People who inspire us: the Bruce family

Now is a good time to think about the people who’ve inspired us. It’s a good time to show that cycling can be welcoming of non-whites. It’s a good time to listen to other voices. They have good stories to tell!

The Bruce family from Chicago were good friends (and customers) of the Herse family. The entire family and some friends came to France in the 1960s and rode to Lourdes. Above they are shown at the finish of their long tour. All had Rene Herse bikes. Lyli Herse recalled: “They were doctors, and their four children all had bikes from us, too.” The Bruces invited Lyli to Chicago, where they took her photo on the shores of Lake Michigan.

René Herse had many American customers during the 1960s, but it was the Bruce family that was featured in an advertising photo with the caption: “A beautiful American family on the road to Lourdes.” I’ll dig up that advertisement (as well as the photo of Lyli in Chicago) and share them at a later date.

13 Responses to People who inspire us: the Bruce family

  1. César June 7, 2020 at 1:54 am #

    Thanks Jan for another inspiring entry.

    I love those kids bikes. As a father of three, I find it so disappointing the abysmal quality of most kid’s bikes sold today. I recall your article in BQ about Islabikes, really an “isla” in the world of quality children bikes. I only wish my kids could just enjoy a René Herse just like those the Bruces are enjoying, but alas, they’ve got to do with the best I could find and restore. Fortunately I’ve teach then to appreciate qualities and love cycling above all.

    By the way, do you know which wheel size are the kids bikes running? 600A? Thank you!

  2. Samuel McCune June 7, 2020 at 7:20 am #

    Hi Jan, I am really excited to hear their story! I hope you are able to dig in and tell black and brown cyclist’s stories the way you have begun to tell the story of women cyclists in France in so many other BQ articles. I appreciate your ability to dig deep into the past by talking to people and finding the right archival materials. We need to see and hear about cyclists of color from the past and the present to insure a better future.

    • Jan Heine June 7, 2020 at 11:31 am #

      The cycling industry and media often ignore the best stories, because they’ve been focused on (male) road racing for so long. Mountain biking was the first that didn’t have that baggage and recognized women as equals. Jacquie Phelan and Julie Furtado were as famous as Ned Overend or John Tomac. Gravel and adventure racing are going in the same direction, with Lael Wilcox and Amity Rockwell standing on equal footing with the likes of Ted King and Sofiane Sehili. Cyclotouring and randonneuring have always been more inclusive.

      With Natsuko as the editor of Bicycle Quarterly – she selects the stories and does most of the work – you can be sure that there will be more non-male and non-white voices in the magazine. It’s been fun to see the words and photos of Lael, Rue Kaladyte, Karen Yung, Donalrey Nieva, Eigo Shimojo and many others in the BQ. There is more to come – it’s not like there aren’t exciting stories out there, once you look a bit beyond the mainstream.

      • anthony Joseph Sands June 8, 2020 at 12:36 pm #

        Don’t forget about Tinker!

        • Jan Heine June 8, 2020 at 2:16 pm #

          Nobody’ll ever forget Tinker!

          • anthony Joseph Sands June 8, 2020 at 4:21 pm #

            Yeah! I didn’t think anyone would. That Photo in the post is so good! The shoes, The socks, The Bikes, The Clothes, The Happy People!

            Love It. AJS

  3. Derek June 7, 2020 at 8:13 am #

    Chicago is close to home for me and I absolutely love this post.

  4. W. STICK June 7, 2020 at 7:53 pm #

    First comment ever.

    Since seeing the same photo from da Rene Herse book, I have always wanted a full article about Famalia de Bruce.

    What was it like being in a black cycling family in those times? What do the kids remember? Did they pass on the spirit of cycling to their kids? Where o where are the bikes? Why are the French so open to black America? (Major Taylor, Nina Simone etc..) How did they wisely know to go and get a flipping family flock of world class R. Herse cycles?

    I would love an interview and perhaps they have some sweet family photos of their cycling exploits they would be willing to share.

    Fist in the Air Emoji

    • Jan Heine June 7, 2020 at 8:11 pm #

      We’d love to know more, too. Lyli Herse remembered them fondly, but didn’t have any contact information. Apart from their last name (which is common) and their city (which is large), we have little to go by. We’ve asked a few of the old cyclotourists in the Clifford Graves group who rode Rene Herse and Alex Singer bikes, but to no avail. Maybe a reader can help? It’s a small world, so there’s hope…

      • John C. Wilson June 8, 2020 at 5:24 am #

        In Chicago and working on it. Intrigued because I have memory of the smaller child size RH at Oscar Wastyn’s bike shop. Most of those who would know have passed on. Only real continuity comes from the racing fraternity.

        Any idea which end of the 60s these bikes were? Different leads to follow if this was early or late.

        • Jan Heine June 8, 2020 at 8:37 am #

          Thank you for taking the initiative! This is very exciting. Wastyn’s shop is a good starting point! I looked through the information we have, and here is what I came up with:

          They started riding on Herse bikes in 1960. I checked the Rene Herse production records, and two Bruce bikes were built in 1960, as one of the first orders from the United States. They have consecutive numbers, so I assume they are the couple’s bikes. There’s another bike for Kathie Bruce in late 1960. It’s unusual to see first names in the records. Usually for couples, it just says ‘homme’ and ‘dame’ even though the women’s bikes rarely were mixtes. This may indicate that the Bruces in question had more than two cyclists on Herses. This gives us a first name, too.

          One of the Bruce’s bikes was back for repairs in 1961, but it didn’t get a new number, so the repairs must have been small. However, it indicates that they came to France again. At the same time, there’s a kid’s bike built for Bruce.

          Another Bruce bike appears in 1962, but we don’t know if it’s the same family. It came back for repairs in 1970, indicating that they were still riding. We’re missing a few years of records during the 60s…

          In 1970, there are two more bikes for Bruce, but they aren’t consecutive. One is marked ‘Bruce, Kati’ – different spelling – one more indication that they are still riding. The first bike of Kati (Kathie) is back for repairs that year. It’s marked ‘Presse’ now – perhaps it was converted to a porteur as a city bike. At the same time, the 1962 bike is back again, as well as the very first Bruce bike from 1960. It was common back then to overhaul bikes and equip them with the newest components. The frames rarely wore out, so many Herses (and Singers) had multiple incarnations.

          In 1971, we have a repair for the 1961 kid’s bike from Bruce. That is the last record I can find for them, but at that point, orders from the U.S. had almost dried up. So it looks like the Bruces rode all through the 1960s and early 1970s – basically spanning the entire time the Herse shop made bikes for American customers. They were among the first and last to be in the order books. We also know that Lyli visited them in 1965.

          Back then, ordering a bike required coming to the Herse shop, and repairs also meant bringing the bike in person. (Shipping bikes wasn’t common back then.) So it appears that the family made multiple trips to France, which explains why Lyli knew them better and remembered them more than any other American customers, except Dr. Clifford Graves, who ran the International Bicycle Touring Society and organized youth hostel tours for young Americans that included the purchase of a Rene Herse.

          Anyhow, it’s likely that a family of so many people cycling for that long left a trace in Chicago. Plus we know that one of them was named Kati or Kathi or, more likely, Cathy. Good luck in your hunt, and we’re excited to see what you’ll find!

  5. Vince June 9, 2020 at 2:18 am #

    “Pressé” means “hurry” in French (and of course “presse” (without accent) means “press” ).

    I reckon this mention was linked to the fact that the work on the bike needed to be prioritized. Which would not be surprising given they came from the USA and had limited time available in Paris.

    • Jan Heine June 9, 2020 at 8:11 am #

      That’s an interesting idea, but it’s unlikely. Madame Herse was meticulous in her spelling. Most of the records are just names – these are not the build sheets, but lists of orders. The only time an identifier was added was when there could be confusion because more than one bike was on order with the same last name. Usually it was a couple, so we have ‘Homme’ and ‘Dame,’ or in the case of racers, ‘course’ and ‘piste.’ For show bikes, we have the names that you see in the catalogues, like ‘Mont-Faron,’ ‘Diagonale’ and “Paris-Brest.’ For the Bruces, we also see ‘Enfant.’ There’s never an indication of anything else about the bikes. I wish the build sheets survived, but with about 6,000 bikes built in 48 years, that would be a lot of paper. The shop moved three times, and only the important (tax-related) paperwork made it to the end. We’re lucky to have what we have…