The Bikes of Future Past: Bicycles in the Cold War and Beyond

This is the concluding post of our 6 part series, Bicycles at War.

Part 1 Boers on Bikes

Part 2 The Great War

Part 3 The Bikes of WWII

Part 4 How the Bicycle Won the Vietnam War

Part 5 The Swiss Army Bicycle


But is there a future for the bicycle in warfare? In a word, yes. When the fuel tank is empty, and the gas station has been bombed, then the bicycle is a mighty fine choice.

Sergeant Bokousky poses with his customized, accessorized Montague Paratrooper folding mountain bicycle, at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, circa 2010.

There will always be a need for lightweight, reliable, stealthy, low-cost transportation. When the embargo is on and the petrol is rationed, the bicycle will be the tool returned to. The bicycle will always be in the guerrilla kit. But it’s doubtful that the bike will ever be officially or widely adopted by the United States, China, Russia or any other large nation.

Dutch infantry on patrol in Afghanistan. For lower threat and lower intensity conflicts, the bicycle is an ideal vehicle.

While the bicycle may no longer be present on the front lines of big wars, it continues to be used in lower-intensity situations. The Dutch used bicycle patrols during NATO Operation Enduring Freedom, and American service members brought bikes with them to both the Green Zone in Baghdad and the Kandahar air base. There were (unconfirmed) rumors that special forces used bikes in the early days of the Afghan invasion and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Peacekeepers in East Timor and Cyprus have used bicycles in their patrol. And the Tamil Tigers used bicycles extensively during the Sri Lankan Civil War.

Two members of the Tamil Tigers patrol on bicycle in Sri Lanka during the civil war. For cash- and petrol-strapped insurgencies, bicycles will continue to be the vehicle of choice. Photo by Roger Parton.

The bicycle was the vehicle of necessity in Yugoslavia during the fuel embargo and supply disruptions of the civil wars during the 1990s. Civilians and paramilitary forces couldn’t rely on American standards of petroleum infrastructure and availability.

In this Nov. 24, 1991 file photo, two Serbian volunteers pass a destroyed Yugoslavian army tank, in downtown Vukovar, eastern Croatia carrying ammunition on a folding bike and a singlspeed bike.  AP Photo/Spiros Mantzarlis.

It seems more likely that the French Army would reintroduce bicycle infantry long before the US Army would ever consider it. Or perhaps if the Greens won power in Germany or Holland. But the tradition of internal combustion is here to stay, and it would be exceedingly hard to buck that tradition.

 

Children come running to greet peacekeepers as they ride up a quiet street in Dili, East Timor as part of a bicycle patrol. East Timor’s stable security situation allows Australian soldiers to ride bikes on street patrols instead of riding in vehicles. Bicycles give the soldiers the ability to travel a good distance and engage easily with the members of the community. Photography by LSPH Paul Berry

The US Army has “toyed” with the idea of using the bicycle in combat. In the 1980s a series of field trials were held of the Montague Paratrooper folding mountain bike that included paratroopers jumping with attached bikes. While the trials were successful, the bicycle goes against the ingrained belief of America in general, and the American military in particular, that bigger is always better.

 

Don’t expect mountain bikes to replace Humvees anytime soon.

But don’t discount them, either.

Field trialling a Montague Paratrooper folding mountain bike, circa 1998.

Wesley Cheney leads Klondike bike tours for Sockeye Cycle Co. in Skagway, Alaska. He earned his Eagle Scout Badge with Troop 216 in Springfield, Vermont, biked from London to Rome via the Route Napoleon, sailed with the USS Kearsarge to Equatorial Africa, earned a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from Old Dominion University, completed the final Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200km Brevet, and most recently delivered freaky fast sandwiches for Jimmy John’s in Norfolk, Virginia. As a professional photographer, he has captured images of Harrier jump jets, Norfolk Southern intermodal trains and mountain bike races. Wesley has built, pedaled, paddled and sailed bamboo bicycles, bamboo kayaks, and bamboo sailboats. In the off-season he sings in the choir of Christ & St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, teaches screen printing at 757 Makerspace. He regularly contributes questions to The Thomas Jefferson Hour, plays the ukulele and the flugelhorn, reads the New Testament in German, and prefers to wear a kilt.


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