Military bicycles: a short history [BikeRadar]

The updated Swiss Model 1993 bicycle featured equipped with a 7-speed cassette, and multiple carrying racks

Bicycling has a long and colorful history in sport, but it is often forgotten that the bicycle has also been long used by military forces around the world.

One of the earliest was the “ordinary bicycle,” today known as the penny-farthing. These featured a tall front wheel and were known for being a bit difficult and even dangerous to ride, and were novelties for the wealthy that no proper lady would ever consider riding, but these did introduce the French to their love affair with the bicycle. These bikes were tested by the military for dispatch riders and scouts during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

The conflict, which brought down the French Emperor Napoleon III, also destroyed the first fledgling French bicycle industry.  However, development progressed in Great Britain and even in the United States, where advances included a chain-driven system that allowed for a more stable riding platform. It was English inventor John Kemp Starley who followed on this development, and produced the world's first successful “safety bicycle,” which was called the Rover and released in 1885. It featured a design that would be recognizable even today - with a steerable front wheel, equally sized front and back wheels and drive chain to the rear wheel. The safety bike concept caught on during the 1890s and many military thinkers saw its potential.

According to The Bicycle in Wartime: An Illustrated History by Jim Fitzpatrick (Brassey's Inc., 1998) the late 1880s and 1890s saw many nations experiment with bicycles. The Austrians and Germans each looked into the possibilities, but it was the French army that formally introduced bikes into service in July of 1887. However, the British may have beaten their continental rivals to the finish line. According to Fitzpatrick the British used cyclists as scouts during field maneuvers in the Easter exercises of 1885. 

The Americans soon followed suit as various National Guard regiments experimented with bicycles. The First Signal Corps of the Connecticut National Guard was the first American force to have a formal military bicycle unit, which it formed in 1891. The bicycle was used by messengers and relay riders, and the United States military took on various challenges - one Connecticut National Guard cyclist proved he alone could deliver a message faster than an entire flag signaler team, while a relay team carried a single dispatch from Chicago to New York City in just four days and 13 hours, with much of it in rainy weather. A follow-up challenge brought a message from Washington, D.C. to Denver in just over six days. Clearly the bicycle could deliver, but it still had to prove its place in war conditions.

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