Societe la Francaise was a major contendor in cycle racing in the early years of the 20th century, and many cycles La Francaise Diamante were ridden to victory. In France, this was also the height of the Belle Epoque era, when French artists were commissioned to design bicycle posters, invariably featuring scantily-clad women to represent the ‘freedom of the road’ …bear in mind that cars and motorcycles had not yet taken over!
Though there are not that many La Francaise Diamante bicycles still in existence, the company is still well known because of its wonderful heritage of posters.
Belle Epoque: The years between 1871 and 1914 represent one of the most fascinating periods in European history. During this time Europe was enjoying a period of interior peace, and a modern world began to emerge. Arts and sciences developed with an incomparable speed and intensity. A joy of life awoke in all social classes, and with that a desire for new, extraordinary, sensational things. People were seized by the feeling of a new start into better times and a sense of freedom and happiness prevailed.
History’s greatest transformation of art and poetry from traditional to modern occurred during the Belle Epoque. Art in every genre prospered like never before. In Paris, a recognizable artistic style emerged during this era where it appeared in numerous forms, most notably in posters advertising various goods and entertainment. Food, beverages, bicycles, and theatrical performances were but a few of the subjects of these now famous Parisian works.
1904 La Bicyclette Societe La Francaise
MODEL DE GRAND LUXE POUR DAME
Early 1900s bicycles are rare now in France. This one is in original condition, unrestored cosmetically. The paint has worn down and the metal has been preserved with rust-preventer. These very old tyres – collectors items in their own right! – hold air but if you want to use the bike, they will need rerplacing with modern tyres.
If you’re looking for a 107-year-old bicycle so you can experience riding in this long-forgotten era, this Francaise Diamante represents a good investment and would be an interesting addition to anyone’s vintage collection.
Société La Française marque Diamant
11, rue de Brunel, Paris
The company was founded in 1890 by Pierre-Victor Besse and Francis Trepier as la Société La Française, to manufacture velocipedes and components, at 27 rue Saint-Ferdinand in Paris. The name by which the company is now familiar was adopted in 1895, after they moved to 11 rue Brunel, Paris. The poster above is from that year (and the one below from 1905).
Rue Brunel is the heart of the 17th arrondissement, an area subsequently renowned for coach-building and the sale of exclusive cars. For example, Jacques Savoye established his garage at no 38 rue Brunel to sell British marques; they still sell Rolls Royces and Morgans.
The company achieved many racing successes in France in the beginning of of the twentieth century.
The poster above illustrates the La Francaise Diamant victory in the Paris-Brest-Paris road race, which they won in 1901 and 1911 (at that time, this race only took place every ten years).
1901: Maurice Garin won the Paris-Brest-Paris race on a La Française bike.
1902: Maurice Garin won the Bordeaux-Paris road race.
1903: Maurice Garin won the first Tour de France on a La Française bicycle, which was black with a tricolour head. The company sponsiored eight riders in this race, of which the first five of this Tour de France were on La Française cycles. . Lucien Pothier was second, Fernand Augereau third, Rodolfo Muller fourth and John Fisher fifth.
1904: Eleven riders were sponsored by La Française. Maurice Garin won the Tour de France but was downgraded. Lucien Pothier was second and Cesar Garin third.
1909: in Copenhagen, V. Dupre became the indoor world cycling champion, in the professional speed category, on a La Française cycle.
1911: La Française won the Paris-Brest-Paris again with Emile Georget riding (he is pictured in the 1910 poster below).
At the end of WW1, the company joined a consortium of bicycle manufacturers, which included Peugeot, Hurtu, Alcyon, Automoto, Grioffon, Liberator, Laboir, Gladiator, Clement, Armor and Thomann. By 1923, Alcyon had become the dominant company, and took over La Francaise Diamant.
The three posters below are from 1935.
After WW2, La Française Diamant, along with Rhonson, ABG, Alcyon, Armor, Gentil, Labor, Lucer and Thomann were all taken over by VAP. As was common practice postwar, individual manufacturer badges from companies long defunct were used on postwar motorcycles to help boost sales; this tinge of nostalgia helped remind Frenchmen of the country’s wonderful early years of glory during the very beginning of the bicycle, motorcycle and autombile industry.
1900 WORLDS FAIR and the PARIS VELODROME
The most important cycling landmark in France around this time was the Paris velodrome. You can read its history below.
In 1900 Paris hosted a Worlds Fair – l’Exposition Universelle – to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next. France’s first Velodrome was created as a result of this exposition.
The Vélodrome d’Hiver (‘Winter Velodrome’), colloquially Vel’ d’Hiv’, was an indoor cycle track (or velodrome) in the rue Nélaton, close to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The original track was housed in the Salles des Machines, the building used for the industrial display of the World’s Fair which ended in 1900 and for which the Eiffel Tower was the most striking monument. The building stayed unoccupied after the exhibition.
In 1902 the Salle des Machines was inspected by Henri Desgrange, who the following year inaugurated the Tour de France on behalf of the newspaper that he edited, L’Auto.
With him were Victor Goddet, the newspaper’s treasurer, an engineer named Durand, and an architect, Gaston Lambert. It was Lambert who said he could turn the hall into a sports arena with a track 333 metres long and eight metres wide. He finished it in 20 days.
The first meeting there, on 20 December 1903, had an audience of 20,000. They paid seven francs for the best view and a single franc to see hardly anything at all. The seating was primitive and there was no heating. The first event was not a cycle race but a walking competition over 250 metres. The first cycling competition was a race ridden behind pacing motorcycles. Only one rider – Cissac – managed to complete the 16 km, the others having crashed on the unaccustomed steepness of the track banking.
In 1909 the Salle des Machines was listed for demolition, to improve the view of the Eiffel Tower. Desgrange moved to another building nearby, at the corner of the boulevard de Grenelle and the rue Nélaton. The venue was named the Vélodrome d’Hiver.
There could be so many spectators jammed in the track centre for cycling events that they resembled passengers in the Paris métro in the rush hour. The richer and more knowledgeable spectators bought seats in the trackside seats and the rest crowded into the upper balcony from which the track looked a distant bowl. A rivalry grew up between those in the top row and those below them, to the extent that those on high sometimes threw sausages, bread rolls and even bottles on to those below or, if they could throw that far, on to the track. The hall’s managers had to install a net to catch the larger missiles.
Six-day racing had started in London in the 19th century but it had taken a change to a race not for individuals but for teams of two to make it truly popular. The new formula was created in America at Madison Square Garden. It became known in English as the madison and in French as l’américaine. The first such six-day race at the Vel’ d’Hiv’ started on 13 January 1913.
The riders included the Tour de France winners Louis Trousselier and Émile Georget and other prominent riders such as Octave Lapize. The race began at 6pm and by 9pm all 20,000 seats were sold. Among those who watched was the millionaire Henri de Rothschild, who offered a prize of 600 francs, and the dancer Mistinguett, who offered 100f. The winners were Goulet and Fogler, an American-Australian pairing.
WW2: Unfortunately, during the war, the velodrome became associated with nazi atrocities. The Vel’ d’Hiv’ was available for hire to whomever wanted it. Among those who booked was Jacques Doriot, a stocky, round-faced man who led France’s largest fascist party, the PPF. It was at the Vel’ d’Hiv’, among other venues, that Doriot, with his Hitler-like salute, roused crowds to join his cause.
In 1940, the Germans invaded France and occupied its northern half, including Paris. On 7 June 1942 they completed plans for Operation Spring Wind, to arrest 28,000 foreign and stateless Jews using 9,000 French policemen. Arrests started early on July 16 and were complete by 11 am. Among those who helped in the round-up were 3,400 young members of Doriot’s PPF.
Needing a place to hold the detainees, the Germans demanded the keys of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ from its owner, Jacques Goddet, who had taken over from his father Victor and from Henri Desgrange. The circumstances in which Goddet surrendered the keys remain a mystery, and the episode occupies only a few lines in his autobiography.
The Vel’ d’Hiv’ had a glass roof, which had been painted dark blue to help avoid attracting bomber navigators. The dark glass roof, combined with windows screwed shut for security, raised the temperature inside the structure. The 13,152 people held there had no lavatories; of the 10 available, five were sealed because their windows offered a way out, and the others were blocked. The arrested Jews were kept there for eight days with only water and food brought by Quakers, the Red Cross and the few doctors and nurses allowed to enter. Those arrested were sent to an internment camp in half-completed tower blocks at Drancy and then to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. Only 400 survived.
For decades the French government declined to apologise for the role of French policemen in the round-up or for any other state complicity. President Jacques Chirac eventually issued a formal acknowledgement and apology fifty years after the war, on 16 July 1995.
Post-War: An enthusiast, John Aulton, described the track in the first years after the war. He visited Paris on a tour organised for English schoolchildren who slept in tents in the grounds of a lycée. He was alone in wanting to see the Vélodrome d’Hiver. He wrote:
I set out on my Raleigh Sports… I arrived elated and full of anticipation but my joy was short-lived, all the doors were locked and barred and there was no sign of life. Without warning a side door flew open and a small powerfully built man came hurtling out of the gloom into the sunlight. A flapping empty sleeve hung where his right arm should have been. He poured a tirade of French at me before stepping back inside and slamming the door. I gave the door another swift kick and shouted in English that all I wanted was to see the famous track. The door slowly opened and the one-armed man stepped outside, but this time a broad smile covered his previously angry face. “Anglais?” he said, as if uttering some special password. He spoke in halting English. Did I know Wembley? He had ridden the London six-day there? He put his one good arm around my shoulder and escorted me and my Raleigh into the stadium.
The old track was looking the worse for wear. There was dust everywhere and the shafts of sunlight that penetrated the dirty blue skylights picked out the particles dancing in the air. I walked over to the banking and touched the boards that had seen so much drama. Suddenly and without explanation a feeling of fear and revulsion came over me; I grabbed my bike and ran as fast as I could into the outside world. The door would not open at first but a panic-stricken tug freed it and I dashed out into the heat of a Parisian afternoon and pedalled away not caring in which direction just so long as I could get away from the Vélodrome d’Hiver.
[ This text with thanks to http://wapedia.mobi/en/V%C3%A9lodrome_d%27hiver]
[Velodrome photo with thanks to ‘Hemingway at the velodrome’ which you can read at http://www.ciclisucarta.it/stuff/hemingway_en.htm]
[Some of the old posters and company history from Tonto’s lovely French website – http://www.tontonvelo.com/LaFrancaise_Eng.htm]