The Golden Age of Bicycle Book Writing

There´s books, big books and huge books, just as much as there´s passions, big passions and huge passions. If one meets the other, something really special is about to captivate the reader.

Jan Heine has been well known for publishing his controversial but well-founded views on cycling more or less since Aeolus Butterfly days. Gabe Konrad was among the first to discover the geologist who had brought a passion for cycling from Europe. With hindsight it was only logical that Jan would take over the stake when Gabe stopped On The Wheel, his second venture.

Already then Jan was writing about French cycling culture, with its rides, cycle makers and riders who in the thirties were to lay the foundations of a worldwide trend, and of what I think to be the most fascinating sport, randonneuring. Jan wrote about this exclusively in the first issues of what was then Vintage Bicycle Quarterly, which evolved into one of the most interesting and, I guess, the only independent cycling mag in the world, Bicycle Quarterly.

So Jan must be considered to be one of the world´s foremost experts on this matter, and developing a personal friendship with Lyli Herse, René´s daughter, of course helped hugely. Lyli having been one of the strongest woman riders of her time (her racing and touring carreer stretched well into that of Beryl Burton´s), and having started working at her father´s shop full time aged 14, she has a lot to tell about all aspects of cycling.

Lyli_HerseHere´s another picture of – well, not her, really, but of Robert Prestat and Lyli Herse – one of the most successful tandem couples of their time.


The story about Jan rediscovering the Herse family cycling photos in two suitcases in Lyli´s garage is already widely known. Many of these photos appear in his book, René Herse  The bikes – the Builders – the Riders which has been on the market for more than a year already. I can´t really say why I didn´t get and review it earlier, but then – better late than never.

Mise en page 1 But when I did get it at the beginning of this month, I really was amazed – so huge (nearly 3kg), so many photos, so much knowledgeable text, such a great layout.

Jan has the space to go back to the very beginning of Herse´s history as a technician which lay at the Bréguet Aircraft Factory in the late twenties. So the first picture of the book after the introductory words by Jan and – you guessed it – Lyli Herse dates from 1930 and shows the two French transatlantic pilots Costes and Bellonte in a big American car being driven through a snowstorm of waste paper floating through NY skies after their safe landing. The first chapter is titled On the Forefront of Technology, and what better picture to illustrate this than that showing the two hero pilots who were first to cross the Atlantic the “wrong way” with prevailing winds opposing them.

Little is known about Herse´s early days, but this start to the book explains more than blurred childhood pictures or still more blurred reminiscences ever could: Look here, there is a budding technician who at age 22 is good enough to work on the best plane in the world. And this is what Herse tried to transfer to the world of bicycles: The utmost quality possible, the latest design features, extreme light weight yet strong structures – they were the work of the former airplane technician, reversing history inasmuch as pioneer planes from before the First World War often were built and flown by former cyclists.

I have found another review on the net saying that more text would have been appreciated, but I ask myself where the info for that should have come from. The book is crammed with info about technical questions, about people, about French cycling culture, more often than not in side bar boxes giving info at the right time when it would have distracted from the plot of the running text. Plot – I know, a word used in describing fictional literature, but this definitively scientific book (using footnotes, giving a list of references in the end, and completed by an index) can be read like a novel – that´s how gripping it is.

It has of course the added attraction of describing a beautiful girl´s life story – starting with childhood snaps of Lyli with her Herse bike, seemingly the first her father made, and ending depicting her as a middle aged woman who is obviously rather content with her life´s achievements, despite having married late. This is stuff that could even move hardened novel readers to tears. Coming to think of it, the book could as well have born Lyli´s name.

And the pictures. The sheer volume of them makes taking in the book an adventure which can last for weeks.  I´m close to fainting when I imagine how long it must have taken to scan and process all those hundreds of old paper prints. There is a combination of the Herse family´s cycling photos, studio photography of surviving bicycles and other sources like contemporary newspaper ads and the reprint of a complete Herse catalogue with Rebour drawings. As readers of this blog will know, photography is not my forte, so saying that I adore most of the photographies in Jan´s book is not an expert´s opinion, but then, who is.


Camping_1980_profil There are always pictures accompanying the text which are special, look at this Osgear geared bike, for instance.

Andre_ChanteloupThis I found especially fitting as <SNEAK PREVIEW> I´m in the process of building up a 1938 Dürkopp pro frame with just such a device. Heaven knows when I´ll finish it, though.

As the reader tucks into the book it becomes increasingly clear that Jan has succeeded in repeating Herse´s feats in bicyle building, who produced not only frames, but also components of the highest quality. Jan´s achievement is in the field of writing books but looking at the result it becomes clear that René Herse sets standards not just as far as the frame of information is concerned, but also when considering the components like choice of photos and layout. His first two volumes were good, and have deservedly been translated into German, but the Herse tome tops them all. It may well herald a new golden age of bicycle book writing.


All of Jan´s books and BQ can be ordered from In Germany they are available at Maxime Verlag. Jan´s first two books as well as BQ can also be bought at M-Gineering in the Netherlands.

All photos in this review are courtesy of Jan Heine/Bicycle Quarterly Press.



  1. Alexander
    Posted December 28, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink | Reply

    Oder bei Sehr freundliche Besitzerin. Da hab ich meines her und man spart die Versandkosten und den Zoll

    • Posted December 28, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Alexanders says that also carries it – that´s what I had in mind when I wrote Maxime Verlag. It´s the same very friendly owner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s