Are the French Still Riding Vintage Bikes?
Rouen is an historic town in the Normandy region of France, about 70 miles north of Paris. It is best known for its wonderful cathedral and the place where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake by the British. Oh, and it is the home of the great Jacques Anquetil, the man they called Monsieur Chrono. I spent five days walking and riding around this vibrant and busy town of diverse and contrasting features, and was especially interested in discovering its bike culture. I wanted to see how people are using two wheels to face the challenges of transportation in French towns in 2022.
Ancient and Modern
Firstly, the weather was pleasant for mid-March and was encouraging for cyclists to get on their bikes. It didn’t rain once in the time I was there and the price of petrol and diesel had just rocketed because of the war in Ukraine. Ideal, you would think, for taking your bike out instead of your car. Rouen has many ancient streets in its old town, narrow, winding lanes full of history and medieval architecture. Most, however, are not car-free and the city is densely populated and traffic is heavy for most of the day. I think Rouen has the most diverse, dynamic and progressive modes of transport of any French city that I have visited.
What really struck me about Rouen is the diversity of transportation, how people have adopted new technologies to move around quickly for travelling short distances. Ten years ago the alternative method would have been the traditional pedal bike: old beaters, single speeds, vintage racing bikes and cheap mountain bikes would have filled the streets and parks. Now, it’s a much more varied scene: electric scooters and electric urban bikes, many with panniers and racks, are everywhere; electric skateboards and big and hefty electric mountain bikes sneak up on you on the narrowest lanes; even some tiny electric cars can be seen parked in impossible spaces, winning the challenge of the battle for space.
Oú es-tu, Mercier?
It’s rare to see a good quality vintage bike on the city’s streets, or parked up against railings or bike stands. I suppose it’s really just a fear of theft that prevents bike tourists like me seeing a lovely Mercier or Vitus on the streets. Even more depressing for me is the realisation that the pragmatism of modern technology is replacing nostalgic admiration of steel bikes with their squeaky brakes and awkward friction shifting. People are opting for safer forms of transport that provide quick and easy access around the city.
Visit to a Vintage Bike Shop
Happily I did find a vintage bike shop in central Rouen that caters to the needs and sentiments of old school riders. It is called Guidoline. Unlike some hipster bike stores in the US, there were no super-fancy collector’s bikes on the walls, no fabulous Merckx hanging from the ceiling. Rather, it was a modest place with the same pragmatic approach to helping people get around the city, this time with vintage steel bikes. The emphasis was on repairs and the sales of functional, ready-to-ride vintage bicycles. I saw a nice Mercier Rose in a pile of bikes for 250€ and was very tempted to buy it. Guidoline is a great place to visit for vintage bikes and repairs in central Rouen.
The Road to Rouen
If there is a lack of cool vintage bikes on the road in Rouen ( like in many French towns ans cities ), there is certainly no lack of enthusiasm for two wheeled machines. Electric bikes are everywhere as are electric scooters, petrol engined scooters and mopeds. It is not uncommon to see the latter wiggling down old winding streets packed with tourists. Bike lanes are provided on some main roads and boulevards, some sections are dedicated and protected from cars, but mostly cyclists have to share the road with all vehicles.
There’ll Always Be Jacques..
One of the greatest cyclists, surely France’s most successful, Jacques Anquetil, hailed from Rouen. There are streets and plaques dedicated to him, including a quay on the river Seine the runs through the centre of the city. Though Anquetil was never the most popular French cyclist, Rouen is very proud of their cycling genius and it’s fitting to see the man honoured along with Flaubert throughout the city.
The Future is Now
Spending time in Rouen, Pau, Toulouse, Nantes and Paris gave me a good impression of where France is today with vintage bikes. There is a bike technology revolution happening at the moment as electricity is replacing muscle power for modern machines. Vintage bikes are still common on French roads but many are now opting for the electric versions of two wheel transportation, especially as commuter bikes. Most are downright ugly and cumbersome machines, I have to say, so aesthetically they don’t add to the charm of these roads. It’s rare to see a good quality Peugeot or Vitus around, but I still imagine there are plenty of them in homes that are taken out for pleasure rides, it’s just not practical to commute or use them as a daily rider.