One of the best things Jan does is hold up our elders, those who built randonneuring and bicycling to what it is today. Shouldn't we also acknowledge those who continue that tradition?
I'm grateful that Jan took the time to answer my questions from the perspective of a newbie randonneur. Old hands dive into the nuances, as well they should, but sometimes the basics need further explanation.
Keep it planing,
Personal & Social History
CurioRando: First, thanks a lot. I’ll skip a complete preamble but I just want you to know you’ve certainly inspired a lot of folks and got people on bicycles doing things they didn’t think they would do, including me, and I’m grateful for that.
CR: Your start in randonneuring…I know you had a racing career. I don’t know if that influences your randonneuring. How would you describe yourself to people who don’t know you?
JH: When I started riding seriously, I lived in Texas as an exchange student and racing was the obvious venue. There was no randonneuring in the US back then, at least nothing that was popular. When I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I really enjoyed races that were almost like randonneuring events. There was one called the Columbia Plateau Stage Race: You rode from town to town. In the morning, you put your luggage in a U-Haul van. Then you raced 60, 70 or even 90 miles to another tiny town. After the sprint on the main street, you went to the high school and showered in the gym. The U-Haul van was there and you pitched your tent on the baseball field and spent the rest of the day socializing with the other racers. I just had a wonderful time. To me, winning mattered less than working in a small breakaway and enjoying the teamwork on the bike. So when Randonneuring became popular, it was almost a seamless transition. In racing, I had come to a level where I either had to put in a lot more effort and time to remain competitive as a Category 2 racer, or I had to drop out. And the dropping out became so much easier when randonneuring offered similar challenges and similar camaraderie and similar beautiful rides.
CR: Why start a magazine?
CR: You talk about transport bikes just a little bit and it was enough to really intrigue me. And I have this vision of—and I’m new, so my objective in a brevet today is just to finish—a pack that is going at a clip in a group or a loose group and they arrive somewhere and want to do something together and then go back at a clip to where they started. I’m not sure if I got your concept right or not…?
JH: That’s exactly it…Back in the early days of cycling, bicycles offered a mode of transportation that just didn’t exist otherwise. A train would only take you to the city center so you never got to see the countryside. The first cars were so unreliable, you didn’t take them touring. You were lucky if you got 20 miles out of them. So you could rent horses, but the range of horses is limited. Suddenly, you had the bicycle, which allowed you to go anywhere you wanted. Any road, any path was open to you. Tourism really started with bicycles. The French touring club was called the Touring Club de France. It had hundreds of thousands of members, who were all cyclists. Once you’ve sort of explored around your neck of the woods a bit, you want to go further. And that’s where the transport stages came in. Riders from St. Etienne loved going down to the Mediterranean coast, so they rode really hard and fast, often through the night, sort of like a randonneur brevet, until they got to their destination, and then they spent the whole day or two days just looking around, visiting the sites, looking at churches, and then they headed back. The bikes became almost like the train, taking you there and back. And those were the transport stages.
CR: And do you know, do people organize brevets in a similar fashion today?
JH: Well, basically the brevet is a transport stage because you’re not going to dilly-dally while the clock is ticking. What actually happened…the brevets sort of started with these challenges where someone said, how far can you go in 24 hours and someone wrote in and said: “I went 420 km”, and someone else: “Well, I went 422”, and so on. Randonneurs weren’t really competitive, there weren’t really winners doing the transport stages. They were more just a group of friends enjoying riding together and riding fast, for sure, but not trying to beat the next guy. These riders were challenging themselves to see how far and fast they could go. And that is how randonneuring started.
CR: You also mention the Popular Front and the impact on the French working class and leisure time. And I’m just getting involved in a movement called the National Vacation Summit that is taking place in Seattle August 10 - 12 that is working toward federal legislation to create a minimum two-week holiday for all workers in the U.S. There’s a lot of interesting connections, and I just wanted to have you expand a little more on the popular front.
JH: It was basically France’s answer to the (Great) Depression. The Depression wasn’t as hard in France as in the U.S. for a variety of reasons, but there were still a lot of people out of work, and the inequalities between rich and poor were seen as excessive. So there was an uprising, general strikes, workers taking over factories and so on. A Socialist government, the Popular Front, which united the center-left parties, was elected in 1936. The result of that was that a 40-hour work week and 2-week vacation became mandated in France, so every worker had the right to have weekends off and paid vacations. But people still didn’t have much money because wages were low. You have to imagine that people didn’t have cars. People may have lived only 30 miles from the ocean, but had never seen the sea. If you’re working every day, there is no time to explore even the closest surroundings. Once they got leisure time, people were really eager to explore—the 1930s in Europe also saw a back-to-nature movement, in Germany and everywhere. And so in France, a lot of people took up bicycle touring. They bought bikes, the kid was put in a trailer, some couples bought tandems... They set out to explore, often camping because they couldn’t afford to stay in hotels. That’s how bicycle touring got a huge boost. There were tens of thousands of French couples who took to the roads during the summers of the 1930s.
CR: You’re talked a lot about the social history of cycling, particularly from the 30s to the 50s as you just described. There’s a time before that has really intrigued me, I don’t know what it is, but I’ve just got this hankering. And that’s the time of the high wheelers. Do you know much about the social history of that period?
JH: A little. High wheelers were very expensive because they were all handmade, no mass production. Riding a high-wheeler was very much an aristocratic pursuit for young, well-to-do men who rode the highwheelers similar to horses. A similar stature. You sat very upright on them, very high, you looked down on the other folk, you could impress the young ladies as you rode around the park. It’s interesting because early on, the horse and the bike were seen in parallel. There was a discussion among the cyclotourists whether it was appropriate for gentlemen to lean over the handlebars. When the safety bikes came out, people realized that if you want to go fast, you need to lean over to put out more power, but the question was: is that proper? I think that is just fascinating. In the end, the aristocracy lost interest in the bicycle when the safety bike came out, because suddenly, as a cyclist, you were no taller than a pedestrian. The bikes became more affordable, and the middle classes could buy them, when they were mass-produced. So the aristocracy looked toward cars and even airplanes as their play things, and the bicycle became a much more utilitarian tool.
CR: What do your readers not know about you that they would be surprised to learn?
JH: That is a tough question! There was once a person in the early days who walked into a bike shop, saw my bike leaning against the counter and said, “You must be Jan Heine. I had no idea you were that young!” This was about ten years ago, so yes, I was a little younger. I was 31, which tells you how old I am now. He had thought that since I was writing about old bicycles from the 1950s and things like that, that I must have had a long grey beard. On the other hand, I’m probably right in the middle of where my readership is. There are a lot of young people who are excited not just about history, but about technology, rediscovering old things, learning new things and integrating the bicycle into their lives.
That is why so many people are fascinated by the French cyclotourists from the 1930s to 1950s, because cycling for them was a way of life. It wasn’t like the racers who were only competing. These riders might have a time trial one weekend, perhaps even involving tandems. The next weekend, they went out for a picnic at some beautiful site. During the holidays, they took the train somewhere, then rode across the Alps. Their bike was basically their life. And to me, it was talking to these people, who are now in their 70s, 80s, even 90s—they are such joyful people even today, and their memories sparkle so much, it’s so lovely to see that. And that’s what I enjoy about cycling, the friendships we make. I don’t have much time to spend with my friends except on bike rides. So most of the time when we’re riding, we actually talk. Some people meet in coffeehouses, we meet on our bikes.