Gabriel Poulain

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Cycling and Gabriel Poulain


Gabriel Poulain after winning the World Championship in 1905

Gabriel Poulain, born in Jersey in 1884, became a world champion cyclist at the age of 21, and 15 years after that won a major prize in France for the first man-powered flight

Jersey Cycling Club in about 1880

Gabriel Poulain

The New York Times reports Poulain's prize-winning flight in 1921
Poulain takes to the air


Gabriel Poulain's birth was registered in St Helier on 14 February 1884. It is not known how long he remained in the island with his parents, but it is possible that they went back to France with him while he was very young, because the majority of references to him state that he was French. His parents are known to have had a cycle and car factory in St Nazaire.

He was clearly an accomplished cyclist from an early age because at the 1905 World Championships held in Antwerp he won the 1,000 metres sprint for professionals. The full results of the event show that he beat Thorvald Kristian Ellegaard of Denmark, with Henry Mayer in third place.

In 1906, 1908 and 1909 he again competed in the World Championships, but had to settle for second place on all three occasions. He was still winning major races up to the outbreak of the First World War, and again when competitions resumed in 1919.

He had been French national champion in 1905, having come second in the two previous years, and was champion again in 1922 and 1924 at the age of 38 and 40, and second in 1925.

Man-powered flight

In 1912 Robert Peugeot of France offered a prize for the first man-powered flight at a height of over one metre over a distance of 10 metres. There were many attempts at this, and Peugeot gave several consolation prizes, some of them for distances less than the long-jump record of the time which was 7.61 metres, but the main prize was not won for nine years.

A machine was built by the Farman company and pedalled by Gabriel Poulain over the specified distance in both directions early on the morning of 9 July 1921 with Robert Peugeot watching, with a distance of 11.98 metres. Poulain duly won the prize of 10,000 Francs.

The Poulain Farman machine was undoubtedly a human-powered-vehicle. It was a biplane with a span of 6 metres and a wing-area of 12 square metres (larger than some wings built for the purpose of true human powered flight in the 1960s). There was a fairing around the person and bicycle. There was no propeller and there were apparently no aerodynamic controls.

Pictures of the flight show that the 'aircraft' was effectively a biplane glider which took to the air under Poulain's pedal power.

Poulain Orange 1

Aircraft designer

It was not only as the human power for other manufacturers' aircraft that Poulain was renowned: he also built his own aircraft. In 1910 he produced the first of three machines, the Poulain Orange 1, to be followed in 1911 by the Poulain Orange 2, and a year later by the Poulain Orange 3.

He left France for Germany in 1911 to escape the draft and opened a flying school at Johannisthal.

Poulain Orange 2
Poulain Orange 3
An early Jersey Cycling Club picture
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