Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review of "Marianne": Motobecane Mirage Mixte

I. THE BICYCLE:

Marianne is a 1981 Motobecane Mirage Mixte in a shimmery aquamarine colour. She is a 21" frame, 12-speed, with original Weinmann and Suntour components. Motobecane was one of the better-known manufacturers of French road bikes in the 1970s-early 80's. The Mirage was a mid-range model. We bought the bicycle from the original owner, who had not ridden it much and kept it in good condition. Photos of the bike in its original state can be seen here.

Even though this is a vintage bicycle, I am reviewing it, because it is a readily available product in many areas of the US. Search your local Craigslist and similar sources!

II. IMPROVEMENTS & CUSTOMISATIONS:

Tires: 27 x 1 1/4" Panaracer Pasela Tourguards. I chose these because they combine puncture resistance with the nice vintage look of amber walls. Some people dislike vintage French road bikes because of the non-standard 27" tires they use. But I love the size, as it seems to suit my proportions just right. Also, apparently 27" tires are now undergoing a "renaissance" and are easier to get than they used to be.

Fenders: Fluted Honjo fenders. These fenders are extra-extra long, which is useful for wet conditions, but also makes scrapes more likely. And I fell in love with the stunning art deco details.

Saddle: Brooks Flyer Special in brown. The Flyer is exactly the same saddle as the B17, only with springs. The Flyer is designed for riding with the saddle at about the same height as the handlebars. The springs are very stiff, so they do not bounce you and do not impede speed. But they do act as shock absorbers when the road is less than perfect, which is very useful. The "Special" differs from the regular Flyer in that it has copper rivets instead of chrome.

Saddlebag: Carradice Barley. I am so in love with this bag! It does not take up much space, but is surprisingly roomy inside, and remains amazingly stable while cycling. Mine is secured both to the saddle loops and to the rear rack, because I like for my bags to lie horizontally. The side pockets are super-convenient for grabbing small objects (like mobile-phone and camera) while remaining on the saddle.

Handlebars: I decided to keep the original drop-bars and see whether I could handle them. As described here, my idea was to make them a sort of neutral/olive green. Initially we used cotton tape for this. It looked great, but my hands hurt like hell, because the bars were too stiff and too thin. I had to ride wearing padded gloves, and even that did not entirely take the edge off. So eventually, we wrapped the bars with Cinelli cork tape in "celeste", which turned into an organic-looking olive green after 2 coats of amber shellac. The tape is secured with shellacked cooking twine. The cork tape provided enough padding to stop the pain, and made the diameter just right for my long fingers to wrap around. The drop bars now feel fabulous.

Bell: Japanese brass bell with a "watch-winder" style ringer in the smallest size.

Flowers: Faux cherry blossoms from a local craft store. Maybe they are a bit over the top, but I could not resist!

Lights: The headlight is a very retro-looking Low Rider Bullet Headlight by SunLite. A vintage-style headlight was very important to me, and Harris Cyclery was nice enough to do some reaseach and find this great product for me. In the rear we attached a CatEye TL-LD1100 onto the back of the rack. Both of these are battery operated.

III. FIRST IMPRESSIONS:

This was my first time riding a bike with drop bars and narrow tires. And okay, I will just come out and admit it: When I first got on this bicycle, I was unable to ride it down the street. I tried to take my feet off the ground and start pedaling (after all, a bike is a bike -- how different can it be?) and almost fell off. It felt like I was trying to balance upon a razor's edge. Frustrated and close to tears, I consoled myself that at least we hadn't spent any money on restoring the bike at that point, because clearly I had made a mistake in imagining myself capable of riding it.

But just as I was about to dismount and call it a night, frustration gave way to determination, and I kept stubbornly practicing until finally -- it seemed magically -- I was able to ride it. It was scary, and I felt incredibly unstable, but little by little the Co-Habitant coaxed me further down our street, then across the street, and before I knew it, I had followed him on a 10-minute ride to a local coffee shop without incident.

Whew. Seriously, Ladies -- if I can do it, anybody can! And just two days later, Marianne and I went on a long ride along the Charles River trail.

IV. PROS AND CONS

Of course I had known that road bikes are very different from mountain bikes, transport bikes, and hybrids. But knowing is one thing; doing is another! Here are the pros and cons of my experience with Marianne so far:

Pros

. Speed: She is a gazillion times faster than any bike I have ridden before.

. Hills: What hills? Up hill, down hill, it is all the same to her. I feel nothing as I climb the same hills that leave me panting and covered in sweat on an upright bike in 1st gear.

. Weight: At "only" 30lb including saddlebag, she is a joy to carry up and down the stairs compared to my Pashley.

. Aesthetics: I love the graceful look of vintage French road bikes!

Cons

. Stability: The narrow tires, low handlebars and light weight make Marianne radically less stable than any other bike I have ridden. Once I get going and pick up speed I am fine, but starting and stopping, as well as riding slowly through tight and narrow spaces with lots of turns, can feel like a circus act. I also have a hard time handling pot-holes and objects on the road.

. Sensitivity: Most racers would consider it a good thing that this bicycle is super sensitive, but for a beginner the sensitivity makes the bicycle difficult to control.

. Cycling in Traffic:
I am not confident on this bicycle in traffic at all. The drop bars place my body in a position where I find it difficult to look back over my shoulder, and I also have trouble taking my hands off the handlebars to signal.

While some people report physical discomfort from riding road bikes with drop bars, I do not find the position uncomfortable. It is certainly different from the relaxed upright position of my Pashley, but I have not had problems with pain in my back, neck, or arms. It took some time to get the saddle and handlebar positions just right, and I encourage you to experiment with this as well if you experience pain. Try changing the height of the saddle and handlebars, as well as moving the saddle backward or forward. The right saddle and handlebar tape will also play a major role in your comfort level, acting as shock absorbers for your hands and butt.

V. CONCLUSIONS

Giving new life to a vintage bicycle is an immensely rewarding experience. You can make the bike as personalised and unique as you wish, while maintaining a connexion to history. Vintage French road bikes are a world onto themselves -- a world of beauty, performance and quality. Mixte frames in particular have a romance and charm that is hard to resist, as well as a wonderful versatility: If you can't ride with drop bars, north roads and albatros bars are just as glamorous.


Edited to add:

Since this review, Marianne has undergone many changes. See here for updated reviews:

30 comments:

  1. Hello! I love reading your postings! Great information and fun to see all your "his" and "her" versions of your bicycles! too cute!

    I saw your how-to's for lacing a saddle and that was helpful! I was wondering if you're able to put a post together about how to sew leather grips for your handlebars. I'm having a bit of trouble lining them up and can't find anywhere that shows me how to do it!

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  2. Yeah, the flowers are over the top... but just barely. Nice bike!

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  3. I think that you have done a beautiful job customizing and personalizing your bike. You have such a solid point of view on your bikes and what you want them to be that they all look great. I like the flowers.

    Partly influenced by you there is now a mixte in my corral.

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  4. Hi! I have been enjoying your blog a lot.
    Nice looking bike too!

    I wouldn't judge all road bikes with just this one though. I have ridden many different road bikes over the years and I would say that some are a lot more stable and easier to handle than others. I think trying a different (maybe wider) bars and brake levers might be helpful as well. brake levers with rubber hoods can give you a good place for your hands. That's where I spend most of the time on my road bike. The lower and more forward position does need getting used to, but once you get used to it, it'll seem natural to you.

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  5. I used to ride a ladies cycle (Brand: ? Model: Shogun) as a student and even when I was a part time cycle courier. There was nothing which filled me with more pride in my life as a rider. Road bikes are ace. My current secondhand MTB doesn't have any class compared.

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  6. Thanks for the comments!

    Doohickie -- One thing I forgot to mention about the flowers, is that they function as a sort of psychological tool to make the bicycle seem more "tame" and less intimidating: silly flowers balancing out the scary drop bars. It works!

    Cosmo -- Cool! What kind did you get?

    Mumbleboy -- Thanks for the advice! My handlebars are fairly wide, so for me, I think the problem is just the bent-over position itself, plus the narrow tires. I keep my hands mostly on top, on the widest part of the bars before the curve down to the drops. The brake levers are way too far forward for me to comfortably keep my hands there for long at this point, but I am working on it!

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  7. Marianne looks wonderful. The flowers are so NOT over-the-top. I have a lovely posey waiting to be wired on to the Radish. And while I enjoy all the snaps on your blog of all those lovely bicycles, it's nice to see a photo of YOU on your bike.

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  8. Your intitial trepidation sounds familiar. I'm trying really hard to get over my pedal fears. I have not been able to ride my touring bike on the roads this summer because I'm afraid I'll fall in traffic while clipped in. I have drop bars on the Schwinn and suicide shifters. I put a mirror on the end of the bars so I don't have to try to look over my shoulder or under the arm to see traffic.

    I started out riding a beach cruiser then moved on to the hybrid. But once I got used to a road bike, the hybrid was rarely used. Now my 3 speed has got me swinging back the other way. It just depends on where I'm going and the mood that I'm in.

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  9. Great review!

    On a road bike, when doing a head check, try burying your chin in your shoulder.

    Tailwinds!

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  10. Sara -- thanks : ) I keep wavering re whether to include photos of myself. For now it looks like I am half-way there, with blurry and far-away shots.

    Jen -- This bike originally came with clips on the pedals, but immediately it became clear that this just wasn't an option! At first I rode with the pedals upside down, then removed the clips and straps altogether.

    ChipSeal -- I will give the chin-in-shoulder a try, thanks for the advice!

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  11. that was my exact experience withthe road bike I have ( borrowed) I had to walk it home from Harris ( about a mile) and I cried at home b/c the plan was for me to do the tri on it. I screamed at my husband through tears saying " I have to re-learn how to ride a bike on this thing. I have a month before the race- I don't have time to LEARN I need to get on and practice!!" however after lots of starts and stops on my block I got it. I will not ride it in traffic though. And on race day was fine but worried I was going to wipe out getting on and off but didn't. When on it- I like going fast. stopping starting and turning make me nervous.

    Nice review and food for thought b/c I do love love love the "what hills" factor. I mean that part is really awesome. sigh.

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  12. Must agree with Mumbleboy about the intermediate hand position above the breaks. The rubber parts provide a nice comfy position- forward but not too low. Also middle and index fingers can be used to grip the breaks relatively fluently from this position with some practice :)

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  13. I love how much you customized her to your style while staying true to her history :) Beautiful bike. I'm happy to hear that I'm not the only person scared of road bikes. A friend in Nashville offered to lend me her super racy road bike for the weekend, but I could not got more than 10 feet in the parking lot. Based on your experience, I may one day try again with a less extreme bike, but then as you note, they're not ideal for city riding.

    I don't think the flowers are over the top at all :)

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  14. I forgot to say that I love your hair and outfit in those pictures - tres chic!

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  15. It is so reassuring to hear that others have problems the first time they try a road bike! And thank you all for the compliments : )

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  16. No, the flowers are not over the top. They are, as you would say, lovely, and I don't have a problem with putting "lovely" together with "bicycle."

    I'm enjoying your blog very much.

    A small correction which may prove useful in the future: French bikes normally came with 700c wheels, but they provided 27" models for the US market because that's all we had here in that size range. (700c and 27" are extremely close, only 8mm different in diameter.) So 27" is a mark of an old bike, not the mark of a French bike.

    It's interesting to get your perspective on narrow tires and drop handlebars. I often forget that I also felt unstable on a bike like that, because I've been riding them for a long time.

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  17. Thanks for that information, Tom. I had thought that 700c and 27" were basically different ways of expressing the same tire size. I appreciate the correction!

    The more I ride the bike, the more comfortable I feel maintaining my balance with the low bars and narrow tires. And I absolutely love the way it stretches out my torso and distributes the pressure between my arms and butt.

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  18. I am looking for new tires for my 1970s era Motobecane bike which was my mother's. The rims only measure 25 inches in diameter. Can anyone suggest a supplier? kuhlkat46@aol.com

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  19. Kathi -- If it is a 1970s Motobecane, I guarantee you it needs 27" tires. The method of getting the measurement must be different than measuring the diameter of the rim.

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  20. For 27 inch wheels, the rim diameter will be 630 mm, versus 622 for 700C.

    This is a beautiful bike, and thanks for sharing your experience learning to ride her. I've ridden lightweight bikes for 45+ years, so it is an eye opener to hear how it can be difficult for a capable person just starting out as an adult.

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  21. Hi there! I love your blog. I'm restoring a 1980 nishiki mixte, and thinking about getting those honjo fluted fenders and a flyer-S brooks saddle. any feedback? do the fenders dent easily? has breaking in the saddle been problematic? Thanks!

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  22. Happy Hammy - It is easier to notice dents on the fluted and smooth fenders compared to the hammered, simply because the hammered ones already look dented. I think that is a big benefit to the hammered style. I've had my fluted ones since May, have been using the bicycle actively and not being too careful, and there are no visible dents yet, but there are scratches.

    The Flyer saddle - I love it. I did not experience a break-in period on mine; it was fine from the get-go.

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  23. Nice post. I found a 1980 Motobecane Mirage (same color as yours) in the trash on bulk-recyle day here in Minneapolis. I hate drop down bars too - so I replaced the bars with a Nitto Albatross bar - with new brakes levers which fit the old cables nicely. I also added Brooks saddle and and Grip King pedals (all from Rivendall Bikes in CA) - plus the same bell you have. I agree with all your comments: e.g. this bike is the faster bike I have ever rode (a real screamer) and "what hills"???? Thanks for the post - I enjoyed reading!

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  24. Ah-ha! Me again! I went back and re-read your post just now - and I see you upgraded with new bars and levers as well! Good move! This is a great bike!

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  25. Anon - Thanks! Can't believe the kinds of bikes I hear about getting thrown in the trash. The positive side of that, is that someone who appreciates the bike can get it for free.

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  26. My wife has a 1974 vintage Montobecane Mixte in British Racing Green. It has regular handlebars (factory). It needs tires (27"). Any suggestions? I have a 1974 Veloxsolex in white. Also a great bike. Mine needs tires also(27") -Rich

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  27. Nice blog! Have you tried the rubber hoods yet? It gives you more surface for your hand to grab on to, and increases handlebar stability. The rubber also act as a cushion.

    You can also try out brake levers with shorter reach for smaller hands (I have Tektro R100). Also a drop bar design and size along with correct bike fit can increase stability and comfort.

    Enjoy~

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  28. I know it's a little late, but I just found this post and I want to thank you for talking about how difficult it was to adapt to this bike. I recently began biking for the first time in my adult life (in traffic in the middle of the city, for my work commute), with a very similar bike, and it's... terrifying. I don't feel steady, and I can barely signal without falling over. It really helps to know that I'm not the only one having trouble with this style, and that a different style might make me more comfortable if it comes down to it.

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  29. @ Anon Aug 2. I'm hoping I might offer you a few tips re: your intro to biking.
    If indeed you 'began biking for the first time in my adult life', then you should not be in traffic of any type, esp 'in the middle of the city'. If you never learned to ride as a child, it will take a bit of time to feel comfortable on a bike (ANY bike: the 'mixte' frame has nothing to do with it).
    The first thing I would do is be certain that you are properly FITTED for this bike.
    There are a number of key measurements that any reputable bike shop would be happy to help you with, that can't really be properly explained (though there are websites you can check).
    If you live in a bigger city, 'safe cycling' classes are held many times per year, in most places, that cover the basics.
    Many are offerred just for adults. I think it essential that you register for one of these.
    Provided that the frame size is PROPER for your height, and that things like handlebar and seat height are correct, there is nothing to prevent you from accomplishing your goal of becoming a 'mixte commuter'.

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