1952 Rene Herse – Ancestor of Our All-Road Bikes

1952 Rene Herse – Ancestor of Our All-Road Bikes

It’s hard to believe that it was 20 years ago when I first got to experience a 650B all-road bike. The bike in question was a 1952 René Herse Randonneuse. I had been curious about the bikes from the great French constructeurs, but there weren’t many around. And those who collected them treated them as art objects rather than performance bikes to enjoy on the road.

Then I rode my first Paris-Brest-Paris in 1999. At the finish, I met the late Bernard Déon, the historian of PBP, and bought his book about the incredible ride I had just completed. And there I read that riders like Roger Baumann had ridden René Herses through wind and rain in the 1950s, completing the 1200 hilly kilometers (750 miles) in 50 hours or less. As a first-time PBP rider, speeds like those seemed impossible – and they weren’t far behind the fastest riders in modern PBPs.

So when the opportunity came a few months later to sample one of these mid-century bikes, I leaped at it immediately. The bike had seen little use, but storage in an unheated shed had not been kind to the finish: It was a little rusty on the surface. It was a perfect candidate for exploring how these bikes rode: not so precious that riding it hard would deteriorate it, but also not so worn-out that its performance was only a shadow of its former self.

Getting the René Herse to Seattle involved a complex deal that included me traveling to France to pick up the bike, disassemble and pack it at night in a hotel room, and fly back the next day. This is how the adventure started that led to the ‘Wide Tire Revolution’ sweeping across the bike world, and ultimately even to the rebirth of Rene Herse Cycles.

When I reassembled the old Herse, I could already see that it was special. I just had built a state-of-the-art touring bike, but this was something else. Where my pride-and-joy topped 30 lb (13.5 kg) once equipped with rack, fenders and a pump (but no lights), the fully-equipped Herse tipped the scales at just 24.6 lb (11.2 kg) – despite wider tires and a full lighting system.

The way the rack, fenders and lights were integrated into the bike blew my mind. There were no brackets, no sliders, not even any visible wires for the lights. Today, it’s hard to imagine the impact, because this exact-same bike has inspired so many others since then. Bikes like this one are available again from the best of today’s builders.

Some features took longer to discover. When we wondered how René Herse managed to fit 42 mm tires and fenders between narrow-Q cranks and even found room for triple chainrings, we realized that the chainstays were slightly curved.

There were so many features that showed Herse’s attention to detail. The custom-made shift lever for the desmodromic Cyclo rear derailleur was eccentric, because the derailleur moves in and out, and without a return spring to take up the slack, the tension of the shifter cable changes. The out-of-center barrel of the shift lever compensates for that.

I was used to completely overhauling old bikes before I could ride them. The grease in cup-and-cone bearings dries out within a few years, especially if the bike isn’t ridden. Yet on the 1952 Herse, untouched for decades, the Maxi-Car hubs and the Rene Herse bottom bracket spun smoothly and didn’t require any maintenance. Only the headset needed cleaning and greasing. It didn’t take long to get the bike back on the road.

Except for sourcing tires. The Herse came to me with heavy utility tires, and 650B wheels were almost unknown in North America back then. Even in France, Michelin’s Axial Raid 32 mm tires were the best you could find. I had bought a set at Cycles Alex Singer during my trip to France.

Then came the much-anticipated first outing. I expected a ride similar to my touring bike – fun, but not the bike you’d take for a spirited ride – and yet this bike performed like my racing bike.

Just as much fun was the reaction of other cyclists. Back then, fenders and 32 mm tires meant ‘SLOW’ in capital letters. More than one rider remarked: “You’re going pretty fast on that old klunker!” Which of course was an invitation to accelerate and leave them behind.

Once we were able to source more suitable wide tires (Mitsuboshi Trimline 650B x 38s) with the help of Bob Freeman from Elliott Bay Bicycles/Davidson here in Seattle, there was no stopping the Herse. For one summer, I rode it more than any other bike.

Perhaps the bike’s greatest moment came a few years later. We had discovered the gravel roads of the Cascade Mountains, and Robin Piper was organizing the first brevet across Babyshoe Pass. The Three Volcanoes 300 was a wonderful course that started at the foot of Mount Rainier, climbed the slopes of Mount Adams, before completing its loop via Mount St. Helens. The first year, I rode my modern bike with 27 mm tires and struggled on the gravel of Babyshoe Pass.

In 2005, I hatched the plan to ride the old Herse. Shod with a fresh set of Mitsuboshi Trimlines, the bike absolutely flew on that course. Where I had been in the granny the year before, I now climbed most of the pass in the big ring. I’d never experienced riding on gravel like that.

It was a relentless charge over 11:49 hours, with just two brief stops to resupply. It was one of my most memorable rides, and, to this day, it remains the only sub-12 hour ride on this course. Riders stronger than me have tried, but on their racing bikes with narrow tires, they simply lost too much time on the gravel to Babyshoe Pass, even though more than 90% of the 190-mile course is paved. Modern all-road and gravel bikes, shod with more supple tires than those old Mitsuboshis, surely could beat my time. I’m tempted to give it another try!

That 2005 ride left us without a doubt: The 1952 René Herse was a blueprint for the bike of the future. A bike that combined the speed of a racing bike with the comfort and go-anywhere capabilities of wide tires.

It’s this bike that started the 650B resurgence in the U.S. It’s also this bike that showed us that wide tires could be as fast as narrow ones. Its geometry has inspired thousands of modern randonneur bikes, including my new bike for last year’s Paris-Brest-Paris (above). We’ve worked hard to create tires as supple and fast as the famous Barreau hand-made clinchers for which the 1952 bike was designed. I dreamed of bringing back the superb cranks and ultralight brakes of the old Herse. And in the process of all this research, I became friends with Lyli Herse… and that ultimately led to the rebirth of Rene Herse Cycles here in the Cascade Mountains.

Today’s best bikes, like the OPEN U.P.P.E.R. (above), can trace their inspiration to the marvelous mid-century Rene Herse, which demonstrated the long-forgotten fact that high performance and wide tires belong together. With wide tires no longer limited to ‘touring’ and ‘city’ bikes, a veritable ‘all-road bike revolution’ has swept the industry. And cycling is all the better for it!

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Comments (31)

  • Larry T

    Great stuff, thanks for sharing! Shows well there’s nothing much new in the world of bicycles, the industry simply keeps recycling the same ideas over and over whether they’re good or bad – change (making whatever you have now seem obsolete) is their mantra, trying to entice you to shell out hard-earned money for the “newest-latest” and throw away whatever you had before. Thanks for throwing a wrench in this thinking!

    May 26, 2020 at 12:06 pm
    • Jan Heine

      You are right, most innovation is incremental, and knowing the past allows us to be inspired by it. And yet today is the first time in more than a century where you can go into any bike shop and buy a bike that will be as fun to ride on deserted gravel passes as it is on smooth pavement. That is a huge change, and cycling is all the better for it!

      May 26, 2020 at 1:31 pm
      • Derek

        It’s great that the industry has embraced wider tire road bikes, but we still can’t go into a bike shop and buy a fast bike with standard fenders, lights and rack. Those things are still considered by many to be burdensome parts that you don’t want on a high performance bike. We have three options: buy a bike that comes with those features standard but isn’t designed for speed, buy a bike that is designed for speed and try to add those features, or leave the shop and go full custom. Bike manufacturers are still not really producing the kind of bikes you advocate.

        May 27, 2020 at 7:09 am
  • Zach Cannon

    I love Bicycling Quarterly and all the work you’ve done as a collective to bring the bicycle industry and bike culture to where it is today, but I do wonder where the Rivendell collective and their earlier but continued promotion of steel, drop-bar, generous tire-capacity all-rounders fits in? Sure they took a more rugged, more upright, heavier tubing, higher trail, and less pace focused approach, but they seemed to have had a roll in the development of the gravel/all road bike that you have recently and repeatedly taken credit for. Moreover, there’s much that both groups have co-championed such as low q-factors, fenders, racks, bags, underbiking and overall versatility. If you look at QBP’s fleet of bike brands over the last ten years as a way to trace the expansion of production bike possibilities, it seems both of your influences have been real.I’m sure there are other builders and tinkerers who were along for the ride.

    May 26, 2020 at 12:21 pm
    • Jan Heine

      Totally right! Nothing in the cycling world exists in a vacuum. The post already talks about local people like Bob Freeman or Robin Piper. You mention Grant Petersen, who’s been a friend for longer than I’ve ridden the old Rene Herse. His Bridgestone XO-1 was the first bike in North America that was inspired by the French constructeur bikes. Another Grant (Handley) from the Bay Area had discovered them in France and was buying them and selling them to Japanese collectors. The XO-1 took the idea, but it didn’t benefit yet from the experience of riding these old bikes. Grant Handley was a former track sprinter. He told me that he had ridden an old Herse around the block and he felt it handled like a Cadillac. He preferred narrow tires, and he wasn’t alone back then: Bridgestone (and a little later Rivendell) suggested that if you really wanted to go fast, you’d pick a 700C bike with 28 mm tires.

      The 1952 Herse was actually first written up in the Rivendell Reader – BQ hadn’t been launched yet – and it persuaded Grant Petersen to launch 650B in the United States. Matthew Grimm from Kogswell then ran with the idea with his Porteur/Randonneurs that allowed riders to sample 650B and low trail without buying expensive custom bikes, but I think just as much influence came from cyclocross, where riders discovered that a performance bike with wide, supple tubulars could be incredibly fast and fun on rough terrain.

      The parallel influence you mention came from the British sport-touring bikes. Bruce Gordon was quite influential with his focus on wider tires and on the ability to go anywhere on a drop-bar bike. Bruce Gordon’s influence is seen in the Rivendell Atlantis, which in turn was the inspiration for the Surly Long-Haul Trucker. At some point, this genre of bike ditched 700C wheels in favor of 650B, but this strain seems a bit different and less of an influence for modern gravel bikes like the Open UPPER.

      Paralleling that, you have the infatuation of 1970s Japanese cyclotourists with the French constructeurs, but that is a different world again. It’s fascinating to see how they all have converged in recent years. Putting that entire story into context would fill at least a book! You’d want to start with the invention of (wide) pneumatic tires in the late 1800s, when all roads were gravel and all bikes were gravel bikes. The scope of this post is much more limited: It’s just a look back on the 20th anniversary of the 1952 Rene Herse coming into our world, tracing the influence it’s had on the bikes we ride today.

      May 26, 2020 at 1:55 pm
      • Zach

        Thanks for that history in brief. At some point, I imagine that is a book you’ll write. And I do appreciate all the horizons you’ve helped expand.

        May 27, 2020 at 2:57 pm
  • Tim Nielsen

    I can’t believe how fast the years have flown by, like the miles on some of your great tire products!

    May 26, 2020 at 12:26 pm
  • PK

    One measurement (your time) is worth a thousand expert opinions.
    Walter Godefroot’s 1968 ave speed was faster than any from 2012-2019.


    May 26, 2020 at 2:21 pm
  • Steve Palincsar

    Where is this 1952 Rene Herse today?

    May 26, 2020 at 2:25 pm
    • Jan Heine

      The 1952 Herse is still local – that is how we could borrow it for the recent photoshoot. Its keeper prefers not to be identified. From time to time, I get to borrow it. With the bikes we have now, riding it doesn’t feel quite as special as it did 20 years ago. It’s still a great bike, but modern bikes once again offer this type of performance over mixed terrain.

      May 26, 2020 at 2:30 pm
      • Mike Morrison

        Does anyone still ride it regularly, or has it been relegated to a shed/basement/garage? It would be a shame for such an influential bike to be whiling away time unused (if loved), especially when bikes of it’s type are gaining in popularity.

        May 27, 2020 at 12:26 pm
        • Jan Heine

          It doesn’t get ridden a lot these days. I’m glad that it’ll be around as a reference for future generations. Sort of like the standard meter that’s kept in Paris to calibrate all metric rulers.

          May 27, 2020 at 4:54 pm
  • Nathan Knutson

    I’d like to ask a question that jumps out at me every time I see these two bikes. In contrast to many contemporary takes on frame design and fit, they both slant hard towards minimal seatpost and stem quill showing, low/no standover, and a high top tube. How important do you feel that is to making them what they are? If someone wants some real standover, would you say they’re losing something in exchange beyond an aesthetic? BQ has been a little mum on this topic over the years, but if you look at these bikes it’s really a pretty standout feature of them, especially if one was trying to sell a frame customer on the notion. Note that I’m not talking about in comparison to compact frame or something, more say if the top tube was 40-50mm lower.

    May 26, 2020 at 5:20 pm
    • Jan Heine

      There are many ways to make a great bike. A sloping top tube isn’t a problem. I think traditionally, builders tried to avoid parts that were cantilevered – meaning supported only at one end. Basically, cantilevered parts have to be very strong (and heavy) compared to parts that are supported at both ends. So they kept the seatpost short. In reality, since you need to lengthen the seatstays and not just the thin center sections of top and down tube, the weight savings of the larger frame and shorter seatpost are negligible, if any.

      I feel that a short seatpost helps a little bit with the handling, as you don’t want a rider swaying from side to side. You can feel that on a tandem if the rear compartment is too small and the stoker is perched high on a seatpost that sways. On a single bike, it isn’t a big deal. With a smaller rear triangle, you may have to curve the seatstays to make room for the fender, but that’s not a problem, just something to think about. So really, there isn’t any real reason not to give the bike a sloping top tube.

      May 26, 2020 at 5:45 pm
      • Dana Shifflett

        I have a 65cm Soma GR (v2). I’ve read it was based on your ’52 Herse. I’m sure the tubing isn’t as lively as that of the Herse, but it rides and performs quite well, better than your report led me to anticipate. Perhaps frame size and my weight have something to do with that. I doubt I’ll bother with another 700c bike. Thanks for opening our eyes.
        BTW, last year I bought another 650b ride, a Masi SR, for daily use and loaded touring. As with the Soma, your report is what sold me. With racks it is 10lbs heavier than the Soma, and it is definitely not as lively or quick, but for daily use on my Kansas farm roads it is excellent. I think, though, it may someday have rim brakes.

        May 26, 2020 at 8:05 pm
  • John Clay

    If you could have only one bike for life and you couldn’t borrow any others for any reason, upon which tire would you base it? For me it’s the 50-ish mm RTP. As eye opening, game changing and capable as the 40-ish BSP is, every time I ride my RTP, which always involves dirt roads and asphalt, its an epiphany, all over again. Wish these sorts of bicycles, and this sort of riding, had been widely available and known in the USA 50 years ago. That’s a lotta years of riding, missed.

    May 26, 2020 at 7:39 pm
    • Jan Heine

      Good question! That is a hard one. I think I’ll stick with 650B x 42 because it’s such a versatile size, especially on a bike with rim brakes. But I also love my Firefly with its Rat Trap Pass 26″ x 2.3″ (54 mm wide). Decisions, decisions…

      May 26, 2020 at 11:47 pm
      • John Clay

        It really is a tough decision. And I forgot – I am SO glad you discovered these bikes and rolled the dice with BQ to put them on the international radar screen! I’ve said it before; I wouldn’t be riding were it not for the horizons exposed by BQ generally, and wider, high performance tires in particular. The work of Singer, Herse and the rest is tectonic as far as I’m concerned. Thanks a lot for carrying it on!

        May 27, 2020 at 7:30 am
    • Mike Morrison

      I’d go with the RTP Extralights. I’m a short rider and a 26-inch wheel fits better, with fenders, in frames of my size than a 650B wheel; thus, I’m going with the widest, most supple, tire that one can buy in that size. I’ve commented before about the RTP Extralights: riding on them is like riding a turbocharged cloud. You really can float over bumpy roads while still powering the pedals thanks to these tires.

      May 27, 2020 at 12:33 pm
      • Mark

        As attractive and effective as 650b & 26” tyres may be, when I had a custom frame built I specified 700c wheels. Why? Because I’ve never seen 650b or good 26” rims or road tyres in a local bike shop in Japan, Asia, the UK, Italy, or Germany. I’ve only seen them in one bike shop in Australia. I know that they ARE available in many shops in these countries, that there are 650b MTB tyres available, and that 26” tyres are likely the most widespread in the world , but nevertheless, in general, good 650b and 26” tyres, rims, and tubes suitable for fast road & gravel riding (and 650b rim brake rims) are not as available as 700c. I recall a visiting US rider on 650b wheels having to withdraw from a 1200 km brevet here in Australia because there was a problem with his wheel and no rim available f from local shops for at least a week. almost certainly longer. Sure, these sorts of incidents may be rare, but when they happen they’re mighty inconvenient and can ruin a trip. I’m waiting until 650b and good 26” wheels etc are widely available. Meanwhile, I’ll dream of that 650b Herse.

        May 27, 2020 at 5:17 pm
        • Jan Heine

          You make a good point that was often brought up in favor of 26″ and against 650B in years past. (Funny how quickly things change, now 26″ is a size that isn’t supported any longer.)

          For many of our adventures, there are simply no bike shops less than a day’s walk away. So we have to be self-reliant. Most wheel problems I’ve seen are due to hubs causing trouble – using a high-quality hub is good insurance. Rims can get flat-spotted when you hit big bumps – just happened to me on a camping trip in the Cascades – but while the thump-thump during hard braking is annoying, it doesn’t stop your ride. When a crash is so severe that you shatter a rim, you have other things to worry about than your bike…

          That leaves tires. If you want to be certain, you can carry a spare. It’s actually easier with 26″ wheels: The 1.25″-wide Rene Herse Elk Pass only weighs 178 g. That’s two energy bars, and that’s also how much space the tire takes up. In 650B, a Loup Loup Pass Extralight is 333 g – still quite manageable. In fact, a 700C tire will be bigger and bulkier simply because it’s got a larger diameter. That said, I don’t usually carry a spare. I find that tires can almost always be booted – I carry a piece of old tire casing just in case. Most of all, with wider tires, I’ve had far fewer tire problems than in the past.

          However, everybody’s comfort level is different. One reason why we make tires in three wheel sizes and many widths is that we want to give you a choice of the best rubber, no matter your bike and preferences.

          May 27, 2020 at 5:30 pm
          • Steve Fouga

            Jan, I have a similar but different question about tire choices. I have two wheelsets for my U.P.: WTB 650B and ENVE 700c 4.5 AR SES. My rides range from 30-50-mile solo training rides on smooth paved roads, to century-plus charity rides on smooth-to-rough paved roads, to mixed gravel-dirt, to beach sand, all in both wet and dry conditions. I never ride technical singletrack. Which TWO Rene Herse tires would you advise for those wheelsets? Would you mount them tubed or tubeless?

            May 28, 2020 at 3:24 pm
          • Jan Heine

            I rode the U.P. with Rene Herse 650B x 48 Switchback Hill Extralights. They really made that bike come alive… But since you have two wheelsets, how about a 38 mm Barlow Pass Extralight for the 700C wheels and a Juniper Ridge 48 mm knobby for the 650B. For the casing on the 650B, it depends on your riding style. I’d pick the Extralights again, but if you tend to slash sidewalls, go with the Endurance. Most of all, enjoy the ride!

            Oh, and I’d put tubes inside simply because it’s less maintenance and less hassle. Unless you’re heading into really rough terrain where pinch flats are an issue even with 48 mm tires – then it’s tubeless for sure!

            May 28, 2020 at 4:29 pm
  • César

    Hi Jan,

    Every time you show this René Herse I cannot help but thinking about its similarity with the JP Weigle Concours de Machines (https://www.renehersecycles.com/j-p-weigle-for-the-concours-de-machines/).

    Was Peter inspired also by this Herse? It would seem to me that Weigle’s bike is the ultimate improvement of this Herse 🙂

    There is no way to thank you Jan (and all the others you mention, like Petersen) for all you’ve done to recreate sensible and lasting and fun bicycles. And the best lesson to us all in every field: do not ignore your past, learn and improve from it.

    Waiting for your next post…

    May 27, 2020 at 6:41 am
    • Jan Heine

      Peter Weigle did ride the ’52 Herse many years ago during a visit to Seattle. I’m sure it was an influence, but I also feel that he’s been influenced more by Routens than by Herse. There’s a visual lightness and playfulness to Weigles that is quite different to Herse’s aircraft-inspired design aesthetic. Everything on an Herse is logical – no curved seatstay bridges where a straight one is shorter, stiffer and lighter. However, there are ways of doing things differently, and if they’re done carefully – like those curved bridges – they function just as well and give the bike a different aesthetic.

      And when I say ‘influence,’ that should not be misunderstood as Peter Weigle making modern interpretations of Routens. Peter is really as much an artist as a craftsman, and his bikes have a style that is unmistakable and truly his own. What I appreciate most is that J. P. Weigles (and Herses, for that matter) are always a coherent whole, with not a single jarring line. It takes a lot of attention to detail to achieve that. And that they ride so great is just another expression of the same attention to detail and the same commitment to a coherent whole.

      May 27, 2020 at 5:03 pm
    • Mark

      You’re right about comfort level &c. On brevets & rides here in Australia I don’t bother with carrying spare tyres since it’s been > 40 years since I had a tyre so badly damaged that I couldn’t fix it in situ. That was a tubular CX tyre that shredded itself on a remote construction road of large, sharp rocks.

      (I rode & toured then on tubulars for the same reasons you use wide, supple tyres now: touring clinchers were IME heavy, slow, and harsh; poorly made, and no more or even less durable than tubulars; clincher rims were generally crude, heavy & fragile. I was willing to take the risk—and carried spare tyres, needles, thread & glue!—because I was young, confident, and stupid. Mostly I got away with it.)

      I don’t worry about tyres or rims here at home. As you say, if you damage a rim so badly that it can’t be ridden you’re likely more worried about your own injuries. But I’ve learned it can be difficult to get even small parts from LBSs even at home, and especially overseas. Even if the shop has what you need, you might have to overcome a significant language barrier to get or even explain it. Mostly, this is just inconvenient, but it can ruin a holiday.

      Last year a dynamo hub (not a SON!) seized while I was overseas; I couldn’t get a replacement or even a normal hub or wheel for at least a week—a significant chunk of a three week holiday—and it discouraged me from doing any brevets. And I’ve a strong memory of being surrounded by a crowd of men in Sri Lanka watching me repair a rim & spokes that’d been crushed while stored in a train baggage van. Ironically, that was a 700c wheel and my riding would’ve been severely limited if I couldn’t fix it as 700c wheels were then (as now?) rare in Sri Lanka.

      These were exceptional events. Mostly I’m not so far from help. Overwhelmingly, everything goes well. Problems can be avoided or solved with maintenance, planning, patience, politeness, good sense, and some ingenuity. But for my comfort, I like to reduce the factors that could make life difficult. I can’t afford a 650b bike for local rides & brevets, a 26″ for rugged touring, and a 700c bike for less rugged tours & brevets overseas. I could use disc brakes & have multiple wheels, but I don’t like disc brakes for the same reason—they potentially complicate things. Using a more common tyre size eliminates one possible source of problems. It’s like using DT or bar-con shifters instead of ‘brifters’, you can repair them in the dark. And I have.

      All the best in these difficult times.

      May 28, 2020 at 5:23 pm
  • Darren

    I cannot afford a JP Weigle, and I cannot weld my own frame from your parts. When will Rene Herse sell a complete all-road bike similar to the 1952 Herse?

    May 27, 2020 at 1:40 pm
    • Jan Heine

      We currently don’t have plans to offer complete bicycles. We prefer to focus our energy on making the parts available so that you can order a bike like this from one of the many great builders out there.

      When I first rode the 1952 Herse, I dreamed of a new bike with Herse cranks and brakes, supple 650B tires and many of the other features of this bike. Back then, there was simply no way to make bikes like that. A decade later, my 2011 Rene Herse still used many old-stock parts, because new ones didn’t exist yet. Fast forward to the 2019 bike, and almost everything on it is current-production or easy to find. Many people and companies have contributed to this, and it’s been very satisfying to see it all come together.

      May 27, 2020 at 10:30 pm
    • Josiah Anderson

      While it comes up a bit short on aesthetics, the Crust Lighting Bolt probably offers most of the function of bikes like this Herse or a Weigle. I’ve been very happy with mine so far.

      May 28, 2020 at 6:34 pm
  • Benjamin Van Orsdol

    Love the posts of classic bicycles and their details. More please! 🙂
    Off topic, where can I get Rene Herse tires in Japan?

    May 27, 2020 at 8:05 pm
    • Jan Heine

      Our distributor in Japan is Alternative Bicycle. Great people!

      May 27, 2020 at 10:22 pm

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