Great Moments in Cycling History
The beginning of the
decline of cycling may have begun with the first great disaster, the loss
of the Titanic on April 15, 1912.
Before the Titanic
was launched, many had predicted that a bicycle could not be built that
large. The Titanic was almost 900 feet long, with deck stacked on deck
of crew and passengers, and with two massive spoked wheels that were almost
120 feet in diameter. Critics contented that the strains of the deep sea
roads would causes stresses and cracks that would lead to the destruction
of the giant bicycle.
the Titanic began its maiden run between Southampton and New York City,
the bike was fully loaded, and the passengers were in a festive mood. For
the first part of the journey, there were no problems whatsoever, and even
the most apprehensive were lulled into calmness or even joyous festivity
in spite of the dangers of the sea road.
in the vicinity of Newfoundland, a critical mistake was made when warnings
of ice in the sea lanes were ignored. Not long after, as the Titanic was
just beginning to descend a particularly steep grade in a heavy fog, cries
of "ice" were heard. Indeed, the whole sea-lane was coated with a slippery
sheet of ice, making effective braking or control impossible. Evidently,
the cold weather had created an ice-storm-like condition. And so the Titanic
began its wild descent to the bottom of the hill with most aboard not realizing
their grave danger until their final moments.
On the heaving
decks, a frantic effort began to get at least some of the passengers to
safety. In case of such a catastrophe as was now occurring, tandem five-seater
safety bikes had been mounted on hoists to allow the passengers to escape.
However, so confident of the safety of the Titanic were its builders that
there were not enough safety bicycles for the passengers on the upper decks,
let alone the teeming masses in the lower stowage or the laborers on the
lowest decks, who continued to pedal to the very end, unaware of their impending
doom. In addition, the loading was carried out so frantically that often
bikes were lowered to the pavement with more or less than five riders,
with people sitting backwards on their seats, or even with children or
no one in the steerer's position. Frequently, too, the tandems were dropped
rather than lowered to the icy pavement. And even when the bikes were properly
crewed and lowered, their riders still faced a steep and icy road and nearly
pitch black darkness (no thought had been given to providing lights). The
very last people who left the pitching giant bicycle noted that the band
was still playing. Immediately afterwards, the frame broke from the heavy
stress, and the Titanic crashed at the bottom of the hill, leaving few
The Red Baron
It is unclear why
so much attention has been focused on Baron Manfred von Richtofen. While
he was the highest scoring German ace in WWI, there were more successful
French aces in the same war, and German aces achieved much higher "scores"
during WWII. The best guess is that his blood red machine and the helplessness
of his victims have made him seem an especially fiendish killer.
The baron had figured
out an almost foolproof form of attack that involved little risk and that
gave him one easy victory after another. After leading his flying circus
into a dogfight, he would circle the parking lot, looking for an escaping
foe. He particularly favored tandems. When one of the enemy would abandon
the fight, the baron would follow at a safe distance until he saw the cyclist(s)
about to begin the ascent of a particularly steep hill. Then the Red Baron,
who was a great athlete, would pedal furiously, catching his victim just
as the cyclist(s) began to stand for the climb. With his greater speed,
he would still be sitting, so he could easily fire his twin machine guns
to rake his foe, and he would have much greater maneuverability, so he
could easily prevent his victim's escape. If the bike he was pursuing was
a single seater, the enemy would never get to fire a shot in return, as
the machine guns on single seaters only fired forward. However, the tandem
riders were no better off, as it was suicide for the rear rider (called
the stoker or observer) to either stop pedaling or to ignore firing back,
yet he could hardly shoot accurately while standing to pedal up a hill.
As a result of this method of attack, it was rare for an enemy bullet to
even hit the Red Baron's bike. (The baron's maneuverability was also aided
by the short wheelbase of his favorite bicycle, the Fokker Dr. I.)
Yet, the baron
died on April 20, 1918, while making his favorite attack in his favorite
red Fokker on a particularly weak victim. Wilred May was a green pilot
and had been ordered to leave the dogfight at the earliest moment, but
he delayed long enough to be noticed and followed by the Red Baron. Captain
Roy Brown, watching from a distance, saw the baron begin to stalk his prey
and desperately pedaled down a side road, in hopes of saving his comrade's
life. The Red Baron caught the boy just as he was beginning a climb and
opened fire. But also at that very instant, Roy Brown, dashing from a side
road on his Camel bicycle, fired a few shots into the side of the baron's
machine which then promptly crashed. The baron had been killed by a single
Much more recently,
there has been great controversy as to whether the Red Baron was actually
killed by Roy Brown (a Canadian) or by some Australian gunners shooting
from the side of the road. This argument could conceivable lead to the
breaking of trade relations between the two countries, so it is a subject
best avoided when members of those two nations are around.
The Giant Zeppelins
The wreck of the Titanic
discouraged further giant bicycle development in almost every country.
But in Germany, a mad count persisted because he wanted to see England
destroyed. His solution was to attach a giant gas bag to the bicycle
frame. The hydrogen gas in the bag helped support the weight of the frame,
crew, and bombs, making the kind of disaster that the Titanic suffered
impossible; however, the large size of the gas bags made the Zeppelins
very difficult to manage in a cross wind and very slow in a head wind,
plus the Zeppelin bicycles were readily visible at a great distance. As
a result, many doubted whether they would have any military value at all.
However, the school
children sang, "Fly, Zeppelin, fly. Help us in war. England shall be consumed
by fire." So the construction of the giant Zeppelin bicycles continued.
After the war started, it seemed at first
as if the Zeppelins were a great success. Following back roads and
traveling late at night on moonless nights, the Zeppelins would suddenly
descend a hill and drop their bombs on the factories along the road. However,
the crew was often badly lost by the time they pedaled to England, so the
bombs often fell on unimportant factories and seldom caused serious damage.
In fact, one attack by Captain Mathy on downtown London caused 1/3 of the
damage for the whole war (few other Zeppelin commanders were willing to
risk pedaling their giant craft through the streets of a city).
Then the English
discovered that the gas bags were highly flammable and equipped their pursuit
bicycles with incendiary bullets. Within a short time, the best of the
Zeppelin captains and crews were shot down, including Captain Mathy.
Strasser, the Zeppelin fleet commander, felt that the solution was to climb
even higher hills and thus avoid the British bicycles. Thus Zeppelins were
painted black and commanders were ordered to keep to the hills and to escape
pursuit bicycles by climbing the steepest climbs as quickly as possible
(although the Zeppelins were slow on the flat, their ultra-light weight
made them quick on the hills). But when Captain Strasser personally led
a flight in the L70 and was shot down, the Zeppelin bombing effort ended.
After the war,
Hugo Eckener worked towards a comeback of the giant craft as vessels of
peace. The Graf Zeppelin astonished the world by its feats: the first passengers
across the Atlantic, the first round-the-world passenger flight, trips
to Africa and the Arctic, and regular non-stop passenger service from Germany
to South America. But the Graf could only carry 20 passengers, not enough
to make air travel affordable for the common citizen.
So, the even larger
Hindenburg was constructed. It paid for its construction in one year by
carrying 3,000 passengers and 190 tons of cargo and mail on 45 crossing
of the Atlantic and South Atlantic. However, as the Hindenburg was being
pedaled to its giant bike stand in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, it suddenly
burst into flames. A debate has continued since as to whether the cause
was static electricity or a bomb. Only 13 passengers were killed, but the
crew, pedaling to the last, suffered much greater losses. Thus the Zeppelin
style of bicycle was abandoned.
The Battle of Dunkirk
In talking about Hitler's
blitzkrieg onslaught against the allies on May 10, 1940, writers often
make serious mistakes of facts. Sometimes they assume that Hitler's army
was superior in size when, in fact, the two armies were equal. Or they
feel that Hitler had an overwhelming preponderance of superior bicycles
when the truth is that the allied and Nazi bicycles were approximately
equal in number and quality. It is true that the Germans had developed
a new rear derrailleur used in the Mark IV Fahrrad, but the single
speed Mark I models were much more prevalent in this attack, and the Mark
II had frequent breakdowns in their internal hub shifters. On the allied
side, the French had many of the excellent Peugeot ten-speed models and
the British used mainly the Raleigh bicycle, equipped with the famous Sturmey-Archer
3-speed hub. The German's real advantage was that they had made a careful
study of bicycle warfare, learning from their failures in WWI, and had
decided to create whole bicycle divisions, rather than scattering their
bicycles among the infantry as the French and English had. Instead, the
Fahrrad divisions would be used to punch holes in the enemy lines and then
to surround and isolate the enemy troops.
After the conquest
of Poland, Hitler lined his troops along the French and Belgium borders.
The English assumed that the attack would be the same as in 1914, and they
prepared to rush their troops into Belgium to throw back the Germans. However,
Colonel Manstein came up with a brilliant alternative. A massive German
assault would be made against Belgium and Holland, but the most mobile
units would be flung into the woods and hills of the Ardennes. The allies
had thought of this possibility but had dismissed it because they doubted
the ability of the German Fahrrad (bicycle) divisions to climb the steep
However, the German
storm troopers easily stomped their way over the hills on their multi-speed
bikes and overcame the weak defenses hidden in the woods. Reaching Sedan,
some of the troops unloaded rubber rafts from their bikes to paddle across
the Meuse while others kept the opposite shore under heavy mortar fire.
Once across the river, Guderian was allowed to "enlarge the beachhead,"
so his spearheads of bicycle troops pushed 60 miles deeper into France,
overrunning the weak infantry defenders.
and some of his generals tried to halt the rush of their own troops, within
five days the Fahrrads had covered the distance from the Meuse to the sea,
and the British and French armies to the north were trapped. However, at
this point, the Fahrrads were finally halted, and the British were able
to evacuate nearly all of their troops at Dunkirk.
What brought about
the "miracle" that saved the British army? Some have felt that Hitler was
worried that his precious Fahrrads would get stuck in the sea-sands near
Dunkirk. That this was not a legitimate problem was proven by the subsequent
victories of the Afrika Korp in the sands of the desert. (However, the
Fahrrads did get stuck in the Russian mud and ice, which was trapped between
the tires and fenders.) Others have felt that Hitler was overconfident
that Goering's Luftwaffe bicycle force could easily blockade and then destroy
the British forces. While this argument is at least partially true, it
does not explain Hitler's reluctance to have his troops cycle those final
miles to close the trap. Finally, some think that Hitler was secretly wanting
to spare the English, an idea opposed by the plans he secretly made for
the occupation of that country.
But perhaps the
best argument is that Hitler and his generals were frightened by a single
attack made against Rommel's forces at Arras by the British First Bicycle
Division. The bicycle division had rapidly pedaled into Belgium at the
very beginning of the German attacks, but after the crossing of the Meuse
by strong German forces, it had rushed back, arriving at the battlefield
almost exhausted and launching an immediate, solo attach. Had a lesser
general than Rommel been defending or had the British waited until they
were rested and were backed by other attackers, the German line might have
crumpled. And while the First Bicycle Division was badly damaged after
the attack, Hitler was probably expecting additional and heavier attacks
to follow. He knew Rommel's men were almost out of ammunition, since their
bikes could carry so little and since the Fahrrads had pedaled so far ahead
of the supply tricycles. Thus Hitler and his generals might have thought
that attempting a complete victory might lead to the destruction of the
outnumbered and undersupplied German forces.
The failure to
take Dunkirk, may have, in the long run, spelled the end to Hitler. The
British cyclists who escaped carried home their knowledge of Fahrrad attacks,
provided a defense for their island against Goering's attacks, challenged
and eventually destroyed the Afrika Korps, and landed at Normandy to begin
the final bicycle assault on Germany (with, of course, much help from American
NOTE: I have received
some very sarcastic e-mail replies about this report by some who say that
they "have seen the movie" or have read books written by "experts." Never
believe anything that you see in a movie because Hollywood loves to subvert
history, changing all the significant details, and don't trust the "experts"
as they tend to bog down in their own theories. However, my accounts are
entirely based on careful research and painstaking efforts to ensure complete
accuracy. I can easily understand why you have never read these stories
truly told before, given the current prejudice against cycling and bicycles.
This loose talk
about "ships," "planes," "dirigibles," and "tanks" just results from the
auto lovers wanting to once again obscure the greatness of our vehicle
of choice. My dictionary has the following definitions:
to send things from one place to another.
Some people have claimed
that it is impossible to cross the sea on a bicycle. Then, how do they
explain this song, which I learned as a child in school?
Plane: to smooth
down a piece of wood until perfectly flat.
confusing definition of a Zeppelin-type bicycle).
Tank: a large
container designed to hold water.
and far to Zanzibar,
The next time someone
corrects you about the "Titanic" being a giant bicycle, ask the person
how many miles he/she has ridden that day. Never trust anyone who has cycled
under 30 miles.
I went to see in an open car,
But I found it rather boring.
For the rain did blow on the wave-wet road,
And the green seas came a roaring.
And each fish would grin as he passed me by,
With a waving fin and a fishy eye, . . .