Books about bicycle history and classic bikes are easily misunderstood: Are they intended for bicycle collectors? Do you need to be an aficionado of René Herse to enjoy reading about him and his riders? Our books are written for readers who want to learn from and be inspired by cyclists passionate about our sport. It really is that simple, and it has little to do with the difference between first- and second-generation Huret Allvit derailleurs.
Of course, I am not opposed to collecting bicycles and bike parts. Without collectors, we’d have little information on how past bicycles were built and how they ride. Collectors have helped us make our books, because they saw a larger purpose in their collections. Old bikes can provide windows into a past that still has the power to inspire us. In other words, our books are less about the bikes than about the stories they tell:
Our first book, The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, features 50 of the most amazing bicycles ever built. Of course, amazing bikes come with amazing stories. Stories of rides so far out of the ordinary that they required extraordinary bikes. Stories of builders whose passion for the open road made them perfect their machines to a point that no longer was commercially reasonable. And stories of riders who loved riding so much that their exploits matched the exceptional bikes they rode.
We take you alongside Vélocio on the mountain passes that early-1900s racers considered insurmountable. Vélocio rigged up dual drivetrains, so that he could use one for the up-, the other for the downhills. Peek into the world of André Reiss, the builder of the amazing Reyhand bikes, who almost single-handedly invented the modern constructeur bike in the 1930s. See Alex and Maria Singer, dressed oh-so-stylishly, during a spirited winter ride in post-war Paris. Witness Jean Dejeans and Paulette Porthault flying during the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race (above).
Collectors also enjoy The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, since we made sure that each of the 50 bikes shown is as close as possible to its original specification (and we list parts that aren’t in an appendix). But to me, the passion of these bikes is not about their rarity or their individual components. It’s about the rides and friendships they inspired.
For our second book, we turned our attention to Competition Bicycles, but again, it’s not a book intended only for fans of racing bikes. The bikes tell stories of human adventures, like the contrast between Gino Bartali’s bike for the 1949 Tour de France – still stuck in the 1930s with long-trail geometry and a derailleur that only touched the chain when he shifted (below) – and Fausto Coppi’s machine for the same race, a thoroughly modern Bianchi that used derailleurs as we know them today. The bikes reflected these racers’ world-views. Examining them in detail, I understood why Italy was split between the urbane, modern fans of Coppi and the traditionalists who were devoted to Bartali. Most of the bikes in the book tell equally fascinating stories, having been ridden by famous champions.
The Competition Bicycle shows how modern performance bikes developed, from racing high-wheelers to Tony Rominger’s lugged steel Colnago hour record bike (which bridged the gap to the modern age with its carbon-fiber disc wheels). Competition is not limited to racing bikes, and some of the most captivating machines were built for the races of the Paris newspaper couriers, for mountain biking (Jacquie Phelan’s Cunningham), for the first Race Across America (with the then-fashionable aero components), and for Paris-Brest-Paris (which was a competition during the 1950s). Assembling and curating the incredibly rare machines for The Competition Bicycle was one of the biggest projects I’ve ever undertaken, but I think it was worth the effort.
Our biggest tome so far has been been René Herse: The Bikes • The Builder • The Riders. Again, some Herse aficionados were a bit disappointed, because we don’t dwell on when Herse went from pressed-in stem caps to screwed-in ones. Instead, the photos and text convey the passion that Herse and his riders felt not so much for their bikes, as exquisite as they were, but for the rides that these machines made possible.
Randonneuring, touring, or competitions like the Poly de Chanteloup (above) – for these riders, cycling was not just a pastime, it was a way of life.
Even the studio photos of the most amazing Herse bikes are not just for collectors. Anybody who enjoys beautiful bicycles will marvel at the elegant design and flawless execution of the machines made by the “magician of Levallois”.
It’s been especially gratifying that some of the most positive comments have come from readers who are anything but collectors. A friend’s wife enjoyed the book because of the stylish cycling clothes these riders wore. Others loved the tandeming couples shown in the historic photos.
Constance Winters summed it up in her blog, Lovely Bicycle:
“Although normally I am a fast reader, it took me weeks to get through René Herse. Not because it was hard-going (quite the opposite), but because it made me strangely excitable. In the process of reading it, I was given to sudden urges to jump up and pace the room at random. Other sections forced me to pause and mull over the information, even take notes. Far from a dry academic volume, it is a book that is thoroughly alive – bursting with stories, information and ideas.
“Nevertheless, if you are not the bookish type, be assured that it gives satisfaction also as a picture-book. The photos [are] as stunning in their variety as they are in their narrative qualities.”
You can read her full review here. “Bursting with stories, information and ideas” – I am happy that Constance was touched by the René Herse book in the same way as I was when I researched this amazing story.
Some day, I want to write a René Herse book for collectors. There is a wonderful story there, too, as Herse refined his bicycles in every detail until they were (almost) unimprovable. From Herse’s archives, we can trace which employee was building the frames during each period. We have good estimates of how many bikes Herse built each year. The different catalogues, order forms and other correspondence have an aesthetic quality that matches that of the bikes. It’ll be a neat book, but until then, we hope that all readers enjoy the passionate story of René Herse, his bikes and their riders. This story has little to do with bicycle collecting – it’s all about the beauty and joy that cycling brings to our lives. I hope it will inspire future generations as much as it has inspired me!
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