Memories of Yesteryear

Part 2

Speed racers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries

From the very beginning, the pioneers of motorcycling used their machines simply to enable them to move from one place to another, but on unreliable machines and unmade tracks that passed for roads, this proved extremely difficult at times.

Imagine riding at the end of the 19th century on mechanical monsters comprised of a simple frame, rudimentary engine, small tank and a primitive saddle; all with pretty non-existent brakes, and then launching yourself at full speed down roads with no smooth tarmac and no road signs!

The motorcycle owes much of its early development to WW1, when the motorbike became an indispensable military transport vehicle. Later, at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, it became the symbol of freedom we acknowledge today, but the motorcycle has also benefited throughout its history from competitions which fostered innovation in design and performance.

I have set out below a brief history of motorcycle competitions from the very first participation of motorcyclists in a race in Italy in 1895 to the first World Motorcycle Championship in Belgium in 1905.


he very first record of motorcyclists in a race on 18 May 1895. Indeed, two motorcycles and three cars participated in the Italian race 'Turin-Asti-Turin'.

The following month, from 11 to 13 June, two motorised two-wheelers were on the starting line of the 'Paris-Bordeaux-Paris' race, but neither of them reached the finish. Paul Millet fell during his outward journey to Orleans and Georges Osmont had to retire in Angouleme on the return leg.


The following year, in May 1896, a certain M Lotz on a Hildebrand &Wolfmuller machine finished the first stage of the 'Bordeaux-Agen-Bordeaux' in last position and subsequently retired.

On 20 September 1896, eight riders competed in the 'Paris-Mantes-Paris'.


From 1897, the year in which the word 'motorcycle' was coined by the Werner brothers, things got better for French riders.

In the first 'Criterium des Motocycles' organised on 4 April 1897, Leonce Girardot and Gaston Rivierre finished in 4th position on a two-seater, two-wheeler of unknown brand and on 20 June 1897, in the first 'Coupe des Motocycles', run between Saint-Germain and Ecquevilly, Gans de Fabrice managed to ride his two-wheeler Wolfmuller to second place among the competing cars.

The inauguration of the Stade-Velodrome in the Parc des Princes in Paris on 18 July 1897 was the perfect occasion for 'motorcycle' races. Gaston Rivierre on a De Dion-Bouton motor bicycle won the first series and posted the best time of the day at 40.8 km/h.

That same year, the very first 'motor bicycle' race between two riders, also on De Dions, took place in England at Sheen House.


This year saw, for the first time, a competition exclusively open to two-wheelers. The 'Criterium des Motocyclettes' run from Etampes to Chartres over a distance of 100km with Eugene Labitte winning on a Pernoo.

From 16 to 24 July that same year the first meeting of the Tour de France automobile was held with 19 cars and 25 motorcycles starting a course of 7 stages over 2,216 km.


In the summer of 1901 George M. Holey, one of the few American pioneers, built his first single-cylinder IOE, (inlet-over-exhaust), winning the first motorcycles only race in the US: the 'Boston-New York'.


The story of city-to-city racing ended tragically in May 1903 due to eight fatal accidents in the 'Paris-Madrid'.

A new form of racing then appeared, but this time in a velodrome. These events were held most of the time at the Parc des Princes and at the Velodrome d'Hiver. The two great champions of the age were Alessandro Anzani and Marius The.


On 25 September 1904,the newly formed 'Motocycle-Club of France' (MCM) organised the very first international motorcycle race: the 'International Cup'. A competition run over 268 km, with the French team competing against four others: Germany (DMV), Austria (OAC), Great-Britain (ACC) and Denmark. The resulting French victory gave the host the right to organise the race again in 1905.

Following this event, delegations from the five countries taking part met on 21 December at the famous Ledoyen restaurant in Paris to create the International Federation of Motorcycle Clubs (F.I.C.M.), the ancestor of the current F.I.M.


September 1905 saw the first World Motorcycle Championship organised inside the Zurenborg velodrome near Antwerp, in Belgium.

Alessandro Anzani, won the race on an Alcyon equipped with a 330cc Buchet single-cylinder engine he developed himself, thus becoming the first world champion in the history of motorcycling.

Born in Italy, Anzani moved to France in 1900 and became the most important engine manufacturer of the time.


I guess these great old timers, racing over a hundred years ago, must have possessed enormous courage and daring, to be able to challenge their competitors on such unpredictable machines, in the most crazy of events.

Take a good look at them on the images below, testaments to the outfits of the day, riders with handlebar moustaches and daredevil appearance. The real men of yesteryear who knew no fear.

I have only one word to say about them:


This is what we called an engine at that time... imagine the noise in free exhaust!

Alessandro Anzani, the first world champion in the history of motorcycling

1903 - Marius The's best success arrived in 1904 when he won the 'Grand Prix de la Republique', then organised both at the Parc des Princes and at the Velodrome d'Hiver, in front of Alessandro Anzani on Alcyon and Joseph Collomb on Magali

1904 - Marius The on a prototype twin cylinder 2 litre Buchet

1903 - The champion Brault

Naso, another good racer of the time

Chauny, also a Parc des Princes public favorites

Outfits were not left out

In a sport said to be dominated by men, Fernande Clouet was the first French female racer to take part in track and road races on a Giorgia Knapp motorcycle but also on Harley Davidson

Lanfranchi, vainqueur de la Coupe Hydra et Recordman des 100 km (1/4 litre)

1903 - Maurice Fournier and his V4 Clement

Road racing in Amiens, Northern France

1905 - The race 'Coupe du Motocycle Club de France'

1905 - A front seat tricycle known as 'kills the mother-in-law'. The engine is a Villemain with opposite valves, liquid cooling and direct chain transmission

1909 - Will Cocks (NLG with JAP engine)

Ravelli on Peugeot at the Hill climb of Gaillon

Andre Grapperon

- Jean-Francois Helias

Part 3: The Great War.