Mlle Serpolette at the Velodrome d'Hiver 1896

The Velodrome d'Hiver (the Winter Velodrome, known almost universally as the Vel d'Hiv) in Paris existed at a number of different locations around Paris over the years. Its 1896 incarnation was one of the earliest, and provided popular winter entertainment for Parisians, with at least one well-attended meeting each week on a Sunday, often supplemented by a mid-week evening event. As the name implies, the venue was geared for winter entertainment, and in 1896 the last meeting was held in mid April by which time the outdoor track at the Velodrome de la Seine, "la plus belle et la plus vite piste du monde", was in full swing. Late in the season, crowds at the Vel d'Hiv fluctuated depending on the weather, with "peu de monde" (small crowds) reported on sunny Spring days.

Early in the year, although regular events were being held at the Vel d'Hiv, many French cyclists were involved in events in England, either at the Olympia Track (where Serpolette and a number of other French lady cyclists were engaged), the Royal Aquarium (another indoor track at another group of French women were engaged in long distance races that stretched over 6 - 12 days, at the rate of some hours each day), or at regional tracks in places like Birmingham (where at least one French woman was riding). Riders regularly crossed the Channel, in either direction, to join racing in France or England.

Having noted that more than a dozen French women were riding in England in January 1896, it is fascinating to note that women's racing at the Vel d'Hiv was rare, or if it did occur it was not reported in the period press. It seems amazing to suggest that it was "conservative" England who lead the way in pioneering ladies' cycling. A brief article in Le Figaro on 27 January 1896 suggested that women's racing was yet to hit France:

It is necessary to know that we are going to have, just like at Olympia in London, races for women. A match is in the air between Mlle Lisette and... here two names are cited: that of Mme Binay and that of Michael, I'd say Michael."

And indeed a race was later held between Mlle Lisette and "the little prodigy", Welshman Jimmy Michael. Could this have been the first appearance of a lady racing cyclist on a major track in France?

Having established that Mlle Serpolette did win races with champion rider Henri Fournier at Olympia in London, we are now looking to verify the claim that "with Jacquelin, the great French sprinter, she defeated all comers in a tandem race at the Velodrome d'Hirer (sic) at Paris". Considering time lines, the only window for this to occur opens between the time she was last seen at Olympia, around January 20 when she was likely injured in a fall, and the season close of the Vel d'Hiv in mid April 1896. Although there were tandem races at a number of meetings at the Vel d'Hiv in the winter and spring of 1896, I can find only one meeting where mixed races were explicitly mentioned.

On 17 January 1896, La Presse carried a brief note:

Le Syndicat des Coureurs (the Riders' Sydicate) is organising, to profit its assistance fund, a meeting which will be held soon at the Velodrome d'Hiver. A mixed tandem race will be the main event at the meeting. Here is the composition of some of the teams:

Jacquelin - Mlle Lisette; Fournier - Mlle Serpolette; Robertson - Mme Deverneuil; Germain - Mlle Latreille; Lamberjack - Mlle Marie Paule; Foussier - Mme Reillo; Tricot - Mlle Laure.

"Soon" is not very specific, and it seems this meeting didn't occur until two months later, on 20 March. The program announced was unlike the usual card at the Vel d'Hiv, with a "novelty" rather than a "racing" feel to the six main events:

  1. A handicap for all types of machines with one or two wheels (the entry list read: 1 monocycle, 28 bicyclettes, 8 bicycles, 7 tandems, 7 triplets and 4 quadruplettes!)
  2. a race for tricycles
  3. a race for grands bicycles
  4. an international over 10 km, with pacers
  5. a race for veterans, and
  6. a race for mixed tandems

If the organisation of events was anything like that at Olympia, the tandem race would involve heats and a final. In its edition of March 21, La Presse noted that the mixed tandem event was "well won" by the team of Piette and Mlle Serpolette, without mentioning the names of other competitors. Jacquelin was definitely riding on the day, but was not, it seems, paired with Serpolette in the tandem race. The article went on to say that there would be more tandem events held at the Vel d'Hiv on April 5, including a men's race between Jacquelin - Gougoltz and the Verheyen brothers. Jacquelin also issued a challenge to the team of Descaves and Ruinart and that the team of Ninow and Mlle Cannac had issued a challenge to Piette and Serpolette. Unfortunately the results reported in La Presse on April 6 tell us only the details of the victory of Jacquelin - Goulgoltz over the Verheyen brothers. If there were mixed tandem races at the Vel d'Hiv on April 5, my sources don't mention them.

So far as verifying Serpolette's racing pedigree is concerned, we have mixed results. Yes, she did beat all comers in a mixed tandem race at the Velodrome d'Hiver in 1896, but it seems she was teamed with (now almost unknown) Piette, rather than the French legend Jacquelin. Before we call Serpolette - or Serpolette's management - for exaggerating her pedigree by associating her with Jacquelin, we should allow the possibility that there was another race in which she paired with the great man. Perhaps on April 5?

Unfortunately I've taken my sources as far as they go. If anyone has access to the French cycling papers of the 1890s, I could do with some help!

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