Book review: The Competition Bicycle

Competition Bicycle Book

“The Competition Bicycle, a photographic history” is the full title of Jan Heine’s book and this is what the book is all about. It features 34 bikes from the earliest race bikes to modern era machines and there are extensive studio photographs of each machine.

The bike is the star in this book. You might have seen black and white images of Fausto Coppi on his Bianchi or faded colour images of Eddy Merckx on his orange bike in the 1970s but now you can see these bikes in full colour. Each bike gets several pages of photographs with some text to explain history and context of the bike. For example Merckx’s orange frame is labelled “Eddy Merckx” but is actually a De Rosa. The author has taken care to find the authentic machine.

At times the studio photographs are unforgiving in their forensic exposure of a bike’s details. We might marvel at the champions of the past but suddenly the up close images of their bikes look less magical than we might care to remember. Put simply old bikes often look old under bright lights. Even those from the modern era show their age, for example Sean Kelly’s Concorde is battered and chipped, the rims are worn and the chrome is starting to rust. Moser’s hour record bike looks fast… until you spot the flat tyres. But this detail is also fascinating for you can see how earlier machines would have looked after they’d been ridden a few times. Some bikes are clearly collection pieces, lovingly cared for but others appear to be museum pieces, preserved but not polished.

Labour 1910
Déjà vu

What surprised me was the innovation from an earlier period. French manufacturer Labour released their Tour de France bike in 1910 with a single fork stay, something imitated by Cannondale in more recent years. Or see the Caminargent bike from 1939 that weighed 9 kg or René Vietto’s superlight Barra that was 8kg. Many of today’s Pro Tour team issue team bikes are not much lighter although they are presumably considerable more rigid and come with more gears, refined braking and so on. All the same, today’s side-pull calliper brakes are only improvements on the original designs, a tale of ongoing refinements rather than radical change.

There are other details. You can see over the pages how chains have improved with time. Earlier models looked like something you’d find underneath a motorbike today, with large iron links. This is the beauty of the photographs, they are so large and clear you can see all these details.

The book is not a collection of the most famous bikes belonging to champions. There are many that have become famous but alongside the bikes of Coppi and Merckx there are some machines that have more modest stories. You can see an early mountain bike, machines used for land speed records and 1950’s courier bikes which helped ferry newspapers from the printer to the news kiosk in record time. But each tells a tale.

If I had a criticism of the book it would be that it lacks a truly modern bicycle, perhaps a titanium frame from the 1990s, a Colnago C-40 or an early Trek or Giant or perhaps a Cervélo from last season. But this book is a history of bicycles and their evolution and not a buyer’s guide and information on these more modern machines is readily available.

A very well-researched collection of bicycles over time. The photography captures many details, the words add even more. If you enjoy modern bike technology you might find this review of older bikes surprises in that much of today’s technology is recognisable on an early bike. If you enjoy the history of the sport then this will give you a fresh look at the machines from the past.

The book is available from Bicycle Quarterly and all good book shops.

Review disclaimer: this book was sent free by the author for review.

A list of book reviews is available at

15 thoughts on “Book review: The Competition Bicycle”

  1. This will go on my wish list. If you’re not lucky enough to be able to visit museums like the fantastic one atop Ghisallo or the other in Novi Ligure, seeing these bikes in photos is the next best thing. I think the signs of use are what make them special..the actual un (or just partially) restored machines that the great men (and women, at least in the museums) actually used for their famous exploits- complete and authentic, including the wear and tear from competition. As to innovation, it’s easy to see there’s little, if anything truly new, ideas get recycled and improved upon but the basic design genius of the diamond-frame bicycle has withstood a lot of “improvements” over time.

  2. A book review just before Christmas, you are a shrewd operator, aren’t you INRNG? Perhaps though, might I request a 20% discount for readers of this blog to stuff this little sucker in the Christmas stocking over the fireplace, by mentioning the “ring” where the action takes place upon the place of purchase? If not, that’s fine, I’ll look for this book in the ‘discount bin’ where all such fine books end up, eventually.

    Daniel Moszkowicz (TKofC).

  3. I find myself impressed at the early bikes and want to ride them to feel what they are like. I have tried one vintage bike and it was good but I use the brakes, nothing happened! It is for practice and you have to plan for junctions and corners.

  4. Daniel: I think the publishers are more shrewd, no?

    Robert: yes, if the modern bikes are improvements on old designs, these improvements are quite noticeable. Indeed a $1000/€1000 bike probably rides better than many of these machines from the past, even if this is an unfair comparison.

    Anon: no accounting for taste but because of Armstrong the Trek is one of the most memorable bikes from the past decade. If I could pick I’d probably take the Colnago C-40 because it was ahead of its time or maybe the first Giants used by ONCE because they came in S-M-L sizes and you used seatposts and stems to adjust for geometry, a real introduction of mass market for the top riders.

  5. Yes, one of Armstrong’s TdF bikes, especially one of the older ones, would be a fascinating addition.

    I’ve ridden a lot of old bikes, albeit no top-of-the-line racers, and they are lovely to look at and nice to ride, but they can be so finicky to work on! One of the unsung technical advances of the last two to three decades has been the appearance of relatively standardized and very high-quality connecting hardware. It’s really interesting to follow the history of how technological developments have influenced the bicycle and the experience of riding it. Brakes might be one of the best examples because of the obvious (and, in retrospect, frightening) difference in effectiveness between modern and old examples. There’s some footage in the Jørgen Leth film Stars and Watercarriers of racers descending a mountain pass at high speed. It would be harrowing on a modern bicycle. Knowing that they are on the floppy, not very powerful single-pivot calipers of the early 1970’s makes me take my hat off to them.

    Thanks for the review! That’s another book on my Amazon wish list.

  6. Reminds me of the 30 odd-year old city bike I had when I was first living in Amsterdam (with pedal brakes)! Had a race one afternoon against a colleague (he in his car) to see if I could be quicker than the traffic he would be sitting in…but I was pushing so hard on the poor old bike the frame snapped about a half kilometre from home!!! Would have been even funnier if his not-so-young car had also broken down!!!

    As for book reviews; recently bought The Rider upon recommendation in one of your blogs, and am savouring every word! Thanks for the reviews, even if they are not for books on Hincapie apparel!!! 😉

  7. Darren: I hope you made it home.

    The Rider is a classic, enjoy. I’ll be reviewing another book soon (this time bought by myself) which I think readers of this blog might appreciate too. The Hincapie gear gets a review shortly too, stay tuned.

  8. @inner ring is this book actaully available?
    I have checked amazon and the book depository and they have both appeared to say it wont be available for the market for another 100 days!!!!
    Great review though!

  9. As the author, I’d like to thank the Inner Ring for the review. We though about including a modern bike or two, but making a selection would be difficult. If we include Lance, why not Pantani or Contador? We finally decided to end the book with Rominger’s hour record bike, which bridges the past (lugged steel frame by Colnago) and the future (carbon fiber disc wheels).

    The first edition of the book is available from the publisher (Bicycle Quarterly Press) directly – the link is provided in the review. The book is not sold on Amazon, because the production cost was too high ($ 50,000 for photography alone) to sell at the deep discounts that Amazon demands. (Amazon would pay less per copy than it cost to produce them.) A second edition is in the works, but it will be identical to the first, just less expensive printing and a different cover.

  10. I read the comments on the performance of old bikes with interest. I raced for 10 years, from 1989 to 1999, ending up as a Category 2, often thrown in with the professionals. My bike was state of the art in 1989 (Columbus SL steel frame, full Campagnolo Super Record group with friction shifting), but hopelessly outdated in 1999 (most competitors were on titanium and Ergopower). Even so, I never felt handicapped by the bike, and that is why I didn’t change it. It shifted fine. The brakes were so-so, but in any case, you don’t brake much in racing. The only time I had to brake hard in a race was when I had a flat, got a wheel change, and was riding through the slower riders on the next climb and descent. I almost ran into them when they braked hard for the turns…

    More recently, I tested a 1957 Cinelli Supercorsa for our magazine, Bicycle Quarterly. (A photo is here Even though the bike was 50 years old, I was surprised how well it performed. The Universal sidepull brakes were not great, but most racers of the era used Mafac centerpulls that rival modern brakes in power and modulation. (The centerpulls are so good that Paul now makes a modern version.)

    What has changed is the performance of mid-range bikes. A mid-range bike today has decent brakes and derailleurs that shift well, whereas 30, 40 and 50 years ago, the mid-range bikes lacked performance in every respect. The gap between a mid-range and a top-of-the-line bike was much bigger in the past than it is today. Unfortunately, most riders have experience only with those mediocre mid-range bikes and conclude that all the old bikes weren’t much good.

  11. This blog really is fantastic.

    Reading the blog, through the comments, then getting to the actual author of the book commenting on comments and the blog.


  12. You can have both the Trek and the Ti bike in one, as used in a very famous victory:

    It may say “Trek” on it, but it’s actually a Litespeed Blade. I wonder where it is now? It doesn’t show up in the online interior photos of Mellow Johnny’s.

    (Rumour has it there is also a Baum in Canyon livery, built for another Tour winner in his early days at Lotto).

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