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.


  1. this goes on to show that, despite all this progress in bikes and cyciling in general, practically nothing is new. For over a century we've only been refining things.

  2. Olly does it all history, science and comedy with bags of personality. He even sold me a cube nu road pro with a ad he done in a previous life haha

  3. If anyone wants to dig deep into the history of bike design check out this book published by the MIT Press "Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History" You'll find that "clipless pedals", suspension and disk brakes were all invented in the 1800s. There are very few new things under the sun my friends.

  4. I ride an 1895 racing bike, its great to use,single speed with a spoon brake on the front ,peddle back brake on the rear.Made by the Burton Cycle Co.Looks similar to the first bike in this article…I recently had to change the rose colour tyres ,made before carbon was mixed in the rubber.They were getting a little dangerous to use….

  5. 8:24 Odd that their emblem appears very similar to the German postal service (a black horn on a yellow background).
    Great vid btw

  6. Sorry guys, I like John and although Ollie works, why not include John more? Oh, I guessing that is a carbide lamp, but just guessing. paraffin would not give much light. Oh, not to nit pic again, but the photo shows a bolt action rifle, not a machine gun. Yes, I did enjoy the video, thanks so much.

  7. Good wool cycling clothes were quite comfortable. In hot or cold weather they beat anything we have now. You could go from 95f to 50f and not change anything. Below that just required, leg warmers and a jacket. (down to around 35f).

  8. I actually own and still ride a bike which was made just before WW2. If anyone is interested I created this small website in it's honour.

  9. "that sadle doesnt look particularly comfortable" well ive ridden my bicycle from holland to norway on a saddle like that and i can tell you it is…

  10. 2:28 What's so wrong with with woolen shorts? Lycra only makes you look like a pretentious doofus, when you use it outside of competition.

  11. So amazing! Completely mesmerized through the whole video learning about the early bicycles of WWI! The Bianchi especially was fantastic! Thanks Olie!

  12. 13:16 “Fitted with a machine gun…”

    It’s a bolt action rifle dummy. Guess your Lycra was too tight. It fires one round then the shell needs to be manually ejected, then manually reloaded. Every. Single. Shot.

  13. Getting back into cycling after an absence. Just started watching this channel. This guy is a fantastic presenter. Thank you

  14. I wonder just how fast these legends would be on a modern bike.
    Keep putting out the cycling history videos on bikes and riders GCN.

  15. 1. Headlamps had been securely atached since the days when they were slung under pennyfarthing axles. Carbide lamps could put out a lot of light.
    2. Unlike most modern synthetic fabrics, woollen clothing repels water, can absorb a lot of sweat, and remains warm when it gets wet.
    3. Unlike shoes made of synthetic materials, leather shoes become more comfortable with use, as they mould themselves to the shape of your foot.
    4. Admittedly my longest ride on a single speed bike has been only 66 km. A single speed bike is only about 10% slower than a multi-geared bike. People were riding 900 km between Melbourne and Sydney in the 1890s, and in 1900 Donald Mackay rode a single speed bike 18,000 km around Australia.
    5. I have read a report of a 2-speed tricycle in New Zealand, probabky around 1890. I suspect that it had direct drive to the option of either a large diameter wheel or a small diameter wheel. Sturmey Archer started making 3 speed hub gears in 1902.
    6. Solid rubber tyres have been around since the days of pennyfarthings. The suspension on the solid-tyred Italian army bike would have been to protect the frame from road shocks. Otherwise the frame would have had to be much stronger (and therefore heavier).

  16. Great look at wartime bikes. I've wanted a vintage Austrian Steyr Waffenrad ever since seeing them back in the mid-90s while on a bike tour of Bavaria and Austria.

  17. I actually prefer to cycle in wool over goretex, I do think that leather saddle looks perfectly comfy (might need some grease) and furthermore I strongly believe diper shorts for cyclist to be a scam by the plastic saddle industry. I rode 300 km, with 2 gears, in just a pair of swim shorts on my leather saddle. Modern does not equal better Ollie.

  18. My first pneumatic tyre bike, as a kid in the very early 70s, was a second hand rusty iron hulk, and ancient, probably 1940s, and had metal rods connecting the breaks. It ran and ran and never gave up, though.

  19. Check out the Biking Bar in Ypres, Belgium. It got a 1914 bike, a Freddy Maertens bike and much more of that old school stuff. Great bar near the Menin Gate too.

  20. Great work Ollie! I'm looking at the wooden wheel (circa 1910) displayed on my desk right now. The tubular on my (circa 1983) I rode in college, but never on that wheel.

  21. Well dopes, hope all of you can clearly see a top straight bar on that bike and that was more than 100 years ago, of course the idiots riding around on their racing bikes🤭🤭🤭 which are really mountain bikes with the handle bars changed can continue to ride the shit that the manufacturers want to sell you 😆😆😆😆😆

  22. I'm still using a 1908 Raleigh All Weather Roadster as a regular bicycle, single speed and oil lamps front and rear, one of the most comfortable and easy riding bicycles I own.

  23. I'm not surprised at all by the tech. The linear progression of tech is a myth. It exists in some way, but brilliant minds have always been around. Similar ideas are bound to reemerge.

  24. Wide tires? Look rather narrow to me. But I only ride utility bikes, so my tires are 700×45. Those look to be around half the width.

  25. Great video; much appreciated, as I may never have a chance to visit, being half way 'round the world.
    Awesome choice for a topic GCN, well done !!

  26. I NEED those goggles, so's I can fight biplanes on my bike. Plus, when you're just out and about, driving or biking whilst wearing a leather aviator cap and goggles, it's a great time to just give the middle finger (or even just a 'thumbs-up' if you don't want to be vulgar)

  27. Love cycling videos just what I need to get it going the blood I love it. I always watch these before I go out and get my body moving. I always watch one of these, and then put up my heavy playlist like Delta Parole, Three Days Grace, System and then I just go haaaaard!!!! Tactic hasnt let me down yet.

  28. The bike lamp is almost certainly a carbide lantern not a paraffin lamp. The lamp would be in two parts, calcium carbide would be in the bottom half of the lamp and water in the top. The thumbscrew on the top allows water to drip onto the carbide which produces acetylene which burns with an intense white light. The light produced is surprisingly bright and was used by cavers until the recent advent of LEDs. see:

  29. Looks more like a carbide lamp (as you say, paraffin would be useless). They were widely used before batteries caught on and bright enough to be used underground.

  30. Bikes are one of the secret weapons of alot of wars this century Germans as tourist in ww1 and ww2 , Japanese in Singapore bike invasions before the army against the British ,Vietnam Vietcong.

  31. The profile of the first bike is nearly identical to a '74 Schwinn Continental I used to own. And it's probably not much heavier. Although the Schwinn was a fine bike.

  32. Please just don’t go about touching and bending cloth shit in museums. For reasons that should be fucking obvious.

  33. God I love the Brits. "It's even shown fitted with a machine gun!" Camera zooms in to show a photo of a bike with a bolt action single-shot rifle lol… Makes me sad that you guys don't get to enjoy firearms. To the point now where most don't even know what they are.

  34. Really interesting, would love more bike history stuff. I know an American, Margaret Le Long biked from Chicago to San Francisco in 1897! Hers is a cool story as well.

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