Switzerland is one of the best countries in the world for cycling. It is not only stunningly beautiful but has superb secondary roads and well-marked bike routes, as well as an excellent national train system that makes travelling around the country easy. It offers not only rugged terrain with famous passes for those wanting to be challenged but also smooth flat riding around scenic lakes with picturesque villages where houses are almost buried under flowers.
Only in Switzerland, a country neutral for centuries, would a bicycle serve as an indispensable tool of war up until recently.
This small country of great diversity in landscapes and in languages has produced some excellent racing cyclists. At the Men’s Road World Championships, Swiss have stood on the podium 13 times in all, and on the top step three times. In the Men’s Time Trial they rank only behind Germany in the total number of medals taken, and tied with them for gold at five. Of course, four of those championships were won by Fabian Cancellara, the current Swiss cycling deity.
They have taken gold and silver in the Women’s Championships as well. And on the track? Bruno Risi won 61 Six Day Races, took seven world championship titles in the points and Madison races and competed in five Olympic Games during his career. The country supports an active racing scene and the Spring Tour de Romandie and the June Tour de Suisse attract the best teams in pro racing. The Zьri-Metzgete one-day race, which went through a number of names including the Championship of Zurich, was a classic and as it started in 1914 and ran continually from 1917, including during both World Wars, it enjoyed the longest unbroken string in racing until it faded away in 2007. It is still held but only as an amateur event. In addition to excellent cyclists, Switzerland has produced fine bicycles and the most notable manufacturer of high-end bikes today is BMC.
I have a favourite sweatshirt with an old cycling poster motif, showing a highwheeler bicycle. The poster was issued in 1933 to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Swiss Cycling Federation (SRB) and a few months ago I found myself on the road to the somewhat rundown Hotel du Pont in Brьgg on the outskirts of Biel and the Nationales Velo Museum Helvetia, or the Swiss National Cycling Museum. It was in this very building where the SRB was founded in 1883, probably during a very jovial lunch.
In mid-2009 a temporary exhibition was set up in the former restaurant of the hotel to mark the 125 anniversary of the SRB’s organization featuring the collection of a passionate enthusiast, Herr Edy Arnold, and it appears that the temporary exhibition simply has continued. The museum is open on weekends after Easter until November.
Although the museum has a rather grandiose name, it does not appear to have any kind of government support and seems to be “national” in the sense it is probably the only museum of its kind in the country. Entering the museum (for which no admission is charged) brings you to the remarkable world of Herr Arnold, who was present in the former bar of the hotel where you can still have light snacks. He is a very genial man, although my German capability was not really a match for his enthusiastic stream of Switzerdeutsch. He made a coffee for me anyway. In addition to his impressive collection of more than 300 bicycles, he is renowned as a racer on highwheel bikes and there were many photographs, posters and newspaper clippings of his exploits on display.
We were pretty much alone on the rainy Saturday as we walked through the numerous rooms that make up the museum. It is not a formal place with a lot of high-tech explanations (or any explanations, really) but rather represents one man’s labour of love. The history of the bicycle is covered from a replica of Baron Drais’ Laufmaschine from 1817 to pretty much the current day. In addition to the bicycles themselves, there is much in the way of memorabilia, including some marvellous banners for Swiss cycling clubs.
There were numerous highwheelers on display, including a Kangaroo geared model. There were utility bicycles of all kinds and even a remarkable Velocar, a so-called quadricycle in wonderful condition and with little Swiss flags on it. The Velocar was invented by Frenchman Charles Mochet in the 1930s but the rising popularity of automobiles pretty much killed the concept, at least until fuel shortages in World War II. Mochet is better remembered as the inventor of the recumbent bicycle.
It should not come as a surprise that a country famous for precision machinery was active in bicycle production and Biel in particular seems to have been a hotbed of industry. Many brands represented in the museum were unknown to me: Imholz from St. Gallen; Dressler from Baden; Wolf, Estelli and Cosmos from Biel; Paul Egli from Zurich; and Goldia from Goldach. There are bicycles from other areas as well and a highlight of the more recent models has to be an impressive Colnago racing tandem.
Some of Switzerland’s great riders are represented in the collection, including an original 1942 bicycle belonging to Tour de France winner Ferdi Kьbler, famous for is rather ungrammatical French (“Ferdi go now!”) as well as his winning ways. The high point of his career was 1950-1952 and at 93 he is the oldest living Tour winner. There is not much about Hugo Koblet, once the Golden Boy of Swiss cycling, whose meteoric rise saw him win the Giro in 1950 and the Tour in 1951. Known as “the Beautiful Hugo,” Koblet faded as quickly as he had arrived and the remainder of his short life was marked by disappointment.
Having a coffee with Herr Arnold (who loved my sweatshirt) after admiring his collection was an education in itself. He is a generous person and enjoys chatting with those who share his cycling interest. The museum, as quirky and individualistic as it is, is definitely worth visiting the next time you are in the Seeland region of Switzerland, only about 30 minutes’ drive by car from Bern.
For information about the museum, there is a limited website at www.velomuseum.ch in German and French.
When not combing his hair immediately after a hard ride, the only attribute he has in common with Hugo Koblet besides remarkable handsomeness, Leslie Reissner may be found dreaming about quadricycles at tindonkey.com.