First bicycles (“Penny-Farthings”) were tall and dangerous to ride due to propensity for causing inadvertent sommersaults. These bikes were first tested in war by the French, used by dispatch riders and scouts during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, while Prussians still relied on push cycles. This conflict destroyed the French bicycle industry, and further advancement was left to United Kingdom and United States. It was English inventor John Kemp Starley who developed the “safety bicycle” by applying the invention of drive chain. In 1870. Italians introduced bicycle to their bersaglieri troops. Trained to carry dispatches, they averaged 12 miles an hour across open country.
Proper bicycle infantry appeared in the late 19th century as a consequence of the invention of “safety bicycle” (the Pioneer, 1886.). Bicycles were first used by British militia and territorial army units, deploying cyclists as scouts in Easter exercises of 1885. In 1887. they held first of a series of maneuvers involving volunteer units. French army introduced bikes into service the same year. French took the concept and improved on it, developing a folding bicycle in 1880s. In 1888., pneumatic tires were invented, significantly improving mobility and finally bringing bicycle to maturity. Compared to horses, bicycles were cheaper, easier to train for, silent and easier to support in the field. Dutch, Belgian and Italian armies also quickly took up the concept, and the Swiss army found bicycles useful asset in the rough terrain where horses could not be used. United States’ Connecticut National Guard was the first US military unit to have a formal bicycle detachment, formed in 1891. It was in the same year that Swiss Army introduced the bicycle. Imperial Russian Gendarmerie used bicycles to patrol the Siberian Railway. First known combat use of bicycles was in the Jameson Raid, where bicycles carried messages. Usage continued throught the Second Anglo-Boer War, with bicyclers acting as scouts and messangers, and also as raiders, in armies of both sides – the British brought in thousands of bicycles. Particular impression was made by Boer Theron se Verkenningskorps, a Boer scout unit led by Daniel Theron, whom British commander Lord Roberts described as “the hardest thorn in the flesh of the British advance”. Lord Roberts placed ₤1.000 (today ₤118.000) reward on Theron’s head, and dispatched 4.000 soldiers to find and eliminate him. Theron solved the problem of frequent punctures by using rawhide leather tires. Bicycles had the advantage over horses because far less food and water was required, and they were also far less conscipious than horses. One of Theron’s principal targets were watering holes and paddocks that British troops used for their horses. It was not long before the British also raised their own “Cape Cycling Corps”, likewise tasked with scouting and dispatches. A New Zealander bicycle squad chased down and captured a contignent of Boers on horseback. Australians developed a railroad bicycle – four wheels, eight men – to patrol the railroad tracks checking for Boer kommandos and demolition charges. British meanwhile developed and deployed the folding “Penderson” bicycle, which proved extremely successful in the Boer war. Within a year, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Russia, Switzerland and Japan had adopted the folding bicycle as standard military equipment US Army also tested bicycles’ suitability for cross-country transport.
In World War I, both sides used bicycle infantry very extensively – the British supplied 100.000 bicycles, the French and Belgians 150.000 and the Germans 250.000 bicycles to their troops. The American Expeditionary Force used 29.000 bicycles, but with no designated bicycle troops. Main tasks of bicycle troops were scouting, troop transport (mounted infantry), communications and evacuation of the wounded. Italian Bersaglieri and German Jaeger battalions both had bicycle units. Germany formed eight Radfahr-Battailonen. German bicycle troops were vital in the first phase of the war (blitzkrieg), seizing bridges, railroads and crossroads and laying down telephone lines ahead of the main force. Adolf Hitler earned two Iron Crosses as a regimental cyclist, carrying messages far behind the main fighting. Early in 1914., German cyclist troops destroyed a bridge across Marne at Mt. St. Pere, twenty miles behind French lines. German East Africa army led by General Lettow Vorbeck used bicycles in its guerilla warfare that ran the British ragged until the end of the war – all the motor vehicles having broken down early in the conflict. Belgian and French bicycle units were conversely used to get behind the German lines to blow up bridges, sever communication lines and attack supply lines. British Army had cyclist companies in its divisions, and later it formed 1st and 2nd Cyclist Divisions. Australian bicycle units were deployed to the front line, as well as undertaking cable burying, traffic control and reconnaissance work. On multiple occasions stealthy cyclists heard the cavalry approaching before dismounting and ambushing them. They also participated in major battles such as Messines and Passchendale in 1917. Bicycles were issued from England, manufactured by Birmingham Small Arms company which was the major British arms manufacturer since the Crimean War. Soldiers used Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) rifles. Mark I through III bicycles had fixed hub, and had to be pedalled constantly; Mark IV bike introduced free wheeled hub as well as hand-operated rear brake. During the final Hundred Days Offensive, cyclists escorted tanks, and Canadian cyclists played an important role at the Battle of Amiens. The first Allied soldier to cross the Bonn River into Germany was a Canadian cyclist. French however failed to maintain their bicycle corps in the latter stages of the war, instead disbanding them and sending troops to serve in static trench infantry. Germans on the other hand expanded their bicycle troops, using them as a quick-reaction reserve. Bicycle troops had major advantage over infantry. Average infantry battalion in 1914 could make 20 miles a day – 25 if pressed. Bicycle infantry routinely made 60 to 80 miles a day using a fraction of energy, meaning that when they arrived at the target they were still able to fight. AEF however, as noted, had no bicycle infantry. Instead, Americans utilized bicycle only for carrying dispatches and for behind-the-frontline personal transport. For a country with ongoing love affair with big, fast, powerful and impressive toys, a bicycle was seen as superfluous, especially when comparatively vast distances of United States were taken into account. But more powerful explosives increased possible effects of small units of men carrying light supplies.
During its 1937 invasion of China, Japan employed 50.000 bicycle troops. Japanese Malaya campaign was dependant on bicycles due to their stealth and mobility. Bicycles themselves were confiscated from the populace and retailers, thus incurring no additional logistical cost. Using them, Japanese troops were able to outpace retreating Allied forces. They allowed covering greater distances not only because of a speed advantage of a bicycle over foot, but also because Japanese soldiers could carry 36 kilos of equipment on bicycles, compared to 18 kilos for British infantrymen. This was not an ad-hoc solution, excepting the use of confiscated bicycles: Japanese also used bicycles in Indochina, Phillipines and the Dutch East India. Phillipines were taken primarily by thousands of bicycle troops, as was the Malaya. Most Polish infantry divisions in 1939. included a company of bicycle-riding scouts, but they never got to be employed effectively as Poles had expected a World War I style slow, wide-front advance. The Finnish Army utilized bicycles extensively during the Continuation War and the Lapland War. They were means of transportation of the Jaeger Battalions, divisional Light Detachments and organic Jaeger Companies. During the winter time these units, and infantry as whole, switched to skis. German “blitzkrieg” advance of World War II depended upon two things: trucks and bicycles. These were far more important than tanks, even though the latter typically get all the glory thanks to shallow sensationalist historians; even so, most German supplies and artillery were horse-drawn. Without any major oil fields, 80% of German oil was synthesized from coal. Thus horses and especially bicycles were of major importance in Wehrmacht, as neither required liquid fuel. British raid at Arnhem was repelled in large part thanks to German bicycle troops. In Poland, German cyclist troops kept scattered Polish units that survived initial armoured attack off-guard, preventing them from joining together until infantry could finish them off. In Norway, bicycle troops with their ability to move off roads proved vital in dealing with roadblocks and other defenses in mountainous Norwegian terrain. Paratroopers too used bicycles. Equipped with folding bikes, German paratroopers undertook sabotage and intelligence missions deep behind the enemy lines. Usage of bicycles allowed Germans to concentrate tanks and trucks into armoured divisions, thus facilitating mechanized portion of the blitzkrieg. Western Allies did not use bicycles at large scale, but folding bicycles were supplied to paratroopers and messangers behind the enemy lines. British paratroopers used folding bicycles as early as February 1942 raid at radar stations. Raid was a success, troopers having dropped eight miles to the target, and pedalling to the target and then from the target to the beach where they were extracted by the Royal Navy. Americans on the other hand trained only one paratrooper unit to use bicycles, but it was never sent overseas. US military only ever used bicycles for dispatch carriers and to get around bases and depots – in American military thinking, motorized vehicles reigned supreme. Troops however did not agree, using captured German bikes to pursue the Germans. Even for the limited “official” use of bicycles, US military production was not enough and the British supplied thousands of bikes to the US military. US bike production only ramped up in late 1942 / early 1943. Soviets used bicycles with very wide tyres, similar to modern mountain bikes. Each bike had an attack dog attached, as dogs could maintain the same rate of speed and also stand guard at night. Resistance movements in France and Belgium also made widespread utilization of the bicycle, so much that merely riding one became grounds for extensive questioning by German occupational forces. Thanks to the bicycle, roads were completely denied to Germans during the nighttime.
During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army used bicycles to carry supplies down the “Ho Chi Minh” trail. Cargo bicycles were not ridden, but pushed by a person walking alongside. These bicycles caught attention of the US Special Operations Group command. Airplanes were noisy, and by the time any aircraft was close enough to notice the bicycles, they had already disappeared into the undergrowth. Earlier, a major factor in Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu was French General Navarre’s underestimation of payload capacity of a bike; he figured that each bicycle could carry 2,5 times the weight of an average Vietnamese, or 250 lbs. But Vietnamese reinforced the bikes and attached bamboo steering rods, thus boosting the payload capacity up to 500 lbs per bicycle – more than carrying capacity of an elephant, and 10-12 times the load of what a man on foot could carry. Bikes could not be easily found from the air as they lacked the thermal and noise signature which betrayed motor vehicle convoys, and they proved impossible to stop both at Dien Bien Phu and later during the US intervention. For years, general Giap prepared the attack. The entire supply depended upon the bicycle in the jungle, where French aircraft could not detect it. Especially at night, or under the bad weather, when the Vietnamese preferred to move. United States offered to detonate atomic bombs in the surrounding jungle to save the fortress; French refused the offer. Dien Bien Phu was lost. While the French defeat had taught US Army the potential of the bicycle, they still refused to form their own bicycle units to counter the Vietnamese.
But it was neutral nations of Sweden and Switzerland that used bicycles most extensively. Swedish 27th Gotlandic Infantry Regiment replaced its cavalry component with bicycle-mounted troops in 1901. By 1942., Sweden had six bicycle infantry regiments. After 1948. however Scandinavian nations decomissioned most of ther bicycle infantry regiments. However, bicycle rifle battalions continued to exist into the late 1980s. Switzerland introduced bicycle infantry in 1905. and phased it out in 2001, only to introduce it again in 2015. During the civil war in Sri Lanka (1983-2009), underequipped Tamil forces used bicycles to quickly move troops to and from the battleifield. British troops used bicycles in Iraq in 2003 and later.
Obvious advantage of the bicycles is the lessened need for horses, fodder, motorized vehicles, fuel and maintenance, while providing significantly better mobility than foot infantry. In fact, mobility of bicycle infantry is in many ways superior to that of mechanized infantry. While slower on road, bicycles are also far smaller and lighter. They can go where motor vehicles, even some larger motorbikes, cannot. They can carry heavy loads with no fuel necessary, at least on the flat terrain. Modern bicycles are also light enough to be carried by hand, and some models can be folded. Thus bicycle infantry can traverse the terrain that is impossible for the wheeled vehicles to negotiate simply by emphasizing “infantry” part of the name. Paratroopers can also be equipped and deployed with folding bicycles, significantly increasing their mobility without need to drop motor vehicles.
Bicycles are also very stealthy. They are smaller than most motor vehicles, and nearly completely silent. They produce no emissions, and the biggest source of IR signature is typically the man on the bike (that problem can be reduced by utilizing IR camouflage clothing). No need for fuel also means far reduced logistical signature, making bicycle units particularly hard to discover either on march or in the base (especially if said base is properly camouflaged). Small size and low IR signature means that they are ideal scouts and for special operations. If equipped with an electric motor and a dynamo, bicycles can more easily traverse the difficult terrain (another possibility is attaching e.g. chainsaw engine, but once out of fuel an internal combustion engine would become dead weight).
Even in 2008. the Australian military was using bikes in Eastern Timor to improve flexibility of field patrols, in unit called Bicycle Infantry Mounted Patrol. Likewise, the Finnish defense forces still train conscripts to use bicycles and skis.
Swiss bicycle units are almost always employed pure, not task organized with mechanized infantry or armour, and can be allocated to a division as needed. Only about half of bicycle infantry regiment is deployed on bicycles, with rest using other vehicles. Mortar and antitank companies are motorized. Tasks in wartime include security of key areas, security of unoccupied areas inaccessible to mechanized forces, engagement and blocking of air assault and airborne landings in the Corps rear, and general infantry missions. Bicycle units are specialized for quick strike, urban and closed area operations and combat. Bicycle units require no special preparation from an assembly area which gives them advantage in quick strike over motorized units, and can traverse areas with poor road networks. No vehicle noise means that surprise during the attack is maintained until the moment of actual attack. Within first 30 to 50 km, bicycle troops are quicker, quieter and more responsive than armour, mechanized infantry or foot infantry. At distances of 100 to 120 km however bicycle troops arrive with most of their combat power exhausted. The average load of the cyclist is 30 to 50 kg, depending on the task.
Disadvantages of bicycle infantry are inability to cover very long distances, relatively slow speed compared to motor vehicles, and lack of heavy antitank capability. This limits their utilization in the open terrain and armoured warfare, unless combined with other types of vehicles (e.g. airborne or truck deployment of bicycle troops to area of operations). Their advantages however make them extremely useful for rear-area operations, be it security of one’s own rear area or utilization by special forces operating in enemy’s rear area. Bicycle utilization can improve both defenses against airborne assault as well as capabilities of the same. Occupation, pacification and peacemaking duties would also be an ideal role of the bicycle infantry.
In offensive role, bicycle can be used by paratroopers for improved mobility, as well as a stealthy reconnaissance vehicle for foot infantry. US tests done in 1996. have shown that skilled drivers can navigate even difficult terrain with very little fatigue and at significantly faster rate than baseline walking / marching speed. Skilled drivers also significantly outperformed their less skilled colleagues, showing the necessity of establishing dedicated cycling units.
When deployed alongside motor vehicles, bicycle troops will act as scouts, to prevent less mobile motor vehicles from walking into traps. For this reason, and to avoid having their presence betrayed by the highly conscipious motor vehicles, bicycle troops should be deployed at distance ahead of and flanking any motor vehicles. Bicycles can use a variation of ghillie camouflage typically associated with snipers to break up their contours, and if proper material is used such ghillie suit can also provide IR camouflage.
Tires utilizing solid foam instead of inner tube would make tires immune to punctures. In very rough terrain, bicycles can be dismounted and carried or pushed; if load is carried on a bicycle, they can be pushed, thus relieving soldier. Extreme Terrain Bikes (10 in wide tires) can be used in sandy and soft ground conditions; for most purposes, normal mountain bikes should suffice.
Modern militaries that do not have bicycle troops would do well to reintroduce them. They would significantly improve mobility over rough terrain as well as quick response capabilites over short distance. Lessened logistical requirements would also be of major advantage in time of tightening budgets. Low logistical signature would be advantageous in long-term, low-intensity conflicts such as counterterrorist and counterinsurgency operations.
However, this faces a problem in generals who equate bicycles with old-fashioned low technology, and therefore unworthy of any attention and resources. In a mentality where military is equated with technological porn, scrapping or not employing simple and effective weapons is all too easy (as exemplified by the bicycle, recoilless rifle, dedicated CAS/COIN aircraft).