VTT Magazine March 1998 (translation by Pryor Dodge)
L'officiel du vélo tout-terrain (The mountain bike journal)
Scoop: Le VTT est né en France (The mountain bike was born in France)
All aficionados of mountain bikes will tell you that their sport was born in the 1970's in Marin County, California. This solid fact is well imbedded in people's minds. However, considering what we know today, we can now say that if it received recognition on the other side of the Atlantic, the mountain bikes' roots are in the north-east suburbs of Paris, near the Porte des Lilas.
We find ourselves at the beginning of the 1950's. Bobet had not yet won his first Tour de France and the great Fausto Coppi had not yet become world champion. Rather, during this period, the sport craze in working class suburbs was moto-cross. Competitions attracting thousands of spectators were organized at the outskirts of the capital (Paris) on the old escarpment fortifications.
As a related aspect of this sport, a group of 18 teenagers, most of whom long-time schoolmates, lacking motorcycles but dreaming to follow in the steps of their elders, chose bicycles for their sport and, for "amusement", created the association VCCP (Vélo Cross Club Parisien).
In an effort to emulate his elders, Jean Duda decided to create a specific kind of bicycle; he was the first to equip his bicycle with a suspension fork from a motorcycle. His friends quickly followed suit. They took these forks from broken 100 cm3 cycles. Finding this arrangement impractical- different diameters of the pivoting sections and problematic steering, some in the group began incorporating "Soupless" parallelogram motorcycle forks. After much tinkering and improve-ments, the astonishing results produced suspension forks, handlebar gear changing, reinforced frames, and a heightened frame curve (?) (the first mountain bikes by Tom Ritchey and Joe Breeze, around 1975, didn't offer all of this!). Out of concern for solidity, wheel rims and spokes were also taken from small motorbikes. The rear wheel, having a drum brake, was oversized in relation to the front wheel.
Taking advantage of the milieu in which they evolved, these suburban kids succeeded in convincing the organizers of the moto-cross races to allow them to ride the course during intermission. At their debut in Ivry in 1951, few spectators could believe their ears when they heard the announcement that bicyclists would ride the course. Nevertheless, the riders quickly wound their way around the course with great success. From 1951 to 1956, they presented themselves in the surrounding Paris suburbs of Lilas, Pantin, Bobigny, Montreuil and Montmorency. Equipment improved during their string of competitions (3 or 4 per year). Frames were strengthened, often in a handicraft manner. Following a break in the frame, several riders, like Gérard Gartner (having had a boxing career, winning the French championship, now a sculptor), did not hesitate to insert another tube inside the frame before re-brazing the whole thing....a sort of ancestor of the double-butted frame! The other little revolution happened when Claude Serre (who later became the French champion of speed motorcycling at the beginning of the 1960's, then an engineer) created his own fork. The VCCP had reached its climax. The group trained every day, just after school. Wheelie (the 'record' of 52 meters - 56 yards - was held by Henri Albisson!) and bunny-up (hop) competitions sprung up.
The most ambitious person in this group, Georges Leskovak (who later created the French Federation of Karting - gokarts), recognizing the sport's potential, approached the motorcycle and bicycle federations. The former could not accept this 'non-motorized' activity while the latter imposed conditions (helmets, insurance, permits...) such that an affiliation never formed.
With the passage of time, the group began to fall apart. The older members were called to military service while the others, now of age and having the means, purchased motorcycles.
Furthermore, the "crossmen" (motorcyclists), sensing that these kids in the VCCP were taking attention away from them, were not accommodating, and the federations did not recognize them, which lead the VCCP to slowly die out during 1956. Only 30 years later would these innovators realize that they had come close to becoming legends.
One cannot bring to light the adventure of the VCCP without mentioning all the participants. We offer a friendly salute to: Henri Albisson, Claude Biraud, Serge Douvil, Jacques Bouquetal, François Dechorniat, Jean Duda, Guy Hermand, Georges Leskowak, Alain Lyver, Lucien Picou, "little Prousky", "big Prousky", Guy Sentucq, Jean-Claude Serre and Georges Voutsas.
Many thanks to "VCCPists" Gérard Gartner and Jacques Michel, without whom this epic period would have been forgotten. And above all, let us remember Clément Guilbert, recently deceased, to whom his friends wanted to dedicate this article.
Finally, all our thanks to Laurent Dibos of "Canal, the magazine of Pantin".