Hélène Dutrieu rides, races, flies and stunts through life
On 10 July 1877, a genuine go-getter is born in Tournai. She literally tears through life at breakneck speed. It is a constant crescendo. Hélène Dutrieu displays her youthful daredevil nature first on a bicycle, then on a motorcycle, then in a car, and in the air. Hold your breath...
As a child, Hélène Dutrieu has a tough time in a family where the father is unemployed. Barely 14, she leaves school without mastering a subject. However, the cycling achievements and associated merits of her five-year older brother Eugène are contagious. She leaps into the saddle herself. This is downright revolutionary at a time when women are expected to lead a domestic existence. Despite her frail stature, Hélène proves to be fantastic on the bike and soon rivals Eugène. She accumulates wins, records and accolades. In Paris, for example, she breaks the world endurance record on a bicycle. Her popularity rises to unparalleled heights. Men find women's cycling, that new-fangled entertainment in a slightly less concealing sartorial package, quite eye-opening. The emerging suffragette movement, in turn, sees in her a figurehead for women's emancipation. Only the church and the medical world have a slightly dim view of the cycling-crazy globe-trotter.
She may well be held in high esteem, however, but the money is not forthcoming. So Hélène decides to shift her career up a gear in Paris. However, L'Olympia, the famous venue that plays host to a variety of entertainment, does not allow a woman to ride a bicycle 18 m down a ramp and then float 20 m through the air at 70 km/h before finally coming to a stop on a platform. Without a safety net, that is. Disillusioned but determined, she moves to Marseilles in 1903. In spectacle theatre Eldorado, she performs her highly dangerous circus act with a true contempt for death. The huge audience watches in horror as Hélène, now nicknamed La Flèche Humaine (the Human Arrow), goes down. Battered and bruised, she succeeds on her second attempt the next day. Later, the same stunt performed in Germany - with a motorcycle this time - once again fails dramatically and earns her eight months of rehabilitation.
Yet her passion is unquenchable. But she's done with bikes and motorcycles. In 1908, she takes to the aeroplane. As an aviation pioneer, she makes history and sets numerous records. During WWI, she signs up to be a fighter pilot, but is refused as a woman. Fortunately, there is still room for a volunteer in an unarmed reconnaissance plane.
She later becomes a journalist and publisher in France. Hélène Dutrieu died on 26 June 1961 in Paris, aged 84.
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