French Red Devil: Julien Raoul

Julien Raoul aboard the USS Oklahoma

In 1936 the Olympic Games were to be held in Berlin, the capital of what had become, Fascist Germany. Meanwhile in Spain, a newly elected leftist government decided to protest the Berlin Games by holding what was known as the Olimpiada Popular or, People's Olympiad. Besides athletes from Spain, competitors from twenty-two other nations, 6,000 athletes total, including a contingent from the United States agreed to participate as well. Many of these athletes were sponsored by trade unions, workers' associations, and Socialist and Communist parties in their home countries, rather than national Olympic committees. Just before the Olimpiada was to commence, however, hostilities broke out between the government and Fascist opposition, plunging Spain into the turmoil of Civil War. The Olimpiada was cancelled.

Suddenly, the athletes who had journeyed to Spain, many from half way around the world, found themselves in the middle of a brutal war with very limited means of escape. With little warning, what was intended to be a showcase of athletic camaraderie and competition had turned into a life / death nightmare. Counted amongst the American athletes trapped in the country at that time was a cyclist by the name of Julien Raoul. Raoul had journeyed directly to Barcelona, Spain from Glasgow in Scotland, apparently hoping to avoid traveling through France. A New York Times story of 28 July 1936 notes that other American athletes, members of the "American Popular Olympics team" would be sailing for home aboard the liner Normandie. Julien Raoul, however, would not be amongst them as he had not been heard of since departing from Glasgow. We now know that Raoul, and at least a few others, were trapped in Spain. Fortunately for these competitors the USS Oklahoma was nearby at the time and numerous of them were able to make their way to the battleship for rescue. It is not unreasonable to imagine the Oklahoma, later sunk at Pearl Harbor, being dispatched under orders to bring out any American citizens that it could. Their departure was a hasty one which, for Julien Raoul at least, necessitated leaving all his belongings behind, including his custom racing bike. Leaving "with only the clothes on their backs" took on a real life meaning. To suggest that the rescued athletes were thankful of their government, might very well be an understatement. Later Raoul would recall being "treated like royalty while on the ship … even eating with the commander during meals."

Born in Brittany, France on the 2nd of July in 1909, Julien Raoul would become an accomplished track racer, a champion Six-Day competitor in both Europe and the United States, the country which became his home at the age of sixteen. As a young adult Raoul, in addition to pursuing his racing endeavors, worked as a cab driver and chauffeur, and as a bartender at some of New York City's most popular clubs. Apparently, his renown as a racer helped him gather quite a following during the time he worked at the clubs. His was a life, both in and outside of racing, that brought him into contact with much of New York high society, such as actor J. Carrol Naish. We know that performance personalities, political leaders and other ranking individuals frequented the track racing venues of the era, as well as the most popular night clubs in major cities like New York. During the Los Angeles Second International Six-Day Bicycle Race, April 21-27, 1937, Naish was the sponsor of the French Red Devil Team composed of Raoul [mis-spelled Rauol in the race program] and Alfred Marquet.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 Raoul, like many young men of the era, enlisted in the army. He served in the 771st Tank Destroyer Battalion during operations in France, receiving the Purple Heart as a result of being wounded during the conflict. When Raoul's commanding officers discovered his bicycle racing background, he was given a motorcycle and assigned to serve as a messenger. This was a familiar response; some of Raoul's well-known racing contemporaries, but on the other side of the conflict, notably Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, fulfilled similar roles during the war.

Julien Rauol would have been an American citizen for some twelve years by the 1937 Los Angeles Six-Day races, held at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, yet his nationality is listed as French in the race programs. This was a little quirk of the game played by race promoters to give the competition a more international flavor. The same little poetic license was applied to numerous of the racers listed in the competitors' rosters. As noted above Raoul was frequently paired with Alfred Marquet; this made sense, both being born in France, promoters could bill them as the "French team." During the April 1937 Pan-Pacific race the two were the "French Red Devil Team", red for the color that they wore during the race. I am not sure where the "Devil" part came from, nor whose idea it was.

The two French-born riders shared more than a birth nation - their styles complimented one another, making them an especially able team. Raoul was the distance man who could ride tempo for long distances and great amounts of time; Marquet was a fearsome sprinter, noted as one of the best sprinters on the Six-Day circuit. In 1937, a mere week before the April Los Angeles Six, Marquet had set a new bicycle World Speed Record - eighty-six miles per hour, while drafting behind an automobile. Yet as strong a team as they were, the two were not always paired together. On at least one occasion and, as I previously wrote in Fast Digs, Raoul was teamed with Pete Hagopian. This was during the October 1937 Los Angeles Six-Day, also held at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium. It is only speculation but, Raoul's usual partner (Marquet) had recently become brother-in-law of racer Joe Devito, and may explain why those two were paired for that race.

Raoul was a competitor through and through, and not one to give up. During the April 1937 Los Angeles Six-Day Race he crashed within the first twenty-four hours scraping flesh from bone at his elbow, and causing a serious laceration of his scalp, but continued racing until race officials forced him to withdraw. Another of the other written descriptions of Raoul (from programs) notes that "without nerves of any kind he is consistently in front. He rides in six day races mainly for the thrills the competition gives him."

Julien Raoul, on far left, during competition at the Pan Pacific Auditorium.
Photo from Los Angeles Examiner, 11 October 1937. Clipping via Marcel Julien.

In a previous Fast Digs update I mentioned that I had been corresponding with the son of Julien Raoul about his life and times. My original intent was to include this information as an update to Fast Digs. While much of it will be incorporated into that story, I have received enough information specific to Julien Raoul, that it seemed more appropriate to form a separate post relating directly to him. Julien's family, and specifically his son Marcel, have been searching for information relating to the international racer but, as I have discovered, have found surprisingly little concerning the competitions that he participated in. 

I feel very fortunate that Marcel Raoul has chosen to share photos, clippings, and other bits of family information concerning his father with me. It is all a little-known slice of bicycle racing history that will contribute not only to the story of Julien Raoul, but to what was, at one time, the most popular sport in America. My continuing thanks to Mr. Marcel Raoul. I hope you enjoy this story and I will post additional updates to it as information is discovered, or becomes available to me in the future. Ultimately I would like to include stats of where and when he raced, who he was partnered with, and how he finished. Unfortunately much of that type information is vague and hard to find, if it exists at all, so this may take some time.