“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 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 on a bike equipped with his own components. Herse’s 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. The Trials 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
During the 1940s, the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race was the most popular cycling event 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 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: The Lightest Bike
Jean Desbois had started to work for René Herse during the 1940s, when Desbois still was a teenager. For a decade, he had 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 1980 Paris Bike Show, he presented the lightest bike of the show. It was a clear sign that René Herse still was leading the pack.
Health problems forced Desbois and Lyli Herse to close the famous shop in 1984. When the word spread, 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 shop finally closed.
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 visits, Lyli Herse asked him whether he was interested in continuing the Herse tradition. At the time, Jan was busy with Bicycle Quarterly and other pursuits, so he brokered a contract between Lyli Herse and Mike Kone of Colorado, who bought the René Herse brand and started to make René Herse bikes again.
A few years later, Compass Bicycles had been formed, and Jan wanted to re-introduce René Herse’s superb cranks and other components. He bought back the René Herse name and rights, so that René Herse components could be made again. Owning the René Herse brand is a privilege and also a responsibility. Jan works closely with René Herse’s daughter Lyli (shown on the left in 2016 with Jan on a 1946 tandem) to carry René Herse’s vision into the future.
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 of Compass Cycles.