Coming full circle with René Herse

When I started researching the history of René Herse more than a decade ago, I never thought I would end up buying the company!

During my research, I talked to riders on Herse’s team and people who had known René Herse himself. I rode surviving examples of his bikes, and even entered Paris-Brest-Paris on a 1946 René Herse tandem.

The stories these riders and builders told me fascinated and inspired me. As I visited Herse’s riders and talked to them on the phone, wonderful friendships developed over the years.

One of these friendships was with Lyli Herse, René’s daughter, and her husband Jean Desbois. Monsieur Desbois was one of the first employees René Herse hired in 1940. He stayed with Herse for close to 15 years, and returned in 1975. He was an invaluable source of information about the company’s history and the techniques employed by Herse to make his amazing bicycles.

During one of my visits, Lyli wistfully told me that she was saddened by the fact that she did not have children, and that the Herse name would disappear with her. She told me: “After we closed the shop, somebody offered to make René Herse frames under license, but my mother was against it. I now wish we had explored that possibility.”

At the same time, my friend Mike Kone was talking about making constructeur bikes. He shared my appreciation of René Herse’s craft, and so I approached him to see whether he might be interested in resurrecting the René Herse name, which had been dormant for almost 20 years. The result of this was that Mike bought the name and remaining assets from Lyli Herse and Jean Desbois, and started to offer modern René Herse frames again.

I acted as a liaison and translator between Lyli/Jean Desbois and Mike. I shared my research into what made these bikes special and worked with Mike to help ensure the new bikes would be worthy of the René Herse name. When Lyli Herse saw my new René Herse at PBP last year, tears were in her eyes as she looked over the lugs, the hand-lettered name on the down tube and the many custom parts that make these bikes special. It meant a lot to her to see the work of her father, her husband and herself carried on. And her approval of the new bike meant just as much to Mike and me.

René Herse was more than just a framebuilder. He actually started as a component maker of revolutionary lightweight components. Through my research into the history and technology of bicycles, I had become involved in making the parts that had worked so well in the past. The result was a new company, Compass Bicycles, which is dedicated to making components that I feel should be available, but aren’t.

To me, the René Herse cranks are the best crank design of all time, so it was natural to think about making an updated version. To make a long story short, Compass Bicycles recently purchased the René Herse name and assets from Mike Kone’s company, Boulder Bicycles. Boulder Bicycles now licenses the name René Herse Bicycles from us, so they will continue to offer René Herse constructeur bicycles as before. And we are free to make updated versions of René Herse’s wonderful components. We also plan to offer replicas of the original René Herse components for restorations of classic René Herse bicycles.

When I started researching René Herse more than a decade ago, I never would have thought that we would see new René Herse bikes made, that his components would be available again, and that we’d eventually own the company. I am glad it turned out that way.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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28 Responses to Coming full circle with René Herse

  1. msrw says:

    Jan, congratulations. This not only would seem to make sense strategically for Compass and for you individually, but it’s great for bicycling. Godspeed on great success in taking Rene Herse into the 21st Century.

  2. Mike Griffith says:

    Jan,

    Congratulations! Your work, and that of others, to revive the nearly-lost techniques and philosophy of the constructeurs has shown that their ideas were not simply a fashion of their times, but sound designs that can endure through today. My latest bike looks much different than it would have as a result. I am looking forward to see what is next for Rene Herse!

  3. djconnel says:

    Congratulations! It’s inspiring when people follow their passion. I love your functional view of old components and bikes. The Rene Herse name is in good hands.

  4. Pondero says:

    Congratulations, Jan, and best wishes for success!

  5. Rob Harrison says:

    Congratulations Jan! Perfect and right. I’m glad the partnership with Mike Kone will continue. He’s a great guy. Looking forward to seeing the René Herse name flourish in the 21st Century!

  6. David G in Madison WI says:

    Jan, Congratulations! Through years of meticulous research and countless hours in the saddle you have amassed a wealth of information and personal experience related to classic French cyclotouring and randonneuring bikes that is equaled by very few living individuals. Now that you have assumed the mantle of leader of the venerable marque of Rene Herse it is we, your customers, who will continue to benefit from your rare expertise.

    Would you please comment on how this may change your approach as editor and publisher of my favorite cycling publication, Bicycle Quarterly? It would be hard to imagine someone like John Burke, Keith Bontrager, or Mike Sinyard putting out a periodical that reviewed racing bikes and components in every issue. Now that you are not only an importer of fine tires, bottom brackets, handlebars, and other parts but also the owner of a company that strives to make the best possible bikes and components, will you encourage others to take the lead in writing bike and product reviews for BQ? Or do you have ideas on how you can continue to write product reviews as a passionate and experienced randonneur while minimizing the effects of other your interests?

    • First, a carification: René Herse bicycles will continue to be made by Boulder Bicycles in Colorado, as before. They have licensed the name in perpetuity. Compass Bicycles has no plans to offer complete bicycles. We will continue to focus on components.

      That said, you raise a good question, about being a researcher, reviewer, developer and seller of products. In reality, nothing changes just because we own a name. As before, we strive to be independent and honest. Conflicts of interest always abound – whether it’s reviewing products from the many friends I have in the bike industry or those we sell ourselves. We disclose those clearly, and allow you to make up your mind. Our product evaluations already are the work of a team of fiercely independent riders, and my voice is one of several.

      It’s also good to remember that Compass is a retailer who can sell any product that currently is available. So if we think a product is excellent, we will sell it, no matter who makes it. We have no incentive to dislike a product just because we don’t sell it.

      I don’t foresee building Compass or René Herse into a brand like Specialized that attempts to offer everything a cyclist needs. Our goal always will be to offer those products that otherwise would not be available, or products we feel we can make better than others. Most of these products originate from the research we have done for Bicycle Quarterly, and it probably will continue to be that way. We also will continue to share the fruits of our research freely in Bicycle Quarterly, as our main goal is to improve the cycling experience for everybody, rather than develop proprietary parts.

  7. Ryan says:

    Congratulations!

    I can’t wait to order a Boulder Bicycle. I love what they are doing there.

    Was the name worth more to you as a component designer/seller than to Mike Kone as a custom bicycle frame maker? Was the Boulder Bicycle side of his business taking off to the point where it made sense for him to focus on it?

    I’d love to know the nitty gritty details but mostly I’m just happy for you. Maybe someone will buy Alex Singer and we can many options to choose from!

    • Purchasing the name was not about maximizing returns. Making components incurs significant liability. Compass is set up to deal with that by having very generous insurance coverage (twice the industry norm). Boulder Bicycles is set up to make bikes, but their insurance would be different if somebody used their trademark on components. The whole transaction was between friends, and not guided by standard business concerns.

      Cycles Alex Singer is very much in operation in Paris, probably the shop with the longest continuous history that makes high-end bicycles.

  8. John says:

    Can we get some RH cantilever brakes please?

  9. Rona says:

    squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Congrats!

  10. Lee Legrand says:

    Can we get some center pulled caliper brakes by Compass Bicycle please? Or rear derailluers by Compass Bicycles?

  11. GuitarSlinger says:

    Congratulations x ten good sir . Truly you are the best possible curator/maintainer of the Herse legacy , with Mike still building the frames of course

    Honestly , as much as I love my Moulton , and had committed to a One Bike lifestyle : the more I read about Rene’s bikes ( as well as Mikes builds ) the more I’m thinking a Herse needs to be in my garage as well

    Nice that all it’ll take is a trip to Boulder while visiting family on the front range to do so as well

  12. Ford Bailey says:

    I would love to see a new Mafac Raid.
    Congratulations !

  13. Joe Kendrick says:

    Jan,

    What Rene Herse-style components do you see being offered any time soon?

    Joe K

    • For now, we are working on the new cranks. Eventually, I could see a more exact replica of the classic Herse cranks, mostly for restorations, but also for riders who prefer an even narrower tread (Q factor) than is possible with a modern 10-speed drivetrain. There are a number of other parts that could be re-issued as well. Now that we own the copyright to these designs, we can think about making them available again.

  14. writertype says:

    Congrats, Jan. Happy to hear it. Godspeed.

  15. Willem says:

    Jan, congratulations with the acquisition of what could well become a nice umbrella under which to integrate all your various activities in the parts business. Since others have already mentioned some of their dreams, I thought I might add my own ones. As a starting point, I like compatibility with modern standards, but I am less than pleased with Shimano’s drift towards a more and more absurd focus on the extremes of mtb or road racing. As for drive train parts, I think the concept of the modern Shimano cassette hub is excellent – my first gripe is with the increasing number of cogs, at the expense of durability and hub width. My second gripe is with the gearing that is much too high for most people in most conditions. So my ideal hub would be a modern high quality Shimano compatible 7 speed cassette hub with 126 mm oln. The ideal cassette for this would have something like 16-30t. For as long as there is no such hub, an 8 speed cassette with 16-30 t would already help a lot.

  16. John Potis says:

    Jan,
    Would you please consider conducting an interview with Lyli Herse and publishing it in BQ? I think many people would enjoy reading her recollections as well as the information being important to recording the history of Randonneuring.

  17. James says:

    Could you clarify your relationship with Grand Bois. In the past I ordered parts from them and might want to order their 650A tires. Would I have to go through you now?
    I don’t suppose you could tell us anything about their new Etiole or Concorde bicycles apparently made by Toyo? Any chance you’d import them? A Hetre friendly factory built frame would be nice.

    • Compass Bicycles is the North American distributor for Grand Bois. We sell both directly to consumers, as well as wholesale to bicycle shops.

      Grand Bois bicycles are not available in North America. Ikuo Tsuchiya wants to see and measure his customers in person, so if you want one of those bikes, you should visit the shop in Kyoto.

  18. Garth says:

    I would also like to see a nice cassette hub for more widely spaced. One that you might use the largest six cogs of an eight-speed cassette and put shims between to (theoretically) get more succinct friction shifting. And a grease fitting, or proper seals. That would be groovy.

    Or, perhaps simply a full range of cogs that could be custom selected, just like in the Olden Freewheel Days. Of course it would exclude index shifting, which is ok.

    Related to this would be a dual-pull rear derailleur (a cable to pull in each direction) that won’t act sometimes funky. Hmmm…

    • A 5- or 6-speed cassette would be neat, but it mostly would make sense if the cogs were thicker, so you could use a thicker chain and greatly reduce wear. You don’t need ramped cogs to get good index shifting – Shimano’s 1985 Dura-Ace still is among the best-shifting systems ever. (I actually prefer it over their current components.)

      Of course, it then would make sense to offer a complete drivetrain, with a narrower crank, chainrings with thicker teeth, etc. I think there is a niche for that, because few riders really use all those gears. I know that even 6-speed is more than I need on my Singer, because I never use the 13-tooth cog…

  19. Daniel says:

    Jan, would you consider reproducing the super fantastic Herse stem?

  20. thelazyrando says:

    Congrats…the Rene Herse name is in good hands.

    safe riding,

    Vik

  21. Ted Cronin says:

    I’m new to the Rene Herse fold, after rediscovering the joy of my old steel bikes, (early Cinelli and Colnagos). How could I have gotten swept along in the carbon frenzy for so many years? Thank you and thank Mike for bringing Herse back, and recreating the joy and beauty of these masterpieces. I applaud your efforts, and I can’t wait to explore them. Thanks, Ted

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