Not A Museum Piece

Not A Museum Piece

When bikes are as stunningly beautiful as the machines from René Herse, Alex Singer and other French constructeurs, it is easy to dismiss them as “beauty queens” or “show bikes.” This would be a mistake: The performance of these bikes is as outstanding as their appearance. They confirm the old saying: “What looks right usually is right.”
When I first became interested in the bikes of René Herse and Alex Singer, collectors told me: “Yes, they are beautiful to look at, but they probably aren’t so great to ride.” As a rider, that dampened my interest in these machines. 

So imagine my surprise when I read Bernard Déon’s classic book Paris-Brest et Retour about the history of the famous 1200 km PBP randonneur event, and saw that these bikes had not only been ridden for that long distance, but ridden at incredible speeds. For example, Roger Baumann (above) completed the 1956 PBP, one of the windiest and rainiest ever, in 52:19 hours, riding completely unsupported.
Whatever the merits of the rider, his René Herse must have performed well to enable such a performance. I decided to find out more.
So I started experimenting, with the generous help of friends. For two seasons, I had two wonderful constructeur bikes in my garage: a 1952 René Herse 650B bike (above) and a 1954 Alex Singer 700C bike (photo at the top of the post). I started using these machines together with my brand-new custom bike.
One of the fastest riders at the Seattle International Randonneurs at that time was Kenneth Philbrick. He was training for the Furnace Creek 508 race. On his Campagnolo-equipped Litespeed, he could set a ferocious pace on the flats. We engaged in a little bit of friendly competition. Sometimes, we finished together, at others one of us would take the lead and finish alone.
Toward the end of the second season, Ken asked me during a ride: “How much does your new bike weight? It must be a lot heavier than the old ones, since you seem so much faster on the old bikes.” This surprised me, since the three bikes all weighed the same – about 26 pounds fully equipped.
Thinking about this, I realized that Ken was wrong about the weight, but right about the performance: Whenever I had ridden the new bike (above), he had dropped me. I sometimes had managed to catch him again when he got confused about navigation (his Litespeed did not allow him to keep the route sheet in sight), but there was no question that he was the stronger rider. However, when riding the Singer or the Herse, I had dropped him every time, and finished alone. It appeared that those bikes worked better for me.
Eight brevets are not enough to obtain statistically significant results, but a 100% correlation is interesting nonetheless. Combined with the better handling of the old bikes and the better shock absorption of their slim forks, I decided to get my own classic constructeur bike, and I bought the 1974 Alex Singer that I rode for many years. The trend continued to hold – my times during brevets improved on the classic machine.
Clearly, the old constructeurs knew what they were doing. It’s only been through our recent research into superlight tubing that we have been able to design bikes that, for us, surpass the performance of the old machines. But even now, the old machines offer a performance that few modern bikes can match. And we finally have tires again that perform as well as the hand-made clinchers the old randonneurs raved about.
Classic bikes are interesting, because the engine – the human body – has not changed over the last half-century. Modern materials may reduce the weight by a few percent (when you look at the entire system of bike-and-rider), but the things that really matter haven’t changed much over the years. The bikes that worked so well back then still work well now, and the “hottest” trend of the moment – wide, supple tires – is only a re-discovery of what these riders already knew more than half a century ago.

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Comments (46)

  • Paul Knopp

    Look at the average speeds in Classic races from the 30’s and ’40’s vs. today’s. The differences of 1-2 km/hr can probably be attributed to rough roads, bad hotel beds, and long train rides rather than bike weight. Also, heavier wheels go in a straight line which is ALWAYS the shortest path to the finish line. Perhaps the fact that bikes in those races also fit the rider is a factor.

    April 27, 2015 at 6:21 am
    • djconnel

      Actually the speed improvement is a lot more than 1-2 kph. There were three primary factors which increase speed: 1. In the early 1930’s derailleurs were introduced. That was a huge boost. But I recognize you’re referring to after this. 2. In the early 1990’s EPO was introduced. This was another big bump. 3. As drug testing improved aerodynamic wheels and other aerodynamic improvements like better fitting jerseys and, with race radios, more coherent team tactics took up some of the slack from reduced aerobic capacity. So speeds haven’t come down since the EPO peak.
      But everything else is a relatively small effect, including increasing cogs from 4 to 11, switching from 10+ kg steel bikes to 6-kg carbon fiber, and advancements in training.

      April 28, 2015 at 11:06 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        The story that deraileurs were a huge boost has often been repeated, but careful analysis in BQ showed that it made little difference. Tour de France speeds went up in the early 1930s, before derailleurs were allowed in 1937 or 1938. Actually, that year’s Tour saw a leveling off of the speed increase.
        One thing to remember is that racers don’t go all out all the time, so the average speed doesn’t tell you that much…

        April 28, 2015 at 2:45 pm
  • Greg

    One look at the quads on Ernest Csuka and you can see why that particular bike was fast!

    April 27, 2015 at 8:24 am
    • Don Genovese

      Yes, and he is NOT riding a 40mm tire as most of that era or not, other than the tandems. Nor is Baumann or any of the other bikes in the above photos. That’s what I have observed in the old photos. Just say’n.

      April 28, 2015 at 8:04 am
      • Matthew J

        Although I trust you will agree there has been a lot of advances in tire design and composition over the past 50 years.
        Certainly much more than steel bicycle manufacture.

        April 28, 2015 at 9:49 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I talked to François Marie of FMB, and he believes that tire tread materials are now a little better, but that the casings of 50 years ago actually were better than today’s…

          April 28, 2015 at 2:46 pm
      • Greg

        700 x 28 was VERY popular with many of the French randonneurs, back then.

        April 28, 2015 at 2:47 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Back then, France had two types of roads: recently built ones that were in excellent condition and really old ones. Most randonneur events used the main roads, since traffic was still relatively light. And since 28 mm tires FEEL faster on smooth roads, it made sense to use them rather than the old-fashioned wide 650B tires. To understand 650B, you have to go back to Vélocio and the 1920s and 1930s.

          April 28, 2015 at 5:18 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        The lure of narrower tires started a soon as the last technical trials were organized in 1949. That is also one of the reasons my old bikes don’t get ridden that much any longer. My Singer rides as well as you could expect of a bike with 32 mm tires and a standard Reynolds 531C tubeset, but compared to my new Herse with 42 mm tires and superlight tubing, I know which I prefer…

        April 28, 2015 at 2:48 pm
      • Matthew J

        Jan – 4/28/2:46 – If the reference is to the high end tubular of that era, makes sense. The gulf between the economies in the west and east likely made even the best silk readily affordable to the small hand made tire companies.
        Volume produced clinchers, however, were and remained junk until very recently – a trend you have no little part in fostering.

        April 29, 2015 at 6:04 am
    • Don Genovese

      Matthew – don’t trust me to agree to anything. 🙂
      Jan – thanks for your input. Always useful.

      April 28, 2015 at 5:02 pm
  • Ablejack Courtney

    Re Paul Knopp’s era comparison: We also see improved times and speeds for swimmers and runners. New records are set at every Olympics. Obviously this is not due to better equipment, they don’t really have any. Just as a top wrestler today would likely pin any wrestler from fifty years ago. It is the athlete getting considerably better that accounts for the difference. The athletes’ themselves have improved training. Also we cast a wider net to discover talented athletes at an early age to better focus them on their chosen discipline. Today, a gifted athlete like Jim Thorpe would not dominate so many different events. He would channel his efforts to one or two and record better results in those. We can see these results even in a sport that has lots of improved equipment like ice hockey. A fellow such as Sydney Crosby would clean up in the NHL of the 60s even if he were to use all the old equipment.

    April 27, 2015 at 9:35 am
    • B. Carfree

      It’s going to take quite a few years for the swimming records set in the now-banned buoyant suits to be broken. As limited as their equipment is, it can still make a significant difference among elite athletes.
      Now imagine today’s NBA players going up against the ’60s-era Celtics. There’s a sport without much equipment in play.

      April 28, 2015 at 4:02 pm
  • Vince Noe

    Yes i would like to tap into this type of bicycle as well. Is a custom the only way to go? If so could you tell me which frame builders do such work. Thanks

    April 27, 2015 at 10:32 am
  • Cynthia

    You said Roger Baumann rode PBP in 1956 unsupported. I think I see a wheel dynamo on his left chainstay, but can’t see a headlight. Would the flashlight have been attached to the front rack as a backup light even if he did have a dynamo light? And would he have carried batteries for it?

    April 27, 2015 at 3:07 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There is a small headlight on one side of the rack, and as you surmised, the flashlight was used when batteries were available, to eliminate the resistance of the dynamo.

      April 27, 2015 at 10:57 pm
  • Alex

    “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot
    I think it’s less a case of the constructeurs of the 30s – 50s knowing exactly what they were doing, and rather more a case of experimenting and change and development (albeit partly misguided) since then, and now returning to that which worked, because that which came after didn’t or doesn’t work (as well), for similar types of riding and roads.
    After all, the constructeurs, for example, didn’t have carbon, didn’t widely use aluminium as a frame material (or couldn’t? or felt it wouldn’t last?), and AFAIK didn’t try out narrow tires and discard the idea as being not worth pursuing. Pure conjecture on my part, but could it be that frame tubes initially were thin-walled to save weight, and the flexibility they provided was a benefit that was more accidental than intentional? Or did anyone, in the 50s, build four identical bikes, as the Compass team did, and blind test the benefits of thin-walled steel tubing?

    April 27, 2015 at 3:36 pm
  • Bill pustow

    To Vince’s question: No, in my opinion, it is not necessary to go custom. Boulder Bicycle sells their Waterford built rando bikes at a reasonable price. As Mike Kone explained to me when I ordered my custom Rene Herse ( expensive) it probably won’t ride nor handle better than an “off the rack” Boulder Bicycle (very reasonable) because they basically use the same tubes.

    April 27, 2015 at 3:55 pm
    • keiffer2015

      Thanks Bill, that’s helpful and useful info.

      April 28, 2015 at 9:23 am
  • David Zundel

    Can I come pet your bikes?
    I don’t recall seeing such a fetching photo of your Singer before.
    Somone could make an income with a petting museum for us with black lines in our finger tips.

    April 27, 2015 at 7:14 pm
  • Peter C

    In this article, and in the other fantastic black and white photos throughout Jan’s blog and in the Compass books, it always strikes me how utterly lean the riders are. Our modern diets perhaps do us no favours when it comes to riding long distances fast.

    April 27, 2015 at 8:18 pm
    • B. Carfree

      I don’t think the larger girth of people today has as much to do with our diet, although all that sugary snacks definitely play a role, as with our largely sedentary lifestyle. Look at the fact that most commutes to work are under three miles in the US, and yet they are almost exclusively done on motorized couches. That would have been quite unusual in the ’40s and ’50s. People who move their bodies just don’t tend to get as fat.
      Even people who ride a decent amount will have trouble overcoming a lifestyle that contains many six to ten hour stretches of immobility. There are sound metabolic reasons for this, but this isn’t the place for a dissertation on biochemistry.

      April 28, 2015 at 6:40 pm
  • teamdarb

    may double post…
    Frustrated to see that one has to be a tall fella to have such beautiful bikes. It pains me to bring forced on sloping top tube, long chain stay, short head tube, mountain bike ish frames. The struggles of the sub 28″ inseam’d 5’4 only in summer cyclist.
    Were or are there any frames that mimics those of larger size randonneur bikes for us travel challenged? Mixte bikes I do love and not consider sloping wilder beast.
    Wilson Wilson

    April 28, 2015 at 7:06 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Most of the old randonneur bikes are actually quite small… Frenchmen and -women of the 1940s and 1950s were much shorter than today.

      April 28, 2015 at 8:39 am
    • KT

      Very nice 50×52 Alex Singer on ebay if you are looking [NOT the seller ;)]

      April 28, 2015 at 11:22 am
      • Greg

        That one is a 52 c-t. Too large for teamdarb, I’d wager….

        April 28, 2015 at 3:04 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Japan has some interesting small bikes, since many riders, especially women, are quite small. We’ll probably do a feature on some very small bikes in the future. Some of them ride extremely well – unless it’s the riders who are incredibly skilled. (Unfortunately, I cannot test a bike with a 47 cm frame…)

          April 28, 2015 at 3:18 pm
      • teamdarb

        Yes, definitely on the large side for me. I use to ride a 48cm 520 and that got too tall on 700x35c tires. I’d be in for some tales from Japan considering the height of folks there.

        April 28, 2015 at 3:36 pm
    • Greg

      If you use wheels smaller than 700C, you can usually make a lugged road frame with a ‘normal’ (horizontal, non-sloping) top tube, even in very small sizes.
      In 700C, with wide tires and fender clearance, it is difficult to have a size under about 51 cm. center-to-top (depending on BB drop and ST angle) without sloping the top tube or grinding off the head lugs where they hit each other.

      April 28, 2015 at 2:55 pm
  • richdirector

    Reblogged this on Kite*Surf*Bike*Rambling and commented:
    The more i think about those old Herse Bikes the more i desire one …. interesting post this

    April 28, 2015 at 8:32 am
  • David Pearce

    It’s strange to me: I wouldn’t understand a person who said, “These bikes look good, but probably didn’t perform very well”.
    I think the bicycles we focus in on are one of the few but elegant “objets de virtu”, i.e., things like a beautiful antique silver table fork, beautiful to look at, yes, but made to be used, and with a design shaped by time until it fulfills its role perfectly. From my days as an antiques dealer, I came to love the jewelry sold by auction houses (Sotheby’s or Christie’s as examples) and also the useful objects sold in the same sales. And the catalogs are usually titled something like, “Fine Jewelry and Objets de virtu”. Jewelry is made for beauty alone, to draw the eye to it and admire its workmanship and quality, and has its place. But a candlestick, or a silver knife, or a cup or a glass can be both beautiful and useful at once.
    The bicycle is one of the best objects in our lives, whose form has been honed to perfection over time by trials and trails, which is beautiful in its utilitarian form. Not all useful objects are like that.

    April 28, 2015 at 9:12 am
    • Don Genovese

      “The bicycle is one of the best objects in our lives, whose form has been honed to perfection over time by trials and trails, which is beautiful in its utilitarian form.” Perfectly stated. Thank you.

      April 28, 2015 at 5:30 pm
  • Luis Bernhardt

    “Frenchmen and -women of the 1940s and 1950s were much shorter than today.” When considered with your earlier statement that ” the engine – the human body – has not changed over the last half-century.” you suggest that riders of the later 20th century are taller (and likely heavier and maybe even stronger) than riders of the earlier 20th century. I’ve often wondered if this would have some impact on the bicycle “standards” that have been in place since I started riding in the 70’s? I am 6’1″ (186 cm) and weigh 175 pounds, which I imagine would be taller and heavier than when 1″ headsets and BSC bottom brackets became standard. I see now BB30 and 1 1/8 tapering to 1 1/2″ headsets starting to emerge. I wonder if the old standards are now outdated? What do engineers think?

    April 28, 2015 at 11:16 am
    • Greg

      The one-inch threaded headset is NOT outdated (for single-person road bikes). The industry has only gone larger to standardize with mountain bikes, which is quite silly.

      April 28, 2015 at 2:58 pm
      • Jon Gehman

        Especially if the reason for Mountain Bikes to go to ever larger headsets is to prevent carbon headtubes from failing by spreading the loads over a greater area. I saw a number of frames fail that way and when I asked an engineer from one of the BIG 3 if that was one of the reasons for the increase in headset size he smiled and replied “One of the reasons?” When I asked if it wasn’t also to allow an increase in steerer tube stiffness, he asked me if I wouldn’t have expected there to have been some re-enforced steerers tried before increasing the size creating a whole new headset standard? Then he just grinned and changed the subject.
        1″ BMX headsets have no easier life than a suspended MTN. Bike but can manage to outlast multiple bottom brackets if kept clean, lubed and adjusted. At least the good ones with ball bearings in retainers and not the cartridge type. I don’t think many people require a larger than 1″ headset on a road single…

        April 29, 2015 at 11:29 am
      • Johan

        Jon, BMX bikes have LOOOOONG since dropped 1″ headsets of any kind (threaded or threadless). That antiquated technology was abandoned as soon as the lighter, cheaper, stronger, stiffer, more functional threadless headset emerged, so it has been nearly 20 years since BMX bikes sent that out to pasture.

        April 30, 2015 at 12:24 am
  • KT

    Rode my 1980 Singer on the medium route at the Caliornia L’Eroica and despite concerns crashing/damaging/devaluing it, found the ride to be most excellent, over dirt and asphalt roads. I’m sure many of the other participants felt the same way. Many extremely nice and older bikes being used as designed. Reminds me of the Vincent motorcycle enthusiasts I used to hang out with – definitely a split between front-room trophy bikes and those that were routinely ridden, often hundreds, if not thousands, of miles – to rally’s, shows, etc. I’m sure Phil Vincent and Rene Herse would agree that they are meant to be ridden! I can’t imagine spending 8, 9 or 10k on a custom road bike and parking it in the living room. But…to each his own.

    April 28, 2015 at 11:18 am
  • John Duval

    At 2 meters tall and lean at almost 100kg, the only way I was going to experience this type of bike is a full custom build. So I worked closely with Fitz Cycles and followed Jan’s preferences wherever possible. It is a true revelation compared to “modern” bikes in every way except aerodynamics. The last bike I had that was even comparable was a Peugeot sport touring bike from the 70s, flawed as it was, and every bike since then was an attempt to recapture that feeling.
    The fork is the key, I believe, while the rest makes it even better. If you look at aftermarket forks, they are standardized in terms of trail, and very interchangeable. Customers are paranoid to alter fork geometry for fear of ruining the assumed “highly optimized” handling of their bikes, and designers simply follow the de-facto standard. But the standard is highly questionable.
    As an engineer, I think the classic builders didn’t really understand the fundamental technology that made their bikes work so well. Even at my size and weight, a 1″ steerer and other traditional steel construction details are more than up to the task in terms of strength and flex. My new bike uses 1-1/8″ steerer simply because it was easier to get parts, but “modernizing” the details of a steel frame mostly adds weight with no real benefit. Once you get away from steel, what is optimal is not necessarily well established. Obviously, many of the changes have not improved bikes.

    April 28, 2015 at 2:56 pm
    • Greg

      Agreed! (I am a Mechanical Engineer, fwiw).
      Fitz’ frames are quite nice, from what I’ve seen. A local rider has one that was custom-built for him several years ago, and he put a lot of miles on it already.

      April 30, 2015 at 11:33 am
    • Drew

      One inch headsets are widely available still, thank goodness
      I have a 1985 Richey mt bike tandem that has a steel Tange 1″ headset. Lots of miles; zero problems, no maintenance. I suppose an overhaul with fresh grease would be a good idea. Once every 30 years, whether it needs it or not😀

      May 2, 2015 at 11:22 am
  • Neil

    Hi Jan,
    I found bicycle quarterly a few months ago and I love it. Most recently, I completed the Eroica ride in Paso Robles which was a blast. I am in the market for a randonneuring bike with thoughts of perhaps PBP in 4 years? I’ve got the bug.
    I’m in the bay area and deciding between the BDB pelican and the Ebisu from jitensha studios. Both of which BQ reviewed favorably. I’ve looked all over the internet and I can’t find anyone comparing the 2. Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you!

    April 28, 2015 at 6:37 pm
  • David Pearce

    You say Roger Baumann was “fast” in his win of the 1956 PBP, but you only cite a time, not a speed (No doubt he sure looks great, what with his tall, lean physique, and great shock of hair). But approximately how fast was he? I know it is difficult to calculate, because riders stop from time to time. I guess you could get pretty exact by recording exactly his road diary and the starts & stops noted on his Control Cards. I really don’t know the rules or the system, never having participated in a randonneur yet.
    But approximately, what was his average speed when he “competed in the 1956 PBP, one of the windiest and rainiest ever, in 52:19 hours, riding completely unsupported.”
    Or is time the best way of describing the PBP? In which case, who had the lowest time, and therefore presumably the fastest ride?

    April 28, 2015 at 8:00 pm
    • Jaakko

      Apparently he had:
      I’d say, time would be a valid way to compare, as the bike affects on how tired you get and how long will your stops have to be.

      April 30, 2015 at 4:46 am
    • Greg

      Roger’s average speed was 14.33 mph, but that is including stops, of course. I can’t do that for 750 miles! I probably can’t do that for 250 miles!

      April 30, 2015 at 11:38 am
  • Sebastian

    For those interested in an almost original state randonneur bicycle from back in the days, the collection of embacher will be auctioned in vienna:

    May 1, 2015 at 5:08 am

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