Observation The New French New Wave and the Whiff of Competition

When I was asked by the good folks at Oregon Manifest to contribute as a roving two-wheeled reporter on the utility-cycling beat here in Portland, the first thing that came to mind as blog fodder was what friends, family, and colleagues will attest is the virus that can send me into insufferable bouts of logorrhea: my obsession with the work of the midcentury French master constructeurs, or bicycle builders. Handily, this also happens to be the ever-growing and -evolving obsession of many a modern American cyclist and bike builder.

For our purposes, Exhibit A is Tony Pereira’s judge-beloved best-in-show bike (pictured) from 2009’s OM Constructor’s Challenge: a gorgeous update of… an old Parisian newspaper-delivery bike, or porteur. That’s the beauty of these French guys (the most respected of whom is René Herse, who died in 1976): out of a constant striving for the best geometries, materials, and craftsmanship, they made art out of the mundane, yet they were nothing if not practical, utilitarian. A bike was, and still is, a tool.

These were highly skilled fabricators who sought only one thing, the most elegant (i.e., simple and effective) solution to whatever challenge a desired collusion of man and machine presented, whether it be creating a durable yet lightweight bike meant to move fast over rough roads for long distances, a fully self-supported cyclotouring rig for the plein-air camper, or a steel workhorse designed to move loads quickly in control and comfort. These were artist-engineers, and some, as evidenced by their work, were much more skilled than others—and guarded their innovations circumspectly. As a result, though their competition and ambition led to great advances in the bicycle, there weren’t a lot of these builders around, there are very few constructeurs left in France nowadays, and there seem to have been substantial talent gaps as one traveled across the spectrum.

Thankfully, though, that policy of secrecy and self-preservation hasn’t been in evidence as I’ve spoken to some of the builders of today, especially those members of Portland’s burgeoning bike-making populace. These builders, a lot of them former shop mechanics, openly share their ideas and techniques, online via sites like Flickr as well as in person; cross-pollination is de rigueur. And it’s that aspect of the constructor community that makes the three OM 2011 design-studio-and-builder collaborations all the more intriguing, since we’re not only going to be seeing a new kind of cross-pollination of unfamiliars here; there’s also the juicy hothouse of the competition. Will the teams share their schemes? Or will they tease and feint, oozing vagaries and tantalizing photos of mystery details?

I hope and suspect our three collabo units will show and tell throughout the process (here and on Core77), because, in the end, a slow reveal won’t change the outcome. But I’m guessing our other, solo builders will now be keeping their cards closer to their vests. After all, it’s a lot like a Halloween party; if you tell everybody what you’re going to dress up as, it ruins the surprise—and a lot of the fun. Let’s also not forget the hard fact of the Trial. It (and, let’s hope, the judges) will make an objective decision.

May the best artist-engineer win.

by Jeremy Spencer