Skip to main content
No. 2958:
Octave Lapize

Today, bicycles, airplanes, and war, The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and about the people whose ingenuity created them. 

The Tour de France began in 1903. France, Luxembourg, and Belgium claimed all the wins in its first 21 years - the three countries most directly in the path of the German invasion.

Author Graham Healy tells about those cyclists in his book, The Shattered Peloton. A peloton is a group of cyclists moving together so as to reduce wind resistance. Healy's figurative peloton was the group of French cyclists who'd given birth to the Tour de France, then died in such large numbers during WW-I. 

I've said a lot about the link between bicycles and flying machines. Cyclists and early pilots grooved on the stimulation of controlling and correcting their unstable vehicles. It was the mentality of bicycle makers like Glenn Curtiss and the Wright brothers who gave us the airplane. French bicycle maker Paul Cornu made the first helicopter that got off the ground - just four years after the first Tour de France. 

Marie MarvingtThat same mentality drove people into harm's way in the war. I tell about French athlete Marie Marvingt in another episode. She was a balloonist and a mountain climber. She tried, in 1908, to get into the Tour de France. She was denied, as a woman, so she went off by herself to cycle the entire route. Two years later, she became the third woman ever licensed to fly. 

When war began, she found her way into many forms of military service, including combat bombing missions. Marvingt stayed active as a pilot - even got a helicopter license at age 80.

Now meet another French cyclist, Octave Lapize. Lapize did the Tour de France in 1910 - the first year the race was ex-tended through the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. Lapize was the first rider to make the killer climb called the Col du Tourmalet. Today, a silver statue of Lapize graces the top at that point. Still, when he reached the next summit he turned on the organizers, gasping for breath, and called them murderers. 

Octave Lapize
Octave Lapize in 1913

Toward the end, he was in the lead and enjoying a rest day near Caen before the finish. There, as the leader, he was offered a ride in one of the new Bleriot aeroplanes. Lapize did go on to win the race. And he competed in cycling over the next four years. 

But that airplane ride stayed with him. He joined the French Army when war began - then requested a transfer to the Air Service. February 1917 found him at the front near Verdun. He shot down one enemy plane. But he himself was shot down in his Nieuport on Bastille Day, July 14th. He died in a hospital a few days later.

And Lapize was just one of many. War really did shatter the early Tour de France peloton. Bicycles, airplanes, and dare-devil courage were the new currency of the 20th century. It's small wonder that so many of that breed perished in the forefront of our first terrible modern war.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we�re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

G. Healy, The Shattered Peloton: The Devastating Impact of World War I on the Tour de France. (Indianapolis: Breakaway Books, 2014).

For more on Marie Marvingt, see Engines Episode 2504. For more on the Tour de France, see Episode 2357.

I am most grateful to Connecticut listener Buzz Climis for bringing Lapize to my attention, and providing substantial counsel on, this episode. Lapiz died flying a Nieuport 23 (a less-than-successful improvement upon the more familiar Nieuport 17) near the commune of Flirey, 30 miles SW of Verdun. Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

See the English and French Wikipedia articles on Octave Lapize. See also this useful Blospot page.

Octave Lapize statue
Statue commemorating Octave Lapize as the first cyclist to conquer the Col du Tourmalet.

This episode was first aired on July 23, 2014