From Aircraft to Bicycles

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On September 1, 1930, two French pilots were the first to fly from Paris to New York. This was a huge achievement for them, but also their aircraft, since they flew against the prevailing winds.

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Most people know about Charles Lindbergh, who had flown the other way just three years earlier. Lindbergh’s flight took great courage and a good portion of luck, and it was possible in part because he was aided by the strong westerly winds over the North Atlantic. Flying against the wind with 1920s aircraft technology was an entirely different matter.

Lindbergh’s Spirit of Saint Louis had a 223 horsepower engine and carried 425 gallons of fuel. The flight took Lindbergh 33.5 hours.

The plane that flew the other way, the Point d’Interrogation (Question Mark) was equipped with a 12-cylinder Hispano-Suiza engine, which put out 650 horsepower. The plane carried 1368 gallons of fuel. Both the power output and the fuel capacity were roughly three times as great as on Lindbergh’s plane. Even with this powerful plane, the two pilots took over 37 hours to complete the flight, four hours longer than Lindbergh.

Building a plane that could carry this much fuel was an engineering and manufacturing challenge, especially with the relatively heavy and feeble 1920s engines. The plane had to be light enough to take off and stay airborne for 37 hours, yet strong enough to withstand turbulences as it was buffeted by the strong winds over the North Atlantic.

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The pilot, Dieudonné Costes (right), and his navigator, Maurice Bellonte, were veterans of many record attempts. They succeeded where 21 attempts had failed over the previous three years. Five teams had perished trying to fly from Paris to New York.

Despite these difficulties and risk, the success of Costes and Bellonte owed little to luck. As Costes told the press before his flight: “I have weighed everything, calculated everything. If we don’t succeed, then it is impossible.”

This careful approach extended to their airplane, which they had tested by flying almost 5000 miles from Paris to Manchuria in 1929. The trip from Paris to New York was “only” 4300 miles… The name, Question Mark, was coined by the workers who built it, at the Breguet aircraft factory. The ultimate purpose of the plane was secret even to them, so they referred to it as the Question Mark, and the name stuck. It was even painted on the side of the plane for the record attempt…

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One of the workers who had built the Question Mark was René Herse (second from left). He learned his metalworking skills working on prototype aircraft. At the time, engineering drawings often were quite rudimentary, and it was up to the fabricators to interpret them and turn them into metal. This is how Herse developed his magic feel for materials and stresses.

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When Herse began making bicycles in 1938, he transferred his skills from prototype aircraft to bicycles. It is not surprising that his bikes were built like aircraft: They were light, yet strong. Reliability was his foremost concern – a plane over the North Atlantic cannot simply pull over to the side of the road if something goes wrong. And like airplanes, René Herse’s bikes were elegant because of their purposeful design, not because he added ornamentation.

To me, René Herse’s bikes have been an incredible inspiration. He was innovative, but he also had a great respect for solutions that had proven themselves. He came from a humble background, yet he made the bikes for a veritable “Who’s Who” of racers, randonneurs and high society. Even today, his bikes are hard to surpass.

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My own bike (above) really is built to the blueprint of a 1950s Herse – carefully updated in a few places where technology has advanced. Its performance brings a smile to my face and enables me to push beyond what I used to think possible. Most of that is due to the genius of René Herse, which was formed in the years he worked on prototype aircraft.

Further reading: The entire René Herse story is told in René Herse: The Bikes • The Builder • The Riders

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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16 Responses to From Aircraft to Bicycles

  1. Cory b says:

    I really hope the Rene Herse machines continue to inspire more and more riders. Like many American randonneurs, I have built up my bike in these essence of a Rene Herse and created a very reliable machine because of this. Here in Glasgow it is very rare to see cyclists with at least fenders and tires wider than 25mm. With the roads in such terrible condition and all the rain we get, these small details could transform riding for many people.

  2. jeff says:

    great article; thanks

  3. thebvo says:

    Great story!
    And the timing is impeccable. I just finished sharing a beer and travel plans with a friend who, at 24 years old, is a hobby pilot and owns a plane. We talked about the amount of stress and maintenance ($$$$) that goes into owning and operating a, somewhat, modern airplane in the States. Imagining the engineering conversations they must’ve had, in the 20′s, while wrestling new obstacles that we take for granted now is fascinating. On a similar note of exploring the unknown, my grandfather was a lead engineer designing the guidance systems on the Apollo 11 mission. I very much admire the people who can have such confidence in math and physics that they can make a calculated risk like flying across the ocean almost 80 years ago, or landing on the moon 45 years ago. It must be exciting being on the edge of the known and sticking a toe/ your life into unknown waters.

  4. Greg says:

    Jan, I agree with all you’ve said and written about Rene Herse. After reading the book, I am now even more impressed by what he accomplished and his life’s story. I would encourage anyone that already hasn’t done so to read the book (and check out the fabulous old photos in it…).

  5. GuitarSlinger says:

    A story I’ve never heard before despite my love of both bicycles and airplanes [ add cars into that mix but that doesn't apply here ] .. and one definitely missing from the average history books . And dang if you’re not pushing me further and further into taking that little jaunt up to Boulder and have a look into whether a modern Herse might not just suite my needs [ and wants ] to perfection . We’ll see good sir !

    • GuitarSlinger says:

      I’m curious Jan .. looking over the Mullin Museums new ‘ Bugatti Family ‘ exhibit catalogue today .. in and amongst the items on display was a Bugatti bicycle . Ever seen one or done a story about them ? I’d love to know the backstory/details on that one . And on that … did Rene Herse ever work on cars as well perchance ? Have you done an article on that that I missed out on ? The cross over that went on back in the day in comparison to todays ‘ specialist ‘ mentality can be mind blowing sometimes . What we’ve lost to gain so very little in the long run in my opinion .

      • Bugatti’s bicycle design dated from very early in his career. It replaced top and down tubes with four smaller tubes instead. Several people have built replicas… The design has been dismissed since it is much less stiff than a standard frame, but now that we know that stiffness is not always a good thing for performance, it might be interesting to test one of the replicas.

        According to André Reiss of Reyhand, it was Ettore Bugatti who suggested the twin laterals for tandem frames. Those certainly worked extremely well – the 1946 René Herse tandem we rode in the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris had that frame configuration.

      • Herse didn’t work on cars. The family owned their first car in the 1950s.

  6. Scott G. says:

    If you’d like to see planes built with 1920s techniques, The National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio has tours of it’s restoration works on most Fridays. Amazing to see people make AL ribs by hand with simple tooling or sewing fabric covering on wings.

  7. Bill Pustow says:

    Jan, I knew all that – after having read your most excellent book :-) I made the plunge a number of years ago and had Mike Kone build me a Herse. My god, what a wonderful bike! It was an eye opening experience of what a comfortable, long distance bike should be.

  8. David Pearce says:

    Fascinating post. I particularly love metal, and realized some time ago, what with the Wright brothers, and now what you reveal, that sticking pipes together and tensioning them with guy wires is a great way to build things, whether airplanes, or bicycles, or what you will. The “Point d’Interrogation”! Goodness, you couldn’t ask for a more Albert Camus, French, existentialist name, could you? Not like the gung-ho “Spirit of St. Louis”, I guess.

    A few other notes: I am distressed to see that the Oso mudslide is nearer to you (I think) than I would like, and I am concerned for you and your family’s welfare in these weather times. You’ve had about double the average rainfall this late winter / early spring? It concerns me, you cycling out into the countryside. I know you are safety conscious too. Any comments?

    The two Herse posters I bought from you I have finally got framed, and I can’t wait to hang them in my “bicycle shop”, one side of my sister’s garage, where she allows me to refurbish and maintain the family bicycles.

    • The Oso mudslide has shaken us all. It’s a terrible disaster. I do appreciate your concern, and my thought are with those who are affected.

      I know the area well, having ridden through there at least a dozen times. It’s part of the Cascade 1200 course, and also the best way to access the North Cascades. We last went through Oso a little over a year ago, during a 600 km brevet we organized and supported fully by bike. There also is a wonderful gravel road that descends from Lake Cavanaugh, which I rode years ago. From what I can tell, it is (was?) either on the landslide slope or right next to it.

      As far as risk while cycling through there (or elsewhere), the exposure is relatively small. At 15 mph, crossing the 1.5-mile-wide slide area took only 6 minutes, so my total exposure over the last 20 years has been no more than 2 hours. Those who lived there had much greater exposure. As a geologist by training, I made sure that our house is on firm ground and unlikely to flood…

  9. David Pearce says:

    “My own bike (above) really is built to the blueprint of a 1950s Herse – carefully updated in a few places where technology has advanced. Its performance brings a smile to my face and enables me to push beyond what I used to think possible. Most of that is due to the genius of René Herse, which was formed in the years he worked on prototype aircraft.”

    Ah! That’s why your bike “planes”! :-)

  10. Larry T. says:

    Nice piece,thanks for sharing. One of the fundamental positive aspects of bicycles to me is their simplicity. Exposed control cables, all mechanical stuff as opposed to electronic, etc. I think it’s sad that modern bicycles seem to be going the way of commercial airliners with ever more complexity. Fly/drive/ride-by-wire doesn’t interest me, the tactile feel of actually controlling the machine is something I enjoy. I’d hate to see it vanish.

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