by Clifford L. Graves, M.D.
A tense group of people was gathered on the freeway near the German town of Friedburg on July 19, 1962.
Herr Heinemann had painstakingly measured off the official kilometer. Half a dozen timekeepers of the International Timing Association were fiddling with their electrical equipment. Captain Dalicampt of the French occupation forces deployed his men at strategic points along the cleared Autobahn. Chief Schefold of the federal highway department dispatched a sweeper crew. Adolf Zimber lovingly wiped a bit of invisible dirt off the windshield of his massive Mercedes. Reporters were asking questions, scribbling notes. A photographer was angling for a shot. Jose Meiffret was about to start his Date with Death.
Of all the tense people, Meiffret was the least so. A diminutive Frenchman with wistful eyes and a troubled expression, he was resting beside a strange-looking bicycle. A monstrous chain wheel with 130 teeth connected with a sprocket with 15. The rake on the fork was reversed. Rims were of wood to prevent overheating. The gooseneck was supported with a flying buttress. The well-worn tires were tubulars. The frame was reinforced at all the critical points. Weighting forty-five pounds, this machine was obviously constructed to withstand incredible punishment.
On this day, at this place, on this bicycle, Jose Meiffret was aiming to reach the fantastic speed of 124 miles an hour. Everything was now in readiness. Meiffret adjusted his helmet, mounted the bike, and tightened the toe straps. Getting under way with a gear of 225 inches was something else again. A motorcycle came alongside and started pushing him. At 20mph, Meiffret was struggling to gain control. His legs were barely moving. At 40, he was beginning to hit his stride. At 50, the Mercedes with its curious rear end was just behind. With a wave of his hand, Meiffret dismissed the motorcycle and connected neatly with the windscreen at the rear of the Mercedes. His timing was perfect. He had overcome his first great hazard.
Swiftly, the bizarre combination of man and machine gathered speed. Meiffret's job on penalty of death was to stay glued to his windscreen. The screen had a roller, but if he should touch it at 100 miles an hour, he would be clipped. On the other hand, if he should fall behind as little as 18 inches, the turbulence would make mincemeat of him. If the car should jerk or lurch or hit a bump, he would be in immediate mortal danger. An engineer had warned him that at these speeds, the centrifugal force might cause his flimsy wheels to collapse. Undismayed by the prospect, Meiffret bent down to his task.
He was now travelling at 80mph. News of the heroic attempt had spread, and the road ahead was lined with spectators. Everybody was expecting something dreadful to happen. Herr Thiergarten in the car showed Meiffret how fast he was going by prearranged signals. Meiffret in turn could speak to the driver through a microphone. "Allez, allez," he shouted, knowing that he had only nine miles to accelerate and decelerate. The speedometer showed 90. What if he should hit a pebble, an oil slick, a gust of wind? Ahead was a bridge and a clump of woods. Crosscurrents were inevitable.
In his pocket, Meiffret carried a note: "In case of fatal accident, I beg of the spectators not to feel sorry for me. I am a poor man, an orphan since the age of eleven, and I have suffered much. Death holds no terror for me. This record attempt is my way of expressing myself. If the doctors can do no more for me, please bury me by the side of the road where I have fallen."
Who was this man Meiffret, who could ride a bicycle at such passionate speeds and still look at himself dispassionately?
He was born in 1913 in the village of Boulouris on the French Riviera. Orphaned at an early age, he had to find work to support himself and an aging grandmother. One day, as he was hurrying home from work on his ancient bicycle, he was run down by a motorist. Jose was badly shaken, and his bicycle was in pieces. Distraught, the motorist offered to buy Jose a new bicycle. It was a beauty. Before long, his bike was his life. When he wasn't riding, he was reading. Under the skinny frame and deep-set eyes burned a fierce ambition. Someday he was going to beat the world.
His first race was a fiasco. Totally unprepared, he entered a 120-miler through the mountains and was promptly dropped. His competitors made fun of him, and a doctor told him that he had a weak heart and should never race. That night Jose cried himself to sleep.
The man who changed Jose's career was Henry Desgrange, the founder of the Tour de France. Desgrange had a villa on the Riviera, and Jose wrangled an introduction. Desgrange sensed the compelling drive in the delicate body, and he made an accurate assessment, "Try motor-paced racing, my boy. You might surprise yourself."
Jose did just that. With fear and trepidation he entered a motor-paced race between Nice and Cannes. Without any indoctrination whatever he was immediately at home. Riding smoothly and elegantly, in perfect unison with his pacer and in complete control of himself, he was out front all the way and finished a full seven minutes ahead of the pack. The crowd went wild.
Encouraged by this success, he arranged to go over the same course behind a more powerful motor. This ride was an epic. Intoxicated by his speed, he barely missed a car in Nice, grazed a dog in Cannes, scraped a sidewalk in Antibes, had a flat five miles from the finish, and yet set a new record of 1.02 for the 40 miles. He had found his destiny.
But a motor-paced rider is not made overnight. Racing behind a motor vehicle is quite different from racing in a group. Behind motors, the speed is higher, the pedaling faster, the concentration greater. It is like a continuous sprint. A motor-paced rider must have suppleness rather than strength, acquired through incessant training and complete concentration. But he also needs something else, a special flair. Meiffret, who expressed his philosophy as "become what you are," possessed that quality. But his route to fame would not be easy. Just as he was beginning to hit his stride, the war broke out. When he returned to Paris after five dreary years of captivity, he was as far from his goal as ever.
Motor-paced racing has a long and honorable history, but has only ever achieved sporadic popularity. In America, for instance, "Mile-a-Minute" Murphy's amazing ride behind a Long Island Railroad train in 1899 killed the sport before it every got started. In Europe, it survived through the efforst of a small group of dedicated riders.
To beat Paillard, Meiffret selected a special circuit in Germany, the Grenzlandring. Cheered on by a crowd of thousands, he covered 65.115 miles in a single hour, and said he could have done more if his pacer had been running correctly.
Although his exploit at Grenzlandring brought him great acclaim, it did not make him rich. In fact, none of Meiffret's rides brought him any money. Throughout his life, he had to fight poverty. He supported himself with odd jobs and with occasional writing. (In 1965 his book 'Mes rendez-vous avec la mort' would him the 1965 Grand Prize for Sports Writing and the Prix Sobrier-Arould of the Academie Francaise.)
In 1951, however, his greatest triumphs were still ahead of him. His crucial move was the decision to abandon motorcycle pacers in favour of cars. Here, the man to beat was Alfred Letourneur, an expatriate Frenchman who had managed a speed of 108.923mph over a measured mile on the Los Angeles freeway at in 1941.
Meiffret's first attempt was behind a Talbot. To his consternation, he could not get past 70. Aerodynamic engineers told him to modify his windscreen. After months of toil and heartbreak he tried again. A 20-mile stretch of road south of Toulouse was cleared--indeed, the President of France himself was detoured. On the first run, the Talbot faltered. On the second, Meiffret lost contact with the Talbot and was almost flattened by the wind. On the third run, he hit a bump and was in free flight for 50 feet, but he held on and finished the kilometer at 109.100 miles per hour. Letourneur had been beaten, but not by much.
To consolidate his victory, Meiffret chose the track at Montlhery. Here, the Belgian Vanderstuyft had managed 78.159mph behind a motorcycle in 1928. But by 1952 Monlhery was showing its age. The pavement was starting to crack, and the turns were atrocious. The track superintendent shook his head. He had witnessed many attempts. But Meiffret was determined. On the appointed day, he rode his first lap at 80mph. Suddenly, coming out of a turn on the seventh lap, his bicycle started bucking. It was never fully clear what had gone wrong--a pedal strike, a problem with the track surface--but within a split second Meiffret was flying through the air. He hit the ground, tumbled three hundred feet, slid another twenty, and came to a rest, a quivering mass of flesh. Horrified attendants carried him to an ambulance, and newspapers announced his imminent death. The surgeons found five separate skull fractures.
Unbelievably, Meiffret lived through this ordeal. Following a long period of recuperation during which he fought as much for his mental sanity as for his physical health, he joined the Trappists at Sept-Fons and led the life of a monk. During this time he made continuous improvements on his bicycle, wrote his first book (Breviary of a Cyclist), and corresponded with hundreds of people. It was thus he learned of a new autobahn at Lahr in Germany where he might gain permission for another attempt on the flying kilometer. In the fall of 1961, when he was already forty-eight, he reached 115.934 miles per hour. This ride convinced him that he could reach 200kph--124 miles an hour.
Thus we find Meiffret in the summer of 1962 on the freeway at Freiburg, riding like a man possessed. His pacer, a big Mercedes driven by one Zimber, was performing flawlessly. People could not believe their eyes. What they saw was a car in full flight shadowed to the inch by the arched figure of a man on a bicycle, legs whirling, jersey fluttering, wheels quivering.
"Allez, allez," gasped Meiffret into a radio mike hooked to his collar. In the car, the speedometer crept past 100 mph, then 110 and 120. Anguished, Zimber looked into his rearview mirror. How could Meiffret keep it up? It was fantastic.
On the flat, the speed had increased to 127. Faster than an express train, faster than a plummeting skier, faster than a free fall in space. Spinning at 3.1 rpm, Meiffret's legs were carrying him 190 feet each second! He was no longer a lone hunched figure on a bike. He was the flying Frenchman, the superman of the bicycle, the magician of the pedals, the eagle of the road, the poet of motion. He knew that he must somehow sustain himself in this rarefied atmosphere for eighteen full seconds.
When Meiffret passed the second flag, the chronometers registered 17.580 seconds, equivalent to a speed of 127.342 miles an hour. Meiffret had survived his date with death.