• Country

From Wheels to Wings: The Woman Who Ruled Both the Ground and the Air

By Tereza Antonová

She was the archetype of a renaissance person. Hélène Dutrieu was a world champion in cycling, an actress, a pilot, a journalist, and that’s still not all. Throughout her life, this Belgium-born woman managed to switch from one fascinating job to another and excel at them all.

It’s not certain how the young lady came across a bicycle but what’s for sure is that at the age of 18, Dutrieu became a distance-per-hour world record holder. Since then, the number of her achievements have been growing continuously. In 1896, she won the Course de 12 Jours, a 12-day race in London, and became a World Champion with 2 km covered in 4 minutes and 31 seconds. Later in 1897, the talented cyclist dominated another world championship and championed the 1898 Grand Prix d’Europe.

Hélène was lucky to be born in the era of women being able not only to race but also make good money out of it and become independent. However, this period only took seven years (1895-1902). With the new century, the scene had died out. But by then, Dutrieu was onto something else anyway. She made a career as a stuntwoman.

Hélène managed to switch from one fascinating job to another and excel at them all

In her self-invented stunt called the Human Arrow, this little lady rode down a steep ramp only to fly up in the air and land 15 meters away on the second part of the ramp. Oh, and it didn’t have any railing. Obviously, her trick was a big thing. Hélène made it to the social sections of magazines and became the VIP person to invite to parties. Later on, she decided to exchange the bicycle for a motorcycle and rename the stunt to La Motocyclette Ailée – “The Winged Motorbike”. However, that led to an accident which confined Hélène to bed for a couple of months.

After the recovery Dutrieu, became an actress. Perhaps performing in theatres wasn’t dangerous enough so the adrenaline junkie also raced cars for Clement-Bayard company. They later invited her to become a test pilot for the first aeroplane they built. Who else would they approach with such a request, right?

Remember we’re at the beginning of the 20th century. The flying part of aviation was more or less resolved but there were big issues with safety. Pilots regularly died in tragic accidents. Nonetheless, Dutrieu decided to go for it. After a short chat with the mechanic, which happened to be the only training there was, the young pilot got in the plane, panicked, and crashed shortly after. Luckily, the human arrow has survived this accident, just like another one a couple of years later in Odessa. Both of these crashes had one thing in common: the planes were completely destroyed but Hélène was not. Not at all, actually.

The Human Arrow in action.

The Farman brothers decided they will sponsor the rising queen of skies and equip her with all respective gear. Dutrieu began collecting one prize after another, including the prestigious Légion d’Honneur French award.

But then the First World War broke out and Hélène’s flying years were over. She became a hospital director, and after the war, a journalist. That’s also when, aged 45, she got married to Pierre Mortier – an editor of Gil Blas, a then-popular culture magazine. As her husband was Jewish, they survived the second world war in exile. Unfortunately, he died of cancer in 1946. Dutrieu returned to Paris and presided the women’s section of Aéro-Club de France. She died in 1961 and is remembered till this day as one of the most fascinating celebrities who entered the world stage through cycling.