What’s behind the photo: Triumph of Travelling Blacksmith

What’s behind the photo: Triumph of Travelling Blacksmith

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Capturing a dramatic moment in vivid colour is worth even more. ŠKODA Storyboard brings black-and-white photographs to life to present fascinating stories from 120 years of ŠKODA motorsport in full colour.

29. 7. 2021 Škoda World HERITAGE

Today’s photograph was taken on Sunday 25 June 1905. The photographer caught this elegant group somewhere near Dourdan, a little less than 50 kilometres southwest of Paris. The organisers, one of whom (wearing an armband) is standing on the far left in the picture, were here laying out the course for the 2nd Coupe Internationale, an unofficial world championship for motorcycles.

The rider in the saddle is Václav Vondřich and he knows the local track well from the previous year’s race. In 1904, the LAURIN & KLEMENT works team’s biggest problem when competing against French, British and German teams was one of very delicate tyres. The roads were littered with wooden shoe tacks and even nails, as the ash from burnt wooden boards was used as grit in winter. Only five of the eleven machines at the start completed the 268 kilometres to the finish. František Toman finished second and Vondřich finished fourth, a lap behind after being forced to carry out repairs.

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Dourdan, 25 June 1905: race winner Václav Vondřich sitting on his LAURIN & KLEMENT motorbike. Behind him, with the full beard, is company co-founder Václav Klement. On the left, with the armband, is one of the race organisers. 

Even in the 1905 race, which the picture was taken at, the French organisers failed to provide a regular track. Instead of nails, there was sharp gravel in some places. What’s more, a shipment of spare tyres for the LAURIN & KLEMENT team was delayed en route, but the team was unable to resolve the situation promptly by purchasing local tyres. The regulations required all essential parts of the racing machines to be of domestic origin and it was practically impossible to find Austro-Hungarian tyres in France.

At the time of Vondřich’s triumphs, if the average motorcyclist wanted a machine similar to his two-cylinder seven hundred litre racer he could choose between the mass-produced CCR model or the best-selling LAURIN & KLEMENT two-cylinder CCD – a 1906 version is pictured here.

So Vondřich took to the track, burdened with a heavy leather satchel with two shoulder straps. It contained basic tools in case of punctured tubes and other problems. The proud owner of an imposing moustache thus earned the derisive nickname of the Travelling Blacksmith from onlookers. Despite his increased weight and higher centre of gravity, he was soon notching up the best interim times. 

He closed the gap on Demester and after the fourth lap, i.e. after 216 km, the Czech rider was in the lead with a time of 2:28.22. The Frenchman finished the lap with a time of 2:29:54. On the fifth lap, when the two-cylinder LAURIN & KLEMENT bike was exceeding 100 km, Vondřich consolidated his lead and crossed the finish line first with a time of 3:05.15. Second-placed Demester (3:13.17) was eventually disqualified anyway, having made an unauthorised rear wheel change on the track after a puncture deformed his original rim.

Vondřich was able to reach speeds of over 100 km/h on the dusty Dourdan track with his two-cylinder L&K. The race was run over five laps of 54 km. In three places on every lap the rider had to push the machine and then mount up again.

The historic triumph came when motorcycle manufacturing in Mladá Boleslav was at its peak. With a workforce of 355 people, the company was producing hundreds of these machines exported to a number of countries in 1905, but it was already turning its attention from “motorised two-wheelers” to a promising new product. Just a few months after Vondřich’s triumph at Dourdan, LAURIN & KLEMENT launched its first automobile, the LAURIN & KLEMENT VOITURETTE A. Václav Klement, the company’s visionary, and himself a successful racer in the saddle of bicycles and motorcycles, ushered in a new era. The determined look of the tall, thirty-six-year-old man with the beard and the dark suit standing just behind Vondřich’s motorcycle in the Dourdan photograph indicates that Klement possessed all the necessary qualities for this courageous step.

On the trail of colours 

Fascinating colour photographs were being taken even before the First World War. Prestigious photographic studios working with conventional black-and-white material rightly valued their retouching and manual colouring specialists who modified the glass negatives with fine brushes. Their work was made easier by their intimate knowledge of the contemporary realities and the colours of the clothing and common objects of the day. Our task is akin to detective work – colouring with the professional tools of Adobe Photoshop software, informed by the study of period documents. For reference we can turn to original motorbikes and automobiles from the collections of the ŠKODA Museum in Mladá Boleslav, for example, as well as brochures of the respective vehicle types, but also by leafing through fashion magazines from times long past.