René Herse by Jan Heine – Book Review

My initiation into the wonderful world of French bicycles of the great constructeurs was some years ago during a visit to the collection of the March Family, near Bordeaux. I had not previously seen machines by Herse, Singer, Barra and Charrel before ‘in the flesh’, but I was struck by the subtlety and elegance of these wonderful bicycles. Unlike British bicycles of the period, there was little showiness about them. Instead of ‘fancy lugwork’ there was restrained detail, sober paintwork rather than ‘flamboyant’, and an integrated look utilising custom made items, rather than a series of shop bought components bolted to a frame. The cachet of these bicycles was in their attention to detail and their functionality. I became enthralled with them.

Last week an eagerly awaited and very weighty package arrived at my local post office. Luckily I was on my Porteur as carrying this monster of a book might have given me a hernia. This 424 page book weighs in at around 6lbs or over 2 Kgs. It was very thoughtfully packed in a box with custom made foam blocks on each corner, resulting in the book arriving in excellent condition.

Jan Heine is well known to enthusiasts of touring bicycles and in particular the classic marques of René Herse and Alex Singer, through his editorship of Bicycle Quarterly. Last year his Company Compass Bicycles acquired the trademarks, designs and other assets of Cycles René Herse, whilst Mike Kone continues to make Herse bicycles at Boulder Bicycles in Colorado, USA. Heine’s enthusiasm for the bicycles of Herse led to the enormous task of compiling this book from thousands of archive images, and the recollections of many of Herse’s colleagues, riders, and friends. Above all is the input of Herse’s daughter Lyli, one of the greatest women riders of the 50’s and 60’s, during which period she was eight times French Champion.

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There are over 400 photographs in the book, mostly from the archive, but also images of about twenty original machines which illustrate the evolution and perfection of the marque. The drawings of Daniel Rebour add to the visual attraction of the book.

What makes this book for me is the clearly meticulous research carried out by the author. Each archive photo is captioned in detail and the text is liberally enhanced by the recollections of people that were actually there when the events happened. The chapters on competitions such as the Technical Trials and the Polymultipliée de Chanteloup bring to life the vibrant cycle-touring race program during the 40’s and 50’s, and these are areas little covered by other publications. These events placed emphasis on light weight and reliability, with points being gained for the lightest machines, but also deducted for any failures of parts brought about by the long and punishing courses. They were the proving grounds for new, lighter and better components. I was particularly struck by the importance of the Tandem in these events, again an area supported sparingly by other cycling publications. Herse’s numerous successes were not only in cyclotouring events, but also included the Women’s World Championship won by Geneviève Gambillon in 1972 and 1974, Briek Schotte’s win in the Paris-Tours of 1947 and Louison Bobet’s victory in the 1959 Bordeaux-Paris. On the track there were successes too, with 24 hour World records for Roger Baumann in 1953 and Yves Gilbert in 1957.

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There was an upsurge of interest in cycling in France after the War, and Herse capitalised on this with up to six employees working away in his shop making frames and the many custom designed components that he produced… handlebar stems, chainsets, brakes etc.. which required a lot of hand finishing. But as soon as the early fifties orders began to decline and by the later part of the decade the advent of the moped and affordable motor cars such as the Renault 4CV and Citröen 2CV had taken hold, and led to a lean period and a much reduced staff. The sixties were made healthier by the interest in Herse bicycles from the American and Japanese markets. After Herse’s death in 1976 Jean Desbois took over the shop and continued to make great bicycles with his own distinctive handwriting until retirement in 1986.

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I have often heard said that Herse’s bikes are ‘over-rated’. This generally comes from people who have not even seen one, yet alone ridden one. It has been mine and my Wife’s privilege to be able to ride Herse bicycles, which are very special indeed. This book cements the place in history of this great marque. It is not a ‘coffee table’ book but a substantial and detailed history brilliantly illustrated with numerous archive photographs, an informative and entertaining text, and wonderful bicycles. It brings alive a ‘golden age’ when these machines were at the zenith of the constructeurs Art.

The book is highly recommended and is available here.