After a brief visit to the court house where Nazi war criminal Claus Barbie was being tried, I made my way to the Malartre museum. Just north of the City Center and built around the remnants of a 15th century castle, the museum was rambling and quiet. As should be expected <sigh>, most of of the floor space was inhabited by motor vehicles – cars and motorbikes – including Hitler's armored Mercedes. But they also had an impressive array of bicycles.
It was at the Malartre that I learned of randonneuring and a little of the history of what the French call “cyclotouring”. I saw 50-year-old touring bicycles and tandems built by Lyon’s own Paul Charrel. These were not crude, antiquated machines, but brilliantly constructed and detailed bicycles. I remember staring up at a Charrel tandem and feeling a bit like an orphan that just bumped into the grandfather I never knew I had!
At that moment, gazing in slack-jawed youthful wonderment at the gorgeous Charrel rando tandem, two things occurred to me. First and most obvious was that travel by bicycle with panniers, handlebar bag and all the accouterments had a history that predated WWII. Second was the realization that these bicycles – 40 or 50 years old at the time – looked contemporary and familiar. Actually, they looked superior to contemporary bikes. The design, materials, and some components from that era were still valid. Not something you could say about many things from the 1930s and 40s. I could have taken a Charrel down from the wall, loaded it with gear, and ridden off down the Rhone River Valley and not sacrificed a pedal stroke in comfort or performance.
I took something I learned from my experience at the Malartre museum 25 years ago. You see, unlike in the realm of racing, when it comes to traveling by bicycles the technological advancements in materials and components are less important. The static state of equipment for bicycle travel is oddly reassuring to me. Knowing I could take that Charrel off the museum wall and tour with it today gives me great comfort.