The Art of Cycling: Icons in Posters

Words: Brett Horton; Images: Trevor Horton | From Issue 105

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Decades before television and radio, advertising was often limited to newspapers or small handbills. With advances in printing, posters not only emerged but exploded on the visual scene in the late 19th century, seemingly limited only by budget and imagination. Concurrently, the cycling craze was in full swing, and the two quickly became a perfect fit. Graphic artists became overnight celebrities as the art form flourished. Broadly looked at as the “people’s art,” posters adorned what often looked to be every available inch of open wall space from Paris to Milan to New York.

The magnificence of these colorful posters came as a result of advances in the process of stone lithography. Stone lithography is breathtaking, but the incredibly onerous amount of manual labor and cost required to create the masterpieces resulted in this printing method largely fading away from the mainstream after World War II. Ironically, 100-plus years later, the rich, nuanced colors achieved by stone lithography rival and arguably surpass nearly every modern printing process.

I have picked one Belgian and four French posters that showcase different styles and eras from the 1880s to the 1940s. Take a close look at these jewels; each tells a great story!


the art of cycling

TRUE SIZE: 40cm × 59cm

YEAR: c.1920

Mich’s whimsical and minimalist style comes out in spades with this poster. The viewer at once sees that Wonder bicycles mean business as the focused rider powers through the elements. Mich often drew bold colors and did an exceptional job of conveying the ethos of the advertiser’s intent without cluttering a poster with overbearing text. We are fortunate to have several Mich posters in our collection. Much like seeing a Dr. Suess drawing, one can’t help but smile when looking at Mich’s art.


1949 tour de france by j. fresquet true size

TRUE SIZE: 30cm × 39cm

YEAR: 1949

Ten years ago, I did not know of this poster’s existence. When it showed up at a Parisian sports memorabilia auction, I knew I wanted it to live at my house. The only unknown was how much it was going to cost. By the time the auction happened, I had myself psyched up to pay a significant multiple of the pre-sale estimate. I contemplated flying to Paris to bid in person. Fortunately, I got a grip on myself and opted to bid over the phone. At the auction, there was spirited bidding. Fortunately for me the final hammer price was within the realm of sanity, and it was in my hands within a few days. Bear in mind this is not a poster for the overall race. Its creation was for the two days the 1949 Tour stopped in Nîmes. My favorite Tour de France poster of our collection? You are looking at it.


zimmerman by pal true size

TRUE SIZE: 105cm × 147cm

YEAR: c.1883

Cycling’s first universally recognized world champion, A.A. Zimmerman, hailed from Freehold, New Jersey. As the winged-foot emblem on his jersey attests, he was a proud New York Athletic Club member. Zimmerman was a serious athlete and wrote one of the earliest cycling training guidebooks. This early French poster celebrates Zimmerman’s American roots while showcasing Dunlop tires and Clément bicycles. Over the years, I have always kept an eye out for international posters that feature American riders from the prewar era.


tour de france mtore cycles

TRUE SIZE: 59cm × 79cm

YEAR: 1925

To be frank, when my wife Shelly and I first acquired this poster, we liked the Tour de France reference much more than its design. Over time, this example of Red’s art has grown on us to the point that it’s now one of our favorite Tour-related posters. The rider, frame number, tires wrapped over the shoulders, goggles, cap, exaggerated fork rake and road dust all come together to make a very charming statement.


1935 world championships by m. guillemain true size

TRUE SIZE: 60cm x 80 cm

YEAR: 1935

For more than 30 years, Shelly and I have actively sought to acquire original posters from the road and track world championships. Each year the local race organizer created a unique poster to reflect the era’s art trends, typically incorporated symbols of local interest and pride, and always showcased the international importance of the event. This poster from Belgium emerged as the tumultuous storm clouds of World War II were forming. We love the strong Art Deco aesthetic that screams power as two track riders head for the finish line. Of the more than 80 world championship posters we have collected over the years, this is far and away our favorite. Surprisingly, we acquired this at a vintage poster show in our hometown of San Francisco.

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