The Best of Bicycling
Date with Death
by Clifford L. Graves, M.D.
A tense group of people was gathered on the freeway near the German
town of Friedburg on July 19, 1962.
Herr Heinemann had painstakingly measured off the official kilometer.
Half a dozen timekeepers of the International Timing Association were
fiddling with their electrical equipment. Captain Dalicampt of the
French occupation forces deployed his men at strategic points along
the cleared Autobahn. Chief Schefold of the federal highway department
dispatched a sweeper crew. Adolf Zimber lovingly wiped a bit of
invisible dirt off the windshield of his massive Mercedes. Reporters were
asking questions, scribbling notes. A photographer was angling for a
shot. José Meiffret was about to start his Date with Death.
Of all the tense people, Meiffret was the least so. A diminutive
Frenchman with wistful eyes and a troubled expression, he was resting
beside a strange-looking bicycle. A monstrous chain wheel with 130
teeth connected with a sprocket with 15. The rake on the fork was
reversed. Rims were of wood to prevent overheating. The gooseneck was
supported with a flying buttress. The well-worn tires were tubulars. The
frame was reinforced at all the critical points. Weighting forty-five
pounds, this machine was obviously constructed to withstand incredible
On this day, at this place, on this bicycle, José Meiffret was aiming to
reach the fantastic speed of 124 miles an hour. Everything was now in
readiness. Meiffret adjusted his helmet, mounted the bike, and tighten
the toe straps. Getting under way with a gear of 225 inches was something
else again. A motorcycle came alongside and started pushing him.
At 20 miles an hour, Meiffret was struggling to gain control. His legs
were barely moving. At 40 miles, he was beginning to hit his stride. At
50 miles, the Mercedes with its curious rear end was just behind. With
a wave of his hand, Meiffret dismissed his motorcycle and connected
neatly with the windscreen of the Mercedes. His timing was perfect.
He had overcome his first great hazard.
Swiftly, the bizarre combination of man and machine gathered speed.
Meiffret's job on penalty of death was to stay glued to his windscreen.
The screen had a roller, but if he should touch it at 100 miles an hour,
he would be clipped. On the other hand, if he should fall behind as
little as 18 inches, the turbulence would make mincemeat of him. If the
car should jerk or lurch or hit a bump, he would be in immediate mortal
danger. An engineer had warned him that at these speeds, the centrifugal
force might cause his flimsy wheels to collapse. Undismayed b
the prospect, Meiffret bent down to his task.
He was now moving at 80 miles. News of the heroic attempt had
spread, and the road ahead was lined with spectators. Everybody was
expecting something dreadful to happen. Herr Thiergarten in the car
showed Meiffret how fast he was going by prearranged signals. Meiffret
in turn could speak to the driver through a microphone. "Allez, allez,"
he shouted, knowing that he had only nine miles to accelerate and
decelerate. The speedometer showed 90. What if he should hit a pebble, an
oil slick, a gust of wind? Ahead was bridge and clump of woods.
Crosscurrents were inevitable.
- In his pocket, Meiffret carried a note:
- "In case of fatal accident, I beg
of the spectators not to feel sorry for me. I am a poor man, an orphan
since the age of eleven, and I have suffered much. Death holds no terror
for me. This record attempt is my way of expressing myself. If the doctors
can do no more for me, please bury me by the side of the road
where I have fallen."
Who was this man Meiffret who could ride a bicycle at such passionate
speeds and still look at himself dispassionately?
He was born in 1913 in the village of Boulouris o the French Riviera.
Orphaned at an early age, he had to got work to support himself and
an aging grandmother. One day, as he was hurrying home from work
on his ancient bicycle, he was run down by a motorist. José was badly
shaken, and his bicycle was ground to bits. Distraught, the motorist
offered to buy José a new bicycle. It was a beauty. Before long, his bike
was his life. When he wasn't riding, he was reading. Under the skinny
frame and deep-set eyes burned a fierce ambition. Someday he was
going to beat the world.
His first race was a fiasco. Totally unprepared, he entered a 120-miler
through the mountains and was promptly dropped. His competitors
made fun of him, and a doctor told him that he had a weak heart and
should never race. That night José cried himself to sleep.
The man who changed José's career was Henry Desgrange, the
founder of the Tour de France. Desgrange had a villa on the Riviera,
and José wrangled an introduction. Desgrange sensed the compelling
drive in the delicate body, and he made an accurate assessment,
motor-paced racing, my boy. You might surprise yourself."
José did just that. With fear and trepidation he entered a motor-paced
race between Nice and Cannes. Without any indoctrination whatever
he was immediately at home. Riding smoothly and elegantly, in perfect
unison with his pacer and in complete control of himself, he was out
front all the way and finished a full seven minutes ahead. The people
Encouraged by this success, he arranged to go over the same course
behind a more powerful motor. This ride was an epic. Intoxicated by his
speed, he barely missed a car in Nice, grazed a dog in Cannes, scraped
a sidewalk in Antibes, had a flat five miles front the finish, and yet hung
up a new record of 1.02 for the 40 miles. He had found his destiny.
How could a rider like José make a splash before he had caused a
ripple? Racing behind motorist is quite different from racing in a group.
Behind motors, the speed is higher, the pedaling faster, the concentration
greater. It is like a continuous sprint. A motor-paced rider must have suppleness rather than strength. And he must have flair.
But a motor-paced rider is not made overnight. Just as José was
beginning to hit his stride, the war broke out. When he returned to Paris
after five dreary years of captivity, he was as far from his goal as ever.
Motor-paced racing has a long and honorable history, but only a few
men have ever excelled in it. In America, the sport died after "Mile-a-Minute"
Murphy did his amazing ride behind a Long Island Railroad
train in 1899. In Europe, the sport survived. On the road, the hour
record was set in the thirties by the Frenchman Paillard with 49.362
miles. Meiffret raised this in 1949 to 54.618. Paillard immediately raised
this figure to 59.954 but he almost got killed in the attempt. To beat
Paillard, Meiffret selected a special circuit in Germany, the Grenzlandring.
Cheered by thousands, he covered 65.115 miles in an hour and
could have done more if his motor had been running right. All this
required incessant training and complete concentration. Meiffret's philosophy was "to become what you are."
Although his exploit at Grenzlandring brought him great acclaim,
it did not bring him any money. In fact, none of Meiffret's rides brought
him any money. All his life, he had to fight poverty. He supported himself
with odd jobs and with occasional writing. His latest book Mes
rendezvous avec la mort, earned him the 1965 Grand Prize for Sports
Writing and the Prix Sobrier-Arould of the prestigious Académie
In an effort to improve his position in 1951, he decided to race behind
cars instead of motorcycles. Cars are bigger and faster. Here, the man
to beat was Alfred Letourneur, an expatriate Frenchman who had
covered a measured mile behind a car on the Las Angeles freeway at
108.923 in 1941.
Meiffret's first attempt was behind a Talbot. To his consternation, he
could not get past 70 miles an hour. Aerodynamic engineers told him
to modify his windscreen. After months of toil and heartbreak he tried
again. A 20-mile stretch of road south of Toulouse was especially
cleared (even the President of the French Republic was detoured on that
day). On his first run, the Talbot faltered. On his second run, he lost
contact and was almost flattened by the wind. On his third run, he hit
a bump and was in free flight for 50 feet, but he held on and finished
the kilometer at 109.100 miles per hour. Letourneur had been beaten, but
not by much.
Undisputed record man of the hour and of the kilometer on the road,
Meiffret next turned to the track at Montlhery. Here, the Belgian
Vanderstuyft had ridden 78.159 an hour behind a motorcycle in
1928. But Montlhery in 1928 was new. In 1952 it was old. The pavement
was starting to crack, and the turns were atrocious. The track superintendent
shook his head. He had seen many try. But Meiffret was
determined. On the appointed day, he rode his first lap at 80 miles per
hour. Suddenly, coming out of the turn on the seventh lap, his bicycle
started bucking. Nobody knew what actually happened. Perhaps the
pedals, which had less than an inch of clearance, scraped. At any rate,
Meiffret flew through the air, hit the ground, tumbled three hundred
feet, slid another twenty, and came to a rest, a quivering mass of flesh.
Horrified attendants carried him to an ambulance, and newspapers
announced his imminent death. That night surgeons found five separate
skull fractures. Unbelievably, Meiffret lived through this ordeal.
Then followed a long period of recuperation during which he fought
as much for his mental sanity as for his physical health. In search of
peace, he joined the Trappists at Sept-Fons and led the life of a monk.
During this time he made continuous improvements on his bicycle,
wrote his first book (Breviary of a Cyclist), and corresponded with
hundreds of people. Thus he learned of a new freeway at Lahr in
Germany where he might gain permission for another attempt on the flying
kilometer. In the fall of 1961, when he was already forty-eight, he
reached 115.934 miles per hour. This ride convinced him that he could
reach 200 kilometers (124 miles) an hour. Thus we find Meiffret in the
summer of 1962 on the freeway at Freiburg, riding like a man possessed.
The Mercedes performed flawlessly. People could not believe their
eyes. What they saw was the car in full flight with and arched figure
immediately behind, legs whirling, jersey fluttering, wheels quivering.
"Allez, allez," gasped Meiffret into the mike. In the car, the speedometer
crept past 100 mph, then 110 and 120. Anguished, Zimber looked into his
rear-view mirror. How could Meiffret keep himself positioned? It was
At the flat, the speed had increased to 127. Faster than an express
train, faster than a plummeting skier, faster than a free fall in space.
Meiffret's legs were spinning at 3.1 revolutions per second, and each
second carried him 190 feet! He was no longer a man on a bike. He was the
flying Frenchman, the superman of the bicycle, the magician of the pedals,
the eagle of the road, the poet of motion. He knew that he must live
in the rarefied atmosphere for eighteen seconds. When he passed
the second flag, the chronometers registered 17.580 seconds, equivalent to
127.342 miles an hour.
Meiffret had survived his date with death.
Le Mistral, sur le plateau de Bourgogne, force à 140 à la heure, et la france s'enorgueillit de cette performance au point d'en faire l'un de grandes themes de sa propagande touristique : pensez-donc! Un train qui relie Paris à dijon à 128 de moyenne, c'est fabuleux.
Mais José Meiffret, lui, roule à bicyclette à deux cents à l'heure, si on mettait l'homme et le train côte à côte, au bout de dix km, meiffret précéderait la mistral de trois km. cela parait invraisemblable, incompréhensible--et pourtant c'est ainsi : un homme, en appuyant sur les pédales, roule à deux cents! bien sûr, il lui faut un vélo spécial, un engin mécanique lui coupe le vent. Mais le simple fait de rouler sans tomber, de se tenir en équilibre à cette vitesse phénoménale sur deux simples roues, cela tient du prodige--et, en fait, c'est un prodige.
Lorsque Jacques Anquetil couvre une demi-étape du Tour de France à 46 de moyenne, mes confrères de la Presse manquent d'adjectifs suffisamment forts pour souligner de valeur de l'exploit. Or, je le répète, José Meiffret roule environ cinq fois plus vite qu'Anquetil.