L'Histoire de Roulandria

Origins

Xavier Leclos Rouler was born on June 29, 1855 to a family of modest poultry farmers who lived on a small patch of land just south of Liège, Belgium. He was the third of six children – 4 girls and 2 boys – and learned early in life the value of hard work and the importance of self­‐reliance. As the oldest son, he was often tasked with the dreadfully unpleasant chore of tending to the chickens – cleaning pens, gathering eggs and shuttling the birds back and forth to the markets in Liège.

To distract himself from this less than glamorous lot in life, Xavier became fascinated with the growing number of individuals he saw riding bicycles around the countryside and especially in the city where he would often linger just long enough to sneak into the sporting venues where gentlemen and ladies were wagering on young men who careened around a rickety track at dizzying speeds. Xavier was fascinated by the speed and adventure the bicycle promised, and he set out to build his own out of materials he was able to salvage around the farm.

Xavier Leclos Rouler
Xavier Leclos Rouler, ca. 1873
 
By 15, Xavier was spending all of his free-­time exploring the hills and dales of the surrounding countryside by bicycle – his world opening up before him as the road to the horizon.

One crisp fall day, Xavier was making his usual journey to market when he happened upon a young woman whose wagon had broken down in a ditch along side the rutted and muddy road. He greeted her politely and offered her a ride to her farm, which was just a few miles away from Xavier’s family farm. They instantly fell into a comfortable conversation, and Xavier asked permission to call on her again sometime soon. She agreed. Her name was Mirelle Patois, and before long she and Xavier found themselves deeply in love and were married at the young age of 17.

By now, Xavier had become an avid penny-farthing racer and was making weekly trips to Liège, Charlerois and Huy to compete for distant places among the finishers, but his love for cycling was undimmed by his lack of tangible results. He loved building bikes and he loved flying over the roads of his youth throwing care to the wind.

Now Xavier’s parents decided they had had enough of poultry farming and packed up the younger children and moved down river to Huy, leaving the family farm to Xavier and Mirelle. Xavier sold off the remaining livestock (save a few chickens, a milk cow and an old nag used to pull carts around the farm) and turned the main barn into his workshop where he would work from dawn to dusk on ideas for new bicycles. 

What was once an artisanal craft, was now being replaced by commercially manufactured machines, which were virtually without flaw – or as Xavier saw it, devoid of any trace of originality or soul.

As 1872 rolled around, young Xavier was growing quite concerned by what he deemed a rampant commercialization and homogenization of cycle manufacture. What was once an artisanal craft, was now being replaced by commercially manufactured machines, which were virtually without flaw – or as Xavier saw it, devoid of any trace of originality or soul.

As a show of defiance, Xavier and his young bride declared the bounds of his modest farm, a sovereign nation, wherein all who appreciated the handcrafted beauty of bicycles and celebrated the unbridled freedom and Xavier Leclos Rouler, ca. 1873 Roulandrian National Flag adventure of cycling were welcome to gather, commune and thrive. Thus, the nation of Roulandria was born. 

Roulandrian National Flag
Photo of Roulandrian Flag

 

Growth, Evolution and a Departure

Over the next several years, Roulandria grew in popularity and renown and became a much sought after destination for serious riders looking for a secluded training area to hone their pre-season form or to hide out and recover after a taxing racing season. Mirelle and Xavier turned their little country farmhouse into a hostel that could accommodate up to ten visitors comfortably.

When Xavier was 27, he and Mirelle welcomed into the world their only child – a son, named Philippe Christophe. Young Philippe enjoyed an idyllic childhood filled with adventure and exploration. He helped his mother prepare fresh meals for his father and Roulandria’s guests.

Philippe grew up riding bicycles with his father, but alas, never took to the family business. He loved and admired his parents completely for their passion and dedication to their purpose in life, but by the time he turned 18, he was ready for adventures of his own – a destiny which would lead him across the Atlantic. In the summer of 1900, he boarded a steamer to New York and bid Roulandria goodbye.

Philippe

Upon arriving in New York City in the late summer, Philippe, who knew very little English, found it quite difficult to find work. And although he was a strong, hard-working young man, he was unable to maintain a consistent income, and begin looking for alternatives.

Over the particularly harsh winter of 1900, he met a grizzled German named Hans who informed him that there was good work to be had in the upper mid-western United States with the logging companies in Minnesota. Philippe knew enough not to set out during the dead of winter, so at the first signs of spring, he hopped a westbound train and headed towards Minnesota.

After nearly a week spent bouncing around in a rickety boxcar, Philippe found himself pulling into Duluth where he found a new life in the vibrant and undeniably hardscrabble timber industry.

Over the next several years, Philippe proved himself an excellent hand and was making a fair life for himself and his young family. He and his wife Marie Claire, had two young boys (ages 4 and 2) and by early 1912, were expecting a third. However, tragedy befell the Rouler family with young Sebastien’s birth in April. Marie Claire died in childbirth leaving Philippe heartbroken and carrying the burden of raising his young family alone.

Just like that, Philippe was a changed man. Once light-hearted and filled with ambition, he now grew darker and more introverted. He spent more and more time at work and in bars washing away the memories of the life he had dreamed of creating for himself when he left Roulandria all those years ago.

Philippe’s oldest son, Luc, an enlisted man in the armed services of the United States, eventually found himself fighting in the European theatre in 1943 along some of the same roads in central Belgium his grandfather, Xavier, used to ride along as a carefree young man. He survived the European campaign and eventually returned home, though instead of returning to Minnesota he settled in Boston where he married and pursued a career in maritime accounting.

Patric, the next oldest boy wasn’t nearly as fortunate. He followed his older brother into service, but his deployment to the Pacific theatre of battle saw him involved in several hard fought battles and in late-summer 1944, he was killed in Leyte.

Sebastien, who, right or wrong, felt he bore the burden of the demise of his father’s dreams, drifted away, quite literally from his home in Minnesota. His was a dark soul – one wracked with guilt and aimlessness. He sought sanctuary down the mighty Mississippi River, south to New Orleans, and managed to craft a new life – one that rediscovered his family’s traditions while navigating the darker side of life in the southern United States.

Sebastien

Upon his arrival in New Orleans in the summer of 1945, Sebastien Rouler began what would amount to a partial rediscovery of his grandfather, Xavier’s, original vision. He was good with his hands, and had a strong understanding of design, geometry and the structural requirements to create finely crafted bicycle frames. He established a small workshop in the Lower Garden District neighborhood and was a frequent patron of the original New Orleans Bicycle Club.

Rouler Head Badge

Original Rouler head badge design.

Sebastien grew his small shop through a dedication to quality craftsmanship and attention to detail. He garnered a solid following amongst competitive riders and collectors alike that appreciated his contemporary design sensibilities married with historical frame building tradition that put him on par with Italian contemporary, Ernesto Colnago.

However, Sebastien had a weakness for the darker side of life in New Orleans. His weakness for liquor and voodoo culture would prove to cast a mysterious pall over the Rouler legacy for years to come.

The Darkness

Sebastien often frequented creole encampments near Jean Lafitte Swamp where he ultimately fell in love with a young voodoo priestess. Societal decorum dictated that they keep their affection under wraps. However, all of that became irrelevant when Sebastien’s lover became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, Jean-François in 1953.

Fearful of negative repercussions back in town, Sebastien did the only thing that seemed to make sense to him – something that he thought would permanently put his dark past behind him. One evening, shortly after the child’s birth, Sebastian paid a visit to the camp to visit mother and child. As he sat in the dimly lit bedroom of the run-down shotgun shack, he slipped a small amount of thallium into the jasmine and chamomile tea he had prepared to comfort his lover and help her sleep. And as she dozed – never to awake again – Sebastien took the baby and fled into the night, away from the isolated encampment, back to the anonymity and bustle of the city.

Sebastien raised Jean-François as a single father – telling those who asked that the young boy belonged to a distant cousin who didn’t have the financial means to raise the child. He was haunted by dreams of the life he had taken out of desperation, but managed to drown the pain with medication and drink.

Sebastien’s profound dysfunction was balanced by a Spartan work ethic. He pushed himself deeper into his work than ever before in an effort to pave the way for his young son to inherit the business. When the young boy was old enough to walk, the elder Rouler began taking him to the workshop where Jean-François began to absorb the cultural and technical knowledge that would one day make him one of the finest bicycle frame builders in North America.

Jean-François

Although in many ways, Sebastien Rouler had ceded a great measure of virtue and morality to the dark vices of New Orleans, he was nonetheless a caring and present father. He was never successful enough in business to bridge the gap between himself and his cosmopolitan clientele, but he was a very diligent artisan, and gave his young son as many travel and educational opportunities as he could.

Jean-François Rouler 

Jean-François Rouler
Audubon Park, ca. 1983

Long summers were spent overseas in Europe -- first Italy, then France then Spain -- as professional cyclists with names like Anquetil (with whom Jean-François shared a birthday), Gimondi, Poulidor and Simpson lit up the roads during the 1960s and eventually ceded dominance to the likes of Merckx, Moser, De Vlaeminck and Hinault during the 1970s.

In his late-teens and early-twenties, Jean-François was developing into a gifted athlete and craftsman. He was a handsome, well-dressed young man and while his friends were sporting polyester bell-bottoms and psychedelic colored shirts and hats, Jean-François opted for pressed cotton shirts, merino wool trousers, suspenders and houndstooth flatcap.

When he wasn’t busy assisting his father in the workshop, he could be found seeking speed and adventure from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to the bayous of the St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes on the hand-crafted steel machines he helped to build.

The Rouler name became synonymous with two things: impeccably designed and crafted steel bicycles and a lifestyle that was as much about seeking adventure on the open road as it was for the decadent indulgences of the time off the bike.

When Jean-François disappeared in the summer of 1983, it wasn’t terribly shocking, but the circumstances under which he went missing were certainly mysterious. In typical Rouler fashion, Jean-François had organized a group of his riding buddies to take a 3-day trip across the Mississippi River and down into the sweltering bayous where they would ride the unpaved backroads during the day and camp out under the stars at night. On the last day of the trip, after a long day in the saddle, the friends pitched camp near Jean Lafitte swamp and after dinner, set about the task of polishing off a bottle of bourbon they had been saving for the occasion. Sometime after midnight, drunk on whiskey and tall tales, they all slipped off to sleep.

As dawn broke, and the heat of the day began to build, the men awoke and noticed that their friend and ride leader was missing. His pallet and knapsack were undisturbed but his bike was missing, as was Jean-François. Chalking the circumstances up to a typical drunken late-night ramble, they packed up Jean-François’ things, and set off for home, confident that they would be reunited with their friend back in the city. However, this was not to be the case. And after Jean-François failed to return after 2 days, the friends and Sebastien became worried and notified the authorities, who began searching the area around which he was last seen.

Though he held out hope for the best, Sebastien feared the worst -- and rightly so. Somewhere in his heart he knew the darkness that had haunted him his whole life had finally come back to claim the one thing which had given him joy.

The Rouler name became synonymous with two things: impeccably designed and crafted steel bicycles and a lifestyle that was as much about seeking adventure on the open road as it was for the decadent indulgences of the time off the bike.

Jean-François Rouler's Bicycle 

Jean-François Rouler's Bike
Courtesy of L'Estate de Rouler, Liège, Belgium

After two weeks of futility, a break finally came. Two cyclists were riding through the back roads of Jefferson Parish when they noticed an abandoned bicycle lying half-submerged in a drainage ditch at the entrance to an old, blighted and abandoned single shotgun house. They pulled the bike from the ditch, and recognized the headbadge as an original Rouler bike. Having heard about the disappearance in the Times Picayune a week earlier, they took the bike to the police who notified Sebastien of the discovery and the circumstances under which it was found. Sebastien accompanied the investigators to the location where the bike was found, and when he stepped from the car he had to steady himself for he was standing in front of the house where he had taken the life of his lover almost 30 years prior.

The investigators searched the property and the grounds but found not a shred of evidence of foul play. It seemed as though Jean-François had simply disappeared without a trace. It was as if the swamp and the spirits that linger there had risen up and taken back what they felt was rightly theirs.

Heartbroken and haunted by the fate that had befallen his only son, Sebastien fell into a state of gradual decline. He shuttered his workshop, and turned once and for all to the comfort of drinking and self-medication that eventually took his life. On or around July 25, 1999, Sebastien Rouler died alone. His body was not discovered for over two weeks as he had no real friends and had lived his last years in complete seclusion and isolation.

When police entered his home and began preparations to remove Sebastien from the property, they noticed that, folded neatly on the table, was a copy of the French newspaper, L’Equipe. It was opened to a photograph of a young American cyclist who had just won his first Tour de France.