Cyril Praet: International Man of Mystery

Fact #1…1981: Jonathan Boyer finishes 32nd overall in his Tour de France debut, riding in support of Renault-Elf-Gitane teammate Bernard Hinault. Boyer cements his place in cycling history by becoming the first American to compete in the Grand Boucle.

Fact #2…1988: Joe Parkin and Andy Bishop share the honor of being the first Americans to compete in the Tour of Belgium, finishing 10th and 31st overall respectively.

But check this out…

Cyril Praet bio, published in 1932 Milwaukee Six-Day Bike Race program

Just in case the type is too small, here’s the text of Cyril Praet’s bio as published in Milwaukee’s Second International Six-Day Bike Race (Dec. 13-19, 1932) program:

22 White Number. CYRIL PRAET, American road rider, is probably the strongest rider in the race. Praet was born in Detroit, Michigan, September 12, 1904. After the war was over, at the age of 15, he went to Europe and entered the road races around Belgium, and in two years became one of the sensations of the year. He has ridden in the tour of Belgium and the Tour de France, which is a real test of strength and endurance. This race lasts for ten days over the mountains, up into the snow, and through the hottest of climates. Praet came to America two years ago, and has never been given a chance to show his worth in a six-day race.

Approximately 48 1/2 years after this program appeared, Jonathan Boyer rode his first Tour de France. And about 55 1/2 years later, Joe Parkin and Andy Bishop make America’s debut in the Tour of Belgium. So why has history forgotten Cyril Praet, an American who apparently preceeded Boyer, Parkin, and Bishop by about half a century? Good question…and my answer invariably vacillates from a cautious “I don’t really know” to “The dude’s a fraud.”

Here’s what little I do know about Cyril Praet’s career as a professional cyclist: Praet competed in four American six-day races (1931-Minneapolis; 1932-Milwaukee, 1933-Detroit, and 1934-Detroit). Newspaper accounts shed extremely sparse light on Cyril Praet, which seemed surprising considering the palmares he claimed. Even accounts of the races in his home town of Detroit were nearly devoid of any mention of Praet, usually just the bare bones daily box score info about points won and laps taken. Here’s how Praet was described:

  • 1931-Minneapolis: “Cyril Praet (USA)”
  • 1932-Milwaukee: “Bollaert and Praet, the famous Belgium road team and holders of many foreign records, form another powerful combination who are expected to be heard from plenty during the race.”
  • 1932-Milwaukee: “Praet, who rides with Archie Bollaert, is a famous Belgian road racer and is tough in the sprints.”
  • 1932-Milwaukee: “…Cyril Praet, Belgian road champion.”
  • 1933-Detroit: “…the Detroit team of Freddie Ottevaere and Cyril Praet…”

Praet was teamed with a different partner for each of his 4 six-day events: Pete Smessart (1931), Archie Bollaert (1932), Freddie Ottevaere (1933), and Reggie Fielding (1934). He and his partners usually ended up as pack filler, although Praet did put his speed to work on occasion to win primes. Praet and his partners finished 4th in 1931, 6th in 1932, 6th in 1933, and 6th in 1934. Chicago and New York were the big leagues of six-day racing, and it appears that Cyril never made an appearance at the sport’s premier venues. The only inkling of how Praet was perceived by fellow cyclists was offered by the legendary Canadian Torchy Peden who crapped on Praet while singing the praises of Praet’s partner Freddie Ottevaere during the 1933 Detroit race:

“We riders know something good when we see it, and we know how tough Ottevaere is”, Peden said. “He has been out of the headlines because his partners haven’t been so hot. But he has the ability. Keep an eye on him.” Peden picked the slender and unassuming Ottevaere to surpass the feats of Belgian bicycle star Gerald Debaets.

Ouch. Not exactly kind words from Peden.

I’ve spent quite some time weeding through the immense amount of data collected at the French site Memoire du cyclisme, and besides the previously mentioned six-day races I could find not one other instance of Praet competing either in the United States or Europe. Memoire du cyclisme has probably the definitive rundown of start lists and results from all major road and track events of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and I could find no mention of Cyril Praet (or even a name close to that spelling) in road events such as the Tour de France, the Tour of Belgium, the world championships, various national championships, and various Euro road events between 1919-1930. That’s right, I can’t find any official record of Cyril Praet competing in the Tour de France or the Tour of Belgium. Likewise, Praet was AWOL from all other six-day races which took place between 1919-1930 anywhere on the planet. And it also appeared that Praet simply dropped off the face of the Earth after 1934. There’s no mention of Cyril Praet in any race, road or track, in the US or Europe through the onset of World War II. Did he remain in the United States? Return to Europe? I don’t know. Various genealogical resources have been coming up empty, so at this point I don’t know if he died in the US or overseas (in Belgium?).

At this point in time, I’m leaning towards Praet perhaps playing a bit fast and loose with his palmares to gain employment as a pro in the United States. After all, it’s probably no easy venture for a race promoter in the US in the 1930s to verify someone’s Euro credentials. If someone who’s lived in Belgium for about 10 years shows up in the Midwest with a bike, looking pretty fit, and with tales of Euro grandeur, then, hell, why not give the guy a shot on the six-day circuit? Perhaps I’ve uncovered the cycling version of Kid McCoy.

So for now Jonathan Boyer’s, Joe Parkin’s, and Andy Bishop’s places in American cycling history as Euro pioneers are still firm, but maybe at some point in the not so distant future I’ll have some corroborating evidence to definitively place Cyril Praet in the Tour as well as the Tour of Belgium.

Random six-day racing factoids uncovered in historic newspapers
1. Unlike any other six-day race I’ve ever read about, the 1933 Detroit six-day race put the riders on an outdoor velodrome at the mercy of mother Nature.
2. Detoit prosecutor Harry S. Toy tried to bring fraud charges against the promoters of the 1933 six-day race. Evidently, a spectator tried to watch the racing action at 3am and was denied entry. He told Toy that the velodrome was dark and as best he could tell, there was no racing taking place. Toy tried (unsuccessfully) to bring charges against the promoters since in Toy’s opinion a six-day race implies 6 non-stop days of racing. “It appears that the race was a race only when there were cash customers about and a sleeping match the remainder of the time.”
3. Diet of champions. Here’s Torchy Peden talking about what tasty food and beverages are ingested during the 1933 Detroit six-day event, “Most of our food consists of broth, vegetables, fruit and an occasional piece of meat, usually rare. We drink practically no water. But we do take gallons and gallons of unpasteurized milk and plenty of ginger ale. Water is considered heavy stuff.”

Comments (6) to “Cyril Praet: International Man of Mystery”

  1. This was a terrific post, with great journalistic sleuthing. And the capper was the dietary advice at the end. Jesus, can you imagine picking up the tempo with a pint of milk sloshing around inside you?
    Ah, well, it must have helped wash down the amphetemines.

  2. My dad was “Frenchy” Gilles i.e. Maurice Gilles who won that 6 day Milwaukee race with his partner Oscar Junar and who rode in many of these rode races and in velodome and road circuits.

    As french immigrants, he and his brother Florian wanted to race in the Tour De France for the United States but was told if they returned to France the minute they got off the boat, they would be arrested to either serve in the army or be locked up in jail.
    (I have the letters from the French Consulite to prove this fact.) Needless to say they never rode the Tour De France.

    Also remember by the end of the 1930’s racing no longer provided support for their families and they were forced to leave the sport they loved thus “falling off the face of the earth .”

  3. […] Jock Boyer was (allegedly) the first American to compete in the Tour de France, he was 5th at a little race called the World […]

  4. There is a Painting of Cyril Praet as an old man on the wall of the Cadieux Cafe, an old time Belgian bar on the east side of Detroit.

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