19 May 2016

Helene Dutrieu: She Did It Without A Corset!

For better or worse, everyone knows Lance Armstrong's name.  And, for a time, all Americans--whether or not they'd ever even touched a bicycle--knew about Greg LeMond, who won the Tour de France three times in the late 1980s.

And, of course, everyone who has even the slightest familiarity with bicycle racing has heard of a guy named Eddy Mercx.  For that matter, you don't have to be intimately connected to the sport to recognize names like Bernard Hinault, Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil.

The fame of female cyclists, however, tends to be much more fleeting.  Most of what I know about them--including the ones I've written about on this blog--I learned by accident. 

Now I can add Helene Dutrieu to my list. Given her accomplishments, it's almost criminal that she's not better-known. 

She was born on 10 July 1877 in Tournai, Belgium--perhaps not coincidentally, the birthplace of Clovis I.  When she was a young girl, she moved with her family to Lille, in the north of France.  At age 14, she left school to earn a living.

I couldn't find any information about her first job(s).  But, at some point, her older brother Eugene inspired her to follow his career path:  bicycle racing.  In 1893, at age 16, she set the women's world record for distance cycled in one hour.  Three years later, she won the world women's track cycling championship and reprised her title the following year. 

Helene Dutrieu racing for the La Chaine Simpson team.

During that time, she won a twelve-day race in England and raced for the Simpson Lever Chain (La Chaine Simpson) team, immortalized in a Toulouse-Lautrec illustration.   In 1898,  she won the Grand Prix d'Europe.   Belgium's King Leopold II awarded her the le Croix d' St. Andre with diamonds in honor of her exploits as a cyclist.

Toulouse-Lautrec illustration of Constance Huret  in a pursuit race.

Her velocipedic virtuosity was matched by her daring:  She gained, perhaps, as much renown as a stunt cyclist, first on a bicycle and, later, on a motorcycle.  She created a stunt--a jump of about 15 meters on a bicycle--called "La Fleche Humaine" (the Human Arrow), which became her nickname.

In reading about her, I came away with the impression that she was, first and foremost, a performer.  In addition to her feats of athleticism and daring, she also gained renown as an actress, appearing on such stages as the Theatre des Capucines.  During that time--from 1903 to 1909-- she also was a stunt driver, first on motorcycles and, later, in automobiles.

Dutrieu in a Henry Farman-type two-seater, circa 1911.

That the public and press loved her didn't escape the notice of Clement-Bayard de Levallois, the company that sponsored her as a stunt and race car driver.  They were about to introduce their new aeroplane--the Santos-Dumont No. 19 Demoiselle.  Especially with a name like that ("Demoiselle", as you probably know, means "young lady"), who would be a better candidate to be its first pilot than Ms. Dutrieu.

In those days, flying was truly not for the faint of heart--or heavy of body.  Those machines didn't have much power and, thus, couldn't bring much weight aloft.  Naturally petite and trim--and fit from her years of cycling--Helene Dutrieu thus had advantages over nearly every other pilot candidate.  Though her first flight ended in a crash--not unusual in 1908-- she quickly developed a following that grew with the skills she developed as a pilot.  In fact, she was the first woman to fly an aircraft bearing a passenger, and would become the fourth woman (and first Belgian woman) in history to earn a flying license, which she would need to enter competitions.  La Fleche Humaine soon would be known as La Femme Epervier (the Lady Hawk).

One thing to remember was that in those days, in most of the world (including her native Belgium and France), women didn't have the right to vote, or many other rights.  And we were thought biologically incapable of doing many of the things we do today.  So, while the public loved seeing her fly, her sponsor was also capitalizing on a subtext of her exploits:  This plane is so easy to fly that a woman can do it!    


Gender norms in those days were more rigid, both literally and figuratively, in other ways.  So, while people were enthusiastic about Dutrieu's exploits, they expected her--as they would expect any other woman--to adhere to the standards of modesty of the time.  The biggest scandal about her, then, was not a result of  any of her daring feats, but in doing them--as the press discovered accidentally--without a corset! 

(Because she was so thin, I have no idea of how that terrifying fact was discovered!)

But that didn't seem to bother Pierre Lafitte.  He published Femina, one of France's most popular women's magazines.  An early aviation enthusiast, in 1910 he announced a prize for the longest flight--in both distance and time aloft--by a woman in an aeroplane.  Dutrieu flew 167 kilometers in 2.6 hours to win the title, which she defended the following year.  She would fly in the air-show circuit for another two years before retiring in 1913, after France awarded her the Legion d'honneur.

Hélène Dutrieu (Library of Congress

When Dutrieu won the Coup Femina in 1910, a woman named Marie Marvingt finished second, flying 42 kilometers in 53 minutes.  Interestingly, their careers turned in the same direction with the outbreak of World War I:  both became ambulance drivers!

So, like so many pioneers in the worlds of automobiles and aviation--and women's achievement--Helene Dutrieu started her revolution with revolutions--of her pedals.  Her journey ended in Paris on 26 June 1961, at the age of 83.


  1. There are certainly women in the modern era who could rival Ms Dutrieu on the bike. Jeanie Longo and Marianne Vos are two that immediately come to mind. But their exploits will never be wrapped in the romance of that era when the bicycle was new. And the fact that she defied the the social conventions of her day to do it makes her all the more appealing. Wouldn't it be great to have a couple of hours to talk with her(if my French wasn't so dismal). She sort of puts me in mind of another lady non-conformist, Beryl Markham of aviation fame.

  2. How did they discover she flew without a corset? Maybe she accidentally landed in North Carolina and was confronted by the corset police, at that time manned by the grandfathers of the current bathroom police.

    The connection between the corset and modesty is a very interesting topic. Check it out online. Entire scholarly tomes have been devoted to the subject.

    But Santos-Dumont's Demoiselle was maybe named after the American Aida de Acosta, on whom he had a lifetime crush, and who apparently was never aware of his affections. She was the first woman in history to fly a powered aircraft, one of S.D.'s mini dirigibles that he flew down the boulevards of Paris at tree top level and tethered outside cafes.


    1. Yeah,I know what you mean about North Carolina. It's my home state. Even though I havn't lived there in 33 years I was always proud of where I came from. Now maybe not so much. Let them pass all the stupid laws they want. Enforcing them is another matter. Do they intend to station a policeman at each restroom demanding to see your birth certificate? Rediculous!

  3. Phillip--I agree that Jeanne Longo and Marianne vos could at least give Helene Dutrieu a run for her money. But, as you say, not only will their exploits ever be wrapped in the romance of that era; being women, they aren't likely to be as well-known as Mercx, Anquetil, Coppi and other male racers.

    Leo--I love your story. The corset police? Do they have any jurisdiction over traffic. Now that would be a real humiliation: getting busted for not wearing a corset and getting a ticket for parking my dirigible in a restricted spot on the Boulevard St. Michel!

  4. Female swimmers are the same way. Everybody knows about Michael Phelps. Who remembers Eleanor Holm? (Hint - the 1936 Husky Crew knew about her on the boat over to Germany).

  5. Steve--I have a really hard time imagining swimmers in corsets!