Fallen Cyclists

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Fallen cyclists might make you think of a crash but this is the story those who fell in the ugly battle of warfare, of those that are remembered on Sunday in Europe and beyond. Almost every village in France and Italy has its memorial to the fallen.

Here’s the brief tale of four riders Lucien Petit-Breton, Octave Lapize, Ludwig Opel and Roland Garros. All their names live on for different reasons but they were all cyclists who never made it home from the 1914-1918 war.

Lucien Petit-Breton
Petit-Breton was arguably the first champion of cycle sport as we know it today. The sport developed from exhibition races in Parisian parks into full classics like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix and then the grand tours like the Tour de France and the Giro. Specialisms didn’t quite exist in those days, the effort to win Paris-Roubaix was almost the same for the Tour de France, a pure test of stamina although obviously some lighter riders fared better over the mountains than others.

Lucien Petit-Breton

Petit by name, big by palmarès

Petit-Breton spent his childhood in Argentina where he won a bike in a lottery but his parents frowned on his racing so he changed his name from Mazan to Breton so that his father would not notice. I’m not sure how much disguise this cover provided for him in South America and in fact it caused confusion as there was another rider called Lucien Breton so the name was changed to Petit-Breton. Despite early Argentinian nationality he was recalled to France for his national service and stayed in Europe where he began to rack up impressive wins, first with Paris-Tours in 1906, then the inaugural Milan-Sanremo in 1907 and the Tour de France in the same year. He won the Tour again in 1908 and more.

Over 1.3 million died in the 1914-1918 war and not all on the front line. Petit-Breton was a champion on the bike but had an unremarkable military career and died in a car crash as he travelled behind the front, he was taken to hospital but passed away.

Octave Lapize
By contrast Lapize had a more glorious military career as a fighter pilot that was briefly as glorious as his cycling career. A Parisian by birth he went on to win the 1910 Tour de France and then consistently won races in France until war broke out.

Lapize is probably most famous today as the man who cried “assassin” at the Tour de France’s Henri Desgrange as the race crossed the Aubisque for the first time in 1910. The Col remains very tough today but back then the road was not surfaced and the bikes were rudimentary. But the story of Lapize and Desgrange is a myth.

Desgrange was back in Paris, overseeing the chronicle of the race via the publication of L’Auto newspaper. Instead when Lapize reached the top, he saw Victor Breyer who had the dual role of sports reporter and race official. Lapize was unhappy and Breyer asked “well Lapize, what’s up” to which Lapize replied “You are like criminals. Tell Desgrange from me that you don’t ask men to make an effort like this. I’m fed up.” Criminals, yes but the tale of “assassins” seems to be an exaggeration added in time.

Lapize memorial

The Lapize memorial at the Col du Tourmalet

Lapize died in an air crash after a high altitude combat where his plane was sent into a tailspin by the draft of his opponent. Like Petit-Breton (and others like François Faber) there are some good arguments to say war prevented them from being even greater names in the sport, whether the lost years of war or if they had survived and were able to resume their old career.

Ludwig Opel
Ludwig Opel

The youngest of the five Opel brothers, Ludwig (pictured on the right) was a keen cyclist and was runner up in the 1898 world championships  for the sprint. If the Opel name rings a bell, it is because it is one of the world’s largest auto manufacturers as part of General Motors.

The German firm started selling sewing machines but moved into bicycles and the five sons were soon riding and racing to promote the brand. Like many cycle manufacturers at the time the metal works and spotting demand for the motor car meant they moved into the auto sector and by 1899 Opel had its first car and by 1914 it was Germany’s largest car constructor. Ludwig rose to the rank of Oberleutnant in the German army but died on the front in 1916.

Roland Garros
Talking of names that live on today this name might remind you of a major tennis tournament but Roland Garros was a French aviator and fighter pilot who died a month before the end of the war in October 1918.

No pedal power but a Gnome motor with Oléo spark plugs

He came from the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean and enjoyed his sports. As a student in Paris he played tennis regularly and today the French Open takes place in the Roland Garros stadium. He tried many sports and was a cyclist too and in 1906 he was the French school and university champion. Like Petit-Breton, rode against the wishes of his father and exploited a false name, this time under an anagram of Roland, “Danlor.”

andrew November 10, 2012 at 5:06 pm

“the effort to win Paris-Roubaix was almost the same for Paris-Roubaix”

i think this is an error.

The Inner Ring November 10, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Correct, and corrected above. Thanks.

Davido November 10, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Fascinating read. Many thanks.

Chris November 10, 2012 at 6:49 pm

Very interesting.

Tom November 10, 2012 at 6:22 pm

Re Lucien Petit-Breton: He was born Lucien Mazan, but changed it to Lucien Breton as a pseudonym for racing, and then Lucien Petit-Breton.


The Inner Ring November 10, 2012 at 11:36 pm

That’s right. He found another rider with the real name of Lucien Breton so he changed the name again, I’m amended the text above to make this clearer.

Steve November 10, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Alway interesting, thanks for your imagination and knowledge.

Skippy November 10, 2012 at 8:12 pm

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InTheGC November 10, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Yet another fantastic post!

Aquarius November 10, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Nice article.
Réunion is not in the Pacific ocean though, it’s in the Indian one, somewhere East of Madagascar.

The Inner Ring November 10, 2012 at 11:34 pm

Thanks, not sure why I put Pacific as it’s the Indian Ocean near Mauritius and the Seychelles and remains part of France today.

Owen Rogers November 10, 2012 at 8:54 pm

I do believe Lapize won Roubaix, or am I just old and confused?

Brilliant and timely entry. Thanks

steppings November 10, 2012 at 11:46 pm

Very interesting, thank you Inrng. so that’s where Roland Garros comes from.

Holdermort November 11, 2012 at 3:09 am

Lapize sounds like a bit of a Goose

Bundle November 11, 2012 at 4:58 am

Good research, although I don’t know why François Faber is mentioned but not included. It must also be said that “Bretón” is not an unusual surname in Spain and South America.

The Inner Ring November 11, 2012 at 10:37 am

Partly because everyone mentions the trinity of Lapize, Petit-Breton and Faber, I wanted to look at two obvious examples but then to pick another like Garros plus someone on the German side like Ludwig. But there were so many more riders of course, like 1896 Olympic champion Léon Flameng of France, double world champion Emile Friol all the way to the more anonymous riders. Take George Bronchard, a former Tour de France lanterne rouge who, somewhat fittingly, died in the back of an ambulance as he was being driven away from the line or the youngest ever Tour rider from the period Camille Fily who finished the 1905 Tour aged just 18 and died right at the end of the war on the slopes of the Kemmelberg / Mont Kemmel.

DrewC November 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Great post, as usual, Inner Ring for Armistice/Remembrance/Veterans Day.

There’s a memorial to Faber in the chapel at the Notre Dame de Lorette French Military Cemetery. A friend and I visited this memorial a few years back on a bicycle tour of the Western Front, I have a photo of the Faber plaque somewhere, but can’t find it on my computer at the moment and crazyguyonabike.com is offline at the mo, so can’t link to the picture there.

Lance Woodman November 11, 2012 at 10:48 am

There is a cyclists war memorial at Meriden near Coventry in England: http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-487965-cyclists-war-memorial-meriden-

JohnS November 11, 2012 at 3:06 pm
Shazzz November 11, 2012 at 11:07 am

Thanks for this. Very moving.

Vera November 11, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Great post. More to remember this day.

Jace November 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Very appropriate article for this weekend. Thank you.

Guy H November 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Another fantastic post, and very poignant at this time of year.

Larry T. November 11, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Nice bit, thanks for sharing it.

Owen Murphy November 11, 2012 at 7:22 pm


Jonas B. November 11, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Some other fallen cyclists in WOI:
– Carlo Oriani (Ita): won Giro d’Italia in 1913, died in 1917 while saving others in ice-cold water.
– Leon Comes (Fra) : multiple French champion, died together with his brother-in-law Leon Hourlier in a military air accident.
– Leon Hourlier (Fra)
– Emile Friol (Fra): died in a motorcycling accident
– Georges Deschamps (Fra): wounded and died in 1918
– Fritz Ryser (Swi): he was arrested for alleged espionage. He died at his home after a stroke.
– Marcel Kerff (Bel) : finished sixth in the Tour of 1903. He died at the first day (or in the first few days) of WOI. He was riding his bike to see what was going on, encountered Germans and was hung up because they thought he was a spy.
-François Faber (Lux) : there are different versions of his dead, some say he got a message that his daughter was born and jumped in the air and got shot. Others say he died in the battle of Carency while saving a fellow soldier.
– Victor Fastre (Bel) : died in battle
-….many more
A blog post on the interwebs about the Meriden Cyclist Memorial : http://bit.ly/WV0DvW
Here in Belgium (where I come from) there’s a monument in ‘Moelingen’ to remember all the fallen Belgian cyclists of WOI. Photo : http://bit.ly/WV2fpy

Steve November 12, 2012 at 1:16 am

This is the one place in France without a war memorial. In Britain the term ‘thankful villages’ was coined to describe the few places untouched by death. Lovely piece as ever.

DrewC November 12, 2012 at 2:57 am

Interesting stuff Steve, thanks.

fjorthur November 12, 2012 at 4:03 am

Nice read. Opel died a hero, his last name died when his family’s company used slave labor in WW II.

fjorthur November 12, 2012 at 4:10 am

In name only, GM purchased the Opel before WW II and used slave labor in the factories. Too bad the name was included.

Anon November 12, 2012 at 4:53 am

Very nice! Good break from the current affairs…

Andy G November 12, 2012 at 10:37 am

your ability to educate and entertain me knows no bounds, Monsieur Ring !! Chapeau

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