Mlle Serpolette at Olympia

The Grand Hall, Olympia - still standing in Kensington, London - was opened on December 26, 1886 with performances of the Paris Hippodrome Circus. This event began a tradition of "grand attractions" at Olympia opening each year on Boxing Day.

For the Opening Day on December 26, 1895 something new was promised. The space under the enormous arched roof, in previous years hosting "canals, bazaars, kiosks, and minor shows", had been completely renovated carpeted throughout. An exotic winter garden with "whole avenues of palms, some real and some artificial" was designed to bring the Riviera to London, and an arena was to accommodate one of the main attractions: the Grand Sporting and Military Show".  With themes of "Peace and Pleasure" and "War and Victory", there were elaborate recreations - involving "close upon two thousand persons" - of fanciful scenes. For "Peace and Pleasure" there was the folly of scenes such as "On the Road to the Derby" and "The Epsom Downs", while for "War and Victory" there were recreations of military scenarios such as "On the Road to Chitral" and "The British Arms Triumphant". Advertised as a "Triumph of Stage Realism", it's hard for us, 110 years on, to comprehend the meaning or the impact of the spectacle. Overall, the attraction of Olympia in the middle of a London winter might be best summed up in the copy from one one the numerous advertisements that flooded the press: "A veritable Fairy Land. Myriads of Lights. The whole Place beautifully Warmed."

Of interest to our story is the cycling track constructed for the Sporting Show. At  nine laps to the mile (180 m lap) it was small, but this can only have added to the electrically-lit excitement. From the opening event, English riders were joined by cyclists from France, Belgium, Germany and Italy, and to add to the spectacle there were races for both men and women on solos and on tandems combinations. Racing was held twice daily, at 2 PM and 8 PM, and ran continuously for some months. Once racing began, it was clear that the cycling had captured the public imagination and the daily press carried short reports on the events:

CYCLING AT OLYMPIA

It is not often that genuine racing is found upon a covered track, in this country at all events; but such is undoubtedly the case at this, the best under-cover path ever seen in England. Every seat in the building was occupied, and the spectators fully appreciated the racing, which was keen. Hurdle and flat racing, boxing, wrestling, &c., were also included in the programme.

And yes, our Serpolette was there, and yes, she did win races just as she had stated in interviews with the Australian press. In fact she appears in the results most days, the first occasion being for the racing on December 28th when she won her heat of the 15 laps (2680 m) race for ladies, and finished second in the final behind fellow French rider Mlle. Duverneuil.

Lady cyclists at Olympia, 1896
Lady cyclists at Olympia, March 1896 - unfortunately after Serpolette had headed home. Miss Rosina Lane, Serpolette's adversary in the tandem racing, is supporting the cyclist at left.

Tandem races at the Grand Velodrome must have been spectacular indeed. With a lap at only 180 metres, hauling a long tandem around the sharp and steeply-banked corners - referred to as "the cliffs at Olympia" in one article - would have involved both effort and danger. On January 9, 1896 a large crowd was again present to witness the racing, some perhaps attracted by the Olympia advertisement on the front page of that morning's edition of The Times that promised "Exciting "Bicycle built for two" Races". Events the previous evening had proved just how exciting the tandem racing could be: Merry and Howard won the 2000 m men's tandem race from Barden who "finished alone on his tandem, Smits, his team mate, having fallen". In the mixed tandem event, paired with "crack" French champion Henri Fournier, the slight Mlle. Serpolette must have had quite a ride! In the heat, they defeated Merry and Mlle. Marie Paule, and in the final they were pitted against the English pair of C.F. Barden (holder of the World 10 miles record) and Miss Rosina Lane. Fournier and Serpolette duly won in 2min. 20sec. for the mile: an average speed of 27 mph (42 kph). This time was very similar to those recorded in the men's tandem races, and almost 30 seconds faster than Serpolette was used to riding on a solo machine! The mixed tandem event was described as "a great success", but it is the only such event I can find reported. Serpolette had told the Australian press in 1898 that she had teamed with Fournier to defeat Barden and Miss Grace - it seems likely that it was in fact Barden and Lane, an inaccuracy of little import.

Men cyclists at Olympia, 1896
Men cyclists at Olympia, March 1896. Serpolette's tandem partner Henri Fournier is centre-left, supported by the man in the bowler hat. The lady cyclists sit atop the stage coaches.

So what can we learn about Serpolette from her racing at Olympia? In her Australian interviews, she is quoted as saying that she "defeated most of the English and French ladies who were competing there", and elsewhere that she had "mixed results". Although seemingly contradictory, both are true. Serpolette did win a few "scratch" races (for example on January 17 she won two 7-lap races), but typically she was good enough to, say, win her heat and finish second or third in the final. In handicap races, where she would be given 70 yards in the mile of the scratch rider, she was an occasional winner. While she was probably not the best lady cyclist at Olympia, she was clearly a very competent cyclist, and, if we can judge from the tandem performance with Fournier, brave. Of course we should keep in mind that she was only a young girl: different sources give her age at 16 or 18 at the time.

The last time that Mlle. Serpolette appears in the Olympia results is in the events on January 20. She told one Australian interviewer that she had had a bad fall at Olympia, breaking two ribs, and it seems likely that this must have occurred on or just after January 20. Although a few falls are mentioned in press reports, and it was suggested by one commentator  that the audience at a women's cycling events attend "...in the hope of seeing... a "holy smash"", it's possible that the promoters were keen to keep quiet stories of falls and injuries at the track. There was enough controversy in the very idea of ladies racing bicycles without introducing the idea of ladies being injured in the process.

The next time we hear of Serpolette, she is back in Paris, competing at the Velodrome d'Hiver.

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Copyright Leon Mitchell 2008

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