When the army was overcome by bicycles

The Vienna-Berlin race of 1893 was a turning point in the popularity of the bicycle, especially for the military. RÜDIGER RABENSTEIN explains.

Vienna to Berlin, June 1893. 117 ‘gentleman racers' took part in what was to become one of the most important long-distance cycle events before the First World War. Around 8000 spectators braved the early-morning chill to watch the first bunch of 15 riders set off: groups were dispatched at 5-minute intervals to make recognition of riders easier in the narrow country lanes.

The cyclists encountered unmade roads, rough tracks and hilly terrain, and were soaked to the skin by heavy storms during the night. The rains drove marshalls under cover, so that several riders missed their way, despite the maps, directions and customs documents given to them at the start. Over 300 control posts had been set up in the stretch between Vienna and the Austrian border alone, largely because following races in today's fashion was impossible: motor vehicle technology hadn't yet caught up with the bicycle. The progress of the race was reported instead by telegraph – when the storms hadn't brought the lines down. Two chronometers, synchronised at the start, were used for timing: one was ferried by express train to Berlin for the finish.

Favourite in the race was August Lehr, track-racing champion. He was reputed to have engaged 17 pacemakers: cyclists who had not entered, but would ride with him to give the benefit of their ‘draft'. This was still allowed for Vienna-Berlin – but was banned soon after on the grounds that the considerable expense made it unfair. Lehr's investment did not pay off – he retired early as the storms and a fall took their toll.

The winner was Josef Fischer from Munich, who despite having to change machine en route, rolled into Berlin after 31 hours, 22 minutes and 4 seconds. His 19km/h average speed was remarkable, given the conditions. His arrival in Berlin was described by a local newspaper:

“A great mass of people filled the street right back to the Templehof...it was a real people's festival. Every trade was represented, from officers with their ladies to manual workers, all cheering on the approaching rider: proof of the popularity of cycling in Berlin.”

Perhaps the media enthusiasm was inspired by the wide-ranging support which the race enjoyed. The event was started after the success of the 1892 Vienna-Berlin Officer's Ride (on horses). The idea was taken up by all of the main German cycling organisations. Together they raised prize money to the tune of 6000 Marks in cash and over 5000 Marks worth of prizes in kind – the values would be at least 20 times greater in today's currency (around DM120,000, £50,000, $90,000). A surprising absentee from the list of prize-donors was the German Kaiser, whose reluctance can only be explained by the fact that cycling was not otherwise a high-profile sport at the time.

Of the 117 starters, only 38 reached the finishing post within the 50-hour time limit, reflecting not only the rigours of the race and the weather, but also the lack of preparation and training of many of the ‘amateur' participants.

Despite this poor showing, the race inflamed another argument of the day. Which was the superior combination: horse and rider, or cyclist and bicycle? The question had obvious military implications, and there was no simple answer. Over short distances, or when changes of horses were allowed, the horse riders generally had the edge – and over longer distances, with no changes allowed, cyclists dominated. The Vienna-Berlin provided a graphic illustration of the long-distance prowess of the bicycle. The winner of the equestrian Officer's Ride the previous year, over much the same course, had taken over 71 hours, compared to the 31 hours of the 1893 winning cyclist.

The armies of Europe had been trying out bicycles since the 1880s, but at the time of the Vienna-Berlin race, no cycling units had come into service. Cycle sport officials were calling openly for the military to take the bicycle seriously as a form of transport and to set up cycle units. They claimed that cycling soldiers would be especially suited for courier service or fast-moving tactical strikes.

The issue of machine changes was particularly controversial. If horse-changes were not allowed in comparable events, why should a cyclist with a mechanical problem be allowed to change machine, or receive outside help? The military establishment refuted the claims of cycle journalists and manufacturers that a race like the Vienna-Berlin proved the military value of the bicycle, saying that unless machine changes were forbidden, the results were meaningless. Race organisers compromised by setting up three special prizes for riders who completed the race without machine changes. These were awarded to the second to fourth place riders, as the overall winner had changed machine. Even the second-placed rider, though, Georg Sorge from Cologne, came in at under 32 hours, more than twice as fast as the horse-riding officers the year before.

This provided evidence enough for the German military. Scarcely had the race ended before the Royal Military Training Institute in Berlin began, in Spring 1893, to use cyclists on military manoeuvres. By May 1895 the bicycle was so well-established that the Army brought out a ‘Bicycle Handbook'.

This about-turn surprised many observers, who had commented on the ‘very reserved attitude towards the bicycle' displayed by the military establishment until around 1894. The military cavalryman, sitting bolt-upright on his finely-groomed steed, was a symbol of the military lifestyle, embodying the dignity and majesty of his office. A bent-over, sporting cyclist in the same ‘King's Uniform' must have seemed to many grotesque, laughable and deeply distasteful. Dedicated cavalry officers and wealthy horse-riding landowners wielded considerable influence in the high command of the military, and their resistance to the bicycle was understandable. That the cavalry lost the cachet of being the fastest form of military transport added insult to injury.

The military imperative to take advantage of the fastest transport available won through. And once the military had accepted the bicycle, it became much easier for the rest of society to take it on board. The Vienna-Berlin had become a milestone for the wide public acceptance of the bicycle.

Translated by Peter Eland


Winner Josef Fischer passes the finish line
From ‘Das Buch für Alle', Nr. 3, 1893

The first group of starters in Vienna-Berlin 1893.
From an article by Karl Hedrich in a commemorative publication of 1908.

Military exercises for cyclists
From an article by Julius Burkhart, in ‘Der Radsport in Bild und Wort', Munich 1897