Handlebar Hoopla, What Now?

My Royal H Mixte is almost built up, save for the fenders, racks and lights. I don't want to post glamour shots before the bike is completed, but let's just say it has some unusual features! The build has been slow, but more or less trouble-free so far... until we ran into an unexpected glitch with the handlebar setup.

My idea for this bicycle was to install VO Porteur handlebars with Silver bar-end shifters and Guidonnet brake levers.  In theory this seemed like a good plan, but in practice several things have gone awry...

First, the stem length we thought would work (6cm) is apparently too short, because when I lower the bars down to where I want them, the bar-ends overlap too much with my knee if I sharply turn the handlebars while the pedal is in the up position. So we had to exchange the stem, and thankfully the shop that sold it to us was willing to do that. We are now installing a 10cm stem and will see whether that eliminates the overlap.

But the bigger problem is the Guidonnet brake levers themselves. They look fantastically French and provide plenty of braking power, but I find their placement awkward.

As you can see in the pictures, the Guidonnets are shaped like a pair of short rod-brake levers. They are installed in such a way, that their curve is meant to follow the curve of the handlebars. And because the Porteur bars are quite narrow, my hands end up in a position that is too close to the stem when braking - which I find suboptimal in its effect on the bicycle's handling.

{Edited to add: I have now test-ridden the bicycle with these brake levers extensively. When going over 12mph, the handling in this position stabilizes; slower than that it is somewhat shaky. It is basically a very aggressive position close to the stem, similar to the "fixie grip". The levers are good if you want a  bike with swept-back bars to handle aggressively in city traffic. The levers are not so good if you don't.}

As you can see here, the Guidonnet levers don't allow you to brake from the upright position on the handlebars, but make you lean forward and move your hands closer to the stem. I find it counter-intuitive to brake in an aggressive position and shift in a relaxed position; should it not be the other way around?  I will test ride the bike some more once we install the longer stem, but I suspect that I might have to admit that the Guidonnets were a mistake - which leaves the question of what to do instead.

One possibility would be to install inverse brake levers (which I already have lying around) and fit the Silver shifters into a set of Paul's Thumbies handlebar mounts, as Renaissance Bicycles has done on the build shown above.  I have never seen Silver shifters mounted on the handlebars before, only the (considerably less classic-looking) Shimanos. Having spoken to Bryan from Renaissance about it, I learned that he has rigged up a system to make the Silver set-up possible, and I am considering emulating it.  The problem is, that the Co-Habitant is vehemently against this plan: He insists that placing the shifters on the handlebars would "cheapen a high end bike". I understand what he means, but I disagree when it comes to the Renaissance method involving the Silver shifters; I think it looks surprisingly elegant. Honest opinions?

The alternative solution would be to get rid of the Porteur bars and take the Albatross bars from Marianne - installing them in the same upside-down manner, only with bar-end shifters and with the entire bar wrapped. I could do it, though I was really looking forward to having the Porteur bars on this bicycle. Maybe there are other possibilities I am missing? I would like for this bicycle to retain a vintage French look, which I feel is better achieved with the Porteurs than with the upside-down Albatross. Suggestions welcome!

{Edited to add: the Guidonnet levers have now been sold; thanks for your inquiries!}


  1. What would happen if you shortened the grip areas of the handlebars? You could take off say 4cm and revert to the 6cm stem.
    That would leave the bar end shifters in the same relative position as they are now, but move the brake levers back. Then you could operate both shift and brakes from the upright hand position.
    You would still have porteur bars, just slightly different proportions than a stock VO. Who's to say VO got the proportions, width v. setback, just like an original anyway?

  2. I'm glad to see someone reviewing the guidonnet levers. I'm seriously considering those for my commuter.

    I don't have a solution for you, but I wouldn't recommend shifters on the tops of the porteur bars. I used those bars with regular levers in the same position that you're proposing to put the shifters and found it unsatisfactory because it used up valuable handlebar real estate. When accelerating or climbing, it's very comfortable to rest your hand near the bend in those bars, and placing a clamp there seriously limits your options.

    I guess you could always get some stem-mounted shifters, but those aren't particularly sexy either.

  3. Bar ends on thumbies are not cheap looking at all and are great and convenient to use. I think you would be 100% happy with that.

  4. my two cents are...
    1. can you move the brakes outward further along the handlebars? then maybe you wouldn't feel like your edging toward the stem while braking? i think they would still look lovely if it is possible...

    2. what about a nitto dove bar or some other north-road-ish bar that is slightly wider but keeps the same look?

    looks gorgeous! :)

    and p.s. i am a big fan of the inverse brake levers as an alternative. my cohabitant has this on a single speed and i think it looks great.

  5. I agree that the shifters on the handlebar are underwhelming at best. Like many of the most elegant solutions, my idea to solve this may not actually exist-- but it should!

    What would be great is if you had a pair of inverse levers that clamped around the very ends of the handlebar (incorporating a pass-through channel for the shift cable) rather than plugging into the open ends as per usual. That way the shifters could remain "plugged in" and coexist with a pair of inverse levers.

    It could certainly be done, but it would take a good bit of time to fabricate/modify something to work. You'd have to either sacrifice a pair of something that clamps that diameter bar or make them from scratch. The brake cables would run alongside the shift cables. This may or may not make any sense in word form-- it's the sort of thing I explain best with a drawing.

    If you don't feel like concocting a bit of custom slickness like that, you could mount the shifters on the stem, which the French did often.

    1. could be just a regular lever installed backwards?

  6. VO has a set of city bike levers that fit road bars (23.8mm) like the Porteurs. These could be set up the same way as the levers on your albatross bars giving you braking close to the ends of the bars and keeping the shifters at the barends.

    An alternative that I have on my city-style fixed gear is flipped-over bulhorns; on my bike they point backward toward the rider but the grips are straight back rather than at an angle as they are on the porteur. I have guidonnet levers on these bars and they work really well. There are no shifters on this bike of course, but the bars can take barends. I have corks there instead. The bars are wrapped in cloth tape and shellac following the curve giving about four hand positions, three of which allow for easy braking.

    Love the blog.

  7. I have thumbies on a bike (with shimano bar-end shifters), and I like it.

    You might be able to find some old stem-mounted shifters on ebay. I don't know if they would look too cheap or not.

  8. Gosh, hope I'm not mixing the pot here. First, what a beautiful frame!

    I really like your Guidonnet levers, but, if I were honest I think there are aesthetic reasons to change them as well as functional. They would look a little better on bars that end in closer proximity to the end of the brake levers.

    I really love the look of inverse brake levers, but, I think they look best on bars that have been flipped like your upside-down albatross bars on Marieanne, or inversed North Road bars. If you did use your existing inverse levers, that would leave the 'cockpit' looking pretty clean, so I'd probably change to stem-shifters if possible (I think they look OK as long as they're silver). I have to agree with Co-Habitant, I personally don't like the Renaissance Bicycle set-up above. The shifters look as though they weren't considered in the original build and have been plonked on as an afterthought. It looks cluttered.

    I like the suggestion of maybe trimming off some of the bar length to keep the existing set-up. Would that effect the handling?

    Anyway, I'm sure if you choose not to use those lovely Guidonnet levers on this project it's only a matter of time before there's another in the pipeline that they will be perfect for.

  9. I suggested cutting the bars but V thinks that the problem is the narrow width near the stem. Nothing can be done about that save for going with a wider bar.

    Inverse brake levers with holes for the shifter assembly would be nice indeed... I wish someone made them.

  10. i second the idea of city-style brake levers, which would allow you to keep the porteur bars and also the bar-end shifters. the only problem is that the VO city levers appear very cheap looking. you can certainly find nicer ones that would still look the part, but i don't know where you'd start to look for them. check out my union flickr set-- i found some generic china-made city levers for it that i think look neutral on a modern or vintage bike, and they actually work extremely well-- they're entirely cast alloy. whatever you do, keep those porteur bars... they look stunning on this bike. the

  11. Update: we installed a 10cm stem and it improved my position on the bike a great deal. I temporarily wrapped the bars in cloth and test rode the bike around town. I understand the reasoning behind the Guidonnet levers now, and I can see how they are suitable for those wanting to achieve an aggressive position while cycling in the city. And while I could handle riding and braking with them, I want this bike to be perfect and this set-up is not what "perfect" means to me. So I will definitely be changing the brake levers (and if anybody wants the Guidonnets, drop me a line).

  12. Re cutting down the handlebars: The reason I don't want to do that, is that it would reduce the variety of hand positions the bars provide. I plan to use the entire surface area for gripping, not just the ends of the bars. The great thing about the Porteurs, is that they are just long enough to provide both a relaxed and a more aggressive position, but not as long or as curvy as the North Road/Albatross style, which would change the look of the bike.

    Re the city levers: Standard city levers interrupt the gripping area; there is no way to install them otherwise. On the other hand, the inverse levers and the Guidonnets allow for the entire length of the bar to be uninterrupted, so that the rider can slide their hands freely and use numerous hand positions. I think this is why we see Porteur bars traditionally fitted with these levers, rather than the city levers seen on North Roads.

  13. Hey! Why didn't you go for the TA cranks?

  14. 'whatever works' is what makes something elegant. anything else is nonsense. keep searching for those components which make the ride functional and comfortable. forget the vintage. there's a reason many of those designs did not survive.

  15. Herzog - You can tell from these pictures that the cranks aren't TA? I'm impressed! As for why, see the comments section of the "Seymour Blueskies" post from a couple of days ago, toward the end. Basically we tried to buy them, but were not as impressed as we thought we'd be.

  16. Hope you manage to sort out the handlebars. Either way that is one lovely mixte and I love the colour.
    Wish someone would come and fix up my mixte and make it weatherproof for the winter. I have drop bars on mine and am happy with that set-up.

    I also love that you fix up your own bikes. I wish I had the confidence to hack away at my bikes.

    Hope it all goes well. :)

  17. I recently swapped the stock drop bar + aero levers on my Mixte for the VO Belleville bar with Guidonnet levers, a decision based solely on aesthetics and not experience. I quickly found the Guidonnet levers to be ill suited for my small hands. Ideally Guidonnets enable the rider to increase their braking positions to both the front of the bar (to keep elbows out of traffic) and the sides of the bar, in a less aggressive position. Unfortunately, small hands can only reach at the front of the bar. I was forced to swap the brake levers and chose VO Dia Compe Inverse levers. The inverse levers give me free use of the entire bar surface, quiet the appearance of brake cables, and are so easy to grasp. As for the spare Guidonnets, I've seen them installed on drop bars and for those that rarely brake while in the drop position they make a lot of sense and clean up the overall appearance.
    With my new mixte set up, I've had trouble feeling a little crowded and blamed it on being unable to move the Brooks saddle back any further. Also, when I raised the bars it felt like the intended sport geometry of my Mixte was compromised too severely. So curious to see how you finish your bike...

  18. Woolen Typist - I wish I could say that I fix my own bikes, but it's the Co-Habitant, being very kind with his bit of time off this summer. Eventually, the plan is to turn this mixte into a "convertible": have one stem with upright bars and another with drop bars, and switch them depending on where she needs to go.

    Elizabeth - Your Guidonnet experience reads as pretty similar to mine. Initially I could not brake with mine at all, but the Co-Habitant rigged it up so that the levers had shorter travel and did not hang down as low. If your handlebars feel crowded and/or too upright, have you tried a longer stem or shorter bars? The VO Milan handlebars have a minimal sweep and are pretty perfect in these situations.

    1. Hi I've been reading excerpts from your great blog and have also just guidonnets on my bike. Would you mind sharing how the Co-Habitant rigged it up for shorter travel? If I could adjust the reach these levers would be perfect for me!

  19. AFAIK, "Guidonnet" are designed to be fitted on the top of a drop bar, pointing forward. On a flat bar and pointed rearward, it juts look weird and, well, pointless. (In my humble opinion).
    Inverted lever are an acquered taste : They ca, get in the way when you grab or release the bar. They will also need a forward grip for the optimum leverage. But they look way cool indeed.

  20. That bike is so sweet, I know why you are taking the time to make it "perfect." My initial thoughts are:
    1. If you like those levers and those bars, chopping off the ends seems to be the only solution.
    2. If you are open to other bars, might you consider the Montmartre or Left Bank from VO? Those are classy as heck, I think.
    Good luck and I can't wait to see how it turns out (and how it changes over time, like all well-ridden bikes!).

  21. 1. how about a quick review of bicycle bells? some I've tried are too shrill for my taste and I am hoping you have spent hours comparing to save the rest of us a lot of time!

    2. how is this mixte different from every other mixte (of yours) and what do you think its role will be? is Marianne to be evicted at last? I think she is about to be put up for adoption, having always been the redheaded stepchild in the bike shed...

  22. one of the reasons i went with the inverse brake levers for my jeunet with porteur bars was to have more usable range along the backward sweep of the bars... something that i find useful when taking the bike on longer rides (it was built as a city bike)... when my hands get tired or i feel i want a more aggressive riding position, i can move my hands forward a few inches, closer to the bend of the bars, and still have control of the levers. however, as has been noted earlier, inverse levers are incompatible with bar-end shifters...

    velouria, since you mentioned that you plan to have two sets of bars that can be swapped out depending on where you want to go with the mixte, then it makes sense to put city-type levers on the porteur bars and forego the ability to use the full range of the back sweep. these bars weren't really meant for longer rides, anyway... the inverse levers just provide that "bonus". then for your alternate set of bars and levers, choose something designed for longer distances/aggressive riding position.

    on a side note, for anyone considering inverse brake levers, i highly recommend the tektros... i don't have experience with the dia compes, but from what i've heard from others is that they are built more cheaply with a plastic mechanism... they also look cheaper, in my opinion. the tektros are all cast aluminum and have a smooth lever action. they also look great on "vintage-aware" restorations, as the "tektro" logo can be removed with paint stripper and steel wool:


  23. philippe - I have tried the inverse brake levers on others' bikes and seemed to do fine with them. I have very flat(?) hands, so there is plenty of space between the lever and my grip.

    Anon 9:26 - I am very boring in the sense that I don't look for new things once I find what I want, and I am afraid this applies to bells. I get those Crane/Spring brass bells for all of my bikes, and I love their not-too-shrill sound.

    Regarding mixtes - This one evades description. When the bike was being designed, the builder and I spoke a lot about the vintage (1960s and earlier) constructeur mixtes and how they handled; I think he took this aspect of what I wanted very seriously. The result is, that it handles like what I *think* a New Old Stock Rene Herse might feel like. Of course I have no way of knowing for sure. But it is a completely different animal from "Marianne", and a little closer to (but still different) the older Mercier mixte that I have recently sold.

    And you are right that Marianne will soon have to go... if I can manage to do it!

  24. I love the frame. The bike is shaping up nicely.

    I have the Porteur bars and Guidonnet levers on my Miss Mercian. I've only done three rides with them so far, so I haven't made up my mind as to whether I'll keep either/both/neither. One thing I like about them is that when my hands are on the swept-back part of the bar, I can still use most of the length of the swept-back part while still having the levers within reach. Plus, it allows for two-finger braking, at least for me. Then again, judging from the photos I've seen of you, I have bigger hands than yours.

    However, when I ride on the forward part of the bar, gripping the lever is actually a bit more awkward than I thought it would be. Maybe it's a matter of acclimation, or simply re-positioning the levers and/or bars a bit.

    It's funny: On a regular road bike I don't have to experiment much to find what combination of components will work for me. But Helene (that's what I've decided to call Miss Mercian) is a bit different. It's definitely sportier than most mixtes I've seen, but it's still a bit more like a city bike than it's like my other two Mercians. Plus, I will ride Helene in a somewhat different position from the other Mercians (or other road bikes I've had), which have drop bars, or from the Le Tour I ride with VO Milan bars.

  25. Velouria:
    The mixte looks gorgeous. Love the color scheme.
    When I restored my wife's Raleigh Sprite fitted with the original North Road bars (I believe their tubing is the same diameter as road bars) I used Tektro MTB-style brake levers and they fit perfectly. I believe Rivendell fits many of its Albatross-equipped bikes with MTB-style brake levers.
    Have you thought of using inverse levers and stem shifters? It would be a real old-school look. My wife loves the original Huret stem shifters on her Raleigh.
    Another crazy idea: Would cross-style interruptor levers mounted near the grips work on the Porteur bars?

  26. Thanks for posting. My favorite commuter, a customized SanJos8 from Harris had an unfortunate run-in with a truck and since the frame has to be replaced I've been considering getting a custom mixte. Anyway, while waiting for the insurance settlement I am using a 1997 Gary Fisher for commuting and one of my recent changes was to put in the VO promenade bars which requires a new, longer stem. I am using a cheap sunlite adjustable (110mm) to figure out the the right position then will probably swap out again.

  27. Justine - Thanks for sharing your experience; it is very informative that even you have doubts about using this set-up. I had a great time riding the bike last night through Boston and I managed to use the brakes fine - but on a custom bike I really want something that is more "me" and I just feel that this isn't it. I am looking forward to seeing more pictures of Helene in action on your blog! Mine is not named yet.

  28. Hi! I just installed a very similar set up on my bike - Guidonnet levers with the VO belville bars and dia compe bar end shifter. I find that braking works very well - at first I was very concerned because my hands are small and the distance from bar to lever looked far, but with some playing around with the psotition of the levers I have found myself casually gripping them with one or two fingers and stopping fine. Although I can't sit at the very end of the bars and brake. I can still sit comfortably semi-upright closer to the middle of the bar, and then I slide my hand along the bar to the end to shift.
    My set up took some time to get used too, (I had mustache bars on before, but realized I was not using them appropriately and wanted to install a larger basket on the front) - although I did run into the same trouble with the bar end shifter running into my knee if I am not careful!
    I hope everything works out for you - best of luck!

  29. I have an old Nishiki International that I use as my grocery bike that has porteur bars with Tektro reverse levers and a Pletcher rack on the front. The porteur bars really reduce the rider's reach, so even with a 9 cm stem the bike seems "small". The long bar extends enough to bang against the top tube - not ideal - and raising the stem only goes so far. I do like the reverse levers, but they do pull you back instead of forward when braking. I put my shifters on the downtube. It doesn't get any more vintage than that.

  30. If you're still thinking to rid yourself of the guidonnets, drop me a line...

  31. Joe - Your profile is not viewable, so there is no contact info. Drop me a line at filigreevelo-at-yahoo-com if you want them.

  32. Update: The Guidonnet levers have now been sold; thank you to all who inquired.

  33. Interesting. I've been through many efforts to get bars like this to work. In my experience you generally have to put them further out. The VO Polyvalent frame has a longer top tube just to get upright bars further out.

    As for the Guidonnets they seem to be made for the old Belleri Porteur bars that VO used to sell. Those Belleris have a wider flat area and have shorter upright grip area than the VO Porteur bars. Chris says their curve was more abrupt, but I recall the Guidonnets covering more of the bar. In any case what could work is cutting down the bar a bit on the ends with a tubing cutter, that would also reduce the knee strike with your short stem.

    Pauls Thumbies are pricey but they look great, I would have no hesitation putting those on a high-end bike. I would avoid stem shifters. I find that they compromise handling too because you have to apply force to the center of the the bars and stem. They also have a "low-end" association and block the quill stem, which is among the more elegant parts of a classic bike.

  34. back to bike bells--Crane also makes a strike bell (Crane Suzu Lever Strike Brass Bicycle Bell) that Broadway Bikes carries (but they did not have the Crane Karen for comparison). Here was an inspiring review from somewhere on the web:
    "The epitome of bicycle bells. This is a beautiful bell, and the final word when it comes to bicycle bells. As a Musicology major, I am very partial to sound and asthetic. The bell rings at a very loud clear tone (F6 on a piano keyboard, mine is almost bang on tune) and will resonate for upwards of 15 seconds with a solid strike. "

    I'm not that musical but it sounds very nice...

  35. Can you right a post about the different types of handle bars you have and the different grip positions and maybe even about how to pick the right handlebars for your bike? I know I need to change the handle bars on my Nishiki, but I'm not sure how to pick the right ones.

    Erin B

  36. sorry for a late late late post, only just read this, the inverse break levers have my vote, they look so functional and, yet, well, inverted (in fact more than my vote, I'm going to put similar ones on a modified Raleigh twenty..), thanks for leading the way..


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