Happy 100th Birthday, Madame Porthault!

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Today is the 100th birthday of Paulette Porthault! Madame Porthault was an avid cyclotourist from the early 1930s until well into her 80s. She has been an incredible resource for information and insight into the “Golden Age” of French cyclotouring. Most of all, she has been a wonderful friend and inspiration.

Madame Callet, as she was called before her marriage to fellow cyclotourist Charles Porthault, was friends with the constructeurs Narcisse, Herse and Routens. She toured all over Europe when foreign travel was very rare. During World War II, she won the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race on a tandem. She rode in the Technical Trials after the war. In 1947, she inaugurated and rode in the first Flèche Vélocio. She rode in numerous brevets. She has experienced almost every facet of cyclotouring. “Except Paris-Brest-Paris,” she told me: “I wanted to ride it in 1948, but I was pregnant with my son, so I couldn’t start.

Most of all, she inspired generations of cyclotourists with her enthusiasm and infectious smile. Lyli Herse told me: “For me, Madame Porthault was always a role model.” As the aunt of Lucien Détée, himself a well-known randonneur, she inspired him and his friends during the 1950s. That is why everybody refers to her simply as La Tante (The Aunt).

Madame Porthault has inspired me as well, and you’ll recognize the photo above, of her climbing the Galibier during the 1930s. It is on the opening page of the Bicycle Quarterly web site. For me, the photo expresses what I love about cycling: Great scenery, amazing roads, camaraderie (notice the photographer’s bike parked on the left), independence (both bikes have bags to carry all these riders need), and a smile on the rider’s face.

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Imagine my surprise during my research for the René Herse book, when I found a photo of exactly the same image in the Herse family archives. At a bike show in 1945, under the title “Cyclotouring in the Mountains,” there she is, climbing the Galibier (arrow).

I can see why Herse used this photo for his display. As cyclotourists dreamed of taking to the road again after the travel restriction and curfews of the German occupation, what better photo to illustrate this than La Tante?  It mattered little she wasn’t riding a René Herse in the photo. (Herse only started making bikes during the war.) The other photos on the left panel also show her and her friends on various trips in the Alps. They evoke a time when cyclotouring did not mean riding to Normandy to try and find food, but to ride in the mountains for the simple joy of riding. In 1945, this represented the future. The panel on the right is titled “Competition”, and it underscores Herse’s reputation as a top constructeur in Paris.

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to visit Madame Porthault during my trip to France. Together with my friend Richard Léon, we stopped by her apartment in the Rhone valley. She still lives on the second floor with no elevator. She manages her household of one just fine, she told us. For two hours, we talked about cycling, about mountain passes – her favorite still is the Galibier for its beautiful scenery – and many other topics. I still find it hard to believe that the vivacious lady who entertained us climbed the Galibier 80 years ago, and won the Poly de Chanteloup no less than 72 years ago.

She told us that last year, four doctors interviewed her during her medical checkup, trying to find out why she was in such great shape at her age. She told them: “I haven’t done anything special. I ate normal food, lived a normal life… but I rode my bike a huge amount.”“Perhaps that is it!” the doctors opined.

We talked and talked, until I realized that I had to leave, since I had to ride another 150 km to my next destination. With all the good cheer, I completely forgot to take a photo of Madame Porthault, so the one below from The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles will have to suffice. It shows her and Jean Dejeans at the Poly de Chanteloup in 1943.

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Happy birthday, Madame Porthault! You continue to inspire new generations of cyclotourists.

If you’d like to know more about Madame Porthault’s amazing life, read the interview with her in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 1.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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11 Responses to Happy 100th Birthday, Madame Porthault!

  1. Jeff Day says:

    Great post! Happy Birthday to Madame Porthault!

  2. David Pearce says:

    Bon Anniversaire, Madame! Tres Bien et Merci Beaucoup!

  3. Great photo, and fantastic post! But wouldn’t she have been Mademoiselle Callet?

  4. RosyRambler says:

    The photo of Madame Porthault climbing the Galibier is my all time favorite from Bicycle Quarterly. It is not only beautiful, but very inspiring.

    What a rich and envious life she lead riding all over the mountains of France. A shame she did not ride Paris-Brest-Paris. Considering her palmares it seems like it would have been a piece of cake for her.

    A very Happy Birthday to you Madame Porthault!! And thank you for sharing your wonderful life.

  5. Heather says:

    That is so wonderful! Joyeux anniversaire! I am impressed, I hear so little about early women cyclists, well all women cyclists as we’ve been excluded from so much professionally. It is curious as cyclotouring was a popular thing for families to do, a way to get around which meant pere, mere et les enfants all biked. No trailers or trailer bikes for kids old enough to pedal! This was before and after the world wars until cars took over. Today it is considered bizarre and risky to take the whole family on a bike tour.
    Did Madame Porthault stop biking in her 80’s due to health issues, was she ordered from fear of others, or just retired? Now, this is something I can tell my mom who recently said I was ‘too old’ to be biking around(I’m 38).

    • Madame Porthault cycled and cross-country skied until her late 80s. Cycling for families was a popular thing in the 1930s and 1940s. The enduring image of the first paid vacations in France in 1936 is a tandem with panniers, and a child in a trailer or on a child seat mounted on the rear top tube. An example is here. An wonderful example of a tandem with the child seat is shown in The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles.

      Generally, cyclotouring, both in France and elsewhere, always has accepted women as equals. There were women in Vélocio’s “School of Saint-Etienne,” and women have been in randonneuring since the very beginning.

      Professional cycling always has been about money, and there wasn’t much money to be made with women breaking out of traditional female roles…

  6. Harry Harrison says:

    For interest, the tandem of another legend of the era is for sale. Details of Daniel Rebour’s Rene’ Herse tandem, used by him and Madame Rebour on the 1948 Paris Brest Paris are on the French site ‘Le Bon Coin’. If any one buys it, I claim a couple of new chain rings from Compass Bicycles to suit my 1963 RH campeur as a finder’s fee !

    • It’s a neat tandem… but it’s no longer as it was when Rebour rode it. The current owner went to Herse as a young man in the 1970s to ask about buying a tandem, but Herse told him he couldn’t afford one. He told the owner to ask Daniel Rebour about his tandem. Rebour sold it to the current owner, but told him that it needed to be updated before he could ride it. So the new owner took it to Herse to have it “updated.” Then he rode it all over France, including to the Galibier…

  7. Don Genovese says:

    I’ve always loved this photo! Couldn’t have said it better than RoseyRambler.

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