Hitler Elected President and Other Bad News from 1934

February 8, 2013/ Jim Parker

Many cycling enthusiasts consider October 22, 2012 one of the saddest days in cycling history. That day, in the wake of a huge doping scandal, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the main governing body of bicycle racing, stripped Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and banned him for life from UCI competition.

For most recumbent cyclists, our saddest day came 79 years ago, when the UCI stripped Frenchman Francis Faure of his medals and forever banned, not him, but his bicycle.


Francis Faure defeating Henri Lemoine in February 1934. (Archives of A. Schmitz)

Prior to 1934, recumbent bicycles were considered just another bicycle design. They’d been around since at least 1895. By 1914, they were popular enough that Peugeot, a major bicycle manufacturer, produced a recumbent model. In the 50 years preceding 1934, bicycles had undergone dramatic changes in design. Bicycle races not only proved which riders were the best at racing, but which bicycle design had the best chance of winning. The era of rapid bicycle design evolution was about to end. The trouble began when Charles Mochet designed and built a radically sleek recumbent bicycle that allowed Faure, a “mediocre” cyclist, to outrace Europe’s best.

On July 7, 1933, Faure set the one-hour world record. The UCI, the majority of whose delegates came from France, Italy, and Germany, spent months pondering whether to accept the new record or strike it down. Several of the UCI’s sponsors were manufacturers of the standard “safety” bike which was extremely popular at that time. No doubt this fact influenced the final decision which was released on April 1, 1934. After a close vote (58 to 46) the UCI decided not only to strip Faure of his medals, but also to impose strict uniform bicycle design standards—the position of the bottom bracket relative to the saddle, front axle, rear axle, etc. in order to prevent Faure, or anyone, from ever again racing a recumbent bike in a UCI competition.

This 1934 decree crippled the budding recumbent bicycle industry and continues, even today, to thwart the development of alternate frame designs by artificially limiting the potential recumbent bicycle market. The post-1934 UCI, rather than encouraging innovative changes to the bicycle frame, expressly prohibited any significant changes. Perhaps even worse, it helped forge an indelible image in the mind of the public regarding what a bicycle should look like.

We should not be surprised by such a decision coming out of the UCI in 1934. Later that same year, Germany would elect a new President, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini would sweep to victory in Italy’s general election. Two years later, Germany played host to the Olympics in Berlin. Hitler was extremely displeased with the performance of African-American track star Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals. Hitler wanted him and all blacks banned from future Olympics. He thought they had an unfair advantage because “their physiques are stronger than those of civilized whites.” In the name of fairness to his own in-group, Hitler was quite willing to ban an entire race of people. Fortunately for Jesse Owens, and the whole world, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not subscribe to Hitler’s logic. Unfortunately for recumbent bicycle enthusiasts, and the whole world, not quite enough members of the UCI were as open-minded as the IOC and voted, in the name of fairness, to ban all bikes that did not meet their narrow standards. It’s worth noting that Paul Rousseau, the UCI Commissioner from France in 1934, voiced his opposition to the ban on recumbents, stating that the UCI’s purpose was not to define the bicycle, but to regulate races and prohibit add-on aerodynamic aids.

Recumbents, after scores of lost years, began a slow re-birth in the 1970’s and 1980’s as more cyclists were interested in not only speed, but comfort and safety. Ergonomics, the concept of designing equipment to optimize both performance and human well-being, did not exist in 1934. The term was first proposed for use in 1949 by Professor Hugh Murrell at a meeting of the British Admiralty. The first professional society dedicated to promoting ergonomics was not formed in the U.S. until 1957. The bicycle has had to compete with the automobile as a transportation option. Unfortunately for the bicycle, the basic frame of the bicycle was designed in the pre-ergonomic era, and that design is forbidden to change by the UCI. The automobile industry is under no such restrictions, and constantly improving ergonomics has been an integral part of what makes cars so comfortable, safe, and popular. Most Americans perceive bicycles as toys, rather than as a serious alternative transportation modality. Would that perception be different today if the UCI, in 1934, had decided to allow all bicycles to compete on the highest level?

The UCI-defined racing bicycle sets the standard for what almost all competitive cyclists and triathletes are permitted to ride. Organizations such as USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, Inc., have adopted UCI standards, sometimes with slight modifications, but almost always preventing recumbents from competing against “standard” bikes. What would be the harm in allowing recumbents to compete? The UMCA has proven that recumbent and standard bikes can compete safely, even in mass-start and drafting events.

UCI racing has a tarnished reputation. Here’s a suggestion: revoke the 1934 UCI policy and allow all bikes to compete at the highest level. This would once again allow bicycle designs to evolve and take advantage of our new understanding of ergonomics. It might even dramatically increase participation in cycling, something that would be good for the UCI, public health, and the environment.

What did Francis Faure do after the UCI stripped him of his medals and records? In an unsanctioned race in 1938, on the eve of World War II, Faure became the first person to exceed 50 kilometers in an hour on a bicycle, a record that would not be broken for 46 years.

Many cyclists believe that their standard racing bike is built the way it is because it’s proven to be the best, or safest, or fastest design. We now know those are misconceptions; and that’s the recumbent perspective.

{ This is a slightly longer version of the article submitted to Ultracycling Magazine. I found many sources for this article online, but special thanks to the Cycle Genius website for an excellent history section. http://www.cyclegenius.com/history.php}

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