Coming full circle with René Herse

Coming full circle with René Herse

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.

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Comments (28)

  • msrw

    Jan, congratulations. This not only would seem to make sense strategically for Compass and for you individually, but it’s great for bicycling. Godspeed on great success in taking Rene Herse into the 21st Century.

    January 25, 2012 at 8:23 am
  • Mike Griffith

    Congratulations! Your work, and that of others, to revive the nearly-lost techniques and philosophy of the constructeurs has shown that their ideas were not simply a fashion of their times, but sound designs that can endure through today. My latest bike looks much different than it would have as a result. I am looking forward to see what is next for Rene Herse!

    January 25, 2012 at 8:41 am
  • djconnel

    Congratulations! It’s inspiring when people follow their passion. I love your functional view of old components and bikes. The Rene Herse name is in good hands.

    January 25, 2012 at 8:50 am
  • Pondero

    Congratulations, Jan, and best wishes for success!

    January 25, 2012 at 8:59 am
  • Rob Harrison

    Congratulations Jan! Perfect and right. I’m glad the partnership with Mike Kone will continue. He’s a great guy. Looking forward to seeing the René Herse name flourish in the 21st Century!

    January 25, 2012 at 9:36 am
  • David G in Madison WI

    Jan, Congratulations! Through years of meticulous research and countless hours in the saddle you have amassed a wealth of information and personal experience related to classic French cyclotouring and randonneuring bikes that is equaled by very few living individuals. Now that you have assumed the mantle of leader of the venerable marque of Rene Herse it is we, your customers, who will continue to benefit from your rare expertise.
    Would you please comment on how this may change your approach as editor and publisher of my favorite cycling publication, Bicycle Quarterly? It would be hard to imagine someone like John Burke, Keith Bontrager, or Mike Sinyard putting out a periodical that reviewed racing bikes and components in every issue. Now that you are not only an importer of fine tires, bottom brackets, handlebars, and other parts but also the owner of a company that strives to make the best possible bikes and components, will you encourage others to take the lead in writing bike and product reviews for BQ? Or do you have ideas on how you can continue to write product reviews as a passionate and experienced randonneur while minimizing the effects of other your interests?

    January 25, 2012 at 9:44 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      First, a carification: René Herse bicycles will continue to be made by Boulder Bicycles in Colorado, as before. They have licensed the name in perpetuity. Compass Bicycles has no plans to offer complete bicycles. We will continue to focus on components.
      That said, you raise a good question, about being a researcher, reviewer, developer and seller of products. In reality, nothing changes just because we own a name. As before, we strive to be independent and honest. Conflicts of interest always abound – whether it’s reviewing products from the many friends I have in the bike industry or those we sell ourselves. We disclose those clearly, and allow you to make up your mind. Our product evaluations already are the work of a team of fiercely independent riders, and my voice is one of several.
      It’s also good to remember that Compass is a retailer who can sell any product that currently is available. So if we think a product is excellent, we will sell it, no matter who makes it. We have no incentive to dislike a product just because we don’t sell it.
      I don’t foresee building Compass or René Herse into a brand like Specialized that attempts to offer everything a cyclist needs. Our goal always will be to offer those products that otherwise would not be available, or products we feel we can make better than others. Most of these products originate from the research we have done for Bicycle Quarterly, and it probably will continue to be that way. We also will continue to share the fruits of our research freely in Bicycle Quarterly, as our main goal is to improve the cycling experience for everybody, rather than develop proprietary parts.

      January 25, 2012 at 9:59 am
  • Ryan

    I can’t wait to order a Boulder Bicycle. I love what they are doing there.
    Was the name worth more to you as a component designer/seller than to Mike Kone as a custom bicycle frame maker? Was the Boulder Bicycle side of his business taking off to the point where it made sense for him to focus on it?
    I’d love to know the nitty gritty details but mostly I’m just happy for you. Maybe someone will buy Alex Singer and we can many options to choose from!

    January 25, 2012 at 10:47 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Purchasing the name was not about maximizing returns. Making components incurs significant liability. Compass is set up to deal with that by having very generous insurance coverage (twice the industry norm). Boulder Bicycles is set up to make bikes, but their insurance would be different if somebody used their trademark on components. The whole transaction was between friends, and not guided by standard business concerns.
      Cycles Alex Singer is very much in operation in Paris, probably the shop with the longest continuous history that makes high-end bicycles.

      January 25, 2012 at 11:41 am
  • John

    Can we get some RH cantilever brakes please?

    January 25, 2012 at 11:23 am
  • Rona

    squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Congrats!

    January 25, 2012 at 1:14 pm
  • Lee Legrand

    Can we get some center pulled caliper brakes by Compass Bicycle please? Or rear derailluers by Compass Bicycles?

    January 25, 2012 at 2:02 pm
    • Lovely Bicycle!

      +1 for the centerpull brakes!

      January 26, 2012 at 6:55 pm
  • GuitarSlinger

    Congratulations x ten good sir . Truly you are the best possible curator/maintainer of the Herse legacy , with Mike still building the frames of course
    Honestly , as much as I love my Moulton , and had committed to a One Bike lifestyle : the more I read about Rene’s bikes ( as well as Mikes builds ) the more I’m thinking a Herse needs to be in my garage as well
    Nice that all it’ll take is a trip to Boulder while visiting family on the front range to do so as well

    January 26, 2012 at 5:56 am
  • Ford Bailey

    I would love to see a new Mafac Raid.
    Congratulations !

    January 26, 2012 at 8:31 am
  • Joe Kendrick

    What Rene Herse-style components do you see being offered any time soon?
    Joe K

    January 26, 2012 at 4:00 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      For now, we are working on the new cranks. Eventually, I could see a more exact replica of the classic Herse cranks, mostly for restorations, but also for riders who prefer an even narrower tread (Q factor) than is possible with a modern 10-speed drivetrain. There are a number of other parts that could be re-issued as well. Now that we own the copyright to these designs, we can think about making them available again.

      January 26, 2012 at 7:18 pm
  • writertype

    Congrats, Jan. Happy to hear it. Godspeed.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:51 pm
  • Willem

    Jan, congratulations with the acquisition of what could well become a nice umbrella under which to integrate all your various activities in the parts business. Since others have already mentioned some of their dreams, I thought I might add my own ones. As a starting point, I like compatibility with modern standards, but I am less than pleased with Shimano’s drift towards a more and more absurd focus on the extremes of mtb or road racing. As for drive train parts, I think the concept of the modern Shimano cassette hub is excellent – my first gripe is with the increasing number of cogs, at the expense of durability and hub width. My second gripe is with the gearing that is much too high for most people in most conditions. So my ideal hub would be a modern high quality Shimano compatible 7 speed cassette hub with 126 mm oln. The ideal cassette for this would have something like 16-30t. For as long as there is no such hub, an 8 speed cassette with 16-30 t would already help a lot.

    January 27, 2012 at 7:50 am
  • John Potis

    Would you please consider conducting an interview with Lyli Herse and publishing it in BQ? I think many people would enjoy reading her recollections as well as the information being important to recording the history of Randonneuring.

    January 27, 2012 at 12:09 pm
  • James

    Could you clarify your relationship with Grand Bois. In the past I ordered parts from them and might want to order their 650A tires. Would I have to go through you now?
    I don’t suppose you could tell us anything about their new Etiole or Concorde bicycles apparently made by Toyo? Any chance you’d import them? A Hetre friendly factory built frame would be nice.

    January 27, 2012 at 12:31 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Compass Bicycles is the North American distributor for Grand Bois. We sell both directly to consumers, as well as wholesale to bicycle shops.
      Grand Bois bicycles are not available in North America. Ikuo Tsuchiya wants to see and measure his customers in person, so if you want one of those bikes, you should visit the shop in Kyoto.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:40 pm
  • Garth

    I would also like to see a nice cassette hub for more widely spaced. One that you might use the largest six cogs of an eight-speed cassette and put shims between to (theoretically) get more succinct friction shifting. And a grease fitting, or proper seals. That would be groovy.
    Or, perhaps simply a full range of cogs that could be custom selected, just like in the Olden Freewheel Days. Of course it would exclude index shifting, which is ok.
    Related to this would be a dual-pull rear derailleur (a cable to pull in each direction) that won’t act sometimes funky. Hmmm…

    January 27, 2012 at 4:30 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      A 5- or 6-speed cassette would be neat, but it mostly would make sense if the cogs were thicker, so you could use a thicker chain and greatly reduce wear. You don’t need ramped cogs to get good index shifting – Shimano’s 1985 Dura-Ace still is among the best-shifting systems ever. (I actually prefer it over their current components.)
      Of course, it then would make sense to offer a complete drivetrain, with a narrower crank, chainrings with thicker teeth, etc. I think there is a niche for that, because few riders really use all those gears. I know that even 6-speed is more than I need on my Singer, because I never use the 13-tooth cog…

      January 27, 2012 at 6:27 pm
  • Daniel

    Jan, would you consider reproducing the super fantastic Herse stem?

    January 27, 2012 at 7:29 pm
  • thelazyrando

    Congrats…the Rene Herse name is in good hands.
    safe riding,

    January 28, 2012 at 9:58 am
  • Ted Cronin

    I’m new to the Rene Herse fold, after rediscovering the joy of my old steel bikes, (early Cinelli and Colnagos). How could I have gotten swept along in the carbon frenzy for so many years? Thank you and thank Mike for bringing Herse back, and recreating the joy and beauty of these masterpieces. I applaud your efforts, and I can’t wait to explore them. Thanks, Ted

    February 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm

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