Rene Herse: The Bikes, The Builder, The Riders by Jan Heine of Bicycle Quarterly Press (ISBN 976546023-6) is a big book in every sense. It is large, 12” x 9.5” and 2” thick (30 x 24 x 5 cm) and at 6 pounds, 3 ounces (2.8 kg) it weighs as much as a Rene Herse frame and fork!
Organizationally, the book has a forward by Lyli Herse, an Introduction followed by 17 chapters of content with black and white and colour photographs as well as catalogue reproductions.
The book is remarkable not merely as a biography but as an overview of the sociocultural context of Rene Herse’s work as a constructeur, examined in the context of the French experience of WW II as well as the post-War boom of cycling and especially of cyclotourism in France.
Herse got his start in the French aeronautical industry before WW II and he branched out into his own business making stems, cantilever brakes and cranksets just before the onset of the conflict. After the fall of France and the armistice which divided the country into Occupied and Vichy governed zones, cyclotourism was encouraged to maintain an illusion of normality. Since France was economically bled to pay for the Nazi Occupation, food and goods were scarce and bicycle trips to the countryside to barter for food became necessary. In this context, Herse began building bikes as many constucteurs were dead, moved to the Vichy zone or conscripted for “volunteer” labour in German war plants. He avoided this with a clever medical ruse and remained in Paris building bicycles and sheltering people fleeing the Nazis.
In the immediate Post War period, cycling revived quickly both for transportation and pleasure. The technical trials which drove the improvement of cyclotouring bicycles returned and Herse’s bikes were prominent and consistent winners. Herse made use of photography and beautiful Daniel Rebour catalogue drawings as well to promote his brand.
The book fulsomely describes the progress of the firm in the 1950s and 1960s, through the technical trials, PBP and racing successes until the early 1970s. The book places in context the decline of cycling in France with the advent of the Citroen 2CV and similar cars and examines the effects upon the business.
The riders who contributed to Herse’s success are also discussed including Rene and Marcelle’s daughter Lyli, a multiple Champion of France and tandemist at the Technical Trials. All of this prose is accompanied by beautiful period photographs with outstanding reproduction qualities.
Heine outlines as well, the end of the business brought about by Herse’s death, a shrinking market and the retirement of Lyli Herse and husband Jean Dubois in 1986.
The 423 pages of this book contain a clear narrative of business success, a comprehensive overview of the social and economic ebb and flow of cycling in the context of Post WW II France as well as an insightful discussion of the contributions made by the riders of the bikes Rene Herse so meticulously crafted. Interestingly, Herse’s influence lives on not just in the beautiful surviving bicycles but also in technical details. Crank bolt dimensions and water bottle braze on dimensions are both a current legacy of Rene Herse.
Heine’s efforts for this book have been exceptional. It is truly a “magnum opus” in content, presentation, accuracy and sheer physical presence. At $86 US, it has a price tag to match but its value exceeds its price and the book should be considered indispensable for anyone interested in cycling, randonneuring and beautiful bicycles. Highly recommended.