1938: This French Cyclist Set a New World Speed Record

October 22, 1938

Professional cyclist Alfred Letourneur set a new world record during a motor-paced racing competition at a velodrome in Montlhéry, France. Motor-paced racing involves having a cyclist closely follow a motorized vehicle to gain momentum and speed from that vehicle’s slipstream, and Letourneur – while riding his bicycle behind a motorbike in Monthlhéry — broke the previous speed record of 86.9 miles (139.9 kilometers) per hour in this category by pedaling as fast as 91.4 miles (147.1 kilometers) per hour.

In 1941, Letourneur broke his own record when he reached 109 miles (175.4 kilometers) per hour while pedaling a Schwinn Paramount bicycle behind a specially equipped midget racing car on a freeway near Bakersfield, California. This time around, Letourneur also made history as the first person to ride a bicycle faster than 100 miles (160.9 kilometers) per hour.

Letourneur’s achievements in these motor-paced racing events were only a couple of the highlights of his internationally renowned cycling career. Letourneur had been born in 1907 in Amiens, France (located 75 miles, or 120.7 kilometers, north of Paris). Not long after the end of World War I, he worked as a delivery boy in Paris and used a three-wheeled bicycle to transport packages for various businesses. As Letourneur later recalled, he rode his bicycle nearly 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) per day while performing those errands.

Starting in 1923, world champion cyclist Edmond Jacquelin trained Letourneur to take part in cycling competitions. Letourneur won a number of amateur races and in 1927 he turned professional. Letourneur, who would earn the nickname Le Diable Rouge” (The Red Devil) because of the red jerseys he customarily wore, continued to win cycling races throughout Europe and eventually became a fixture on the North American circuit as well. Between 1930 and 1938, he attained a total of 20 victories in six-day racing competitions in the United States and Canada. (Letourneur had moved to the United States in 1928; it was not until three decades, later, however, that he became an American citizen.)

In November 1973 – just over a year before Letourneur died in New York City – an Associated Press News story confirmed his continued pursuit of the transportation mode that made him famous. “A 65-year-old bicyclist in Central Park always wears a red shirt or read sweater,” the article reported. “He has been known for decades as The Red Devil, and is one of the great six-day bicycle riders of all time.”

For more information on Alfred Letourneur, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Letourneur.

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