1980 René Herse Randonneuse

1980 René Herse Randonneuse

This René Herse Randonneuse is one of the last bikes made by the famous constructeur. It came to Seattle to be photographed for our book René Herse: The Bikes • The Builder • The Riders, and so I had the chance to study its many details.
René Herse died in 1976, and his son-in-law Jean Desbois took over the shop. Desbois had been among the very first employees of Herse, and he made many of the finest frames of classic René Herse bikes. When this bike was made in 1980, he had developed his own interpretation of the classic René Herse randonneuse – faithful to the original design, but carrying the signature of a new craftsman.
Most noticeable is the change to the iconic stem. The two-bar design remains, but the tops are fluted now. The reinforcement lip around the handlebar hole is deleted. Together with the Allen bolts, this gives the stem a much more modern appearance.
The fork crown has a much longer and less sculpted tang, and the top slopes slightly. However, the lugs retain their classic shape on this bike. (Others have a simpler shape.) And of course, the braze-on mounting of the Mafac brakes and front rack with Herse’s special bolts remains as before. The straddle cable hanger with its roller is a design Herse used from the first to the very last days.
A René Herse cyclotouring bike would not be complete without the iconic cranks. The last models feature one minor change: Instead of the letters being recessed into the crank, they are inset in a square. This required a new forging die, so it’s safe to assume that the old one dies either wore out or were lost.
René Herse was a small maker, and cranks were forged in sets of 500, which meant that they didn’t place orders very often. Forging shops don’t keep dies around very long if you don’t place orders. On this bike, the cranks are coupled with three chainrings and Campagnolo “Superlight” pedals.
Jean Desbois was a practical man, and he felt that a brake quick release was a useful addition. Rather than bolt on the clumsy Weinmann releases, he made a braze-on hanger that incorporated the quick release parts.
The signwriter who had painted the René Herse signatures by hand had died, so Lyli Herse had decals made. I like the old Art Deco lettering, but the 1980s were not a time for nostalgia, and this logo looked more up-to-date.
This is Jean Desbois’ interpretation of the Herse dropout treatment. The scallops are longer than before, giving the joint a lighter, pointier appearance. Most of all, the clean workmanship shows Desbois’ mastery with the torch. Desbois also made the dropout out of steel plate, using saws and files.
The beautifully thinned lugs and the crisp execution of the seat cluster are typical for Desbois’ work. There aren’t many builders who can braze a frame like this. This photo also shows the reinforcement for the fender at the seatstay bridge. René Herse came up with this design in 1951 after his daughter Lyli and Robert Prestat were disqualified from the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race when their tandem’s rear fender broke.
Desbois told me that he did not feel the need to make proprietary parts when excellent components were available, so he replaced the traditional René Herse bottom bracket with these Edco cartridge units. The bottom bracket shell has been built up with brass to smooth the sharp creases and give it more strength.
Maxi-Car hubs remained the hub of choice – in fact, their performance and reliability have not been surpassed even today.
Many riders in the 1980s opted for modern handlebar tape, but this bike retains its shellacked cloth tape.
The rules for randonneuring no longer required generators, and many riders preferred battery-powered flashlights that had less resistance and more power. Batteries now were available at the controls. Desbois reinforced this flashlight before mounting it alongside the front rack.
The taillight also is a battery unit, suitably reinforced and mounted to dedicated braze-ons.
In the end, this wonderful bike was not included in the book. We simply had too many lovely machines for the chapter on the 1980s. How could we not include a fully chrome-plated camping bike with internal cables not only for brakes and derailleurs, but even for the generator’s remote control? Or the curved-tube Chanteloup tandem that was built specially for the Salon de Paris? Or Lyli Herse’s last racing bike, a superlight machine made by her husband as one of a matching pair? So I am presenting the bike here, and hope you can appreciate the craftsmanship and design that makes these last Herse bikes so appealing in their own right.
Instead of returning the bike, the owner asked me to sell it for him, so it is currently listed on ebay.
Click here for more information on the René Herse book, which includes similar studio photos of 20 René Herse bicycles, in addition to hundreds of historic photos, and the story of this famous constructeur and his riders.

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Comments (22)

  • Andrew

    Oh no, the frame is my size! But the stem is too long. That was close.

    April 26, 2013 at 12:29 am
  • Matt

    I’ve just ordered a copy, it’s the second most expensive book I’ve ever bought! Can’t wait to read it. On holiday in France as a kid a family friend had a Herse in their barn, despite not knowing anything about the bikes then I could tell it was something very special. I’ve spoken to the family since and the bike went to the tip 15 years ago, what a tragedy.

    April 26, 2013 at 1:54 am
    • Greg

      You will be impressed with the book, I predict! It is really a wonderfully detailed documentation of Herse’s life and work, imo…..

      April 26, 2013 at 12:35 pm
    • djconnel

      You won’t regret it. The book is a fantastic piece of work. It’s a wonderful balance between bikes, people, events, culture, and places. I honestly don’t think I’ve read a book before which so well captured the balance, certainly not focused on classic bikes. It’s obvious Jan has a passion for the subject.

      April 29, 2013 at 5:57 am
  • Christoph

    In my opinion, the overly long stem notably detracts from the bicycles beauty. I wonder why the original owner did not order his custom machine with a longer top tube and shorter stem instead. Not only would the overall appearance of the bicycle be more appealing, but also would increasing the front-center distance have reduced toe overlap. Most probably a shorter stem would also have improved the bike’s handling.
    In regard to handling, are detailed geometry specifications available for this bike? Looking at the last photo, the fork rake seems moderate by classic French standards; my estimate would be a trail figure somewhere around 50 millimeters. Does this concur with your data?

    April 26, 2013 at 4:00 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I haven’t measured this particular bike. The last Herse bikes varied in their geometries. Jean Desbois felt that less fork rake was better to keep up with the times, but some customers asked (and got) longer rakes. This bike falls somewhere in the middle – I suspect it’s similar to my 1974 Alex Singer, which has 50 mm offset and 50 mm trail.

      April 26, 2013 at 7:18 am
  • David

    Really nice photography.

    April 26, 2013 at 4:44 am
  • David

    A few questions about wheels:
    This bike has 36 spokes front and back. Are rims today stronger or better than when this was built?
    I remember you published what you thought was a minimum weight for a rim, it was 480 g for a 700c rim, which seems reasonable.
    If the goal is to have a reliable bike without being overbuilt, and leaving a margin of safety, what would you say are guidelines for spoke counts? I know it depends on the rim and the weight of the rider of course. I weight about 190 pounds. I have learned that 32 spokes on the rear is about the minimum I can get by on. After a few years of riding a 32 spoke Mavic Open Sport rear wheel, I started having spokes break and couldn’t keep the wheel true.
    Considering the usual weight distribution and the fact that the front wheel isn’t subjected to the stresses of pedaling, it would seem that the front wheel could be built quite a bit lighter and with fewer spokes than the rear. If we assume a 60/40 weight distribution then a 36 spoke rear wheel would correspond to a 24 spoke front wheel. I realize it isn’t a linear relationship and that when you get down to fewer spokes there is a long unsupported gap between spokes. How light can we build our wheels and expect them to be reliable?
    Finally, do you think using wider tires at lower pressures should allow the use of lighter wheels?

    April 26, 2013 at 6:40 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Traditionally, bikes had 36 spokes front and rear, both in France and in Italy. (In Britain, many bikes used 40 rear and 32 front.)
      Having the same number of spokes means all spokes are interchangeable, especially if you use Maxi-Car hubs, which have the spoke holes on the rear drive-side unevenly spaced, to compensate for the steeper spoke angle. If you use different spoke counts front and rear, the spoke lengths will be different, and you’ll have to carry more spare spokes.
      On the other hand, spoke breakages on the front wheel are very rare. In the René Herse book, you’ll see a bike that came first in Paris-Brest-Paris 1951 with 36 spokes on the rear and 28 on the front. It was ridden like that for thousands of miles. I use the same arrangement on my new Herse. I’d go with 32 spokes on the rear, except that only the 36-hole Maxi-Car hubs have the keyhole spoke holes that allow spoke replacement on the road. (The spoke holes are too far apart with 32 holes.)
      One probably could go lower with wide tires that run at low pressures and reduce the loads on the rim and wheel, but why? You don’t gain much when you eliminate a few spokes. The weight difference is not worth talking about. The difference in wind resistance is negligible, especially at moderate speeds. Even going to a full set of aero wheels only reduces the wind resistance of the bike and rider by 2-3%, which corresponds to a speed increase of 1-2%. Compare that to faster tires, which easily can make a 10% difference among similar tires.
      In the end, well-built wheels are more important than the spoke count. Modern spokes also last longer than many of the old spokes, and if you use double-butted spokes, you can build a wheel that will last at least 20,000 miles before it needs any real attention.

      April 26, 2013 at 7:32 am
  • Rich Freeman

    Are you sure that the rear brake QR is original? It looks like the addition of Weinmann moving parts to an existing brazed-on hanger. I ask because the way the adjuster barrel is crushed into the seatpost isn’t something that would have been planned for by one of the best builders of integrated frame hardware. It’s so close that you can’t really adjust it – no room to move.

    April 26, 2013 at 10:25 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The brazed-on hanger is painted in the color of the frame, so yes, it’s original. You are right, the barrel adjuster works best when screwed all the way in. There is a second adjuster on the Mafac brake levers, so the quick releases serves just to open the brake – which can be tricky with the Mafac “ball-end” straddle cables. (The Racer and Raid had a better arrangement that allowed opening the straddle cable with ease.)

      April 26, 2013 at 11:17 am
  • svenski

    This is an extremely intriguing topic, as, from my point of view, it fits perfectly into your approach towards cycling, your focus on rideability.
    To me, with my only 64 kgs of weight, it was a completely new cycling experience to first use a high-tension lightweight wheelset that I had the chance to get hold of last year (a Marchisio Zeohyr from around 2006 with 16/20 straight spokes, 2.0/1.5/2.0 but 2.0/2.3 right rear). It is quite flexible and a real pleasure to ride, forgives small bumps and rough surfaces much better than any one I rode before, but power transmission is very direct thanks to the strong rear right side. I guess, all lightweights like me spend most of their cycling lives on wheels way too stiff for them. I had never ridden anything but 36/36, 2.0/1.8 before, but that takes away a lot of the possible fun of it.
    When building up my new CX/tourer, I built up the wheels (the 2nd pair I did)using 32/32 and 2.0/1.5/2.0 spokes (even on the drivetrain side), and that makes ist all really pleasant to ride. I think that especially in the high-tensile thin 1.5 mm spokes lies a great potential for lighter riders to add some desired flex (without being “soft”) and hence avoid some of the suspension losses you point at in your tire research. Especially if what you’re after is a bike that rides comfortably on longer distances, and not winning in out-of-the saddle sprints.

    April 26, 2013 at 11:27 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      From my experience, rims may indeed affect comfort. When we tried to assess whether the Kaisei “Toei Special” fork blades offered the same comfort as the old Reynolds 531 “S.R.” (Super Resilient) fork blades, we rode side-by-side on a Toei test bike (with Kaisei blades) and my Singer (with Reynolds blades). Same tires, same air pressure. The Singer felt slightly more comfortable on rough pavement.
      Then we switched front wheels, between the bikes, and now the Toei had the slight edge in comfort. The Toei had an aero rim (and, I believe, 36 spokes), while the Singer used a box-section MA-2 rim with 32 spokes.
      Even so, the differences in fork blades, tires and pressures appear much more important than the wheels themselves.

      April 26, 2013 at 1:21 pm
  • J Gunther

    This is both wonderful and horrible. A wonderful write up of a wonderful bike. As I reached the end of the post I began to dream of ever owning such a creation, then to only be told it is available on ebay! Horrible only because alas it is too much bike for me to be able to afford. Sigh… so close yet so far away.

    April 26, 2013 at 5:15 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      That applies to many things. I often have been tempted by classic Bugatti cars… Fortunately, there are books and museums where one can enjoy these things. (And compared to the Bugatti, a René Herse remains – for now – very affordable.)

      April 27, 2013 at 5:57 am
      • marmotte27

        Yes, but each time I ask to drive one of those cars in the museum (http://www.citedelautomobile.com/fr/galerie-photos), inexplicably they refuse.
        And I wouldn’t exactly call something like 10000 $ (prices that seem common on Herse ebay auctions) affordable either…
        Anyway I’m looking forward to the shipment of the french edition of the Herse book, and I’m about to order a (really) affordable randonneur bike.

        April 27, 2013 at 6:52 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          You are right about the museums not letting you drive cars (or bikes). Fortunately for that, there are magazines that report on those. Not quite the same, but still.
          Yes, Herse bikes cost more than they used to, but they are still within reach of many people, if they are willing to make sacrifices elsewhere. (The average American family spends that much every year on their second car.) And consider how much it would cost to make one today…

          April 27, 2013 at 3:28 pm
  • Bruce Hodson

    Straight gauge spokes, 32 hole, 650b, 42mm tyres. Bam!
    I ride that set up and weigh in at…well north of 90kg (significantly north of 90). No worries on the wheels so far (Velocity hoops, Shimano 105 hubs, Wheelsmith straight gauge-2.0 I think)
    I echo the comment of Andrew: right size, too long a stem. That was close. Likely saved me a kidney.

    April 27, 2013 at 6:20 am
  • Benjamin Van Orsdol

    Your posts on the vintage bikes are some of my favorites! The beautiful photos are well thought-out, and show the small details that are so important to these works of rideable art. The blog creates a space to show off the color and shine that the magazine can only hint at. I look forward to more posts about machines like this, the “half century and still going strong” Singer, and others. Maybe a 1946 Herse Tandem, or a Singer camping bike?
    On a technical note, how do you feel about the rear rack? It doesn’t connect with the seat stays which would provide proper triangulation. I doubt the added stays create a sizable burden, but perhaps they wouldn’t be so elegant. Does the fender become a stressed member in this set-up? Is this type used as a platform only, or can a small set of bags be used?

    April 29, 2013 at 7:57 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Thank you for the nice words about the photos. I agree, the blog and especially our books are the color complement to the B&W magazine.
      Regarding the rear rack of the bike, the fender is a stressed member. Aluminum fenders are quite stiff, so this works fine for relatively light loads. The rack is fine for small panniers. Full camping bikes have racks that attach to the seatstays (and in any case, they usually carry most of the weight on the front lowriders).

      April 29, 2013 at 8:19 pm
  • marmotte27

    Just a little over 5000$. That’s not too bad, is it?

    May 3, 2013 at 1:03 pm

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