A Master Lost

The following obituary for Jean Desbois, written by Jan Heine, is reproduced with permission. I know Mr. Heine as the editor of a magical book, The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, given to me by both my lovely wife Lacey and my dear friend Babu. [Mr. Heine notes that the bicycle on the cover of the book was probably built by Mr. Desbois.]

Lacey and Babu know me as well as anyone, so I am not surprised they both bought me this book.  I can think of few gifts that I have enjoyed more.   They gave me the books at about the same time and I still have both copies. The books contain photos and histories of the bicycles produced by some of the finest constructors we have known. Mr. Heine also contributes much to the iBob listserve. When I see he has something to say, I devour it. Mr. Heine has done so much more. I am excited to enjoy it all someday. With sadness, I present Mr. Heine’s obituary of Jean Desbois.

Jean Desbois, builder of many of the finest Rene Herse frames and components, died last week near Paris, France. He was cremated yesterday, Sept. 6, 2010, in the presence of a small circle of family and friends.

Desbois was the chief framebuilder for Rene Herse during the 1940s and 1950s, when the company made some of the finest randonneur bicycles ever made. Rene Herse bicycles were ridden by the fastest riders in Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) 1951, 1956, and 1966. Herse won the prestigious “Challenge des Constructeurs” for the three best-placed riders in every PBP from 1948 to 1966.

Desbois apprenticed as an “ajusteur-tourneur” (machine shop fitter) in Levallois-Perret, just outside the city limits of Paris. During World War II, Paris was occupied by the German army, and the Germans were deporting skilled machine personnel to work in German armament factories. To avoid this, Jean sought different employment in November 1941. He looked at the Rene Herse shop, where two fine bicycles were on display in the shop window. Herse had started to make bicycles in 1940 with a single employee. Lyli Herse remembered seeing Jean Desbois, who still was a shy teenager: “He stood outside the shop, and my mother asked me to find out what he wanted. So I went outside, brought him in, and my father asked him whether he wanted a job.

Jean quickly moved up the ladder at the Herse shop, first making small parts like the cable hanger rollers for the Speedy brakes, then cutting and finishing the brakes themselves as well as the chainrings, before making stems and finally learning to braze the frames. By the end of 1945, he was the best-paid of the seven workers at the Herse shop.

Desbois stayed with Herse until the early 1950s, when he felt he could earn more money elsewhere. He first drove taxicabs, then worked in the mechanical industry. Desbois returned to Herse in April 1975. After Rene Herse’s death in 1976, Desbois married Herse’s daughter Lyli. Together, they continued to run the shop until 1984.

Jean Desbois was the last of a generation of artisans who worked in post-war Paris during the Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, where they created some of the finest bicycles ever made.

For a few photos of Desbois and his work, see http://www.vintagebicyclepress.com/whatisnew.html

Jan Heine
Bicycle Quarterly
2116 Western Ave.
Seattle WA 98121

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