100 Things You Should Know About Daimler | #26

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Setting a bicycling world record behind a Gullwing

José Meiffret was a high-speed junkie. The fearless racing cyclist set 13 world speed records. In 1962 he became the first person to break the 200 km/h mark on a bicycle, in the slipstream of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing.

Higher, faster, farther – the urge to constantly set new records is encoded in humanity’s genetics. This drive was especially strong in José Meiffret. The Frenchman was unequivocally obsessed with the idea of being the world’s fastest man on a bicycle. The fact he achieved his goal can be attributed to his fanatical belief that “a human can grow beyond himself through his will” – and with a Mercedes-Benz.

It happened on July 10, 1962, on the A5 autobahn between Lahr and Freiburg. Meiffret crossed the border to come here for his speed runs after his home country banned his risky record attempts. The 49-year-old aimed to cross another boundary – to raise the maximum speed achieved by a human on a bicycle, behind an automobile, to over 200 km/h.

A self-built bicycle

Meiffret was well-prepared. In autumn of 1961 he had already surpassed his own personal best from 10 years earlier, raising it from 175.609 to 186.625 kph. Over winter he continued fine-tuning each detail. Now it seemed to him the time was ripe to break through the magical 200 km/h limit. His bicycle was his own construction, with a reinforced frame and rims made from wood. It was propelled by a giant front chainring with 175 teeth and a rear sprocket with 17 teeth. This enabled him to cover 16 meters with a single revolution of the pedals.

A Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (chassis code W 198) played a central role in his plans. The Gullwing functioned as a pacesetter. The supercar of its time, with its 215 hp engine, was strong enough to accelerate the car together with the voluminous slipstream construction to the required speed. And what’s more: during his ride on the razor's edge, it was critical for the survival of the record-breaking cyclist that the lead vehicle follow its course with absolute reliability and precision. It would have been extremely dangerous at that speed to leave the protection of the slipstream and face the full brutal force of the air resistance. Meiffret’s attempts had ended multiple times in the hospital after serious falls – among other reasons, due to a motor defect in one of the slipstream cars. Doctors once fought for weeks to save the life of the severely injured man, who had suffered multiple skull fractures.

José Meiffret fearlessly broke the 200 km/h mark in 1962 on a bicycle – in the slipstream of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing.
José Meiffret fearlessly broke the 200 km/h mark in 1962 on a bicycle – in the slipstream of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing.

His testament: “Bury me by the side of the road”

Ten years later, this experience no longer deterred Meiffret. He knew the risk. A skull and crossbones adorned his cycling shorts. And during his record attempt on July 10, 1962, he carried a note in his pocket with his last wishes: “In case of fatal accident, I beg of the spectators not to feel sorry for me. I am a poor man, an orphan since the age of eleven, and I have suffered much. Death holds no terror for me. This record attempt is my way of expressing myself. If the doctors can do no more for me, please bury me by the side of the road where I have fallen.”

Fortunately, this did not happen. Perfect preparation paid off. The slender Frenchman, weighing less than 60 kilos, used the power of his legs to get the huge gearing of his racing bike going and then sheared in behind the pacemaker. He could shout commands to the driver through a megaphone. On the second attempt, he finally broke the record. After a nine-kilometre warm-up, José Meiffret completed the last kilometre in just 17.58 seconds. He set his 13th and last bicycle speed record at 204.788 km/h. Afterwards, the eccentric cyclist – who was also a well-known philosopher and writer – devoted himself on the Riviera to the fine arts and his hobby: cultivating carnations. In his prize-winning memoir, he entitled his life story as “My date with death.”

Blitzen Benz the first car to exceed 200 km/h

A little side note: even for cars, the magic limit of 200 km/h had been broken by a Benz. In 1909, the engineers at Benz & Cie. got what was at the time an unimaginable 200 hp for this purpose from an engine with a displacement of 21.5 litres. With this, the racing car – named Blitzen Benz – achieved an average speed of 202.7 km/h over one kilometre with a flying start on November 8, 1909, in Brooklands, England, and was thus faster than any other land vehicle or even the airplanes of the time.

And today humanity is setting off on a bicycle to break the next record. After American cyclist Denise Mueller-Korenek reached a top speed of 296.01 km/h in 2018 on the Bonneville Salt Flats in the slipstream of a drag-racing car, the world record will probably soon be increased to over 300 km/h. The urge to constantly set new records is encoded in humanity’s genetics, after all.

Holger Mohn

was only able to exclaim “Chapó mon ami” when he first saw Meiffret’s record-breaking bicycle and especially its front sprocket, which is as big as a family-size pizza. What legs that man must have had just to get it moving. In this connection, it should also be noted that the author himself once achieved an astonishing 78 km/h with the bicycle (uncalibrated speedometer, seen out of the corner of an eye…). Admittedly, the route wasn’t as level as Meiffret’s, but was rather a steep slope in the Swabian Jura — and therefore practically in free fall.

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