Reviewed by Mark E. Vande Kamp
When you buy a Heron Randonneur, you get the skeleton, or—more appropriately—the heart of a bicycle built specifically for long-distance unsupported bicycling. The features of the Randonneur date from a time when bicycle makers like Rene' Herse and Alex Singer built reputations on the way their bikes' performed in Paris-Brest-Paris. Today, the Tour de France and other professional cycling races dictate the image of what makes a "fast" bike. But, years ago the French constructeurs and their customers understood that the way to cover ground efficiently was not through racing's single-minded focus on top speed, but by building bikes that helped the rider avoid going slow. The Randonneur brings the most important features of those bikes together in a package that is unique in the modern marketplace.
The Randonneur is a product of Heron Bicycles, a small, Illinois- based company based in Illinois that offers lugged steel frames that are handmade in the USA. While most Herons are sold as bare frames, the Randonneur is offered as a package of frame and components that work together in the French tradition. The package includes a handlebar bag and saddlebag (each with supporting rack), a stem, fenders, a generator hub and headlight, and, of course, the frame. The suggested retail price is $2,300. The review bike was equipped with a mix of Campagnolo and other components but my comments are focused on the pieces included in the Randonneur package.
At the center of the Randonneur is a steel frame with a traditional style. The geometry is much like the Rivendell Rambouillet or the better sport-touring bikes offered by custom builders. Heron frames are constructed at the Waterford plant in Wisconsin using low-temperature silver brazing to join the lugs and steel tubing. The lugs are relatively simple in design, with simple curves rather than curlicues. The seat cluster is different from most in that the seatstay caps are part of the lug casting. This saves labor at the cost of a more bulky attachment, but it doesn't catch my eye as a negative. The paint is a very nice forest green with tasteful decals.
The primary advantages of the Randonneur frame lie in the details that make it work with the other components of the package. There are braze- ons where p-clamps would normally be needed to mount the racks, the front rack is designed to fit the distance between the cantilever posts and crown on this specific fork, and the bridges in the rear triangle are drilled and tapped for the fender bolts. All those little details add up to a bike where parts are less likely to annoy or slow the rider by loosening, rattling or breaking.
Attention to the riding needs of randonneurs is also evident in other ways. The fork and rear triangle have plenty of clearance. The test bike was shod with true 28mm tires and had room under the fenders for even wider rubber. Also, the seatstays have braze-ons to mount dual taillights for fail-safe night riding.
The handlebar bag was the part of the package that drew my attention when I first saw the Randonneur. Although only a few of the randonneurs I know use a handlebar bag, I find mine to be very useful. Food and clothing stored in the bag are easily accessible while riding so I don't have to stop as often and it's easier to stay well fed and comfortable. The downside is that most handlebar bags (including mine) have negative effects on the bike's handling. Also, when mounted directly to the handlebars, bags limit both your hand positions and the space available to mount accessories. On the Randonneur, the handlebar bag, its mounting system and the bicycle frame itself are designed to effectively eliminate these drawbacks.
The Randonneur's bag is a classic French design made by Berthoud. Constructed primarily of black cotton duck and brown leather, it is boxy in shape, has straps and buckles rather than zippers, and looks more like a Victorian pheasant hunter's lunchbox than like modern nylon bike luggage. Whether this old-fashioned look is a plus or minus depends on your taste, but the bag simply works well. The map pocket on top is great for displaying a cue sheet and the small pockets on the outside are useful to hold keys, a cell phone, or other small items that would rattle around in the main compartment. Rain was scarce in Seattle this summer so I sprayed it from the front with my garden hose for a few minutes and no water got inside. Local riders who use this type of bag report that only a little dampness can be found inside after a full day of rainy riding.
The handlebar bag on the Randonneur works better than most because the bag is supported from below by a rack that's custom made for Heron. The elegant rack mounts to the fork crown and cantilever bosses, and holds the bag low, and near the steering axis to minimize the effect on handling. The bag is held in place at the top by a Berthoud quick-release system that is attached to the stem by a special clamp bolt. This system requires a traditional style stem and is undoubtedly the reason why one is included in the package, but the Nitto pearl stem is both functional and beautiful. The function of quick-release is not quite as quick as it could be. It requires removal of both a paper-clip hitch-pin and a steel rod that slides through housing on the bag and the stem mount.
The saddlebag is the smaller Pendle version of the Carradice cotton duck saddlebag that is familiar to many randonneurs. The colors were ordered by Heron to match the handlebar bag. Some riders may occasionally leave the saddlebag at home, but it is very useful for the kind of heavy, bulky, or seldom-accessed items (e.g., extra water, sweater, tools) that sometimes determine whether you finish a ride at all. The Pendle is made of somewhat lighter materials than my decade-old Nelson. However, the old style was overbuilt and it took years of use to limber up the thick leather straps. A long-term test would be necessary to see if the Pendle ages as gracefully.
I thought the saddlebag support rack was the least elegant component of the Randonneur package. The standard Nitto rack attaches to the seatpost with a large two-bolt clamp that seems out of place on a bike where so many attachments are unobtrusive. Also, on the 59cm frame I rode, the rack slopes backward at an angle that is awkward to my eye. The angle might arise because of the shallow seat-tube angle of the frame, or because the builder had to place the seatstay braze-ons slightly low in order to keep them far enough below the cantilever posts. In either case, both the clamp and the frame angle are purely aesthetic issues, since the only functional drawback of the rack is that the clamp slightly complicates saddle height adjustment.
Another feature of the Randonneur that grabs the eye are the stainless steel Berthoud fenders. These are available from other sources and will fit many bikes, but the fact that they come ready to mount on the Randonneur is a real plus because they are usually delivered undrilled with loose hardware. With the fenders, Heron also includes a leather front mudflap that keeps abrasive road grit out of your drive train. Both the front and rear fenders wrap further around the wheel than most others, but your paceline mates on wet rides will still be happier if you add a rear mudflap.
In many wet rides in Washington state, I have found that good fenders keep you dryer (and subsequently, warmer) than poor ones. Unlike most plastic fenders, the Berthouds have stays that wrap around the outside of the fender where they can't channel water around the edge to drip on your feet or bike. Despite their steel construction, a comparison test published in Vintage Bicycle Quarterly found that they weighed only about 110 grams more than plastic Zefal fenders that were shorter in length. I've had more than one plastic fender break, creating delays and discomfort, so I feel that the very solid construction and mounting of the longer Berthoud fenders easily offsets their weight penalty. Last but not least, the fenders are really shiny!
The Schmidt hub has already been favorably reviewed in the RUSA newsletter. I've owned one for five years and have had nothing but good experiences with it. I think it's simply the best lighting solution currently available to randonneurs. It is durable, always available for those times when best-laid plans go awry, and puts a bright patch of light on the road ahead where it's needed. The Heron comes standard with a Lumotec headlight, but buyers should consider upgrading to the Schmidt E6 light (about $60 extra). I haven't ridden enough with an E6 to form an opinion but many experienced randonneurs I know rave about it. The sole complaint seems to be that the reflector is so good at sending all light forward that there may not be enough spill to see around sharp corners or consistently illuminate the fog line.
The headlight mounting position on the front rack of the Randonneur is worth noting. One might assume that the light is mounted to the rack braze-on only because the handlebar bag blocks the usual handlebar or fork crown mounts. In actuality, the lower mount is an advantage because road irregularities and debris create more distinct shadows than when the light is mounted higher.
Riding the Randonneur reveals no real surprises, and that should be taken as a compliment. The bike doesn't fall into or resist turns and deals easily with bumpy curving descents (an example in Seattle, from Interstate-90 to Leschi for Seattleites). The steering feels quite light on fast descents, but not in a scary way. I still felt comfortable putting my hands next to the stem and tucking in — steering inputs at speed just get a little more reaction than on many bikes.
Loading up the handlebar bag, if anything, seems to have a positive effect on handling. With the bag empty the Randonneur rides fine no handed, but requires enough attention to discourage jacket removal or similar gymnastics. Throwing a few Powerbars and a large water bottle inside the bag slowed the bike's steering to reaction levels that are more suited to tired riders late in the night. With a load equal to about four full water bottles I could detect just a hint of a speed wobble when riding no handed, but it went away when my speed rose beyond about twelve miles per hour. Even with this unusually heavy load, the bike still felt like a slightly more sedate version of itself.
Most bicycle reviews include some description of how a frame soaks up road shock or feels whippy or stiff. I think most of those observations are based on placebo effects. For reasonably similar frame geometries, ten more p.s.i. in the tires makes a bigger ride difference than different types of tubing or even aluminum versus steel. The Randonneur rides like a nice bike should ride. It will probably feel rough if you mount 23mm tires and inflate them to 120 p.s.i. (which I didn't try), but with 28mm tires inflated to 90 p.s.i. I would be happy to start BMB on it.
When I showed the Heron Randonneur to my bicycle- commuting neighbor, he was impressed and said it was a beautiful "retro" bike. Like my neighbor, most people are likely to notice the Heron because of the way it looks — the bags could have been made in the '50s, the frame is lugged steel, and the fenders are shiny metal. But in a brevet, riders spend a lot more time riding a bike than they do looking at it. Whether you think it looks "old" or "retro" or "classic," the Heron is a unique package that is better equipped for long miles of unsupported riding than any other production bicycle. Any randonneur shopping for a new mount should consider it, and many randonneurs could benefit by applying the ideas that it embodies.
The Heron Randonneur is available from a small number of dealers around the United States. For more information, see http://www.heronbicycles.com.