Rene Herse – The Book

Our new book! Instead of telling you about René Herse, I’d like to tell you how this book came about. While I was visiting René Herse’s daughter Lyli many years ago, we talked about restoring the tandem that placed first in the 1956 Paris-Brest-Paris. Lyli thought that she might have some parts in her garage that could be useful. So we headed out and began to rummage around. Among the lawn mower and gardening tools, there were indeed a few interesting supplies, like hollow aluminum fender stays apparently left over from the 1940s technical trials. (The valuable Herse components were sold to another builder many years ago when the shop closed.) Then we came upon two suitcases. “What is in there?” I asked Lyli. She replied: “I don’t know. Open them!”

The suitcases were full of photos. Not just hundreds, but thousands of photos. Not just snapshots; most were of excellent composition and quality, taken by professional photographers. As I looked through them, the whole history of Cycles René Herse began to unfold in front of my eyes. Here was a photo of René and Marcelle Herse as a young couple. There was the first René Herse component, a pedal, and his first crankset; I knew the pedals only from a drawing in Herse’s advertisement in pre-war issues of Le Cycliste.

Herse had introduced his components at the 1938 Technical Trials, where he rode a bike made by Narcisse, but equipped with Herse’s own components. Contemporary reports explained that the bike was lighter than any bike before, but nobody knew any longer what that Narcisse bike looked like. In the suitcase was a photo of Herse at the Trials with his Narcisse! It’s the photo shown above.

There were photos of war-time events that I had never heard about. I found many photos of Herse’s daughter Lyli with various captains winning the tandem category of almost a dozen Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb races. Dramatic night-time images showed riders in Paris-Brest-Paris. Others featured Herse with his team at the finish of competitive events. There was Lyli in the United States, visiting customers and friends during the 1960s, when American orders helped to keep the shop afloat.

The suitcases contained autographed photos from famous racers thanking René Herse for his assistance. Could they corroborate the stories that many champions had ridden on frames that had been made by Herse?

It was a treasure trove of previously unseen materials. Some of the photos were inscribed on the back in Marcelle Herse’s neat handwriting, but most lacked identification. During my research, I was fortunate to speak with many of the old “Pilotes de Herse” who are still alive. Those discussions and their rides have left indelible memories.

Gilbert Bulté took on the task of identifying many events and riders. Paulette Porthault, “the Aunt”, who had known Herse from the earliest days, told us about riders and events that we never had even had heard about, like the war-time technical trials. Women who raced on Lyli Herse’s team in the 1970s filled in other parts of the story. It took half a decade of detective work to piece together this entire history, and by the end, I could recognize some riders like Lyli Herse even if their faces were obscured, just by their way of sitting on the bike. Many company records of Cycles René Herse survive, which helped establish the history of the company, and allowed me to corroborate riders’ and employees’ reminiscences.

From the moment we opened those suitcases, I knew that these archives had to be shared with the world in a new book. The stories from the riders are even richer. As we did our research, one rider after another shared their photo albums to complete the story. For example, Daniel and Madeleine Provot provided the wonderful images of touring during the 1950s (above). As part of this research, we recorded many wonderful stories that otherwise would have been forgotten. Together with the photos, these memories tell a wonderful story of a time when cyclotouring was not just a hobby, but a way of life.

To illustrate the talent of René Herse, we set up photo studios in France, Japan and the U.S. to photograph 20 amazing, original René Herse bikes. The bikes span the entire history of Cycles René Herse, from early machines made during World War II to the last bikes made after Herse’s death in the 1980s. They include rarities like an unridden “New Old Stock” machine from 1945 and a track bike that was ridden to half a dozen French championships.

The result is our new book René Herse: the Bikes, the Builder, the Riders. Compressing a history as rich and varied as that of this prolific builder into a single book was a challenge. Rather than cut the book to a predetermined length and leave out wonderful images and anecdotes, we decided to give this story the space it needed. The book comprises 424 pages and includes more than 450 illustrations – it is the same size but more than twice as thick as The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles.

By focusing on the riders who enjoyed cycling in the company of good friends, I hope this book will inspire future generations of cyclists. The book is being printed now, and will be available in November or early December 2012. For more information and additional photos, or to pre-order your copy, click here.

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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11 Responses to Rene Herse – The Book

  1. Matt Surch says:

    Wow, congrats on putting together a tome of this magnitude, Jan! Its bound to be a classic.

  2. AllanF says:

    Creating a work on par to its subject is the great challenge to biographers of accomplished men. It appears you met the challenge, and for which you deserve to be well commended. Congratulations, Jan.

    Curious though, which weighs more the book or the ’38 trials bike?

    • The book weighs just under 3 kg (6.5 lb), or a little under half of the Narcisse at the 1938 Technical Trials. The bikes at the trials were required to carry 4 kg of weight, usually newspapers… so if we had made the book in two volumes, it neatly would have fit into a pannier each, with a year’s worth of Bicycle Quarterly to make up the last kg. However, I doubt the trials riders were able to stay awake for bed-time reading after riding their superlight bikes over 150+ kilometers of very rough mountain roads.

  3. Chris L says:

    Just went to the top of my X-Mas wish list. Hope this is the first in a series. Would love to see a similar book about Charlie Cunningham. In many ways he always struck me as being something of MTB/American version of Herse though his career doesn’t appear to have lasted nearly as long (at least not under his name).

  4. Tim Evans says:

    Hopefully people everywhere, but especially in France, will come to appreciate bicycling’s history better.

    And, just as hopefully, this new book will broaden exposure of, and influence building better, mainstream bicycles.

  5. RickH says:

    I can only imagine the thoughts and how big your eyes must have been when first viewing those photos from the suitcase.

  6. azorch says:

    Jan, I just let my wife know what would fit perfectly into a book-sized Christmas package! I’m very much looking forward to your new title.

  7. Alex Moll says:

    Just pre-ordered my Limited Edition copy, THEN told my wife that I had just bought my Christmas present. Congrats, well done, and can’t wait.

    • Jeff Feet says:

      Me too Alex. Waiting for my Deluxe Special Edition. Now I’m going to be bugging the mailman for the next few weeks. And they haven’t even shipped yet. Poor mailman.

      Thanks Jan.

  8. I read the review and stopped dead when I got to the part where it said they were not collaborateurs but “just trying to make the best out of a difficult situation”. What a load of garbage, what an injustice to the few who did stand up to the Nazis. History shows Vichy was an active, eager servant of the Nazis and Gestapo, thrilled to help discover Jews and herd them into trains for transport to the death camps. The French who participated KNEW what they were doing and what would happen to these people. While the French have done an excellent job in creating the fiction that resistance was the norm, the truth is the direct opposite. If one wants a clearer picture of the French resistance read Train in Winter and excellent account of the women of the French Resistance. Don’t insult the dead by endorsing a book that lets “collaborateurs” off the hook for their complicity.

    • David,

      I am sorry that my comments (in Bicycle Quarterly) led to a misunderstanding. I included them specifically to show that I had examined this question, rather than just glossed it over like most books do.

      I agree that those who collaborated with the Vichy regime deserve our scorn. There is one man in particular whom we discuss in the book, Jean Leulliot. He organized many events during and after the war, and appears to have had no qualms about working with the Germans. He was not associated with Herse directly, but we covered him in the book because Herse’s riders participated in his events.

      One question during my research was whether Herse and his riders had the protection of the German authorities so that they could make bikes and participate in events during the war. The answer is an unequivocal “No.” Herse and his riders did not join the Resistance, but they also did nothing to work with the Germans. In fact, a number of metalworkers went “undercover” by working in the shops of the constructeurs so they could escape deportation to Germany. Basically, the cyclists and small constructeurs flew “under the radar” of the Germans. (They probably were too small to be useful for the German war effort, and the Nazis were fascinated by cars, and considered bicycles old-fashioned and low-tech.)

      It was a difficult time, but these cyclotourists apparently managed to make the best of it by helping one another. When the constructeur Narcisse, who was Jewish, left Paris after the occupation, he said “Good-Bye” to his cyclotouring friends on the day he was leaving. Obviously, he was not afraid that they would alert the authorities.

      During the war, these riders and builders, like most French, just lived their lives, one day at a time. These riders scoured the countryside for food. They met with friends and even participated in bicycle competitions. In difficult times, it is hard to keep your spirits up, and cycling helped these people to do so. Even so, the relief when the war is over is palpable, not just from people’s stories, but also from their facial expressions in the historic photos. In 1946, they seem to smile almost all the time, visibly more relaxed and at ease. I look forward to hearing your opinion about this subject once you have read the book.

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