Almost a year ago Hermès, famous for its scarves and leatherwear, launched two bicycles, one called Le Flâneur, the other Le Flâneur Sportif. Starting at just over ,000, the simpler city version has eight gears, its racier sister 12. But this is no exercise in branding. The Paris fashion house designed these bikes from A to Z, in partnership with Time Sport, a Lyon-based specialist in carbon fibre.
“The idea was to combine the best technologies cycling had to offer, in particular a lightweight monobloc carbon frame, with the traditional know-how of our leatherworkers, in order to deliver high performance and beauty,” says François Doré, head of Hermès Horizons, the division tasked with made-to-measure goods and mobility.
Hermès is not the only fashion firm to be investing in two-wheelers. Lacoste, Trussardi, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Armani and Dolce & Gabbana have all brought out machines that fly their colours. “After working with the car industry, putting their name on limited series, top brands stand to gain by supporting bikes, an urban trend which is bound to grow. These environmentally friendly vehicles demonstrate their good civic sense,” says design consultant Yorgo Tloupas, who owns about 10 well-loved, cutting-edge frames.
About 3m bicycles are purchased annually in France and five-figure price tags are no longer uncommon. One reason why prices have rocketed is the use of titanium or carbon fibre to build the frame, or indeed other parts such as wheel rims or handlebars. The return of hand-made frames has also contributed to the price tag. If you have the means, a specialist frame builder will make you a bike to suit your weight, leg length and style of cycling.
In Clermont Ferrand, Auvergne, the Victoire workshop has been making frames to suit individual needs since 2011, with models in conventional or stainless steel, for use on roads or tracks, for touring or gentle rambling, and even specific sports such as triathlon or polo. “We practise high-technology craftwork, serving customers all over the world, particularly in Asia, where made in France rhymes with luxury, like haute couture,” says Julien Leyreloup, the thirtysomething head of Victoire Cycles. He designed a bike for Berluti, the Parisian shoemaker now part of LVMH, which subsequently kitted it out with a line of leather accessories – frame pouch, pannier, pedal straps and even a pair of shoes for chic, trendy gents determined to cut a dash in a traffic jam.
A Paris start-up, appropriately named Héritage, markets one-off, custom-built items produced in France. “I wanted to give these skills a new lease of life in the land of the Tour de France. But I also wanted to make something alluring,” says entrepreneur Cyril Saulnier. He has invented several bijou bikes, in particular the H007 Goldfinger bike, which sports forks plated with 24-carat gold. Brand and fashion consultant Thomas Erber put it in his cabinet of curiosities. Saulnier’s latest creation, commissioned by someone at the peak of elegance, demanded 70 hours’ work by a leatherworker, who wrapped the whole bike in leather, with three different tones – to match the buyer’s favourite shoes.
There is no stopping eccentric designers or their elite customers. Some even hang their prize possession on the wall. In Britain, Brompton folding bicycles have become an institution; in the US, Electra has established its very own style with the Cruiser range. The Kickbike, a cross between a pushbike and a scooter, hails from Finland.
Although the basic shape of bicycles has not changed much in the past century, the search for new materials has fuelled innovation.
In the Vosges area of eastern France, In’Bô is particularly proud of its latest model, handmade using bamboo and flax fibre. Last spring it won the Red Hook Criterium track race in Brooklyn, New York. Meanwhile, in Tours, in the Loire valley, designer Paule Guérin has built two bikes using ash. She joined forces with prototype manufacturer Till Breitfuss to develop a frame made of 24 layers of laminated timber, vacuum-bonded with an organic resin. It has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than steel or aluminium.
A wood sculptor, winner of the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France award, made a special version of the frame, adding feathers to turn it into a winged horse. “Our bikes are fully functional and currently being tested at the cycle track in Blois. They’re a reminder of the ash war chariots deployed by the Hittites and ancient Egyptians, competing for the upper hand in both technical excellence and sculpted splendour to succeed on the battlefield and the parade ground,” says Guérin.
Not all of us can afford Factor Bikes’ Aston Martin One-77, on sale for around ,000, but cycling enthusiasts can always customise their loyal steed by adding the latest in cranks, derailleurs and disc brakes. The biCyCle store in Paris draws a steady stream of aficionados patiently building, bit by bit, their dream bike.
This article appeared in the Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010