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Frenchman Pierre Michaux and his sons made our pedal-powered sport possible
Let’s go back 153 years to the Paris of March 1861. Under Emperor Napoleon III, France is one of the world’s greatest powers, even greater than the United States, which is about to be thrown into the chaos of its civil war. The French are global leaders in industrial development and social legislation, the arts and music, science and engineering. Every region of France is connected to Paris via a network of railways, and the capital itself is being rebuilt and beautified by the city’s prefect Baron Haussmann. Overcrowded slums and dark medieval streets are being demolished and replaced with formal parks, wooded open spaces, magnificent public buildings and tree-lined boulevards. The cobblestone streets echo to the hoofbeats of horses pulling carriages and carts, while elegantly dressed Parisians stroll the sidewalks of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées—where the Tour de France will finish one day. It’s just off the famed boulevard, on the Avenue Montaigne, where it drops down to the Seine River, that, under the gas streetlights on a dark late-winter’s evening, a piece of history is about to be played out….
Words: John Wilcockson
Illustrations: Matthew Burton
The story of that day was told in a letter written some years later to the French newspaper, L’Éclair, by Henry Michaux, the third of Pierre Michaux’s four sons. In 1861, Henry’s father, born in Bar-le-Duc in eastern France, was then in the seventh year of running his coachbuilder and locksmith business in a Paris side street off the Avenue Montaigne. According to Henry’s letter, that March day saw a Monsieur Brunel, a Left Bank hatmaker from the Rue de Verneuil, come to the Michaux workshop for repairs to the front wheel of his old draisienne.
The draisienne was the world’s first two-wheel, man-powered form of transportation, invented around 1817 by a German baron, Karl Drais von Sauerbronn. Drais called his invention a laufmaschine (a “running machine”), which later was called a draisienne in France and nicknamed the dandy horse in England. It had a beamlike wooden frame attached to two small wooden wheels, while the front wheel and handlebar were hinged to enable the “runner” to steer. He propelled the machine by sitting on a padded leather seat fixed to the center of the frame and taking long walking strides, one foot at a time, along the pavement.
After an initial surge of popularity, the draisienne faded into obscurity over the next four decades—except among enthusiasts like Monsieur Brunel—because it was hard work to sustain a good pace on the flats, too heavy and cumbersome to tackle steep uphills, and each one had to be made to measure. It’s possible that the one brought to Michaux was one of the first he’d been asked to repair because his eldest son, 19-year-old Ernest, who was helping him with the business by then, was interested enough to give it a test run at the end of the day. But let Henry Michaux take up the story….
That same evening, my brother Ernest…took the machine and
tried it out on the Avenue Montaigne. On his return he said to my father, in my presence, “I could easily stay balanced, but it was
just as hard to hold my legs up [to coast] as it was to push on the ground with my feet.”
“But if we fit two little footrests by the front wheel,” my father pointed out to him, “once you’re rolling, and because you can stay balanced, you’d be able to rest your legs. Or even better: to rest your feet, modify a crank axle in the hub of the wheel and turn it like
you’d turn a grindstone.”
And my brother right away carried out my father’s idea. From there, the pedal [emerged]. It was discovered by Pierre Michaux, and it was his son Ernest who made it the first time. I know more than twenty clients of that time who can certify [those facts].
The invention brought together two familiar items, the centuries-old circular grindstone (which Michaux probably used to sharpen his tools) and the more recent draisienne, to produce the first pedal-powered two-wheeler, the vélocipède. Pierre Michaux made two prototypes that first year, likely adapting the draisienne frame and wooden wagon wheels (with thin steel “tires”). Son Ernest helped to improve the crank-axle system with frequent road tests, which often ended up with him falling off the still-perfectible machine—probably because, when turning, it was difficult to avoid hitting the insides of his legs against the front wheel.
The earliest sketches attributed to Michaux show a frame comprised of a flat beam and two V-shaped “fork/stays” extending down to the hubs—with the front wheel steered by a rod angled to front hub. As with the Draisienne, the wheels are of equal size. A separate detail depicts a cross-section of the hub, axle, bolted-on cranks and the metal pedals. By 1862, in a more detailed drawing, the beam has adopted a lazy-S shape, curving over the wheels, with a long seat sitting in the central concave part; the V-shaped rear stays have become slightly curved; and straight forks straddle a front wheel that’s now of a larger diameter than the rear one.
Michaux built 140 of these velocipedes in 1862 and 400 in 1863. At the same time, Pierre Lallement from Pont-à-Mousson (less than 50 miles from Michaux’s hometown of Bar-le-Duc) claimed to have invented the velocipede in 1862—though almost certainly ignorant of Michaux’s efforts. Lallement, at 19, moved to Paris in 1863 and, according to some accounts, briefly worked for Michaux’s company before moving across town to set up his own vélo-building business. Lallement had financial backing from the wealthy Olivier family, whose three brothers, Marius, Aimé and René, had shown great interest in riding the new-fangled velocipedes.
It seems possible that Lallement, still only 21, didn’t have great success competing with Michaux because in July 1865 he moved to the United States, probably seeking new markets. There, at New Haven, Connecticut, in November 1866, Lallement presented his patent for “Improvements in Velocipedes.” The design was similar to the first Michaux machines but had a more pronounced S-shaped frame that hugged the two wheels.
Lallement was recently inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame as a contributor, although his achievements appear to be overstated in the USBHOF biography as “the father of the modern day bicycle.” Part of the confusion of identifying the true inventor of pedal-powered two-wheel transportation is caused by Michaux not seeking his French patent for “improvements in the construction of velocipedes” until April 1868. Michaux’s patent documents show a velocipede with a much shorter wheelbase than earlier versions, the two wheels almost touching, and a much smaller-diameter rear wheel. Engineering drawings of the separate parts of his machine include a sophisticated-looking pedal that has a platform top and a counterweight below.
The rapid increase in production and the need for larger premises required financial resources that Michaux did not possess. Ironically, he turned to the Olivier brothers who had earlier helped Lallement in Paris. In 1868, just René Olivier was listed as one of the owners of Michaux et compagnie; but by early-1869, in the re-named Compagnie Parisienne des velocipedes, Michaux had ceded financial control (and even the right to use his own name in the company) to the three Olivier brothers. Their factory on the Rue Jean-Goujon, the next street to the Avenue Montaigne, was then employing 300 workers and producing some 200 velocipedes a day.
Not happy with being a minority partner, Michaux recreated his own company in his old premises on the Avenue Montaigne, even though the Oliviers retained the rights to use the Michaux name—which caused the Oliviers to sue Michaux later in 1869. This transitionary period in the evolution of Michaux velocipedes is captured on various metal name badges on Michaux velocipedes: from “Michaux & Cie,” to “Cie. Parisienne, ancne. Maison Michaux & Cie.” to “Michaux Père & Cie., inventeurs.”
Michaux oldest sons Ernest, Edmond and Henry played major roles in popularizing these early velocipedes with demonstrations of the art of velo riding and then developing the sporting and recreational possibilities of the new pedal-powered machine. One of Henry Michaux’s students was the son of Emperor Napoleon III. The first races between velocipede riders, dressed in silks like horseracing jockeys, came in 1868. The most publicized was a series of events of 1.2 kilometers up and back along a gravel path in the Parc Saint-Cloud in Paris on May 31 that year. The winner of the most prestigious race of the day (for velocipedes with 1-meter-diameter front wheels) was taken by a Paris-based English doctor James Moore, 19, who had befriended the Michaux brothers.
Other races took place that same year in other parts of Europe and around France, including the first female event at Bordeaux in November 1868, contested by four women wearing billowing dresses and hats. The first point-to-point road races (the predecessors of today’s major classics) were held in 1869.
The very first one is believed to be a 35-kilometer race in the south of France between Toulouse and nearby Camarac, which was won in 3 hours and 9 minutes by a Frenchman named Léotard. A far better publicized event, sponsored by the Olivier brothers’ Michaux et Compagnie and organized by a new magazine, Le Vélocipède Illustré, was the 123-kilometer road race from Paris to Rouen on November 7, 1869. There were 120 starters, including two women, with one of them, listed as Miss America, among the 32 riders who completed the full distance in less than 24 hours.
Like the previous year’s short “track” race in the Parc Saint-Cloud, the winner was James Moore, who completed the fairly hilly course from the French capital to the port city of Rouen in 10 hours and 40 minutes, quarter of an hour ahead of the next two finishers. It’s said that part of Moore’s success was his friendship with the Michaux brothers, who helped him get specially milled ball bearings (said to be handmade by prisoners at a Paris jail) fitted in his velocipede’s wheel hubs.
The budding new sport of velocipede racing, along with the French velocipede industry and the reign of Napoleon III, came to an end soon after the Franco-Prussian War began in July 1870. And when Paris fell to the Prussians in September, the already-failing Michaux company stopped the manufacture of its pioneering pedal-powered two-wheelers. The two men who did that pioneering, Ernest and Pierre Michaux, would both be dead within a dozen years; Ernest passed on at age 40 in 1882 and his destitute father died at 70 in old people’s home in 1883. Across the Atlantic Ocean, in Boston in 1891, Lallement would also die in total obscurity at age 47.
While Lallement would eventually be recognized by the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in October 2005, the Michaux family was honored much sooner, in 1894, when an impressive monument to Pierre and Ernest Michaux was unveiled in Pierre’s hometown of Bar-le-Duc. Appropriately, the opening festivities on September 29 included a 260-kilometer professional bicycle race from Paris to Bar-le-Duc. Huge crowds greeted the winner, 21-year-old French pro Lucien Lesna, whose time was 9 hours and 15 minutes. That same year, Lesna also won the first long-distance French classic, Bordeaux-Paris, and in 1901 he would win the sixth edition of Paris-Roubaix.
It was sad that neither Pierre nor Ernest Michaux did not live to see the first Tour de France take place in 1903, but anyone watching the Tour finish today can take a very short stroll from the Champs-Élysées and walk (or ride) over the smooth, arc-patterned cobblestones of the Avenue Montaigne—where pedals were first turned on a two-wheeler all those 153 years ago.
From issue 34.