Cycling As Heritage: Representing the History of Cycling in the Netherlands

Manuel Stoffers. The Journal of Transport History. Volume 33, Issue 1. June 2012.

Of all western countries, the Netherlands has the highest level of bicycle use. According to many parameters-bicycle ownership, bicycle facilities, distance travelled by bicycle per capita, percentage of bicycle trips within the modal share-the Netherlands takes first place among the European cycling nations, followed at some distance by Denmark and Germany. Although the reputation of the Netherlands as a cycling country dates back to the interwar period, only after the Second World War did the Dutch deviation from the general European pattern of bicycle use become more marked: first, use of the bicycle in the Netherlands declined less and then, after 1970, it increased more clearly than elsewhere. Now in the Netherlands, cycling for transport is common and self-evident, but at the same time it is more than just that: it is a national phenomenon, presented as such at many instances of national self-awareness. As German historian Anne-Katrin Ebert has argued, this manifest link between cycling and Dutch national identity can be attributed, at least in part, to the successful interventions of the influential Dutch national cyclists’ and tourists’ club Algemene Nederlandse Wielrijders Bond (ANWB) in the first half of the twentieth century.

Remarkably, however, the history of cycling has not received much attention from the Dutch-whether professional historians or the general public. Cycling seems to them a quasi-natural phenomenon: ever present and without a history. Many examples of the absence of the bicycle from the Dutch historical conscience can be given. Neither the nationalist turn in Dutch public opinion during the last decade nor the (related) trend towards ‘canonising’ past events through the publication of a still growing number of ‘historical canons’—first and foremost the Canon of the Netherlands (2006), followed by an proliferation of historical canons for all possible locations, regions and themes, including a ‘Canon of Mobility’ (2008) and a ‘Canon of Spatial Planning’ (2010)—have led to increased attention for the bicycle (or, alternatively, the bikeway) as the ‘canonical’ Dutch object that it appears to foreign visitors. The Dutch foundation for the preservation of ‘mobile heritage’ receives support from academics and the government; it lobbies explicitly for the conservation and public presentation of historic cars, boats, trains and aeroplanes, but it ignores bicycles. Most remarkable of all, the only substantial public representation of Dutch bicycle history can be found in a little-known private museum that, although it has an outstanding collection, lacks official certification and focuses on the international technical development of the bicycle instead of on the extraordinary Dutch history of cycling.

One may well ask, so what? But if car museums can be viewed as ‘important shaping tools’ in the collective fascination with cars, having ‘powers to shape contemporary automobility,’ as car historian Kurt Möser has argued recently, it would make sense for governments and bicycle advocacy groups who have taken up the cause of cycling in recent years to strengthen their case for bicycle transport through public representations of cycling history and the preservation of this part of mobile heritage. All the more so, as recent mobility research increasingly seems to stress the importance of collective images and cultures of mobility in explaining modal choice. Furthermore, if it is true, as some scholars have observed, that transport museums are prone to present a view of history in which technological progress dominates the presentation, the primacy of the motor vehicle is left undisputed and where there are hardly ‘competing stories [told], uncomfortable knowledge [discussed] and painful history [exposed],’ Dutch cycling history might provide a well-suited case for an alternative presentation. A museum presenting the historical background of the relative success of the bicycle in the Netherlands could show both Dutch and foreign visitors that the widespread use of the bicycle is neither self-evident nor ‘natural,’ but the product of a specific history. Such a presentation would also be relevant beyond the Netherlands and could add up to other (governmental) initiatives aimed at spreading knowledge about Dutch cycling habits and policies. In the following, I want to build the case for a stronger public representation of Dutch bicycle history. First, I present an explanation for the remarkable absence of the bicycle from Dutch heritage conservation in the light of Dutch cycling culture. Looking at public collections abroad, I then analyse how cycling history is represented elsewhere. Last, I return to the Dutch case, suggesting an alternative way of presenting cycling history—one that is visually more attractive and historically more up to date than in many museums of transport and technology.

Explaining the Lack of Public Historical Interest

The weak position of the bicycle in the Dutch public historical conscience is firmly rooted in the peculiarities of Dutch cycling history, as Harry Oosterhuis and I have argued elsewhere. Sidestepping the possible explanation that Dutch people in general have no strong historical awareness or interests—after all, the country has a high density of historical museums—the most obvious reason seems to be the most important: for most Dutch, cycling is not remarkable enough to pay a lot of attention to. Here, the ‘non-use of history’ (Karlsson) has a prosaic rather than ideological background: the overwhelming presence and commonness of the bicycle has hindered its perception as a cultural artefact with a specific history. To borrow a distinction made by social geographer Peter Pelzer when comparing the cycling cultures of Portland (USA) and Amsterdam: cycling in the Netherlands is a (nationwide and unreflected) habit rather than a (consciously chosen) lifestyle. Most Dutch ride bicycles routinely, as a matter of course. It characterises the pragmatic and utilitarian Dutch attitude regarding bicycling that the research in this field is dominated by engineers and mobility experts, who are mainly interested in traffic policies and infrastructural issues, and in general pay little attention to the cultural and historical dimensions of bicycling. To Dutch intellectuals everyday cycling is a non-issue, not something they can distinguish themselves with.

Whereas in countries with much lower levels of bicycle use the rise of bicycle activism since the 1970s was one of the forces behind the strengthened interest in researching and writing of popular (and academic) bicycle history (often along the lines of an emancipation history, linking a miserable present with an impressive past and a hopeful future)—in the Netherlands this connection is largely (though not completely) missing. Typically, the few publications on Dutch bicycle history in the 1960s and 1970s were not written by inspired bicycle activists, but by hack writers J. M. Fuchs and W. J. Simons who were hired by the bicycle sector’s promotional office to write about Dutch bicycle history. In their histories they presented the bicycle implicitly as a national peculiarity, focusing on nostalgic images of bicycle use in grandmother’s time. Apparently in a nuanced contrast to Denmark, where cycling at the end of the 1980s was explictly promoted as something ‘Danish,’ in the Netherlands cycling now constitutes a form of ‘silent’ or ‘banal nationalism’ (Billig).

There are still other reasons why the representation of cycling history has received remarkably little attention in the Dutch public sphere. In the Netherlands a connection between cycle racing and national identity never materialised because road racing was banned as early as 1905 and a massive public enthusiasm for cycling sport consequently did not develop in the interwar years. There are no ‘classic’ Dutch races comparable to the Tour, the Giro or the Ronde van Vlaanderen, races that in France, Italy and Belgium have stimulated historical interest in at least this aspect of cycling history. Dutch cycling history does not provide the general public with collectively remembered legendary cycling heroes (such as Anquetil or Merckx), lieux de mémoire (such as the Galibier or the Ventoux) or stories (e.g. Coppi vs. Bartali). Rather typically, the best remembered story about a Dutch racing cyclist is probably about Wim van Est, whose close escape from a fall offa cliffin a Tour de France stage in 1951 was successfully exploited in an advertising campaign by one of his commercial sponsors: ‘My heart stood still, but my Pontiac [watch] kept on running.’

Similarly, the Dutch have played no significant role in the invention and innovation of the bicycle: the draisine came from Germany, the velocipede from France, the high-wheeler from France and England, and the safety bicycle from England. Also, in later innovations such as the racing, touring, recumbent and mountain bike, Dutch bicycle producers have been followers rather than trendsetters. As a consequence, there are no Dutch national or local ‘heroes of invention’ (such as Von Drais, Michaux or Starley), nor revolutionary artefacts (such as the draisine or the Rover safety), that have triggered public commemorations, celebrations and publications in other countries. Dutch cycling history can be presented as a success story—but it appears as a story without historical ‘heroes,’ path-breaking artefacts or decisive moments that can capture the attention of a wider audience.

Last but not least, one must note the absence in the Netherlands of large and long-standing subsidised museums in which the history of technology or industry is represented as a part of the national or local heritage (indeed, there is no official museum devoted to national history). Typically, the only substantial Dutch exhibition about the bicycle in history was organised in 1977 by a prominent art museum and focused on the bicycle in (international) art. Early ideas about integrating the history of cycling into the Dutch open air museum in Arnhem (established 1918, since 1941 a ‘Rijksmuseum’) never worked out. The same goes for the efforts of the Dutch cycling and tourists association ANWB to establish a museum in the interwar years. In countries with a stronger industrial tradition, prestigious museums—such as the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology) (Washington, DC), the Science Museum (London), the Musée d’art et d’industrie (Saint-Étienne), the Deutsches Technikmuseum (Museum für Verkehr und Technik) (Berlin), the Technisches Museum (Technisches Museum für Industrie und Gewerbe) (Vienna), Národní technické muzeum (National Technical Museum) (Prague), the Swedish Tekniska Museet—acquired a bicycle collection in the course of their history and thus became responsible for the conservation and representation of this part of the national heritage. It is to the role of these foreign museums in representing the history of the bicycle that I now turn.

Bicycle Heritage Conserved, Researched and Displayed

According to the International Council of Museums’ latest definition, a museum is:

a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.’

Museums, in short, can be said to have three different functions: conservation, research and public display of heritage.

When it comes to the conservation of cycling heritage, it is obvious that public museums play an important role. Private collections can be impressive and important, but they are also volatile, as the history of the so-called Shimano collection demonstrates: in 1982, the large collection of a Dutch privately owned bicycle museum was sold to the Japanese firm Shimano and left the country, as sufficient funding could not be found in the Netherlands. In public museums, on the other hand, the sale of museum objects is, if not impossible, often subject to regulations and control. Furthermore, publicly funded museums can be subjected to national quality control systems that ensure minimum levels of staff expertise.

Also when it comes to researching cycling history, the importance of public museums is indisputable. In many countries research done by, or at least organised and published by, public museums in the second half of the twentieth century belongs to the earliest specimen of professional histories of cycling. In the 1950s both the London Science Museum and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC published a catalogue of their bicycle collections and added an introductory history of bicycles partly based on these collections. The Smithsonian republished and extended its bicycle catalogue in 1974. In 1979, the Swedish Tekniska Museet organised a symposium on the history of transport technology, at which the bicycle was one of the five themes. In 1987, the Berlin Technikmuseum published a selective catalogue of its bicycle collection, adding a number of essays on diverse aspects of German bicycle history. Other substantial publications on German bicycle history were also based on exhibitions or involved museums. Likewise, a catalogue of the Technische Museum in Vienna published in 1990 is one of the earliest publications on the history of cycling in Austria. In Canada, several public museums published books on national cycling history, including an extensive and critical historical assessment of the impact of bicycles on Canadian society by the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottowa. In France, the municipal Musée d’Art et d’Industrie in Saint-Étienne is a centre of research and publication on cycling history, especially, but not exclusively based on its own bicycle (and bicycle-related) collection. The explicit motivations for these research publications fall into two categories: on the one hand the research is motivated by the desire to demonstrate the relevance of the bicycle (and the bicycle industry) in the past, of a certain geographical entity (whether regional or national); on the other hand, the history presented is linked to the renewed or continuing interest in cycling in contemporary society.

How and to what effect is the history of cycling presented in these and other museums and exhibitions? To start with, even if we can appreciate the role public museums play in the conservation, investigation and representation of bicycle history, it seems that the bicycle does not receive as much ‘public display’ as other modern vehicles-especially trains, planes and cars-in museums of transport and technology. The fact that the impressive Berlin Technikmuseum, while boasting the largest bicycle collection in Europe, hardly addresses the history of the bicycle (let alone of cycling), is perhaps noteworthy. As Joachim Radkau has pointed out, already in the late nineteenth-century representations of technological history the bicycle hardly received any attention (and if so, it was because there was a motor added to the bicycle): from a purely technological perspective, the human powered bicycle simply seemed to fall behind the impressive inventions of the steam age. Added to that, the characteristically minimalist design of the bicycle perhaps puts it at a disadvantage as a museum object, being illsuited to impress the majority of visitors. As an object, the bicycle seems more a favourite of afficionados and artists (e.g. Boccioni, Duchamp, Léger, Tingueley) than of engineers or the general public.

Still, when bicycles are represented in national (science and technology) museums, most often they are shown first and foremost as examples of technological development. The ‘internalist style’ of presentation as identified in Joseph Corn’s 1989 analysis of technology and transport museums, still prevails. Indeed, in their 2001 book on transport museums, Divall and Scott note that in transport exhibitions bicycle history is often represented as a ‘Whiggish’ history of technological progress, led by inventors and engineers. Sometimes specimens of bicycle technology are presented as aspects of broader technological developments. More often, there is a chronological line-up of different bicycle models, arranged type by type in a way that suggests a linear progression of improved bicycle technology from the early nineteenth-century draisine to the late nineteenth-century safety design. The emphasis is usually on nineteenth-century developments, although sometimes the line-up extends to the late twentieth-century mountain bike (or, more recently, the early twenty-first-century e-bike). Private bicycle collections often follow the same chronological ordering of successive bicycle types, but while public museums often show only exemplary models of each ‘stage’ in the technological development, in private museums there is a tendency to show all of the collection in a similar arrangement.

This focus on exemplary technical stages of development is clearly represented by some of the earliest museum catalogues, for instance, in the descriptions of the bicycle collections of the Science Museum and the Smithsonian Institute. This presentational format persists. For instance, the Paris Musée des Arts et Métiers, for all its efforts to modernise in the 1990s, still presents bicycle history through an uninspired and isolated line-up of nineteenth-century bicycle types. Using a more spectacular display, the ‘Fahrradvorhang’ (bicycle curtain) of the Deutsches Museum in Munich in fact fulfils the same function, to show ‘in an exemplary way the developmental history of the bicycle.’ The attention paid to different types of objects implicitly values technological diversity above social impact.

The focus on the technological aspects of bicycle history not only shows in arrangements like these. It also is apparent in the comparatively positive attention given to ‘Besonderheiten und Raritäten,’ as one section of the bicycle exhibition of the Dresden Vekehrsmuseum is called. The Swiss Verkehrshaus in Luzern, for instance, shows the lever-driven J-Rad of Swiss designer Paul Jaray and the Swiss Villiger Velostar prototype as two of their few bicycle types: extraordinary types of bicycles ridden by very few people, or in some cases, not at all. These bicycles are evidently displayed not because of their social impact, but as examples of technical ingenuity and national product development. As another example of the celebration of national ingenuity in bicycle development, one could perhaps mention the Rover safety, designed by John Starley in 1885, and suspended in mid-air at the London Science Museum.

One further characteristic of the internalist style of representing bicycle history needs to be mentioned. This is the separation of transport modes in the presentation: in many museums—for instance at the Technisches Museum in Vienna and the Tekniska Museet in Stockholm—bicycles are grouped together and separated from motorcycles and cars, and each have their own separate exhibition areas. The floor arrangement is often a chronological line-up of nineteenth century bicycles followed by motorcycles and cars; the story is of a ‘natural’ evolution and progression to ever more complex and sophisticated technologies. The implicit message is that bicycles as an individual means of transport were soon succeeded by motorised transport. The nostalgia evoked by the dominance of the nineteenth-century bicycles strengthens this suggestion of the bicycle as an obsolete vehicle, ignoring the fact that the bicycle only became a mode of mass transport in many European cities in the first half of the twentieth century, after the introduction of the car, and that even after the diffusion of automobility in postwar Europe, cycling remained a mode of mass transport in at least some European countries and cities. In fact, for several reasons, the growth of automobility has led to a revival of cycling since the 1970s; from a user, rather than a technological, perspective, the bicycle and the car are contemporaneous and not successive modes of transport.

There are alternative ways in which bicycle history is sometimes represented—and this seems especially the case in special exhibitions and in museums presenting bicycle history as a part of industrial (rather than technological) history. According to Divall and Scott’s book on transport museums, bicycle history is even something of a favourite of social constructivist exhibitions on the history of technology-if so, no doubt because one of the pioneers of social constructivism in technology studies, Wiebe Bijker, built his argument partly around the case of early bicycle history. In general, the social constructivist perspective shifts attention away from the technology of the bicycle to its users. The Dresden Verkehrsmuseum, for instance, addresses the history of early bicycle clubs and pays attention to the fin de siècle debates on women cyclists. In the Historische Museum Bielefeld the emphasis is predominantly on the social and cultural history of cycling, especially of the industrial working classes, this being related to the museum’s overall focus on local, social and economic (instead of technological) history. The Musée d’Art et d’Industrie in Saint-Étienne is lucky to have a large collection of French bicycle advertising posters, adding representations of contemporary images attached to cycling to the display of technological artefacts.

Remarkably, in both internalist style exhibitions focused on technological progress, and in ‘social-constructivist’ exhibitions emphasising different user groups, the bicycle is rarely presented in relation to other modes of transport. To understand the history of cycling however, the changing context of alternative modes of transport—walking, horses, trains, trams, cars and mopeds—is of utmost importance. The same goes for the context of changing traffic rules and transport policies, infrastructural facilities and ‘motilities’: in general the overall context of changes in mobility, traffic and transport is missing. In exhibitions that contextualise bicycle history, the emphasis is either on (nineteenth century) industrial developments or on its relevance for historically defined user groups, especially women and workers around, or shortly after, 1900. In both technologically driven and social constructivist exhibitions there seems to be a tendency to historicise bicycle history in such a way that it becomes a nostalgic recollection of a previous era (except perhaps for cycling sport and recreation). Few exhibitions on bicycle history address the contribution that bicycles have made to the mobilisation of the European masses both in cities and in rural areas in the first half of the twentieth century, and the factors that explain the demise and revival of cycling as an individual means of mass transport in the second half of the twentieth century. It is for such a public history of bicycle use that the Dutch case offers many possibilities.

Representing Dutch Cycling Heritage

The case for a public presentation of (Dutch) cycling history can be made on two grounds, which are usually brought forward to legitimise heritage conservation: on the one hand the importance of a historical artefact or practice in the past, on the other the continued (or rediscovered) importance attached to the historical artefact or practice in the present. In even more evident ways than history writing, heritage conservation, being a form of ‘public history,’ always implies some sort of ‘presenting the past.’

When it comes to the past importance of cycling, the introduction and spread of cycling was related to major societal developments in many (though not all) European and Asian countries-effects that have not yet been researched in full. In the period before the development and general diffusion of the car, cycling introduced the first new mode of individualised mass transport since walking—skiing and skating aside—and influenced the private and professional lives of millions of men and women by multiplying their individual range of action and allowing a reorganisation of space for living, working and recreation. Cycling changed the character of tourism, and is one of the popular practices of present-day mass mobility. Cycling also became the first mass spectator sport and the bicycle belonged to the earliest mass-produced and advertised durable consumer goods. Indeed, the introduction and spread of cycling can be considered an integral and distinctive part of the modernisation (and mobilisation) processes of many countries, including the Netherlands. As such, it deserves both public and academic attention.

Regarding the present importance of cycling as a reason for publicly representing bicycle history, there is no doubting increased international interest in cycling among policy makers as well as sections of the general public. In many western countries there has been, since the 1970s, a renewed interest in cycling as an environmentally friendly, sustainable and ‘convivial’ mode of urban transport that may provide a partial solution to the problems of urban congestion and pollution. In the last two decades especially, both young urban and political elites have rediscovered the bicycle as either a comparatively quick and clean alternative to car-driving and public transport, or a way to improve personal and public health. Many exhibition catalogues on the history of cycling show that this topical interest has motivated bicycle history exhibitions in preceding decades, even if these were not directly devoted to mobility issues. For instance, even in its 1974 catalogue, the Smithsonian Cycle Collection ended its introductory chapter wondering ‘whether the present [bicycle] boom will suddenly slacken or cease entirely […] or whether, one hopes, it will become a permanent and important factor in American transportation.’ Three short years later, the curator of a major Dutch exhibition on the bicycle in art hoped that the ‘new interest in the bicycle, partly caused by increasing awareness that nature and natural energy resources should be spared,’ would also raise the interest in his own exhibition. Since then, especially in Germany, museums have displayed and cultivated bicycle history because of the explicit wish to stimulate the use of the bicycle. Whether as cause or effect, Germany is among those western countries that have witnessed the greatest increase in bicycle use since the 1970s.

The interest in cycling, from an environmentalist perspective, is also present in the Netherlands. But as indicated before, underneath such international ‘postmaterialist’ developments, cycling in the Netherlands never ceased being a mass mode of transport, even after the major decline of bicycle use in the 1950s and 1960s. It is the continued massive and habitual daily use of the bicycle, connecting the past and present relevance of the vehicle, that strengthens the case for considering cycling as a part of a specifically Dutch heritage-as something that belongs not only to the history (and present) of modern mobility, but also to a historically formed Dutch national habit and identity. From this perspective, the Netherlands seems a most appropriate place to host a cycling museum as a tool of ‘national heritage conservation.’ Having a cycling past without famous sport heroes, classic races or groundbreaking innovations to boast about, for the Netherlands it is the unparalleled and continuing ‘success’ of its massive use of the bicycle for transport that can be made the focus of a captivating and fascinating story.

But there are other reasons, arguably more important than national heritage conservation, to turn cycling history—and especially the Dutch history of massive and continuing utility cycling—from a topic for specialist or fan audiences into broader public history. Public interest is served with a presentation that makes visitors aware of the complex and deeply historical and cultural (value-loaded) nature of mobility practices—a presentation, therefore, than can do away with widespread simplistic assumptions about the technologically driven development of mobility. Dutch cycling history can serve well to convey this message. For one, it demonstrates the contemporaneity and coexistence of high-tech and low-tech mobility, and perfectly illustrates Edgerton’s famous theses about the continuing practical importance of ‘obsolete’ technologies, not only in developing countries but also in the West. For another, research has shown that the success of the bicycle in the Netherlands, far from being ‘natural’ or self-evident, or the outcome of technological and economic developments, was the result of a long-term historical process that involved much more than ‘just’ building a suitable cycling infrastructure, and included the creation of interested organisations, political culture and public image building associated with cycling.

In the following, I propose to demonstrate how the history of (Dutch) cycling for transport can be told in a way that is visually attractive, suitable for museum presentation, and in line with recent academic analysis. My point of departure is the multifaceted and nuanced analysis of the codevelopment of bicycle use and bicycle policies in nine European cities between 1920 and 1995, which was written by the Dutch historians of technology Adri Albert de la Bruhèze and Frank Veraart.64 Adapting their analytical model somewhat, and integrating Ebert’s comparative research on Dutch and German cycling history as well as other available research, I deal consecutively with the following aspects of their analysis: (1) interest representation, (2) public image of cycling, (3) images of cycling among elites, planners and policy makers, (4) prevalent bicycle design, (5) traffic policies and infrastructure and (6) available transport alternatives.

It is useful to make two general remarks first. Compared to the usual museum representations of bicycle history that highlight nineteenth-century developments, as described in the previous section, I suggest focusing on the twentieth century in which the bicycle became important as a means of transport (and recreation) for millions of people. Second, I propose to shift the attention away from the bicycles themselves to other, especially (audio) visual documentation, such as advertisements, posters, movies, cartoons and popular songs. This is not to say that bicycles should play no role as museum objects. I suggest that rather than being shown as technological artefacts and feats of innovation, various types of bicycles and accessories should be displayed to demonstrate the changing uses of the bicycle. In this way, cargo bikes, delivery bikes, military bikes, police bikes, priests’ bikes, touring bikes and mountain bikes can help to indicate the practical uses of bicycles in different time periods. To actually show the bicycle in use, we should consider ourselves lucky that the moving pictures came into being at the same time as bicycles started to become popular. Since one of the first ever films showed a few cyclists leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon in 1895, cyclists have appeared in documentary and home-made films-a valuable source that, because of its lively character, is better suited than photographs to capture the attention of the public.

Interest Representation

In the Netherlands cycling was substantially promoted by the way its interests were represented by the ANWB. Founded in 1883 as a national cyclists’ organisation, it developed after 1900 into a general tourist and traffic association. It acted on behalf of all sorts of travellers, bicyclists as well as cardrivers, tourists as well as commuters. As a non-religious, middle-class organisation in an otherwise religiously divided country, it had sections all over the country that were integrated into one centralised organisation. Its activities were widespread and varied: it represented the interests of cyclists at all levels of administration, providing information and services to members, publishing guides and maps for travellers, establishing a system of road signs, raising funds to create bicycle infrastructure, and engaging in all sorts of promotional activities. The numerous maps, guides, signposts and posters produced by the ANWB can be represented attractively in a museum context next to photographs documenting the public events that were organised by the ANWB.

The ANWB’s elitist, upper-middle-class board was able to establish and maintain contacts in the upper levels of Dutch society and politics. It was influential because of its contacts and organisation, but also because of the pragmatic way it defended cycling: in line with dominant Dutch elite political culture its style was cooperative, willing to compromise and nonconfrontational. When, for instance, bicycle taxes were introduced in 1926, the ANWB did not oppose this in an uncompromising way, but instead was able to negotiate benefits in return, such as government-funded bikeway construction. Also, unlike cycling organisations such as the British CTC, which fiercely opposed separate bikeways and the obligatory carrying of red rear lights by cyclists as measures for the benefit of car-drivers only, the ANWB did not oppose the car. Almost from the introduction of the car, the ANWB defended and accepted the coexistence of cars and bicycles, each having their own purpose, and the association did not set up one vehicle mode against the other. Interestingly, when the ANWB in the 1960s finally developed into a car lobby and new bicycle advocacy clubs were united in the Fietersbond (1975), this new bicycle organisation quickly adopted a similar style. Arising out of street protest movements, it soon became a lobby organisation, selling its expertise to and cooperating with the government, and eventually banishing its former environmentalist aims from the statutes.

Public Image

As Ebert has argued, the ANWB was not only influential in negotiating with policy makers. It was also able to dominate the public image of cycling in the Netherlands and, as such, became instrumental in establishing the link between cycling and Dutch national identity. In public events and publications of the ANWB the bicycle was consistently presented as a vehicle that could foster Dutch national unity-hence the national importance of recreational bikeways—and stimulate supposedly ‘Dutch’ values such as balance, independence and self-discipline. When cycling became popular among the working classes, the middle-class ANWB did not turn its back on cycling, but instead welcomed it as a way to educate the masses to these values and turn workers into responsible citizens.

Photos of ANWB activities, and its posters and speeches, demonstrate the national and civic values the ANWB associated with cycling. In a recorded speech at the end of his long ANWB presidency (which lasted from 1884 to 1937) Edo Bergsma can be heard to declare, for instance: ‘I viewed the bicycle as a social gift, the use of which was to be promoted and that should become a feature of everyday life … I viewed the bicycle as the means to establish mutual appreciation and mutual education.’ Both popular songs and Dutch advertisements selling cycling before the Second World War show that the imagery linking Dutch national identity to cycling was not restricted to the ANWB, but appealed to a broader audience.

Strikingly, many years later, both activists’ and commercial posters from the 1970s stressed again this national or at least collectivist imagery, conveying the message that cycling was for all Dutch-when it came to cycling, there was in the Netherlands no polarisation along class or ideological lines.

The ANWB promoted civilised and respectable cycling, and when bicycle racing threatened to become a popular sport at the end of the 1890s, the association not only stopped organising races, but also became involved in the establishment of a law that in 1905 prohibited road racing in the Netherlands, thus preventing the development of a competing massive workers’ culture of cycle racing that at this time sprang up in countries such as France, Italy and Belgium. For many decades, competitive cycling in the Netherlands was kept indoors, in velodromes, and thus was less able to manifest itself publicly and challenge the ANWB ideal of respectable cycling.

Elites and Cycling

The respectability and national meaning of cycling was reinforced by yet another factor: at the height of the popularity of the bicycle, the vehicle was appropriated by the Royal Family, both as an expression and confirmation of the middle-class ethos dominating Dutch society and politics, denying strong class differences and conflicting interests. When Queen Wilhelmina (born 1880, queen 1890/8-1948) fell in love with bicycles as an adolescent at the end of the 1890s, this was not very extraordinary among the European elites, although the Dutch Cabinet did consider it inappropriate for a queen. Notwithstanding, when the bicycle had become the vehicle of the masses, from the 1930s the Dutch royal family consciously and repeatedly sought publicity using bicycles. As contemporary postcards show, when Crown Princess Juliana was engaged to the German nobleman Bernhard von Lippe Biesterfeld in 1936, the pair presented itself to the people by making a bicycle tour through The Hague, cheered by the crowds on the pavements. In the 1950s the government’s Information Office released a postcard showing the Queen with one of her daughters and a typically Dutch utility bicycle. Standing at the head of a comparatively young monarchy, that was historically famous for being a Republic, the Dutch royal family used the bicycle to demonstrate that it was of the people. The Dutch queens can only legitimise themselves as people’s monarchs and using the bicycle was, and is, an effective way of demonstrating this publicly. And apparently, this image works. In 2002 the local population of Ede financed a lifesize statue of the present Queen Beatrix riding a bicycle, designed in such a way that people can be photographed while sitting on their own bicycles next to her. The public display of the bicycle by the Dutch royal family—and, one may add, senior Dutch statesmen—was, and is meant to, demonstrate that they are ‘one of us,’ appealing to a strong tendency of egalitarianism in Dutch politics and society. At the same time it shows and showed the citizens of the Netherlands that cycling is civilised and respectable and not something regarded as being of low status or restricted to the working classes.

Bicycle Design

The specific character of Dutch cycling culture is also evident in, and was strengthened by, the typically Dutch bicycle design. Whereas until the First World War the Dutch imported the majority of their bicycles from abroad, during the war the national bicycle industry was able to grow and soon after the war fully dominated the internal market, establishing a long-standing cartel that only continued European integration was finally able to break. At the same time, a typically Dutch bicycle design developed. Still dominant in the Dutch market the design is equipped with practical accessories for everyday and all year round use, has a very upright seating position, and is heavy, slow and unsuited for racing. As an object with a script for its use inscribed by its design, it reinforced and (reinforces) the Dutch way of cycling as a respectable and practical way of transport. Illustrating the link between the Dutch nation and the bicycle, one of the major and oldest surviving producers of Dutch bicycles is called ‘Batavus’ after the legendary Germanic tribe that, according to national mythology, stood at the birth of the Dutch nation. Equally typical was that when in 1974 a new Dutch bicycle firm started up, attempting to tap the nationally and internationally growing market for bicycle recreation, and therefore specialising in touring bicycles rather than in ordinary Dutch bicycles, it opted for foreign cooperation and a manifestly un-Dutch name: Koga Myata.

Motorisation, Bicycle Policies, and Infrastructure

Last but not least, the way cycling infrastructure developed in the Netherlands also helps to explain the success of cycling. Several of the factors mentioned previously come together here. First, the ANWB was an important agent in creating bicycle paths early on, mainly constructed for recreational purposes and as a way to get to know the country. Negotiations with the government in the 1920s about a new bicycle tax led to the spending of substantial amounts of public money on infrastructural bicycle facilities. After the war, the available bicycle infrastructure was not demolished to the same degree as in other countries to make room for the increasing number of cars, thanks to the higher standing of cycling among Dutch elites and general public. Still, the number of cyclists declined steeply after the war while the number of moped riders and car drivers increased, resulting in an alarmingly increasing accident rate among cyclists in the 1960s.

From that moment onwards, beginning with the urban anarchist movement Provo and its famous white-bicycle plan (1965), new social movements started to promote cycling and demand renewed investments in bicycle infrastructure to ‘Stop child murder,’ as one bicycle advocacy movement called itself. Dutch governments were quick to react, pushed further by a well-organised new cyclists’ interest organisation, the Fietsersbond (founded 1975). From the 1970s onwards, creating facilities for cyclists became an integral part of Dutch urban planning, until fairly recently almost exclusively along the lines of a separation of traffic modes. Whereas in other countries bicycle advocates have resisted (and still resist) the idea of being ‘pushed off the roads’ on separate trajectories, Dutch cycling organisations have supported this concept consistently. The resulting omnipresent bicycle infrastructure is a tacit but powerful sign to every Dutch citizen that cyclists are cared for and that cycling is a publicly and socially respectable mode of transport. Of course, Dutch citizens do not usually realise this—after all, in the Netherlands cycling is a national habit rather than a consciously chosen lifestyle.


Designing a lively and multi-faceted exhibition about the significance of cycling for twentieth-century traffic, transportation and mobility, is a challenge that can be rewarding both for the academic and the public historian. With the help of visual sources, including posters and films, it seems possible to meet this challenge far better than with the common line-up of bicycle models in technology and transport museums. The present extraordinarily high level of bicycle use in the Netherlands, combined with the (international) topical policy interest in stimulating cycling, and available research on Dutch cycling history, all make it attractive and feasible to design an exhibition devoted to explaining the continuing relevance of the bicycle for Dutch mobility and culture. A public history of Dutch cycling can correct the widespread idea that its popularity is something ‘natural,’ determined (only) by the flatness of the country and the small size of the Dutch cities. Instead, it can increase public awareness of the historical factors that have led to the extraordinary position of the bicycle in Dutch culture and mobility. It can show the importance of agency-in the form of culture, politics and policies-in the development of mobility, instead of focusing on ‘impersonal’ forces of geography, technology and economics. One can hardly think of another case that would be equally suitable to challenge determinist assumptions about the ‘high-tech’ nature of modern mobility. At the same time, a presentation of Dutch cycling history along the lines of available historical analyses, would demonstrate that the promotion of bicycle use along the lines of the Dutch requires more than just the ‘copying and pasting’ of Dutch cycling facilities.