The Velo-Cannibals

Of the many things that have changed of the years with regards to cycling, perhaps the most fortuitous was the end of widespread assaults on riders. JIM McGURN suggests why this aggression may have come to be in the first place.

IT'S a nightmarish story, but true. Two Dutch cyclists, returning home along a quiet country road, found their way blocked by a surly group of middle-aged local toughs, four men and a woman. The cyclists were pushed and shoved but one of them managed to escape. The other was brutally set upon with fists, feet and a sharp instrument. Just as his attackers were plan­ning to throw him into the ditchwater, he somehow struggled free, ran to his bike and pedalled frantically away.

He had his many wounds attended to at the next village, where his more fortunate friend had already met several other cyclists who had passed along the same road and been similarly roughed up. The local constabulary soon nabbed the felons.

This incident, which took place in 1892, was one of many reported in the cycling magazines of the time. The country areas of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands seem to have been particularly infested with these anti-cyclist thugs, or velo-kannibalen as the Dutch came to call them.

Of course, cyclist bashing went on in other forms throughout Europe. Cart drivers were known to use their whips on cyclists overtaking, and occasionally tried to pin cyclists against walls with their wheels. More common was the placing of dangerous obstructions — rocks or branches — on roads.

As for the velo-kannibalen, there are various explanations apart from straightforward malice. Many peasants felt for example that the passing cyclists frightened cows, causing low milk yields. The resentment has also been explained in class terms. Here were these well-to-do townspeople gadding about where country people were trying to make a living, and riding machines which would take half a peasant's annual income to buy.

Many cyclists were prepared to arm themselves. Dutch magazines carried adverts for the handlebar grip revolver which, according to the maker, a cyclist could pull out and fire while on the move, readers wrote in with tips on self-defence. Some suggested sticks, some bludgeons, and others high calibre revolvers. The less bloodthirsty suggested that cyclists ride in groups for protection.

It was usually in order for travellers to carry firearms. In his travelogue Round the World on a Wheel, John Foster Frazer frequently tells us how he levelled his imperious revolver at various shifty natives. Even on the streets of Paris that wild surrealist writer and cyclist Alfred Jarry got away with firing off his revolver to clear the traffic ahead of him (In his more mature years he took to ringing a massive tram bell attached to his bike).

Around 1895 fashionable Society became bicycle crazy and cycling ceased to be seen as a sub-cultural activity (at least for a while). This resulted in more general social toler­ance and a greater readiness for the courts to side with cycliists. By 1900 attacks were quite rare.

The world would be a very different place today if they're weren't.