I had zero French bicycles in my collection when fellow Classic Rendezvous list member, Tom Jordan, posted a for sale ad for a tall handsome LeJeune. His price was fair, and my powers of resistance were few. I looked at photographs of the candy apple red paint, chrome lugs, and blue “LeJeune” logos, and it was done. The bike looked to be one of their higher end models, perhaps even a bike used in the professional peloton. I imagined my LeJeune boldly cresting Alp d’Heuz piloted by a French rider, stoping at the top for a smoke. My friend Greg Reiche, who at his job restoring classic bikes of all makes and vintages, had commented that LeJeunes sometimes displayed uneven workmanship like many other old European bikes of similar vintage, but tended to ride famously and also included some nice aesthetic touches, such as flower petal seat stay caps.
My LeJeune “the young” was made in 1969—perhaps in a workshop on the outskirts of Paris just outside the 12th arrondissement, in the Maison-Alfort area, near the confluence of the Seine and La Marne rivers. During the time my LeJeune was being brazed, the area was a hot bed of cycling. Just across the La Marne, the Victorian era Stade-Velodrome, now named for French cycling superstar Jacques Anquetil, was the finish line for the Tour de France from 1968 – 1974. The great Eddy Merckx had five victories there. This history, coupled with the eccentric French approach to designing bicycles, fascinated me.
When Mademoiselle LeJeune arrived, I unboxed and assembled her and headed out for a spin. She was a little disheveled, and the paint was badly sun faded on one side. I noticed that the point of one of the headtube lugs was at 11:30 instead of 12 O’clock where it should have been. She looked a little tawdry, and I’m sorry to resort to French call girl imagery so early in this description, but she reminded me Toulouse Lautrec’s prostitute paintings featuring aging and sagging courtesans, a bit worse for wear, but still plying their trade. My LeJeune’s crooked lug was like a hastily pulled on camisole, set askew.
Riding the Lejeune was hard. She pulled hard to the right. The rigid leather Ideale (brand) French saddle felt like the jawbone of an ass, teeth side up, covered with a thin scrap of leather. The French Simplex rear derailleur clattered and hunted for gears, seemingly ghost shifting at will. A strange buzz and rattle came from the right Mafac brake lever. The bike pulled so hard that removing my hands from the bars for even one second threatened to send me into a parallel-parked car. The seller, Tom Jordan, had informed me prior to the sale that the fork was out of whack and needed alignment, but I’d never ridden a bike so hard to control. My Raleigh International felt like it was on rails compared to this. Even my twitchy Italian bicycles designed for criterium racing were easier to control. Riding her in a straight line was no mean feat. From talking to Greg about LeJeunes, I had expected mystery, and some subtle riding characteristics, but there was no time for this sort of contemplation. One just had to mount the thing, pedal, and hold on with both hands and steer.
I had hoped to ride this bike, in full Francophile costume, in the Eroica, California vintage cycling event. I even purchased two old wool jerseys expressly for that occasion. The first, a black number with stripes the color of the French flag came by way of an eBay seller who optimistically called it size “Large”. When it arrived, I pulled it on with considerable effort pretty much in the same fashion that a sausage arrives in its casing. My stretching exposing several moth holes. It was so tight I could scarcely move my arms. I felt like a fool—a middle aged man in an ill-fitting moth eaten jersey on a bike with faded finish that wouldn’t ride straight. I was like a sailor in the port of Marseilles who falls for a French floozie who steals his wallet. I was worried that my Team Lejeune dreams might not come true. But I wasn’t going to give up yet.
I considered doing even more to my well-worn tartlet. Should I send her in for a complete repaint and restoration? This sort of question, when posed on the Classic Rendezvous Google Group started long threads about how far gone some tatty decals should get before replacing them, or where the line was between the amount of rust that simply gave a bike character, and the amount that would eat a hole in a chainstay. These arguments tended to illuminate the views of two distinct camps: the custodians and the improvers.
Perhaps in part because of my religious upbringing, I tended to be an improver, or, as some say, “a ‘perfect’ type.” I want to erase the stains and marks of time, and to more or less resurrect my bikes into newly minted classics. I find I have to hold myself back from the much-maligned (at least among a faction of the classic and vintage crowd) “resto-mod” in which the restorer customizes the old bike, often fitting it with a mix of old, and (gasp!) modern componentry. But, just as I had taught myself to enjoy an espresso, a stout, and a redheaded woman that I couldn’t begin to understand, I knew that new dark, and even dangerous tastes, could be acquired.
I was fighting against myself to keep the Lejeune mostly unmolested; this meant living with the rust freckles on her chrome lugs, her non-driveside paint fade, and a number of nicks and chips in her decals. I found myself looking at her original French patina, and considering what patina meant to me. None of this glorification of crust and age made much sense to me until I read Tim Moore’s Gironimo!, in which the author restores a decrepit old Hirondelle on which he pedals the route of the 1914 Tour of Italy in period correctness.
Moore remarks that when perusing French classified ads to find his old bike, he often came upon the phrase, “dans son jus”, meaning “in its juice.” He goes on to say,
“In its juice meant unrestored, original, as-is. A relation to the eBay catchphrase ‘shabby chic’, it was generally wheeled out to cast an alluring romantic gloss on some woeful rustbucket that had spent thirty years rotting under a cat-piss tarp. The dans-son-jus ethos was the antithesis of Lance’s [Armstrong] showroom-fresh ideal, but I suddenly realized that what I’d wanted all along was a warts-and-all bike, one that had been around the block a few times, a bike that was old and looked it.”
My Lejeune, not really so young, had certainly been around the block a few times, but since I’d owned her, I could barely manage to pilot her around my block while struggling with her petulant insistence at going right. The old gal showed her age in a sort of defiant way, and when I did manage to get her pointed in a straight line long enough to give the pedals some muscle and forget the handling issue, she did respond with a sort of springiness that seemed to launch you forward a little with each stroke. And she seemed to want more as if going fast what she was made for. I considered her a fast woman. If I allowed myself to daydream a little while riding her, I could almost see fields of French sunflowers or Flander’s poppies blur past, at least until I came face to face with the ass-end of a UPS truck or some other vehicle on parked on the right.
So before I hit a parked car, I took the fork to Tucson frame builder, Andy Gilmour, for corrective alignment measures. Before Gilmour even put the fork on his Italian Marchetti and Lange fork alignment table, he looked down the steerer tube and told me that both fork legs were bent to the left. He was confident that he could fix them through a cold setting process (basically bending them without applying heat—important for keeping my original paint and chrome finish) performed on his alignment table. He did this for me in one afternoon, and by evening, I had the fork back on and was spinning out on the desert roads east of my house.
The fork alignment transformed the Lejeune. I fitted her with a new set of wider and more comfortable Philippe Professional handlebars, which I wrapped in French blue Velox brand cotton tape. I replaced her hardened black Mafac Racer brake pads with new set of Koolstop salmon colored stoppers. I applied a ridiculous amount of Obenauf’s Heavy Duty leather protectant, top and bottom, to her Ideale saddle. I mounted some light, fast, and comfortable tires, and I rode and rode and rode.
I could easily ride her no handed, even whilst eating a sandwich or removing a jacket. She was agile, but stable, wonderful, graceful, and more than I had hoped. With proper alignment, and some refreshed wear parts, my LeJeune seemed, well, younger! I wanted to be on her pedals every chance I got. After my slathering, even the saddle lost its unbearable stiffness and became richly colored, semi-soft, with gleaming brass rivets. Yes, the rear derailleur still hunted a bit when I moved the shift lever, but no more so than could be expected from any bike of this vintage.
My second jersey, also purchased on eBay, arrived from Holland, this one an actual vintage team BP LeJeune wool model, with fewer moth holes than the first one I’d bought. When I opened the Royal Mail package, it smelled of pipe tobacco and ivory soap. Thankfully, it fit better, and I fancied myself handsome in it; although no woman in my house would confirm this, I maintained my opinion nonetheless. I rode to the bank to make a deposit in full BP kit, rolling into the drive through portico. I was now period correct, country correct, and ready for serious Eroica training.
I thought about what stories these old jerseys might tell. In the case of Al Shoemaker’s jerseys (see story on Al here), I knew I was quite literally riding around in dead man’s clothes. It had the effect of sobering me up, trying to honor the previous jersey’s owner. This new LeJeune jersey, having arrived from European shores, was certainly my most exotic. What French passes and Belgium cobbles had it seen? The week it arrived was a record breaking streak of 85-90 degree February days in Tucson. French wool, meet Arizona heat. How did it wick? Better than expected.
I’ve put up more photos of Mlle LeJeune here.
BobFebruary 21, 2016 at 8:37 am
Fantastique” story and pix on le “Le Jeune” velocipede!
The Beautiful BicycleFebruary 21, 2016 at 8:56 am
Merci, Bob. More stories about French, Italian, British, and American velocipedes are in the pipeline.
Bob T.January 1, 2017 at 8:51 pm
Great read! Nothing like a love affair with a vintage French mistress!
Tom JordanJune 20, 2017 at 5:59 am
I’m so glad you got this lovely lady back into shape. I hope my description of her handling was accurate enough to not shock you too much upon first ride. Sounds like she’s found a terrific home. Great story – great writing! — Tom Jordan
The Beautiful BicycleJune 20, 2017 at 6:30 am
Thanks for the compliments Tom. Yes, you adequately disclosed the handling issues; thankfully, the fork alignment almost magically solved them. There is no doubt I’ve enjoyed riding and working on Mme. LeJeune.