Cyclocross in Paris during the 1940s

Cyclocross in Paris during the 1940s

Cyclocross has been on my mind lately – I’ve returned to the sport after a 16-year hiatus – and so it was with special interest that I watched some old newsreel footage of ‘cross races in Paris during the 1940s.
Sports were among the few pleasant distractions that Parisians had during the German occupation, and cyclocross races were organized in the city to make it easy for spectators to attend. The biggest race was held on the steep hill of Montmartre. The 280 steps leading up to the basilica of Sacré Coeur were a great runup (or, during other years, run-down), and the dirt roads around the famous windmills provided a nice off-pavement challenge. Click on the image to go to the web site where you can watch the video.
As I watched the video, the newsreel announcer exclaimed that Robert Oubron (in striped jersey above) was taking the lead. I knew of Oubron: He had his frames built by René Herse.
In fact, in the René Herse book, there is a photo of him after a cyclocross race in 1943 (above). The video is too grainy to say with certainty, but Oubron’s bike looks like the one shown in the book.
The web site of the French National Audiovisual Institute (INA) has other newsreel footage from 1940s cyclocross (click here to view), but unfortunately not of the 1942 race, which was won by René André on one of the very first bikes René Herse made after opening his shop in 1940. The photo above shows André as he jumps a step in front of the windmill on his superlight bike.
I also would have loved to see footage of the Cross the Clamart with its tandem category, which was won by René André and Lyli Herse (above after the race). We are fortunate to have the historic photos in the book that take us back in time.
The videos provide wonderful context to the photos. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. Please feel free to share other sources in the comments.

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Comments (15)

  • Jeff Potter

    Wonderful! …So in that pic where he’s riding in front of the windmill, is that THE red mill, the Moulin Rouge? If so, wow! Dirt roads in Paris around the Moulin Rouge…. Just amazing. And a 280-step run-up! And a tandem class! …Just delightful.

    November 17, 2013 at 8:41 am
  • dimspace

    not the moulin rouge windmill, thats one of the few round ones in Paris. The windmill in the picture no longer exists sadly (only 2 of the original 14 are still standing, Moulin Radet and Moulin de la Galette , both on Rue Epic). Moulin Rouge windmill is a bit of a phoney. 😀
    The old 1940’s Montemartre Cross races are epic though.

    November 17, 2013 at 9:10 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You are right, it is the Moulin de la Galette! In fact, it’s named correctly in the René Herse book – my French fact checkers caught that one. I’ll correct it in the post.

      November 17, 2013 at 9:30 am
  • dimspace

    actually, after a bit of digging, that could be Moulin de la Galette prior to the roof being capped, and it being moved.
    But its only possible, as the design of all the windmills was similar. Galette was moved in 1924 to its current position, and restored in the late seventies.

    November 17, 2013 at 9:17 am
  • concoursdelegance

    Hi Jan,
    I’m riding cyclo-cross races in the winter too, and posted few pictures on my blog recently :
    In my opinion it’s a good training for the winter rides, and improves your skills on the bike. I’m trying to motivate my parisian mates to organize an unformal Montmartre cross again …

    November 17, 2013 at 10:45 am
  • TimJ

    Terrific post. The site has loads of cool old cycling videos, just click Themes, Sport, Cyclisme. The video of Wim van Est is especially compelling:

    November 18, 2013 at 3:55 am
  • David Pearce

    Wow, Lyli on her tandem in the snow! I always love her shy head bob, one eye peeking out, a modest smile, Mona Lisa -ish, disguising, we know now (and they knew then) a real powerhouse!
    And now for something entirely different: I can’t find any video of a Nivex derailleur in action. Can you offer any link, or more important, will expand your publishing empire into moving pictures and make us a video to show us why the derailleur is so good?

    November 19, 2013 at 7:06 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I can’t think of a video – there aren’t many Nivex derailleurs in action today. If you study the article in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 3, you’ll see what makes it so special: It follows the slope of the freewheel cogs like a modern derailleur, but it has an ingenious system to keep the chain tension constant in all gears. This gets more consistent shifting. Add to that the desmodromic actuation with no return spring (and thus equal shifting effort in both directions), plus the fact that it’s protected inside the rear triangle, rather than sticking out where it hits the ground first when the bike falls over, and you have a very neat design. Oh, and it’s very lightweight, too.

      November 19, 2013 at 7:11 am
  • David Pearce

    I meant to add, on Lyli’s tandem, I’m used to seeing the cranks at the same position for both riders. In this case I guess the cranks are offset 90˚ to minimize slow parts of the the combined crank rotation. Can you explain?

    November 19, 2013 at 7:13 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      That is a good observation. The other photos from that ‘cross race show tandems with in-phase cranks, so it wasn’t a universally accepted way of doing things. I can only speculate why René André and Lyli had their cranks out of phase – perhaps to keep the bike moving at low cadences by eliminating the “dead spot.” They won, so it must have worked!

      November 19, 2013 at 7:36 am
      • David Pearce

        Yes, indeed. I guess the reason most tandems use in-phase cranks are used is so both riders can get one foot into the toe straps while keeping one foot on the ground. A pair of riders could still get their feet into the straps with offset-phase cranks, with, perhaps, the stoker keeping the bike balanced with one foot on the ground, while the (supposedly stronger) driver getting both feet in the straps, for a strong start?
        Choreographing carrying a tandem up ascents must have been an impressive dance of cooperation!
        I’m surprised I don’t see any of those leather carrying straps rigged between the top and seat tubes that I have seen occasionally these days. But the riders don’t really seem to be carrying the bikes on their shoulders in that position anyway, but more with the top tube just resting on their shoulders.

        November 19, 2013 at 8:02 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          A photo in the René Herse book shows the teams pushing their tandems, rather than shouldering them.
          Those carrying straps don’t really work, because you should carry your bike so most of it is behind you. Otherwise, you are bending forward, making it hard to run and breathe. A better idea is a top tube that is flattened in the middle, as on my Alan.

          November 19, 2013 at 9:47 am
      • Ulrik Haugen

        Sadly i have never ridden a tandem but Sheldon Brown has and he has a slightly different take on getting started:
        He also has a short explanation about why you would want in or out of phase pedals:

        November 19, 2013 at 1:42 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Sheldon’s advice is a good starting point. However, his note that “tandems are less stable at low speeds – get up to speed quickly” applies to most modern tandems. The old Herses were very stable at all speeds, and really aren’t much different to ride from a very good single bike.
          Nonetheless, I am sure the cyclocross racers got up to speed quickly – you don’t win by dawdling.
          I recall hearing about a tandem race at cyclocross nationals sometime in the 1990s, but I cannot find anything online or in my archives.

          November 19, 2013 at 1:59 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          There are two starting techniques for tandems. I prefer having the stoker sit on the bike, and the captain is the only one putting a foot down. Some tandems have both riders with a foot on the ground, but it’s harder to get going with that setup.
          Then there is cyclocross, and I wonder how they did their remounts. I suspect the captain jumped on the bike first, the stoker second. Did they wait for the stoker to get their feet into the toeclips, before they pedaled off? (Otherwise, I’d be concerned about flailing cranks and pedals injuring the stoker.) I’ll ask Lyli the next time I talk to her…

          November 19, 2013 at 2:03 pm

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