Thursday 14 March 2013

A Visit to Velorama in Nijmegen, Netherlands

To escape the madness of Carnival in Düsseldorf on Rosenmontag, I arranged an escape to the Netherlands with my friend Nick, who brought the team car and a new GPS.  Our destination on this bitterly cold Monday was just across the Dutch border in Nijmegen: Velorama, the National Fietsmuseum.  “Fiets” is, of course,  Dutch for “bicycle” and where better to look at two-wheelers than in the country famous for using them?

27% of all trips made in the Netherlands are by bicycle and 59% of all urban trips, so bicycles represent a key element of the national transportation system.  To celebrate this love affair, the Dutch have put together one of the finest bicycle museums in the world, an astonishing collection that emphasizes the technology of this seemingly-simple device.  This is Velorama, housed over three storeys in an attractive (and blindingly clean) warehouse building overlooking the Waal, and showcasing bicycles in all conceivable, and even a few incredible, variations from 1817 to 1960.

On this bitter and blustery weekday we were amongst the first of a handful of visitors to arrive and were met by Mr. Labrie, a curator who enthusiastically showed us around the truly amazing collection.  

The museum has its beginnings in the collection of Mr. Gerdjan Moed, who was given an antique bicycle as a child and apparently has never looked back.  When people were clearing out barns or attics and came across then-valueless old bicycles, he was the person happy to accept their donations and gradually the numbers of objects grew and grew.  In 1981 the museum was opened, and extensively renovated in 1998 but even still only can display one-third of the collection.
The exhibition begins truly at the beginning with a replica of the famous “Laufmaschine” of Karl Friedrich Christian Ludwig Freiherr Drais von Sauerbronn.  Baron Dreis is credited as inventor of the first steerable bicycle, generally called a “draisine.”  Mr. Labrie sadly remarked that the museum did not own one of the Baron’s original bicycles as these are extremely rare and staggeringly expensive.  With the exception of the draisine replica, all machines in the museum are originals.

The Baron apparently took out patents for everywhere except Britain (a bad business decision) and soon enough copies of his machine began to appear throughout Europe.  We walked by a row of marvellous machines from this period.  They were clumsy, heavy and rather crude and really only suitable for riding on smooth park lanes rather than cobbled streets but were often whimsical in design.  There simple backbone frames took on fanciful forms, including racehorses or dragons.  Most of the examples we saw were produced in countries other than the Netherlands, which, surprisingly, came rather slowly to bicycle design and innovation.  But the so-called “hobbyhorse” or “dandy-horse” era was fairly short-lived as the wooden machines were impractical and unwieldy and they quickly faded away.

In addition to bicycles with two wheels there was a range of weird configurations and these three and four wheel “pedomotive” or “manomotive” are well-represented in the exhibition.  Mr. Labrie explained that they were used to test components that would eventually be used in steam engines of various kinds including locomotives.  This was a period that saw advances in metalworking skills and applications and these vehicles, as strange as they appear to us, would have been cutting-edge technology for the time.

Mr. Labrie and some early early early bikes
It would be several decades before the next important development in bicycle technology came about: the installation of pedals on the front axle of a two-wheeler.  It has always struck me as strange that an idea so simple and obvious took forty years to happen.  We now moved into the part of the collection that reflected the 1860s.   Wood has now been replaced with iron and then steel and the workmanship of the bicycles improved dramatically.

The so-called “Boneshaker” era saw the introduction of freewheels and ball bearings and the first completely metal bicycles were fabricated in France.  The front wheel sized began to increase in pursuit of greater efficiency and people began to utilize the bicycle, previously only really an entertainment device, to actually go places.  And the first bicycle races occurred as well.

Circling past the museum’s  Velocitas Café, we climbed the narrow steps to the next floor and turning to our left we came into the wonderful High Wheel Lounge, which offered a spectacular collection of the evocative bicycles that were variously known as “Ordinaries,” “Penny Farthings,” or “Highwheelers.”  By enlarging the front wheel of the boneshaker it was now possible to reach impressive speeds, limited only by the rider’s inseam and, well, courage.  Many very famous brands of bicycle were on display, including Star, Columbia and Rover.  They were predominantly British or American, countries that had taken the lead from France in production and innovation, and the companies that built them had experience constructing precision machinery, such as sewing machines.  The crude era of the draisine banged out by blacksmiths was long gone.

Riding in comfort, with your chauffeur behind and invisible

 In addition to bicycles with two wheels there was a range of configurations for people, particularly the elderly or women, who were unable to ride the highwheeler, which was used primarily by athletic, well-off young men.  In addition, there were tricycles and quadricycles and all manner of experimental things.  The multi-wheelers offered stability and, given their higher cost, status.  And they required technological advances as well: this is where the differential, allowing the opposing wheels to turn at different speeds when cornering and an important component of automobile drive systems, was developed.

The drawbacks of the highwheeler were obvious and inventive British minds soon enough came up with the idea of the “safety bicycle,” employing wheels of equal size and a chain drive to the back wheel.  The first safety came to market in 1885 and only a few years later the introduction of the pneumatic tire brought us to essentially the modern configuration of a bicycle.  It marked the death knell of the graceful highwheeler, although there were attempts to keep it going using smaller front wheels  with geared chain drives but this was a last gasp.

Very early solid-tired safety bicycle
When visiting the Pedaling History Museum (no longer extant, alas) in Buffalo, New York in 2008, I discovered the extraordinary Otto Dicycle, which has two high wheels beside each other and the rider sits between them, using the handlebars to balance.  A massive and complicated device, I was enchanted by it and its ridiculous appearance.  I learned that it was particularly rare and valuable.  Expensive when built, only 953 were constructed and the safety bicycle’s appearance shortly afterwards made it obsolete.  It takes up a lot of space, weighs 40 kg and is pretty vulnerable to damage so only a half dozen or so still exist.  Remarkably, Velorama had three of them on display!

Another remarkable artifact is the rail bicycle used by employees to get to the Star Bicycle Company factory in Smithville, New Jersey across a swamp.  1.8 miles in length and using an elevated monorail, it opened in 1892 and was subsequently exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago.
Suspension via rim-mounted springs!
The safety bicycle brought with it a renewed push for innovation and the museum illustrates this brilliantly with a remarkable number of period pieces.   Everything that we think of new was tried at some point in the period from 1890 to 1910: bicycle suspensions, puncture-proof tires, lightweight frames in odd materials (bamboo, hickory), mudguards and lighting systems.

After admiring this evidence of industrial evolution, with some ideas that admittedly went into a dead-end, we proceeded up the next flight of stairs to the top floor of the museum.  This is the "modern times” section, covering the 20th Century, or at least the first six decades or so.  In addition to the kind of bikes that would not be out of place on our streets today, there are some novelties including some early recumbents and a very fine selection of the peculiar Dursely-Pedersens, with their complicated small-tubing frames and hammock-style seats.  Built from 1897-c. 1912, they were very light for the time and have actually gone back into production as they have a dedicated cult following still.
A late production Dursley-Pedersen
The modern bicycles on display included some novel American bicycles from the 1950s, such as a Schwinn Black Phantom and some Columbia roadsters, as well as the goofy world-of-tomorrow Bowden Spacelander from 1960.  The latter is back in production too, apparently!  All of this is nicely displayed and includes not only the bicycles themselves but displays devoted to components and it is possible to try out different kinds of shifting systems that have been developed over the years.  Bicycle racing, which is not extensively covered in what is on display, is represented with a fine exhibit devoted to Wim van Est’s famous excursion over the side of the side of the mountain after descending the Col d’Aubique in the 1951 Tour de France.  The day before he had become the first Dutch rider to earn the Yellow Jersey.  His team rescued him using tiet-together tubular tires and the incident became part of Tour legend.  Wim died in 2003 aged 80 but his original and very battered bike from that race is part of the display at Velorama.

The final area of interest is devoted to Dutch bicycles and includes the kind of sit-up-and-beg indestructible bicycles for which the nation is noted.  Famous brands, including Gazelle and Batavus, are represented and pride of place goes to a Fongers tandem used by then-Princess (subsequently Queen) Juliana and Prince Bernhard before their marriage.  There are some fine posters and the display, designed to look like a Dutch street scene, is attractive and representative of the high quality of the displays.

We enjoyed a coffee in the café before taking our leave of Mr. Labrie and the museum.  In addition to the café in the museum, there is an adjoining three star hotel in the same style, the Hotel Courage, which opened in 2004.  A visit to Velorama is highly recommended; this is almost certainly the best collection of antique bicycles in existence.   I hope that someday space will be available so that the rest of the bicycles can be displayed.

Information about the museum and details for planning a visit can be found here.

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