Often will sailors, for their sport, ensnare
The albatross, flying with languid sweep–
Sea-bird companion, soaring on the air–
Behind their boats, plying the bitter deep.
Scarcely are they thrust on deck than those proud kings
Of azure climes, awkward and mortified,
Let droop, pathetically, their vast white wings,
Like two oars, trailing useless by their side.
How clumsy this winged voyager! How weak
Comic, and ugly! He, so fair of late!
Some, with their clay pipes, taunt him, jab his beak;
Some ape the esrtwhile flier’s limping gait.
So too the Poet, like that prince of space,
Who haunts the storm and scorns the archer’s bow:
Mocked, jeered, his giant’s wings hobble his pace
When exiled from his heights to earth below.
– ‘L’Albatros’, by Charles Baudelaire; English translation by Norman R Shapiro
For a sailor, to be followed by an albatross is considered a sign of good luck. However, in seafaring folklore, killing one of these fabulous birds would bring a curse upon not just the killer, but the whole ship. Samuel Taylor Coleridge used such a metaphor in his epic poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in 1798. Charles Baudelaire’s 1861 poem ‘L’Albatros’, about men on ships who catch the albatrosses for sport, compared the birds – exiled from the skies and then weighed down by their giant wings, till death – to the plight of poets.
It’s not unusual for literary works to feature in bicycle publicity. ‘Black Beauty’ was a well-known American cycle brand, introduced in the 1910s, and the British ‘Robin Hood’ badge lasted for some sixty years. The collection of poems in which ‘L’Albatros’ appeared was one of the most influential and controversial works of the nineteenth century. Its themes include beauty and ugliness in life, boredom, death, disillusionment and despair, the role of the poet, and cultural decadence.
I’m not sure to what extent a bicycle bearing such a name symbolised any of the above in 1905; that would be rather an heavy responsibility for any mode of transportation. However, it may give us a glimpse into the public consciousness of the era to consider that all bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles in their early years might be considered albatrosses. As well as sometimes being large and ungainly beasts, they provided personal freedom and the ability to travel for much longer distances than previous modes of transportation.
Perhaps, recalling Baudelaire’s eulogy for poets, the L’Albatros brand is a tribute to that short moment in time when empty roads with unregulated speed limits were in the process of being transformed into crowded city roads with the attendant imposition of bureaucracy to control speed and movement?
L’Albatros was a top quality French manufacturer, supplying bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles for both the home market and export. Though not so well-known nowadays, in the years from the turn of the century until World War 1, their products were considered equal to those from Terrot, Peugeot and other leading makers.
The L’Albatros motorcycle was powered by a Givaudan engine, and the company received a considerable boost when another Givaudan-powered motorcycle set a world record in September, 1910, ridden by W.Chitty at the BMCRC speed trials in England. Top quality BSA fittings were used on their cycles, as well as state-of-the-art components supplied by L’Albatros themselves. Examine, for example, the L’Albatros ‘Lux’ front brake on the machine featured here.
These days, Hirleman’s ‘belle époque’ poster ‘Cycles Albatros’ is better known than the company itself.
c1905 L’Albatros with BSA Fittings
1st Pattern BSA Chainwheel, 1899-1903
The Albatross is a medium-weight roadster capable of fast speeds, an ideal road-racing machine. It may have been repainted many years ago, I’m not sure. The paintwork is worn in place but not scruffy, and the nickel is mostly faded. It has attractive early matching rat trap pedals, L’Albatros front brake and bell, heavy duty saddle and wooden mudguards. (There’s an old-time repair on the front one). This is a machine that has been used regularly throughout its life until recently. It’s in excellent mechanical condition; the front tyre is an old original that is usable but will require replacing in due course. To summarise, the L’Albatros is a reminder of an era now long past, but has survived to tell its tale.
Observe the faint remains of the BSA stacked rifles logo below.
TO READ MORE ABOUT THE
GIVAUDAN ENGINE USED IN THE L’ALBATROS MOTORCYCLE
l’Albatros translation with thanks to – http://stephenfrug.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/three-translations-of-baudelaires.html