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Long Live La Cipale

From Issue 78 • Words and Images by James Startt

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It has been more than a century since African American cycling legend Major Taylor made 50,000 fans roar as he raced around the legendary track. But the Vélodrome Municipal de Vincennes—more commonly known as La Cipale, from La Piste Municipale—on the eastern edge of Paris is a gentle reminder of a bygone era. And yet La Cipale is still very much alive.


TODAY, IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE a time when track racing reigned supreme. But that was very much the case at the turn of the 19th century. The automobile, after all, was still experimental. Cycling was the modern mode of transportation and those that mastered its speed were elevated to superstar heights. In America, track racing rivaled, and even surpassed, fledgling spectator sports like baseball and football. And in France, a bike race called the Tour de France was still a vague idea that wouldn’t celebrate its birth until 1903. But in the many velodromes around the world, the sport of cycling was already in high gear.

During France’s Belle Époque, the city of Paris boasted at least half a dozen active tracks. There was the Vélodrome du Buffalo, named after Buffalo Bill Cody, who staged his Wild West show there for a French audience. And it was here where Henri Desgrange—who later founded the Tour de France—established the first world hour record in 1893, a full decade before his bike race around France took to the road.

And then there was the legendary Parc des Princes, where the Tour finished for seven decades, and others like the Vélodrome d’Hiver that would host the Paris six-day race from 1913 to 1958. But all of these sports palaces, giants in their day, would all eventually collapse—all but La Cipale, which still stands, timeless and largely unchanged.

First built in 1896, La Cipale was one of the world’s largest outdoor velodromes. It was the main stadium for the Paris Olympic Games of 1900, hosting cycling, football, gymnastics and rugby; and its 500-meter track was the venue for the cycling events at the 1924 Olympics. Decades later, after the Parc des Princes was pulled down to make way for a soccer stadium, the finish of the Tour de France was transferred to La Cipale in 1968. It stayed there for seven years, hosting all five of Eddy Merckx’s victories, with the Cannibal winning the final stage, a time trial, at the velodrome in 1971. And for nearly a century La Cipale was home to the Grand Prix de Paris, an annual sprint competition that featured the crème de la crème of the world’s track sprinters.

But while La Cipale had a long history as a stage for the stars, it was also a neighborhood velodrome. For years, professionals and amateurs would mix freely on Les Jeudis Populaires, a Thursday track meet when many school children had a free afternoon to practice sports. And when the French government opted to move that day to Wednesday, well, La Cipale simply hosted Les Mercredis Populaires.

“All the local professionals would come and mix it up with amateurs,” says Guy Caput, cycling historian and the son of Louis Caput, a longtime pro and sports director of the famous Mercier team in the 1970s. “It was a way for them to do some interval training. And if you look at the list of winners of the Grand Prix de Paris you will see just about all of the great sprinters in the history of cycling.”

“I remember as a kid back in the 1980s seeing sprint giants like East Germany’s Michael Hübner competing there at the Grand Prix de Paris,” says French journalist Olivier Haralambon, author of the much-acclaimed 2017 cycling book, “The Rider and His Shadow.” “This was back when the Berlin Wall was still very much up, but everybody came to La Cipale.”

Christian Masola.

In 1987, the velodrome was officially renamed Le Vélodrome Municipale Jacques Anquetil after the death of the legendary French champion. But while the track could still attract stars, it was clearly in decline. The Grand Prix de Paris ceased in 1994 and the aging velodrome continued to descend into a state of decline. Many, in fact, feared it would suffer the same fate as its many contemporaries. But La Cipale was saved. Because of its iron-laced stands reflecting the style of the Eiffel Tower, the velodrome has long been declared a historic monument by the City of Paris. And then, in 2006, when the concrete track was finally resurfaced, La Cipale essentially got a new lease on life.

“Only the track is different,” says Caput. “And until only about 10 years ago there was a poplar tree from the days of Major Taylor. And those old stands really take you back in time.”

Arriving today, one first passes beneath an archway bearing the words “Vélodrome Municipal” before entering the gardens that house some century-old cabins, which are still used for bike storage and as changing rooms. And at the far end of the gardens can be found the headquarters of Paris Cycliste Olympique, the cycling club that today calls La Cipale home.

“Paris Cycliste Olympique is a fusion of several traditional Paris teams like the V.C. 12 and the V.C. 20, clubs that were part of the different arrondissements in Paris,” says the club’s Christian Masola. “We’ve never had a rider turn professional, but we have 165 members with a lot of [under-16] cadets and [under-18] juniors. We really try to form young riders and teach them the basics of the sport and help them move to the next level.”

It’s Wednesday here at La Cipale and hence a traditional Mercredi Populaire. Several local clubs have come together for some relaxed racing. Soon, kids filter into the clubhouse and, after a brief meeting, they rush out to get their bikes and hit the track.

“I really love it,” says Maxime, a 14-year-old who is in his first year of racing. “I started with football but really prefer cycling. I just love to pedal. I love the feeling when the legs burn. And I love watching cycling on television. I joined Paris Olympique Cycliste for several reasons. First, it was close by. But also having this velodrome to train on is amazing.”

As the kids warm up, some ride high on the banked turns while others attack along the inner blue line. Soon enough, they’re split into groups according to age for some relaxed racing. Today there are no prizes offered and the kids can ride on their road bikes. For many, it’s a day of initiation to real track racing, although Masola occasionally talks tactics with the older kids. Everyone seems to enjoy their time on the track. And even after the official events end, many continue for a few extra laps around the track. For some it seems, La Cipale never gets old.

From issue 78, get back issues here.