Paris in the years following World War II was a city overrun with cycles. The costs of owning and operating an automobile were prohibitive, so a bicycle meant everything: freedom, efficiency, travel, and, for many, a means of transportation key to making a living. (See the classic 1948 film The Bicycle Thief.) Many of these bikes were custom masterpieces, workhorses that doubled as pleasure craft.
Legendary constructeur René Herse built not only the frameset but crankset, brakes, stems, and so on as welland all of it by hand. Of course, such a bicycle might cost you three months' salary, but it was an investment that soon paid for itself.
I've dreamed of seeing a Herse in the flesh for years, but where, when, how? Luckily, the world now has The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles (Rizzoli, $50), written by Bicycle Quarterly editor Jan Heine, with gorgeous photographs by Jean-Pierre Pradères. Inside the large-format book, there's pure porn for the cyclerati (and anyone interested in design and engineering), plus an utterly fascinating history lesson on one of the sporting world's most beloved machines. You'll find bikes from Herse and contemporaries, as well as custom rigs from as early as 1909 and as late as 2003.
Heine brings passion and painstaking research to the subject, locating beautifully time-worn works of art that heretofore lay in the shadows of private collections. And after completing Golden Age, he took the same approach and applied it to a century-spanning photographic history of racing bikes for The Competition Bicycle (Vintage Bicycle Press, $60). Pradères again contributes striking images. Historic bikes ridden to glory by the likes of Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Greg LeMond, and Andy Hampsten are presented in all their battered beauty.
If you put these books out on your coffee table, prepare for distracted guests. I've found that even noncyclists can't help but become engrossed.