“They quickly made a name for themselves. René Herse was working very hard, but most of all, he just loved beautiful bicycles. When he was at an event, surrounded by gleaming machines, he was beaming.” (Paulette Porthault, one of René Herse’s first customers)
1930s: Technical Trials
René Herse entered the bicycle world with a splash at the 1938 Technical Trials. He rode for Narcisse, but his bike was equipped with Herse’s own components. This amazing bike weighed just 7.94 kg (17.5 lb), fully equipped with fenders, lights, racks and wide tires. The Technical Trials were epic events with the goal was to find the best bicycle. Points were awarded for light weight and desirable features. After the initial judging, the bikes had to prove themselves over hundreds of kilometers of rough mountain roads. Any defect incurred penalties. The bike with the most points won.
In 1938, René Herse’s bike came second – his Stronglight bottom bracket had developed play. From then on, Herse’s bikes always placed first or second in the Technical Trials. These challenging tests advanced bicycle design like no other event. Builders pioneered aluminum cranks, cartridge bearings in hubs and bottom brackets, cantilever brakes, and low-rider racks. The Trials showed that bicycles could combine light weight and performance with excellent reliability.
1940s: Poly de Chanteloup
The Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race was one of the most popular cycling events in France. Originally the Poly conceived as a test for different methods of changing gears. By the 1940s, the Poly had become a race over a challenging hillclimb course near Paris. More than 100,000 spectators turned out to watch professional racers, randonneurs, and mixed tandem teams climb the steep hill of Chanteloup, fly down descent of the Barbannerie, and then race along the Seine River to start their next lap.
Winning the Poly not only showed athletic prowess, but also the qualities of the bicycle. René Herse won the randonneur and tandem categories of the Poly more often than any other builder. Several times, Herse’s tandems set the fastest lap time, beating even the peloton of the professional racers.
Starting in 1891, the race from Paris to Brest and back captured the imagination of cyclists. To cover the 1200 kilometers (765 miles) non-stop, racers had to ride day and night. Neither wind nor rain could stop them. Even by the standards of the heroic age of cycling, Paris-Brest-Paris was a race of epic proportions.
By the 1950s, the pros had abandoned the long distances, but randonneurs were eager to take up the challenge. For some, the goal was simply to finish within the time limit, but at the front, the ride still resembled a race. The Challenge des Constructeurs was a prize awarded to the builder whose riders finished fastest. René Herse won it almost every time. The records set on René Herse’s bikes and tandems stood for decades.
1960s: Eight Times French Champion
Lyli, the daughter of René Herse, was one of the strongest female cyclists of all time. After setting record after record in randonneur events and in the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race, Lyli entered the ranks of women racers.
Over the next decade-and-a-half, Lyli Herse won no fewer than eight French championships before she retired from racing to work full-time in her father’s shop. To this day, she holds a number of course records, including fastest female time up the Puy de Dôme hillclimb that often figures in the Tour de France.
1970s: World Championships
After retiring from racing, Lyli Herse was approached by young racers who asked for training advice. Never one to do things half-heartedly, Lyli formed a racing team. She trained the young women, while her father equipped them with René Herse bikes. Lyli’s protégées continued her winning ways, racking up French and even two world championships.
René Herse died in 1974, the same year that Geneviève Gambillon won the worlds in Montreal. Herse left his shop to Lyli and her husband, Jean Desbois, who was Herse’s best framebuilder. They continued to build René Herse bikes, carefully updating them to keep up with the times.
1980s: Superlight Bikes
Jean Desbois had started to work for René Herse during the 1940s, when Desbois still was a teenager. For a decade, he honed his skills with Herse, before taking a job in a precision machine shop. Desbois returned to Herse in the early 1970s, where he immediately took over the framebuilding operation once again.
At the 1981 Paris Bike Show, Desbois presented a superlight bike. The frame was filled-brazed from Reynolds 753 tubing, a material that was very light, but notoriously difficult to braze without lugs. Desbois was one of the few who even attempted to build a bike like this. It was a clear sign that René Herse was still leading the pack.
Health problems forced Desbois and Lyli Herse to close Cycles René Herse in 1986. When the word spread that the famous shop was closing, faithful customers rushed to order what they thought would be the last René Herses ever made. Desbois had to work an additional two years to fill these orders, before the last bike finally was delivered to its new owner.
2000s: Rebirth of Cycles René Herse
During the early 2000s, Jan Heine became a friend of Lyli Herse and Jean Desbois. He researched the history of René Herse and learned from Desbois about the secrets of making René Herse bikes and components.
During one of Jan’s frequent visits, Lyli Herse asked him whether he was interested in continuing the Herse tradition, since she did not have children of her own. She felt that she, Jean Desbois and the old riders and employees of René Herse had transmitted the knowledge and passion needed to carry René Herse into the future.
I was not yet ready to take on that responsibility, so I brokered a deal between Lyli and my friend Mike Kone to take over the name, while I bought the remaining tools, documents and other physical assets of the company. Mike made Rene Herse bikes in Colorado for a few years, before the brand reverted to me. That is how Rene Herse Cycles was reborn in the Cascade Mountains. Inspired by Herse’s famous originals, we developed cranks and brakes that are ultralight and offer excellent performance.
Owning the Rene Herse brand is a privilege and also a responsibility. Jan worked closely with René Herse’s daughter Lyli (on the left with Jan in 2016) to carry René Herse’s vision into the future. Compass Cycles develops and manufactures components based on René Herse’s ideas, made to the highest quality standards that René Herse was famous for.
Read more about the fascinating story of René Herse and the cycling culture that surrounded him in Bicycle Quarterly Press’ lavishly illustrated book: René Herse: The Bikes • The Builder • The Riders.
René Herse® is a registered trademark.