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The French army began experimenting with cycling infantrymen in the late 1870s; by the 1890s it had formulated official regulations on military cycling that covered the organization and responsibilities of corps of infantry cyclists, who were principally to be used as liaison officers transmitting orders and other communications. To maximize the bicycle’s wartime utility, in 1890 Captain Gerard, the leading French advocate of military cycling and the commander of the cycling company based in Saint-Quentin, designed a folding bicycle that soldiers carried on their backs over unfavourable terrain. After rigorous testing, a military commission d’experience concluded that the folding bicycle was ‘good for wartime use.’
The increasing importance and potential contributions of military cycling were officially recognized in 1901, when cycling infantrymen paraded down the Champs-Elysees during the July 14th celebrations and Gerard himself was received by the president of the Republic. Four years later Gerard, now a major, was in command of a battalion of four companies of cyclists. In October 1913, as war loomed ever closer, the French army created ten groups of chasseurs cyclistes, each of which had four hundred men.
‘The Tour de France: A Cultural History’ by Christopher S. Thompson
With its frame number #131, this is a rare example from the beginning of Peugeot’s production of the Capitaine Gerard. Although they were made for the military, Peugeot also advertised them for the civilian market: in the 1901 catalogue you can see illustrations of men, women, children, and even priests riding them – they were particularly suitable for priests who, with their long cassocks, had a similar problem to women when riding bicycles.
The Captain Gerard Folding Bicycle had a number of modifications in 1912 to bring it up to date for the French army. It was now fitted with mudguards and more modern handlebars. Brakes were an option too. With a shortage of bicycles when war broke out, all were called into service and as this one still survives it’s likely it saw some sort of usage during WW1.
1900 BICYCLETTE PLIANTE PEUGEOT ‘SYSTEM GERARD’
Peugeot Capitaine Gerard Folding Bicycle
26 x 1 1/2″ Wheels
Frame No 131
The Capitaine Gerard folding bicycle was used extensively by the French army during World War One. This example has a coaster brake and a French civilian handlebar. So either it was used in the war and after the French cyclist corps had been disbanded it was sold by the military for civilian use. Or maybe it was originally sold as a civilian model.
It was restored around 20 years ago, when it was on display in a museum. I bought it after the museum closed. It is in good condition all round, with new white tyres. The paintwork is faded in places, and the handlebar is of similar age but is a different colour. The turn-of-the-century models and some of the wartime models had a brake whose rod travelled through the centre of the steering head to press directly onto the front wheel. As you can see from the illustrations, not every Capitaine Gerard used this system. The coaster brake option is the simplest, and eventually replaced the integral front brake.
With frame number 131, this rare early example is one of the first Capitaine Gerard machines manufactured by Peugeot. It has recently been serviced, has been used on various long-distance rides over the past few years, and is now ready for this season’s shows and rides…
THE GERARD-MOREL PATENT
Quite a few historical texts claim that the French military invented the first folding bike. In particular, a French military officer named Captain Gérard is given credit. This simply was not true but there is an fascinating story behind this misnomer. A complete telling of the story is in a book entitled “Charles Morel – constructeur dauphinois sous la troisième république”. Since it is in French, here’s the short version: Charles Morel, a wealthy French industrialist, became enamored with the relatively new bicycle craze and devised of a folding bicycle and built a prototype in 1892. Independently, in 1893, a French army lieutenant named Henry Gérard imagined the use of a folding bike by the army and filed a patent for one through his father-in-law Henri Noêl on June 27, 1893. The problem was that this bike was deeply flawed and basically didn’t work. While looking for help to fix the design flaws he was introduced to Charles Morel. Mr. Morel showed his prototype bike to Gérard and suggested that he meet with one of his mechanics named Dulac and get his help in perfecting a working folding bike design. Dulac was successful in this endeavor so on Oct. 5, 1894 Charles Morel and Lieutenant Gérard entered into an agreement to manufacture and commercialize a folding bike. Morel would finance and oversee the manufacturing and Gérard would promote it. Production of the bike began in April of 1895 and it was an immediate success with orders quickly exceeding production capacity. In October of 1895 a retail store was opened in Paris to sell the bike to the public. Gérard was tasked to market to the French military which were subsequently supplied with 25 test bikes. The Romanian and Russian armies placed orders as well. Lieutenant Gérard was successful in selling the idea of using folding bikes to the army and was ultimately put in charge of a regiment of folding bike equipped soldiers and was eventually promoted to the rank of Captain, largely because this folding bike. Charles Morel let Gérard become the public face of their folding bike joint venture, leading everyone to believe that Captain Gérard was the father of the idea when in fact Mr. Morel had the idea first and completely financed the venture. After a while Captain Gérard started to believe this hype himself and sued Mr. Morel for what he though was his fair share of the profits. This caused a falling out between the two men culminating in the dissolution of the partnership. The patents for the folding bike were eventually sold to a consortium of Peugeot, Michelin, and the French army and they took over production of the bike in 1899. This folding bike first appeared in the Peugeot sales catalog in 1899. I was able to find a patent application made in England for the “Captain Gerard folding bike” dated January 18, 1896 (two years later than the French patent mentioned). Henry Gérard is listed as the co-inventor on the patent along with Charles Morel.
[This info thanks to – http://www.foldingcyclist.com/folding-bike-history.html]
FRAME No 131
Capitaine Gerard bicycles have their frame numbers stamped into three locations: the offside lower steering head; the nearside dropout; nearside upper top tube to the rear of the folding joint.
This example has ‘131’ in the first two locations, but in the third location the stamping has faded.
1914 PEUGEOT CATALOGUE
1901 LA BICYCLETTE PLIANTE et PORTATIVE SYSTEM du CAPITAINE GERARD