A Brief History of the Apollon Railcar Wheels
by Joe Roark
Apollon (Louis Uni), the incredibly strong Frenchman, owned two sets of wagon wheels which was what the French called what we term a railcar. The heavier of these two sets weighed 365-366 pounds, and though Leo Gaudreau casts some doubt on whether Apollon was able to overhead these wheels, other authorities aver that he was able to do so, and did so whenever he chose, probably using what is now deemed a'power clean' because he disliked dipping under a weight. Further, remember that Apollon lifted 341 pounds when agitated by what he perceived to be a challenge by The Rasso Trio, and these 341 pounds were on a bar at least 1/2" thicker than the bar of the railcar wheels. So it seems no stretch at all to add 24 lbs, while reducing the bar diameter by more than 1/2". Apollon did lift the wheels. Probably, as with all his lifts, whenever the urge struck him.
By the time Apollon died on October 18, 1928, no other strongman had succeeded in lifting the wheels overhead- due in very large part to the horrendous combination of 365 pounds placed in a non-revolving way on an axle (bar) 1.93" in diameter. One reason Apollon could succeed was that his hand length was 9" and his palm width was 4.7", so his hand length exceeded the 6.06" circumference of the bar by almost one third.
Seventeen months after Apollon died, 26 year-old Charles Rigoulot managed to clean and jerk the wheels on March 3, 1930 in Paris at the Wagram Auditorium after several months of specific training for the wheels, and by means of a squat clean. [Willoughby mentions several WEEKS of training on the actual wheels]
19 years would pass before John Davis would place his small hands (7.1 x 3.5") on the bar. He was 28 years old, and the previous year he had cleaned and jerked a world record 391.25 pounds at a bodyweight of 217 pounds. In fairness to Davis, for him to have a ratio of hand length and handle circumference to match Apollon's ratio, the bar diameter would need to be only 1.51 inches or 4.75" circumference, or put in another way, the exact size of the Cyr dumbell handle in the York Barbell Hall of Fame. Davis had a drastic disadvantage.
In the first week of September 1949 Davis won the heavyweight class at the World Weightlifting championships at the Hague, Holland. His only successful C&J on that occasion was 363.75 pounds, because he bombed on his other, heavier attempts at 402.25 pounds!
The following week in Paris, France, Davis made several attempts to clean and jerk the railcar wheels in a practice session on September 9 or 10, 1949. He tried a thumbless grip and an overhand grip and each method yielded a thigh high effort. Then, using a pronated/supinated hand grip Davis got the bar shoulder high.
After some publicity, and an encouraging wire message from Rigoulot, Davis was ready for an all out effort. Of his four attempts, the first was pulled high enough but knocked him down; the second was somewhat askew though he got it overhead, but before fixing it, became very dizzy, and the wheels crashed to the platform. His third effort was a failed clean. Then it was time for a rest before the announced final try. An easy clean, but the dizziness( from a form of jaundice acquired during military service) was beginning so John rammed the wheels overhead for a successful lift. No one could tell John Davis that 13 September, 1949 at the Elysee Montmarte in Paris was an unlucky day!
Davis was the only man to use other than an overhand grip, and was criticized for it. In Strength & Health May/June 1950 he presented his well written, convincing, rebuttal.
Doug Hepburn asserted in 1953 that if he had opportunity. he would clean and PRESS the Apollon wheels. Given his enormous strength and his fabulous gripping power He may well have been able to do as he claimed. He never had occasion to try, however.
Since Davis, only one other man has lifted the Apollon railcar wheels, and that was Norbert Schemansky on October 14, 1954, in Lille, France at Robert Cayeaux's gymnasium. and at age 30 he remains the oldest (other than Apollon) to hoist them. After he cleaned them, he jerked them for three consecutive reps, and told me he probably could have done ten reps! He was under the added disadvantage of trying to lift the wheels with a bent axle/bar which happened when Davis had dropped them five years before.
Apparently the original Apollon railcar wheels are [probably] located at The Musee national du Sport. Historian David Chapman tells me this based on a conversation he had with Richard Desbonnet. Some attempts to retrieve the wheels for more public attempts have been refused. So what to do?
Well, at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic on Sunday, February 24, 2002, a replica set of railcar wheels is to be on hand as part of the inaugural Arnold Classic Strongman competition. In the same way that the Thomas Inch replica 172 pound dumbell must satisfy most devotees, so, probably, must this replica set of wheels satisfy Apollon fans. I spoke to the manufacturer of these wheels who is currently working on them and he plans to have them rolling into Columbus on time! Get the cameras ready!
As it evolved at the 2002 Arnold Classic, the Apollon Wheel lift was moved to Friday, February 22. Of the seven men who attempted to either clean or Continental the wheels and then jerk them overhead, two men succeeded. Mark Philippi Continentaled the wheels and then jerked them. Then at 3:20 pm Mark Henry cleaned then jerked the wheels, set them back on the stage, caught a few breaths, cleaned and jerked them again, set them back on the stage, took a few breaths, then cleaned and jerked them for a total of three successful attempts. He had time remaining is his allotted two minutes but chose not to make a fourth try.
So for now, the men who have successfully lifted the wheels are: Apollon, Rigoulot, Davis, Schemansky, Filippi, and Henry.
Click Here to see a video clip of John Davis's successful attempt at lifting the Apollon Railcar Wheels