Fortunate are artisans who love what they make. This is certainly true for Marcel Borthayre, one of the most important names in France’s tradition of great wheel building. Thanks to the generous efforts of his daughter, Maryse, we can share some details of his cycling life. The clipping above, attests to his devotion to wheel building.
Marcel was born into a distinguished cycling family. His father, Joseph, who ran a shop in Biarritz, was a celebrated mechanic sought by champions such as Coppi, van Steenbergen, Bobet, Darrigade, Anquetil, Gimondi, Geminiani, Magne, and Bahamontes. Ocaña was perhaps the last to ride the Tour in 1977 with a saddle prepared by Borthayre. Leather saddle treatment was Joseph’s specialty and he was the Saddle King during the ’50’s and ’60’s. He passed in 1983 at the age of 94 and worked the Tour de France when he was 65.
The clipping jokes about popular lore surrounding leather saddle preparation.
Marcel, in contrast, was drawn to wheels and for thirty years pushed the limits of materials and design. Hailing from the Basque region of southwest France, mountains were a steady influence. He developed a reputation for building very light rims with 24 spokes as early as the 1960’s. This combination was considered impossible to race on unless built by Marcel. When asked why others could not do it, he said simply:
Because they do not love wheels like me. Because I alone have enough patience.
What wheel insights and innovations brought Marcel such notoriety? Like many solo builders, much of his tool kit has passed with him (he died in Bayonne, 1999). But I can speak of his influence on wheel builders over 6,000 miles away. He devised a spoke pattern and made it successful by breaking conventional rules. He used too few materials and utilized an unheard of spoke pattern. In the California cycling scene of the 1980’s, the “Borthayre” spoke pattern was known. For some, the name “crow’s foot” may sound familiar.
Notice groups of three spokes. Two spokes angle towards each other and between them is a radial spoke, direct from hub to rim. At the intersection of these three is a tie. Spoke tying and soldering connects spokes at their crossing. Some stiffness and retention (if one breaks) comes from this connection. It also prevents any noise that might come from rubbing.
Marcel built 24 spoke wheels featuring four triplet clusters on each hub flange. Why not?
The point of these visually arresting wheels is unseen. The meticulous balancing of tensions is mandatory if you aren’t using a huge overbuild. When spokes and rims are minimized, every gram of mass and every kg of tension must be exact. This is the patience to which Marcel refers.
The novel pattern delivers a package that might otherwise be dismissed as inadequate. With the clever spoking, non-technical riders are more inclined to trust. In California, these wheels gave us great confidence to try and master superlight rims (Super Champion Medaille D’Or, at 260g, for example) with super low spoke numbers (24, like Marcel). We tried his patterns with success and became convinced that patient and precise tensioning is the key to such wheels .
Radial spokes were once unknown for road use and Marcel was among the first to break the rule. Since then we see a strong trend towards radial lacing especially associated with low spoke numbers. Transmitting force more directly from rim to hub, radial spokes add a measure of stiffness that benefits superlight rims with minimum spokes.
No doubt Marcel would agree with some developments pursued by subsequent builders under his influence. Is anything so sweet as a light wheel with acceptable stiffness and 100% reliability, especially for climbing or criterium riding?
Here is Marcel on some of his favorite rims. Please note his sensitivity to rims.
I very much miss the GL330, of Mavic, or even the GL 280 with which I was one of the only with good results. You had to be an expert at truing it. That is to say, it was necessary to spend a lot of time, a lot of going back between the spoke key and the block where I work them. With a rim that is light and difficult to true, the slightest mistake and you do not recover it anymore! One must be very honest with the wheel, very delicate. We must make sure that she feels good and is stable. You have to live with her to give her health. It’s not done in ten minutes. Wolber’s Profile A was a good rim too. Fragile too, one had to be nice with the key and bring it gradually to tension.
While Marcel was not a self promoter, his wheels found many fans.
I did not give away my wheels, I was proud of my job… My history is keeping the customer. I had my little success. Pingnon, Ocana, Fuente, Ovion, Echevarria, many swore by my wheels. I did not make money with that, you know. And while I’m sad, I’m happy. These sacred wheels filled my soul.
Don’t some of you builders recognize his feelings?
Here are images courtesy of Marcel’s daughter, Maryse.