Best History of the Recumbent - Why it's Faster & How it Came to be Banned
Francis Faure in 1933
The history of the recumbent bicycle is filled with intrigue. Only a few people today realize that the current surge in interest and ownership of recumbents is a renaissance of what occurred at the end of the previous century and in the early years of this one.
The banning of recumbents from bicycle racing in 1934 had the effect of putting the recumbent bicycle design in the closet for fifty years, until it was re-discovered there primarily by MIT professor David Gordon Wilson and his student. To him, I and thousands of other laid-back cyclists will be eternally grateful.
But let's go back to slightly before that foolish day in 1934 and look at three recumbent pioneers: Charles Mochet, his son George Mochet and cyclist Francis Faure.
Before World War I Charles Mochet built small, very light cars. His wife had decided the common bicycle was far too dangerous for their son George, so Charles built him a pedal-driven four-wheeled vehicle.. The four-wheeler indeed reduced the danger of falling over. Nobody had guessed what else it might lead to. The four-wheeler proved to be exceedingly fast. Little George was delighted with his 'human powered vehicle' (HPV) when he easily left the other kids on bikes behind.
This soon led to a demand for the vehicles and Charles Mochet ultimately decided to give up the building of automobiles in favor of devoting himself to the construction of HPV's. He built a two-seated, four-wheeled pedal-car for adults that he called 'Velocar'. They had the comfortable seating position and the trunk of a car, with the pedal propulsion of the bicycle. The technical equipment included a differential, three gears and a light fairing made of the airplane windshield material Triplex. After the First World War the poor economy in France aided their sale. Buying a 'real' car was an unreachable dream for many Frenchmen, but Mochet's Velocar was affordable. So Charles Mochet was able to sell many of his HPVs. Until the thirties the sales of the Velocar steadily increased.
In practice the Velocars turned out to be very fast. From time to time they were used as pace vehicles in bicycle races. The Velocars soon reached their limits. At higher speeds, that were easily achieved, cornering got very dangerous. Every curve meant having to brake hard and then re-accelerate. One had to pedal hard to be fast on a curved path. Charles Mochet experimented and built a vehicle with three wheels, but its tendency towards falling over in curves was even worse than the four-wheeler.
The invention of the recumbent bike
Finally Mochet had an idea: Divide a Velocar into two halves. He built a two-wheeled version, in effect a recumbent bicycle. The bike had two 50 cm wheels, a wheelbase of 146 cm and a bottom bracket / boom that was about 12 cm above the seat and adjustable to the drivers height. It was possible to change the elevation of the seat and an intermediate drive provided the necessary gearing. During the development of his recumbent bike Charles Mochet acted deliberately: long and careful planning and much thinking preceded the actual building. Mochet not only wanted to show that the recumbent bike is faster than the common bike. He also wanted to convey to other cyclists that a recumbent bicycle is also highly suitable for touring and every-day use.
On the racing side Mochet was looking out for a good rider to ride his new recumbent bike in cycling events. At first Mochet had Henri Lemoine, a pro cyclist, riding it. Henri was astonished at the comfort and how easy it was to steer. Even so, he couldn't be convinced to ride the Velocar in contests. Perhaps it was the ridicule of other cyclists that kept him from riding it in competition. In any case Henri Lemoine never entered a single cycling event on a recumbent bike, much to his loss.
Mochet's second choice of riders was Francis Faure, brother of the famous cyclist Benoit Faure. Francis was a decidedly lesser rider than either Lemoine or his brother Benoit. But he was the first serious cyclist who really took an interest in Mochet's recumbent bike. After a few test rides he decided to enter a race riding it.
At the start this event the other riders laughed at him and said: "Faure, you must be tired and want to go to take a nap on that thing. Why don't you sit up upright and pedal like a man?" They quit laughing when Faure poured his annoyance into the pedals and left them all behind. They couldn't even get close to him. Afterwards they were upset that they couldn't even draft his funny bike. One after the other Francis Faure defeated every first-class track cyclist in Europe, taking advantage of recumbents' clear aerodynamic superiority..
The following year Faure was practically unbeatable in 5000-metre events. Even in races against three or four top riders, who would alternate pacing a leader, Faure would leave the Velodrome in the yellow jersey. Beside the successes on the track the Velocars and their riders won a lot of road races. Paul Morand, a road racer, won the Paris-Limoges in 1933 on a recumbent bike constructed by Mochet.
The hour world record
After Faure had established new world records on various short courses and other cyclists on recumbents had handily beaten their competitors at road races, Charles and George Mochet as well as Faure decided to attack the hour record, long considered the 'ultimate' bicycling record. Mochet wanted to be sure that a record with his split Velocar would be acknowledged. He therefore queried the Union Cycliste International (UCI) in October 1932. He received a positive reply to his letter: "The Velocar has no add-on aerodynamic components attached so there is no reason to forbid it."
From the beginning of the century until the thirties the French cyclist Marcel Berthet and the Swiss Cycling-idol Oscar Egg battled over the hour record. In 1907 Berthet established a record of 41.520 kilometers per hour. During the next seven years the record passed six times from Oscar Egg to M. Berthet and back, before Egg covered the sensational distance of 44.247 km (27.4) in 60 minutes. This record lasted almost 20 years - up to 1933. During the war many cyclists lost their lives, were disabled or neglected their training so it is understandable that there wasn't a serious record attempt in the years immediately after the war. Nevertheless the record by Oscar Egg has to classified as an outstanding performance.
In the meantime various designers and bike enthusiasts had begun experimenting constructing cloth fairings. In 1913 the French man Etienne Bunau-Varilla began offering a fairing that could be fitted to a regular bike. German bike manufacturers like Goericke and Brennabor let riders of their teams take part in races with cloth-faired vehicles. In the following years various faired bikes competed with each other. The first race of this kind took place in Berlin in 1914. The Dutch world champion Piet Dickentman and the European champion Arthur Stellbrink from Berlin raced. The world champion crashed and died. Possibly as a result of the fatality, the UCI changed the rules in 1914 and specifically prohibited add-on aerodynamic devices such as fairings or nosecones. The faired racing events soon fell into oblivion.
The 7th of July 1933 was to be the decisive historical day. Francis Faure rode 45.055 km (27.9 miles) in one hour on a Paris velodrome and thereby smashed the almost 20 year old record by Oscar Egg. Faure and Mochet's Velocar abruptly grabbed the media's attention. In journals and cycling magazines pictures of the record setting vehicles were being published. Soon questions were asked: Is this actually a bike? Will the Faure record be acknowledged? Will the common bike be made obsolete by the Velocar? Statements, interviews, comments and "political" cartoons all addressed this issue.
It was utter chaos. A decision became absolutely necessary on August 29, 1933, in Saint Trond France when Maurice Richard, on an upright, also bested the hour record set by Oscar Egg, who had ridden 44.077 kilometers in one hour. (27.4 miles). Which record was legal? The recumbents or the upright's? Who was the world record holder-Richard or Faure? Would the recumbent be legitimized as a legal bicycle to ride in UCI-sanctioned competitions, or be banned forever from the sport? A decision had to be made.
It had become apparent to all that the hour record set by Francis Faure riding the newfangled half Velocar developed by Charles Mochet was going to be hotly debated at the 58th Congress of the UCI on February 3, 1934.
An amateur rider demonstrated the Velocar to the Congress by pedaling one around the officials conference table. The officials were all amused and interested, but their opinions on the bike's legality for racing diverged sharply. The English UCI representative was surprised that the recumbent was so safe to ride, and prophesied a great future for it, saying that it could be the bicycle of the future. The Italian Bertolini, on the other hand, was of the opinion that Mochet's invention was not a bicycle at all.
In addition to factual arguments presented for and against 'allowing' recumbents, non-technical issues also entered the discussion. Some officials were of the opinion that a second-class cyclist like Francis Faure hadn't earned the right to participate in a world record setting event. Faure had only shown his skills in short races and sprints. How could such a cyclist now presume to hold the highest of all records, the hour? These critics preferred the clearly stronger rider, Richard, over Faure.
Rousseau, the French UCI commissioner, brought the issue back into focus. He stated that the UCI and its rules were intended to regulate races, define the legal length and breadth of the bicycle, to prohibit add-on aerodynamic aids, but not to define the bicycle itself.
The other commissioners apparently disagreed, and designated a task force which would define, or in effect, re-define exactly what was or wasn't a bicycle. They then voted to recognize the (upright) record of Maurice Richard. Immediately thereafter the [new] definition of what constituted a sport bicycle was accepted by a 58-to-46 vote. The following rules would be in effect in UCI sanctioned racing from that point in history on:
The bottom bracket had to be between 24 and 30 centimeters above the ground.
The front of the saddle could only be 12 centimeters behind the bottom bracket.
The distance from the bottom bracket to the axle of the front wheel had to be between 58 and 75 centimeters.
According to these rules, a recumbent wasn't a bicycle, but something entirely different, despite having two wheels, a chain, handlebars, a seat, and human propulsion. The ruling would take effect on April 1, 1934. It was to be recumbents' darkest day. Faure's record was shuffled into a new category called 'Records Set By HPVs without Special Aerodynamic Features'.
Embittered by the decision of the UCI, Charles Mochet wrote an appeal letter to the Union. No luck. Rumors at the time were that the decision 'banning' recumbents had less to do with sportsmanship than with economics: The upright bicycle manufacturers and professional riders had money and contacts and together formed a powerful lobbing force.
Had the UCI had decided otherwise a lot more riders might be riding recumbents today. The UCI's decision did, however, make Richard and Faure famous, and left Henry Limone behind in cycling obscurity. Promoters were organizing races between the two of them all over Europe. Francis Faure was unbeatable on his Velocar, but the fame belonged to Richard. The public loved to watch the races of these 'forbidden' machines and their infamous drivers!
The streamlined Velocar
The idea of a streamlined bicycle was not new. Marcel Berthet demonstrated an upright bicycle with a fairing in 1933. At the time he wanted to be the first cyclist to break the 50-kilometres-in-one-hour (31 mph) barrier. He almost did it: On November 18, 1933 the measurement at the end of the hour showed 49.992 kilometers. And Berthet was 47 years old! His record was also placed in a special category created by the UCI for 'sport bicycles' with aerodynamic components.
In 1938 Francis Faure and Georges Mochet decided to try to better the record of Marcel Berthet in the special class. Francis Faure also wanted to be the first cyclist to ride more than 50 kilometers in one hour. They produced a faired Velocar. The frame was modified: Faure sat lower and a smaller front wheel was installed to reduce drag.
The two men tested the first model by doing laps on the 4000-metre track at Vel d'Hiver in Paris. The first timed lap took place with Faure's head exposed and no bottom fairing. Faure achieved 48 kilometers per hour, (29.8 mph), able to complete a lap in five minutes - 20 seconds faster than a cyclist on a normal racing bicycle. This was significant in light of the fact that the faired Velocar weighed 11 kilograms (24#) more than your typical racing bicycle of the day. Still, this lap speed would not be sufficient to beat the one-hour record, so modifications to the Velocar were made. In the next run the vehicle was modified to have a smaller opening for Faure's head. His average speed rose to 49.7 kilometers per hour, saving an additional ten seconds per lap.
A bottom fairing was added for the third attempt. Francis Faure was now able to shave an additional 18 seconds off his lap time. The fourth run took place with the track having been polished. This time Francis Faure beat the 55-kilometres-per-hour mark, requiring only four minutes and 20 seconds for each 4000-metre lap It was decided to make the attempt at the one-hour record with this configuration. The record attempt had to be aborted, however, because the wind in his eyes was causing Francis Faure to lose control of the vehicle.
A fifth attempt was going to be made. Georges Mochet built a Triplex fairing to enclose Faure's head. It worked fabulously. On March 5, 1939, Faure rode 50.537 kilometers in one hour requiring under 4:15 minutes to circle the 4000-metre track!
On March 5 1938, the eve of the Second World War, Francis Faure became the first cyclist to travel 50 kilometers in less than one hour without a pace vehicle. He rode 50.537 kilometers on the Vicennes Municipal Cycling Track. The press went wild, both in Europe and the US Pictures of Francis Faure, Georges Mochet and the Velocar appeared in all the bicycling journals.
When the war broke out, Francis Faure moved to Australia, where he died in 1948. George Mochet continued to build Velocars and moped versions thereof. These sold well clear into the '60s, because they could be driven without a driving license. Eventually a change in the law spelled the end of the motorized Velocars.
Velocars are still in use. In Marseille you can rent these old HPVs and tour the city in an ecologically sound fashion. The rental shop manager has let it be known that he is looking for a manufacturer because after 30 years some of the bicycles are starting to wear out beyond repair. He feels few manufacturers can come close to the quality of the Velocars, so in the mean time he has chosen to continue to repair the old ones as much as possible.
Francis Faure, Charles and Georges Mochet showed the bicycling world what recumbents are capable of. The UCI ban showed the world the power a few misguided, narrowly focused individuals can have on the future of a sport like bicycling. Their decision set back the acceptance of a safer and more aerodynamically efficient bicycle by 50 years. The formation of the IHPVA and other organizations dedicated to racing and promoting human powered vehicles regardless of their recumbent or upright configuration is largely responsible for undoing that damage, as the present renaissance of recumbent bicycles so clearly demonstrates.
Georges Mochet is retired now, and lives with his wife Francine in St. Aygulf in France. He is involved with the French HPV Association, which has now been in existence for a year. His one-hour record from 1939 remained unbeaten in France until very recently.
The Mochet recumbent found a place in the German bicycle museum in Einbeck. The Mochet automobile may be seen in the automotive museum in Osnabruck.
The USCF has for all practical purposes 'continued' the ban on recumbents in the US bicycle races they sanction, although more sympathetic(?) commissioners will persuasively argue that recumbents aren't 'truly' banned. Those recumbent riders who have attempted to enter recumbents in USCF races (through 1995) have been disqualified for a variety of 'safety' issues such as exposed gearing, bicycle overall length and so on, all in the 'name' of safety, but having the overall effect of banning recumbents from competing. Not that there are that many recumbent riders strong enough to enter USCF events, but those few who have been so bold to attempt to do so have in general given up after being given such a inhospitable reception. Most of these 'bent riders have retreated to IHPVA and Midwest Streamliner racing events where 'bents are both welcomed, and the norm.
An attempt to get the USCF to come out and flatly say whether recumbents are or are not allowed in their races fell flat. A letter I wrote requesting a 'simple decision' faxed, copied, and emailed to several USCF officials went largely unanswered. One friendlier official responded - he quoted me all the various minutia and rules that apply. In effect, what this says to me they (the USCF) is (still) saying: "We refuse to come out and make a decision as to whether a recumbent is a "legal" bicycle." Wake up guys, it's 1996. WHN :)
This article has traveled a long journey. It was edited by Wade H. Nelson with permission back from a German translation by Gunnar Felhau of an adaptation of an article which originally appeared in a 1990 issue of Cycling Science. Translations back from German thanks to Paul Goodrich and Volker Hilsenstein. The original article was written by Anfried Schmitz.
The above article appears at the web site for the now defunct Cycle Genius and is referenced by Cruzbike. There the author makes the point that the recumbent was banned the same year Hitler came to power in Germany. Dr. Parker, the Cruzbike founder also makes the point that two years later, in 1936, Hitler tried to ban blacks from the Olympics because “their physiques are stronger than those of civilized whites”.
Fortunately the Intl. Olympic Committee voted him down. While the UCI has perpetrated a ban that has very successfully kept the recumbent bicycle looked down upon for generations.....