My PBP Bike: The Frame

My PBP Bike: The Frame

When I asked readers which part of my bike for last summer’s Paris-Brest-Paris they wanted to hear more about, the answer was: “Everything.” So we’ll make a series of short posts about the parts of the bike. I’ve already talked about the centerpull brakes here. Today, let’s look at the frame.

It’s no secret that I love my titanium Firefly. I’ve also enjoyed some great rides on carbon bikes. I wanted a very lightweight bike, and I seriously thought about getting a titanium frame or adapting a carbon U.P.P.E.R. to create a randonneur bike. In the end, I opted for steel because it’s easier to fabricate a frame that accepts all the things I need for adventures like Paris-Brest-Paris: fenders, lights, a rack, a pump…

As far as performance goes, the best bikes are virtually indistinguishable. My Firefly, the U.P.P.E.R. and my new Rene Herse all perform equally well under my pedal strokes. What matters most are the flex characteristics of the frame – what we call ‘planing’ – and my favorite bikes are remarkably similar in feel and performance, regardless of their frame material.

Of course, not all steel is created equal: The Kaisei Superlight tubeset has ultra-thin walls and custom butting profiles for light weight and just the right amount of flex. It’s heat treated for strength and durability, so it should last almost forever despite pushing the limits of what is possible in a lightweight steel frame.

In theory, a carbon bike would be lighter and a little faster uphill, but the weight difference between the lightest carbon frames (950 g) and my new Herse (1834 g) is about one full water bottle. I don’t really notice whether my bottle is full or empty when I climb a mountain pass…

Most of all, it’s hard to create a fully integrated randonneur bike from titanium and especially carbon. Compromises made necessary by a lack of braze-ons and other components would have increased the weight of the complete bike, and negated the savings on the frame alone.

Steel is very strong and stiff, so the tubes can be slender. That is a big advantage for the chainstays, where you’re fighting to fit big tires (and fenders) between road cranks with narrow Q factor. My bike uses a prototype for the Rene Herse bottom bracket shell, which has a wider socket angle, so it works seamlessly with the curved Kaisei chainstays.

There is excellent clearance for 42 mm-wide tires and fenders – and I can run my cranks on a short 107 mm BB spindle to put the chainline on the big ring (which I use most of the time). The resulting Q factor of 139 mm is narrow by today’s standards – and this really helps my spin.

Steel also is a great material for the fork: It can flex without fatiguing. (Carbon has to be stiff, as it would delaminate if it flexes too much.) The Kaisei ‘TOEI Special’ fork blades are slender at the bottom to offer a significant amount of ‘passive’ suspension. It’s a difference you really feel when the road gets rough.

Steel is easy to bend, so the fork blades are raked with more offset than is available on off-the-shelf forks. The resulting low-trail geometry optimizes the bike’s handling with a handlebar bag and wide tires. Adding braze-ons is easy, too, and the direct-mounts for the centerpull brakes help reduce the weight further.

There is another reason why I chose steel, and that one is purely aesthetic: I love the look of a finely crafted lugged frame. Mark Nobilette, who built my Rene Herse frame, is a master of his craft. He welded the lugs from pieces of steel tubing and filed them to a minimalist pattern modeled on Rene Herse’s 1940s bikes.

The beautiful, understated paint was applied by J. P. Weigle. It’s so thin that the crisply filed lug edges really show. The paint has proven very durable, too, with not a single chip despite quite a few hard miles, as well as air and rail trips to Paris and back. The lining and lettering by Donn Trethewey, a local friend and hot rod artist, adds a nice final touch.

The result is a bike that looks as light as it feels on the road. And light it is: The complete bike weighs just 10.2 kg (22.5 lb) with wide tires, fenders, rack, lights, three bottle cages and a pump. (Pedals, too – so many bike specs forget about them.)

During the 1200 km Paris-Brest-Paris, the bike’s performance exceeded my (very high) expectations. PBP is always a magic event, and it’s even more magic on a bike that feels perfectly in sync with my pedal strokes hour after hour, hill after hill. A ride of 56+ hours is long by any standards, but I can honestly say that I enjoyed every hour of it.

For ‘naked’ bikes, ti and carbon are great materials. For a fully equipped randonneur bike, steel remains my top choice.

Other parts of this series:

Photos: Nicolas Joly

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Comments (56)

  • Larry T

    Naked or not, steel remains my top choice. How many out there are afraid to admit: “I don’t really notice whether my bottle is full or empty when I climb a mountain pass…”?

    February 13, 2020 at 6:47 am
    • Jan Heine

      Weight is a funny thing. You can obsess about it, yet a pound (or even two) make little difference in how a bike feels. But at some point, the difference does become noticeable, so my goal is to keep the bike as light as possible – but without making larger compromises elsewhere for the sake of a few grams.

      February 13, 2020 at 7:44 am
      • Mike Morrison

        I agree completely. I never notice whether my bottle is full or empty while climbing the hills in my area. In group rides, I’m often climbing uphill faster on my “heavy” steel bike, “laden” (equipped) with fenders/racks/panniers/lights, faster than people on lightweight “naked” bikes. It becomes noticeable only when I carry heavy loads, such as two full panniers of groceries or something heavy in the trailer. In those cases I usually click down one cog when riding uphill.

        February 14, 2020 at 7:53 am
  • Grant

    One area of these incredible bikes where I think we can drop weight without sacrificing anything is in the steerer tube and the fork crown. Bonding custom steel blades to a carbon upper is not difficult in theory, and they need not be expensive if enough people start using them. Like everything else, it’s a matter of amortizing the cost of the tooling.

    February 13, 2020 at 6:49 am
    • Jan Heine

      The steerer and fork crown could be lightened in carbon, no doubt. But you’d need to make them bigger (carbon is less strong than steel), and the larger head tube to accommodate the bigger fork would eat up most of the weight savings. That is why steel bikes with modern carbon forks are so heavy.

      February 13, 2020 at 7:45 am
  • Rick Mitchell

    Hi Jan, How does your new PBP frame compare with your mule? Did you go with the same geometry? And does it have a narrow, flexible, top tube paired with a wider, stiffer, down tube for stability, as with the mule?

    February 13, 2020 at 7:36 am
    • Jan Heine

      The new Herse uses a Superlight tubeset. The differences are small – just the down tube of the new Herse is standard in diameter (28.6 mm), rather than oversized (31.8 mm). The geometry is also just a minor tweak – about 5 mm less trail. The two bikes feel similar, yet very different. The Mule is more planted, great for touring with a camping load in the front panniers, while the Herse climbs much better and handles with more precision with the smaller load for which it was designed. That is the beauty of steel – you can do these things without having to invest into new molds.

      February 13, 2020 at 7:48 am
      • Owen

        Related question: What’s the main difference between this bike and your old silver Rene Herse randonneur? It seems like this is an updated version based on your experiences over the past several years.

        February 13, 2020 at 10:10 am
        • Jan Heine

          Indeed, the new bike is an updated version of the old one. The old one was all made with old stock and hand-made parts. The new one is almost completely made with parts that are available or prototypes for future products. One other important difference is that the new bike is Rinko-compatible.

          February 13, 2020 at 11:15 am
  • David Morgan

    Different kind of “naked”…Tange had a GORGEOUS frame that was marketed as “naked” rather than painted. It was clear, but showed the (to me) beautiful steel underneath. Are there any drawbacks to this..?coating?

    February 13, 2020 at 8:26 am
    • Jan Heine

      Our Japanese friend Mr. Yo has a Toyo frame that is just clearcoated. So far, it’s held up very well, and it’s a great way to show off the quality of the construction. You can see glimpses of his bike in Natsuko’s post about autumn cyclotouring.

      February 13, 2020 at 8:34 am
    • SteveP

      I have heard that “eventually” most clear-coated (non-stainless) steel frames will develop a thin web of rust lines below the coating? This does not damage the structure in any way, and is merely cosmetic. Can anyone confirm this is the case? I suppose it would depend on the storage and use environment

      February 14, 2020 at 7:29 am
      • Jan Heine

        I’ve heard that, too. And yet, our friend’s clearcoated Toyo is a few years old and doesn’t show any deterioration of the metal underneath the clearcoat.

        In theory, the clearcoat should adhere to the metal like normal paint. Of course, there is no clear primer, and that may be the problem. A lot of primers have rust inhibitors in them, and if the frame isn’t perfectly blasted before clearcoating, there may be oxidation that grows over time.

        February 14, 2020 at 8:57 am
        • Julien Meissonnier

          Yes, I worked in the coatings industry. To get very good corrosion resistance, you need rust inhibitors in the primer (they are sacrificial in nature and that is how they protect the steel). Decades ago it was lead-based paints which were excellent for anticorrosion but were abandoned because of the toxicity, today they are mostly zinc-based primer. The ultimate Zinc coating is galvanizing which can protect steel outdoors for decades, Zinc based primers are not as good but still excellent. It is hard to get good anti-corrosion paint on steel that will protect for corrosion for more than a few years only by a coating that will keep oxygen and moisture out without a zin based (or other sacrificial) primer. Zinc will make the paint grey so you cannot put zinc in a clear coat.

          February 15, 2020 at 2:48 am
      • James

        Steve, that is indeed true, a clearcoated only frame will develop this rust lines, especially around lugs, braze-ons, and dropouts. This is dependent on the quality of the clear used, but long term durability when using straight clear is not good.

        February 15, 2020 at 6:55 am
  • SteveP

    Simply gorgeous. How do you pack your bikes for air transport?

    February 13, 2020 at 8:44 am
    • Jan Heine

      This one is a Rinko bike, so it’s pretty easy to pack into a small package. That was also useful for traveling by train across Europe before PBP. I’ll do another post on that soon.

      February 13, 2020 at 8:49 am
  • Richard Keith Gaunt

    It looks like the bike has a 1″ steer tube and stem. I’ve found that the bikes I have with 1 1/8 steer tubes are quite heavy. So I really appreciate the old 1″ as found on most vintage bikes. The problem is that it is increasingly hard to find 1″ threadless stems and forks. I notice that you don’t sell such stems. Is your stem custom made? Do you think the newer 1 1/8 and tapered are overkill on road bikes? I sure do. Then again, I am a lightweight.

    February 13, 2020 at 9:06 am
    • Jan Heine

      The stem is a prototype. 1″ steerers were designed for steel forks and frames. Titanium and especially carbon are less dense and more flexible, so you need bigger parts to get the same strength. That is why the new standards evolved. Making steel parts to the new standards means they’re heavier than necessary.

      February 13, 2020 at 10:44 am
  • Jim G

    This new bike appears to have a different geometry than the Mule? The head tube certainly looks longer, and perhaps the seat tube is shorter? Has there been a discussion of angles, tube lengths, reach, etc.? Comparisons to the Mule?

    February 13, 2020 at 9:33 am
    • Jan Heine

      Fit is the same as the Mule. Only geometry difference is the fork offset.

      February 13, 2020 at 10:45 am
  • Brendan

    Jan, are you able to list the weight of the fork?

    February 13, 2020 at 9:42 am
    • Brendan

      And also, who constructed the fork? Thanks.

      February 13, 2020 at 9:44 am
      • Jan Heine

        The fork was built by the framebuilder, Mark Nobilette.

        February 13, 2020 at 10:46 am
    • Jan Heine

      The fork weighs 862 g. That includes all the braze-ons, including those for the direct-mount brakes.

      February 13, 2020 at 10:46 am
      • Jairp

        I just weighed my Norther Lyon fork that uses the Rene Herse components and weighs exactly 862gm as well.

        February 13, 2020 at 5:01 pm
        • Jan Heine

          Same parts weight the same…

          February 13, 2020 at 5:04 pm
  • Zach

    Great read to reinforce my commitment for steel. One question I’ve been wondering about is how a titanium frame with centerpull brakes would perform. Do they even exist?

    February 13, 2020 at 9:47 am
    • Jan Heine

      You could make a ti frame with centerpulls. The direct-mount pivots would be easy to make. You’d probably want to use a steel fork.

      February 13, 2020 at 10:48 am
  • Bill M

    What happens to your old new bikes Jan? Do they stay in your collection or get sold off?

    February 13, 2020 at 10:29 am
    • Jan Heine

      Most of my bikes serve different purposes. The new and the old Herse overlap, but it’s nice to have both. For big events, a ‘fresh’ bike with limited miles on the parts is good insurance. I’ve had zero problems with my old Herse, but after 9 years and many 10,000s of miles, things like spokes do fatigue.

      February 13, 2020 at 11:16 am
  • Frédéric

    Is it an Alex Singer bottom bracket?

    February 13, 2020 at 11:22 am
    • Jan Heine

      Similar, but it’s a Rene Herse bottom bracket with shoulders inside the shell to locate the bearings securely. The dust caps are Singer-style, because the Herse-style caps don’t work with the modern Rene Herse cranks, which slant inward a bit to get more ankle clearance (and hence use a shorter BB spindle.)

      February 13, 2020 at 11:26 am
  • Jacob Musha

    I’m eagerly waiting for the Herse stem and Nivex derailer to be more than prototypes. But then there is still the need for quality old-stock rear hubs and freewheels. Does this mean the rod-operated front derailer will become available too??

    While I’m dreaming, here are a couple more items on my wish list:

    A fork crown that fits Kaisei fork blades and will fit a Rat Trap Pass tire + fender would be nice.

    The parts to make the carbon-brush-in-steerer-tube for the tail light wiring less of a monumental custom project.

    February 13, 2020 at 11:43 am
  • Lawrence Vargas

    I assume the drive side of the bottom bracket still uses a cartridge roller bearing?

    I’m always happy to see that there’s still a market for all types of bicycle styles, especially for the ones that are still thriving almost a century after they were created!

    As others have already expressed, I can’t wait to see all of these prototypes listed for sale!

    February 13, 2020 at 2:55 pm
    • Jan Heine

      I assume the drive side of the bottom bracket still uses a cartridge roller bearing?

      This one doesn’t use the SKF cartridge, but pressed-in bearings. They are two standard bearings (6003), so easy to replace, although they usually last 50+ years, since the dust caps for a labyrinth seal.

      I’m always happy to see that there’s still a market for all types of bicycle styles, especially for the ones that are still thriving almost a century after they were created!

      Most bike types that were created almost a century ago. Racing bikes as we know them (with derailleurs and narrow tires) were developed in the 1930s. Modern cyclotouring bikes were developed around the same time as racing bikes… Track bikes are even older. Gravel bikes are really a throw-back to 1890s racing bikes, with sloping top tubes, wide tires, and a somewhat more upright position. I can think of only one new bike type developed during the last 80 years: mountain bikes. Apart from that, there has been some fine-tuning around the edges, but even the archaic chain drive continues to reign supreme more than a century after it became obsolete in cars, because it remains the best solution for bicycles.

      February 13, 2020 at 3:44 pm
      • Lawrence Vargas

        Thanks Jan, for the quick and informative response (I had no idea the first automobiles were driven by chain)!

        Something I forgot to mention earlier, is that I’d love to see a Rene Herse Decaleur for Alex Singer fillet brazed style stems!? It’s what I hope to build in the future, as I learn all I can in building my first bicycle. I know I wouldn’t be the only one who would love to see that!

        Thanks again!

        February 13, 2020 at 7:02 pm
  • Chris Kostman

    Why isn’t Mark Nobilette’s name proudly on the down tube? A bike with no name looks incomplete to me, and I find it somewhat offensive to not give credit where credit is due. Other than that, the bike is lovely.

    February 13, 2020 at 4:29 pm
    • Jan Heine

      Credit is gladly given to Mark, but the bike is not a Nobilette. If it carried his name, Mark would have built it differently. It’s a Rene Herse – using the ideas and aesthetic that Herse defined, updated for today. The logo on the down tube is there, just understated so it doesn’t always show in the photos.

      By the way, this bike isn’t unique in that way. Mark builds bikes for many names – almost all Zinns are made by him, and quite a few Rivendells came out of his workshop, too. He’s a master builder, and it’s to his credit that he could execute my vision of what a Rene Herse of today should look like.

      February 13, 2020 at 5:11 pm
  • Brendan

    How does the bump compliance, ride quality, and weight of your Nobilette made fork compare to the disc fork (I think I read was made by Waterford?) that is on your Firefly? I am curious for those of us that have disc only frames.

    February 13, 2020 at 5:39 pm
    • Jan Heine

      Hard to compare, since the Firefly’s 54 mm tires have 65% more air volume than the 42s of the Herse. That said, the steel disc fork of my Firefly absorbs shocks far better than all the carbon forks I’ve ridden on our BQ test bikes. The slender Kaisei ‘TOEI Special’ blades are in another league, though.

      February 13, 2020 at 10:07 pm
  • Jon Blum

    One issue I have encountered with a shorter-than-usual spindle is that front derailleurs won’t move far enough inboard to properly shift onto the smallest chainring. Several I tried were pretty clearly designed to work with only the specified chainline. I finally made an eccentric shim (in lieu of the supplied 28.6 to 31.8 mm concentric shim) out of soda can aluminum to move the derailleur one mm farther to the left, and that worked. Your rod-operated FD presumably solves this problem, but others trying to reduce the Q factor with a standard FD might run afoul of the problem I encountered if the spindle is too short.

    February 13, 2020 at 6:08 pm
  • Phik DeBry

    Man, why did you choose to have Mark build the frame instead of Peter Weigle, whose bike you road and really enjoyed.
    Could a common guy like me, end up with a bike like your new PBP bike without all your knowledge of bike design and custom parts.

    February 13, 2020 at 7:40 pm
    • Jan Heine

      I love my Weigle, and I love the Herse. Both are subtly different. As to being able to build a bike like that – that is one of the goals we have at Rene Herse Cycles: Rather than make complete bikes, we develop the parts needed to make bikes like these. We already offer not just brakes, cranks, handlebars and other ‘big’ components, but also the small details like fork crown, rack, and braze-ons for direct-mount centerpull brakes…

      February 13, 2020 at 10:10 pm
    • Steve Palincsar

      BQ 70 has a review of a cantilever-brake Crust Lightning Bolt that arguably is like Jan’s new Herse: 650B, thin-wall tubing, low trail, etc. and ride and handling all the reviewers liked, at a very common-guy price point. Is it a Herse? Not hardly. Built for modern components, so no Nivex rear or rod front derailleur or wheels built with Maxi-Car hubs and five speed freewheels, and no Herse-style pressed in bottom bracket bearings. But, in truth, were those things ever “common guy” components, even back when they were current production? There are a number of builders who make bikes like this, either semi-custom, that can be fitted with a wide range of contemporary components that can stand wheel-to-wheel with Jan’s Herse.

      February 14, 2020 at 8:28 am
      • Jan Heine

        Agreed. The Crust is exciting, because it takes care of the most difficult part – the frame. Of course, I’ll defend the custom builders here – having a beautiful, handmade tool brings a special joy, and for me, those beautiful lugs (or clean fillets) make a difference in how much I enjoy the bike. (To say nothing of the better alignment and generally higher quality of construction.) And yet, the Crust felt like a thinwall, low-trail randonneur bike, because that is what it is. I could do Paris-Brest-Paris on that.

        If you want to take that thought further, you can find slightly used parts for derailleurs, brakes, stem, seatpost, etc. at very low cost. You’d want to budget on high-quality (and high-performance) parts in areas that matter to you, maybe a low-Q crank with just the right gearing or a hand-built wheelset with a set of great tires. And then you’ll have a bike with a similar ride for a very reasonable outlay.

        February 14, 2020 at 9:04 am
  • Timothy Sharp

    Hi Jan, Can we have some more information on the Rene Herse Bottom Bracket please?

    February 14, 2020 at 12:40 am
    • Jan Heine

      That’ll be in a future post.

      February 14, 2020 at 8:46 am
      • Frédéric

        That kind of bottom bracket has a very pure look, I’m waiting for your post

        February 14, 2020 at 10:52 am
  • DaveS

    I can’t wait until the blog about the parts for this bike comes out, along with these parts being available on the Rene Herse website. I’m going to have Mark’s number on speed dial.

    I will also give a strong thumbs up for Mark. He has built a custom tandem (randonneur / touring style) for us and are quite happy how it turned out. Another suggestion for determining if a bicycle builder is good is to talk to the folks that paint bicycle frames for a living. They get to see the quality of the frame builds before it is covered in paint along with hearing the stories about how the build matched their expectations. From the stories I heard, it seem like custom bicycle builds don’t always match the vision.

    February 14, 2020 at 5:36 am
  • Andy Stow

    Am I correct to assume that the 1834 g is frame only, so add on the 862 for the fork? That makes just under 6 lb frame + fork. I want to build a lightweight randonneur without spending custom money, and there are many steel framesets out there at 7.5 to 8 pounds (Surly Midnight Special, VO Polyvalent or Pass Hunter.) Those are disc frames, but I know there are some non-disc steel frames floating around in that range.

    Should it be possible for me to build up a ~24 lb bike with all the same utility as yours from an off-the-shelf frameset? Or will modern headset sizing etc. make it impossible? Any suggestions for where to start? Or should I get on Nobilette’s list and go custom?

    All stock bikes are likely overbuilt for me. I’m about 160 lb with a goal of 170.

    February 14, 2020 at 8:32 am
    • Jan Heine

      The frame weight doesn’t include the fork. It’s about as light as you can get on a steel frame. However, I wouldn’t focus on the weight alone, but more on the flex characteristics. Most modern steel production bikes are far stiffer than most carbon bikes. If you like that, it’s great. And yet, many of the fastest, strongest riders prefer frames with a little more flex in the right places. We’ve found that to be more important than a pound of weight, even when climbing.

      But back to your original question, the Crust Lightning Bolt we tested in the current Bicycle Quarterly weighed 24.7 lb. It used high-end, superlight components, which make more of a difference in the weight than the frame, so it wouldn’t be inexpensive, but sub-25 lb production randonneur bikes are possible. And since that weight includes lights, fenders and a rack, it means that the ‘naked’ bike would be sub-20 lb.

      February 14, 2020 at 9:10 am
      • Andy Stow

        Thanks Jan. I see the canti frame Lightning Bolt is still available in my size. I was hoping to run Switchback Hill tires with fenders, but it looks like it will only handle those without fenders, and Babyshoe Pass with. Still, it looks so close to what I was looking for. I’ll have to re-read the article, as when my subscription arrived I wasn’t yet in the market.

        I’m currently running a Jamis Aurora Elite with 700C x 38 up front, 32 in back, fenders, racks, generator. It sits at a touch over 32 lb with no luggage. Being a touring frame, it’s really stiff. I’d love to experience “planing” so I could know if it gave me a significant speed boost for the same perceived effort.

        February 14, 2020 at 12:41 pm
    • John Duval

      I would suggest taking a look Black Mountin Cycles. They have the frames made to spec with thinner, smaller tubing than most, and each frame size is tuned accordingly. At a very reasonable (imported) price. That was my first experience with planing in a contemporary bike. I swapped the fork for a Soma low-trail. I would say the performance and weight is somewhere between my custom rigs from Rodriguez and Fitz.

      February 15, 2020 at 10:18 am
  • PStu

    Two questions:

    (1) Where does a power meter fit into this bike, or is that something you aren’t particularly interested in?

    (2) How does one get a sense of what the right flex is for a riding style, weight, power, etc. without investing in a series of bike purchases? I’m only 3 years into riding and still on my first good bike, and I have no way of knowing what I’m missing (if anything) with my bike. Maybe this is addressed in the BQ archives, but is there a sort of decision tree on how to think through this question?

    February 14, 2020 at 9:41 am
    • Jan Heine

      (1) Not particularly interested in a power meter. For training, I find that ‘perceived exertion’ works well enough. For general riding, I just enjoy the ebbs and flows of pedaling. For some BQ tests, a power meter is useful, but we use other bikes for that. In the future, pedals with power meters should make it easy to get power readings from any bike.

      (2) That is a tough one. I think it’s best to try as many bikes as you can.

      February 14, 2020 at 9:57 am

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