[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
HUMOR: Great Moments in Cycling History
Due to the efforts of automobile lovers, most cyclists have very little sense of cycling history. Here is some history you won't hear from any other source!

Bike Pages Home Page

The Cyclist Lifestyle

Bike Commuting and Transportation

Bicycle Camping and Touring

Cycling Health and Fitness

Bicycling Advocacy

Bicycle Traffic Safety

Basic Skills for Cyclists

Cycling Humor and Tales

Bicycling Surveys and Statistics

Links to Other Cycling Sites

Comments on This Page

Great Moments in Cycling History

The Titanic

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.

Nonetheless, when 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.

However, while 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 survivors.

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 bullet.

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.

However, Captain 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 hills.

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.

Although Hitler 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 cyclists).

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:

Ship: to send things from one place to another.
Plane: to smooth down a piece of wood until perfectly flat.
Dirigible: (a confusing definition of a Zeppelin-type bicycle).
Tank: a large container designed to hold water.
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?
Oh, far and far to Zanzibar,
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, . . .
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.

Comments | SECTIONS: | The New World | Writing | Thoreau | Home | Bike Pages |
DIRECTORIES: | Lifestyle | Commuting | Touring | Health | Advocacy | Traffic | Skills | Humor |Survey | Links |
HUMOR: | Air | Devices | Addit | Flat tire | Camping | Great | Flame | Witty | Newsgroup | Camper | Safety | Classic | Tarzan Land | Robbery |
TALES: | Planet | Fairy | Joe Bike | Detective | Murder | Green | Paradigm | Interstate | Bike Trip |
http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/humor/great.htm | Copyright © 2000 Ken Kifer | Very minor changes Saturday, December 04, 1999