Wednesday 17 October 2012

The Swiss National Cycling Museum

 During my recent trip to Switzerland I picked up a copy of the Swiss cycling federation’s magazine. Along with a very interesting long article about the Oerlikon velodrome marking its 100th anniversary, I saw a little piece in it about a bicycle museum not so far away. Following some fine cycling in the Gruyère area I was stuck indoors for three days due to non-stop pouring rain.

Determined to make the best of it, I decided to drive to the Biel area, where I met Markus Stüdeli, a keen Swiss cycletourist and the husband of one of the Canadian Embassy staff in Bern. After some coffee in a local hotel, we crossed the street and found ourselves in front of the somewhat rundown Hotel du Pont in Brügg on the outskirts of Biel and the Nationales Velo Museum Helvetia, or the Swiss National Cycling Museum. 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).

It was actually in the Hotel du Pont where the organization was founded those many years ago. 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 Edy Arnold and it appears that the temporary exhibition simply has continued. The museum is open on weekends after Easter until November. 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 light snacks are available. He is a very genial man, although my German capability was not really a match for his Switzerdeutsch. 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.

Markus and I 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.

Ferdi's 1942 racing bike

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 2. Mochet is better remembered as the inventor of the recumbent bicycle.

I was not aware of how active Swiss industry was 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.

A Colnago tandem

Some of Switzerland’s great riders were represented, including an original 1942 bicycle belonging to Tour de France winner Ferdi Kübler. The high point of his career was 1950-1952 and at 93 he is the oldest living Tour winner. 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.

On the drive back to Charmey I stopped in Avenches, whose claim to fame is not merely that it is the headquarters of the Nespresso company but was a significant Roman settlement. Excavations of the Roman town were carried out during World War 2 by interned French soldiers who had crossed into Switzerland after the defeat of France. There was an exhibition about this in the charming little Roman Museum, which is in a 17th century tower next to the Roman amphitheatre. There are also ruins of a large temple as well as a theatre.  And on the way back I drove through Switzerland's Worst Named Village:

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