Many people see my bike and think “Retro!” In some cases, this is seen as cool. Others are dismissive, like the famous builder who once compared riders like me to civil war re-enactors, who dress up and play civil war in their spare time.
It is true that I enjoy riding classic bikes. Best-known is probably my ride with Jaye Haworth in the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris on a 1946 René Herse tandem (below). I also rode a 1952 René Herse 650B bike in a number of brevets. While there was an element of re-enactment in those rides – I wanted to understand these bikes and their riders better – the results were really surprising.
The 1946 René Herse tandem performed better than any modern tandem, and we were the fastest mixed tandem that year. In the entire history of PBP, only 7 mixed tandem teams have been faster, and six of them have been on classic tandems. The old Herse’s effortless speed, but even more its effortless handling, really was an eye-opener that led into research of why modern tandems did not perform as well. Since then, quite a few tandems have been built along similar lines, to the great enjoyment of their owners.
My rides on the 1952 Herse 650B bike had even more far-reaching consequences. Not only does that bike hold the record for the “3 Volcano 300 km” brevet to this day, but its surprising performance led to our research into bicycle performance. A trickle-down effect of that research is that now even racers run wider tires at lower pressures than they did before. And the old Herse served as a blueprint for a new generation of 650B randonneur bikes made in the United States, including my current bike.
Designed for performance more than style, these new bikes take some elements from the old: fast, wide 650B tires, lightweight aluminum fenders with excellent coverage, and handlebars that offer room to roam during long rides. Other details are decidedly modern: clipless pedals and generator-powered lights with the latest LED technology.
Some riders equip their new randonneur bikes with modern brake-shift levers, while others prefer the simplicity and light weight of downtube shift levers. There are good reasons to use either system that have nothing to do with being modern or retro.
Retro is painting your bike orange because Eddy Merckx was sponsored by an Italian sausage maker. Or putting horizontal dropouts on a bike with derailleurs because that is how it used to be done in the old days. Riding a bike with each part chosen for performance is not retro. Even if the result looks somewhat like a bike from 1952.