The Vélocio method

Paul de Vivie, alias 'Vélocio', was the 'father' of French cycle touring. TONY HADLAND describes his philosophy and technical insights.

Paul de Vivie (Velocio) was an unusual man. He was an athletic cyclist, a devotee of ancient languages, and a vociferous advocate of smaller wheel sizes.

He reached his conclusions during a lifetime in which he cycled the equivalent of 15 times round the world 'all of it as careful experimental touring work with a view to improving machine design and method of riding'.

In the 1920s, Velocio advocated balloon tyres of up to 2.25" (57mm) cross-section on 20" (500mm) rims, giving an overall diameter of about 24" (600mm).

As early as 1911 he wrote: "My own experience has gone no further than to 50 centimetre wheels furnished with 50 millimetre tyres, but I can guarantee that in an experiment extending as far as 15,000 kilometres covered, they will not have the smallest disadvantage from the point of view of their running. It simply seems to me they are more prone to skidding, but this is perhaps due to the fact that their tyres have no tread and that the bicycle is very short."

Vélocio died in 1930 and his obituary in the CTC Gazette included a photograph of him with an open-framed small-wheeler. Over the next ten years several British cycle tourists emulated his use of smaller wheels. They included A.C. Davison, Cycling magazine's technical expert, and Medwin Clutterbuck, the CTC Consul for Sussex. Both riders used tyres of about 24" x 1 5/8" (600mm x 40mm). [Clutterbuck used 22" x 1 3/8" rims (560mm x 35mm).] Davison covered some 5,000 miles (8,100 km) on his 'Little Wheels' and declared it "a quite satisfactory bicycle".

As Vélocio put it:

"That universal agreement has fixed on 70 centimetres as the proper size for wheels does not in any way prove that this diameter is best; it simply proves that cyclists follow each other like sheep.... Make no mistake, uniformity is leading us directly towards boredom and towards routine, whilst diversity, even though it distracts us, holds our attention, our interest and the spirit of enquiry always on the watch. To change is not always to perfect, and I know that better than any others newly come to cyclo-technology. But to stand still, to sink into a rut, that is the worst of things for industries and for men."

The American writer, Clifford Graves, said in May 1965:

Velocio's influence grew, not because of his exploits on the bicycle, but because he showed how these exploits will shape the character of a man. Velocio was a humanist. His philosophy came from the ancients who considered discipline the cardinal virtue. Discipline is of two kinds: physical and moral. Velocio used the physical discipline of the bicycle to lead him to moral discipline. Through the bicycle he was able to commune with the sun, the rain, the wind. For him, the bicycle was the expression of a personal philosophy. For him, the bicycle was an instrument in the service of an ideal. For him, the bicycle was the road to freedom, physical and spiritual. He gave up much, but he found more.

Vélocio wrote of his tours in a language that inspired a nation - France - in which holidays with pay were unknown:

A shaft of gold pierced the sky and rested on a snowy peak, which, moments before, had been caressed by soft moonlight. For a moment showers of sparks bounced from the pinnacle and tumbled down the mountain in a heavenly cataract. The king of the universe, the magnificent dispenser of light and warmth and life, gave notice of his imminent arrival. But only for an instant. Like a spent meteor, the spectacle dissolved in the sea of darkness that engulfed me in the depths of the gorge. The glistening reflections, the exploding fireballs were gone. Once again, the snow assumed its cold and ghostly face.

Or again:

After a long day on my bicycle, I feel refreshed, cleansed, purified. I feel that I have established contact with my environment and that I am at peace. On days like that I am permeated with a profound gratitude for my bicycle. Even if I did not enjoy riding, I would still do it for my peace of mind. What a wonderful tonic to be exposed to bright sunshine, drenching rain, choking dust, dripping fog, rigid air, punishing winds! I will never forget the day I climbed the Puy Mary. There were two of us on a fine day in May. We started in the sunshine and stripped to the waist. Halfway, clouds enveloped us and the temperature tumbled. Gradually it got colder and wetter, but we did not notice it. In fact, it heightened our pleasure. We did not bother to put on our jackets or our capes, and we arrived at the little hotel at the top with rivulets of rain and sweat running down our sides. I tingled from top to bottom.

The above pictures are reproduced courtesy of Raymond Henry from whose collection they come. They appear in Raymond's excellent book in the French language entitled Vélocio and edited by The Museum of Art and Industry of Saint-Étienne.