Hidetaka Hirose, the genius behind C.S. Hirose, died early on Saturday. For 40 years, he built bicycles that were custom-built for their riders in every way: Not just size, geometry and tubing selection, but even the components. Continue Reading →
Hidetaka Hirose, the genius behind C.S. Hirose, died early on Saturday. For 40 years, he built bicycles that were custom-built for their riders in every way: Not just size, geometry and tubing selection, but even the components. Continue Reading →
There are few photos of Sofiane Sehili in full flight, because he’s usually ahead of the photographers… Working as a bike messenger in Paris, Sofiane first dipped his toes into ultra-cycling in 2016, when he rode in the epic Tour Divide, the race that runs along the crest of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to the Mexican border. He came 3rd in this first attempt.
Last year, he started to race more seriously, and he won the Italy Divide, tied with another ultra legend, James Hayden. Then Sofiane led the Tour Divide for a whole week before snow wreaked havoc on the race. Sofiane climbed a 10,000 ft (3000 m) pass in the middle of the night, before turning around after realizing that conditions were too dangerous. He finished the season by winning the Inca Divide, a 1700 km epic through the Andes of Peru.
His success story continues this year: In February, he won the Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco against a very strong international field. And just 10 days ago, he came second in the Hope 1000 that criss-crosses the Swiss Alps. The photo above was taken just before the start of that race…
Sofiane has brought a randonneur’s approach to mountain biking. He’s surprised everybody by riding through the nights and stopping only rarely to sleep, thus opening up gaps on his competitors that become almost unsurmountable. I asked him about the appeal of riding that far and fast, and he simply said: “What attracts me to long distance is both the will to see how far I can push and the fact that I really feel at home on the bike. When cycling, I don’t want to stop because I never seem to have enough. There’s is nothing I’d rather do. Just being there, outside, completely free, it makes me feel complete.”
With great sadness, we say Goodbye to Raymond Henry, cycling historian extraordinaire, grand randonneur, and wonderful friend. He passed away today from the complications of a surgery that was to allow him resume his active life of cycling, woodworking and gardening.
Raymond experienced the glory days of French cyclotouring first-hand. As a teenager, he saved all his money and rode his bike to Grenoble to order a custom randonneuse from the great Jo Routens. He rode that bike (and a similar one that he bought used, shown above) all his life.
And ride he did: He completed Paris-Brest-Paris, the Tour de France Randonneur, and all nine Diagonales of France – the famous randonnées that connect the corners of hexagon-shaped France. He rode the Raid Pyrénéen – twice – and completed the Brevet des Provinces Françaises, which had him visit 6 important sites in every one of the 90 départements of France. This last project took Raymond 20 summers. He rode 27,000 km (16,800 miles) in the process – and he enjoyed almost every single one of them! Living at the foot of Mont Ventoux, he climbed the ‘Giant of Provence’ several times a year. Continue Reading →
There is much that needs to change in our world until all humans are treated equal, have equal opportunities, and feel equally welcome. We each must do our part to make it happen!
At Rene Herse Cycles and Bicycle Quarterly, we are committed to diversity. We believe that great stories exist everywhere, and we are confident that our readers want to read about interesting people, rides and stories, without regard to skin color, ethnicity or nationality. In the future, we will seek out more stories from voices that tend to be underrepresented in the cycling world. We will all be inspired and enriched by the results!
One of the highlights of last year’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show was meeting Nelson Vails. I saw him walking by, and I thought: “That is Nelson Vails! I’ve got to shake his hand!” We ran after him… He turned out to be a most charming gentleman. Natsuko was surprised that Vails speaks Japanese: Few people know that he spent many years in Japan as a Keirin racer after winning the silver medal in the track sprint at the 1984 Olympic Games. Continue Reading →
Rachel Henry (right) loves her Jo Routens bike. When Natsuko and I visited them for a story about her husband Raymond, the historian of French cyclotouring and long-time Bicycle Quarterly contributor, the two accompanied us out of town on the spur of a moment.
Rachel prefers contemplative cyclotouring, but she’s a competitive gardener: She and Raymond each have their own vegetable gardens, and Rachel’s tends to grow better! She also serves on the city council of their home town in Provence. And yes, that’s Mont Ventoux in the background. Can’t wait to see them again!
The photo above appeared in our story about French bicycle collectors in Bicycle Quarterly 65.
Now is a good time to think about the people who’ve inspired us. It’s a good time to show that cycling can be welcoming of non-whites. It’s a good time to listen to other voices. They have good stories to tell!
JaBig is a DJ from Montréal in Canada. He first came to our attention when he rode his fixed-gear across Canada. His recent project was even more ambitious: Last year, he embarked on a round-the-world trip to benefit World Bicycle Relief. We enjoyed his updates as he started in London and made his way across Europe. Covid-19 forced him to return to Canada. He is one of the funniest, most positive humans we’ve met, and his observations about cycling, life and music are always inspiring and thought-provoking. Follow him on Instagram @jabig!
Now is a good time to think about the people who’ve inspired us. It’s a good time to show that cycling can be welcoming of non-whites. It’s a good time to listen to other voices. They have good stories to tell!
Eritrea has a vibrant cycling scene, ever since Ghebremariam Ghebru won the country’s first road race against the Italian colonials in 1937. In the following years, cycling became almost a substitute for religion. To the present day, races are organized in Asmara almost every weekend. Perhaps the most famous Ertriean racer is Daniel Teklehaimanot (right) who wore the polka-dot jersey of the best climber in the Tour de France in 2015.
The photo shows BQ adventurers Toni, Luigi and Thilo with Eritrean pro racers Metkel Eyob and Daniel Teklehaimanot. Gregor Mahringer told the story of their bikepacking adventure in Bicycle Quarterly 68.
Now is a good time to think about the people who’ve inspired us. It’s a good time to show that cycling can be welcoming of non-whites. It’s a good time to listen to other voices. They have good stories to tell!
The Bruce family from Chicago were good friends (and customers) of the Herse family. The entire family and some friends came to France in the 1960s and rode to Lourdes. Above they are shown at the finish of their long tour. All had Rene Herse bikes. Lyli Herse recalled: “They were doctors, and their four children all had bikes from us, too.” The Bruces invited Lyli to Chicago, where they took her photo on the shores of Lake Michigan.
René Herse had many American customers during the 1960s, but it was the Bruce family that was featured in an advertising photo with the caption: “A beautiful American family on the road to Lourdes.” I’ll dig up that advertisement (as well as the photo of Lyli in Chicago) and share them at a later date.
Word has just reached us that Frank Berto passed away last Sunday, aged 90. Berto was one of the most inquisitive technical minds in the cycling world and a long-time contributor first to Bicycling magazine and then to Bicycle Quarterly.
An avid cyclist since his childhood in the 1940s, Frank obtained a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1958. He worked in the oil industry as an instrumentation and oil measurement consultant. On the side, he authored more than 100 technical articles. His book The Dancing Chain traces the history of derailleurs in all its twists and turns.
Frank was one of the first to (re)discover that derailleurs shifted well if the chain gap (distance between cassette cog and upper derailleur pulley) was constant in all gears. He also measured the tire drop of dozens of tires and summarized the results in his famous tire pressure chart that remains the best guidance for inflating your tires to this day. Frank had little time for hero worship, but he appreciated companies like SunTour and the mid-century French derailleur makers who made innovative derailleurs that shifted well.
When I started Bicycle Quarterly 17 years ago, Frank sent his check for a subscription with a note. With typical frankness, he wrote: “I give you two years max. I’ve seen them all come and go, On the Wheel, the Bicycle Trader… In the mean time, I’ll help you as much as I can.” That help included xeroxing articles from his extensive library and reviewing the technical articles we wrote. He was excited when we built on his research and took it to the next step. When BQ published Aldo Ross’ article on the fiendishly complicated Campagnolo Paris-Roubaix derailleur, Frank, the expert on derailleurs, called me and exclaimed: “Finally, I understand how that thing works!”
During our frequent phone conversations, Frank was gruff, yet warm and charming. He was not just a fount of knowledge, but also fun. We owe him a lot! Our condolences go out to Frank’s wife Connie and his family.
Lyli Herse would have turned 90 years old today (January 6) – and this post was written to celebrate her life that has inspired so many of us. But alas, I have to report instead that Lyli died on Thursday after a very short illness. Despite the great sadness of losing her, let’s celebrate her anyway, because that is what she would have wanted.
Until just a few days ago, she remained healthy and happy, living with her dog in the house built by her father, the famous constructeur René Herse, near the finish line of the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race. These two elements – her father’s bikes and cycling competition – were the defining elements of Lyli’s life.
Lyli first entered top-tier competition at the tender age of 16 years, when she raced in the 1944 Poly hillclimb race, which had categories for professional racers, randonneurs and mixed tandems. She told me: “Some people said that I was too young to compete… The famous Docteur Ruffier gave me a medical exam before and after the Poly.” Her heart rate actually was lower after the race, because she had been so nervous before the event! Partnering with Simon Feuillie, she placed fourth against many strong teams.
It was in the Poly where Lyli made her mark. For nine years, from 1948 until 1956, she was unbeatable in this tough event. Except when the team crashed in the sharp turn at the bottom of the ultra-fast descent… Lyli broke her collarbone, but that didn’t prevent them from finishing the race – only to be disqualified because their rear fender had broken in the crash. Lyli recalled: “My father then designed his fender reinforcement. He didn’t want that problem to happen again!”
She had many memories from that event: “My best captain was Prestat. He worked as a porteur de presse [newspaper courier]. One year, we set the fastest lap of the day, ahead of the professional racers.” The photo above shows her and Prestat during that record-setting ride, climbing the 14% grade smoothly with a single 46-tooth chainring on the front. And they never even used their largest (22-tooth) cog on the rear!
In 1955, Jean Lheuillot was organizing the first Tour de France Féminin, and he wanted Lyli to be part of the international field. It took some persuading, but he didn’t regret the effort: Lyli won two stages and wore the leader’s jersey for much of the race, before finally finishing fourth overall against accomplished riders like the British stars Beryl French and Millie Robinson. Despite her success, Lyli longed for her days as a cyclotourist: “I always felt more at home with the cyclos. The cutthroat competition of racing wasn’t to my liking.”
The best way to stay out of the fray was to ride off the front, which she did with much success, winning no fewer than eight French championships. She wanted to retire in 1966, but she placed third in that year’s championships. She recalled: “I didn’t want to stop racing after a defeat. […] So I said: ‘Papa, I’d like to give it another try.’ Papa had to make some sacrifices to give me more free time for training and such. That year, I won.”
Just before Lyli retired from racing, a few young women asked her if she could coach them. Lyli formed a team that was sponsored by her father. One of the racers, Geneviève Gambillon, told me, “Lyli was a tough master.” Lyli confirmed: “I told them, ‘Training for me starts at 5 o’clock in the morning, because I have to go to the shop afterward.'”
When Gambillon complained about the hard workouts, Lyli told her, “I am 18 years older than you, and I am riding with you, not following in a car behind. If I can do it, so can you!” Lyli’s methods were questioned by the French Cycling Federation, but they brought results: Gambillon won two world championships and more than 20 French championships on road and track.
All her adult life, Lyli worked in her father’s shop, shown above in 1962 with Lyli’s first five French championship victories proudly listed on the window. As a teenager, she rode across Paris to pick up parts from distributors. Then she learned to build wheels, and from then on, she was responsible for this important part of the magical bikes her father created. She also ran the shop and distributed Velosolex mopeds on the side to augment the meagre bike sales during the difficult years of the 1960s, when most French dreamed of a car, and not a custom bicycle.
When her father died in 1976, followed a few years later by her mother, she took over. She married Herse’s master framebuilder, Jean Desbois, and together they kept the shop running until 1986. When the word spread that Cycles René Herse was closing, many customers placed orders for one more bike. Lyli and her husband worked for two more years out of the garage of their house until all the orders were filled, and they finally could retire.
I first met Lyli after riding a 1946 René Herse tandem in the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris. She was delighted that we had continued the legacy she had worked so hard to build. As I visited her many times during the research for my book on her father and his bikes, we became friends, and she asked me to carry the René Herse name forward. I learned a lot from her and her late husband about the machines her father built. We organized annual reunions with the old riders of her father’s team, who also had much information to share.
Five years ago, to celebrate her 85th birthday, Lyli asked to ride one more lap of the Poly. We found a René Herse tandem, and I had the honor to pilot her around the course together with a number of riders from her father’s team. I was apprehensive about climbing the famous 14% hill on a tandem with an 85-year-old lady, but Lyli had trained by riding thousands of kilometers on her stationary bike.
On the climb, we dropped all the others, except my friend Christophe, who had been an strong amateur racer. And even he had to work hard to keep up. The slack upper connecting chain in the photo above says it all: Lyli was contributing more than her share of the power. 14% climbs have rarely felt so easy, and I suddenly could almost imagine how, 55 years earlier, she had ridden eight laps of this difficult course at an average speed of 35 km/h (22 mph).
Lyli continued to train every day, and she kept a log of every ride. When I called her on the phone, she often was out of breath: “Excuse me – I was training,” she explained. Always the champion, she wasn’t slowing down even as she approached the age of 90.
I had hoped to go for another tandem ride with her during my next visit – above a ride we took on our René Herse tandem two summers ago. Now Lyli is gone, but she’ll continue to inspire us!
The Bicycle Quarterly “Team” is the inspiration for much of what we do. Whether it’s the ride stories in Bicycle Quarterly or the components made by Compass Bicycles, it all starts with a bunch of friends riding bikes. You may have noticed that “team” is in quotation marks, because it’s not an official team, but a really remarkable group who have found each other over the years.
We all are of similar strength, which means that a common pace comes naturally. We’ve ridden many thousands of miles together, so we have developed similar styles. We can paceline on gravel descents, because we know that nobody will suddenly brake or swerve. Riding with people you know so well is relaxing and safe. Our conversations during these rides are animated and inspiring. Our friendships extend far beyond the bike.
At this time of year, we usually ride in the foothills of the Cascades and train to see our form return, while we wait for the snow to melt on the high mountain passes. We really live for those summertime adventures!
Whether it’s riding 530 km (330 miles) from Seattle to the highest roads on Mount St. Helens (above) and Mount Rainier, and back, in 24 hours, during the original Cyclos Montagnards Challenge…
… or climbing gravel mountain passes at night (and hiking through snow at the top), it’s great to have a group of friends who share the excitement of planning rides that go a bit beyond what many consider possible on a bike.
We like to ride at a spirited pace and over long distances. That is demanding on our bikes, and more than one idea for Compass components has originated on a ride, when we found that the available equipment wasn’t up to the task. “There must be a better way!” has been the start for many a new product. We then return to the workshop to make prototypes. We test them on the following rides. Once we’ve found them up to the task, we put them into production.
Similarly, we take Bicycle Quarterly’s test bikes on adventures that explore the limits of rider and bike alike. If a bike performs well in our testing, readers can be assured that it’s an excellent machine.
Of course, not every ride is a magnificent adventure. Often, we just head out for six to eight hours. We ride into the foothills of the Cascades (above), or through Western Washington’s marvellous coastal landscapes.
Whether our rides are short or long, we are lucky to have these friends, because as much as we love our bikes, they are an end to a means: enjoying our rides even more.
The best of these rides are turned into stories for Bicycle Quarterly. You can read about one of the most memorable rides, the Volcano High Pass 600 km Super Randonnée, in our sample issue online.
A few weeks ago, I visited the Tokyo Handmade Bicycle Show. It was a lot of fun seeing what Japanese builders are doing these days.
Before we entered the show, we parked our bikes outside. The bike parking area by itself was worth a visit: Virtually every bike was a special, handmade machine. It’s nice to see that they get ridden. Some had more patina than others, but all were remarkable.
Inside the show, the first stand (Sanomagic) showed wooden bikes. Wooden bikes aren’t so rare any longer, but these machines, built by a ship builder, also feature wheels, saddles, seatposts and stems made from wood. Most parts are made from wood or carbon fiber…
…or a combination of both: The carbon-fiber Ergopower levers are inlaid with wood.
The incredible workmanship continued with amazing steel frames from Level and Makino (above). Mr. Makino really takes the art of making bicycle frames to the highest level. His frames are simple, yet exquisitely crafted. The lugs are filed super-thin and crisp, and every part of the frame is shaped to perfection. We talked about a feature for Bicycle Quarterly about his bikes and his shop.
Dobbat’s bikes feature neat details and a very cute logo.
Montson adds a touch of whimsy with their panniers. They can be removed with one hand and carried as a briefcase.
Underneath is this complex rack, custom-made to support the bag.
Most Japanese custom builders offer a cyclotouring bike with a bag-support rack – here is Ravanello’s machine.
Toei showed that they don’t only build exquisite cyclotouring bikes: Their show bike was equipped with Shimano Di2 and Nitto’s new carbon handlebars. The frame was as beautiful as expected from these masters of their craft.
Wooden wheels made another appearance. I was told that these are both comfortable and fast. Maybe I’ll have to try a set!
C. S. Hirose showed a fully equipped randonneur bike with his own version of the 1920s Cyclo derailleur (10-speed compatible and super-smooth in its action), custom-made lights and many other interesting features.
The other exhibit at Hirose’s stand was a very cute (and very pink) matching pair of bikes for a mother and daughter. The daughter’s tiny machine was fully equipped with cantilever brakes, derailleurs and even a light mount on the front rack.
Hirose routed the derailleur cable via this custom-made little pulley, so the levers could be on the top tube – easier to reach for the little girl.
Silk showed an interesting “Demontable” frame that comes apart with minimal tools. The bottom bracket shell just contains a bolt that holds the rear triangle. The rear triangle incorporates a second bottom bracket shell, in which the actual BB is mounted. The fork’s steerer tube and stem expander tube are one and the same, so when you unscrew the stem bolt, the fork can be removed. Interesting!
What happens when a jet engine manufacturer makes a bicycle hub? Gokiso’s hubs are incredibly complex, exquisitely machined, and rated to spin at more than 320 km/h (200 mph). Unfortunately, the price also reminds one of jet engines…
Equally exquisite was Watanabe’s show bike, made for a customer with the rarest of rare components, from first-generation Campagnolo Super Record components to a Stronglight crank and bottom bracket with titanium spindle. In Japan, some bicycle collectors like to order new frames which are equipped with classic parts.
Gravel and cyclocross bikes are still fairly rare in Japan, but that is changing. The Tokyo Design School showed a ‘cross bike built by one of their students. The photos in the background show the student racing her bike.
Cherubim is one of the most creative builders in Japan. The bike in the foreground doesn’t have a seat tube… They also build traditional frames, like the one in the background.
The show was a great opportunity to see acquaintances, among them the builder H. Hirose (left; with BQ contributor Natsuko Hirose)…
… and Cherubim’s owner and head builder, S. Konno.
Time passed quickly, and the sun was setting as the show ended for the day. The view from the rooftop, with Mount Fuji in the far distance, was amazing. Seeing where these bikes get ridden was a nice end to the Tokyo Handmade Bicycle Show. That they do get ridden was evident in the bike parking area…
After Paris-Brest-Paris, Theo and I rode out to Chanteloup in the hills west of Paris. After every PBP, we organize a small reunion of the Pilotes de René Herse (the riders on René Herse’s team) at the restaurant where the team used to eat after the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race. During recent reunions, some of the pilotes brought their bikes, and we rode around the course of the Poly.
Due to a relatively short notice, only six people participated, but it was a fun event nonetheless. Left to right: Theo, Lyli Herse, Jan, Jean-Marie Comte, Max Audouin (current-day randonneur and friend) and Robert Demilly.
Readers of the René Herse book will know Comte as one of the four riders who were a formidable presence in the randonneuring competitions that were popular at the time, including the Poly hillclimb races. However, they also were capitaines de route who guided the group rides of the Audax brevets… Being able to ride fast was an asset when trying to keep these groups together.
Robert Demilly, the other pilote at the reunion, came first in the 1966 Paris-Brest-Paris, together with Maurice Macaudière. They set a record of 44:21 hours in the process. The photo above shows Demilly leading Macaudière on the approach to Paris during the final stages of this amazing ride. (Their story was published in Bicycle Quarterly 21.)
We all enjoyed an excellent dinner, then Robert Demilly changed into his cycling clothes and led us during a lap around the course of the Poly de Chanteloup. On our way to the restaurant, we already had climbed the famous 14% hill that the randonneurs ascended 11 times during their 100+ km event.
We started our ride on the forested plateau of Hautil, then launched into the descent toward Maurecourt. The road is very steep and bumpy, but Monsieur Demilly handled his Look racing bike with aplomb. Max and Lyli followed in the car – Lyli wanted to relive her many tandem exploits in the Poly, but we couldn’t find a tandem to fit her. Two years ago, to celebrate her 85th birthday, I had the honor to pilot her around the course on an Herse “Chanteloup” tandem (with curved seat tube for better performance up- and downhill)!
In Maurecourt, we had to detour due to construction, but soon we found ourselves on the original course again.
After a short ride along the Seine, we turned up the hill of Andrésy. It’s not the main hill, but it’s steep and long. I had admired Monsieur Demilly’s pedal stroke on the flats, but now I could see that he also had plenty of power. Especially impressive for a 75 year-old!
We rolled along a false flat, then we turned a corner and found ourselves right in front of the beautiful church of Chanteloup. I couldn’t take a photo, since I was too busy shifting to the small chainring. Now the famous climb began in earnest. I sprinted ahead to take the photo above, and then had a hard time catching up to Theo and Monsieur Demilly. Part of it was the 1200 km of PBP that still were in my legs, but those two really climbed well (see also photo at the top of the post).
The hill was long, and it was hot. When we finally reached the top, we stopped at the monument for a professional racer who died in his 20s. Monsieur Demilly, who used to work as a mechanic for the French national team, filled us in on the details of this racer and his untimely death.
Then we went to Lyli Herse’s house for refreshments and more reminiscences. We talked until late in the evening, and the sun was setting when Theo and I set out to return to Paris.
We rode along the Seine, then crossed the Pont d’Asnières, passed near the Alex Singer shop in Levallois-Perret, before launching into Paris traffic on the way back to our hotel. As we jostled with taxicabs for position on the cobblestone roundabout of the Place de la Bastille, we shouted at each other: “What a fun day!”
Correction 8/24: The original post listed the square with the cobblestones as Place de la Nation. We traversed both, but only the Place de la Bastille has cobblestones.
When Bicycle Quarterly did an article on Tullio Campagnolo, you knew it wasn’t going to be another fluff piece re-hashing the same old stories and myths. We did some real research, and we were surprised by what we uncovered.
Cyclists who know their history have heard how in 1927, Campagnolo raced in the Gran Premio della Vittoria, got stuck in the snow when he could not open the wingnuts on his rear wheel, and lost the race. He then invented the quick release, which became the foundation of the company that bears his name.
That is the legend, but what is the real story of Campagnolo? Working with well-known cycling historian David Herlihy and other experts, we’ve pieced together the history of Campagnolo. Based on research in European archives, patent searches and contemporary accounts, the conclusions were published in a 19-page article in the Summer 2014 Bicycle Quarterly. The true story is different from the myth, but it’s no less fascinating.
Campagnolo was less of an inventor of ground-breaking innovations, and more of a visionary who foresaw trends and even shaped them. He adopted other manufacturer’s promising, but overlooked, ideas. He showed great ingenuity in improving those ideas to give racers exactly what they wanted.
Back to the quick release: It appears that Campagnolo did not invent it at all. The story of the race in the snow is a myth. There was a snowy Coppa della Vittoria, but in a different year (1925), and Campagnolo isn’t mentioned in the race reports as a favorite in any of the Coppas della Vittoria of the 1920s.
The original patent for the quick release, said to date from 1930, does not exist. Later patents by Campagnolo are written very narrowly for improvements or special features of the quick release, indicating that he could not patent the cam-actuated quick release itself.
Campagnolo’s next major innovation was a parallelogram derailleur, which introduced the general shape and operating principle for all rear derailleurs to this day. Campagnolo got this idea from a French cyclotouring derailleur, the Nivex (left). He was not the first to adapt the parallelogram derailleur for racing bikes, either: That honor goes to the JIC derailleur (middle). As so often, Campagnolo integrated these ideas into a product that was more elegant and better finished (right). His derailleur was successful where the other parallelogram derailleurs were not.
Campagnolo’s true strike of genius was the idea of the “gruppo” – a group of matching components. Before, customers of high-end bikes had to choose each component individually: brakes from Mafac, derailleurs from Simplex or Huret, hubs from FB, cranks from Stronglight or Gnutti, etc. Tullio Campagnolo made the customer’s choice easy by offering a full group of components. “Full Campy” became the hallmark of a top-of-the-line bike during the 1970s bike boom.
Campagnolo focused on the complete customer experience long before Apple popularized the concept. Campagnolo’s packaging was beautiful. The components showed balanced proportions and a beautiful finish. The quality was without reproach. The parts were easy to install and pleasant to use. Campagnolo backed their components with an unconditional lifetime warranty. And the company sponsored so many professional racers that more than 90% of professionals rode on Campagnolo (below). As a result, Campagnolo dominated the high-end component market for decades.
This is a major re-assessment of Campagnolo’s legacy. It reminds me of the re-evaluation of car maker Ettore Bugatti’s contribution in recent decades, from undisputed genius to a more human entrepreneur, who nonetheless imbued his products with a quality and mystique all of their own. I feel that understanding Tullio Campagnolo’s true contributions, as a visionary more than as an inventor, will only increase the appreciation of him and his company.
The Bicycle Quarterly article delves into many other questions. Why did Campagnolo patent and introduce his quick release not as a wheel retention mechanism (as we know it today), but only as a shifting aid? Why did he introduce a Nivex-style chainrest in the 1970s? Why did a French inventor who developed bar-end shifters and a novel front derailleur become the distributor for Campagnolo in Paris? And why did Campagnolo not continue to develop his components during the 1970s, which left an opening for Shimano’s rise in the 1980s? It’s a fascinating story – it probably would make a great movie!
Click here for more information on the Summer 2014 Bicycle Quarterly.
On September 1, 1930, two French pilots were the first to fly from Paris to New York. This was a huge achievement for them, but also their aircraft, since they flew against the prevailing winds.
Most people know about Charles Lindbergh, who had flown the other way just three years earlier. Lindbergh’s flight took great courage and a good portion of luck, and it was possible in part because he was aided by the strong westerly winds over the North Atlantic. Flying against the wind with 1920s aircraft technology was an entirely different matter.
Lindbergh’s Spirit of Saint Louis had a 223 horsepower engine and carried 425 gallons of fuel. The flight took Lindbergh 33.5 hours.
The plane that flew the other way, the Point d’Interrogation (Question Mark) was equipped with a 12-cylinder Hispano-Suiza engine, which put out 650 horsepower. The plane carried 1368 gallons of fuel. Both the power output and the fuel capacity were roughly three times as great as on Lindbergh’s plane. Even with this powerful plane, the two pilots took over 37 hours to complete the flight, four hours longer than Lindbergh.
Building a plane that could carry this much fuel was an engineering and manufacturing challenge, especially with the relatively heavy and feeble 1920s engines. The plane had to be light enough to take off and stay airborne for 37 hours, yet strong enough to withstand turbulences as it was buffeted by the strong winds over the North Atlantic.
The pilot, Dieudonné Costes (right), and his navigator, Maurice Bellonte, were veterans of many record attempts. They succeeded where 21 attempts had failed over the previous three years. Five teams had perished trying to fly from Paris to New York.
Despite these difficulties and risk, the success of Costes and Bellonte owed little to luck. As Costes told the press before his flight: “I have weighed everything, calculated everything. If we don’t succeed, then it is impossible.”
This careful approach extended to their airplane, which they had tested by flying almost 5000 miles from Paris to Manchuria in 1929. The trip from Paris to New York was “only” 4300 miles… The name, Question Mark, was coined by the workers who built it, at the Breguet aircraft factory. The ultimate purpose of the plane was secret even to them, so they referred to it as the Question Mark, and the name stuck. It was even painted on the side of the plane for the record attempt…
One of the workers who had built the Question Mark was René Herse (second from left). He learned his metalworking skills working on prototype aircraft. At the time, engineering drawings often were quite rudimentary, and it was up to the fabricators to interpret them and turn them into metal. This is how Herse developed his magic feel for materials and stresses.
When Herse began making bicycles in 1938, he transferred his skills from prototype aircraft to bicycles. It is not surprising that his bikes were built like aircraft: They were light, yet strong. Reliability was his foremost concern – a plane over the North Atlantic cannot simply pull over to the side of the road if something goes wrong. And like airplanes, René Herse’s bikes were elegant because of their purposeful design, not because he added ornamentation.
To me, René Herse’s bikes have been an incredible inspiration. He was innovative, but he also had a great respect for solutions that had proven themselves. He came from a humble background, yet he made the bikes for a veritable “Who’s Who” of racers, randonneurs and high society. Even today, his bikes are hard to surpass.
My own bike (above) really is built to the blueprint of a 1950s Herse – carefully updated in a few places where technology has advanced. Its performance brings a smile to my face and enables me to push beyond what I used to think possible. Most of that is due to the genius of René Herse, which was formed in the years he worked on prototype aircraft.
Further reading: The entire René Herse story is told in René Herse: The Bikes • The Builder • The Riders
When I was researching our René Herse book, the most difficult part of the story were the war-time years. Herse started making bikes in 1940, while Paris was occupied by the Germans. Being conditioned by war movies and war-time memories from German relatives, I found it hard to imagine anybody making high-end bicycles during this time.
What I learned from the French cyclists who lived through those days is this: While everything changed with the German occupation, most things also remained the same. The German occupiers made the French pay for the costs of the occupation in foodstocks, so food was very scarce. Other things, like gasoline and rubber (bicycle tires), were almost impossible to obtain.
Despite all that, France no longer was at war. Life, at least on the surface, appeared more normal than in places like London and Berlin. Men and women went to work, sat in cafés, went to the movies, and even watched or participated in bike races. This did not make them collaborateurs. After all, it would have served little if all Parisians had sat in a corner and sulked for years while the Germans were occupying the city. Even the resistance fighters kept up appearances and tried to live as normal a life as possible, so they did not arouse the suspicion of the Gestapo or their French counterparts.
Even though relatively few French joined the resistance full-time, I was surprised by the many small acts of resistance. For example, I learned that René Herse actually had two shops. The first was the boutique with the showroom. Next door was the workshop where the bikes were assembled. There, the shutters were drawn and the building looked empty. Many of Herse’s employees were young people in hiding, often riders on his team who could not find employment elsewhere. They were evading the Service du Travail Obligatoire, which sent young Frenchmen to Germany to work in the factories there. This also explains why I could not find some of Herse’s employees in the company’s pay records – they were undeclared. Herse was not alone, many French did things large and small to work against the occupiers, even if, on the surface, they appeared to continue their normal life.
The color photos in this blog were taken by André Zucca for the German propaganda magazine Signal, which intended to show that life in Paris was continuing as before the occupation. Of course, life did not continue exactly as before – as Madame Porthault told me during one of the interviews for the book: “Even if we had a smile on our faces, that did not mean that we weren’t afraid deep down.” Even though the photos were intended as propaganda, they show a glimpse of Paris during the occupation.
Gasoline was unavailable to private people in France during the war, so cars disappeared almost completely from circulation (above). Instead, bicycles became predominant in urban traffic. A nice bicycle not only was a means of transportation, but also a status symbol (below).
Zucca’s photos show numerous vélo-taxis. Since private cars and taxis no longer were available, cyclists pulling trailers provided convenient transportation for rich Parisians. Tandem taxis were faster, but cost twice as much.
Many Parisians decried the implication of humans serving as beasts-of-burden (photo at the top of the post), but some bike racers actually enjoyed the job, since it provided excellent training. Lyli Herse’s later tandem partner, Robert Prestat, said that this was how he got in shape to race as a professional during the war.
This image shows a tandem taxi waiting for passengers. The tandem is a quality machine with a nice bend of the fork blades. It is equipped with Jeay “roller-cam” brakes and a rear drum brake, but the single-sided drivetrain indicates that it was not a top-of-the-line machine from one of the great constructeurs.
Here a fashionable lady exits a rudimentary trailer pulled by a basic machine with a “dog-leg” fork bend, ill-fitting fenders and a single speed. It appears to have a battery-powered taillight. Were batteries available during the occupation?
Here we have two taxis waiting in front of the famous Maxim’s restaurant. The tandem has a strange frame configuration. It is equipped with a short-chain drivetrain and both drum and cantilever brakes. Slowing the heavy trailer with two passengers must have taken a lot of braking power! The dark lens of the headlight was mandatory. It was part of the “blackout,” which outlawed any lights shining outside to prevent allied bombers from finding their targets. The other trailer is enclosed, which was nice if it rained but must have been claustrophobic inside, to say nothing of the extra weight the cyclist had to haul.
Fancy place like Maxim’s even had a covered bicycle parking area, which you can see on the left. Movie theaters advertised that they offered guarded bicycle parking to attract visitors. I suspect that Maxim’s had a guard, too, who may have provided the equivalent of valet parking for the well-heeled customers.
In 1943, there was a race of the tandem taxis (above a photo of the winners from the René Herse archives). The trailers were lightweight cargo trailers rather than the usual taxis. This tandem appears to be a top-of-the-line Hurtu with a twin-plate fork crown. It is equipped with Herse’s Speedy brakes. The triangulation of the frame is interesting, with a single tube running to the middle of each seat tube, and two tubes continuing from there. Madame Porthault identified the front rider, Tixidre. Click here for fascinating newsreel footage of this race.
What Zucca’s photos do not show is the hardship that Parisians suffered during the occupation. The most difficult aspect was finding food. One way to augment the rations was bartering with farmers who engaged in black-market trade. However, within easy cycling distance of Paris, there were too few farmers and too many people looking for food. Randonneurs had an advantage, as they could ride further in a day, and thus reach farmers who had food to trade. Madame Porthault told me how it was a race to return to Paris before the curfew, while avoiding checkpoints along the way.
Every bike was pressed into service, even this pre-war Vélostable recumbent bicycle.
There are no photos of the tens of thousands of French Jews and others who perished in the concentration camps. These included many cyclotourists, and the list of the best-known dead in the first post-war issues of Le Cycliste was long. Most cyclotouring clubs collected money to send to the prisoners, or to support their families. During the occupation, the clubs became support networks, since they were people you knew well and could trust.
What was most striking to me, however, is the pronounced difference in the photos taken after the German occupation ended. The people are visibly more relaxed after the war, and the spontaneous smiles have returned to their faces. You often can tell whether a photo was taken during the occupation or afterward simply by looking at people’s facial expressions.
Life and cyclotouring in Paris may have continued during the occupation, but everybody was relieved when Paris was liberated. The photo above, from the René Herse book, was taken in 1945, just after the liberation. People’s clothes still are ill-fitting and speak of the privation of the occupation, but the smiles have returned. The tandem of Jean Feuillie and Lyli Herse no longer carries the license plate required by the German occupiers, which confirms the post-occupation date.
The mood is one of optimism and joy, which gave a huge boost to cyclotouring. People could travel again, and they could enjoy themselves without fear. Many were eager to take advantage of the re-found freedom, and the second half of the 1940s was a veritable golden age of cyclotouring. Understanding this history is key to understanding why the French constructeurs built such exceptional bicycles during the 1940s and 1950s.
Click here for more photos Paris taken by André Zucca during the German occupation.
Click here for more information about the René Herse book or to order your copy.
Today is the 100th birthday of Paulette Porthault! Madame Porthault was an avid cyclotourist from the early 1930s until well into her 80s. She has been an incredible resource for information and insight into the “Golden Age” of French cyclotouring. Most of all, she has been a wonderful friend and inspiration.
Madame Callet, as she was called before her marriage to fellow cyclotourist Charles Porthault, was friends with the constructeurs Narcisse, Herse and Routens. She toured all over Europe when foreign travel was very rare. During World War II, she won the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race on a tandem. She rode in the Technical Trials after the war. In 1947, she inaugurated and rode in the first Flèche Vélocio. She rode in numerous brevets. She has experienced almost every facet of cyclotouring. “Except Paris-Brest-Paris,” she told me: “I wanted to ride it in 1948, but I was pregnant with my son, so I couldn’t start.”
Most of all, she inspired generations of cyclotourists with her enthusiasm and infectious smile. Lyli Herse told me: “For me, Madame Porthault was always a role model.” As the aunt of Lucien Détée, himself a well-known randonneur, she inspired him and his friends during the 1950s. That is why everybody refers to her simply as La Tante (The Aunt).
Madame Porthault has inspired me as well, and you’ll recognize the photo above, of her climbing the Galibier during the 1930s. It is on the opening page of the Bicycle Quarterly web site. For me, the photo expresses what I love about cycling: Great scenery, amazing roads, camaraderie (notice the photographer’s bike parked on the left), independence (both bikes have bags to carry all these riders need), and a smile on the rider’s face.
Imagine my surprise during my research for the René Herse book, when I found a photo of exactly the same image in the Herse family archives. At a bike show in 1945, under the title “Cyclotouring in the Mountains,” there she is, climbing the Galibier (arrow).
I can see why Herse used this photo for his display. As cyclotourists dreamed of taking to the road again after the travel restriction and curfews of the German occupation, what better photo to illustrate this than La Tante? It mattered little she wasn’t riding a René Herse in the photo. (Herse only started making bikes during the war.) The other photos on the left panel also show her and her friends on various trips in the Alps. They evoke a time when cyclotouring did not mean riding to Normandy to try and find food, but to ride in the mountains for the simple joy of riding. In 1945, this represented the future. The panel on the right is titled “Competition”, and it underscores Herse’s reputation as a top constructeur in Paris.
A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to visit Madame Porthault during my trip to France. Together with my friend Richard Léon, we stopped by her apartment in the Rhone valley. She still lives on the second floor with no elevator. She manages her household of one just fine, she told us. For two hours, we talked about cycling, about mountain passes – her favorite still is the Galibier for its beautiful scenery – and many other topics. I still find it hard to believe that the vivacious lady who entertained us climbed the Galibier 80 years ago, and won the Poly de Chanteloup no less than 72 years ago.
She told us that last year, four doctors interviewed her during her medical checkup, trying to find out why she was in such great shape at her age. She told them: “I haven’t done anything special. I ate normal food, lived a normal life… but I rode my bike a huge amount.” – “Perhaps that is it!” the doctors opined.
We talked and talked, until I realized that I had to leave, since I had to ride another 150 km to my next destination. With all the good cheer, I completely forgot to take a photo of Madame Porthault, so the one below from The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles will have to suffice. It shows her and Jean Dejeans at the Poly de Chanteloup in 1943.
Happy birthday, Madame Porthault! You continue to inspire new generations of cyclotourists.
If you’d like to know more about Madame Porthault’s amazing life, read the interview with her in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 1.
When I interviewed Roger Baumann for the René Herse book, he told me: “In Paris, there was this club of older riders, the Audax-Club Parisien. […] They did great rides in the mountains […] They were a leading light in the sport. They created many events: Paris-Brest-Paris, Flèche Vélocio…”
When I moved to Seattle in 1992, I learned of a such a club here, the Redmond Cycling Club. They did great rides in the mountains. Their motto was: “Where ‘hill’ isn’t a four-letter word.” I was racing on the university cycling team, and my teammates told me about this amazing event, the Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day (RAMROD). I entered it and tasted the great joy of riding long distances in the mountains. I also met the people behind the ride, and was taken in by their passion for the sport.
I learned that the Redmond Cycling Club organized other, even more amazing rides: Cannonball and S2S. These races went from Seattle to Spokane, non-stop, for 275 miles, which seemed like a huge distance, and a challenge too enticing to ignore. Both became annual events for me.
I enjoyed the events themselves, but even more the friendships with the riders from the Redmond Cycling Club. Arriving in Spokane after 16 mostly solitary hours on the road to the cheer of my friends, who were having a picnic at the finish line, was very special indeed. Driving back from Spokane, there were animated conversations on many topics, and we always stopped for lunch at a great restaurant they had discovered years ago. Time and again, they pointed out wonderful backroads and said: “You should explore those some day.” They had ridden on most of them.
When I wanted to ride a tandem in the cross-state races, club members lent me their personal, prized machines for several attempts. They even provided car-based support, so we could be competitive. (They were going to the finish anyhow, so as long as we were in the lead, we would have support.)
I still have a vivid memory of Pat Marek scanning the horizon of eastern Washington’s wide-open plains with his binoculars, to see how far ahead we were of other riders. As we approached, he handed us water bottles and food, then waited until he could see the next rider on the horizon. He noted how far behind they were – he had taken our time at the same spot – then drove ahead and stopped by the roadside, giving us an update on our position together with more food and water. Alas, we never managed to realize his dream of a tandem winning the cross-state races outright. Once the tandem actually did arrive first, albeit minus its stoker…
The Redmond Cycling Club also sent riders to Paris-Brest-Paris and organized the qualifying brevets every four years, long before RUSA and SIR existed. I joined the Redmond Cycling Club just as the riders from the 1995 PBP came back and received a hero’s welcome. That was the first time I heard about PBP, which was virtually unknown in the U.S. back then. Four years later, I was one of the riders who went to Paris, buoyed by the advice from the fellow club members who had gone before me.
These older riders of the Redmond Cycling Club were great mentors in my “formative” years. Their friendship and encouragement allowed me to spread my wings and start exploring cycling off the beaten path. I owe them very much, and I recall our rides together with great fondness.
RAMROD still exists (albeit not as a timed event). Cannonball and S2S are still organized by the Redmond Cycling Club every year. Click on the links for more information.
It’s hard for me to believe, but it has already been three years since Ernest Csuka passed away. I wrote in his obituary in Bicycle Quarterly: “He was the last of a generation of great constructeurs.” Indeed, Ernest Csuka had experienced most of the post-war history of the French constructeurs first-hand and was a great source of information. But that doesn’t even begin to describe him. To me he was also a valued mentor and a great friend.
I still remember the day I first visited the shop in 1999 after completing my first Paris-Brest-Paris. I was just discovering the bicycles of the French constructeurs, and with the help of a French childhood friend, we figured out where this mythical shop was. As I turned the corner, I saw the little shop, tucked between the high-rises that had sprouted around it in recent decades. My elation gave way to disappointment when I approached. The windows were covered with whitewash, and a handwritten sign read: “On vacation until September 1.” It was August 31, and I was leaving Paris the next morning. I peeked through the narrow gap between the whitewash and the window frame and spied marvellous cyclotouring bicycles inside. So close, yet so far away.
Just as I was about to leave, a small, old man rode up on a bicycle. He tried to enter the shop with a quick: “C’est fermé” (We are closed). Before the door closed, I blurted out that I had come all the way from the United States to visit the shop. He broke into a laugh and said: “Well, in that case, come on in.”
I stayed for three hours that day and bought my first set of Maxi-Car hubs. I returned three months later on my next visit to Paris to order a cyclotouring bike for my friend George Gibbs – the first Alex Singer to come to the United States in decades. Every time I visited, I learned more about bicycle design and the history of the French constructeurs.
Ernest Csuka had started working for his uncle Alex Singer in 1944, when he was 16 years old. Singer himself only had started to make bikes six years earlier. Ernest rode for Singer in the famous Technical Trials as well as in the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race. He formed one of the stronger tandem teams of the period with his fiancée and later wife, Léone Reymond. He was there when Tullio Campagnolo bought two Nivex derailleurs from Alex Singer at the Paris bicycle show. A year later, Campagnolo introduced his first parallelogram derailleur… and today, all derailleurs can trace their ancestry to that 1949 Campagnolo Gran Sport.
As my friendship with Ernest deepened, I was invited on his Sunday rides. I usually visited in the middle of winter, yet there were six to ten riders, all on Alex Singers. Ernest was the patron, who decided where we’d go and who entertained us with stories from the old days. After a few hours, we stopped at a café to warm up and dry out before heading home. I don’t believe Ernest missed a single Sunday ride until he was well into his 80s.
During the week, the workday ended when friends filed into the shop to have tea and coffee upstairs. In the old kitchen of Alex Singer’s apartment, we sat around the Formica table and talked. Ernest ran up and down the stairs to tend the shop. After his friends left, and the shop was closed for the night, the real work started. In the dimly lit workshop, Ernest set about working on cyclotouring bikes. Tending the shop during the day did not allow for the required concentration and focus. Watching him and occasionally lending a hand, I learned a lot about brazing and bicycle design as he added braze-ons, made racks and slowly created the complete bike. To answer my questions, he pulled jigs and tools out of the various corners of the shop and explained their use. Often, it was 10 p.m. before I took the train back to my friend’s house, elated by all I had learned. But even more, I had enjoyed the true friendship of a wonderful man.
When I started Bicycle Quarterly, the very first issue included a long interview with Ernest Csuka. For almost every issue after that, I called him to check facts, and with every conversation, I got some wonderful quotes. Not only had he been there and witnessed the events I was researching, but his memory was unfailing.
When I told Ernest that I wanted to ride a Singer, he was elated. However, instead of making me a new one, he suggested he could find a used one for me. And that is how I got the Alex Singer bike that I rode almost exclusively for many years. I completed my “best” Paris-Brest-Paris on it, plus many other memorable rides. The bike still serves as Bicycle Quarterly’s reference bike, as a benchmark of the performance a good bike should offer.
When one of the nicest classic Alex Singer bicycles came back to the shop after its owner died, Ernest knew how much I would appreciate it, so he put it aside for me. That bike was featured in a blog post earlier this year. I am lucky to be its caretaker, and every time I ride it, I am reminded of him on his own, very similar machine.
Even though time passed, Ernest did not seem to age significantly until he suffered a stroke in 2008. Despite a miraculous recovery, he no longer could ride his bike, and his ability to work was greatly reduced. Sadly, his life force diminished quickly from then on. I was lucky to spend a month in Paris the following winter, and he shared many more precious memories. When I said “Au revoir,” we both had tears in our eyes. We knew it was unlikely that we’d see each other again. Today, Ernest Csuka lives on in our memories, and in the wonderful bicycles he created. The one below is from 1954, updated with new components in the 1970s. Today Ernest’s son Olivier continues the tradition at Cycles Alex Singer.
One of the greatest influences that led to Bicycle Quarterly and Compass Bicycles has been Mike Kone (center above, discussing a historic photo with Robert Limouzi (right), who rode on the René Herse team in the 1960s, and the author (left)). I have known Mike for almost 20 years now. Here is how it started:
When I was introduced to high-end racing bicycles in the late 1980s, I was enthralled by Campagnolo’s Super Record group. The form of each component was based on its function, but with added Italian flourishes like knurled surfaces and black accents. The rear derailleur, with its titanium bolts and elegant Campagnolo signature, was the ultimate bicycle component to me.
When this classic group was replaced by C-Record, I did not like the smooth, streamlined shapes of the new parts. To me, they lacked the aesthetic purity of their predecessors.
It was only a matter of time until I started looking for a classic bike, but my interest was met with disbelief. Bike shops in Austin, TX, said: “Yes, we see some older bikes come through once in a while, but why would you want one of those?” This was in the days before Craigslist and eBay, but I eventually found my childhood dream bike, a black 1978 Peugeot PX-10.
At the same time, a mail order shipment included a copy of the Bicycle Trader, where I found an ad from a new company called Bicycle Classics. I needed a longer 26.6 mm seatpost for my Peugeot and called the phone number. That is how I became one of Mike Kone’s first customers. When I received his flyer, I was amazed that you still could buy my dream components, new in the box.
Mike and I hit it off immediately, and he became a big influence. When he heard that I was racing on inexpensive tubulars, he sent me a pair of Clement Criteriums: “Try them and report back.” That is how I discovered supple high-performance tires.
Then Mike started the Vintage Racing Bicycle Newsletter and wrote about a strange bike that he had found, called a “René Herse.” As his passion for the French cyclotouring bikes developed, I lapped up every word. Here were machines that combined my love for long-distance cycling with the performance and the hand-made quality that I appreciated in classic racing bikes.
As a young student in Germany, I had dreamed of visiting Cinelli in Italy. I wanted them to make the ultimate touring bike for me. I wanted the very best bike (which in Germany meant a Cinelli), but I wanted it for the riding I loved (fast touring). Of course, that was a silly dream, because Cinelli did not make touring bikes… I was excited to discover that the bikes of my dreams existed: They were made by René Herse and Alex Singer, and they were even better than the bikes of my dreams.
Mike and I spent hours on the phone every week, but it took years until we finally met. When I visited Boston for a geology conference, I rode my Bike Friday to Needham and visited Bicycle Classics. During our lunch together, Mike’s wife joked that if we didn’t get along in person, one of us could go to a payphone, and we could resume our normal way of interaction…
Later, I visited Mike in Colorado after his family moved there. We rode bikes in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and worked on making custom racks. The following year, we shared rooms at the Cirque du Cyclisme. Late one night, sitting on our beds, surrounded by a René Herse tandem and a wonderful Camping bike, as well as Mike’s Reyhand, Mike mentioned: “It is almost inevitable that we’ll have to make these bikes again.”
Almost a decade later, Mike’s company, Boulder Bicycles, makes modern René Herse Bicycles, like the one shown above. And I am making components under the Compass and René Herse brands. We still talk on the phone several times a week. Even more than my appreciation of the bikes, I value our friendships that have grown around them.
I learned about the history of Paris-Brest-Paris from the late Bernard Déon’s excellent book Paris-Brest et Retour (unfortunately out of print). Déon was a great storyteller, and I found his report from the epic 1956 particularly gripping. The main protagonist of that dramatic edition of PBP was a young Roger Baumann. He rode the René Herse shown above through wind and rain, fought off a challenge from a late-charging Jean Lheuillier, and arrived back in Paris as the first of the single bikes. What a story!
When my friend Hervé mentioned that Roger Baumann was alive and well, I was excited. Maybe I could meet my hero? Bernard Déon put us in touch, and the next time I was in Paris, I met the “Grand Roger” for an interview and lunch. I discovered a man who was not only passionate about sport and performance, but also a true cyclotourist. His cycling exploits show the broad interests of cyclotourists at the time: He set a 24-hour record on the track “because I loved long distances, and this was as long as they came.” He was one of the first randonneurs to complete the Raid Pyrénéen, “an event harder than Paris-Brest-Paris.” He was part of a number of record-setting Flèche teams. As a cyclotourist, he enjoyed traveling all the way to Norway by bike. On all his rides, he took a keen interest in the landscape and culture he was visiting. He was a “grand randonneur.”
When I asked about his beautiful bike, Roger Baumann told me how he had dreamed of a René Herse bicycle for years: “During my lunch break, I took the Métro to Levallois-Perret, and looked at Herse’s shop window. I didn’t dare go inside.” He told me how in 1952, he bought his Herse with all his savings. He related his excitement when Herse told him later that year: “You are riding well. From now on, we will equip you.” Below he is part of the winning team at the 1955 Coupe Herse, a 100 km 5-man team time trial (left to right): Boris Brumat, Colliot, Jean-Marie Comte, Gilbert Bulté, R. Baumann.
Meeting Roger Baumann inspired me in many ways. I wanted to record and share his wonderful stories, so I started Bicycle Quarterly to publish them as well as other first-hand accounts from the “golden age of randonneuring.”
The “Grand Roger” (he got his nickname because he is 6 feet tall) also inspired my riding. I had been discouraged from riding at night by a rainy, miserable Flèche 24-hour ride on a fender-less racing bike. Then Roger Baumann’s told me of cresting the Tourmalet in the middle of the night during the Raid Pyrénéen. He talked of riding long distances non-stop and of carefully planning one’s schedule. This made me realize that I had been missing out on some of what makes randonneuring so special. A few months later, I rode my first 600 km brevet non-stop, and I enjoyed it. From then on, I aspired to become a “grand randonneur,” too.
Since then, I have remained in touch with Roger Baumann. We meet for dinner when I am in Paris, and we often talk on the phone. When I rode the 2003 PBP with Jaye Haworth on a 1946 René Herse tandem, he asked me: “When do you think you will be at the control of Fougères?” I told him that our schedule had us there around 5:30 a.m. Partly by chance, it was 5:30 on the dot when we pulled up to the school in Villaines-la-Juel. Despite the early hour, Roger Baumann was waiting outside. He checked his watch and said: “You are on schedule. Very good. Would you like to join me for a cup of tea?” When we told him that we did not plan to stop, he replied: “Even better. I will see you in Paris.”
When we arrived back in Paris almost two days later, it was 2:45 a.m. The volunteer checking us in asked, “Are you Monsieur AINe?” Then he yelled, “Somebody get Roger Baumann!” It turned out the “Grand Roger” had asked to be awoken when we arrived. A few minutes later, he arrived and congratulated us (photo above), which made our finish even more special. Two days later, he stood up for us when our trophy for the fastest mixed tandem was claimed by two impostors at the awards ceremony, who ran off with it. In a rush, another trophy was found and presented at the end of the ceremony.
Four years later, I was thinking of the 1956 Paris-Brest-Paris again as I rode toward Paris. Not only was this 2007 PBP as rainy and windy as the one 51 years earlier, but I was facing a situation similar to Baumann’s. Even though I was not racing for first place against somebody else, I knew I had to ride all-out if I wanted to achieve the magic sub-50-hour goal. After several hours of all-out effort, I arrived at the final control at the Human Rights Gymnasium in Saint-Quentin totally exhausted. Roger Baumann was there to greet me.
Last year, after my wonderful ride in the Raid Pyrénéen, I told Roger Baumann how I had been unable to find a hotel at the finish, and camped out in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. He replied: “If you had told me, I could have given you the address of a very nice bench near the train station, where I slept after my Raid in 1952.”
I have known Roger Baumann for 12 years now. Lately we have been talking several times a week, as he has helped me tremendously with research for another book. His excellent memory, his passion and his sense of humor make each of those conversations memorable. I look forward to seeing him again in Paris, when we’ll discuss cycling and the world over an excellent dinner.
Before the Internet became the most important medium for communication, fans of classic bikes communicated by phone, or in person at the occasional “Classic Bike Show” organized somewhere. Through word-of-mouth, I learned that Gabe Konrad in Michigan was publishing a little “zine” about classic bikes called Aeoleus Butterfly. I sent him a check, and received a delightful photocopied newsletter. On 16 pages, it featured articles reprinted from old magazines, and other articles written by fellow collectors of old bicycles. (The name of the magazine came from a turn-of-the-century bicycle pedal.)
For my children’s generation, it is hard to envision the excitement when the folded zine arrived in my mailbox every other month. There was no internet where one could find images of classic bikes. There were no blogs and forums where one could exchange thoughts and ideas with like-minded cyclists. Thus, I devoured the pages of the Butterfly, and learned more about all the things that I had seen, like Zeus components, but knew little about.
By today’s standards, the articles were a bit amateurish – based old catalogues and anecdotes rather than first-hand information – but back then, it was all we had, and it was a great foundation for further research.
In 1998, Gabe decided to start a “real” magazine called On The Wheel. It was a promising start, but sadly it never saw the growth it needed to survive. After two years, Gabe refunded unused portions of all subscriptions, and the magazine folded. Gabe then published two books with similar articles, Bikelore and Bikelore 2.
When I wrote articles for Gabe about racing in the spirit of the Touriste-Routiers, about touring in Venezuela, about randonneuring in Washington and about old bikes, I learned a lot from Gabe’s editing comments. When another contributor’s “interview” with Jack Taylor in On The Wheel turned out to be a complete fabrication (the contributor was apparently trying to swindle his way into money by taking orders for these bikes), I realized that proper references are essential for historic articles.
Before I started Bicycle Quarterly, I called Gabe one more time. He offered advice freely: “Never get behind in your publishing schedule!” was the most emphatic one. I am grateful for being able to learn from his experience. He is one of the pioneers who paved the path for Bicycle Quarterly’s success. Perhaps he came too early, before there was widespread appreciation for cycling off the beaten path.
If you want to enjoy Gabe’s best publications, Chuck Schmidt of Velo-Retro offers xeroxed reprints of the Aeoleus Butterfly.
Gabe Konrad now runs a used bookstore, and he has copies of Bikelore 2 available.
An endeavor like Bicycle Quarterly does not happen out of the blue. There are many people who influence us as we develop tastes and ideas outside the mainstream.
A major influence for me was Grant Petersen. Grant was influential in making Bridgestone into a maker of slightly left-field production bicycles during the 1980s. I missed the “Bridgestone Years,” because I rode a hand-built racing bike and had little interest in mass-produced Japanese bikes. But I took notice when Grant started Rivendell Bicycle Works after Bridgestone closed its U.S. operation.
Here was a guy who looked at technical issues overlooked by the mainstream. I subscribed to the Rivendell Reader from the very first issue, and learned about tread (Q factor). I read that the then-current 53-tooth big rings were useless on most terrain and at most speeds, and saw that Grant was selling 50- and 48-tooth chainrings. (As a racer, I was skeptical…) Grant stressed the importance of craftsmanship at a time when fellow racers shook their heads in disbelief over my Brooks saddle and friction shifters. His company sold Simplex SLJ derailleurs, and I was reminded that there was a whole world of French components that had nothing to do with the crappy Peugeots of my childhood, even if the parts looked outwardly similar.
In the bike industry, Grant was the first person I met who questioned the wisdom of “newer = better.” A friend once called Grant the “poet of real-world bicycles,” and I think it is an apt description. For example, he wrote about a shipment of 3TTT handlebars:
“The decal adjacent to the sleeve […] reads: Computerized Hi-Tech Heat Treatment / High Vibration Control, with Vibration written as though the word itself was vibrating. Such gratuitous attempts at high tech imagery make it seem as though insecure, fresh-from-college marketeers have taken over the company, and the smart old guys are off somewhere bound and gagged. The decal comes off easily.”
As a customer with many questions, I often talked to Grant, and over time, we became friends. I visited him every year when I attended a geophysics conference in San Francisco. I was welcomed by him and his wonderful family. We rode up and down Mount Diablo, and discussed bicycles. I test-rode prototypes and production bikes, and was exposed to many new ideas. It was at Grant’s house that I first saw a photo of a bike with brazed-on centerpull brakes. I decided that I wanted those on my custom Rivendell frame, but Grant had reservations, because he felt that if I ever wanted to sell that frame, nobody would want such an odd brake arrangement. How things have changed…
When I took my new Rivendell to Paris-Brest-Paris, it was the start of a journey of discovery about French bicycles. Grant encouraged me along the way. As I discovered a new world of bicycles, I began writing articles for the Rivendell Reader. A classic was “Proud to be a Tourist,” which you can read here. When I decided to start Bicycle Quarterly, Grant published an announcement in the Reader, and before the first issue even was printed, the magazine already had more than 150 subscribers.
Today both of our endeavors have grown. Rivendell Bicycle Works is a significant force in the bicycle world. Bicycle Quarterly prints almost 6000 copies of each issue. Grant and I still are in touch, and I’ll never forget how his mentorship more than a decade ago got me started on this path.
P.S.: We did an extensive interview with Grant in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 4. The photos above are from that article.