On the evening of June 17, 1935, Victor de Visé and his young sons arrived in Chicago after pedaling 793 miles from Trenton, New Jersey, over 13 days on their bicycles. They had 2,349 more miles to go.
As Victor’s grandson, I’m fairly sure that his sons—ten-year-old Pierre, my father, and nine-year-old Jacques—became the youngest people in history to cross the United States by bicycle when a month later, they reached Hollywood, where Victor was to work as a correspondent for a Belgian newspaper.
My father’s family had just arrived in America from Antwerp, evacuating their Belgian homeland ahead of the Nazi menace. The cross-country cycling tour was my grandfather’s harebrained scheme for exploring his adoptive homeland. Goodness knows what horrors they endured on the roads. Yet Chicago, at least, left a favorable impression. My father eventually returned and made a life here as an urban planner for the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission who researched the city’s color and health-care gaps in the 60s and 70s. (The Tribune once dubbed him “Dr. Gloom” for his views, which he shared in letters published in the Reader.) He died in 2004, having spent nearly six decades of his life in the city.
Why Victor would choose to lead his sons on a 3,000-mile bicycle ride is a question I never heard a satisfactory answer to in childhood—Victor died a few years after I was born. But the great bicycle trip would come up in conversation whenever talk turned to my father’s eccentric Belgian kin. Pierre, my father, told me Grandpa Victor thought a marathon cycling tour would be a nice way to see the country. Jacques, my uncle, seemed to believe the journey was motivated by Victor’s essential meanness.
Looking back now with the cynical eye of a former newspaper reporter (I covered higher education for the Washington Post for eight years), I can only see the trip as a publicity stunt.
Victor de Visé had knocked around Brussels in the years since the Great War, working as a schoolteacher and covering sports for L’Étoile Belge (the Belgian Star). His wife, Madeleine, died of peritonitis after a botched abortion around 1930, leaving Victor to care for two young boys. Having lost their mother, the boys endured a cruel father. Rather than hire help, Victor would lock the boys in a closet before he set out for the offices of L’Étoile, where he worked nights. The boys sometimes awakened with bruised faces; they managed to incur their father’s wrath even in their sleep. Victor sent them to live with German relatives in the summer and eventually hired a German governess.
An old saying has it that a Belgian boy is born with a bicycle between his legs. In 1934, Pierre, then ten, and Jacques, eight, bicycled nearly 500 miles across Belgium and into Germany, where, visiting Berlin, they saw what it was like to live under Hitler’s Third Reich. After hearing Der Führer’s shrill voice blaring forth from public loudspeakers and glimpsing a Nazi party meeting in a parlor at their hotel, Victor resolved to leave Europe. He had already traveled to Chicago once, in 1927, to cover the celebrated boxing match between world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and former champion Jack Dempsey at Soldier Field.
The cross-country journey began on a spring day in 1935 when Victor and his sons disembarked at New York Harbor after a 15-day crossing from Europe and began to make inquiries in accented French about the location of a “Hotel Eem-kah.” New Yorkers shrugged; the name did not ring a bell. But Victor eventually found the hotel: the YMCA.
After a brief stay at the Y, the three set out on bicycles on June 5 from Trenton along U.S. 30, the old Lincoln Highway, a route that would take them through Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cedar Rapids, Omaha, Salt Lake City, Reno, and Sacramento. They traveled 50 to 70 miles a day and camped on the roadside or in “sleeping rooms,” typically pine shacks with dirt floors. Pierre was a slower cyclist than Victor, and Jacques slower still, so Victor would give the boys a head start each morning, Jacques setting out first and Pierre some minutes later, so that all three would reach their eventual destination at roughly the same time. In racing this is called a handicap, but it left Victor’s young sons to pedal for hours on the road alone. Neither child spoke English.
On June 11, near Pittsburgh, the family became separated. Jacques had started the daily ride alone, as usual, and came upon a fork in the road. It was a bypass, offering motorists the option to steer around the city. Jacques could not read the sign, so he proceeded on instinct. Evidently Pierre chose the same road, and he eventually found Jacques—but not his father. Around noon, the two boys were spotted “wandering aimlessly about” on their tiny bicycles by J. L. Broderick, a man employed as boys’ work secretary by the local Y. He addressed them in high school French and found the boys “very friendly and extremely polite” as they clutched their berets, according to an account in the Pittsburgh Press. But they didn’t understand a word he said. Broderick found an interpreter, and through him, the boys explained their plight. A police bulletin finally located the elder de Visé, who was comfortably settled at the elegant Fort Pitt Hotel.
Delighted at the attention, Victor parlayed his parenting lapse into two full days of media coverage, lecturing the Pittsburgh press like a visiting diplomat. “I see another terrific war in Europe as inevitable,” he told them. “It is coming soon.” Victor recounted how his own parents had been burned alive when the Germans marched through Belgium in 1914.
On June 17, the cyclists arrived in Chicago having logged 800 miles. Victor dressed his tanned boys in matching argyle sweaters and again summoned reporters. The Chicago Daily Tribune covered the makeshift press conference (at which my dad was said to be 11, but his birth certificate reveals he was only ten when the trip started):
“Victor de Visé, a Belgian newspaper man, and his two sons, Pierrot, 11 years old, and Jackie, 9, arrived in Chicago last evening on their European bicycles after pedaling 793 miles here from Trenton, N.J., in 13 days. They are guests at the home of Louis Clement, 1120 Lake Shore Drive. De Vise was once Clement’s swimming instructor and tutor in Brussels.
“De Vise says he plans to make his home in America.”
The Tribune account said the boys had arrived “bright eyed and fresh,” perhaps anticipating that readers would question Victor’s wisdom in staging such a trip with such young boys. Victor amiably explained that Pierre and Jacques had “developed bicycling stamina by touring Europe.”
After lodging with the family friend for a few days, Victor and family pressed on through Iowa and Nebraska and into Wyoming, which was “a desert, really, hotter ‘n hell,” Jacques recalled to me 70 years later. They continued through Utah and Nevada, sleeping on Indian reservations. Finally, after more than 40 days of cycling, the family arrived in California, their journey complete.
Victor’s bragging was off-putting, but his family’s accomplishment was real. Assuming that he and the boys pedaled the full distance—and neither Jacques nor Pierre ever suggested otherwise—they were almost certainly the youngest souls to traverse the nation on bicycle. When another nine-year-old boy completed a cross-country bicycle ride 79 years later, in 2014, he did it with his family riding alongside him in a bus.
Victor de Visé settled in Hollywood, taking an apartment near the intersection of Hollywood and Vine and planting his sons outside fashionable nightclubs with cigarette trays in hope that they’d be discovered. They were, and the boys reaped bit parts in various films. In 1936, Pierre, my father, landed a tiny speaking role as a bellhop in the Oscar-winning drama Dodsworth, directed by William Wyler and starring Walter Huston.
When neither the boys’ film careers nor Victor’s photojournalism business took flight, Victor relocated to Chicago and took a job at the Belgian consulate. Pierre, the more studious brother, earned a diploma from Waller High School (the present-day Lincoln Park High School) at 15, and an associate degree at 17. He entered the University of Chicago that fall, but war interrupted his studies, and he took a job at the Belgian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Pierre then trained his considerable ambitions on his bicycle, and through the war years, he emerged as one of the better amateur cyclists in the east.
Family photos suggest my father rode his first bicycle race in 1938, the year he turned 14. Press clippings show him placing fourth in a 40-mile road race in Baltimore in June 1944, and ninth at a race in Detroit the following month. Although I have no records to prove this or other claims, my father told me he once held the national amateur speed record for the distance of 10,000 meters. He and Jacques also claimed to have pedaled more miles on their bicycles than anyone else on the amateur racing circuit; after all, they had a 3,000-mile head start.
Not surprisingly, I grew up in a home where bicycle racing, rather than baseball, framed the summer months. Bicycle wheels hung from suspended broomsticks in the basement. Bicycle frames dangled from hooks in the garage. I owned my first fixed-gear track bike at six or seven. I owned a spoke wrench at 12. Though we lived just a mile from Wrigley Field, our preferred spectator sport lay 20 miles away, at the Ed Rudolph Velodrome in Northbrook. There, on Thursday nights, we would file into the grandstands for an evening of bicycle races.
I never entered a bicycle race; I lacked the reckless, daredevil spirit I recognized in the racers, who jostled and bumped like bulls in Pamplona and regularly sustained gruesome injuries. Instead, I threw myself into a routine of relentless recreational cycling, pedaling back and forth across the north side of Chicago on summer days instead of taking the el, and logging 30 or 40 miles at a time on weekend rides with my father. We would head north up Sheridan Road through the elegant North Shore toward the Glenview Naval Air Station, or northwest through the Caldwell Woods along the bicycle path that abutted the Chicago River. One summer, I commuted 36 miles daily on my bicycle to a job in Des Plaines. I loved the hypnotic rhythm, the bucolic scenery, and the rush of accomplishment that came after completing a long ride.
My father died after attaining a measure of fame as an urban scientist and seer of Chicago’s demographic future. A few years ago, I set out to write a book that honored his passion and celebrated the glory days of bicycle racing in America. The book recounts the glorious career of Greg LeMond, probably the greatest American cyclist of the modern era, climaxing with his comeback from near death and miraculous victory at the 1989 Tour de France. Of all the great tours my father and I watched on television, that was our favorite. The book, titled The Comeback, came out this month. Naturally, I dedicated it to Pop.
Daniel de Visé is a Chicago native, former Washington Post reporter, and author of The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France (Atlantic Monthly Press).