Bernard Carré Confessions

My expectations were that this might turn out to be a fun and interesting curiosity. I mean after all, I was done – finished – with French frames. I’d sold off most of my French components, bars, stems, and pedals. A small voice in the back of my head whispered, “Hey dummy. You’ve got just enough French stuff left to build up a bike.”

Turned out, as a matter of fact, that the voice was wrong. I had unloaded more individual items than I remembered. Where, oh where is that perfect Simplex seat pin that would fit this frame perfectly? I really don’t remember selling or trading it, but I must have done. It’s nowhere to be found. (Surprisingly to those who know me well, my parts are moderately organized.)

So here I find myself – once again – with another fun and interesting curiosity. It’s a ‘cross bike. Heck, what I know about cyclocross is pretty much limited to the correct spelling. After my initial attempt to build up an all French roadie stalled, I started to poke around to find out more about how a cyclocross bike from the 70’s might have been built up. Did you know that there’s plenty of information available about contemporary ‘cross, but that there’s a dearth of anything resembling detail prior to the last twenty years?

I blame America, in part. We figure the world revolves around us. So despite the fact that ‘cross has flourished in parts of Europe for a very long time, it really didn’t existed at all until Americans “discovered” it a few years back. At least that might be the conclusion one could reach from researching the internet. I’ve tried to located images of cyclocross bikes that date to the 1970’s without much success. Sure, there are photos of events and riders, but most are those ubiquitous images you see of herculean guys covered in mud and carrying their bikes up a steep hill. Hard to tell what the heck components they’re using when everything is bathed in three inches of dripping goo.

After a brief fling with a kit of Zeus Criterium parts, I settled on something I definitely hadn’t anticipated putting to use: Suntour Superbe. After muddling around, I’ve managed to get it to shift my 13-26 five speed cluster very smoothly. The 52/42 road crank that was paired with these derailleurs in the early 80’s also functions very well. I began to compare popular contemporary ‘cross gearing to the recollections of a few people who were involved in the sport prior to 1990. 46/36 is often cited as a starting point for a crankset today; 39t singles are also popular. Comparatively speaking, that’s not a whole lot different than the 40t and 42t kits I’ve been told were used back in the day.

Obviously the rear cluster has changed a lot since the mid 70’s. This bike is spaced at 122, so a five or ultra-6 fits comfortably and easily. (I may see if a 7 or 8 will pop in without much fuss.) Today’s cross bikes have a much wider range of gearing, in 10 and 11 speeds. A lot of discussion focuses on using singles up front as opposed to compact double, and apparently it’s not a new conversation. I’m told that singles were popular in the past as well, their simplicity an attractive feature.

There’s also a fair bit of dialogue regarding single speed drive trains. I imagine it’s a lot easier to avoid huge clots of mud if you don’t have derailleurs hanging down and dragging through all that muck, so I kind of get the idea. I even considered that approach myself for the briefest of minutes. But we’ve got hills in these parts, so I’m not excited about the prospect of a bike that has such limitations…especially one that I’ve viewed from the start as a curiosity.

I was interested to read that bar end shifters were popular in the ‘cross crowd. I’ve got quite a few sets of these myself, my favorite of the bunch being the Suntour friction shifters. So the current version of this bike has a pair installed now.

So back to the confession. Despite having acquired this frame on a whim, and despite “knowing” all along that it would be an odd little curiosity that might get ridden occasionally, something odder still occurred to me this past week. Turns out I really like how this bike rides and how it fits me. I confess that I really enjoy taking it down the road. And now that I’ve (finally) got the MAFAC Competition brakes dialed in, I feel confident bombing down hills or turning onto one of our boulder and ravine strewn gravel paths that we use for country roads in Missouri.

I confess that I’m happily surprised to discover this isn’t anything at all like an odd curiosity after all.


9 thoughts on “Bernard Carré Confessions

  1. Rod A Bruckdorfer says:

    I use friction barend shifter and discovered I shift more than when the shifters were on the downtube.

    • Rod, I am a big fan of downtube shifters myself… So long as they are placed on the downtube conveniently for me. I find that the shifter bosses don’t always fall right where my hands naturally dangle though. So the placement of downtube shifters on my Boulder are just about perfect for me. Other bikes, not so much. And so in those instances I prefer bar end shifters. For my money the SunTour versions are just about the best darn shifters ever.

  2. Martin Lively says:

    Your description of “boulder and ravine strewn gravel paths that we use for country roads” seems the perfect description of the country roads here in NE Oklahoma. What tires are you using? I’ve ridden some Kenda 27 x 1 3/8 knobbies on rough country roads, and they worked well enough. I’m always curious about alternatives, though. Love the blog.

    • Not to be a shill for Compass, but I love their tires and have them on several of my bikes. I use them on road, the patched together tarmac that we have on our sort-of-paved country lanes, and light gravel… not to mention the aforementioned “Boulder and ravine strewn, etc.” That said, I have Panaracer Pasella tires on this particular bike. I had them on hand at the time as well as the wheels and you just can’t beat the cost of “free.” 😇

  3. Suntour was front and center to the Japanese invasion and I recall how much we enjoyed the affordability and the consistent performance these components delivered without constant adjustment and fiddling . . . even if you were a little tardy with cleaning and servicing.

    Sugino was another good memory of that time and I have their current OX901D Compact+ cranks specified on a long-awaited rando build that is underway with Dave Wages at Ellis Cycles. The OX compact+ gets down to 36T inner ring on their double which is very nice for a rando setup.

    Must have missed any earlier post Mark, how did you come to determine this frame was a cyclocross frame . . . geometry looks very tight from the photos. Just curious : ] as I have no experience with the French builders.

    • The geometry, combined with the height of the bottom bracket, and the cantilever posts led many on the CR list to this speculation. I want to say that it was Norris Locksley, who is kind of the de facto expert in this area, that made the judgment call that convinced me.

    • Oh, and by the way, SunTour has always been a personal favorite of mine when it comes to gear changers. I have quite a few different NIB 80’s era Sugino crank sets stashed away for future builds. Pretty darn tough to beat those too!!

  4. I am going to have to try and overcome my Luddite ignorance of computers to post some photos of my mid-’80s Andre Bertin cyclocross bike. You would probably find it of interest. Like your Carre, it has Mafac cantilever brakes. The decal identifies it as Vitus legere tubing that combines with the genius of its geometry to make for an amazingly comfortable and stable ride over rough surfaces – even “at speed”.. As I mentioned before, with the exception of the brakes, it does not have the usual French or European spec components. It has what I believe you called ‘Arabesque’ first generation Shimano 600. Gearing is a double chainset of 39/50, originally with a 14-26 cassette (yes, this was an early cassette, not freewheel). I swapped it right away for a 14-28. Incidentally you are very correct in your suggestion of some vintage cyclocross bikes using single chainrings. In mid-’80s Seattle area cyclocross events, the premium cycles were equipped with a special Campagnolo cyclocross component group. It had a single chainring flanked either side by a toothless “chainguard” ring. My understanding is that in addition to protecting the chainring teeth, this was to guide the bouncing return run chain onto the chainring in the absence of a front derailleur.
    If I were rebuilding a French cyclocross machine today, and couldn’t find a period component, I would be happy to buy an affordable Stronglight crankset (in 34-48T) and bottom bracket from Ribble Cycles, England. I fitted one of these, although a triple, on my 30 year old Gitane touring bike and have been happy. It at least is French and shiny aluminium so creditably looks the part.

    • You are absolutely correct – I would be very interested to see your Bertin. You’re more than welcome to email pictures my way if you don’t have a Flickr (or similar) account.

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