Coming full circle with René HerseJan Heine
When I started researching the history of René Herse more than a decade ago, I never thought I would end up buying the company!
During my research, I talked to riders on Herse’s team and people who had known René Herse himself. I rode surviving examples of his bikes, and even entered Paris-Brest-Paris on a 1946 René Herse tandem.
The stories these riders and builders told me fascinated and inspired me. As I visited Herse’s riders and talked to them on the phone, wonderful friendships developed over the years.
One of these friendships was with Lyli Herse, René’s daughter, and her husband Jean Desbois. Monsieur Desbois was one of the first employees René Herse hired in 1940. He stayed with Herse for close to 15 years, and returned in 1975. He was an invaluable source of information about the company’s history and the techniques employed by Herse to make his amazing bicycles.
During one of my visits, Lyli wistfully told me that she was saddened by the fact that she did not have children, and that the Herse name would disappear with her. She told me: “After we closed the shop, somebody offered to make René Herse frames under license, but my mother was against it. I now wish we had explored that possibility.”
At the same time, my friend Mike Kone was talking about making constructeur bikes. He shared my appreciation of René Herse’s craft, and so I approached him to see whether he might be interested in resurrecting the René Herse name, which had been dormant for almost 20 years. The result of this was that Mike bought the name and remaining assets from Lyli Herse and Jean Desbois, and started to offer modern René Herse frames again.
I acted as a liaison and translator between Lyli/Jean Desbois and Mike. I shared my research into what made these bikes special and worked with Mike to help ensure the new bikes would be worthy of the René Herse name. When Lyli Herse saw my new René Herse at PBP last year, tears were in her eyes as she looked over the lugs, the hand-lettered name on the down tube and the many custom parts that make these bikes special. It meant a lot to her to see the work of her father, her husband and herself carried on. And her approval of the new bike meant just as much to Mike and me.
René Herse was more than just a framebuilder. He actually started as a component maker of revolutionary lightweight components. Through my research into the history and technology of bicycles, I had become involved in making the parts that had worked so well in the past. The result was a new company, Compass Bicycles, which is dedicated to making components that I feel should be available, but aren’t.
To me, the René Herse cranks are the best crank design of all time, so it was natural to think about making an updated version. To make a long story short, Compass Bicycles recently purchased the René Herse name and assets from Mike Kone’s company.
When I started researching René Herse more than a decade ago, I never would have thought that we would see new René Herse bikes made, that his components would be available again, and that we’d eventually own the company. I am glad it turned out that way.