Interview with Bicycle Quarterly’s Jan Heine

bicycle quarterlyMaybe it’s easier to say what Bicycle Quarterly isn’t. It isn’t the magazine that grabs your attention from the center of the news rack. Black and white photos, line drawings, and lots of carefully chosen words fill each page. It’s not a place to read about gap jumping, or to get an overview of the bikes that are hot this week. Part anthropology journal, part engineering text, BQ examines bicycles from 1930’s classics to modern handbuilts. It’s retro but not nostalgia, intelligent but not stuffy. It’s not something you thumb through once and throw away—each issue is printed on coated card stock, made to archive and re-read for years to come.

Most of the words in each issue come from the pen of one man. He’s written two glossy picture books full of magnificent old road bikes. His best bike is older than your father. And his ideas may influence your next road bike, or ‘cross bike, or even your next mountain bike. He’s the most important cycling journalist you’ve never heard of. Meet Jan Heine.

BT: How does a man with degrees in geology, geography, and mathematics come to publish a magazine like Bicycle Quarterly?

JH: Well, I was lucky to get a really good education, so my skills apply to the magazine as well. It was like many serendipitous career changes. I started Bicycle Quarterly as Vintage Bicycle Quarterly, as a hobby, and it became so big that I had to decide whether I wanted to continue doing that fulltime or stop it altogether, and I decided to continue fulltime.

BT: It looks like such a labor of love.

JH: Well, it is. The pay isn’t that great, but many other jobs don’t get paid that great either.

Jan HeineBT: What languages are you fluent in?

JH: I am originally German and then learned English. I do speak French, too, and a little Spanish. And I forgot most of the Latin I learned in high school.

BT: Yeah, I noticed that some of the interviews in BQ say that you translated the interview from French. What are your goals for Bicycle Quarterly?

JH: We don’t really have sales goals or anything like that. Obviously I need to make a living, but beyond that, my goals are to provide a quality publication that people want to read. The greatest satisfaction comes from readers’ feedback. One person wrote, “Bicycle Quarterly has changed the way my wife and I are enjoying bicycling.” That made all the hard work worthwhile right there.

BT: I subscribed when I realized that [engineer] Frank Berto was writing for you. It’s just great to see his sort of analysis applied to bicycles.

JH: I think we have three groups of reader—which of course overlap a lot. We have the people who are interested in the history mostly. Not so much in the nuts and bolts, but more, how does it all tie together? Why are bicycles today in the shape they are? You look at an old photo and you may think: “This is all wrong: this racer has narrow handlebars and the wrong gearing and this and that.” But when you put yourself in the position of that racer and the then-current way of thinking, it all makes sense. The narrow handlebars worked well with the low-trail geometries of the day, which in turn are ideal for rough roads and long distances. Riders sprinted sitting in the saddle, rather than standing up, so they could spin their low gears. And so on. I think that is a fascinating story.

Another group is just fascinated by the real-road riding; people who aren’t into racing, but who want to explore on their bikes. People ask: “Why do you want to stop just because the pavement stops?” And the third group is the group you mentioned which are the people with the technical interest. There is not much technical analysis done elsewhere.

BT: No, and what there is seems badly tainted by advertiser bias.

JH: Yeah, or in some cases, people have really good intentions but they don’t know how to do a good study.

Anyhow, those three groups are our audience, and it is also the key to the success of the magazine that we have something for all of them. I don’t think that one group alone can support the magazine.

BT: You’ve recently published a book called The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles. Can you tell us a little about it?

JH: The book charts the history of a phenomenon in France called the “constructeurs,” who built what you could consider the most expensive, most advanced bikes of all time. They were not just framebuilders as we see them all over the world, but they were building integrated bikes where everything was conceived as a unit. It was not a frame, a fork and components and accessories to make a fully equipped city or randonneur bike, for example, but more like a modern car where you don’t buy the lights and bolt them on after you buy the car, you get a complete package. As a result, the “constructeur” bikes were pretty amazing machines: they were very light, well-performing, very reliable. For example, they used cartridge bearings in hubs and bottom brackets in the 1930s and ’40s. They were also incredibly expensive, but it was a time when bicycles were a status symbol in France, just after the war, when most people couldn’t afford a car. So if you were a business owner or somebody who really wanted to show that they had made it in life, you got a very expensive bike. And it wasn’t a racing bike because racing at the time was a working-class sport. Racers rode basically cobbled-together bikes, with brake cables attached with handlebar tape.

BT: I’ve seen those old photos. The riders look more like boxers.

JH: Yeah, that’s a good comparison. Anyhow, for real-world riding, you can’t really beat these randonneur bikes with fenders and custom light mounts, beautifully integrated into the whole. I can see that happening again in the future because of issues with climate change and other environmental concerns. I think the car may be replaced as a status symbol. Already here in Seattle, a Toyota Prius is in many cases more of a status symbol than an Aston Martin.

BT: It’s becoming the same here in Atlanta.

JH: Yeah, so I can see ten years from now a bicycle can be the ultimate status symbol, and I think the racing bike and to some degree the mountain bike. There are people who ride to work on a racing bike and that’s no problem. But when you look at cars, they only became mainstream when they became easy to use.

BT: Yeah, when you could use one to go to the market.

JH: Exactly. You buy a Porsche today, you can take it to the racetrack if you want and at the same time it’s fully equipped to drive to the office, you can get groceries on the way home, you can even take your girlfriend or wife to a resort, you can do all those functions in one car. On a racing bike, where are you going to put the groceries?

BT: Yeah, pretty much you carry what you can put in the back pockets of your jersey and nothing else.

JH: Our book charts bikes that might be considered the equivalent of a Gran Turismo sports car. I am lucky to work with a photographer, Jean-Pierre Pradères, who specializes in doing motorbike photography. [Pradères’ work is included in the Guggenheim Museum’s book, The Art of the Motorcycle.]

Jan Heine

BT: You’ve used the term “randonneuring” a couple of times. How about giving us an overview of what it is?

JH: Randonneuring—I would call it semi-competitive long-distance riding, a sport where you ride over a set course, and you have a time limit. It’s unsupported. You check in at certain control points, often gas stations where you can also procure some food, to show that you’ve done the whole course and you get a medal at the end if you’ve finished it within the time limit, which is generous, but you still need to keep moving. I don’t know what the limit is. I think for a 400km/250 mile ride it is about 20 hours or so.

BT: You said “unsupported.” In a recent piece in BQ [“Paris-Brest-Paris: 44 Hours of an Extraordinay Marathon,” vol. 6 #1], you interviewed the man who was aiming for 40 hours in the Paris-Brest-Paris and he told about his experience. He actually had support from his sponsor. They would bring out the food, set up a table, and all he would have to do was sit down and eat. Does that count or not?

JH: It does, because what happens is that in theory you are allowed to have support at all the control points. In practice in the U.S. you usually don’t, and even in Paris-Brest-Paris they allowed support at the controls only because it was difficult to police the issue. The locals would have their friends show up and hand them food. So when someone was not from the region, they would have a distinct disadvantage, having to procure their own stuff. It’s one of those borderlines. It’s just like the semi-competitiveness, because in theory it’s a non-competitive sport, but you have a time limit. That is the first competition: you split the riders between those who make it and those who don’t. Beyond that there is still a certain prestige attached to setting a fast time.

BT: And cyclists are competitive by nature.

JH: I don’t think it’s unhealthy either, but the important thing is that there is not one winner and everybody else is a loser, but everybody who finishes is a winner and then there are some faster winners than others. One of the reasons I got out of racing was that you would be in the breakaway with one or two other guys and all of a sudden you’d be thinking, “These guys have worked just as hard as I have, they should win too.” And of course with that attitude you don’t get very far in racing.

BT: I understand that you ordered a new bicycle by [legendary handmade brand] René Herse?

JH: No, not yet. I have to see it first. The thing is I am very lucky. I get to test a lot bikes for Bicycle Quarterly so it’s pretty easy to form preferences, and I think if I test one of his bikes and if it’s as good as the old ones, then yes, it’s probably going to be on my to-do list. Even though it is a bit difficult for a magazine editor, because what you ride becomes almost like advertising. Ideally I wouldn’t have any bikes, I would just ride test bikes.

BT: If you were to order this bike, would it reflect the same sort of component choices as your current one, like the TA cranks and friction shifting?

JH: I would think so. I would probably try to combine the best of all eras. Certainly there have been humongous improvements in some areas for bicycles: the modern generator hubs come to mind. You read in the magazines of 1950’s, “When will we finally get generator hubs?” They had to wait for 50 years.

Clipless pedals are another thing that I myself wouldn’t want to miss. I know that some people are perfectly happy with toe straps but I get numb feet after a long ride.

BT: I can’t even flip the pedal over to get my feet in the straps, anymore. It’s like my foot has forgotten how.

JH: But as far as the shifting goes, it’s not really the main function of the bike. You shift only once in a while and most systems allow the gear to engage quickly—some quicker than others. And I’m actually one of those people who prefer the very direct connection of friction shifting over systems where it takes half a second until something happens because the Hyperglide ramp has to align with the chain.

BT: Yeah, it takes as much as a full revolution of the cassette.

JH: But in the end to me those are peripheral things. I’ve ridden bikes with [Campagnolo] Ergopower, with [Shimano] STI, and it’s never bothered me much. More important would be wide tires, because you don’t give up anything on the road and it just opens up a whole bunch of places you can go. I see very few people using the most beautiful roads because the mountain bikers tend to go on more technical terrain and the road bike riders stick to the main roads, which have smoother pavement. Especially around here in Seattle, once you get into the mountains, there are a lot of old roads that are semi-abandoned. Once you are able to take some dirt in too, you open up a whole range of roads where very few people ever go. For example, just about a year ago I went up to the Cascades and there is a pass called Stevens Pass, 67 miles from here. Usually cyclists pick the main road, which is not that pleasant. I managed to get up there with only five miles on the main road. I was on back roads and dirt roads and it took all day instead of six hours, but it was just a wonderful experience.

BT: You used to be a cyclocrosser and a road racer. How did you make the switch from “1 hour plus 1 lap” to 750 miles of Paris-Brest-Paris?

JH: I’ve always liked long distances because I’ve always wondered what was over the next hill. So even when I just started cycling in my teens in Germany, I often took a weekend where I rode halfway across Germany to visit a friend on Friday (skipping a few classes in college), then stayed Saturday, and rode back on Sunday. So for me the exploring always has been a major part of bicycling. So a criterium race never held much interest to me because after the first lap you know the road. Even when I was road racing, I picked the longer stage races and randonneuring was just a natural progression from there.

I really enjoy the excitement of racing, the strenuous effort in cyclocross. I loved the technique of ‘cross; it was almost like ballet or gymnastics, where it wasn’t so much how hard you could push on the pedals but how well you could coordinate all your movements.

BT: I love to go to the ‘cross races, stand at the highest barrier and watch the guys who are really smooth. It’s like water flowing.

You rode Paris-Brest-Paris on a ’48 Herse did you not?

JH: Actually it was a ’46. We were the fastest mixed tandem that year, but we were three hours off the record pace.

BT: What did you prove by riding an old bike?

JH: We were not trying to prove anything. We wanted performance on a tandem and we wanted the best tandem for the job. The ’46 Herse tandem was the best for the job. I had ridden about a dozen tandems for quite some distances. And this one was the best, so it was an obvious choice.

BT: Is this one of your personal bikes?

JH: Yes. The most amazing thing is how it rides. My stoker said she was more comfortable on the back of the tandem with no suspension for 1200km than she was on her single bike during a 600km ride. At the front it was like riding a single bike with extra horsepower. I never even had to think about the stoker. The geometry was so good I could ride no hands if I wanted to, and we could stand out of the saddle in the peloton without veering to the right or the left. It’s a remarkable machine.

BT: It’s amazing. I’ve got a high quality tandem of my own, and I still have to keep one hand on the bars, and my stoker uses a suspension seatpost.

JH: Well, this bike has 650B by 38mm tires. And you know at 75psi there is a lot of cushion there.

BT: What is an innovation that has not been made that you see a need for? I guess that is kind of an amorphous question…

JH: Hard to predict the future. I think where there is a need is to make the bike more user-friendly, less maintenance-intensive. Ten years ago I would have said we need better lights and not lights where you have to recharge them every five hours. Since then, we have seen so much progress that I am pretty happy right now. So I have to pass on that question. And years from now, I will see something new, and I will say, “of course we needed that.”

rene herse

A 1950s René Herse randonneur bike designed for riding on smooth and rough roads, even gravel. Photo by Jean-Pierre Pradéres, Vintage Bicycle Press.

BT: What is it that makes the René Herse and Alex Singer bikes so special?

JH: There are a few things. First the whole concept of the randonneur bike, especially the big tires, is something that is just so appealing to me; and the type of riding that I describe. I love the speed of a racing bike, I love the handling, to be able to dive into turns, but I also like the versatility of the off-road or off-pavement capability. I like the versatility of fenders and racks so I can get groceries on the way back home. And these randonneur bikes do combine the two. Our tests have found the wider tires are not much slower, so on the road you can go as fast as a racing bike. So you get a bike that is sort of like that Porsche that I was describing earlier, that can hold its own on the race track and still allows you to do all kinds of things with it that a Formula 1 race car would not be able to do. And especially because the engine is always the same, it’s not like you’re giving up a lot.

What makes these French bikes so special is that, because they were conceived as a unit, everything works together, you don’t have a fender that is rattling because the bolt is not quite perfect or you had to bend the bracket one way or the other. The fender has no brackets; it’s all attached directly to braze-ons. The racks were custom made for the frame, so there is no slider to come loose, and very little flex. It’s just a rack that will only fit your frame and no other. And you also save a lot of weight because all those extra bolts weigh quite a lot.

BT: Exactly; all those U-bolts.

JH: And so the two best ones in France were René Herse and Alex Singer. They were more expensive but you bought more precision. You bought custom bottom brackets with cartridge bearings; and I have ridden bikes that have not had that bottom bracket overhauled in 50 years. The bearings were turning as smoothly as on the first day. So there were just a tremendous quality, an excellence in design and a certain esthetic that I do not want to deny. It’s not all about function. These bikes also are just beautiful.

BT: They are lovely bikes.

JH: And for the future, when you go to the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, you see that more and more bikes are made in that vein where people are trying to resurrect the old ideas. And even for a road bike, I can see something like I would like to call an all-road bike: it has wide tires, but it’s not a mountain bike; it’s not for technical singletrack; it allows you to take the back roads, the unpaved roads, in the mountains. It offers the speed of a road bike, with the versatility of an early mountain bike. It won’t have full suspension; it won’t be able to do 10-foot drops; that is not the purpose. But it allows you to explore the mountains away from traffic, away from the crowds and all that.

BT: Sort of the equivalent of an all-wheel-drive Subaru.

JH: I think mountain bikes opened our eyes. When they started out, they were super-beefy machines. You take an early mountain bike stem and bar combination and it weighs as much as a whole frame nowadays.

BT: Essentially tandems for one.

JH: They found that even under the rigors of off-road racing, you could make super-light bikes that are performing, that are fun to ride, and they still last. That is something that can be applied to these all-road bikes too. You don’t need a bicycle that weighs 35lbs. just to explore unpaved roads.

BT: What do you think of the trend of riding fixed-gear bikes on the road? I know there are some strong opinions on that one.

JH: I personally don’t use them, because I live in a hilly area and I tend to have knee problems if I’m not careful about my cadence. And I like to have the optimal bike to cover the distance in the shortest possible time. But I can see the appeal. Kent Peterson wrote a lovely sidebar once to an article in which we looked at how to make your bike faster. His sidebar was, “Why would you make your bike faster? It detracts from the challenge of the ride.” In that vein, a fixed gear is an added challenge. And challenge is what riding is all about. After all, when you do the Paris-Brest-Paris, you ride from Paris to Brest and go back to Paris. So you end up back where you started. You really haven’t achieved anything. If it’s all about the challenge, then why not add to the challenge by using a fixed gear?

BT: Okay, here’s an off-hand kind of question. I’ve got a magic wand in my hand. If I wave it I can send you and your bike anywhere, in any era, for a month’s vacation. Where would you want to go and why?

JH: Paris 1947, because that was the height of the randonneuring movement. The bike was more than just a sport; it was a way of life. People in the bicycling clubs had picnics, they had these beautiful bikes, they had all kinds of events together. It just seemed to be such a joyful time. The war was over. It was a way of living on the bike that comes across a bit in our Golden Age book too. And I think that’s what I would pick.

BT: It sounds lovely.

JH: To some degree we are re-creating this in the U.S. There are more and more people who just love to ride their bikes. People who aren’t racers, people who just enjoy riding, exploring and checking out new places, and I think it’s a great time. I’d almost have said the United States in 2009. We just started the Cyclos Montagnards (www.cyclosmontagnards.org), which intends to challenge riders to explore and see what they can do on a bike.

BT: Okay one last question and we can wrap this up. Every photo I have found of you online has two qualities in common: you’re on your bike and you’re smiling. Is this an accurate representation?

JH: I don’t know, maybe I was just lucky that people took photos of me at that good moment, but I certainly enjoy riding my bike, that’s why I do it. I feel a little sad for people who only ride their bikes because they want to lose weight or get fit or save the environment. Those are certainly noble goals, but there is just so much joy just in riding. So there is certainly reason to smile.

BT: Jan Heine, thank you so much.

[Ed Notes: To check out the magazine and Jan Heine’s books, go to www.vintagebicyclepress.com. This inerview, which originally appeared in print in Bicycle Times issue  #3, was conducted by Marie Autrey. Photo of Jan Heine standing: Alex Wetmore. Photo of Jan Heine riding: Maindru. Click here to subscribe to Bicycle Times,]

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