The 650B Ancestor: René Herse Randonneur

rh52_profile

I had the opportunity to ride a favorite classic René Herse again recently. This is the bike that started the current trend of 650B bikes in North America. It’s the bike that made us re-evaluate front-end geometries and wide tires. It’s truly the ancestor of the bikes we ride today, and it has been hugely influential.

I first rode this 1952 René Herse more than a decade ago. I didn’t have very high expectations. Wide tires at low pressures? Must be slow. “Suicide” front derailleur? Must be difficult to shift. Huge amount of fork rake? A clear sign they didn’t understand front-end geometry back then. Today, we smile about these assumptions, but back then, they were deeply ingrained in all of us.

Imagine my surprise then when the old Herse was faster than my custom bike. It handled better and was more fun to ride. I set a few personal bests on this bike, and to this day, it holds the fastest time on the challenging “Three Volcano 300 km” brevet.

The old Herse made me realize the merits of 650B tires. I talked about this bike with Grant Petersen from Rivendell, who took up the idea of 650B tires. Then Kogswell asked me for a bike design, and I modeled the P/R’s low-trail geometry on this Herse. And the rest is history…

Seeing and riding the bike again was a lot of fun. Underneath the lovely patina of its 62 years, it amazed me once again how aesthetically and functionally resolved this bike is.

rh52_stem

The Herse stem still is one of the most beautiful ever made. It’s also quite lightweight. The bell is directly attached, and the original owner’s name remains engraved on the stem cap.

rh_crank

The René Herse crank has become a more common sight these days, but it’s still one of the most beautiful ever made. Too bad about the 38-tooth middle ring, which is the largest ring that didn’t always have the triangular cutouts. I think it would look a lot nicer with the cutouts, so we added them to the 38-tooth rings on the current-production René Herse cranks.

rh52_brake

The Herse cantilever brakes are among the lightest ever made, yet they work very well. Details like the rack attachment to a forward extension of the brake attachment bolt are elegant and functional. (Several companies now offer copies of these bolts.)

Every component and every bolt is only as large as it needs to be. This doesn’t only save weight, but also makes the bike so elegant.

rh52_fder

The Herse front derailleur shifts very smoothly, even on a triple. At first, I found it difficult to move the chain from the big to the middle chainring – it went straight to the small ring. After a few shifts, it became second nature, and I never thought about it again.

rh52_cycloder

The Cyclo rear derailleur has an aesthetic purity that must have appealed to René Herse. It shifts surprisingly well. This one needed a little lubrication: Front shifts tended to rotate the entire derailleur on its support, rather than just the chain tensioner arm. The result was an unexpected rear shift every other time I shifted on the front. When I rode the bike years ago, it didn’t have that problem…

rh52_shiftlever

Herse made an eccentric shift lever, since the Cyclo derailleur moves inward and outward as you shift. Otherwise, the shifter cable goes slack on the largest cogs. One thing that is easy to miss in this photo: There is no lighting wire going from the fork to the frame. The current is transmitted via a carbon brush inside the head tube.

rh52_taillight

You can see where the inspiration for the Compass taillight came from! We had to modify the shape so it looked good with a flat reflector instead of the curved lens of this old JOS taillight.

You also notice how the rear brake cable runs parallel to the seatstay. That is one of the reasons the classic Herse’s look so light and elegant.

rh52_headlight

I wish somebody would make a headlight that was nearly as pretty as the old JOS. This is Herse’s special version, with no mounting bracket, since it attaches directly to the support on the rack. The lighting wire runs inside the rack tubes.

rh52_fender

The only lighting wire that is exposed on the entire bike is at the rear. Here, it leaves the fender and immediately enters the seatstay.  A little further down, it exits the seatstay at the bottle generator. All other lighting wires are internal. I love the blue line painted on the “Le Paon” fenders, outlined in gold.

rh_BBshell

The bottom bracket shell doesn’t look special, until you realize that it was fabricated from pieces of tubing that were welded together. On the inside, there are shoulders to locate the pressed-in SKF cartridge bearings for Herse’s custom bottom bracket. The bearings have never been overhauled in the bike’s 62-year life, yet they still spin smoothly.

rh52_dropout

This photo epitomizes the craft of René Herse for me. The stays extend as far as possible toward the rear axle. As a result, the custom-made dropouts are tiny, which saves significant weight and also makes the frame stronger. The workmanship is close to perfect. (The slight rounding-off you see on the stay ends happened during the polishing for chrome-plating.)

Notice how fender eyelet is placed on a smaller radius than the smallest freewheel cog. That way, the nut that protrudes on the inside doesn’t interfere with the chain on the smallest cog. Few makers, past or present, have resolved details like these in such a neat and unobtrusive way.

So how was it to ride the 1952 Herse again? When I first rode it 11 years ago, it was a revelation, but today, it feels surprisingly familiar. The main reason is that my current bike is basically an updated version of the 1952 Herse. (So are about a dozen test bikes I’ve ridden for Bicycle Quarterly.) The differences are slight: My own bike feels like a 105% version of the 1952 machine, with slightly more flexible fork blades, a slightly more responsive frame, slightly better shifting (my Nivex vs. the Herse’s Cyclo) and slightly better brakes (centerpulls vs. cantilevers). Even the weight of the 1952 Herse (11.2 kg/24.8 lb including the pump) remains more than competitive for a modern bike that is fully equipped.

I rode the bike on a beautiful spring day. Mark and I headed out on our “standard” loop around the North End of Lake Washington. We rode up Juanita Hill, and it was obvious that Mark was feeling strong that day. We raced up the hill with abandon, and more than once I felt like surrendering. But somehow the bike kept going, and toward the top, I even felt good enough to try to outsprint Mark. I managed a clean shift with the Cyclo derailleur, but when I rose out of the saddle, my legs almost buckled, and Mark pulled away. Can’t blame the old bike for that!

rh_with_tracer

We stopped at a café in Kirkland, and just as we were leaving, a Ford Model T racer pulled up. Now here was a machine that was even older than this Herse. However, unlike the Herse, which easily holds its own with modern machines, I doubt the Model T holds any course records today!

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.
This entry was posted in A Journey of Discovery, Rides, Testing and Tech. Bookmark the permalink.

65 Responses to The 650B Ancestor: René Herse Randonneur

  1. Larry T. says:

    An excellent example of how “NEW” is not always better, no matter what the marketing-mavens might want you to believe. How many products are out there that cause the old “Geez, these new ones are pieces of crap…..why don’t they make ‘em like the used to?” rant?

  2. bostonbybike says:

    This is a nice bike. I like how the lighting is integrated with the frame. However, if I see correctly, this bike has steel rims with unpolished brake tracks. Considering this and the level of technology accessible today (modern rims, brake pads, derailleurs, etc.), your new bike should have significantly better brakes and dramatically better shifting, not just “slightly”.

    • You are right – if the bike had steel rims, the braking would be terrible.

      However, the bike has aluminum rims – otherwise, it wouldn’t weigh less than comparable modern bikes… By 1952, the French constructeurs only used steel rims on their inexpensive bikes, but never on top-of-the-line machines like this one.

      So the brakes of the 1952 Herse work as well as modern cantilever brakes, but not as well as a good centerpull brake.

  3. Greg says:

    What a bike. One thing that jumps out (for me, anyways) is the five-cog freewheel.
    In 1952, that was a lot of gears on the rear cluster. Many had three…..
    Mainstream bicycles didn’t get five rear speeds until about 1960 or so. It was three- and four-speed freewheels prior to then.

  4. Jim says:

    Jan-
    “…aesthetically and functionally resolved …” a turn of phrase as apt and elegant as the Herse.

  5. Thomas Dusky says:

    It’s too bad Grant Peterson did not utilize low trail front geometry when designing his bikes. Anyone know why?

      • One thing that is easily overlooked is the very upright riding position Rivendell advocates. That needs a different geometry. By contrast, René Herse bikes were performance bikes, intended to offer the speed of racing bikes with the extra versatility and comfort of wider tires, racks, fenders and lights.

      • I have ridden my Boulder All-Road 650B with the stem ~1 cm below and ~1 cm above the saddle and noticed no difference in handling my low trail bike. Even with the stem ~2 cm above the saddle there is no difference in handling with the exception of standing on the pedals when climbing. As the handlebar is raised above the saddle, controlling the bike while standing is initially more difficult than when the stem is lower than the saddle.

        I believe the saddle and handlebars on Roger Baumann’s Rene Herse PBP bike were at the same height. The bike was built this way to improve rider comfort, yet he delivered a sterling performance at PBP. Several riders in the DC Randonneurs set the handlebars even with the saddle or above the saddle for comfort and are still able to deliver good brevet performances.

        My guess is the reason RH’s bike are sometimes referred to as “performance bikes” is because the riders on the Rene Herse team were outstanding cyclist. I suspect they could deliver outstanding performances on any quality lightweight bikes they rode.

  6. Deacon Patrick says:

    Brilliant, Jan! Thank you for sharing your discovery of the René’s wisdom otherwise being lost to time. As for the Model T, were modern cars strapped to essentially the same engine, as the Herse is, I suspect it would perform admirably. Grin.

    • That is a good point that is easily overlooked. The engines on bikes haven’t changed much over the years, when you discount better doping and perhaps (slightly) better training. Nor have the chassis characteristics changed much. And when you think of tires, we are only now approaching the speed and comfort of 1950s hand-made clinchers again.

  7. Preston Grant says:

    The Cyclo derailleurs were very smooth, surprisingly so. Had one on my 1963 Jack Taylor tandem. In 1971 I visited the Herse shop, but was in a rush, so failed to order a bike, a mistake I have regretted ever since. BTW, Jan, Mme. Lyli was most gracious, and I have always remembered her.

  8. Mark says:

    Beautiful bike.
    I am the new owner of a Jo Routens 650b machine believed also to be early 50’s. It bares the decals, ‘Roux, Grenoble’. I’d like to find out more about the history of Routens in general (other than obviously what is available online), but in particular the relationship/connection with this shop(?). I would love to hear from anyone who may be able to shed some light, or if you could pass on my details to anyone who you think could help that would be very much appreciated.

  9. Bruce says:

    Hi Jan
    Beautiful bike and great article. That bike and your magazine were the inspiration for my build. I have one of the Rene Herse Federals from Boulder bike. It is the favorite of all my bikes. The one carbon bike I have collects dust.

  10. Paul Glassen says:

    The detail that struck me is the lower ends of the front rack support legs where they attach to the cantilever stud bolts. It appears they are just the tube flattened, bent to the correct angle and drilled. How spare and elegant. By comparison, the well-known Nitto M12 rack, as I have on my Soma randonneur, has these clubby looking pieces of flat stock sticking out to the side of the golt with the lower support butt welded to them. It is so inferior a design, both functionally and aesthetically, that I wonder why Nitto gets so much admiration.
    Mind you, despite its related geometry, I don’t think of my Soma as anything like the class of the Herse. It might be more comparable to the mass production bikes of France in the past, say a Peugeot or a Mercier, both bikes I rode 35 – 45 years ago.

    • The tube is not just flattened and drilled to connect the rack to the bolts. That would make a weak connection. Instead, there are small dropouts that are brazed into the rack tubes…

      Nitto’s products are built to a price. The Grand Bois racks we sell cost a bit more, so they have nicer details. A custom rack like that on the Herse costs three times as much as even the Grand Bois rack, because so much work goes into it.

  11. David Feldman says:

    Easy to see where Shimano’s first mountain bike cantilever brake design came from.

    • doug says:

      I too noticed the very strong similarity. I’ve always liked the earlier Shimano cantis, though not the very early ones that didn’t have spring adjustments built in.

      I would prefer the external springs of the Herse version, though.

  12. Dylan says:

    Beautiful bike!
    I wish someone would reproduce old derailleurs like those found on Rene Herse, Alex Singer, etc

  13. Velo Haven says:

    Reblogged this on Velo Haven and commented:
    Fantastic article on what made these machines great. The bit on chainstay to dropout is fascinating as well as the internal routing through the front rack to the light. Thanks for sharing Jan.

  14. Don says:

    The light looks like it has a yellow bulb, does it project a yellowish beam like the headlights on French cars do (or used to do)?

  15. Michael Crichton says:

    Jan, if you can say, who is the very fortunate owner of this machine?

    At the very least, I am curious where in the world the bike lives

  16. thebvo says:

    The best part of the bike is that it has obviously been ridden often. The patina is beautiful. It’s encouraging to see that any chips in the paint of MY bike will only add to its personality, as opposed to the feeling some of us get when “the $$$ paint job was ruined” by a fall, or a slipped tool.
    Do you think a bike with super-light tubing (I don’t know what dia this Herse has, but…) would put up with this many years of hard riding? Even without a heavy load I’m hesitant to think that a super-light tubed bike could hang on through the decades. I also think that I should be hesitant to think that what I think is correct in any way ; ]
    I agree that close up the new chainring pattern with the cutout is nicer, but from a distance I think it adds a little sumpn’ sumpn’. It reminds me of some kind of medieval circular blade.
    The bottle cage is also quite nice and elegant. Is it a Herse design?

    • It’s hard to say whether a frame with superlight tubing is more or less durable. It probably depends on the skills of the builder. The more flexible tubes put less stress on the joints. On the other hand, if you have a stress riser somewhere, the superlight tubing will be more fragile. A number of us are riding bikes made from superlight tubing, and we ride them hard. So in a few years, we’ll have more datapoints. So far, so good (touch on wood).

      The bottle cage is a replica of an original Herse design. Back then, there were no bottle cages for braze-on mounting, so Herse modified bottle cages so they could be mounted on braze-ons.

      • Greg says:

        With a steel frame, as long the tubing itself is not defective (which is mega-rare in the case of Reynolds 531, but does occur on occasion), and the builder has not over-heated things to the extreme (which is less rare, but still rare), a properly-built lugged steel frame will last 50-100 years (or more). Properly-designed steel frames and forks do not reach the yield point during use. That is, they don’t take a permanent set. They flex, then spring back to their initial geometry.

        The fatigue life of quality steels like 531 under ‘typical’ or even ‘extreme’ use in a cycle frame is nearly infinite. The fatigue life of aluminum and titanium, otoh is rather short in comparison, and they fail catastrophically when they do fail. Steel frames, if and when they fail, fail rather non-spectacularly.
        Don’t even get me started on CF frames! ;-)

      • I agree. The failures I have seen on steel frames were due to poor design in most cases, and poor workmanship for much of the rest.

      • Adam in Indiana says:

        (I was unable to reply to Greg’s post below, so it has to go here…)

        Titanium, like good steel, has a threshhold limit that gives the frame seemingly unlimited cycles without failure, as long as that limit isn’t passed. This, coupled with ride quality and corrosion/rust resistance, is one reason why titanium is considered one of the best materials to construct a bicycle frame from.

      • The material is less important than the workmanship. I have seen quite a few cracked titanium frames from the 1990s, which were intended to last forever. The experience and skill of the builder is as important as the material.

        As the 1952 Herse in this post shows, rust on steel frames is less of an issue than it appears. The frame is quite rusty, yet still strong enough to be ridden very hard. The frame is well-built, so no water accumulates inside. The only serious rust damage I have seen on steel frameswas from internal corrosion, not rust on the outside of the frame.

      • Adam in Indiana says:

        A very true point, Jan, one I agree with. I was only bringing it up due to the point previously made about the fatigue life of titanium.

  17. Jan-Olov Jansson says:

    But don’t forget the IBOB list members, those guys in first half of 2000, which converted older 700C bikes to 650B, like Olof S. Meral.

    We (me and my fiance) have Swedish custombuild 650B (Tegnér), and it more or less blue print from the 1952 RH, my 650B have 0.75-0.45-0.75 OS TT and DT, and my fiance have 0.70-0.40-0.70 std TT and 0.80-0.50-0.80 DT, Kaisei Imp forks, Hetre tires, RH cranks.
    Custom made frontracks, internal wire for the lights. Kimura battery lights, etc.
    This is my fiances first bike, except for hers hybrid bike for riding between work and home.

    Inspiration is from your magazine and books, and old french story’s.
    Tailwind.
    Jan-Olov

    • don’t forget the IBOB list members, those guys in first half of 2000, which converted older 700C bikes to 650B

      You are right – there were many people who got excited about 650B and helped popularize it. Yet it’s hard to argue that at least for North America, it all started with this bike.

  18. Tony says:

    Jan, Do you know who made the aluminum stems and crankset for Herse? (I’ve always been curious about this)

  19. Robert says:

    Jan, did you ever print the geometry for this bike? I looked in Vol. 4 No. 1, and you give a detailed ride report, but I’ve never seen the specs for this one anywhere.

  20. VincentB says:

    This is the beautiful result when the best possible bike was built in an era where a bike was seen as a long term investment instead of a throwaway part like today.

    • Greg says:

      That is so true! Also, RH came from an early aeronautics machining environment/mentality. Every part had to be as light as possible, but absolutely reliable and durable. When you think about that, it makes you understand why his bikes are the way they are, in many areas, I feel….

  21. David Pearce says:

    It’s a lovely bike.

    M. Herse was obviously a taller person, and I have this “shortism” complex–chip on my shoulder. I always need the smallest frame size (nor am I a good mountain specialist like Nairo Quintana either!).

    But here’s my question, and I think it has a realistic, scientific basis, and is not just whining: If getting smaller diameter wheels than 650b were no impediment, would a smaller sized bike but similarly proportioned frame handle better or be better than the current alternative now, which is just to have the top and down tubes almost intersecting right on the head tube?

    In other words, is there a best bicycle proportion, which shorter people would get, if smaller wheels were available?

    David

    • René Herse actually was a lot shorter than he looks in the photos. I think he rode a 52 cm frame. For a much smaller bike, you’ll probably have to use smaller wheels than 650B to avoid toe overlap and other compromises, but the handling will be a little compromised, unless you opt for very wide tires. That said, I have seen some very small bikes built with 559 mm (26″) wheels and moderately wide tires that seemed to handle very nicely.

  22. David Pearce says:

    Amazing (but wonderful) to input that a 60-year-old bike could be so perfectly perfection. Good design is always good design.

  23. I enjoyed reading your article about the lineage of the modern low trail 650B bike. Lenora and I now ride low trail 650B bikes – Boulder Bicycle All-Road 650B and Georgena Terry Randonneuse 650B. Besides your articles in Bicycle Quarterly, my interest in low trail geometry and wide 650B tires was inspired by the photo of Paulette Callet climbing the Calibier, 1930’s. The photo captures the romance and spirit of the cyclotouriste.

    In your article, you mentioned wide low pressure tires. What is your definition of low pressure?

    Thanks for writing the article “The 650B Ancestor: The Rene Herse Randonneur”.

  24. Paul Knopp says:

    The winning speed for the 1939 Liege-Bastogne-Liege race was 37.5 K/hr and this year’s winning speed was slightly over 39 K/hr. The bikes of 1939 were heavier and were ridden on worse roads by people who slept on straw or in bad hotels, at best. I don’t know the specifics of these bikes, but I imagine they are quite similar to what you’ve shown us here. One other thing I’ve noticed is that the bikes of today are far too small for the riders because with every pedal stroke they swerve 6-12 inches to the side. It’s either sizing or geometry or the lack of wheel weight which causes this, or a combination. Riding a line on a bike that fits seems to be the simplest solution, but one that is often overlooked at the expense of trying to gain market share.
    I would encourage anyone building or buying a new bike to research history and read “Bicycle Science” before plunking down loads of cash on exotic materials, “new” geometries, or “revolutionary” gadgetry. Thanks, Jan.

    • You are right, by 1939, the bikes were very similar to this René Herse, and the speeds were comparable to today, at least in the one-day races. In the big stage races, the speeds are higher now, because modern racers recover much better – be it through better training or better “medical supervision”.

      I think the swaying of modern bikes under many riders is due to a combination of narrow tires and wheel flop (which could be cured with a different front-end geometry).

  25. David Pearce says:

    You’ve spoken about rust in a comment above, so I’ll try not to be repetitive. The frame is accumulating some surface rust, I assume it is not coming from inside the tubes. But speaking of that, was there some regimen for treating the inside tubes like we have today with Weigle’s Frame Saver?

    Since you illustrate very well that Herse loved excellent design, using no more nor less material than was needed to make the bicycle, what are those two little tabs (legs?) under the front brake bosses, in the fourth picture from the top? What are they for?

    • René Herse put oil-impregnated paper in the chainstays. When you pull it out, you can still see Madame Herse’s handwriting on some of them. The paper dries out, but it’s so full of oil that it never absorbs water – which would create the opposite effect of rusting the tubes from the inside. Treating an old Herse with Framesaver is difficult, since you’d have to pull out the pressed-in BB bearings, which would be ruined in the process…

      On my new bikes, I treat them with Peter Weigle’s Framesaver before I build them up.

      The little tabs serve to catch the brake arms if the brake or straddle cables fail. Otherwise, they could flip into the spokes with disastrous consequences.

  26. Bubba says:

    I really like the eccentric shifter. It looks like the amount of eccentricity is adjustable, so the assembler of the bike would set it up to match the bike. Is that how it works?

    • Yes, you can vary the eccentricity. That makes it harder to adjust, though. Herse bikes really were designed to be maintained by the Herse shop, and the bikes made for export often lacked some of the features, so they could be maintained by a “normal” bike shop.

      • Bubba says:

        Ever since you posted about desmodromic rear derailleurs a couple years back, I’ve been thinking about the linkage design at the derailleur that would allow a constant cable length. This is a nice solution that allows you to correct for slack artfully, with out having to dwell interminably on the math. I like solutions that allow the craftsman’s feel to solve problems. It makes bikes of this type resemble other artfully precise items like a Steinway piano.

  27. Michael says:

    I wonder if the average Joe could afford this Herse back in 1952, or was it pretty unobtainable like lots of high end steel bikes are nowadays?

    • For the average Joe, a Herse presented a significant investment, but many of Herse’s customers weren’t well-off at all. Roger Baumann, who came first in the 1956 PBP, bought his Herse when he started working as an accountant, saving every penny he could. For riders like him, their bike was the one thing on which they spent money. They didn’t own cars, lived in small apartments, didn’t eat out… Over time, an Herse probably was pretty cost-effective, since it was very durable and unlikely to require additional infusions of cash to keep going.

      It’s the same today, where we all make choices of how we spend our money. Even a modern René Herse costs less than the cheapest new car you can buy in the U.S. today. A beautifully-made MAP S&P like the one we tested costs as much as a decent ten-year-old used car…

  28. Jim says:

    I seem to recall reading an article about Dr. Clifford Greaves taking tour groups to Europe and that they were typically outfitted with Rene Herse bicycles. The bikes were outfitted with inexpensive components and had wing nutted hubs not quick releases and such like to keep costs low. We tend to see preserved the spare-no-cost-nothing-but-the-best examples but a great frame with functional parts was a typical post-WW II method of acquiring a good bike.

    • That was just a function of the dollar having an extremely favorable exchange rate. Back then, anything European cost much less to Americans than to Europeans…

      For Clifford Graves’ organized trips, the cost of the airfare was the main expense. Once you were over in Europe, the bikes, accommodation and other expenses in Europe cost relatively little. Plus, the bikes could be sold upon return to the U.S. to recoup some of the cost of the trip. It still baffles my mind that you’d go on a Youth Hostel trip, and the price included a René Herse. The plus for the organizers was that everybody had bikes that were unlikely to go wrong, and if there was a problem, all had the same bikes.

      The full story of those trips was told by Scott McElmury, who led one of the very first ones in 1963, in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 6, No. 2.

      • Michael says:

        Thanks for the info.
        BTW, that bend on the fork is one of the best looking I have ever seen. So extreme and elegant.

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