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The Incredible Bikes & Cycling Tech Of The First World War

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– 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

Source: Youtube

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