On the road to ruin, sorry Rouen, on the same road that hosted the world’s first bicycle race in 1869 and also the world’s first motor car race some 25 years later

(#09 – Top 10 Highlights from 2016 Tour de Travoy) The photo above shows two of the cars that competed in the world’s first motor car race on Sunday July 22nd in 1894 between Paris and Rouen. It is roughly 125 km from Paris to Rouen and the fastest car that day took almost 7 hours to complete the race averaging only 19 km/hr. In all, only 17 vehicles finished the race that day out of 21 vehicles that started. The race in 1894 started at the Porte Maillot in Paris and all the competitors stopped for lunch at Mantes-la-Jolie before then crossing the Seine at the Pont de l’Arche and driving to the finish-line at the Champ de Mars in Rouen. The photo shows 2 cars passing through Mantes-la-Jolie and you can see that the road was not closed off and the cars in the race had to dodge past pedestrians and horse and carts on their way to Rouen.

The world’s first long distance motor race in 1894 between Paris and Rouen. The 126 km long race was won by Albert Lemaitre in an early model Peugeot car with a 3 hp engine. Lemaitre took almost 7 hours to drive from Paris to Rouen and was one of only 14 petrol powered vehicles to complete the route. Lemaitre won the first prize of 5,000 francs which would be the equivalent of €50,000 today. His speed averaged only 19 km/h but within 10 years, cars were being built with engines which produced 90 hp and were capable of driving at speeds of up to 140 km/h.

Paris to Rouen was also the setting for the word’s first bicyle race in 1869. The race in 1869 was won by James Moore, who cycled the 123 km distance in 10 hours and 40 minutes at an average speed of 11 km/h. Nowadays, professional cyclists would cycle the same distance in under 3 hours but back in 1869 bikes didn’t have any gears or even a chain. Instead, they were propelled using pedals attached to the front wheel. Obviously, the bigger the wheel the faster the bike and Moore’s bike made by his neighbors in Paris, the Michaux brothers, had a 48″ front wheel and a 15″ back wheel. 120 cyclists set out from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but only 32 made it to Rouen within 24 hours. Paris – Rouen was originally meant to be an annual race but the 1870 Franco-Prussion war led to its cancellation. In the 1880’s the invention of the safety bicycle with a chain driven transmission led to bicycle speeds doubling and numerous races being organised throughout France. By the time the most famous cycle race nowadays, Paris – Roubaix started in 1896, cyclists were averaging over 30 km/h. The same year, a race for motor vehicles took place between Paris and Marseille and back and that race was won at an average speed of only 28 km/h. In contrast, the first Paris – Roubaix cycle race the same year was won by German cyclist Josef Fischer who covered 280 km from Porte Maillot in Paris to the velodrome in Roubaix in 9 hours at an average speed of 31km/h.

Panhard Levassor car from 1896 (left) and 1903 Renault 3CV (right). Karl Benz had invented the first motorcar in 1885 and his wife Bertha then famously took the first long distance trip in a car in 1888. 8 years later, the Panhard Levassor car shown above won Paris – Marseille in 1896 at an average speed of 28 km/h. So, even 11 years after Karl Benz had built the first motor car, bicycles were still faster than any car built up until then. But that was to change drastically over the next 7 years. In 1898, the first major international race took place between Paris and Amsterdam and the winning car traveled at a speed of 43 km/h. By 1903, in the Paris – Madrid race the fastest cars had 90 hp engines and a maximum speed of 140 km/h. Over 200 cars took part in the 1903 Paris – Madrid race including 11 cars from Mercedes in Germany. However, 3 spectators and 5 drivers were killed during the race and it was stopped when the leading drivers had only got as far as Bordeaux. One of the drivers killed was Marcel Renault, who along with his brother Louis Renault, owned Renault motor cars at that time. Shortly afterward, racing cars on open roads in France was banned by the French government and races were confined to closed circuits. The 1894 Paris Rouen was the first and the 1903 Paris Madrid race was the last race to be held on open roads in France. But in the space of those 9 years, cars had gone from averaging 19 km/h to averaging 89 km/h the same speed as what most cars travel at today.


Narrow verge nowadays along road used in first cycle race anywhere in the world. In 1869, the road between Paris and Rouen would have been mostly cobblestones and also much hillier and narrower, so the present day version with its smooth asphalt and easier gradients is a big improvement. But for a road that hosted the first cycle race in the world, I  expected it to be much more cycle friendly. The road was very busy and very narrow in places for the volume of traffic. It would not cost much to add a verge a foot or 2 wide along most it’s length to improve a cyclist’s safety. Certainly, if the Paris Rouen road was located in l’Ain departement of France, the verge would be much wider.


City of Rouen in the distance. With a population of half a million people, Rouen is one of the largest cities in France. Rouen was founded in Roman times and in the Middle Ages, was the second largest city in France behind only Paris. During the Hundred Years War, the city was occupied by English troops for 30 years between 1419 and 1449. It was during this period that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake here in 1431.


 Joan of Arc being burned at the stake in 1431. In 1430, Joan was captured by Burgundian troops near Compiegne and handed over to their allies, the English in Normandy after a ransom was paid. She was kept in a prison in Rouen and then put on trial for heresy. Because she wore men’s clothes and kept her hair cut short, she was convicted of being a heretic and sentenced to death by being burned at a stake on 30 May 1431.  After Joan of Arc was burnt to death, the English then raked back the coals to expose her charred body so that no one could claim she had escaped alive. They then burned the body twice more, to reduce it to ash and prevent any collection of relics, before throwing her remains into the River Seine.


Eglise Sainte Jeanne d’Arc at the Place du Vieux Marche in Rouen. The site where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake is now marked with a cross. Beside the cross is a large, modern church which dominates the square. The design of the church represents an upturned viking boat and is in the shape of a fish. However, it looks a bit out of place in such a historic location.


Panorama XXL building in Rouen. The Panorama XXL buiding opened in Rouen in 2014. It is 35m in height and 34m in diameter and shows a 3D panorama of historical towns. It has proved to be very popular with an average of 100.000 visitors annually since it opened. In 2015, it offered a panorama of how Rome looked in 312 AD but in May 2016, it started displaying a panorama showing Rouen in 1431.

Panoramic view of Rouen in 1431 inside Panorama XXL. This 360 ° panorama is the result of 3 years of work by local artist Yadegar Asisi. More than 50,000 photographs, drawings and paintings were looked at and incorporated into the panorama. From the top of the 15-meter platform, you can discover major scenes of the life and death of Joan of Arc which took place in Rouen. At this time, Rouen was the 2nd largest city in France, just after Paris. The panorama portrays the daily life of the city, with the churches, the half-timbered houses, courtyards and the Mathilde bridge on the river Seine.


Notre Dame cathedral in Rouen. But 19th Century Rouen was famous as not only the finish of the world’s first motor and cycle races but also for having the tallest structure in the world. In 1876, a new spire was built of cast iron to replace the old spire which had been damaged by lightning. From 1876 to 1880, at 151m in height, this spire was the tallest structure in the world until surpassed by Cologne Cathedral in Germany. It was one of the first buildings ever built to surpass the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, which is 146m tall. 120 years ago, the Seine valley between Paris and Rouen was the Silicon Valley of it’s time. It was between these two cities that the world’s first cycle race (1869) and world’s first motor-race (1894) took place. Indeed, the Seine valley was one of the the most industrialized regions in the world at that time, which French people now refer to as the Belle Epoque.

Champ de Mars

Champ de Mars in Rouen. In 1869, the world’s first bicycle race and in 1894, the world’s first motor car race both finished here at the Champ de Mars in Rouen. The Champ de Mars is very small but it was certainly big enough to accommodate the 100 plus cyclists who finished in 1869 and the 17 cars who completed the race in 1894. It’s location along the river Seine and to the south east of Rouen city centre made it an ideal finish-line location for both races. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the park to commemorate either of these races. In Germany, the route of the first long distance car journey in 1888 is commemorated by the Bertha Benz Memorial Route but disappointingly, here in France, there is nothing to signify that both the world’s first cycle and motor car races took place over 100 years ago on the road between Paris and Rouen.



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