If I had thought about it at all, which I hadn’t, I’m sure that I would have concluded that my book reporting days were over. Since it had been over forty years since I wrote the last one, you could even say that a precedence had been set. But I can’t help but smile as I sit down to write not one but two book reports! Who would have guessed that we’d be fortunate enough to have published in the year 2013 two books that I am excited enough about that I want to tell you about them. A good year indeed.
The first book is called Rene Herse: The Bikes, the Builder, the Riders and the text was written by Jan Heine. It is a big beautiful book with literally hundreds of wonderful photographs. Sadly, like many beautiful books, it is also expensive enough at $80.00 that many of us might not have jumped at purchasing a copy when it first came out. Don’t make that mistake, with the exception that the book is just too big and heavy to handle in the bath tub (my favorite place to read), nearly everything about this book makes it a perfect product deserving of your time, energy, and yes money.
For me the book got off to an emotional start with the dedication to Lyli Herse, Rene’s daughter and a personal hero of mine. Some of you who started cycling around the time I did, may remember seeing pictures of Lyli. A beautiful young French woman, always on a bike, with the caption almost always alluding to some new racing or sportif success. In the pictures she always seemed to be working hard but enjoying herself as well. We often make the statement that so and so “ looks good on the bike”. To me Lyli Herse always epitomized this statement. One photograph is burned into my memory, it shows her on what is clearly a huge climb, riding with her hands near the stem, clearly working hard on an all chrome bicycle. There is a small grin on her face. The caption identifies the climb and event and then says something to the effect of “ Lyli Herse on her way to establishing a new course record!” A record that still stands by the way. Lyli, who is still alive, also wrote the foreword for this book. It is a touching tribute to her parents, (her mother was also involved with the business) and she supplied many of the photographs from her personal collection.
For those of you not familiar with Rene Herse, most cycling scholars consider him one of the most influential and talented bicycle manufacturers of the classic era of cycling. He was active from approximately 1940 to his death in 1976 when Lyli and her husband Jean Desbois took over the business, they continued to build bikes under the Herse brand until 1986, when ill health, and advancing age forced them to close the shop. During this time they produced between five and six thousand bikes. The book starts with a brief account of Rene’s work experience and cycling enthusiasm and moves quickly to the point where he decides to build bicycles. Besides complete bicycles Herse also designed and manufactuered pedals, a beautiful crankset, stems, and an early version of cantilever brakeset. Pictures of early versions of each product are fascinating to compare to the more refined versions shown later in the book. Also interesting are descriptions of how some of the products were produced with relatively time consuming and primitive methods but with often astonishing results.
A considerable amount of space is given to the description of a unique series of events which took place in France called “Technical Trials”. The author makes a strong case that these trials starting in the mid thirties and running thru the mid fifties resulted in the refinement of the bicycle from its early forms to what we now know as the modern performance bicycle. In fact the author makes a strong case that the bicycles made by Herse were and are superior to much of what we ride today and then goes on thru accounts and pictures to make his argument of how this could be true.
And while there are plenty of “bike porn” pictures of Herse bikes many taken by Jean-Pierre Praderes who took the photos for “The Golden Age of Bicycles” relatively quickly we go to talking about people and the events that they took part in. I think Jan deserves particular credit for going out and getting first person commentary from participants, while they are still around. Certainly, there are records of placings for most of the events that are discussed, but first hand descriptions of how things transpired in an event make for a much more colorful and rich recounting. I quickly found myself being sucked into events that happened almost seventy-five years ago. I found the personal profiles of riders that rode for Herse sponsored teams particularly interesting. As was the re-counting of what took place in Paris during the German occupation during the Second World War. I would have guessed that no cycling would have taken place, but in fact a vibrant cycling scene seems to have existed.
On reflection there is one discordant note, Rene Herse is always referred to as a “constructeur” of cycletouring bicycles, and he certainly was that, however virtually all of the events and trials discussed in the book are races. There were winners and losers. Lyli Herse was eight time amateur champion of France. She was a bicycle racer, an excellent and elegant one perhaps, with the heart of a cycletourist but a racer none the less. The team that Herse supported was a racing team. Even when riding what we label as a randonneuring event such as Paris Brest Paris, it was ridden as a race. To have the fastest time, to win. Herse built racing bikes for bicycle racers. To deny this is futile. That the bikes would accept fenders and small front racks speaks more to the virtues of race bikes of this era, than it does making them into cycletouring bikes. Certainly it was amateur racing done for fun not money. To me this makes it better, and takes nothing away from the man who built the beautiful machines that allowed racers to win races, and why should it? And why are we afraid to say out loud, Rene Herse made beautiful, thoughtfull, and elegant bicycles that won races? Why are we pretending that he did something else?
Buy the book. It is a great book- clearly a labor of love on a wonderful virtually unwritten upon subject and era, a monumental project with a style and grace that I’m sure Rene would appreciate.
The second book that I’d like to report on is much more modest in its scope and ambitions. The book is called simply “Rebour” and is a collection of illustrations in pen and ink by the French illustrator Daniel Rebour. Authorship is claimed by Frank Berto and Rob Van Der Plas, though the only text is what I would call captions near the drawings, some of which are inaccurate, or editorialize needlessly.
For those of you not familiar with Daniel Rebour’s work he was a regular contributor to several French periodicals, often providing drawings of “best of show” kind of products from the Paris, London, and Milan bike shows. He also Illustrated catalogs for Rene Herse (one of which is shown in it’s entirety in the Rene Herse book), Alex Singer, Milremo, and provided some images for the Ron Kitching handbook, among other publications. Rebour’s style is ultra realistic and intended to provide a very real look and feel of an object, with black ink on white paper. I love Rebour’s work, but I was disappointed that there were no new images here. Arranged and formatted differently but all stuff I’d seen before. Coupled with the inane and offensive “captions” this is fifty bucks I wouldn’t spend again. If you already have previous publications of Rebour’s work such as The Data Book, I certainly can’t recommend you run out and purchase this book. If you don’t have those earlier books, I recommend you seek them out instead.
Reviews by W.D. Stevenson