Every day biking versus cycle racing

In Culture
Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Tuesday, 18 September 2012 09:05

Last weekend has seen the start of the prestigious Road World Championships in South Limburg. But in contrast to everyday biking, cycle racing has never acquired the status of a national symbol in the Netherlands, according to the historian Manuel Stoffers. "Everyone rides a bike, from Prime Minister Rutte to your average Joe."

Let’s ditch the lion – we’re not that brave anyway – and put the bicycle on the national coat of arms, suggests the journalist and columnist Henk Hofland. After all, along with the clog, tulip and windmill, the bike is one of the most recognisable symbols of our culture; ‘Holland’ is synonymous with ‘bikeland’. This view is endorsed by the historian Manuel Stoffers, who studies the sociocultural significance of the bicycle: "Just like God in the Middle Ages, the bicycle is ubiquitous in our country. Everyone rides a bike, from Prime Minister Rutte to your average Joe."

More noteworthy is the scarce attention that Dutch academics have paid to the bicycle. While interest in our cultural heritage has been flourishing, this topic remains neglected. For example, there is no certified museum devoted to the history of biking in the Netherlands, says Stoffers, himself a fan of heading for the hills on his bike. So what underlies this lack of interest? "Blindness borne of the banality of biking. Here, biking is not a ‘hip’ lifestyle that you consciously choose, but rather a national and unconscious habit." Yet, biking is the product of a particular historical development. The bike has made an important contribution to tourism, physical culture and our contact with nature, as well as emancipation and our national identity.

Biking queen

According to conventional wisdom, the Dutch ride bikes because the country is small, flat and compact, with a bike-friendly infrastructure. For Stoffers, this physical explanation falls short. The same could be said of other places in the world, where people don’t necessarily ride bikes. Rather, the success of the bike is due to cultural factors, such as its use in promoting Dutch identity, with this imagery appearing on posters as early as the start of the 20th century. The name of the famous bicycle brand Batavus refers to the legendary Germanic people from whom ‘we’ would descend. And the link with national identity can also be seen in popular war stories about bikes confiscated by the Germans. "This 'bicycle theft' symbolises the assault on our nation”, says Stoffers. “If you come for our bikes, then you come for us.”

The royal family was aware of – and contributed to – the symbolic significance of the bike early on. After her engagement, Juliana, known worldwide as the 'biking queen', appeared on a bike in front of the people of The Hague. “That was deliberate”, says Stoffers. “Our monarchy, unlike that of England for example, doesn’t have a tradition that is centuries old. The royal family can only sustain itself by saying: we’re one of you. If there were too much pretension, things would go very wrong for them." But Her Majesty’s appearance in the saddle was also beneficial for the bike, he explains. "It shows that the elite cycle as well. And it’s the elite who define what is valuable, what the norm is. It also says something about being Dutch: just act normally, everyone’s equal."

Cycling nationalism

The role of the Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) is striking; now mainly a car lobby, it originally came into being as an advocacy group for cyclists. The ANWB was a liberal club that propagated a sort of 'biking nationalism': biking towards a single nation, as it were. Bike tourism served to emphasise the solidarity of the different regions and strengthen national unity. To this end, a cultural offensive was needed. Public campaigns linked biking with 'traditional' Dutch civic virtues such as independence, self-control and balance. "The bicycle was promoted as a civilising instrument for the education of the masses."

But the ANWB’s cultural offensive hindered the connection between cycle racing and national identity, says Stoffers. In 1905 the organisation, which was initially in favour of cycle racing (consider the name of the popular magazine De Kampioen), supported the statutory prohibition on road racing. This explains why there are so few cycling classics in the Netherlands today, and no national cycle racing mythology. Stoffers: "Everyday biking has been able to continue because after the road races were banned, cycling as a public sport had fewer opportunities than in other countries. Conversely, the popularity of cycle racing actually may harm to everyday biking. "

Cultural schism

A cultural schism seems to be at work here. “Cycle racing and biking are two totally separate worlds”, explains Stoffers. "This is about conflicting images. If you mainly associate cycling with exercise, competition, free time and a special bike, it’s less likely that you’ll get on a normal bike to do your daily errands or peddle to work in your suit, while those who do their daily errands by bike will be less keen to go racing on Sundays.” This dichotomy even holds for the church: "Municipalities with high numbers of Calvinists have a higher percentage of bike use, whereas the image of cycle racing is that of a ‘Catholic’ sport. To put it bluntly: the sober Calvinist will just ride a bike – think of Piet Donner, the vice president of the Council of State – whereas the more leisurely Catholic will be into cycle racing, like the former prime minister, Dries van Agt.”

This different appreciation of biking and cycle racing can also be seen in South Limburg. Limburgers bike less on average than people from, say, Groningen. According to Stoffers, this can be attributed to the landscape, the effect of Catholicism and the influence of bike-hostile government policies in the 1950s. "A government that takes biking into account is sending a symbolic message that this is a collective good." By contrast, South Limburg is the country’s prime cycle-racing region. It is only here, in the ‘Dutch mountains’, that the major cycling competitions take place, such as the present World Championships.

Manuel Stoffers works at the Department of History at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. He obtained his PhD in 2007 for his research on historiography and the history of nineteenth-century German histography, entitled Het nerveuze tijdperk en zijn historici. De opkomst van de mentaliteitsgeschiedenis in Duitsland, 1889-1915 (‘The age of nervousness and its historians: The rise of the history of mentalities in Germany, 1889–1915’). He has been working since 2009 on the history of biking culture and the bicycle as a vehicle for individual mass transport.



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