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Pleasure-seekers, patriots and health freaks. Bicycle tourism in the Belle Epoque

12min reading time   by Stijn Knuts on 29 August 2022
"Numerous were the members who participated, and I am happy to say that none of them ever had a more enjoyable day. This trip had a lot of incidents. I can still picture Stendel helping to push the wheelbarrow containing the barrel of beer that we emptied at the top of the Kattekesberg..." Having fun, drinking beer on top of a slope... Reading the above quote, one might think that this is an account of a trip by contemporary bicycle tourists. However, the cheerful report is much older. It comes from the magazine of Anvers-Vélo, a cycling club from Antwerp dating from ... 1895.

Cycling tourism in all shapes and sizes continues to grow in popularity today. Sit down for a couple of hours on any sunny Sunday afternoon and you will see one bicycle tourist after another, from lazy grandmothers and grandfathers on their electric bicycles to suitably dressed 'professional amateurs' on their racing bikes costing thousands of euros. But as the quotation above shows, the bicycle was no less popular at the end of the nineteenth century as a vehicle for relaxation and pleasure. How and why those nineteenth-century bicycle tourists climbed into the saddle makes for a fascinating - and sometimes very recognisable - story.

Queen of the road

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, the bicycle made its breakthrough throughout Western Europe. By then, the vehicle was no longer a true novelty. In 1885, however, a revolutionary new bicycle model appeared on the market: the safety bicycle. As its name implies, it is safer than its predecessors, the Michaux and high bi. By using two wheels of equal size, the rider is closer to the ground and has a much better balance. Moreover, this new type of bicycle is faster and more manoeuvrable. The advent of the chain drive means that pedalling is no longer a chore. The invention of the pneumatic tyre in 1888 completes the picture. The round air cushions absorb more shocks and soon replace the solid rubber tyres that were commonly used before.

Around 1890, more and more people in Belgium also discover the new type of bicycle, which is almost affectionately called bicyclette in French. Compared to the gigantic high bi, the new model is only a 'small bicycle'. However, it is still not a cheap bicycle. Therefore, especially in the more affluent strata of society, there are many enthusiasts for the vehicle. These distinguished citizens and ambitious middle-classes, often French-speaking and based in cities such as Brussels, Leuven or Antwerp, form the vanguard of a growing army of cyclists. Teenagers, people in their twenties and young people in their thirties are especially tempted. Cycling requires a level of physical fitness and leisure that not everyone can afford. Moreover, it is not only men who are throwing themselves into the new vehicle. Although they face headwinds from conservative circles at a time when women's freedom of movement is very limited, more and more women are starting to cycle too.

From the city park to the Ardennes

The young cycling world is bubbling with energy. Dozens of specialised cycling magazines appear. One club after the other is founded. In 1895, the Touring Club de Belgique is born, a national tourist organisation with cyclists as its driving force. But above all: the new cyclists go out! Many of them, however, do not go beyond the immediate surroundings of their home town and make mainly short, Sunday trips into the rural areas around the city centre. In Brussels, for example, tourist traffic to places such as Meise, Tervuren or the Sonian Forest has been boosted. In Antwerp, the 'Dikke Mee' is a popular place to stop, a tavern just outside the city with a large garden. Some cyclists are even satisfied when they can make a few laps in their local city park.

But for every cyclist who prefers to stay close to home, there are just as many who want to make the most of their new steel horse. During the summer or Easter holidays they head for the hilly Ardennes for several days, or cross the border into the Netherlands, France or the German Moselle region. Or they take their bicycles on holiday to the coast. As well-to-do city dwellers, many cyclists are familiar with seaside resorts such as Blankenberge or Ostend, where they enjoy spending their summer months even without a bicycle. It should therefore come as no surprise that there are many cyclists on the North Sea beach, especially when the sun is shining. Unlike in the past, however, they do not just linger on the beach or the dyke, but also explore the underlying polder landscape by bicycle.

The nineteenth-century cyclist not only goes out often, but also likes to read about the adventures and experiences of his colleagues. The specialist press of the time publishes an endless stream of stories about small and large excursions, directions or tips on clothing, cycling equipment and food. Travel writers such as Arthur Cosyn from Brussels or the new Touring Club even publish whole series of tourist guides aimed specifically at cyclists. They may not have Strava, but Belle Epoque cyclists are more than adequately informed about how, where and how much their colleagues ride.

On an adventure

Going for a ride along the coast, cycling to a popular tavern on a sunny day or reading about the cycling trip of a like-minded soul... it all sounds very familiar again. But for the nineteenth-century cyclists, it is just not that. Cycling is something radically new, and many can hardly contain their enthusiasm when they think of the new possibilities the bicyclette offers them. Cycling is faster than walking. What's more, it provides an unprecedented feeling of speed. Moreover, the bicycle is cheaper and easier to use than a horse. A bicycle does not eat, does not get tired and cannot break. The steel horse is also more flexible than the train, which only runs at certain hours - if it is not too late, that is. While pedalling, the cyclist can go wherever he wants, whenever he wants. He (or she) is the master of time and space. This makes the bicycle a real 'adventure machine', as the German historian Anne-Katrin Ebert calls the vehicle.

Cycling map with focus on Leuven
While pedalling, the cyclist can go wherever he wants, whenever he wants. He (or she) is the master of time and space. This makes the bicycle a real 'adventure machine'.

For the increasing number of cyclists, all this makes for an intoxicating, almost lyrical experience. Cycling is synonymous with "moments of pure happiness and simple pleasure", as one cycling magazine puts it. And this is not just about the sensations of riding, but also the social contacts that the cyclist has during his or her outings. Many cycling clubs are real groups of friends, consisting of young men of the same age and social background. This creates a relaxed atmosphere while riding. Shouting punches, telling funny stories and, of course, eating and drinking extensively are regular fare on many outings, as the quote at the beginning of this article suggests.

Moreover, cycling is not only exciting and enjoyable, there is also a lot to see on a trip. The number of reports of trips in which the author constantly sings the praises of the landscape and the historical monuments he finds along the way is uncountable. A bike ride is an experience of beauty. Or, as the Dutch magazine De Wielrijder put it in 1893: "The charming landscapes are followed by picturesque scenes, the most delightful corners by endless stretches of countryside.

This strong emphasis on seeing interesting historical monuments and picturesque landscapes is a logical consequence of the new mobility brought about by the bicycle. Many people now have the opportunity for the first time to explore their region or country freely. Natural beauty or historical relics that previously remained under the radar are now within reach. The many tourist guides for cyclists that come out in this period make it a point of honour to draw their readers' attention to everything there is to see in a particular region.

Healthy patriots

According to some voices in the thriving cyclist community, all those landscapes, historic houses and old churches are not just pleasant to look at. The experience of all that beauty even makes the average cyclist a better citizen. The cycling press is certain: those who go out often love their country even more. While pedalling, the cyclist becomes an ardent patriot, because he discovers the history and natural wealth of Belgium, from the flat coastal region to the hills and forests of the Ardennes. With this conviction, the Touring Club even takes action against the clearing of old forests or the disappearance of picturesque village scenes. To them, not only are beautiful views lost in favour of a new factory or residential area, but there is also an attack on the patriotism of the (cycling) Belgian.

The fact that bicycle rides are supposed to increase patriotism shows how, in the eyes of many pioneers, the new vehicle not only brings relaxation and pleasure. For them, the bicycle is a revolutionary social project that creates a better and stronger society. Belgian society is changing rapidly in the late nineteenth century. Industry was on the rise. The cities seem to be bursting at the seams, while life seems to be going faster and faster. Critical citizens therefore see those cities as crowded, unhealthy places to live and work. Those who live in cities get little exercise, hardly see any daylight and breathe in the filthy fumes of factories on a daily basis. Doctors and opinion makers regularly warn of the irreversible 'degeneration' of the city dweller, a physical and mental burn-out that threatens the whole of society.

Fietstoeristen 19de eeuw Nordiska Museet
While pedalling, the cyclist becomes an ardent patriot, because he discovers the history and natural wealth of Belgium.

Fortunately, there is the bicycle, say its proponents. The same city-dwellers who run such a high risk because of their unhealthy life in the city now have the antidote at hand. With the bicycle, the city dweller can reach the countryside in no time, where he can breathe pure air, enjoy peace and quiet and get some exercise at the same time. Anyone who regularly goes out by bike becomes immune to the spectre of degeneration. For example, a bicycle tour of rural municipalities such as Meise and Grimbergen, popular with cyclists in Brussels, is sold in the press as a very effective way to "combat the loss of physical and intellectual strength caused by the hustle and bustle of city life".

Of course, not all cyclists are equally susceptible to this health gospel. Those who cycle only to their favourite country tavern often get as much mind-blowing drink as fresh air! But for many of our contemporaries, cycling is not optional. It is fun and adventurous, but also serves a social purpose. Therefore, cycling organisations and specialised magazines are constantly giving tips on how to enjoy a bicycle tour in a 'responsible' way. Excessive speed, for example, is frowned upon: a cyclist is not a cyclist, but should take the time to relax and enjoy the landscape. According to some commentators, riding too fast and for too long is even unhealthy. When, in 1894, the Belgian Cycling Federation organised a tour in which cyclists had to cover 100 kilometres in less than six hours, the magazine Le Cycliste Belge strongly criticised them for this.

Fighting for rights

The nineteenth-century cyclist seeks pleasure and a better society. Simply going out was not enough for that. At the time of the bicycle's breakthrough, the Belgian traffic infrastructure was not at all adapted to the new vehicle. Many roads are still covered with cobblestones or even completely unpaved, which is very uncomfortable riding. From the early 1890s onwards, cyclists' organisations therefore began to campaign for better-equipped roads, which took sufficient account of the needs of the new category of road user. With his pamphlet La question des routes, Roger de Goeij, in 1891, launched the first large-scale campaign for the construction of cycle paths in Belgium. In the same year, motivated bicycle activists based on his ideas even found a special organisation, the Ligue Nationale pour l'Amélioration des Routes. The League lobbies the government to build cycle paths or to improve the surface of existing streets. Although it has relatively little success, its fight is soon taken over by the Belgian Cycling Federation and the Touring Club.

The latter in particular mobilises its rapidly growing membership and extensive political network to realise a better road network. Where it deems it necessary, the Touring Club simply finances the construction of cycle paths itself. In 1897, for example, the organisation co-finances the construction of a cycle path from the centre of Antwerp to... the popular tavern Dikke Mee. Because of all these efforts, by 1898 there were already 1041 kilometres of cycling paths in our country. Although it remains difficult to convince authorities of the need for special cycle paths, the cyclists' movement does succeed in making a change.

They do not stop at fighting for better roads. On all fronts, cyclists try to make room for their beloved vehicle. Simultaneously with the battle for better roads, cyclists' organisations, for instance, are fighting for better conditions for transporting bicycles by train. Many bicycle tourists are not fans of the railways. However, if they want to get to the Ardennes or picturesque regions far from the city as quickly as possible, the train is often the fastest option. Faster, but not easier or cheaper: after all, transporting their bicycle in a baggage car costs excessive amounts of money. Moreover, the bike is sometimes mistreated by the train staff, who have little experience with the new vehicle.

If getting your bicycle on and off the train in one piece is a challenge, crossing the border with France or the Netherlands is even more so. Especially at the border with France, cyclists are often forced by Belgian customs to pay high import duties on their own vehicle when they return from a trip and want to enter the country again. After all, in such cases, customs considers their bicycles to be an imported commercial product! It was only after much lobbying by cyclists' organisations that the situation improved.

From 1896, members of recognised associations such as the Touring Club are guaranteed free passage for their bicycles at the French border. Nevertheless, every passage at the customs remains a time-consuming affair. No wonder that travel writer Arthur Cosyn in 1897 even dreamed of completely free movement between the European countries! Or how bicycle tourists had been calling for a Europe without borders a century before...

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