2021 Concours de Machines Overview and History
In our second report from the 2021 Concours de Machines, we showcase images of all the bikes, explain the format of this historical event, and share photos from a weekend of riding, camping, and talking bikes and bikepacking…
With thanks to Magali Paulin for studio and outdoor imagery from the 2021 Concours de Machines.
In our previous post, we talked briefly about the history of France’s Concours de Machines, an event that’s unlike those we’re used to visiting now. Whilst most handmade bike shows are held in exposition halls, the Concours involved a series of demanding reliability tests, sometimes as long as 450 kilometres in distance across the rough gravel roads of the Massif Central, ensuring bikes weren’t just pretty to look at, they were also suitably robust for the task of being both raced and ridden daily. Over the years, it became both an ideas factory and a proving ground for bike development within the cycling industry.
In fact, the winner of each contest was determined by a complex combination of criteria that was both objective and subjective in nature, including considerations such as weight, design features, and integration of accessories. But it didn’t matter how good the bikes appeared to be on paper – if they couldn’t handle the reliability rides, they were marked down accordingly, be it a wheel that was out of true or derailleurs that were no longer shifting properly.
First organised in 1903, the event saw its heydey between 1934 and 1949, when small builders, such as René Herse and Alex Singer, drove bicycle innovation in their efforts to create light and fast yet durable bikes – introducing the likes of sealed cartridge bearings, aluminum cranksets, and even front derailleurs into mainstream cycling. If you want to dig deeper into the history of the Concours, you can find a more thorough discourse on the subject in the Handbuilt Bicycle News.
“The Concours de Machines is not a race, but a technical competition between different machines. At the end of each stage, the bikes are weighed, graded, examined, and classified. Any deterioration is penalized. The winning bike is the one that displays the best compromise between technical innovation and reliability in the field.”—OG Concours de Machines
After a long hiatus and likely inspired by a renewed appreciation for small volume makers in the US and the UK, the Concours de Machines was relaunched as a technical contest in 2016 by Victoire Cycles and 200 Magazine. Given its success, the Association des Artisans du Cycle was founded the following year to help run it. In 2016 and 2017, it took place in Ambert and focused on French randonneur bikes and gravel bikes, but it now alternates between road and off-road bikes each year. This year it honed in on bikepacking bikes and for 2022 it will be back to road and gravel bikes, taking place at Roubaix’ famous velodrome track, and hosted by La Fraise Cycle. The exact details have yet to be announced but by way of example, 2016’s contest included a 235-kilometre road race with more than 4,000 metres of altitude gain, a 55-kilometre time trial up and down a mountain, and 70 kilometres of gravel tracks, as its reliability tests.
The aim of this refreshed Concours is to “promote the design and manufacturing of handmade bicycles, by inviting framebuilders to challenge and imagine the multiple uses of the bicycle, in order to foster its further evolution. Our underlying hope is to tweak the bicycle, to trigger creative thinking at the fringes of the bicycle industry by making small significant deviations to the existing designs. Observe what has been done, ask ourselves how it could be improved, further existing designs, propose new ones, finally implement an alternative (which might not be necessarily disruptive) that requires starting from a clean sheet of paper and building a bicycle, by hand. The Concours de Machines hosts mainly French bicycle builders, but those of other nationalities and a few beginners are welcome too.”
After being cancelled last year, 2021 saw 22 fantastic entries. Scroll through the carousel below for studio photos of all the bikes, with captions for the names of each maker.
Concours de Machines 2021: Theme and Criteria
Each year has a specific theme and for after all the challenges all the last months, it will strike an especially welcome chord with bike travellers. According to the organisers, the guiding principle for this edition is “a self-sufficient trip between friends on a 2-3 days ride basis, among medium and high mountains of the Pyrénées, on the French border with Spain.” As it transpired, its location was moved due to COVID-19 restrictions. Rather than the Pyrenees, it took place in the beautiful Juras, on the border with Switzerland.
Whilst the Concours has shifted its emphasis from its origins to reflect a different landscape within the bicycle industry, it still includes a set of exacting criteria and always strives to inspire innovation. For 2021, these criteria include the requirement that all entries are able to be easily dismantled to a size small enough to arrive car-free on an SNCF train – just 120 centimetres long and 90 centimetres high. The bikes also have to include provisions to be ridden safely on trails at night and in a move indicative of the 21st Centry, to follow a GPS track and charge electronic devices. They also need to carry a medical kit, a full complement of spare parts, a set amount of water (4 litres, of which 1.5 has to be close at hand), and carry all the required camping gear, of course, for a weekend away in the high mountains. And since not everyone has several bikes, the bike always had to feel “efficient when stripped out of all its bivouac equipment”.
These stipulations are intended to help frame builders focus on different aspects of bicycle design, whilst ensuring that whatever they dream up is always grounded in practical, real-world usability.
The Scoring Precedure
You can study the full literature for the event, including the nuts and bolts of how the judges break down their assessment of each bike and its gear, via the translated pages below. Admittedly, the points/percentage system seems complicated and even archaic, but it’s absolutely fascinating to dissect and has clearly yielded some wonderful out-of-the-box designs.
Scoring is broken down into percentages, from packed bike size, weight of the bike with and without gear, the use of second hand parts as well as well as in-house components, how easily the bike can be physically carried, along with such minutiae as water boiling times for stoves. As part of the field evaluation, how successfully the entrant’s shelter is integrated into the design is even a factor, as are its actual setup time! As an example of the level of detail in the scoring, the shelter coefficient is calculated by volume x price x setup time x weight, on a pro rata basis where the lowest gets all the points and the highest gets none.
After two demanding, mixed terrain ‘shakedown’ outings – frame builders can ride their own bikes or designate a pilote – bikes are then scrutinised once more to ensure that nothing has come loose and there’s no damage, be it from the riding itself, or even any wear and tear that its bags might inflict.
This year, the jury was made up of Manon Millischer, a journalist from Carnet d’Aventure magazine, Benedicte Saintier, a long-distance cyclist, Nicolas Clech, a member of the Association Generation Mountain Bike, who preserve vintage mountain bike in a collection and exhibit them, and Francois Coponet, a member of the Association des Artisanans du Cycle, with 30 years experience in framebuilding, under the brand Cycles Itinérances.
As to how the days played out, the first was allocated to the demands of the technical committee, who checked over every bike, whilst the jury met each framebuilder. Day two involved a 40-kilometre off-road trip – featuring 1,200 metres of climbing, technical trails, and hike-a-bikes – to a camping spot in the woods, with time off to enjoy a swim in a lake, by the looks of it. Day three included a 68-kilometre ride with 2,000 metres of climbing, before returning to the expo centre where the technical committee inspected all bikes once more. Finally, on day four, it was time for the jury to deliberate their decisions and for the public to appraise the bikes too.
This year, five prizes were awarded:
We’re looking forward to the film by Crealens that documents this year’s event – past films can be seen here. Thanks too to Julien Petriguet of the Association des Artisans du Cycle for organising the Concours de Machine, and sharing news and imagery with us.
Stay tuned for more about the Concours de Machines, including a selection of this year’s show bikes in more detail, along with a post on the winner.
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