A Street Named After Lyli HerseJan Heine
Lyli Herse lived in Boisemont, on the hills above the Seine River. Now the town has named a street after the 8-times French champion. I found out the news when I talked to Lyli’s neighbor, who has adopted her dog after Lyli died three years ago. We talk once in a while, and she told me that a new street just has been named after Lyli.
There’s more to the story, because René Herse built his house in Boisemont for a reason: It was near the finish of his favorite event, the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race. If you follow the D922 to the South for a kilometer or so, you are on the course. The Poly started in 1913 as a competition to figure out the best way to change gears. Poly is short for Polymultipliée which loosely translates as ‘several gear ratios.’ Back then, most racers used hub gears, while cyclotourists weren’t sure whether bi-chains, retrodirects or derailleurs were the best option.
By the time Lyli entered the Poly for the first time, derailleurs had proven themselves, and the event was mostly a race: climb the 14% hill that starts right in the town center of Chanteloup, plunge down the vertiginous descent toward Andrésy, race on the false flat along the river Seine, which brings the racers back to Chanteloup – for the start of another lap.
There were categories for professional racers, randonneurs and mixed tandems. Lyli dominated among the mixed tandems. with various captains, winning almost every year in the late 1940s and 1950s. Above she’s on the way to yet another course record with Robert Prestat, the famous newspaper courier, in 1949. They’re climbing the 14% hill with a single 46-tooth front chainring and a 21-tooth cog in the back. “We had a 22, but we never used it,” a contemporary source quotes Prestat.
I had read about the Poly, but I never ridden the course – until Lyli turned 85 years old. She told me that she had one wish: Ride the course of the Poly one more time. An 85-year-old lady riding a very hilly course didn’t seem like a good idea, but the solution was obvious: Ride a tandem. So we found an old Rene Herse Chanteloup tandem. (René Herse named his performance tandem with a curved seat tube after this race.) Lyli trained on her home trainer for thousands of kilometers – the former champion knew about preparation! Then came the big day. We set out with a group of former Rene Herse team riders (left to right): Jean-Marie Comte, Robert Limouzi, Lyli, Pierre Nédéllec. Between them, they’ve won more than a dozen Polys.
Riding a tandem with a smooth stoker is always a pleasure. Despite her 85 years, Lyli pedaled with souplesse and the tandem picked up speed quickly. A friend who was following in a car to take photos reported that we reached more than 35 km/h (22 mph) on the flats.
The descent of the Barbannerie is steep! The tandem really wanted to fly, but with decades-old brake shoes, I kept the speed in check. Back in the day, Lyli and her captains reached 80 km/h (50 mph) here.
We took it slow around the tight turns in Maurecourt. In 1951, Lyli and Prestat crashed here and broke their rear fender. Lyli also broke her collarbone, but that didn’t keep them from finishing the race in first place – only to be disqualified for the broken fender. Even though it was a race, for the randonneurs, a technical inspection made sure that the bikes were in perfect condition a the end. The next day, René Herse designed a reinforcement for the rear fender… These competitions really did improve the bikes.
Lyli’s birthday ride had been going well. It was a sunny day, and all that was left was the 14% hill of Chanteloup. To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. Climbing steep hills on a tandem with a new stoker can be a challenge… But I needn’t have worried. We quickly passed our companions even though the anciens pilotes were riding very well. Only my friend Christophe, a former amateur racer, could stay with us. The hill never felt like 14%… Looking at the photo above after the ride, the lower part of the connecting chain is stretched tight: Lyli was putting out some serious horsepower.
When we regrouped at the top, Jean-Marie Comte exclaimed: “Gosh, I didn’t remember the hill being this hard.” Lyli didn’t say anything. She was lost in thoughts. Perhaps she remembered the last time she raced here, in 1958, when she and Jacques Cocu rode eight laps of this challenging course, plus one extra climb – the race started at the bottom and finished on top – at an average speed of 35 km/h (22 mph). They beat the average speed of the professional racers that day, even though the peloton included the greatest racers of Europe. (The racers had to complete 16 laps, though.)
Back in the day, the Herse team always had lunch at a lovely outdoor restaurant near the finish line. We headed there to do the same, joined by other anciens pilotes who couldn’t make the ride. It was a joyful lunch with many reminiscences. As we were eating dessert, the old chef came out and told Lyli: “I remember when you were racing here…”
That was just 8 years ago, but it seems so long. Lyli has left us, the restaurant has closed… but I’m happy that her name is memorialized on a street in a the place that has such special meaning to her. Oh, and Lyli’s neighbor told me that Dick, her dog, is doing great!