I wanted (read as: didn’t actually need) to get hold of an original French Randonneur bike, and one that was made between 1950 & 1955, as this was the breakthrough period for the type of bike. These post-war bikes were built to a specific frame geometry, wheel size etc, so a lot of French manufacturers would build their bikes to this specification.
I found a bike in original and complete condition, and which was located in Southern France. I bought it and a week later, my newly acquired 1952 Motoconfort Randonneur arrived on top of the post-lady’s Fiat Panda in a big cardboard box. It was in great condition apart from the chrome on the wheels and handlebars. Post-war French chrome didn’t have a great reputation for sticking to its desired metal partner, but hey! this is post war France that we’re talking about, so materials were short of supply as the French re-built their country for the second time in 30 years.
3 hours later, I’ve got the bike stripped down to the frame only and had it attached to a workstand. Pretty efficient I think, but helped along by cups of tea and a great audio book about the Danish term ‘Hygge’. A very interesting view on living Danishly, and of course, the Danes are also big cyclists and pastry makers. Anyway, I spent the next 3 weeks getting it back on the road. Apart from new tyres, replacements of the original size of 650B x 42 mm wide, brake pads, cables and handlebar tape, and with everything else renovated and polished, it was good-to-go. I did a couple of shakedown road tests which included some adjusting and tightening, and it’s job done!
There was one thing that I did not put back on the bike. When I first removed the saddle from its seat pin, I noticed a small, home made alloy plate attached to the seat clamp. Stamped on the plate was a name and address of what I assumed, must have been a previous owner. This intrigued me & I hadn’t ever come across a bike with something like this on it before. I wondered if this was required by French law at the time. It was as it turned out, and this intrigued me even more. Who was this person? The first owner? The last owner?
The address on the alloy plate was in the middle of the current financial district in Paris. All things have a history and this little plate gave my bike a) soul and b) a link to a previous owner. I tried to find the name of the person and the address by doing some basic internet search. The address was still there, but nothing was revealed about the person. One day in the shed, whilst polishing my 1952 (I know its 1952 from the serial number) Randonneur, an album called ‘Song for my ancestors’ by the Steve Miller Band got shuffled through my ‘shed sound system’. This got me thinking. It was fate. I had to find out about the person who had made and stamped out that alloy address plate.
As luck would have it, and bizarrely, I had to attend a meeting with work in Paris later that month, so I set up time around the meeting to go and find the address. >>Fast forward>> I’m in Paris, for the first time actually, and I’m walking down the very street stamped on the address plate, which is in my pocket. I find the number I’m looking for, and what was once an elegant town house with classical facade, is now a shop. Disappointed, I go to a local cafe just up the street for a coffee, to try and resist a cake, have a think, and to kill some time before my trip to the airport, and home. I ask the waiter for a coffee and a piece of the great looking gateaux. When he brings them, I ask him if he knows anything about the address or the person on my alloy plate. He’s only about 20 years old and he can’t help, but he does say that he’ll go and ask his Grandma to come and talk to me. She might know, as she always seem to know something about somebody in the area.
A woman comes to my table 10 minutes later, and after drying her hands on a towel, shakes my hand and welcomes me to ‘her’ cafe. She explains that she’s just finished decorating a speciality gateaux. So far, I’m keeping up with her Parisian French, then she says something too quick for me to understand and I feel a blank expression come over my face. Her shiny eyes notice this immediately and she asks me if speaking in English would be better for me to ‘keep up’ with the conversation. I graciously accept her offer. She sits down at my table and a small, strong cup of coffee is put in front of her by the young waiter. She takes a drink and asks me how she can help. I explain my quest and show her the little alloy plate. She raises an eyebrow and takes another sip of coffee. I know that she’s paused the conversation momentarily with the ‘coffee sip’ so she can think. She looks at me and asks me for my own life story.
I openly provide the woman with my own life timeline to date, starting with ‘born in’ and working briefly to the present day and moment. She listens with both eyes and ears and then when I’d finished talking, she asked me what I thought of the gateaux I’d just devoured. I say it was ‘fantastique’ and she smiles. She then starts to provide some information that will move me on a big step in my journey to find out about the owner of my bike. As it turns out, she did actually know the person, and his family, and about the house address. Bingo!
It turns out that the person I’m trying to find out about was a well know entrepreneur in a poor, post-war Paris, and he was always ready to market and promote something if it would make money. This also applied to himself, which is why the old lady wasn’t surprised that he’d put his name and address on his bike. For him, anything was an opportunity. She knew this first hand, because he had sold her flour, sugar, cocoa powder etc when she had first bought the cafe. Whilst she couldn’t remember him on my bike, which I’d proudly shown her a photo of, she did say that he went everywhere by bike as it was the fastest and cheapest way to get from one deal to another.
The man had got married, had a son, and after 10 years in Paris dealing in all sorts of things, then moved to Switzerland. She thought it was in the Lausanne area, on the banks of Lake Geneva. She also noted that it was very sad to see him leave Paris and that he was very rich when he’d left France. Wow! I didn’t expect all of this information. She finished her coffee and beckoned to the waiter to come over, which he did immediately. She asked him to fetch something and he returns with a small patesserie box, and hands it to her with great care. She hands me the box and says its ‘for my journey’ back to the UK. I thank her as she gets up from the chair to go and do the next thing on her list of duties. We shake hands and she looks at me with sparkly eyes that could either a) make me melt or b) throw me out of the window. She asks for only one thing in return for the information and gift, and that is to let her know how I get on in my research. We bid each other ‘aurevoir’ and I walk into the Paris sunshine, brain buzzing.
On the flight back, I can’t concentrate on my work, which isn’t helped as its some ‘pre-reading for a meeting’ tomorrow, so I put my headphones on, listen to Lianne La Havas and open up my patisserie box. I’m sitting in the middle seat of a row of 3 seats. I can feel the two people on either side of me looking at the delicately printed cardboard box, now sitting in the middle of my small table, which I’ve just hinged down to its horizontal position. When I open the box, the lady on my left gasps gently as I reveal an amazing fondant, chocolate gateaux. I give her a look which says ‘isn’t it amazing and its all mine!’ I eat it and savour every mouthful. C’est fantastique!
A week later and I’m doing some ‘lunchtime surfing’ at my desk, when I come across the name I’m looking for, and its in the Lausanne Area. The website that I’ve found bearing the name is basic, very basic, and its for a specialist watch restorer and dealer. I try to find the ‘contact us’ link on the website and find just a phone number, so naturally, I pick up the phone and call.
An old man, by the sound of him, answers the phone with a simple ‘Oui’. I ask him if he speaks English. I can speak Franglais, but it doesn’t work on the phone. Luckily he does speak English very well. I explain who I am, about my bike and the alloy address plate, and how I got to him. He doesn’t say anything during my explanation and I keep talking, even though I’m sure he can”t hear me over a barking dog in the background. However, he has heard everything and then says its one of his Fathers many bicycles. He’s also pleased to hear that I’ve renovated it and am using it. He then starts talking about his Father. Its bizarre, because in less than 15 minutes on the phone between two people who have never met, we seem to have a bond of trust and are finding it easy to talk to each other, and in English, fortunately for me.
He explained that his Father had become very wealthy and moved for the financial stability of Switzerland. The man, I still don’t know his name at this point, went onto explain that both his Mother and Father were dead now and that whilst he has never needed to work due to the absolute wealth created by his Father, he had learned the art of horology and repairs and deals in rare Swiss watches. He made a point of saying that both he and numerous, very expensive lawyers had not managed to consolidate his fathers full business wealth and activities. His father therefore, in the words of his son, had squirrelled away pieces of evidence about different parts of his businesses, and whilst he didn’t know what he didn’t know, he did know that there were some big gaps in his Fathers potential business portfolio. As his Father had grown up in a country taken over by the Germans in World War 2, he knew how to hide stuff.
My friend on the other end of the phone in Switzerland, thought that his Father had found some sport in hiding things, particularly in his later years when he didn’t need to hide anything as he had done in the 1940s. I could hear the dog barking in the background, and it was getting louder, so my newly found acquaintance on the other end of the phone excused himself for a minute to let the dog into the garden. I could now hear bird song through the telephone, so the son of my bike owner (I still didn’t know his name) must be talking to me close to the garden door. He returned and apologised on behalf of the dog.
He started talking exactly where he’d left off in the conversation like there hadn’t been a ‘dog break’ at all. He seemed genuinely amused by his Fathers games and went on to explain a story that had taken place 5 years earlier. He had received a similar call from a lady who had recently lost her husband and she was sorting out his ‘acquired stuff,’ which included a boat that they had owned for 25 years, and had been bought from my new acquaintance’ father. It was moored in Spain. She had flown to Spain one day with her daughter, as they had had many holidays on the boat as a family together, and so they could both make sure that the boat looked good enough to sell. She had put her hand down the side of one of the compartments that went into a space in the hull of the boat. Her fingers came across a presentation cigar box, which was about 12 inches long. She immediately assumed straight away that it had belonged to her husband, but on opening it, found the deeds to a new world vineyard in New Zealand. There was an accompanying letter saying that the business and property would belong to the person who had discovered the long hidden deeds. The woman had lost a husband and gained a vineyard on the other side of the world! The son of my bike owner went on to say that it was all legally validated and that he had never any thoughts of contesting the document. He had actually found it all quite amusing and said that he certainly didn’t need anymore wealth, or complexity in his life.
He asked me to send him a picture of his fathers bike and of the alloy plate, so I asked him for his email address. He said that he wanted it posted and not emailed because he liked opening post. He gave me his address and said that he needed to go and walk his dog. The call ended as amicably as it had started.
So far, I’d bought an old bike, restored it, and now it was taking me on a journey instead of me taking it on a journey. This last conversation with the owners son was starting to distract me. A few days later, I was lying in the bath one night with a glass of wine (my wife was away on business) and I again had my music on shuffle. The next track got me singing along. It was ‘Message in a bottle’ by the Police and with wine glass in hand, I started singing the chorus and suddenly change the words from ‘message in a bottle’ to ‘message in a bicycle’. It fitted with the music as well, even though my singing didn’t. The big question that struck me was, what if my bicycle had a message in it? How would I find out?
Fortunately, the answer was under my nose and just above the wine glass. Because of my work, I have access to research technology, including x-ray scanners for metal which are used to find hidden cracks, faults etc. By x-raying the thin steel tubes I would know if there was anything inside. A few days later, instead of more ‘lunchtime surfing’ and dropping sandwich crumbs into my keyboard, I took my bike into the workshop that had the x-ray scanner in it and started scanning the frame. Starting with the front forks there was good news. No cracks in the areas of welding around the headstock. Scanning the frame, I found something in the long, front down-tube, so I took some screen shots and got back to finish my sandwich, and then work.
I got home in the early evening and my wife was in the bath with a glass of wine and a book. Her face said ‘Hello. Do Not Disturb!’, so I went out to the shed where the bike lives. I looked at the screenshots and looked at the frame. I asked myself, how could something be put into the frame and then not be damaged as the frame went through the rest of the manufacturing process? I looked very, very carefully at the frame, each weld and join in the frame, then I saw it. There’s a small wheel welded to the frame which guides the cable to the rear derailleur, and on closer inspection, the small plate holding the equally small wheel in place had clearly been welded on and painted after the initial painting and finish of the frame. I hadn’t noticed it because it was in the same contrasting colour as the headstock. Whatever is in the frame, and the scans indicate something like a document, was put in there through the hole concealed by the small plate.
I sat back on the wooden chair which makes my shed feel like home and I go back through time to my decision to click ‘buy it now’. The only person who knows all of the story and the facts is me. So, now I’m at a ‘fork in the road’ decision point. Do I a) put a new blade in my hacksaw and cut out the down tube to see what it holds? or b) ride it with the smug knowledge that I’m continuing the game of its original owner?
My bike has changed me and part of my life already. Do I manage the change with option b), or allow it to dictate the level of change which its secret holds in option a)? I also still didn’t know how the bike got from Paris to the South of France, where I bought it from. Hmmmm…….let me pour a glass of wine and think this through……….
Middle & bottom photos by Rodrigo Macip