No visit to France would be complete without seeing Lyli Herse. I first visited her after riding the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris on a 1946 René Herse tandem. I wanted to learn more about her father, the famous constructeur, and about Lyli’s own sporting exploits, which include eight French championships.
Over the years, we became friends. We rummaged around her garage and found suitcases of historic photos (above) that were published in our book on René Herse. It was a great honor when she asked me whether I wanted to become the custodian of the René Herse name and brand. That is how René Herse’s ground-breaking components are available once more, updated with the latest technologies.
Whenever we visit, we organize a reunion of the “pilotes de Herse”, the riders on Herse’s team. This year, it was just a small group (left to right): Jean-Marie Compte, Pierre Nédéllec, myself, Natsuko, Lyli and Robert Demilly. All of these gentlemen still ride their bikes, and their form remains inspirational. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, considering their past achievements in rides like Paris-Brest-Paris, where they came first (1965, Demilly) and second (1961, Nédéllec)…
Three years ago, we celebrated Lyli Herse’s 85th birthday by riding a lap around the course of the Poly de Chanteloup hillclimb race. It was a great honor to pilot Lyli on a tandem built by her father for this race. She has lost little of her competitive spirit – we dropped all but one young rider on the 14% climb from Chanteloup!
But then, Lyli won the tandem race of almost every Poly from 1945 until she became a racer in the mid-1950s.
Even at age 88, Lyli rides her trainer every day. Behind her, you can glimpse her training log, which shows almost 7000 km for this year! This year, we had lunch at a small restaurant on the old course of the Poly, but sadly, there wasn’t a ride planned. One of the riders had crashed into a newly installed barrier on his familiar route, another was recovering from a hospital visit, and Lyli didn’t feel up to riding, either.
But you never know, and that is why my friend Ivan Souverain had dropped off his lovely 1945 René Herse tandem at Lyli’s house. It’s sized perfectly for Lyli and I. We were keen to try it, and so Natsuko and I took a spin around the neighborhood. And then I asked Lyli whether she wanted to have a go. Her smile grew big. I was surprised how quickly she climbed on the back of the tandem, and then we were off.
We did one lap of the neighborhood, then another, then explored further. Lyli’s pedal stroke remains as fluid and strong as ever – it must have been a great experience to ride the Poly de Chanteloup with her. One year, she and Jacques Primout actually lapped the hilly course faster than the professional racers – and back then, the Poly drew the greatest stars from France and beyond. (To the pros defense, their race was almost three times as long, but still…)
I hope I’ll be able to do many more tandem rides with Lyli Herse.
When we said “Au revoir”, Lyli gave us a bouquet with roses from her garden. It survived the trip back to Paris, and graced our hotel room for the rest of our stay. What a charming lady!
- René Herse: The Bikes • The Builder • The Riders, our book with the story of Lyli and her father.