A night in June, clear and moonlit From the Arc de Triomphe to the gates of the Bois de Boulogne, the Avenue de la Grande Armee, "Wheel street," as "Mr Dooley" called it when he was in Paris, is in a hum of excitement and of expectation.
The tramway-cars are crowded streams of people are pouring up the stairs from the Metropolitan, and bicycles and motor cars throng the two asphalted roadways set apart for ,them on either side of the avenue. It is a gala night at the Buffalo race track, and Buffalo is going to be full.
Inside the huge wooden palisades which surround the course, the scene is a curiously beautiful one. Although the track, the stands, and everything in Buffalo are very simply built, there is some thing so attractive in the coming struggle between the forces of nature and human wit and daring which we are to witness that we forget the ugly wooden sheds and barriers, and feel, the same thrill as on a moonlit night the Romans must have felt when there were to be races in the Colosseum. The track, a huge ellipse 330 yards in circumference, and about 200 yards from end to end, is framed in a sea of faces rising in serried rows up to the skyline. The track itself is lit with powerful lamps, which burn a special alcohol, and are as bright as electricity; but all beyond is dark and misty, and of the huge crowd of four thousand people which is present, little is to be seen save a gleam of a white face now and then, as some one or other lights a cigarette. At either end of the ellipse which forms the wooden track are walls which run up at an angle of some seventy degrees, nearly a right angle, to a height of thirty feet, and as I look down on them from above and realise that I am on a level with the tree-tops outside Buffalo I shudder at the notion that men on bicycles and motocyclettes intend to risk their lives upon them. Yet that is what we are presently to see. These wooden wall are the virages or turning points of the course, and did they not exist the racers would shoot right off the track into the crowd and do themselves considerable damage. "They are the safeguards of the racers," says a friend with me, who is an expert in these matters. They may be safeguards, but seen in cold blood they are fearsome things to look at from above.
It is nine o'clock, and crack goes the pistol. The first race is for bicycles, without pace-makers, and presently three small figures, dressed in brightly colored guernseys, are seen whirling round the course.
They look so little like human beings as they go round that I think of Ostend and Boulogne with their petits chevaux, and look behind the starter for the handle which must, I think, be turning them. If a raucous voice had suddenly exclaimed "Rien ne va plus" I should not have been surprised, and when a bell announces the last round, and amid great excitement from the crowd some one with a speaking trumpet calls the number of the winner, the illusion is entirely complete. Other races follow, with pace-makers and without them, but the crowd is only mildly interested as yet, although one of the competitors is Taylor, the negro bicyclist, whose fame has crossed the her ring pond before him. He is a queer figure in his light-blue guerynsey (sic), and all that can be seen of him, besides his clothes, are the white teeth with which he smiles as the crowd cheer him, and the two bare legs of polished ebony which gleam in the light of the lamps, as they twinkle round the course. And then comes the sensation of the evening. The crowd surges and murmurs like a sea on a calm summer night, and four men, helped by assistants, laboriously push four motocyclettes up to the starting post, at a point where the track slopes less than elsewhere. They are queer things, these motocyclettes, and look as unlike bicycles as baby elephants of fourteen hands look like a horse. The wheels have great pneumatic tyres like a motor-car, which, when the race is over, will be too hot to touch, and down between the two wheels is the great motor, six, seven, eight, even ten-horse power.
The racers are dressed in oilskins, with close-fitting skull caps, and as the pistol cracks all run their pedalless steeds along, working up speed, and as soon as maybe leap on to the saddle.Then pandemonium reigns. Each motocyclette makes as much noise as a Maxim, and the exploding petroleum flashes steely blue between each rider's legs, and looks like lightning. Bang! Bang! Bang! goes the petroleum, and as the pace works up the thunder of the motocyclettes on the wooden track adds a low rumble of its own, so that an onlooker could close his eyes and imagine himself listening to a battle on the veldt. The noise may be imagined when I say that the enormous crowd was practically shouting its hardest during the whole race, and that the only voices I could hear at all were those of people immediately around me. As for the pace, nothing that I can say will convey the least notion of it, except the simple figures. Watching those banging, fire flashing things rush round and round, covering the 330 yards in less than ten seconds even before they were at their top speed, made it impossible to fancy that there were men on them. As they passed under us, however, the men were visible; sitting well back, gripping the long handle-bars, which ran back to their waists, and crouching to avoid the wind. The witches' broom-sticks of our great-grandfathers were far less terrifying than this speed orgy, and the terrific noise and flashes as of lightning, which followed one another every second, making the race a very nocturne of petroleum - a concert of concussion.
His defiance of the laws of gravity is nothing in comparison to the feat of equilibrium which the motocyclettes performed yesterday at Buffalo.
"Come up and look down on to the virage," called my friend in my ear, and I followed him up to a point in the very centre of the course, from which the descent to the grass plot in the middle was like the side of Murren, opposite the Jungfraus. Rrrrrrh! Here comes one of them! Bang! Bang! Bang! Flash! Flash! Flash! and as he passes under us the man on his motocyclette literally seems to brush the grass outside the track and to be at right angles to the wall of wood on which he travels. The speed was fearful, and before I could get my breath - for a second I had really thought the man and machine were doomed to death - he had rushed round the track and passed below us once again. The crowd by now was in a hubbub of the wildest excitement. I could see hats, handkerchiefs and umbrellas waving madly, and every now and then; even above. the tumult of the motors, I heard a shriek of encouragement to the racers...
"Demester wins -- Demester!" yelled my friend into my ear, pointing to the little figure which was now over a hundred yards away, and presently the bell clanged out to show that the last lap alone remained, and a few seconds afterwards a pistol's smoke was seen. . The report was quite inaudible. Four or five times round the track the motocyclettes went although the race was over, carried by the mere impetus of their enormous speed, and presently the man with the big speaking trumpet told us that Demester had won, and had broken the world's record, doing his six miles in 7 min. 34 2-5 sec., or, roughly speaking, forty-three miles an hour.
As I read through the story of last night's performance I see a fly, the first this summer, travelling across the ceiling upside-down. He does not interest me in the least. His defiance of the laws of gravity is nothing in comparison to the feat of equilibrium which the motocyclettes performed yesterday at Buffalo.
West Gippsland Gazette Tuesday 26 Aug 1902
1. Originally located Neuilly, in 1923 Stade Buffalo was moved to la rue Carvès in Montrouge, very close to the location of the René Gillet workshops. The Buffalo Velodrome survived until 1956.
2. Demester is actually Demeester