19 February 2016

An American Constructeur And The Champion He Married

When I first became aware of custom frame builders, I thought constructeur was just a French term for "builder", just as gruppo is Italian for "group."

In time, I would learn just what a fine art translation is.  "Gruppo" might indeed look like "group", but its real meaning, I believe, is more like like "ensemble".  Likewise, although we may talk about the "construction" of a frame made by a "builder", and we may talk about the "build" of something made by a constructeur, builders and constructeurs are not always the same folks.  Or, to be more exact, a constructeur is a builder but a builder may or may not be a constructeur. 

So what is the difference?  Usually, frame builders (such as the classic British builders like Bob Jackson, Jack Taylor, Mercian and Ephgraves) built just the frame and perhaps one or two components, such as an integrated headset.  As often as not, people buy just the frame from the builder and build (or have a local shop build) the bike from it.  Some builders don't offer complete bikes; those that do will use high-quality components from manufacturers like Campagnolo, Mavic and Shimano to complete the bike.

On the other hand, a constructeur usually offers only complete bikes made to the customer's order.  While the constructeur might use, for example, Mavic rims and DT spokes, he might lace them to a hub he makes (or at least designs) himself.  And if he doesn't make or design those components, he may modify or treat them (as Herse famously did with Brooks saddles) to his specifications.

The term is French for a reason:  The idea of a frame-builder building the whole (or most of) the bicycle has had the most currency in France.  So, not surprisingly, most constructeurs are/were indeed French, or at least worked in France. 

Most, but not all.  A few British builders emulated the practices of French constructeurs.  Jack Taylor might be the most notable example:  He was often called "the most French" of English builders, in part because of his style of building frames, but also because he usually built the complete bike for the customer.  Part of the reason why he may have worked as he did was that many of his bikes (and, perhaps, the ones for which he was most noted) were touring and racing tandems, for which most commercially-available parts were not well-suited.

Believe it or not, at least one American bike-builder might be regarded as a constructeur in the manner of Herse or Singer.  Actually, the Yank in question could have put his French counterparts to shame in at least one way:  He actually made the tubing he used to build his bikes.  Herse, Singer and  other constructeurs usually worked with Reynolds or other high-quality tubing available from manufacturers.

So who is this master designer/craftsman/artisan?  Unless you are of a certain age and, unlike your peers, were a cyclist or bike enthusiast in your youth, you probably don't know about him.  I'll admit that I didn't, until recently.

George Omelenchuk (1920-1994) was a skilled machinist, tool and die maker and watch maker.  He was also a photographer who, while on active duty during World War II, developed his pictures in a small tent, using his helmet for a developer and stop bath.  (Would you try that at home?)  It was during the War that he started to build bicycles--for the US Army cycling team. 

Upon returning to civilian life, he continued to build bikes.  Some would say he was not a very prolific builder, having made only about 50 bikes during his lifetime.  But when you realize that in his shop, he used a proprietary extrusion process to  make his own frame tubing, spokes and rims--and that he cast and forged stems, fork crowns, dropouts, pedals hubs and bearing races, and even did his own chrome-plating--it almost seems a miracle that he made as many bikes as he did, while never abandoning his machining or tool-and-die- and watch-making work.

He made some of his bikes--like the 1960 track machine in the photos--for his wife Jeanne (nee Robinson, 1931-2008), the first woman to win national championships in two major sports:  cycling and speed skating.  She won her first cycling championship as a 20-year-old in 1952 and her final one twenty-eight years later, with three other national championships during that span.  In the meantime, she also skated on the first women's Olympic speed-skating team in 1960 and returned in 1968 and 1972, making her, to this day, the only woman to participate in three Olympiads as a speed skater. 

Jeanne (Robinson) Omelenchuk, (on left), 1951

She raced and skated at a time when female athletes, especially in the sports in which she competed, had far fewer opportunities and received much less recognition than their male counterparts.  Her husband was, in essence, a constructeur during a time and in a place when few adults rode bicycles and even fewer rode, let alone built, bikes like his.  In this sense, they might be seen as a pioneering couple in American cycling.

George and Jeanne, circa 1964.

Oh, and they lived and worked in Detroit.  Although it's still thought of as "Motor City", the "D" has long been one of America's cycling centers, with a disproportionate share of the nation's cycle industry as well as cyclists.  In fact, local racers such the Simeses  and Gene Porteusi did much to keep the cycling torch flickering, if not burning, during the Dark Ages of the 1950s.

I would love to see an Omelenchuk bike in person  .Better yet, I'd love to ride one!

(N.B.:  The bike photos were taken by Ken Denny, who now owns the bike, and are found on Fixed Gear Gallery.)


  1. Thank you very much for this posting Justine! Remarkable couple. I have been spurred into looking up more stuff about them.


  2. Leo--Thank you. As you can probably tell, I enjoy writing stories like this. They are indeed a remarkable couple, especially given the place and times in which they lived and worked.