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Vélodrome d'hiver

Photo of a 24-hour roller skating endurance competition held inside the Vélodrome d'Hiver in Paris in 1911

The Vélodrome d'Hiver (French pronunciation: ​, Winter Velodrome), colloquially Vel' d'Hiv, was an indoor bicycle racing cycle track and stadium (velodrome) on rue Nélaton, not far from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. As well as a cycling track, it was used for ice hockey, wrestling, boxing, roller-skating, circuses, bullfighting, spectaculars, and demonstrations. It was the first permanent indoor track in France and the name persisted for other indoor tracks built subsequently.

In July 1942, French police, acting under orders from the German authorities in Occupied Paris, used the velodrome to hold thousands of Jews and others who were victims in a mass arrest. The Jews were held at the velodrome before they were moved to a concentration camp in the Parisian suburbs at Drancy, then to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. The incident became known as the "Vel' d'Hiv Roundup" (Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv).


  • Origins 1
  • Change of name and track 2
  • Six-days 3
  • 1924 Summer Olympics 4
  • Ernest Hemingway 5
  • Boxing 6
  • The Lion Hunt and other spectacles 7
  • Vel' d'Hiv Roundup 8
  • Post-war track encounter 9
  • The beginning of the end 10
  • The end 11
  • Popular Culture 12
  • References 13


The orange dot marks the location of the Vélodrome d'Hiver.

The original track was housed in the Salles des Machines, the building used for the industrial display of the World's Fair which ended in 1900. The building stayed unoccupied after the exhibition.

In 1902, the Salle des Machines was inspected by Henri Desgrange, who the following year inaugurated the Tour de France on behalf of the newspaper that he edited, L'Auto. With him were Victor Goddet, the newspaper's treasurer, an engineer named Durand, and an architect, Gaston Lambert. It was Lambert who said he could turn the hall into a sports arena with a track 333 metres long and eight metres wide.[1] He finished it in 20 days.

The first meeting there, on 20 December 1903, had an audience of 20,000. They paid seven francs for the best view and a single franc to see hardly anything at all. The seating was primitive and there was no heating. The first event was not a cycle race but a walking competition over 250 metres. The first cycling competition was a race ridden behind pacing motorcycles. Only one rider - Cissac - managed to complete the 16 km (10 mi), the others having crashed on the unaccustomed steepness of the track banking.

Change of name and track

In 1909 the Salle des Machines was listed for demolition, to improve the view of the Eiffel Tower. Desgrange moved to another building nearby, at the corner of the boulevard de Grenelle and the rue Nélaton. The venue was named the Vélodrome d'Hiver.[2] The new track, also designed by Lambert, was 253.16m round at the base but exactly 250m on the line ridden by the motor-paced riders considered the stars of the day. Lambert built two tiers of seats, which towered above bankings so steep for their day that they were considered cliff-like. In the track centre Lambert built a roller-skating rink of 2,700 square metres. He lit the whole lot with 1,253 hanging lamps.[1]

There could be so many spectators jammed in the track centre for cycling events that they resembled passengers in the Paris métro in the rush hour.[3] The richer and more knowledgeable spectators bought seats in the trackside seats and the rest crowded into the upper balcony from which the track looked a distant bowl. A rivalry grew up between those in the top row and those below them, to the extent that those on high sometimes threw sausages, bread rolls and even bottles on to those below or, if they could throw that far, on to the track. The hall's managers had to install a net to catch the larger missiles.[3]


Six-day cycle racing had started in London in the 19th century but it had taken a change to a race not for individuals but for teams of two to make it truly popular. The new formula was created in America at Madison Square Garden. It became known in English as the madison and in French as l'américaine. The first such six-day race at the Vel' d'Hiv' started on 13 January 1913.[1]

The riders included the Tour de France winners Octave Lapize. The race began at 6pm and by 9pm all 20,000 seats were sold. Among those who watched was the millionaire Henri de Rothschild, who offered a prize of 600 francs, and the dancer Mistinguett, who offered 100f.[1] The winners were Goulet and Fogler, an American-Australian pairing.

Singer and actress, Mistinguett

The Franco-American writer René de Latour said: "I have known the time when it was considered quite a feat to get into the Vel' d'Hiv' during a six-day race. There were mounted police all round the block, barriers were erected some way from the building, and if you did not have a ticket or a pass to show, you were not allowed anywhere near the place. You can guess that the disappointed fans often produced a near-riot."[4]

A tradition started in 1926 of electing a Queen of the Six, whose job included starting the race. Among them were Édith Piaf, Annie Cordy and the accordionist Yvette Horner, who also played from the roof of a car while preceding the Tour de France.

Races at the Vel' d'Hiv' were sometimes doubted for their genuineness. While the spectacle drew large and even capacity crowds, the best riders were rumoured to control the race. The French journalist Pierre Chany wrote:

"There was a lot of talk about the relative honesty of the results, and journalists sometimes asked themselves what importance they ought to place on victories in these six-day races. The best of the field combined between themselves, it was known, to fight against other teams and to get their own hands on the biggest prizes, which they then shared between them. This coalition, cruelly nicknamed the Blue Train [after a luxury rail service patronised by the rich] imposed its rule and sometimes even the times of the race, the length of the rest periods. The little teams fought back on certain days but, generally, the law belonged to the cracks, better equipped physically and often better organised."[3]

1924 Summer Olympics

For the 1924 Summer Olympics, the velodrome hosted boxing, fencing, weightlifting, and wrestling events.[5]

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway aboard his yacht, the Pilar, ca. mid 1950s

The American writer Ernest Hemingway was a regular fan of six-day and other races at the Vel' d'Hiv' while he lived in Paris. He wrote:

"I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and on the road. But I will get to the Vélodrome d'Hiver with the smoky light of the afternoon and the high-banked wooden track and the whirring sound the tyres made on the wood as the riders passed, the effort and the tactics as the riders climbed and plunged, each one a part of his machine... I must write the strange world of six-day races and the marvels of the road-racing in the mountains. French is the only language it has ever been written in properly and the terms are all French and that is what makes it hard to write." [6]


Boxing began at the Vel' d'Hiv' after a meeting between an American, Jeff Dickson, and Henri Desgrange, the track's main owner and leading promoter. Dickson arrived in France from Missouri in 1917, as a "sammie". Sammies, named after the owner of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, were cameramen sent from the USA to film American soldiers in World War I.[1]

Dickson stayed on in France after the war and began promoting boxing in the

Preceded by
1949 Final Venue
Final Venue

Succeeded by
1953 Final Venue
  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Grumwald, Liliane and Cattaert, Claude (1979) Le Vel' d'Hiv, Ramsay Image, France
  2. ^ Architecture et sport en France 1918-1945: une histoire politique et culturelle;, retrieved November 2007
  3. ^ a b c Chany, Pierre (1988) La Fabuleuse Histoire du Cyclisme, Nathan, France
  4. ^ De Latour, René: Adieu - Vel' d'Hiv', Sporting Cyclist, UK, 1959
  5. ^ 1924 Olympics official report. pp. 182-3, 266, 400, 425, 507. (French)
  6. ^ Hemingway, Ernest (1964) A Moveable Feast, Jonathan Cape, UK
  7. ^ Tristan Alric, “Un siècle de hockey en France”, p. 23
  8. ^ a b Goddet, Jacques (1991) L'Équipée Belle, Robert Laffont, France
  9. ^ Eurobasket History - The 50's
  10. ^ Le Figaro, 22 July 2002
  11. ^ "The track that died of shame", Procycling, UK, 2002
  12. ^ Journal, Fellowship of Cycling Old-Timers, UK, vol 142, pp58-61
  13. ^ Presidential decree,3 February 1993


The Vélodrome d'hiver is featured in the 2010 film Sarah's Key, as well as the French film The Round Up (2010 film).

Popular Culture

The statue was inaugurated on 17 July 1994. A ceremony is held there every year and it was during a ceremony that Jacques Chirac, successor to François Mitterrand, made his remarks about the guilt of the French police and gendarmerie in collaborating with the Germans. The statue was placed on land given by the city of Paris and paid for by the Ministère des Anciens Combattants. The statue is cared for by the defence ministry.

It stands now on a curved base, to represent the cycle track, on the edge of the quai de Grenelle. It is the work of the sculptor Walter Spitzer and the architect Mario Azagury. Spitzer and his family were survivors of deportation to Auschwitz. The statue represents all deportees but especially those of the Vel' d'Hiv. The sculpture includes children, a pregnant woman and a sick man. The words on the monument are: "The French Republic in homage to victims of racist and antisemitic persecutions and of crimes against humanity committed under the authority of the so-called 'Government of the State of France.'"

A fire destroyed part of the Vélodrome d'Hiver in 1959 and the rest was demolished. A block of flats and a building belonging to the Ministry of the Interior now stand on the site. A plaque marking the Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv was placed on the track building and moved to 8 boulevard de Grenelle in 1959. On 3 February 1993, the President, François Mitterrand, commissioned a monument to be erected on the site.[13]

The end

The final night at the Vel' d'Hiv was 12 May 1959, featuring the painter Salvador Dalí. Among his stage props was a model of the Eiffel Tower, which he exploded to symbolise the end of the exhibition hall in which he stood.[1]

The last six-day race at the Vel' d'Hiv' started on 7 November 1958. The stars were Roger Rivière, Jacques Anquetil, Fausto Coppi and André Darrigade. The race was run with teams of three. Rivière had to drop out after a crash with Anquetil in the first hours; on 12 November, Darrigade won the biggest prime, or intermediate prize, ever offered at the track: one million francs. The overall winners were Anquetil and his partners, Darrigade and Terruzzi.The building had grown old, dirty and dusty and leaked when it rained. Electricity cables hung in loops.[1]

The beginning of the end

"The old track was looking the worse for wear. There was dust everywhere and the shafts of sunlight that penetrated the dirty blue skylights picked out the particles dancing in the air. I walked over to the banking and touched the boards that had seen so much drama. Suddenly and without explanation a feeling of fear and revulsion came over me; I grabbed my bike and ran as fast as I could into the outside world. The door would not open at first but a panic-stricken tug freed it and I dashed out into the heat of a Parisian afternoon and pedalled away not caring in which direction just so long as I could get away from the Vélodrome d'Hiver."[12]
"I set out on my Raleigh Sports... I arrived elated and full of anticipation but my joy was short-lived, all the doors were locked and barred and there was no sign of life. Without warning a side door flew open and a small powerfully built man came hurtling out of the gloom into the sunlight. A flapping empty sleeve hung where his right arm should have been. He poured a tirade of French at me before stepping back inside and slamming the door. I gave the door another swift kick and shouted in English that all I wanted was to see the famous track. The door slowly opened and the one-armed man stepped outside, but this time a broad smile covered his previously angry face."Anglais?" he said, as if uttering some special password. He spoke in halting English. Did I know Wembley? He had ridden the London six-day there? He put his one good arm around my shoulder and escorted me and my Raleigh into the stadium.

An enthusiast, John Aulton, described the track in the first years after the war. He visited Paris on a tour organised for English schoolchildren who slept in tents in the grounds of a lycée. He was alone in wanting to see the Vélodrome d'Hiver. He wrote:

Post-war track encounter

Those arrested were sent to an internment camp in half-completed tower blocks at Drancy and then to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. Only 400 survived.

The Vel' d'Hiv had a glass roof, which had been painted dark blue to help avoid attracting bomber navigators. The dark glass roof, combined with windows screwed shut for security, raised the temperature inside the structure. The 13,152 people held there [10] had no lavatories; of the 10 available, five were sealed because their windows offered a way out, and the others were blocked.[11] The arrested Jews were kept there for five days with only water and food brought by Quakers, the Red Cross and the few doctors and nurses allowed to enter.

Needing a place to hold the detainees, the Germans demanded the keys of the Vel' d'Hiv from its owner, Jacques Goddet, who had taken over from his father Victor and from Henri Desgrange. The circumstances in which Goddet surrendered the keys remain a mystery, and the episode occupies only a few lines in his autobiography.[8]

In 1940, the Germans invaded France and occupied its northern half, including Paris. On 7 June 1942 they completed plans for Operation Spring Breeze (Opération Vent printanier), to arrest 28,000 Jews using 9,000 French policemen. Arrests started early on July 16 and were complete by the next day. Among those who helped in the round-up were 3,400 young members of Doriot's PPF.[1]

The Vel' d'Hiv was available for hire to whoever wanted it. Among those who booked was Jacques Doriot, a stocky, round-faced man who led France's largest fascist party, the PPF. It was at the Vel' d'Hiv, among other venues, that Doriot, with his Hitler-like salute, roused crowds to join his cause.

Vel' d'Hiv Roundup

Dickson returned to America in 1939[1] and died when his bomber was shot down at St-André-de-l'Eure on 14 July, France's national day, in 1943. He is buried at in the American cemetery at Omaha Beach west of Caen, beneath the third cross in the front row.[8] The Vélodrome d'hiver was also the venue of the 1951 European basketball championship.[9]

The venture ended with the loss of 700,000 francs by the Vel' d'Hiv.[1]

Dickson now had two camels and 100 lions that he no longer needed. An assistant tied the camels behind a car, led them to the Seine and abandoned them. There they were found by the police. Eventually Dickson rented the camels and lions to another circus for 10,000 francs a week, only for the circus to fail and Dickson to be summoned to collect his animals. By now he was also being pursued by the Société de Protection des Animaux for cruelty in abandoning the camels. The animals were finally sent to a zoo near Hamburg.

Now convinced the animals were harmless, stagehands began beating them, at which children began to cry and parents shouted angry protests. The organizers withdrew the animals and moved to the next act of the show. Things went little better. The camels refused to walk in a line, as in a desert caravan. And their attendants, who were unemployed black people recruited from the streets, stumbled in the sand under their unaccustomed stage clothing. The show's run was abandoned.

The lions, however, arrived from Naples feeling tired and limp. Dickson assured reporters they needed only a meal and began importing dead animals from local abattoirs. Things didn't improve. On the first night of the show, all 100 lions were released into the arena but showed no signs of excitement, still less ferocity. Dickson ordered his "explorers" to fire into the air to wake them up. The air became bitter with cordite fumes but the lions did little more than stroll about and urinate on the scenery.

His most spectacular venture was his greatest and most expensive flop. Dickson discovered from the newspaper Paris-Midi, that the Schneider circus in Naples was auctioning 100 lions. Dickson bought the animals that same day, along with their cages and trailers, for 80,000 francs. He constructed a stage set and acquired two sick camels abandoned by a circus at Maisons-Alfort; he hired fire-eaters and employed 20 actors to dress as African explorers - all to stage a spectacle called The Lion Hunt.

Under Dickson, the Vel' d'Hiv' became home to the Français Volants ice hockey team. The rink also featured shows by the skater Sonja Henie. He also staged wrestling and variety shows : HOLIDAY ON ICE (1950 to 1958).

Dickson joined the management of the Vel' d'Hiv', and in 1931 he renovated the building to allow other uses in the centre of the cycling track. He removed several pillars from the arena that blocked the view of some spectators, took up the roller-skating rink, laid an ice rink of 60 m by 30 m, and constructed a cover for the rink to allow its use for other activities. The building was rechristened the “Palais des Sports de Grenelle“, though its former name remained in use.[7]

The Lion Hunt and other spectacles
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