Belle de Paris

Astra 3-speed city bicycleI find it hard to resist bicycles, and the Astra has more than its share of irresistible features, including the color, the gearing, the chain guard, and the frame style and material. To think I almost passed it up for the silly reason that I already own eight bikes and have no need for another! I uncovered the Astra at the secret giant charity tag sale.

Twice a year I make a pilgrimage to the secret giant charity tag sale. It’s secret because I never wanted my competition to find out about it, so I only spoke of it in the vaguest of terms, if at all. The giant sale is held once in the spring and once in the fall.

It’s down over there in New Jersey. It starts on a Friday, but if you know someone who works for the organization, you can get a special pass and show up on Thursday—along with a surprising number of other people who know someone and also have a special pass for Thursday. The only catch is, you pay 25% above the marked prices. The idea of course being that you—and the surprising number of other people—are getting a shot at skimming the cream off the top.

The sale is held on a huge open field. There is parking, and gathered toward one end there are enormous tents, each one crammed with stuff. There’s the Furniture tent, the Sporting Goods tent, the Lighting tent. There is a tent called the Bon Ton tent, full of all the stuff the organizers consider the creme de la creme. It’s a bit nerve-wracking, racing through the Furniture tent hoping nobody with good taste is over in the Lighting tent yet. Sometimes I have a friend with me who cases out the tent that I’m not at, putting everything she suspects I might want to buy into a protective pile until I arrive from the other tent to make the final calls.

The first five or six times I attended the giant secret charity tag sale, I came away with my extended van full of cream—lots of cool and funky furniture, lighting, art, and various and sundry other goods. Even with the extra 25% tacked on it was always a good deal. But my most recent trip, this spring, was comparatively barren: a great pair of vintage bronze lamps with a Turkish flavor, a reel mower with turquoise handle and yellow hub caps, two aluminum lawn chairs circa 1955, and two bicycles, including the Astra. (I sold the other one, a Windsor, right away.)

I would like to say the color of the Astra is chartreuse, but apparently I would be wrong. According to Wikipedia, there is a whole chartreuse thing involving the web and color inventions, and the color of this bike is actually more of what they call yellow-green:

Displayed at right is the web color yellow-green, a dull medium shade of chartreuse.

Before the X11 web colors were invented in the mid-1990s, the color term yellow-green was used to refer to the color that is now designated as the web color chartreuse (chartreuse green) (i.e., the color halfway between yellow and green on the color wheel), shown above. Now, the term yellow-green is used to refer to this medium desaturated shade of chartreuse

Sometimes the Internet is helpful.

The gearing is rare. It’s three speeds, a common configuration. But 97.5% plus of all three speeds use internal hub gearing, and 99% of all internal hubs are Sturmey Archers. This bike has a three-speed freewheel and a Huret derailleur. (I made up those percentages, but for all intents and purposes, they are spot on.)

The truncated chain guard is cute. It says Belle de Paris. Which clashes  with the decal on the down tube, which says Tour de France. In this particular case, I think we have to believe the chain guard.

The frame style is called mixte. It’s a step-through design, with a very sloped top tube like a ladies’ or women’s bicycle, but, in a classic example of the sometimes arbitrary and arcane ways we humans categorize things, it is not a ladies’ or women’s bike.

Mixte is a French term, and it translates as unisex. To differentiate it from a regular old girl’s bike, a mixte has an extra set of seatstays—frame tubes that run from the seat tube to the rear wheel dropout. While most mixte stays are straight, the Astra’s extra stays have a stylish bend to them. Traditionally, American men do not  acknowledge mixtes’ unisex status, while European guys are allowed to ride them without it threatening their masculinity. Caveat: These are the same European guys who think nothing of prancing around the beach in Speedo bikini bottoms.

The mixte style is useful for riding around town. If  a basket or a child is on the back of the bike, it’s easier to step through the frame rather than swing a leg over from the back. And the kid doesn’t have to duck her parent’s leg all day long.  Mixtes are catching on the last few years here in the states, with both boys and girls. Part of that popularity is due to Grant Petersen, a guy legendary for starting anti-trend trends in the bicycle industry, championing everything from steel frames to wool jerseys to fenders to long reach brakes. His company and several others now offer custom-built mixtes, and the price for vintage frames is going up. (Hot tip: Petersen’s latest rummage through the old bicycle parts bin has brought the bullmoose handlebar to the surface. I spotted one on an old Peugeot mountain bike the other day and almost offered to buy the bike on the spot as an investment for future profit on eBay.)

Now if Bike Snob NYC would just develop a MixteDex, we could all speculate on used mixtes and still sleep at night after checking the market.  Bike Snob, bike culture’s H.L. Mencken,  rode to fame on his PistaDex, an index that tracks the popularity of fixed gear riding by calculating the average sale price of Bianchi Pistas on craigslist. The MixteDex will be a harder formula to develop though, because mixtes don’t have a ubiquitous, lowish end, currently manufactured bicycle model like the Pista to establish a base line with.

The frame of the Astra is made of aluminum. That’s also not so common in a 1970s city bike. You can see the dull gray alloy showing through where the dull medium shade of chartreuse, aka yellow-green, is wearing off. Not many bikes can pull off the shabby chic look like the Astra. Add it all up, and it equals irresistible—and nine bikes fighting for my attention.

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13 Responses to “Belle de Paris”

  1. James Westwater Says:

    Excellent post, you little bike hoarder, you.

  2. mark Says:

    Thank you James, I appreciate your readership. Alas, due to space and time requirements, the Belle will ultimately be going to a new home. That’s okay, though, possession is 9/10ths in our heads.

  3. Josie Says:

    No surprise that this is your longest post so far. But this is an awfully pretty bike. Do you think my feet would reach the pedals?

    Ok, haveta go. I have a job you know…

  4. Ghost Rider Says:

    An aluminum frame? I find that very difficult to believe…Astras were classic “bike boom” bikes and were made of fairly crude steel in all the examples I’ve seen. I own a 1971 Astra “Tour de Belgique” (standard frame, not mixte) and a friend has a mixte out in California.

    Could it be the “bonderizing” agent showing through the paint? The tubing was somehow sort of galvanized/zinc-plated, referred to as Bonderized Steel. Aluminum French frames from that era are not unheard of, but this one just doesn’t “look” aluminum, proportion-wise.

  5. mark Says:

    I agree with you, it doesn’t make much sense, and you may be right. I gave this bike to a friend right after I took the picture, so I’ll have to go over and do the magnet test. They would have to have done the same galvanizing or bonderizing to the fenders and chain guard, too. And even with that, you’d think a bit of rust would be showing, but there is none.

    Proportion-wise, the aluminum bicycles from that era that I’m familiar with had standard size tubing, certainly nothing like the now-familiar Cannondale tubesets. And stranger things have been made–I had a girls’ cruiser bicycle, American made, from the 1940s or 50s that was all aluminum (that one I’m positive about, it wasn’t painted, and it also had a nasty repair weld, as you might expect would eventually happen with an early, low-end attempt at an aluminum frame). I also had a Bridgestone Kabuki with stainless steel lugs. Thanks for reading, and I’ll send you a link next time I post a bicycle.

  6. Ghost Rider Says:

    Good point about the proportions…early aluminum bikes had relatively “normal” sized tubing.

    Did your Kabuki actually have stainless tubing and aluminum lugs? There was one of those locally here — I considered saving it but the lugs were pitted to heck, probably beyond salvage.

  7. mark Says:

    It was the Kabuki Submariner and definitely boasted “stainless” somewhere. It was blue but the fork tips could have been stainless.
    I don’t remember it crystal clear, I buy and sell a lot of used bikes, or used to, at my furniture store, but this one I had saved for a friend. I think the lugs were “faux” and the bike was actually tig welded. I do remember the seatpost was very annoying–worked like a stem, with an expansion bolt! You had to remove the seat to adjust the height.

  8. Ghost Rider Says:

    Yes, the Submariner had stainless main tubes and cast aluminum “lugs” (not sure if they were functional or cosmetic) and fork tips. Years before its time, as a modern stainless frame is a custom-made affair costing thousands of dollars…

    Keep the interesting finds coming…your stories are great!

  9. Scott Says:

    Nice bike…thank you for the pic. I bought an Astra mixte that is the club racer version for a friend a few months back.

    It looks like this one has 3-speed wheels –26 x 1 3/8? or 27″? And shame on you for suggesting it’s aluminum. Astra was a Motobecane brand and features a stylish “M” in stamped steel between the two top tubes.

  10. mark Says:

    Scot–thanks for commenting. This is a three-speed and it has the 26″ wheels. I’m still not fully convinced it’s not aluminum, though it was actually the guy I gave the bike to who put the possibility in my head. I will swing around to visit him next week and check it out more thoroughly. Would have loved to gotten the club racer. I ended up getting a Motobecane Super Mirage Mixte. I had my brother buy it off craigslist, and I’m going down to pick it up this weekend. It will definitely be a future thing for!

  11. kee Says:

    love it!

  12. mark Says:

    Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Absolute Galore - Art à la commode Says:

    [...] Art Thursday again.  This is a painting that came from the secret giant charity tag sale. Like much of the art around my house, it was a survivor from my old store. This one got a few [...]

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