This is the fifth post of our 6 part series, Bicycles at War.
“A Swiss soldier without rock-hard buttocks brings shame on the army.”
Bicycles are almost as Swiss as Swiss Army knives, and the Swiss Army proudly maintained a front-line bicycle infantry regiment into the 21st Century. While it was disbanded in 2003, The Swiss Army continues to use bicycles for base transportation, lending some credence to satirical news reports suggest that the bike regiment will be revived:
Frankly, young Swiss men used to be fine specimens of manhood, but today many have let themselves go, Defence Ministry spokesman Thomas Fisch supposedly told The Local, “Our view is that a Swiss soldier without rock-hard buttocks brings shame on the army.”
The Swiss Army bike regiments were tasked not with offensive reconnaissance, as many bicycle units had been during the Great War, nor with logistical supply as in Vietnam, but were rather a quick-strike (Handstreich), defensive unit. For five hundred years the Swiss have pursued a policy of armed neutrality. While there were occasional border skirmishes and accidental bombings in the First and Second World Wars, Switzerland hasn’t been truly at war since it was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. It is a naturally defensible country. The Swiss Army, therefore, trains to defend their country. And for that purpose, the bicycle reigned supreme for one hundred years. Regardless of whether Switzerland was being invaded from the east by the Warsaw Pact or from the west by NATO, the bicycle regiments were expected to quickly and quietly traverse both rural and urban settings to ambush motorized forces.
The Swiss bike regiments were the lite of the army, the equivalent of U.S. Army Rangers or Royal Army Gurkhas. While most civilian cyclists would be daunted to ride two hundred kilometers, bike recruits were expected to do just that at night, with a seventy-five-kilo pack on a single-speed “velo” over alpine passes. “They come to the cyclists’ regiment because it is something very special,” said Lieutenant Tobias Zuercher, “You can be proud of it when you tell your family or your friends.”
The bicycle began service in the Swiss Army in 1891 as a courier vehicle. Enlisted soldiers assigned to headquarters would bring their bicycle from home, as they had done previously with a horse or pony. In 1905 the Swiss Army introduced the first standard bicycle, or “Ordonnanzfahrrad,” the Modell 05. It was built “army tough,” weighing 22 kilograms, or almost 50 pounds. With just a single gear, riding the MO-5 up an alpine pass would have been a challenge, to say the least. And descending a pass would have been even more exciting, as the MO-5 had just a spoon brake on the front and a coaster brake on the rear (upgraded to a drum brake, post-World War II). Thankfully one of the frame bags included all of the tools necessary to field strip the MO-5, as a single, substantial descent would have burned off all of the grease in the coaster brake.
Facing a shortage of spare parts for the MO-5, the Swiss Army introduced a new bike in 1993, dubbed the Militrrad 93, or MO-93. The MO-93 was equipped with a rear derailleur and seven gears, a hefty derailleur guard, and (then) state-of-the-art cantilever brakes.
But in 2001 the Swiss Army announced that the bicycle regiments were to be disbanded by 2003. The venerable velos were to be replaced with armored, motorized fighting vehicles. The loss was lamented by cycling aficionados and lampooned by internal combustion snobs. “No-one can understand why they are going to abolish us,” said bike commander Julian Voeffray in a 2001 BBC interview, “It is stupid. Over short distances, we are very fast, much faster than the motorized units. We can be very discreet, we are well armed and we perform well against the tanks.”
A few years later, though, the Swiss “Ministry of Defence, Civil Defence and Sport” ordered 2,400 (some sources say 4,100) new bicycles, dubbed the MO-12, but colloquially known as the “Velo Zwolf.” The MO-12 is a dream commuter bike, built by Simpel, a Swiss company. It addition to a reliable, eight-speed, internally-geared hub, it sports front and rear disc brakes, fenders, cargo racks. It looks beefy enough to haul a bazooka, an assault rifle, and a rucksack, all at the same time. The reflective sidewalls on the semi-slick Schwalbe tires, though
, belie that the M-12 is meant for “cadet officers, sergeant majors, quartermasters, cooks, guards…physical training, and movement between barracks and firing range,” but not the frontline.
On April 1st, 2015, a Swiss news site published a satirical article announcing the reinstitution of the bicycle regiments.
The Swiss bicycle infantry was phased out in 2001 but a defense department spokesman said late Tuesday that its resurrection would help deal with the thousands of recruits who are out of shape.
Spokesman Thomas Fisch said the army favors the return of the single-speed bicycles used continuously by the army between 1905 and the 1990s.
Frankly, young Swiss men used to be fine specimens of manhood, but today many have let themselves go, Fisch told The Local.
“Our view is that a Swiss soldier without rock-hard buttocks brings shame on the army.”
The bikes, equipped to carry food rations and battle gear, weigh a hefty 25 kilograms or more, making them challenging to maneuver in mountain terrain.
As well, soldiers in the cycling infantry will be expected to carry up to 32 kilograms of equipment.
Defence Minister Ulrich Maurer is an avid cyclist who served in the army as a major commanding a bicycle battalion.
In addition to being useful for improving the fitness of soldiers, the army says bicycles will play a vital part in national defense.
“Frankly, we’re getting a bit worried by the French and their crack Segway regiment,” Fisch said.
“We hope that putting our men on bikes will stop them getting up to any mischief.”
The infantry will enable the army to respond nimbly and without the noise of motorized vehicles, he said.
A budget for the new bicycle contingent has not been announced but thousands of the Swiss-made bikes will have to be ordered at an estimated cost of 2,500 francs apiece, including maintenance over ten years.
Maurer, concerned about the overuse of motor vehicles by the military, wants all recruits to take their turn in the bicycle infantry around 10,000 a year.
The Swiss Army has raised the alarm about recruits being unfit for the tasks they have to take on, with more than 20 percent of them being sent home within three weeks of starting training.