Friday, November 9, 2012

HOLY GRAILS: René Herse Restoration

Happy winter, everyone,
As we spend more time indoors, here are some photos of an exciting winter project I'm starting: refurbishing a 1975 René Herse randonneur bicycle. It's in nice original shape with most of the parts it left Herse's Paris shop with. It was built for my friend, lifelong cyclist and bicycle lover, Richard Payne (as was required by French law at the time, Dick's name and address are engraved in the stem cap; photo 4).

René Herse randonneur as photographed about 2004
Dick was still regularly riding his beloved Herse into his 85th year. It was passed on to me by his family who knew how close we were and that Dick would have wanted me to have it so that I could resuscitate it.

My goal is to bring it back as close as I can to how it was in 1975 when Dick purchased it. He kept the original order forms so I have a record of how it was equipped.

These randonneur or randonneuse bicycles were made for what we Americans sometimes call credit-card touring, where you carry lunch, a change of clothing and ride relatively long distances for the joy of it, continuing at night, in the rain, and only stopping at hotels to rest up for more pedaling adventures the next day.

Gracefully raked blades, elegant dropouts and marvelous Maxi-Car hubs
While I have never visited France or ridden there, of course I've seen the awesome terrain watching the Tour de France on television, and it makes it easy to appreciate how the French came up with this type of bicycle to enjoy it.

Route sheets and registration forms that Dick saved and are in the same file as the bike specifications, show that he toured in Tunisia on it, too, where he lived and worked as a teacher for decades before returning to his other home in Santa Cruz, California for his retirement.

I'm familiar with René Herse bicycles because I worked on a couple of his masterpieces over the years as a mechanic. But my appreciation for him and his work has piqued, and my knowledge grown immensely thanks to the writings of Jan Heine in his fine publication that covers randonneuring bicycles and builders old and new, Bicycle Quarterly. He covers new bicycles and technology, too, so there's something most cyclists will enjoy in every issue.

What's unique about these treasures is that the builder made the frameset and also crafted or designed many of the parts, such as the front rack, crankset, stem and small pieces. Before he became a master "constructeur," as these renowned bicycle builders were called, René Herse worked making airplane parts, so he brought expert machining skills and knowledge of engineering precision parts from ultralight materials to his bicycle building.

Also unique is that these bikes were made to be ridden long distances, carrying a small load in all conditions. And unlike the heavily laden long-distance tourists with front and rear panniers or even trailers crossing America or riding round the globe, these randonneuring bikes were made for performance riders who not only wanted to cover long distances, they enjoyed doing it in record time and there were even timed events and records to be had.

Dick's Herse has a magic ride. It's wonderfully smooth and stable and easily gets up to speed, and stays there. It looks heavy but it feels light and lively and you don't want to turn back once you're in the saddle; you want to keep riding.

Herse rack with built-in light, wire runs through rack
To carry the gear and handle all conditions, the bikes featured a front rack that supported an easily accessed large handlebar bag, a lighting system and full fenders. For reliability and durability, the fenders were metal and firmly attached so as not to loosen or rattle, and the shift and brake cables were internally routed for protection.

As an example of the painstaking effort put into designing and building this René Herse, it had a generator (dynamo) that attached to a precisely positioned threaded post brazed onto the left seatstay.

A dedicated Huret Jubilee down-tube style shift lever allowed you to turn on/off the generator moving it to rub against the rim or move away from it. (Without a photo to go by, it took me hours of experimentation with many different generators before I figured out how this worked - which will be the subject of a future post.)

There was probably a small seatstay light powered by this generator (it may have been on the fender instead). To power the front light, that you can see is integral to the front rack - the wire leaves the generator and goes into the hollow channel in the edge of the fender. It then exits the fender, goes into the left chainstay, through the bottom bracket, up the down tube where it makes contact with the head tube, I believe (I haven't taken the front end apart to investigate).

Meanwhile, the front light wire traveled through the hollow rack tube, exited the rack underneath the fender, traveled to the fork steerer and into it, where it attached to the contact brazed inside the steerer. To get the electricity to bridge from the steerer, which has to turn - to the stationary head tube, there is a carbon brush that always touches the steerer and causes no drag you can feel. Ingenious!

There are many other details to admire, such as the lovely lugs and bottom bracket, the arrow pump peg, the cable hanger built into the seat lug and the unique and stout dropouts. The right rear dropout actually includes a chain holder that acts as an extra freewheel cog so that you can shift onto it for wheel removal and your chain will remain in position as if a wheel was still in place. Herse thought of everything.

Enjoy the photos, and as I bring this incredible bicycle back, I'll post updates. Best of luck with your winter bicycle project, too!


Pointed lug tips, Herse sealed bottom bracket
Herse custom stem, engraved stem cap, integrated bell (I made this copy)
Hand lettering
Herse dropout, internal shift cable, peg holds rubber stay guard
Exceptional lugwork and crown
Stylish braze-on for internal cable routing
Another view of the cable port
Elegant pump peg, seat cluster and dedicated lever for generator
Look closely: that's a chain carrier on the inside of the dropout


djconnel said...

Very cool! I agree, it looks heavy and slow, but I know it's not. It would be interesting to see how much faster the race bike is uphill (I guess 2%).

djconnel said...

You probably get better rolling resistance from race tires, despite what Jan says, so I revise to 3%.

Jim Langley said...

Thanks, Dan. I'm going to try Jan's Grand Bois tires to see how they ride They also look more like the tires that would have come on this bike and will complement the fenders that I'll put on as I fix the bike up. These randonneur bikes had impressive fenders and I have the right set to install.

Thanks for the Low Key Hill Climb today on Soda Springs. That's a great climb, but I still haven't warmed up from the descent. Man, that was cold this morning coming down that after getting all sweaty riding to the top.

djconnel said...

Soda Springs was great. I was hugely relieved that came off so well. I got an email expressing concern about our plans from a local resident. The ride was completely legal under Santa Clara County Law (2011 Special Event Ordinance) but such subtlety doesn't necessarily stop locals from calling police, or worse, getting agro on "their" road. But instead people came out to watch, and we gave them coffee and donuts, which they gratefully accepted. If we do it again I'll ask permission first. So we're in the home stretch with the 2012 series. Fingers crossed. Every year I start to wonder if the people who say it can't be done are right, but every year it all works out.

Jim Langley said...

Almost, "lawschoolissoover" ... the generator is the correct one because it all comes apart and is made to be installed either with the clamp or separately onto the threaded braze-on I have on the seatstay. So, I figured out how to get it on the seatstay and even how to lock it at the right angle (with a 10mm nut installed first on the braze-on). The difficult part was figuring out how to attach the shift cable to the generator. I spent about 3 hours making a custom part that fits where the thumb lever used to fit. I think it's going to work but the cable may rub on the fender in which case I will need to modify my handmade part or spend hours making a different one. But, I do think the generator will work in the end, so thank you very much! It's a lot of fun figuring out how to replicate the parts that were on this bike back when it was made. This is an important piece of the puzzle.


Anonymous said...

Hmm. Perhaps a pulley of some kind? My parents' old 3-speeds had strap-on plastic pulleys that were actually used for routing the electrical connections for the lights, but something similar might work to guide the generator-activation cable...

Jim Langley said...

A pulley is an interesting idea. It would need to mount to the generator post as there's no other mounting point available. There isn't much extra space on that post, but it's still something for me to consider if the cable conflicts with the fender so thank you for the suggestion. I have now looked at dozens of photos of Rene Herse bicycles and still haven't found a single photos that shows how the cable attaches to the generator except ones showing that it goes through it. I am pretty sure I can get mine to work. But one day I am going to figure out how Herse did it and that's going to be satisfying. Thanks for the pulley idea! JIM