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.
The determination to set a new record as the world’s fastest man on a bicycle is very evident to José Meiffret. His fanatical belief that “a human can grow beyond himself through his will” made him achieved his goal – and with a Mercedes-Benz.
July 10, 1962 – Meiffret crossed the border of the A5 autobahn between Lahr and Freiburg after being banned by his home country because of his risky record attempts. He also aimed to cross another boundary behind a car at the maximum speed a human can achieve on a bicycle.
A self-built bicycle
Meiffret constructed his bicycle with a reinforced frame and rims made from wood propelled by a giant front chainring that has 175 teeth and a rear sprocket that has 17 teeth enough to cover a 16-meter distance with a single revolution of pedals.
In autumn of 1961, he surpassed his best record from 10 years earlier, raising the speed from 175.609 to 186.625 kph. Over winter he fine-tuned every detail to prepare for the next breakthrough, the 200 km/h limit.
The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing with chassis code W 198 served as a pacesetter when he performed his stunt. With a 215 hp engine, it was a supercar of its time that was so fast together with the voluminous slipstream. 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.
His testament: “Bury me by the side of the road”
Ten years later, Meiffret knew the risk and this experience no longer discouraged him. He kept a note in his pocket with his last wishes during his record attempt on July 10, 1962: “In case of a 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.”
Luckily, his well-preparation paid off. The skinny Frenchman used the power of his legs to make a huge gear and kept his racing bike going. He made commands to the driver through a megaphone and finally broke the record on his second attempt after his nine-kilometre warm-up and ended the last kilometre in 17.58 seconds. He set his 13th and last bicycle speed record at 204.788 km/h.
Blitzen Benz the first car to exceed 200 km/h
Even for vehicles, the 200 km/h was the magic limit and this had been broken by a Mercedes-Benz. The racing car named Blitzen Benz achieved an average speed of 202.7 km/h over one kilometre on November 8, 1909, in Brooklands, England – faster among the land vehicles and aeroplanes of the time.
Today, humanity starts to break the next record on a bicycle. In 2018, American cyclist Denise Mueller-Korenek reached a top speed of 296.01 km/h on the Bonneville Salt Flats in the slipstream of a drag-racing car. The world is now looking forward to break the record by reaching the 300 km/h speed.