While the UCI only started recognising women’s Hour Records in 1955 cycling’s blue ribbon record goes back a lot further and, in part, owes its origins to a race organised more for its impact on the society pages than the sporting ones.
A little bit before six o’clock on the evening of July 7, 1893, Mademoiselle de Saint-Sauveur took to the cement track of the Vélodrome Buffalo and began to ride. Little is known about De Saint-Sauveur, we don’t even know her Christian name. But what she achieved that Friday evening in Paris means that she can never be forgotten. At the end of 60 minutes of riding she had covered a distance of 26.012 kilometres and written her name into the history books as the first woman to set an Hour Record.
De Saint-Sauveur’s Hour Record was reported widely, with one report being read by the 16-year-old Hélène Dutrieu. Unlike De Saint-Sauveur, we know a lot about Dutrieu, who went on to become a pioneering aviator and a performer of daring acrobatic feats on bicycles and motorcycles. She was inspired by what she read and on August 27, riding in the velodrome in Lille, Dutrieu set the first paced version of the record, covering just shy of 20 miles, 31.413km.
Cycling at this time was primarily about speed, and pacing was as much a part of the equation as bicycle technology, the design of velodromes, and the athleticism of the riders. The men’s Hour Record was heading for the psychologically important mark of 40 kilometres and was doing so with the aid of pacers. When the 28-year-old Henri Desgrange set the first internationally recognised unpaced Hour Record just two months before De Saint-Sauveur’s ride one French paper noted that he “will soon be one of our best riders, and we must assume that with pacers he would cover forty kilometres an hour.”
Caught between De Saint-Sauveur and Dutrieu was the 17-year-old Renée Debatz who on August 3 had added two kilometres to De Saint-Sauveur’s unpaced record, bringing it up to 28.019km. On September 26, with Desgrange among the team of pacers aiding her, Debatz added a kilometre to Dutrieu’s paced record, raising the bar to 32.231km, taking it above 20 miles.
Dutrieu’s response was swift and emphatic. On October 8 she stripped Debatz of the unpaced record, taking it up to 28.780km and on October 12 she relieved her of the paced record, too, pushing it out to 33.100km.
In the space of just three months, three women had between them set six Hour Records: three paced, three unpaced. Debatz and Dutrieu continued to duel through 1894 and 1895, Debatz reclaiming her paced records only for Dutrieu to take them back. Their rivalry equals that of Oscar Egg and Marcel Berthet in the men’s record and helped drive not just the popularity of the Hour Record but served as a fillip to women’s racing in general. Over the course of 1896 and 1897 new riders came along and raised their records further.
Over the course of four years between July 1893 and October 1897 the women’s Hour Record blossomed. Dunlop put out promotional pictures of both De Saint-Sauveur and Debatz riding their tyres. The Simpson Lever Chain company signed Dutrieu. The bicycle manufacturer Gladiator signed Debatz.
In that period 14 Hour Records were set in the space of 52 months. The unpaced record was set and reset four times, while 10 new distances were recorded for the paced version of the challenge. Six different women inscribed their names on the record books, while a half dozen or more tried and failed, or talked up their chances of a successful attempt.
Where had this blossoming of the women’s Hour Record come from?
While Dutrieu came from a racing background – her brother Eugène was a competent rider of the time – neither De Saint-Sauveur nor Debatz had been associated with bicycle racing before 1893. Their entrée to the sport had come in June 1893 when L’Écho de Paris organised two races in the Bois de Boulogne, the Courses Vélocipédiques d’Artistes, one each for the male and the female stars of Paris’ stages. Participants in the women’s race were drawn from the Opéra de Paris, the Folies-Nouvelles, the Ambassadeurs, the Théâtre du Vaudeville, as well as the Hippodrome (De Saint-Sauveur) and the Théâtre des Nouveautés (Debatz).
Racing over a distance of about eight kilometres, Debatz looked set to win the Course d’Artistes until she collided with one of her pacers and went down. Instead it was De Saint-Sauveur who took a victory that was reported even across Atlantic, where one of the American cycling journals called it the Stagers’ Race.
L’Écho de Paris had hoped to create something for the society pages more than the sporting and were happy with the crowd of 5,000 who turned out to watch proceedings. But the sporting element also seized the imagination. Capitalising on her success in the Bois de Boulogne De Saint-Sauveur set her Hour Record just three weeks after the Course d’Artistes. Four days later the star of the Hippodrome and the star of the Théâtre des Nouveautés were racing head-to-head over 25km in the Buffalo, a revenge match for the Course d’Artistes. This time it was De Saint-Sauveur who suffered the ignominy of a fall in the final throes of the race, with Debatz taking the win she’d let slip from her hands in the Bois de Boulogne. A month after that Debatz eclipsed De Saint-Sauveur’s Hour Record. In October, a third rider from the Course d’Artistes, Joséphine Chabot, took a shot at the Hour Record, but without success.
A constant in a sport constantly changing
In the century and more since De Saint-Sauveur took to the track of the Buffalo that Friday evening in July of 1893 women’s cycling has gone through periods of popularity and periods of being ignored. Riders have come and riders have gone, races have come and races have gone. Through both its official history since 1955 and its unofficial history since 1893 the Hour Record has been a constant in a sport constantly in flux.
A century and more after De Saint-Sauveur took to the track, the record she inaugurated continues to capture the imaginations of fans and riders alike, the record she inaugurated continues to inspire new riders to enter the sport, the record she inaugurated continues to challenge riders to see if they can add their names to its roll of honour and join a long line of riders that dates back to the early years of their sport.