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The Incredible Bikes & Cycling Tech Of The First World War

The Incredible Bikes & Cycling Tech Of The First World War

– I’m at the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen, or Tour of Flanders Center,
here in Oudenaarde, Belgium. This is a really cool place. There’s loads to see and do here and it’s absolute must-visit for, well, any cycling fan
who’s coming through the area. But I’m here to see an exhibition on the very first editions
of the Tour of Flanders, editions that were cruelly
interrupted by World War I. I’m going to show you some of the tech and equipment that was used back then, which is absolutely incredible, and I think some of it will surprise you. But before I do, be sure to subscribe to
GCN if you haven’t already and also click the bell icon,
as you’ll get notifications, and it helps support the channel. And yeah that’s Eddy
Merckx’s old team car. (chuckling) (metallic whooshing) (hypnotic EDM music) The first ever edition of the
Tour of Flanders was in 1913 and it was won by this chap,
a 25 year-old carpet fitter, by the name of Paul Deman. That edition of the race was
the longest it’s ever been. It was 330 kilometers and it came down to a six-man sprint in a velodrome in Ghent. (hypnotic EDM music) This is the kind of kit that the riders of the day would’ve used. So you’ve got a steel canteen there with a cork stopper attached
to a piece of string on an old steel-pressed bottle cage. Then you’ve got, well, forget your modern day
sort of cycling eyewear, you’ve got some googles to stop the dirt of Flanders
getting in your eyes, a nice little neat leather saddle pouch that would go on the back of the saddle, and a little frame satchel,
as well, at the front. A traditional flat cap,
rather then the casquette, which became more popular later on. And also this lamp is intriguing me. Modern bike lights, we just
take them so for granted now. Back then, they didn’t exist, so in order to see in the dark, we’ve got, well, like a paraffin lamp that would be precariously attached to the front of your bike. Insane, I can’t imaging
its lumens were very high. And underneath here,
we’ve got a classic pair of woolen cycling shorts that were used back in the day. Chamois weren’t around. Riding 330 kilometers in a pair of these, (stammering) I wouldn’t like to do. It’s like modern torture. And then you’ve got the
classic leather shoes of the time as well. They would’ve been used in
conjunction with a flat pedal and a toe strap. They don’t like very comfortable either, but they do look quite light. These are actually the personal effects of this gentleman, Henri Vanlerberghe, who was pressed into
service during World War I and actually fought in a
motor battalion as a cyclist, well, couriering messages. And he’s described as being
an absolute bear of man and he was actually able to get reprieve from fighting at the front and sort of recover and have
R&R by doing cycle races, which he was allowed to do. And he was known in the peloton as the Devil Rider of Lichtervelde. Quite an ominous nickname to
have, but it was duly deserved because when Tour of Flanders
resumed in 1919, he won. This is an example of the kind of bikes that the early editions of the
race would’ve been ridden on, although some would’ve been
fitted with front brakes. This one is currently in full fixie mode, but there was the option to
fit front brakes on these. I can’t believe that someone would ride 100 kilometers on this, let alone 330. It’s just blowing my mind right now. It weighs an absolutely ton. I don’t have scales with me unfortunately, but I’m going to estimate
that it’s over 14 kilos. You’ve got a steel construction
with lugged tubes in here, which was used for a considerable time after this initial period. But you’ve got these
rather strange handlebars that were mainly just used in the drops. They’re quite narrow, actually. Pretty aero. And a really slack head angle on there. Now, you’ve got a single gear. It’s fixed. That’s all you’ve got to get
up the bergs of Flanders. I don’t envy that either. And some interesting stuff here. I mean, this saddle doesn’t
look particularly comfortable, but the way that that saddle
is attached onto this post and can be slid along the rails gives considerable amount of adjustment. That’s a neat idea and something that I
wouldn’t have expected in a bike so old. (tranquil EDM music) The wheels, they’re wooden, wooden wheels, and they’re tubular. Tubular tires were what
the guys used back then and you’ll often see in photos
them with a tubular tire wrapped around the top
of their body as a spare. That’s where they carried it. And these tires are quite wide, which is because the roads
back then weren’t the best and so they used wider tires, kind of like now that
we’ve wider tires now ’cause the roads aren’t the best. Some things never change, I guess. Unfortunately, when World
War I broke out in 1914, the careers are many
cyclists, including Deman, were put on hold and the
Flanders region in particular was especially ravaged by the conflict. But owing to his reputation as an absolute hitter on the bike, Deman was recruited by
Belgium’s espionage service and worked as a spy. His job was to transfer
information and documents across the border into
the neutral Netherlands, all the while by evading the Germans. And he was able to do this on his bike and because he could ride so fast. He risked his life doing this and was able to hide the
documents that he was smuggling inside the hollow tubes of his bicycle. Absolutely incredible. And after 14 successful missions smuggling them across the border, unfortunately his luck ran out and he was captured by the Germans and put in prison in Leuven. He was held there to be
executed by firing squad but, fortunately, before
that could happen, the Americans came to Leuven,
the Armistice happened, the war was over, and his life was spared. He then went on to carry
on riding after the war and he won Paris-Roubaix in 1920. Amazing. (soft, somber music) This bike is incredibly interesting. It’s an original bike used
by the Belgian Army in 1913. It’s a folding design for
ease of transportation. It means it can be put away easily and not take up much space when needed. But what’s fascinating about this is there was a unit in the Belgian Army called the Carabiniers Cyclistes, a battalion of soldiers that
traveled around by bikes. And bikes were integral
to armies in World War I. They were seen as a really
reliable use of transport. You have to remember that back then, motorized transport was
neither reliable or widespread. A lot of transportation
was done by horses, but bikes have the advantage
that they don’t eat oats, making them much cheaper and,
in some cases, more reliable. (futuristic synth music) The advantage of this kind of solider and a battalion that could
travel around on bike was enormous because they
could travel three times faster than soldiers marching
to the front on foot, meaning that they could surprise the enemy and get to places far quicker and they did so on several
occasions during the War, earning them the nickname the
Black Devils from the Germans. This is the uniform worn by the Carabiniers Cyclistes battalion. Certainly doesn’t look very
comfortable for cycling and I don’t suspect this
woolen tunic and trousers is particularly good in the
wet, doesn’t look like Gortex. But I’m quite intrigued by the cap and the head wear they were wearing, which was specialist and different
from other soldier units, definitely specific to cycling. And it resembles the kind
of modern day casquette that you’d wear for cycling as well. I say modern day, it’s
quite a traditional hat, but you get what I’m saying. (futuristic synth music) Italy was the first nation
to use bikes in its army and one example of a
solider that rode bikes for the Italian Army
was Ottavio Bottecchia. I’ve got an example of the
kind of bike he would’ve used while in service over there,
but before I show you it, let me tell you a bit
about his incredible story. So he was a young bricklayer and had never ridden a bike
prior to joining the Army. His family was poor and
he couldn’t afford one. But as soon as he did and he joined this
cycling unit in the Army, it became apparent that
he was an absolute talent at riding a bike. He fought in World War I in the Alps, where it was apparent that
he was a natural climber. He was captured three times
and each time he was captured, he was able to escape by bike because the guards
couldn’t keep up with him. He was that strong! Now this impressed his superior officers and they suggested he should
become a professional, so after the war, he survived, he saved up his money as a
bricklayer and bought a bike and then became a cyclist. He instantly won races and he entered his first
Tour de France in 1923, which he came second in and won a stage, and then in ’24 and ’25,
he won the Tour de France. Incredible! This is the Italian
Army bike of World War I and it’s massively ahead of its time. The tech in this is
actually blowing my mind, (chuckling) I can’t believe it. So first up, it’s a Bianchi, Bianchi laying claim to be
the oldest bike manufacturer in the world, starting
bikes in 1885 in Milan. And the key feature of this
is it’s a folding bike, a bit like a modern Brompton, which is useful for stowing
it when it’s not needed on the battlefield. It’s got two gears, which obviously isn’t that
great, and to change gear, you have to actually remove the rear wheel or you just can slide it in this dropout. You’d have to stop and get off the bike. And the adjustable dropout at the back is to make up for that
change in chain tension, because derailleurs haven’t
been invented at this point. But it’s got one brake,
which is a cantilever design, at the front and this is really curious. So you pull this lever here and then there’s a rod that
goes through the steerer tube that pulls the brake up. I’ve never seen anything like that before, and I guess you don’t get cable stretch with that kind of design,
but that’s fascinating. Now in terms of practicality,
the tires are solid rubber. This was a deliberate choice for this bike being an army bike, because it wanted to be more rugged and avoid getting punctures, but solid tires 100 years before Tannus Tires being solid tires, they were around back then. What’s really blowing my
mind though (chuckling) is the suspension on this bike. Suspension as far back as 1916. These are little shock absorbers
built into the fork here, one on either side. And at the back, you’ve
got a shock as well, which, I mean, it looks exactly
like the one that we see on the modern Pinarello K8
that’s used by Team Sky, well, now Team Ineos, in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. That’s amazing, 100 years earlier, that that kind of thing was being used! I don’t want to actually
push it down though. I mean, this is a very old bike, so, I mean, I assume it doesn’t work as well as it used to either. When it’s folded up, this little hook here is
used to keep it secure with this little eyelet there. And something else that’s
fascinating about this bike, another way in which it
was well ahead of its time is storage and bikepacking. Bikepacking, we think it’s a new thing, and I don’t think they
called it bikepacking in World War I, but this
bike was designed to be used with several different
bags, including a frame bag, a rear kind of seatpost bag that rested on this platform
there, and bar bag as well, so it could transport
supplies and equipment. There’s even pictures of them
fitted with a machine gun, not to be fired while riding, but just to store it in the frame as well. Absolutely incredible
that that kind of thing was being done back then. (quiet dramatic music) So this is the kind of the bike that Bottecchia would
have learned to ride on and used while in service
in the Italian Army. And in 1927, Bottecchia
was out for a training ride from which he didn’t return. He was later found, tragically,
at the side of the road with a fractured skull,
his bike next to him and it was untouched,
propped up against a wall. Now, it’s not known what happened to him but it’s speculated that
he was killed by Fascists or perhaps even the Mafia, as he as known to be a
prominent anti-Fascist. A tragic end to an incredible story. Someone should really make
a film about this guy. Unbelievable! But as for his bike, what’re we saying, nice or super nice? I mean, there’s only really
one answer, isn’t there? I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of the bikes and riders and tech from those early days
in the Tour of Flanders. Thanks to the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen for letting us have access. There’s loads more to see here so if you’re interested,
you can come down. And if you’ve enjoyed this video, then please give it a thumbs up and share it with your friends. This kind of era is
especially poignant to me ’cause one of my grandads
actually fought in World War I. So if you’d like to watch another video, then click down here.

100 comments on “The Incredible Bikes & Cycling Tech Of The First World War

  1. Great Video (and a great Place, too!), Thank you very much! For your interest, Switzerland had Cycling Infantry Troops in regular Service until 2005; with the first ordnance bike introduced in 1905 which was then replaced with a more modern bike in..1993! Due to its bullet-proof design you can see quite some of the 1905 Bikes still being ridden as citybikes, and there are even some crazy guys riding them on the Concrete Tracks in Zurich!

  2. 3:56 You sure that's from the WWi era? Because that bike has the modern chain, not the old skip link chain.

    Fun fact I found a 1947 Wards Hawthorne that still had a skip link chain. I documented it here

  3. A fitted machine gun that could be fired on the move would come in useful .Might even get the attention of some motorists 😂

  4. This is one of the best GCN episodes of all time. I'm a cyclist and a history buff. Fascinating history well presented. Please, let's have some more bicycle history! And yes, it would be great to see these kinds of stories made into movies – if the producers would only get them right.

  5. Fascinating from start to finish. Humbling and poignant, too. Could've watched an hour of this; the glimpse we got of those magnificent men and their cycling machines has left me hungry for more, please. Great presenter btw; his enthusiasm shines out, he clearly loves his subject and knows his stuff too. Hope he does more of these historical videos soon. Well done to all involved.

  6. Bike scouting and bike armed patrols were only done in the first month or two of the war, before trench warfare started.
    (Except on the Italian mountain front)

  7. I’m on the look out for old bikes like these in the USA. In particular a Winston bicycle. Unfortunately, I’m speculating most/all were melted down in WWII scrap metal drives.

  8. Absolutely brilliant video Ollie! Just in time for Veteran's Day here in the States. I enjoyed learning about the depth of purpose the bicycle fulfilled through this era in history – not just an implement of war and survival, but as a media for peace and recovery thereafter.

  9. I once saw a BSA folding paratroopers bike in amazing shape at an antique mall. It still had the BSA tires and grips, BSA chain wheel and seat. The collector was asking only $700.00. I should have bought it.

  10. I had both a tricycle and my first two wheeler, hand-me-downs from my brother made in the 1960s, with rod actuated front brakes. My mate also had his brother's old bike and it had the luxury of front and rear brakes. Even the rear one had a rather complicated set of rods rather than cables.

  11. That might be an acetylene lamp, not paraffin. I used one for caving in the early seventies. The bottom half of the cylinder contains calcium carbide, and the upper half water. You control the rate at which the water drips onto the calcium carbide, producing an appropriate flow of acetylene. It is actually quite bright if you keep the metal reflector well polished, but also quite hot!

  12. Hi Ollie, great video. I am wondering if the 1913 era front lamp was in fact a Carbide lamp. Popular in caving still. Would produce a decent light source. The British has cyclist troops too. I recall seeing original poster advertising for men with their own bikes to join up ‘no height limit and bad teeth no bar’Anyway….keep up the top work mate. Maybe a video on work-specific bikes? postal, ice cream, you get the drift….

  13. Love this. I 100% agree that there should be a movie about these guys. A real accurate, action packed, old war movie with; of the time writing. It would be a beautiful sight to see as well considering the scenery. Imagine just being an extra in the movie and getting to ride an early 1900s war bicycle.

  14. Bicycles today just don't have the storage space to keep your MP5, L1A1 SLR or even an AR15. I have to use a BOB trailer instead. Tavor's and Steyr's would be much easy to store under the top tube though.

  15. "Over 14 kg" would actually be about the weight of a 10 speed touring bike in the seventies. I ride one now, and the weight is not as much of a problem as you might think. The hardest thing might be riding on the drops all the time, with no hoods.

  16. 8:28 Looks like I have a new sewing project for my list…
    11:00 What is the wheel size on that folding bike? They seem to look smaller than normal.

    Great video Ollie. More content like this, please.

  17. I can relate.
    My grandfather moved messages by bike for the Belgian "Armée secrete" during WWII. I really hope you can expand the subject to bikes being used during that time…

  18. I remember rod brakes when I was a child in the sixties, although I have no idea how old the bikes with rod brakes were. Certainly in the sixties in the UK objects had a far longer life than they do now, and bikes in common use would perhaps span a greater range of technological eras than today.

  19. Some amazing stories, Ollie. Tough blokes in the true sense of the word. Those old bikes make me appreciate our modern tech & clothing all the more. Thanks a lot! 🙂

  20. The history of cycling is incredible and it deserves a lot more great reports !! It's just brilliant !
    If you like cycling, join us on my instagram page @bicyclelord, see you soon haha 😊

  21. Unreal! I don’t know what I love ❤️ more, the amazing history behind all these bikes and the riders or the bikes themselves! Thanks for sharing

  22. "Someone should make a film…" Well @GCN is this the moment and the content that will lead you into the foray of film making? Given you incredible cinematography in certain epic videos and the acting talent of your presenters (e.g. Si and JPow in Gran Fondo), also the fact that your branching out into all sorts of media now, I wouldn't see it as too much of a stretch.
    PS if you do look for outside talent, I hope it wouldn't hurt the feelings of the guys too much, but I guess it could be understandable. How many pro cyclists have acted in film?

  23. Hello Jon and Ollie… I was hoping that you could make a video that explains on how to get the proper tire and tube size based on the size of your rim for road bikes. I apologize if you had already talked about this before but looking across some social media platforms I have only seen a few that come close but usually focus on what is written on the side of the tire. It would seem that the best thing to do is to measure the width of the rim and length of the wheel and then select the proper tire and tube. Thank You… You guys are awesome.

  24. thank you so much as I'm very interested in military bicycles and you covered the topic well. Here is a link to a film about a military expedition in 1897.

  25. The lamp might be acetylene. (Hard to say without a careful look). They actually give a decent amount of light. My 1921 motorcycle makes more light from the Acetylene than from the electric lamp. And I was caving with Acetylene as a student in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact I might well have used an acetylene lamp for caving this century.

  26. For those of us in the U.S. that distance translates to just over 205 miles. That is a long distance in general, but to do it with the single gear bikes of the day and riding with the cycling gear (kit to the Brits), that is especially impressive. What a fantastic museum. Thank you for all of the amazing videos, but this one is arguably a stand out. Of course, as I say that, I am thinking of so many others that impressed me.

  27. Another link between bikes and the armed forces is airfields. Squadron buildings tended to be spread around the airfield, so bikes were a great way to get to the wardroom for lunch, or the admin building, tower etc. I used my 1978 Raleigh Gran Prix like this in the eighties.

  28. I think we should get frame-mounted machine guns for firing at race competitors… not IRL but for Zwift! A bit like Biathlon only mnore competetive…

  29. The brakes he mentions at 11:25 are called "freni a bacchetta" in italian, which literally means stick operated brakes. They are quite common in italy even at this time, but you can only find them on old used bikes.

  30. I'm not that much surprised to see suspension on that bike, but rather disapointed by the fact that the "innovations" of modern bike brands are just copies of what was already there in 1916.
    So in fact, we are STILL using stuff (bikepacking, suspension) that was already used 100 years ago!

  31. In the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, AZ there is a special exhibit: a bike used at the 390th Bomb Group airfield during the WW II.
    The description says: "The airmen's primary mode of transportation was not an airplane or a car: It was a bicycle. Hundreds if not thousands of bicycles were seen around base and in town."

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