To ride a bicycle

Around 1870, with the first import from England and France, Dutch people became acquainted with velocipeds. Initially these were mainly used for demonstrative bicycle tours and recreation. The performance on a bicycle was also often one expression of sportiness and progressive thinking. But cycling was primarily a hobby for young people from good families and also for well-to-do citizens. The first cyclists and their machines were something special and extraordinary. At the time, cycling was found in the cities, in the countryside one could only occasionally see someone riding a bicycle. The bicycle remained a luxury item in the Netherlands until at least 1890. The prices of forty up to three hundred and fifty guilders were too high for an average worker with a wage of less than two guilders a week. The first cyclists thus formed an elitist circle of people who had the time and money to enjoy the speeding.

By the end of the century the bicycle was no longer a toy of the rich. Thanks to a sharp fall in prices (around 1910 the prices fell considerably so that the cheapest Dutch bicycle cost 55-70 guilders), it became accessible to the working class as well.

In 1928, the Netherlands occupied first place among Western countries in the “bicycle density” category. Practically everyone cycled in the Netherlands. Even members of the government and the Dutch Royal Family. Queen Wilhelmina already bought a bicycle in Vienna before the turn of the century. Cycling then seemed to be a too dangerous exercise, and the Prime Minister ordered it to be prohibited. Her daughter, Queen Juliana, often appeared on a bicycle and became known in the world as a “biking queen”.

More over, the bicycle played an important role in women’s equality. Initially, women were tricycle co-passengers. But it wasn’t long before emancipated women showed up on their own bicycles. The bicycle made the woman more independent in the sense that she was no longer tied to the house and could move independently. However, it took a while before the woman on the bicycle was no longer considered indecent, immoral or unhappy. Cycling was also seen as “harmful to the female constitution.” Many famous feminists, such as Aletta Jacobs, were enthusiastic cyclists. Although many people thought that “cycling for women would be exhausting and harmful”, women such as Elisabeth Pennel proved that even large bicycle tours (Cologne-Vienna, Calais-Geneva) did not raise any objections for ladies. Ladies wanted to participate in competitions, which not everyone was enthusiastic about. As early as 1888 the first women’s bicycle marathon took place in Pittsburg, America. “They were dressed like men with knee-high trousers and long stockings.” Initially such a show was a good entertainment for the curious and a counter argument for the opponents, but in the end women took their place in cycling.

Source: Radosław Lesisz, Honderd jaar fietsen in Nederland 1850-1950