.1: I am only cycling there, and not back. My wife will pick me up and we’ll drive back together. So, whilst the bicycle isn’t in absolutely perfect working order, it doesn’t stop it from being amazing to ride.
Point of note No.2: It is the windiest it has been for a long time, which means head wind all of the way. It might have been a better plan to ask my wife to take me there and I cycle back, but that wouldn’t have been as character building would it.
The ride starts well, even with a strong head wind. I make good progress, and reach the hill-top town of Romont. It looks a spectacular setting as I sweep down into the valley and then tackle the ascent into the town. It is a fortified town and the two big, castle towers look great against the deep, blue sky. I head for a particular patisserie because I’m in need of a cake. I park the bike outside of the patisserie and watch a local, vintage Vespa scooter club set off after their Coffee and croissant. An old man who walks with a stick, stops, smiles at my bicycle and takes out the latest iPhone and takes a picture of it. He’s pleased to see it and examines it carefully. I head into the patisserie and take my time to choose my treat. In the end, I decide on the strawberry tart, which is boxed up and I head off to the ramparts by the castle to eat it with a view. The view is great and the strawberry tart is amazing. I fill up my water bottle in the town fountain and set off down the steep hill, both brakes now screeching like two banshees. This attracts more attention than I would like. Hopefully, Stefan will have the answer to this problem in some new brake parts.
The ride continues up and down hill with a strong head wind and screeching brakes, but it is great fun. Swiss roads have the smoothest surfaces of any roads I’ve ridden on worldwide. This makes for a great ride, especially with the fat tyres that the wheels are wearing. I get to about 10 kilometres from my destination of Avenches and pass a stand selling fresh strawberries. I turn round and buy a box of them. The box full of strawberries fits into the handlebar bag perfectly so I can ride along and eat strawberries. Summer is obviously upon us with strawberries being the strong fruit theme of the ride so far.
I reach the hilltop town of Avenches where Stefan’s amazing garage is located. I decide to cycle up into the town first and take a photo of the bicycle by the Roman amphitheater. If you are into Roman history and architecture, then a visit to Avenches is a must do. Post-photo, I start heading down the steep hill, brakes screeching, and to Stefan’s garage. I’ve eaten half of the strawberries and decide to save the others for Stefan. The sky is still deep blue and it’s still really windy. After all of my stops and even having to pedal downhill due to the strong head wind, it’s taken me about 4 hours to get to Stefan’s place.
I get to Stefan’s, hand over the rest of the box of strawberries for him to finish and post-chat, I head off into the depths of the garage with my list and a torch. We’ve agreed to have lunch together in a local fish restaurant, so after 20 minutes of trying unsuccessfully, to find some non-screeching brake blocks, we drive off down the road in his 1978 Dodge van. Lunch is the restaurant’s ‘Menu du Jour’, which is 4 courses plus coffee and a beer, which I clearly needed after my journey.
We rumble our way back to the garage in the Dodge V8 to a waiting friend, the top Terra One tyre designer, Terrance Malone. We greet ‘COVID-sensibly’ and dive into the garage as he has stuff on his list as well. Searching inside this Aladdin’s cave is one thing, but doing it in a pair changes the dynamics because we each find different stuff hiding away in the dark, and it’s all a learning as well.
Some time later in the afternoon, my wife arrives to take me and the bicycle back home, except I haven’t finished looking, so she chats to Stefan and then starts to find interesting things that she likes as well. Terrance needs to go so my wife takes a quick photo of Stefan, Terrance and I all leaning on a Dodge van, then he bids us goodbye, hands me some more of his tyres that I’ve bought and gets off back to his family. This leaves me, my wife and Stefan and some stuff that needs paying for. I’ve got some parts that I didn’t come for, I haven’t got the parts I did come for, and my wife has also found a nice designer, Swiss toolbox and some other interesting stuff. Stefan gives us a price, but before we pay, I needed to consider something I’d seen earlier on…….
You may have read some of my previous posts about the Swiss bicycle maker, Cilo, and this includes my prediction that Cilo cycles are going to become quite sought after. Stefan had just obtained a Cilo with a load of other stuff he’d bought from someone, and it was in amazing condition. The whole bicycle was covered in a light oil and clearly had not been used much since the day it left the shop in 1981. Stefan gave us a consolidated price for the pile of stuff AND the Cilo, so it was ‘deal done!’. Joining my super-soulful Raphael Geminiani randoneur in the van, was a Cilo as well. We drive home past the place where I’d bought the amazing strawberries earlier on, and the shelves were empty sadly, but at least we know where to buy them next time we come to Stefan’s amazing garage.
The following day was not windy, surprisingly, but the weather was nice enough to strip and polish my new Cilo purchase outside, and here it is below. Not bad eh?
As a footnote to this post, I want to stress how much you can score on the ‘relaxing-fun-ometer’ by owning and riding a vintage bicycle. For a modest outlay, you can get a good vintage bike, or even the basis of one to restore, and have some really good fun on it. It’s also better environmentally to use something that has already had energy put into making it instead of buying another new one. I know a vintage bicycle won’t be anywhere near as smooth, efficient and developed as a modern bicycle or eBike, or even something that you’ll use every day, but is does illustrate the journey of the bicycle and what our previous cycling generations used. Having that old soulful bicycle in the shed or garage also gives you that warm connection with what cycling is all about; Great fun, and if you’re lucky, great strawberries as well!
All photos by the Author, except the one taken by the Authors wife of course.
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