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Jo Routens c. 1968

(This text is a translated version of my project topic. Some parts were written more than a year ago, and some have been added now during the translation process. The pictures were also taken at separate times and thus are a bit inconsistent)

As the golden age of fixed gear bikes came to a close circa 2016, (for my own part due to a knee injury) I was looking for a bike that truly suited me, and had some connection with - my bike-self, you could say - for several years. At first I think I rode a superlight road bike, a Principia Rex E Pro, then a heavy metal ATB, a Rossin Montare became my trusty companion. Then I tried perfecting the concept of the 26" wheeled touring/do-it-all bike for a long time, and the end result was a titanium framed tourer that I still have and ride.

But even despite its light weight (~12kg equipped with 52mm tires, fenders, lights, rear rack) the bike didn't feel easy to pedal or "eager to go". So slowly I got more and more interested in having a faster bike again. But I wasn't sure what would be the thing that makes a bike fast (while still being able to handle real-life situations and everyday trips and commutes). Like many other bike enthusiasts at that time, largely thanks to the work of Bicycle Quarterly magazine I developed an interest in the tradition of the French cyclotourists and their bicycles. I even started feeling like I'd found my bike-spiritual home again. But finding a bike like that is not too easy, especially as a new initiate of that world.

After quite a long search in the different corners of the Internet, I found a bike on eBay. It didn't quite convince me at first, as it wasn't the classic example of a superbly crafted, exquisitely fitted and well-maintained luxury bike as seen in the magazines or on the Internet.

It had a huge frame with plenty of mismatching touch-up paint, and to it attached an assortment of odd but interesting parts, that I didn't really appreciate at first. And of course there was the price - which was quite high for a bike that at first glance looks like a cheap Finnish touring bicycle from the 1970s. Some of my friends were supportive of this possible new bike, whereas some acquaintances were more doubtful. After a while of listening to the different opinions alongside my own inner voice, I decided in favour of the bike and made the deal. At this point I wasn't quite sure what I had just bought, but I was definitely intrigued! Now I only had to wait for the package to arrive.

In the meantime, it was time for the shop's summer holiday, always a bit too short, but nevertheless a chance to make a bigger bike tour long awaited. Together with my comrades we left off towards lake Saimaa. On the third day of the tour, after spending around 48 hours at a lean-to shelter, waiting for the torrential rain to end, the sun was out again and we took off in high spirits. Born to Be Wild was playing on the portable speaker and we were releasing the energies that had dammed up while waiting out the rain. Dashing downhill at great speed, a sudden surprise of wet mud formed by heavy rain at the hill bottom, took me and my friend riding before me down with two big crashes. My friend hit their head and broke their helmet, but seemed to be fine at first, only to realize later that they had a proper concussion and badly hurt their shoulder. After standing up for a few seconds I realized that there was a large and deep gash in my own thigh and I was quite shocked seeing a bit too much of my insides. Something had cut my muscles and tissues almost down to the bone. The rest of our group hurried to help us and after some waiting, as the ambulance didn't find the small forest road at first, we got a tandem ambulance ride to Lappeenranta hospital.

In the following weeks of recovery I was refreshing the tracking page of the new-bike shipment fervently. But it didn't seem to be moving anywhere. Finally I got a notification that the package is, for whatever reason, in Ireland. After the small initial worry I relaxed and continued waiting. I think it took six weeks from the shipping date before the big box arrived at my dear workplace. I was still walking with crutches so I made a bit of an exhausting bus ride to get there, but I did get to see my new bike!

The frame unwrapped

Before I could properly walk I had already started slowly to work on the bike and assemble it back together again. After my leg was a bit better, I could carefully start riding it (mostly with one leg). Even though by now I was quite awed by the wonderful special details of the bike, I was still suspicious of its performance, lacking myself the ability to properly test ride it. Had I paid 1700 euros for an average-at-most old clunker?

Initial set-up. Bottle dynamo, original handlebar etc still in place

After my strength had returned and I had completely overhauled the bike, my faith started growing stronger: this old, special and bit awkward bicycle runs easily and beautifully! Compared to its Japanese contemporaries, the shifting system is a bit crude and difficult, but it does work well enough. As one highlight the brakes are some of the best rim brakes I had ever tried. And for once the frame is large enough that I can set the handlebar to a reasonable height without an unsightly high-raised stem. My previous most beloved bike, a golden Vivalo track bike, was 53,5 cm high (seat tube C-T) whereas this one is 61,5! There is no one correct size as we can see.

I do have to admit that I cannot quite comfortably stand over the large frame. One centimeter lower standover height would maybe be more optimal. The frame is not too large, and there is an indicator for that: the brake cable is routed through the seat-tube and seat post, going through a drilled slot in the post, which is about 15mm tall meaning the same amount of possible seat height adjustment. I’m on the short-legged end of this 15mm adjustment, but the brake cable housing does go through the slot when the saddle is set at the correct height for me.

All in all it has been an exciting journey to a different world, and I have ever more respect for old and new mechanical solutions. As an example, commanding the non-ramped cogs and chainrings of the 3x5 gearing with down tube shift levers, via the amazing Jubilee rear derailleur is a skill of its own. After one year of practice I now feel very confident, and don't notice the difficulty anymore.

The saddle, dried for years, took around 10 greasings and plenty of butt-hurting riding, but now it has softened enough to offer complete comfort.

I used the original bottle dynamo and incandescent lights for a while, and due to their extremely sympathetic nature I wouldn't have wanted to give them up. The soft warm light and the buzzing of the dynamo rubbing on the tire were very pleasing. But the amount of light provided, especially on the front, really is not enough in today's world of extreme light pollution and dangerous traffic, and when riding in wet weather the dynamo was quite unreliable as it tends to slip. So I decided to take advantage of a hub-dynamo and a LED front light, in my opinion one of the few great recent advances in bicycling technology.

I didn't want to make a "perfect" example of an artisanal high-end bike, as the bike clearly never was meant to be that. From what I've gathered about Jo Routens, I've understood that their style was always more simple, more tool-like, more working class compared to the chrome-plated extravagant luxury bikes of the other French constructeurs of the same era like René Herse and Alex Singer.

JOS -rear light, the wire enters the frame (bottle dynamo was installed on the same braze-on), brazed on posts for Mafac centerpull brake and odd overly long brake pads

My frame also is made a bit roughly, the fillets are a bit pin-holed (I’ve entertained the idea that it might be brazed by Jo’s son, Jean-Paul, who continued the frame building business after their father) and the paint is worn, but I like it much more exactly because of that.

Reynolds 531 tubing according to the stickers. Note the special brazed on tab for the front fender attachment bolt. Dura-Ace headset

The bike is also an example from the time when the great French bicycle industry was taking its last breaths under the pressure from the Americans, Italians and the Japanese. The "Spidel" sticker on the left chainstay is for the alliance of French parts manufacturers, trying to struggle against their overpowered rivals. Why the French bike industry collapsed I'm not sure, but one of my ideas about it is that they thought they had perfected the bike, and didn't see so much need for innovation, which is unfortunately not a good attitude for survival in our highly-competitive world driven by marketing.

Constructeur-style bottom bracket, BB-shell stiffening “wings” and sticker for Spidel, alliance of French component makers

For practical reasons some of the parts have had to be replaced with new ones. And finding a made in France aluminium handlebar with a touring-bend for example, is very hard or then very expensive. So I have on some occasions had to replace a French part with one made in Japan, which hurts a little bit, but one just has to admit that Japan is where the tradition lives on nowadays.

Shellacking the cloth tape on the new handlebar (Compass Maes Parallel)

The bike already feels like an old friend and I feel we have a great mutual understanding. The Routens has now taken me on many rides big and small, and I often use it for commuting to work. So it is not a museum piece, but an everyday companion to go see special forests, castles, bridges and rivers with. For the previous winter I hung it from the ceiling of the shop in order for the special and rare parts not to get destroyed by the dirty, salty slush and water of the Southern Finnish winter. I am soon going to make an overhaul again and hang it up to wait for spring.

At the Hvitträsk manor

I have since acquired another French touring frame, which uses wider 650b tires, and I think it will be my tourisme bicycle and I will optimize the Routens for faster paved-road riding. Last year I completed (very unofficially) my first brevet (200kms under 13 hours 30minutes) on the Routens and hope to improve my long distance riding condition and skills further.

-Aki Viren

The bike not in its element, but nevertheless going strong

Parts listing:

(parts marked with a * have been changed since I got the bike. I've tried to keep it mostly "original" or as it was when i got it)

frame: fillet brazed by constructeur Jo Routens (from Grenoble), serial number 2957 (probably year 1968), seat tube 61,5 C-T, top tube 58 C-C. Tubing decal says "3 tubes Reynolds 531", fork decal says also 531. The tubing decal seems like it might have been added or replaced at some point.

headset: Shimano Dura-Ace (metric threading)

stem: Nitto Pearl 8cm

handlebar: Compass Maes parallel 44cm (original Philippe Professionel with racing bend was damaged under the stem clamp)

black Velox cloth tape with brown shellac*

bar end plugs: Velox*

brake levers: Mafac*

brake cables and housing: Yokozuna (Reaction compressionless housing)*

brakes: Mafac Racer (early model with writing "Dural Forge" instead of "Racer"), with brazed on posts

crankset: T.A. Specialites 175mm, 30/43/50 chairings

bottom bracket: special cartridge bearing unit "constructeur style"

pedals: Lyotard

clips: Christophe

straps: Afa

shift levers: Huret

derailleurs: Huret Jubilee

freewheel: 5s Maillard Course 14-16-18-20-22 (for now replaced with a cheaper Maillard from a Peugeot as the Course needs an overhaul)

saddle: Ideale, maybe a “90 Special Competition”, special treatment “Rodée Main Selon Rebour”

seatpost: ?


rear Campagnolo Record - Super Champion

front with hub dynamo, Shutter Precision - H+son TB14*

tires Panaracer Gravelking 32mm*

“lighweight” undersized schwalbe sv15 inner tubes*

patches: Maruni “Super Thin”

mudguards: aluminium, front is 45mm wide, rear is 33mm, so one of them might have been replaced at some point. I found a wider and longer replacement rear fender from Uusix bike works that I will install during the winter.

rear light JOS

front light: cheap LED-unit scavenged from a dilapidated smoothie advertising city bike

front rack: probably made by Routens, of steel wire, aluminium support rods.

rear rack: ESGE aluminium and plastic

front bag: Gilles Berthoud GB28 (I had a T.A. Specialites bag as can be seen on the pictures, but it is breaking down due to old age)

The decaleur is designed after classic Alex Singer models and made together with my friend and colleague Make of ManyMetal T:mi.

Home (or cellar) made decaleur. Incandescent light and Philippe handlebars still in use at this point. Note the very elegantly curving Mafac brake levers

Dynamo cable enters the frame. The frame acts as the return for the electric circuit (ground) and thus a single wire can be used. A plastic spacer was installed to lift the front rack a few centimeters, and it is on the correct height for my new Gilles Berthoud bag as well

Paper map and route sheet, old school style.

Information concerning Routens bicycles on the internet:

(site run by Jean-Paul Routens)

Some Tonton Vélo forum topics about Routens’ bicycles (in french, you can use google translate)

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