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BC Randonneurs Cycling Club


Long time Randonneur Ken Dobb from Toronto has made a study of the history and origins of Randonneur cycling and the personalities that shaped it. Most of his writings and translations can be found on the Randonneurs Ontario History Page. This latest offering will be appearing in the RO newsletter, but not on the RO web site. Ken was nice enough to let us post it on our site. [Eric Fergusson - May 2005]

The Origins of Randonneur Cycling: Maurice Martin 1861 - 1941
by Ken Dobb

Randonneur cycling is grounded in participation in two related classes of events - brevet rides over increasing distances up to 1000 kilometers in length, and grand randonnées of 1200 kilometers or more, the most important of which is Paris - Brest - Paris. The origins of both classes of events - brevets and randonnées - are to be found in the fertile career of an all but forgotten pioneer French cyclist by the name of Maurice Martin.

Martin was born in 1861 in Bordeaux, the most important city in the wine-producing region of the south-west of France. He was active at the dawn of the era of the bicycle and it was the possibilities afforded by this newly developing technology that both captured his imagination and consumed his energies during the first part of his life. Though he received an education in commercial studies and was, by trade, a wine merchant, he found his vocation in literary pursuits opened to him by his self-propelled travels.

In the early 1880's, he was a founding member of the Veloce Club Bordelais, a club whose membership he helped to build. By 1890, the club had grown to about 400 members, the largest cycling club in France at that time. Together with the President of the Veloce Club, Pierre Rousset, Martin helped to establish, in 1885, the weekly newspaper Veloce-Sport. For a number of years, Martin sat on the editorial committee of this newspaper - one of the first publications devoted exclusively to sporting activities in France. During this period, the newspaper was under the editorial direction of Fernand Ladeveze, vice-president of the Union Velocipedique Francaise. Founded in 1880, the U.V.F. was the largest national association of bicycle clubs in France. In 1888, after the absorbtion of another regional cycling newspaper, Veloce-Sport became the official journal of the U.V.F. under the editorial supervision of Paul Rousseau. Rousseau, together with Martin and a third party, assumed proprietorship of the newspaper in 1889. They transferred the seat of the paper's operations from Bordeaux to Paris in 1893 where, following a merger with yet another cycling journal, control of the newspaper passed into other hands.

Throughout this period, Martin was a frequent contributor to Veloce-Sport. It was the beginnings of a literary career that would last over forty years. Besides his contributions to Veloce-Sport, he wrote for the newsletter of the Touring Club de France, and for the magazines l'Illustration and La Petite Gironde. He wrote extensively about the landscape of his home region - the Landes, this work culminating in a book of prose and poetry entitled "Triptyque" published in 1923.

His cycle-related journalism centred on his own travels as a cyclotourist. By 1898, he reckoned that he had covered some 130,000 kilometers over the course of twenty years in the saddle. His trips had taken him to all 44 departements (roughly equivalent to counties in the United States) in the France of that time. In addition, he had travelled by cycle to England, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. A typical trip, that of 1888, took him from his Bordeaux home to Geneva and back in the company of several other Veloce Club riders.

In the following year, 1889, he completed the ride for which he is chiefly remembered, between Bordeaux and Paris. Together with Oscar Maillotte of the Veloce Club Bordelais and Georges Thomas, President of the Union Velocipedique Francaise, who joined them at Poitiers, Martin covered 720 kilometers in seven days in the last week of August. He published a series of articles recounting in fine detail the particulars of the trip - the route, the landmarks passed, and their lodging arrangements. These articles were subsequently collected and published in book form as "Voyage de Bordeaux a Paris par Trois Velocipedistes." This book is generally acknowledged to be the first documenting a bicycle tour published in France. (It followed the publication by Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg of "Ten Thousand Miles On A Bicycle" (1886), the first such book ever published, and "Around The World on a Bicycle" (1887) by the American Thomas Stevens.)

A second book based on Martin's travels appeared in 1898 - "Une Grande Enquete Sportive". This book gathered together information that Martin had gathered during his trip through 28 departements in the south and south-west of France in the previous year. The work was designed as a sort of travel guide for cyclists to the region, giving information about the state of cycling services in each departement in addition to advice on routes and accomodations. For this work, Martin was awarded the distinction of the "First French Tourist" by the Touring Club de France.

In the mid-1880's, Martin gained a seat on the executive committee of the U.V.F. From this vantage point, in the pages of Veloce-Sport, he deplored the fact that the event calendar of the organisation had come to be dominated by a concern for amateur bicycle racing. He pointed out that of the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 cyclists in France at that time, no more than 500 held racing licences. Comparatively little attention was paid to cycle tourists by the national organisation and its affiliated local clubs.

As a corrective, Martin proposed the creation of a new class of events. These events were designed for cyclists who were neither "mangeurs de la route" - racers who saw nothing of the countryside besides the paving of the road on which they were travelling - and those cyclists who were principally engaged in sight-seeing. What he had in mind was a "vrai tourisme rapide", or what we might today term "sport tourism".

By 1888, Martin had persuaded the executive of the U.V.F. to sanction rides known as "brevets" (literally "certificate" or "diploma" rides). The first of these rides was a metric century. Martin was, himself, one of the first cyclists to complete a metric century brevet. In 1889, riding a tricycle with solid rubber tires, he completed the 100 kilometer distance in 4 hours and 23 minutes, a creditable performance given the roads of the day.

In addition, the U.V.F. approved the creation of a brevet ride of 500 kilometers to be completed over a period of five days at the rate of not less than 100 kilometers per day. The 1889 ride Martin completed between Bordeaux and Paris was conducted as a demonstration of the possibility of such a brevet, and ridden by the three participants in the spirit of "rapid tourism". It was as a randonnée that Martin, together with colleagues at the Veloce Club Bordelais organised a Bordeaux - Paris event for the spring of 1891. This event was to be the immediate precedent for Paris - Brest - Paris.

That it is Henri Desgrange, and not Maurice Martin, who is regarded as the originator of randonneur cycling is the consequence of several historical accidents, disruptions in a possible chain of historical continuity. By the late 1880's, other French cyclotourists had reached the same conclusion as had Martin about the concentration of the U.V.F. on amateur racing. While Martin was attempting to work within the U.V.F. structure, these other cyclotourists moved to establish a separate organisation to represent their common interests. The Touring Club de France, modeled on the Cyclists' Touring Club in England, was founded in 1890. Martin, among other things a proprietor of the U.V.F. house organ, opposed the creation of this new organisation. When, after the passage of a few years, it became apparent that the Touring Club had successfully established itself, Martin, reluctantly, bowed to the new reality. By this time, however, leadership in cyclotourism in France had passed to new leadership - what is sometimes called the "Stephanoise School of Cyclotourism". "Sport and tourism," wrote Paul De Vivie (Velocio) in his Saint Etienne-based newspaper, Le Cycliste, "are not made to go together: they have to move in parallel with different leaders and guides." Desgrange's creation of the Audax Club Parisien was, in some measure, a comment on his perception of the state of sport tourism in the Touring Club de France at the end of the nineteenth century.

Martin's randonnée, Bordeaux - Paris, was similarly overtaken by events. The organisers of the Veloce Club based their planning for the event on the expectation that the participating cyclists would adhere to the formula of an event completed in stages of roughly 100 kilometers over several (five) days. As a randonnée, and not a race, French professional cyclists were excluded. Among these was Charles Terront. the eventual first winner of Paris-Brest-Paris, who nonetheless participated as a pacer for an English cyclist.

It was the English who transformed the randonnée into a race. In England, sport tourism had assumed a different form. They had come to evolve a sport based on marathon time trialing over a period of time or over a given distance. More pertinently, the English were interested in establishing road records on routes between two established points. The French word for this kind of event - "raid" - has no English equivalent. The most famous of these point-to-point events is from one end of the island of Britain to the other - John O'Groats to Lands End. In 1888, shortly after the British National Cycling Union had banned mass start road racing, cyclists interested in cycling on the road formed the Roads Record Association, an organisation that is still in existence. This organisation laid the framework of rules of conduct and keeps the records for a variety of timed, distance, and point-to-point events.

The eventual "winner" of Bordeaux-Paris, George Pilkington Mills, was himself a record holder for the John O'Groats to Lands End event, lowering the record from about five and one-half days to five days, one hour and forty-five minutes. Mills' record-breaking effort had been accomplished on a tricycle but, for Bordeaux - Paris, Mills had chosen to ride a "safety" bicycle. This succession of bicycling technologies is a further historical discontinuity that has helped to obscure Martin's contribution to the history of sport tourism.

The period roughly between 1874 and 1889 in bicycling history is that marked by the ascendancy of the high wheel bicycle - what the French term "le grand bi". While their large front wheel absorbed some of the shocks caused by the uneven road surfaces of the day, high wheelers were notoriously unstable (or "unsafe"). Nor were they adept climbers. These drawbacks circumscribed their uses. In racing, they were used principally for short road course and for track racing. Tricycles were a relatively expensive alternative for a minority at this time. While not suitable for side-by-side racing, tricycles possessed the property of great stability on the road and the ability to carry baggage. The earliest successful experiments with multiple gearing were conducted on tricycles adding to their attractiveness as vehicles for long distance touring. It was on a tricycle that Martin, up to and including his ride to Paris in 1888, had conducted all of his cycling adventures.

The invention of the "safety" bicycle and, more particularly, of the pneumatic tire in the late 1880's, opened up the possibility of long distance road racing, by improving the stability and the comfort of the ride. Bordeaux-Paris of 1891 came to be the first venue to demonstrate the improved capabilities of the bicycle, and has come to be commonly identified as the first long distance road race of the safety bicycle era.

Bordeaux-Paris did not fulfill its organisers' original intentions of becoming a venue for amateur sport tourism. Rather, it came to be regarded, for a while, as one of the most important events in the professional road racing calendar. In some part, this had to do with the peculiarity of the rules associated with the event, rules that survived from the event's first running. It was a race in which a racer was permitted to arrange for his own pacers - themselves not competitors in the event. From 1891 to 1931, pacing was carried out by bicycle (though, in some years, by tandem). In 1898 and 1899, racers were paced by cars. After 1931, until the later years of the event, pacing was conducted by motorcycle or by that strange motorcycle variant, the derny. The resources required to put together a pacing team beyond the capacity of most amateur cyclists, the race became the exclusive province of professional cyclists.

Until the advent of the First World war, Bordeaux-Paris was considered to be the "Queen" of the professional road races. Paris-Roubaix, created in 1896, was considered to be a warmup event for the older race. The popularity of stage races and, particularly after World War I, of the Tour de France, gradually eroded the prestige of Bordeaux-Paris. The race survived until the advent of the Second World War as a sort of specialised one-day classic. As such, it attracted a small number of professional riders who trained specifically for this longest one-day event. Following the Armistice, however, the race fell into rapid decline, overshadowed by the stage races, and even the criteriums that were scheduled against it. Like Paris - Brest - Paris, the event it spawned, Bordeaux - Paris ceased to be a road race, the last professional event taking place in 1985. Like Paris - Brest - Paris as well, the event has come to be occasion for a cyclotourist randonnée, at last filling the ambition of the event's founder.

The legacy of Bordeaux - Paris in the establishment of the randonnée class of events is important and direct. It is known that Maurice Martin and Pierre Giffard (the originator of Paris - Brest - Paris), both knew and had high regard for one another. There is evidence that suggests that Giffard both was well aware of the plans for Bordeaux - Paris and advanced in his planning for P.B.P. before the earlier event was staged. Giffard's event, however, was expressly designed as a race and, further, opened to participation by professional cyclists. Once again, it was Desgrange who was to play a crucial role in ensuring that Paris - Brest - Paris became the most important venue for French cyclotourism.

Desgrange detested pacing, indeed anything that gave a cyclist an advantage that did not accrue from a racer's own mind and body. He was always careful to include in the races that he organised, a separate class of riders variously called "touriste - routiers" or "isoles" who were without team support. It was Desgrange's agreement with the President of the Union des Audax Parisiens to open the running of the 1931 edition of Paris - Brest - Paris to cyclotourists (in place of "touriste - routiers") that prompted the development of the brevet series of increasing distances and that tied cyclotourism to that event.

By 1898, Martin was expressing disillusionment with the progress of cycletourism in France. France had been through a boom in manufacture that had placed ownership of bicycle within reach of a broad swathe of the French populace. The number of active cyclists had increased dramatically. However, the design of the bicycles brought to market, in Martin's view, did not reflect the needs of the cyclotourist, nor were the numbers of active tourists keeping pace with the explosion of bicycle ownership.

Like many of his social stratum, Martin's interests wandered to the development of the new automobile and aviation technologies at the beginning of the twentieth century. His services as a timekeeper was in demand by organisers of both automobile an flying events. Though cycling historians have not made it a focus of inquiry, it is likely that Martin was among those who opposed the creation in 1923 of the Fédération Française des Sociétés de Cyclotourisme (F.F.S.C.). In this they were turning away from the leadership of the Touring Club de France, increasingly occupied with motorised touring. It is almost as likely that Martin would have supported the attempt of the Union Velocipedique Francais to reassert control over cyclotouring clubs in 1926. But, perhaps, by that point in his life, he was past active involvement.

What is significant is that in 1953, when a memorial was erected in Martin's honour in the small town of Hossegor in his beloved Landes region, it was Achille Joinard of the Federation Francais du Cyclisme, the successor organisation to the U.V.F., and not representatives of the French cyclotouring community, who was present. The memorial has since disappeared, and with it the remembrance of an important figure in the development of sport tourism.

May 2005