I came across this story a few months ago and had to share it, on account of the sheer bravery of the man involved, and the frankly silly speeds he was achieving so long ago. Think your Bianchi or BMC is fast? You’ve got nothing on José Meiffret…
“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.”
At 48 years old, and with a build far from the physique of a champion, José Meiffret would not have appeared an obvious challenger for a cycle speed record. Yet on the 19th July, 1962 near the German town of Friedburg; this dedicated Frenchman took his incredible bicycle up to an officially recognised speed of 127.342mph – a new World Record; and one that few people have surpassed since.
Born in France in 1913, Meiffret came from a poor background, and it was almost fate that led him to the passion his life would ultimately revolve around. Orphaned at an early age, he was forced to go and work in order to support himself; until one day travelling around on his aging, second-hand bicycle, he was knocked down by a passing motorist – destroying the machine and badly shaking him. This motorist was distraught with guilt, and immediately offered to buy José a brand-new bicycle as a replacement. The new bike was a world away from anything José had been used to, and before long his life centred upon it – with this bike, he was going to be great.
Unfortunately with little real-world race experience, José was not as prepared as he liked to think, and his first race was eye-opening. Without any preparation he entered a 120 mile Alpine tour, only to be dropped in the early stages. He was mocked by the other riders, and was told by the race doctor that his heart was weak and he should never race. Despite being deeply upset by the ordeal, José’s resolve was strong, and he continued to ride at the highest levels he could, determined to reach the top. His break came when he managed to talk himself into the villa and audience of Henry Desgrange, the founder of the Tour de France. Desgrange, whilst recognising Meiffret’s limiting build, also saw the utter commitment and mettle in his eyes, and surmised, “Try motor-paced racing, my boy. You might surprise yourself”. José did just that, and in his first ever race (40 miles from Nice to Cannes), finished a full seven minutes ahead of the competition.
Immediately fired up by this victory, Meiffret agreed to ride the same course again – this time behind a faster vehicle. Despite a collision with the pavement and a flat tire, he set a new course record, and with it a direction for his life. Alas war soon broke out, pushing Meiffret back through five years in captivity. Once the war was over, he got back on his bicycle and by 1949 had taken the world record for the hour-distance from fellow Frenchman Georges Paillard (54.618mph). Having laid down the gauntlet, Paillard immediately replied with a 59.954mph record. Determined to have his place as a champion, Meiffret carefully selected a circuit in Germany. His drive and training paid off, and he reclaimed his crown with a registered speed of 65.115mph. Yet despite his sporting excellence, there was little money in motor-paced racing, and José had to continually fight to keep himself from poverty. This led him to the more glamourous – and dangerous – niche of pacing by motorcars rather than bikes.
The world record here had already smashed through the 100mph barrier (no mean feat for the bike engineering of the time); with Alfred Letourneur managing a measured mile at 108.923mph in 1941. A decade later, and Meiffret spent months learning the differences in the sports – aerodynamics had proved tiring, not life-threatening, at 60mph. After working up from a first attempt at 70mph, in 1951 José got it right and recorded a speed of 109.100mph. A victory, but only just. Having taken this record too, he set his sights to the track-record, where he almost lost everything. In 1952, coming out of the corner at the Montlhery track at 80mph, José’s bike entered a speed wobble, and threw him 320ft over the concrete. He was not expected to survive the ordeal – he’d torn his body to shreds, and fractured his skull in 5 separate places (his skull remained slightly dented for the rest of his life).
Whilst he survived, this crash entered him into a long hiatus from record-breaking; instead living for 9 years as a monk, whilst making constant refinements to his bicycle. It was not until 1961 – at the age of 48 – that he felt prepared to make another attempt on his still-phenomenal car-paced record. Having gained permission to close a brand-new stretch of autobahn in Lahr, Germany; Meiffret took his heavily customised bike up to 115.934mph – or 187km/h. He still had the record, but now he set his eyes on a goal after which he would bow-out from competitive riding – 200km/h.
Thus back to July 19th 1962, and José – astride his unique machine (130-tooth chainring, reversed forks, wooden wheels, critical reinforcement) – was riding just inches behind a heavily modified Mercedes. Should he contact the car, his wheels would buck him off. Should he drop back, the turbulent air would knock him to the ground. Either would result in near-certain death. José held his nerve, shouting only “Allez!” down his microphone to the driver. He hit the measured mile, and for 18 seconds held his composure whilst his legs span at 186rpm. The mile was made, the speed was 204.937km/h. At 127mph, José Meiffret had – at the age of 48 – become the fastest self-powered man on the planet.
On a 20kg, wooden-wheeled road-bike.