Do You Know the Story of Paul de Vivie (1853 – 1930), the Inventor of Cyclotourisme?

Sometimes fate – and a Michelin map – lead you and your bike exactly where you were meant to be. In this case, it was the outskirts of Pernes-les-Fontaines in Provence, where I saw this statue …

“Wow, this guy must really like cycling,” I thought, as I stopped and took a couple photos. 

It turns out that Paul de Vivie (1853-1930) was totally into cycling and may have been the original cycling fanatic! He’s pretty much the inventor of long-distance bike tours, or, as he so eloquently and eternally named the thing we love to do: Cyclotourisme. 

Paul (we’re fellow cyclotourists, so I feel comfortable calling him Paul), was also one of the developers of the derailer system to change gears and make cycling so much more efficient; he started his own bike-building company (his bikes were called La Gauloise); published Le Cycliste magazine in the 1880s (it lasted into the 1970s); and wrote under the nom de plume of Velocio in his magazine.

I know: Paul/Velocio was the coolest guy ever!

Here’s what he wrote about riding: 

After a long day on my bicycle, I feel refreshed, cleansed, purified. I feel that I have established contact with my environment and that I am at peace. On days like that I am permeated with a profound gratitude for my bicycle.”

Exactly! 

This kindred spirit from the early days of the pedal revolution perfectly summed up the joys of cyclotourisme – and the intimate connection between man/woman and machine. There’s no need to try to improve upon what Paul/Velocio wrote, he nailed it. What he said is why we ride.

Here’s something else he wrote: 

My aim is to show that long rides of hundreds of miles with only an occasional stop are no strain on the healthy organism. To prove this point is not only a pleasure, it is a duty for me. 

And so, he went on really long rides. Often.

According to this story: “His serious cycling started in 1886 on a Eureka with solid rubber tires (pneumatics came in 1889). On this bicycle he rode 90 miles from Saint-Etienne to Vichy before noon. In 1889 he made his first 150-miler, a round trip from Saint -Etienne to Charlieu on a British Star weighing fifty-five pounds … Sometimes alone, sometimes with a small group of friends, he would ride through the night, through the second day, through the second night, and into the third day without more than occasional rest to eat or change clothes.”

The Velocio was a beast! I wonder I could keep up with him, on my all-carbon bike?

He rode the Alp mountain passes in 1900: 400 miles, 18,000 feet of climbing in 48 hours; he rode from Saint-Etienne to Menton and back, 600 miles, in four days, in 1903; he rode 350 miles to Nice in 32 hours, then immediately departed on a “leisurely” 250-mile, three-day ride with some friends. I wonder who led the pack?

Every cyclist between twenty and sixty in good health can ride 130 miles in a day with 600 feet of climbing, provided he eats properly and provided he has the proper bicycle.

To prove his point, in 1912, at the age of 59, he rode the 400 miles from Saint-Etienne to Aix-en-Provence in 46 hours. 

Now remember, riding hundreds of miles was a lot tougher back then. The roads were paved with, well, dirt, rocks and gravel, making Paul/Velocio one of the founders of gravel grinding. The bikes were heavy; the tires were wide, the brakes were, I presume, not so great at braking, which made descending a white-knuckle, adrenaline-fueled adventure. And: no energy bars or sports drinks. It seems Paul/Velocio was also a bit of a health fanatic, and didn’t smoke or drink, which made him quite an anomaly for the times. He didn’t eat meat, which was even more of an anomaly. What the heck did he carry along with him to eat and drink? 

Paul/Velocio also developed what are referred to as the Seven Commandments for the Wise Cyclist. And damn, if they don’t still hold true today, more than 100 years later. Let’s go through them, one by one.

1-Keep your stops short and few. 

2-Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty. You can’t argue with science

3-Never get too tired to eat or sleep. I’ve never been too tired to eat! 

4-Add a layer before you’re cold, take one off before you’re hot. No spandex of gortex back then.

5-Lay off wine, meat and tobacco on tour. Thank goodness he didn’t mention beer!

6-Ride within yourself, especially in the first hour. Yes, it’s called pacing … and he did it without a bike computer, Garmin or GPS.

7-Never show off. Uh-oh, I don’t think Peter Sagan knows of this one.

There’s a sad ending to the story: Paul/Velocio was killed on February 27, 1930 when he was hit by a tram while wheeling his bike across a busy street in St-Etienne. 

Here’s one final quote from our hero …

I will never forget the day I climbed the Puy Mary. There were two of us on a fine day in May. We started in the sunshine and stripped to the waist. Halfway, clouds enveloped us and the temperature tumbled. Gradually it got colder and wetter, but we did not notice it. In fact, it heightened our pleasure. We did not bother to put on our jackets or our capes, and we arrived at the little hotel at the top with rivulets of rain and sweat running down our sides. I tingled from top to bottom.

OK, if I didn’t already feel a connection to Paul/Velocio, there’s this: The Puy Mary is at the top of my biking bucket list, one of the highlights of the Sarlat to Avignon route I’ve mapped out and am determined to ride. And now, when I get to the summit of the Puy Mary, I will tip my cycling helmet to my friend and thank him for inventing cyclotourisme.

***

Here’s the link to my Biking France books (Provence, Bordeaux, Normandy, the Loire and the Dordogne). I recently took all five off Amazon, iBooks and all the other eBook platforms because they took about 60 percent of the revenue. Now, thanks to even more tech advances, I can make them available as PDFs.

5 thoughts on “Do You Know the Story of Paul de Vivie (1853 – 1930), the Inventor of Cyclotourisme?

  1. I had the joy of living in Saint-Étienne in the spring of 2002 when my wife brought the family on sabbatical. It was in St-É that Vélocio invented the first practical derailleur in 1902. And, because of his importance, St-É has a wonderful historical bicycle exhibit in the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie. Everything there is eye opening. My eyes widened most at the old recumbent. Who knew that recumbents were so old-fashioned?

    The Tour de France recognizes the historical significance of the city. It’s the start or the end of the Tour at least every 3 years. And, in 2022, it will be the start of the whole Tour for the first time! In July 2022, Vélocio will get the worldwide spotlight he deserves for his invention 120 years earlier.

    The bicycle rides around the city can be delightfully hilly (like a stage of the Tour) or pleasantly flat. I rode the route of the first railroad in France, gently downhill from the old coal mines north to Andrézieux. I didn’t see any evidence of the 1828 horse-drawn railroad, but I could imagine. The horses pulled the coal to the Loire River and hauled the empty cars back uphill. I then followed the “Gorges de la Loire” upriver in this remote area to the beautiful bridge at Unieux and home. The Loire here has no surviving chateaux, but I did climb the tower at the chateau ruine at Chambles.

    And you can ride south to the Col de la République and see a another monument to Vélocio. The ride starts at the “Rond-Point Vélocio” (Vélocio Rotary) and follows Rue Paul de Vivie. This monument calls him “Apostle of the Polymultipliée.” It’s near the spot where a fight broke out in the 1904 Tour de France between riders and rival spectators.

    On your way to the Col, you be riding along the continental divide. You’ll pass the chateau ruine, Rochetaillée, where raindrops on one side of the castle go east to the Rhône and the Mediterranean while raindrops on the other side go west to the Loire and the Atlantic.

    Saint-Étienne is in a saddle along the continental divide. I point this out because his 1912 trip at age 59 sounds at first as if was downhill all the way. In fact, the trip started with the Col de la République and the entire trip was hilly and roundabout, even going through the southern Alps at Daluis in ski country. His trip log from Le Cycliste magazine is available at http://velotextes.fr/spip.php?article236. Small correction to the blog post: He says the trip was 585 km (365 miles) and ended in Avignon.

    Saint-Étienne is just 35 miles southwest of Lyon. As the 13th largest city in France, it’s the largest French city that you’ve never heard of. It’s a friendly, walkable small city. There are few tourists around, so it’s a good place to practice your French and it feels more authentically French than the better-known cities. True, there’s not much to do there, but it’s clean (since the coal mines closed), quiet, and relaxing. And the bicycling is world class.

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      1. And thank you, Steve, for bringing back these memories and taking me all the way down the Vélocio rabbit hole. I learned a bunch of new stuff about him today. A quick correction in my post: In the second paragraph, I meant to say that Saint-Étienne has often been the start or finish of a *stage* of the Tour. 2022 is the first time that that it’s the start of the *very first* stage. (Of course, Paris is always the last stage–and StÉ is too far to be the start of that leisurely last leg of the race.

        After clicking “post” for my comment, I realized exactly why the Tour de France chose Saint-Étienne for 2022. It’s the 100th anniversary of the first “Vélocio Day” ride up the Col de la République (historically known as the Col du Grand Bois). To this day, that annual June ride attracts hundreds of bicyclists–ALL with derailleurs. Obviously, the 2022 race will start with this “Montée Vélocio” (Velocio Climb).

        I think that “journée Vélocio” was skipped in 2002, otherwise I would have heard about it and been there. It was very near my CILEC program that gently taught French to pitiable spouses of French speakers (among others). I recommend the Saint-Étienne CILEC program for any level of French speaker wannabe. They have trimesters, so you can do it on a 90-day tourist visa. Most classes are morning, so you have plenty of bicycling time. It’s not expensive.

        If you can do it, visit Saint-Étienne in May 2022 and ride the “Montée Vélocio” before the Tour gets there. It’ll be more fun to watch the Tour that way. The weather there is almost always clear and mild in May (as it was in 1944 when the U.S. Army Air Force successfully bombed the rail yard and also clumsily sprayed the bombs on schools and churches, killing almost 1000 civilians and no Nazis. The memorials and graves are citywide.)

        There is direct TGV train service to Saint-Étienne from Paris. The connection from the Lyon airport is relatively easy. I would do it if I could and maybe I can.

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