10 novembre 2017

Rings of history

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The velodrome has become inseparable from cycling history. These scenes of sensational achievements attracted the greatest of champions onto their wooden tracks, setting off a popular fervour that only the Tour de France road race can emulate these days.

The velodrome phenomenon came about just after the invention of the bicycle, and developed not only in France but worldwide. By the end of the 19th century, several sites were attracting crowds in Paris, giving rise to its long-held reputation as the capital of cycling. World records were set at the Buffalo velodrome, in Neuilly-sur Seine, as soon as it opened in 1893, including the world hour record set by Henri Desgrange on May 11th of that year. It would be the first of many such moments in this and other velodromes, including the Cipale (the name came from the French word «municipale»), inaugurated in 1896 in the Bois de Vincennes and renamed the Jacques Anquetil velodrome in 1987.

The surge in purpose-built venues had spread throughout France by the start of the 20th century. In major cities as well as the most modest of small towns, velodromes became the local attraction and fed the aspirations of many a would-be racing cyclist. In Lyon, the Tête d’Or velodrome opened in the heart of the eponymous park in 1894, the year of the great international and colonial «Universal Exhibition» organised in the country’s former ancient Celtic capital. And by 1893 Loudun, a small town in the department of Vienne, also had its own track.

In Europe, the most famous is without doubt the Vigorelli, inaugurated in Milan in 1935. This 397-metre wooden track on which several records would be set, acquired a reputation over the years for being the fastest in the world, attracting competitors to be consecrated world champion. Vigorelli, like several other European velodromes, was also chosen as the finish for many famous races. In 1951, Louison Bobet made his mark at the finishing line to win the Tour de Lombardie, outclassing the Italian competition led by Fausto Coppi.

The velodromes became the venue for many other sporting organisations in the decades that followed. Besides the quest for records, they also hosted the Six Day races. In Paris, the famous «Vel’ d’Hiv» (Vélodrome d’Hiver – the Winter Velodrome) was a sensation, both on the track, where cyclists surpassed themselves in a balancing act on the steeply banked curves, and in the stands, where personalities including Ernest Hemingway would come to admire the spectacle. From the aisles, in 1957, Henri Cartier-Bresson immortalised the event in his photographs. For many years, the velodrome was a much-loved and convivial venue for amateurs in search of excitement, where devotees and neophytes, both men and women, would get together at all hours of the day and night to eat, drink, talk, and thrill to the rhythm of the races and the reporters’ running commentaries. Cycling at the meeting point of chic high society and jubilant popular entertainment.

The French tracks have also opened to road racing. Louison Bobet began a promising career by winning the title of French amateur champion in the Cipale in 1946. Since 1943, the André-Pétrieux velodrome has been the finishing line for the Paris-Roubaix. Until 1967, the Parc des Princes in Paris welcomed the final of the Grande Boucle, and the Marseille Velodrome Stadium, initially dedicated to cycling events, is now one of the venues that have forged the recent legend of the Tour de France when it hosted a sensational 20th leg in July 2017. 

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