René Herse: The Beauty of Function

At Compass Cycles, we have taken much of our inspiration from René Herse and his legendary bikes. In the past, we’ve talked about the great performance and incredible reliability of Herse’s bikes, but what is even more striking is their beauty. You notice it immediately when you look at one of his bikes, or even a photo… but it took much study to unlock the secrets of the ‘magician of Levallois.’ (Levallois was the suburb of Paris where Herse made his bikes.)

Herse’s bikes don’t derive their beauty from complex lug shapes, but from their simplicity. It was Hiroshi Hagiwara, the maker of the Japanese Alps bicycles, who said in a recent Bicycle Quarterly interview: “A bicycle is a frame with two wheels. Everything else is a distraction.” When I thought about this while looking at a René Herse bike, I realized that Herse’s genius was to turn these distractions into assets that make the bike more beautiful.

The most obvious one are the fenders (above): They follow the outline of the wheel so gracefully that they enhance the bike to the point where the same bike without fenders would look naked.

Herse masterfully joined the frame and wheels: Herse’s custom-made dropouts place the wheel centers in the prolongation of the stays and fork blades. That way, the wheels are centered in the end points of the frame, which ties the whole bike together. As an added benefit, this allows the dropouts to be smaller, stiffer and lighter.

Other things are harder to notice: The two arms of the custom-made hanger for the Cyclo derailleur line up perfectly behind each other. This is very difficult to do, since the chainstays are angled upward and outward, and the two arms have to be bent very precisely to very different curves. It adds to the beauty of the bike, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

The brake cables are truly parallel to the head tube and seatstays. That way, they don’t distract from the frame, but underline the straightness of the tubes.

Herse considered the proportions of the frame beyond the simple question of frame fit. The tandem we rode in France last summer has twin lateral stays, but they don’t just line up whichever way. Herse subtly adjusted the frame’s dimensions so that the lateral stays are parallel, and the balanced sizes of triangles they form further adds to the attractiveness of the frame.

Herse’s genius was to achieve this with bikes that also fit their riders perfectly. Because all this magic wouldn’t mean much if it detracted from the ride.

The opposite is the case. For René Herse bikes, the old adage that “What looks right usually is right” really holds true. His bikes and tandems ride wonderfully.

The beauty of Herse’s bikes makes it easy to forget that they were not intended as showpieces – they were designed to be ridden hard. Herse’s background reveals much about his thinking: He worked on prototype aircraft before he started making bicycle components and then bicycles. His aircraft experience shows in details like the custom screws: During the early 20th century, there were no universal specifications for bolts. Airplane makers made their own bolts, and to make sure that only correct bolts were used, each maker gave their bolt heads a distinctive shape. That way, a mechanic could immediately see if a bolt had been replaced with an incorrect one of suspicious quality. René Herse’s distinctive bolts for stems and seatpost binder have triangular heads that trace their origins to this practice.

Elegance and function also are combined in his lighting systems. The most important part of the photo above is what you don’t see: lighting wires. They run inside the rack, inside the fenders, and inside the frame tubes. Even where the current needs to be transmitted from the fork to the frame, there is no external wire: An insulated carbon brush on the steerer tube mates with an insulated brass ring inside the head tube, transmitting the current while allowing the fork to turn freely. Eliminating exposed wires not only is more elegant, but it also reduces the risk of wires getting snagged or breaking from being moved time and again.

The beauty of René Herse goes beyond the frames. After all, Herse started as a maker of components, and only began making complete bikes during World War II, perhaps because it was difficult to sell components without bikes onto which to put them. Herse’s components, whether his brakes (above), cranks or stems, combined superlight weight with superb performance.

Often overlooked are small details, like his double-ended bolts for attaching the rack to the brake pivots. Many builder simply use the brake bolt to hold the rack tab as well, but this brings the risk that the bolt works loose. Herse’s solution is more elegant: His brake bolt has a forward extension onto which the rack mounts with a nut. It will never work loose. You’d expect no less from an airplane builder: If a bolt loosens in mid-air, you can’t just stop and tighten it!

Despite all their elegance, René Herse’s bikes have a certain handmade quality. It’s obvious that the lugs and stem were shaped by hand. A lot of modern builders make bikes that look more crisp and uniform. At first, I thought that this was because René Herse bikes were made in significant numbers – up to 350 left the workshop during the best years – and corners had to be cut. But René Herse’s hand-lettered logo indicates that the handmade aesthetic was intentional. Herse could easily have ordered decals, but instead, every frame was hand-lettered by a sign painter. Like great pottery, Herse’s bikes look handmade without appearing crude or unfinished. In my opinion, that makes them works of art.

For the complete story of René Herse, his bikes and their riders, read our 424-page book on the ‘magician of Levallois,’ lavishly illustrated with studio photos of his bikes and historic photos from the Herse family archives. We still have a few copies of the Limited Edition (with a slipcase and art prints of four unpublished photographs from the René Herse Archives), or the ‘standard’ edition at a more affordable price (also available in French). Click here for more information.

Two of my favorite images from the book are available as large-format, ready-to-frame Limited Edition posters. Hang them on your wall and be inspired every time you look at them. Click here to order our set.

And if you haven’t seen our video of a René Herse tandem in action, click here.

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 the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
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23 Responses to René Herse: The Beauty of Function

  1. Andrew Cohen says:

    Great observations, thanks for taking the time to point all this out. Your insights and research should be a lesson to the rest of the “cycling media.”

  2. Bob C says:

    Great read, thanks!

    Many of the Rene Herse bicycles I’ve seen have very short stems. (I ride with short stems too.) Was this simply the fashion of the time, a functional consideration (allowing a longer top tube, for instance), or an aesthetic consideration?

    • Short stems on cyclotouring bikes allow the handlebar bag to sit closer to the steering axis, so the bike will handle better. They also result in a longer top tube, which makes it easier to eliminate toe overlap. Racing bikes at the time often had longer stems. I recall that Fausto Coppi’s bike, which we photographed for our book The Competition Bicycle, had a 13 cm stem.

  3. Mark Petry says:

    wonderful details, the intersection of technology and aesthetic appeal makes for true art, dynamic sculpture. Thanks for this post – latest issue of the magazine is excellent.

  4. Phil Brown says:

    I love French bikes in general and Herses in particular. With regard to the fenders, there’s a trick to getting them to look like that but if I divulge it I’ll be drummed out of the corps.

    • Please share your trick!

      From my experience, what it takes is first of all aequi-distant bridges at the correct distance, which is easier said than done, since the stays are splaying outward… Then you need to put braze-ons facing the tire. And finally, you need to manipulate the fender so it has exactly the correct radius. Then the fenders not only will look great, but also last (almost) forever. I’ve never yet encountered an Herse with a cracked or broken fender! We include complete mounting instructions with every set of fenders sold by Compass Cycles.

      • Phil Brown says:

        It’s actually pretty easy. Tape a piece of hose or tubing to the tire and use that to set the fender clearance. A slightly modified version works for bridges. I don’t like the fenders to fit closely to the bridge. I like a spacer. Adds a bit of lightness to the look of thebike.

      • The hose trick is a good one. C. S. Hirose made simple jigs out of bent pieces of steel rod that he wraps around the dummy axle of his jig. He has one for each tire size, and they are cut to exactly the length where the bridge needs to sit. But you still need to file and refile the miter until the bridge ends up exactly where you need it.

        As to mounting fenders with spacers, that makes the framebuilding a lot easier, because you don’t need to place the bridges with precisions. However, in my experience, fenders mounted with spacers almost inevitably come loose. Herse didn’t use spacers, which is why his fenders don’t come loose or break.

      • Phil Brown says:

        While I can no longer ride, I have one bike with spacers for the fenders-Honjos-that I rode for 10 years without a crack on the fenders.

  5. Mike says:

    Do you find any great differences between your Herse and Weigle in the way they ride and handle?

    • The handling is pretty much identical, since the Weigle uses the front-end geometry of a 1952 Herse. Most classic Herse bikes used lightweight tubing, but not quite as thinwall as the bikes I prefer now, so they are perhaps a bit less lively. That said, that 1952 Herse still holds a number of personal bests, so it clearly performs better than most bikes…

  6. A Escolier says:

    Les vélos de René Herse sont la culmination de l’artisanat et du gout français.

  7. Marciero says:

    I’ve thought a lot (i.e., obsessed) about the short stem/longer top tube trade-off on a skinny tube-thin-wall Lyon I am having built. I’ve not seen this discussed much in BQ or elsewhere. Was considering shorter stem for the reason mentioned-bag closer to steering axis. Was shooting for 90mm-still not the 70 you see on some older bikes. But with a 100 I would have shorter top tube, which is less susceptible to shimmy. I currently have an 80mm stem with 58 tt, (but with Noodle bars so is more like a 70 stem with normal bars) That is right at, or just over the max recommended tt length for skinny/thin tubes, and I do get shimmy, and with a 57 rake fork, so not super low trail, though with a non-needle bearing headset…
    I am considering 56.5 tt (with .5cm absorbed by 1/2 degree shallower seat tube angle) and 90 stem, which would require swapping to one of the Compass bars, which I have to at least try. The rake on the new fork will be 67.

    On another note-love the tandem stuff. There are some great stories in the pages of BQ and in your books. Awesome photo of you and Natsuko.

    • The shorter top tube will be stiffer, so you could also get a longer top tube and use a stouter tube. For example, the Kaisei “short” top tube is long enough even for a relatively tall frame, but it will give you longer butts at the ends, and thus a slightly stiffer frame. So you can get the same flex (and perhaps less risk of shimmy) with the two stem lengths you consider. But a 100 mm stem is fine – I use that on most of my bikes, since on my relatively tall frames, the bag otherwise would be inclined backwards (or hit the brake at the bottom).

      I wouldn’t overthink it, just go with what the builder recommends. Jeff is a great builder, and the choices you have outlined probably will all result in a great bike.

  8. William Schmitt says:

    Worked for the ATSFRR for 38 years, 3 month leaves of absence to ride trains around the world, sometimes with my Roberts bike. Andre Chapelon designed incredible steam locomotives, much like Rene Herse’s bikes. Viva la France!

  9. thebvo says:

    Got my BQ magazine in the mail last week. Super fast!! Thank you for whatever new shipping method was used this time. Looks great.
    The above comments and response made me wonder about tall frames using ultra-thin wall tubing. I know that the suggestion is to use OS tubes, and that must change the flex characteristics. Is there any info out there about Larger frames (~60-64cm) using standard size thin-wall tubing? How much flex is too much flex? I’m not talking about top category racers putting out crazy watts, but normal humans. Can frame flex get out of hand with bigger sizes?

  10. Philip Kim says:

    Just got the latest BQ, and your 2 year Firefly update encouraged me to try to build a custom bike around the RTPs. Trying to build it in within the same school of thought as the Herse’s that you’ve learned so much from. I would like to build around RTPs and the new Compass Rene Herse cantis.

    However, it seems many rim brake rims are either built for heavy duty touring, or are on the narrow side. I was looking at Velocity A23’s which have an internal width of 18mm. Would that allow RTPs to reach the 54mm width? Or should I stick with discs for better selection of rims?

    Thanks,,
    Phil

    • Rims with brake tracks for 26″ tires are getting rare, especially when you are looking for high-performance models. Fortunately, with supple tires, rim width isn’t so important, because the tire isn’t stiff enough to ‘stand’ on its sidewall. The A23s should work fine…

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