Riding My René Herse

In recent months, I’ve been traveling and testing so many bikes for Bicycle Quarterly that I my “main” bike, the René Herse, hasn’t seen much use. But now the Summer BQ is out, and I am back on my favorite bike. We built it six years ago as a prototype to try new ideas – wide, supple tires; superlight tubing; centerpull brakes; low-trail geometry; and even some special 1940s derailleurs: the front is operated by a direct lever, while the rear is a Nivex with desmodromic actuation and constant spring tension.

To some, the Herse may look like a classic from a bygone time, but its performance is totally modern. I choose it when I want to go far and fast, so I’ve ridden it in 2 Paris-Brest-Paris, 2 Raids Pyreneen, the Oregon Outback, many other brevets and adventures, plus our usual fast-paced rides around Seattle.

Check out the video above to see what it’s like to ride the bike, and how those derailleurs work. (Make sure to view it in “Full Screen” mode.)

What the video can’t convey is how the bike feels. It’s quite different from riding the modern machines: If I had to summarize it in a single word, it feels light. Not because it weighs very little (although at 11.3 kg / 25 lb, it is lighter than most fully equipped bikes). BQ‘s recent test bikes didn’t have fenders, racks and lights, so they weighed even less. The Herse feels light and small to the point where it almost disappears underneath me.

The narrow tread (Q factor) of the cranks lets my pedal stroke flow easily, whether I’m just spinning along or racing uphill at maximum speed. The low-trail geometry requires only a light touch to direct the bike where I want to go. The thin handlebars, wrapped only in cloth tape, invite this light touch. The brakes don’t require manhandling either, yet they aren’t as grabby as some hydraulic discs. Even the derailleurs’ action is light – they feel lighter than even Di2 paddles. And all these controls have similar weights – which is very important to me, because it makes every action on the bike feel completely natural.

I find it interesting to compare the Herse to the other bikes I’ve ridden in recent months. The closest in feel is my Firefly. This may come as a surprise, as the Firefly is a modern titanium bike, but both frames respond similarly to my pedal strokes. The Campagnolo Ergopower feels similar to the Nivex, too: Shifts require only small hand movements, but both derailleurs respond best to decisive shifts. Punch the levers home, and you get quick shifts. If you are hesitant, the gears may not engage cleanly.

Both bikes have low-trail geometries, and the inertia of the wheels is similar, too: The Firefly has wider 54 mm tires, but smaller 26″ rims, whereas the Herse runs 650B x 42 mm tires. That means their handling is similarly intuitive. Where the two feel different is when riding out of the saddle: The Firefly has less inertia to rocking the bike from side to side, since it doesn’t have fenders nor a rack. So I enjoy the Firefly as a racing bike, for fast-paced rides that don’t require carrying much in terms of supplies. The Herse is a bike that can traverse entire states without stopping. And since their frames allow me to reach my maximum power output, their speed is exactly the same.

How about the Mule? Outwardly similar – it’s also a 650B randonneur bike made from steel – it feels quite different. Due to its oversized down tube, the frame responds differently to my pedal strokes. Designed to carry a heavier front load, the Mule also has a little more trail. As a result, the Mule feels more planted – more “modern”, if I dare say so – than the Herse. The Mule is a great bike that especially comes into its own when carrying heavy front panniers on the low-rider rack.

I greatly enjoyed our last two test bikes, the Open (above) and the Boo. Made from carbon and bamboo, they had stiffer frames and a completely different feel. They required me to be more on top of my game, to think more about pedaling smoothly and with power. Their geometries had more trail, which makes them better suited to riders who grip the handlebars firmly. I prefer to guide the bike with a light touch – like a good horse – so I enjoy low-trail geometries for the precision (not much trail) and stability (not much wheel flop). Don’t get me wrong – these are great bikes, but for me, they’d work better if they had more frame flex and less trail.

In the end, I enjoy the Herse so much because it feels like an extension of my body. When I ride it, I don’t think about the bike. And that let’s me enjoy the ride even more.

As to the prototype parts that I’ve tested on this bike, many now are available from Compass Cycles: Supple, wide tires that combine speed with comfort. Handlebars shaped for comfort even after ten hours on the bike. Centerpull brakes that are superlight in weight and offer great stopping power and modulation. René Herse cranks that allow you to choose gearing suited to your riding style. Supple fork blades for a little extra suspension.

What about those eye-catching derailleurs? I put them on the bike because I was curious about them. I like them a lot, but I don’t think they change the riding experience as much as the parts mentioned above. I’m perfectly happy with the “standard” derailleurs on my Mule, and I also enjoy the Campagnolo Ergopower on my Firefly. That said, the Nivex rear derailleur in particular does point out areas on modern derailleurs that could be improved, but that is a story for another day…

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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20 Responses to Riding My René Herse

  1. Kevin Kavangh says:

    Terrific video and a lovely bike! Say, would it be possible to capture on video the movement of the fork blades as they travel over bumps?

    • Erick says:

      yo mean something like this but with the rene herse

      • Alex says:

        – except that fork in the video doesn’t appear to flex at all: the steering tube is flexed. @Kevin: I don’t have Kasei fork blades as built in Jan’s Herse, but I do have the thin & skinny 1980s Reynolds 531 blades on two bikes, and it’s a joy watching the fork ends flex on the many cobblestone roads we have here in Berlin/Brandenburg. Once you have it, you never want to give it up.
        I still don’t understand how any framemaker worth his/her salt (who uses rim brakes) can justify buying a (carbon) fork ‘off the hook’, as many of the more popular / published makers do: waste of energy, in every sense of the word

      • I noticed that, too – but then, that impact is more than the bike is intended to handle on a regular basis, so it’ll flex everywhere to avoid breaking… A good “jumper” isn’t just going for elevation, but also a soft landing. Watch a Danny MacAskill video, and you see how he uses his entire body as a shock absorber when he drops off a bridge without destroying his bike.

  2. STS says:

    With all respect Jan, but just because technology is old doesn’t make it better. Your perception of those things is obviously very … personal, subjective. There’s nothing wrong with that but what disturbes me is when you try to reason how those derailleurs, brakes and a thin handlebar are factually as good or maybe even better than today’s stuff. I absolutely don’t want to argue with you about those points in detail because there’s no point in argueing about things that at least one party looks at very subjectively. But I’m pretty sure that for most cyclists you lose some credibility in your judgement ability by uttering stuff like this.
    Hydraulic brakes grabby? For someone like you who claims he has a light touch on things? ??? Any rim brake that is powerful enough to be considered adequate for using it in traffic is more grabby than any hydraulic disc brake. Com’on there’s just no argueing about that. Modulation is something that one can actually measure.
    And in those 13 to 14 years since 31.8 mm road bike handlebars have become the “new” standard I haven’t had a single customer who wanted to go back to the thinner 26.0 mm diameter bars. In fact it’s typically one of those things that riders, especially women with smaller hands, mention at first when coming back from a test ride with one of our demo bikes how much better that thicker handlebar feels if their personal bikes still feature a 26.0 mm handlebar.
    Low trail vs. high (?) trail though is really a personal thing. For most riders a higher trail steering geometry is better because it inspires confidence and let’s them enjoy their descending more. But I also know a couple of very skilled riders who love bikes which others including me would characterize as unnecessarily nervous. When really going for it in demanding descents – and we have plenty of those here – it doesn’t seem to make a difference. The guys on the bikes with “quicker” steering aren’t descending any faster than the ones on trail values above 60 mm. You simply adapt to it and then it doesn’t make a difference. But when putting on a vest or opening an energy bar riding with no hands at 60 kph and then hitting an overlooked bump in the road the higher trail number makes a difference. To every rider. Even the most skilled ones.

    • It’s understandable to believe that modern bikes must be better, but I think it’s arrogant to dismiss so many things that you’ve never experienced. Of course, I am not saying that the old Nivex and lever-operated front derailleurs are bettery. I just wanted to show how they work…

      For the other parts, they really are superior for an experienced rider. Centerpulls do have better modulation than any other brake because of the way they are designed. They feed the braking forces to the strongest part of the fork (the crown), and yet their lower arms are short, so they don’t flex.

      Wider tires really do roll faster on most surfaces… but fortunately, I no longer have to explain that. Two years ago, you would have taken me to task for that, too.

      “how much better that thicker handlebar feels if their personal bikes still feature a 26.0 mm handlebar.”

      The part of the bars you grip always has been ~23.5 mm. We sell bars with 31.8 mm clamp diameter, but the parts you touch are exactly the same as on the 25.4 mm bars. Bar tape got very thick for a while, but judging from the latest BQ test bikes, the fashion is for thinner tape again now.

      The low-trail geometry actually is more stable when riding no-hands, since it has less wheel flop and reacts less to cross-winds. Where a low-trail geometry doesn’t work is if you have a “death grip” on the handlebars, because the low-trail bike faithfully translates every twitch of your hands into a steering movement. Some people feel safer on a high-trail bike that won’t go off its line even if they make an ill-advised movement in mid-corner – but the downside is that you cannot change your line when you are cornering fast. Decreasing-radius corners can become interesting…

      That really points to the big difference: The bike industry must make bikes that work for all types of riders, whereas Compass can make parts that work best for skilled riders who enjoy their bikes close to the max. Car makers face the same issues, which is why an automatic Toyota is designed to be easier to drive, but less rewarding for a skilled driver, than a Porsche with manual transmission.

      • Rider X says:

        With higher trail geometry, the trick is to drop your inside shoulder down to tighten up the radius mid-corner. This works quite well and can lead to smoother lines though the corner. Whether or not handle bar input vs body english is the preferred approach for bike handling mid-corner is really rider dependent.

      • Dropping your shoulder will also tug at the bar – without countersteering, a bike cannot turn…

    • Conrad says:

      Well, I have…. On one of my first long rides, STP a long time ago, I developed really bad hand numbness/weakness. I went to the local shop for a fitting and they put a kludgie with Ritchey 31.8 bars. It was an improvement, but mainly because they levelled the ramps. A while later I put the quill stem back on with a Nitto bar, properly adjusted. I now have a noodle or Compass bar on every bike I own. The nitto bars are about a hundred times more comfortable than the usual modern bar. No more hand numbness at all. As for disc brakes: On bikes with suspension, or cargo bikes, I won’t argue with you. They are the gold standard for power and modulation. I don’t like them on road bikes with rigid forks though because they twist the fork blades under hard braking. If you have a fork stiff enough to resist the twisting, you are giving up a lot of ride quality for the extra braking power that you probably didn’t need in the first place.

  3. Kevin Kavangh says:

    Cool, but it seems like the whole fork is moving pretty much from the frame down with such a jarring impact. I’m thinking about how the tapered fork ends near the dropouts move upwards with smaller impacts, if I’m understanding how Jan has described it at various times.

    • We measured this once for a Bicycle Quarterly study – we isolated the deflection of the lower 2/3 of the fork blades as we put heavy weights on the handlebars. Different forks had very different results. They all deflected a bit, but some much more than others.

      • Rick Thompson says:

        I missed that test, which issue?
        What is your favorite fork bend, for ride quality? My framebuilder is suggesting a moderate curve. He says another big guy he made a frame for had a strong French flick in the fork, he found it disconcerting to see the fork flex so much. Apparently it rode very well, just looked odd to him. I’m not sure I would mind if the ride was better on rough gravel.

      • The research was published in Bicycle Quarterly 23. Interesting observation from the builder/rider. If the forks handled funny or failed, I’d be concerned. But if they flex to improve the ride comfort and to give you more traction when descending by keeping the front wheel on the ground – that is what they are designed to do!

  4. John Duval says:

    I remain most curious about flex and planing. A couple years ago I had a very similar 650b bike made with the lightest tubing my builder could find that were long enough for a 2m tall rider (1-7-1 oversized as I recall). I was disappointed to find my legs feeling more trashed after a fast ride than on much stiffer bikes I have owned.

    I have come to suspect my cranks are the real culprit. Mostly I have used 180mm cranks, but following tradition, thought 175mm would be better for longer rides. If people like Leonard Zinn are correct, 200mm cranks would be the “correct” size for me. Like planing, in theory it should shift the load from the legs to the vascular system. Crank length may well be more about mass production than physiology.

    • Cecil says:

      Crank length: there’s a subject to generate controversy! I think there’re so many factors involved—thigh, calf & foot length; flexibility; injuries; alignment; cadence &c—it may be difficult to arrive at any consensus. For *me*, as an older, 1.79 metre high rider with some injuries, and making no claims for anyone else, I find riding shorter, (ie., 165 mm length) cranks, makes a significant (positive) difference to my power, smoothness, stamina, and comfort. For want of a better word, it makes my bikes—whether carbon, steel or titanium—”plane” better than when I ride longer cranks. I think it’s because it opens up the hip angle and encourages, at least in my case, a higher & smoother cadence. Speaking of which, I’m interested in the effects of cadence: it seems to me that different bikes & conditions “require” or reward different cadences: my Trek Domane SLR on 32 mm Stampede Pass XLs hums along on smooth to coarse asphalt at 35–40 kmh/100–105 rpm, but on slightly rougher or more undulating roads, and over randonée distances (200 plus km) it pays to gear *up* and ride at 92–98 rpm. I couldn’t as easily sustain 100 plus rpm on my steel or titanium bikes and ride more in the range of 85–95 rpm all the time. I suspect much of this is affected by my mind as much as physiology! Crank length, foot placement, frame flexibility/stiffness & geometry, and many other factors must all contribute to the sensation of “planing”.

  5. Matthew J says:

    Speaking of cotton tape, Viva/Toshi cotton tape from Japan is by far the best I’ve ever used. Somewhat than most other cotton tape with a plush feel. The colors are amazing.

    Possibly the maker has gone out of business as it is very difficult to find. If it is just a matter of needing an importer, perhaps Compass should consider.

    • Owen says:

      Jitensha Studio in Berkeley has Viva/Toshi tape on their website, not sure what their mail order situation is though.

      http://www.jitensha.com/eng/tape_e.html

      • Unfortunately, I don’t think their web site has been updated in a long time. Unless they have old stocks, it’s unlikely they have any available.

      • Matthew J says:

        Jan is correct. Last time I was in Berkeley I called and left a message. A very polite man called later and advised they only had a few rolls in the darker color.

        In the early aughts someone found a stash of NOS Pelessier and MaxiCar hubs along with other lovely French stuff. My fantasy is this somehow happens Viva/Toshi. Or in the alternative

  6. Mark Petry says:

    I saw this bike recently, up close and personal. It is utterly magnificent. The Bugatti of bicycles.

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