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Why classic cycle rides have come of age

Two hundred years ago German nobleman Karl von Drais rode a strange, two wheeled invention through the streets of Mannheim. Bicycles have come a long way since, but now, they are also going back in time.

Galina Epping arrived to register for the Velo Classico bicycle event in the northern German town of Ludwigslust astride her freshly restored, vintage Pinarello road racer.

When the bike moved, the freewheel ticked like a precision watch; when it stopped, it sparkled like a piece of jewelry shimmering in autumn sunlight.

The 1980s frame was undercoated with a layer of shiny chrome, and painted in rich, translucent red and blue. “I paid 500 euros for the frame, and another 2,000 for the components and restoration,” she says, not regretting a cent of it. “It’s the hype, I guess.”

Galina is only one of nearly 400 cyclists from Germany and other countries who gathered on September 17 for the Velo Classico, an organized ride over three routes of 47, 90 and 150 kilometers through the scenic countryside of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. No one keeps time, and the only prizes are for the most unique bikes and the coolest period costumes.

Deutschland 3. Velo Classico in Ludwigslust (DW/K. Cote )

The route on the Velo Classico leads through forests and fields. Picture: DW/K. Cote

But to participate in the longest of the rides, your bike does have to meet certain requirements. Among them: the frame has to have been built prior to 1989 and the gear shifters have to be friction shifters located on the down tube.

The shorter routes have fewer requirements, but most everyone is on some sort of vintage bike or another, and many you would more likely to see in a museum. Cyclists are encouraged to wear wool racing tricots, or knickerbockers, tweed hats, and suspenders with bow ties.

“We do not want to exclude anyone,” says Velo Classico organizer Detlef Koepke. “But there is a certain charm when people get dressed up, and one key goal is to try to preserve the experience of riding the bikes our parents and grandparents did.”

Sprouting up around the world

Vintage bicycle events like the Velo Classico are sprouting up around the world. The original, the E’roica in the Chianti region of Italy, started in 1997. Today, participation is limited to 7,000 riders picked by lottery. The next installment is coming up on October 1, and 20,000 spectators are also expected.

Worldwide demand is so great that there are also licensed Eroica events in Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, the US, Uruguay, Japan and South Africa.

Next year, Germany is getting its own Eroica, scheduled to take place in mid July in the Rheingau region.

Deutschland 3. Velo Classico in Ludwigslust (DW/K. Cote)

Style is an important factor. Picture: DW/K. Cote

Psychologists say the growing popularity of retro cycling events like the Eroica, the Velo Classico and the Anjou Vélo Vintage in France, another major highlight on the vintage bike calendar, is not just hype.

“We live in an age where most people cannot keep up with the pace of technology,” says Peter Walshburger, a biopsychologist at the Free University Berlin. “So there is a rediscovery of the mechanics of something as simple as a bicycle, which you can understand instantly.”

Walshburger also says the social aspects of vintage bicycle events--riding in a group in a non competitive situation--makes them even more attractive, at a time when physical human interaction is increasingly replaced by social media networks.

“But the most important thing is that vintage bicycle events have a huge sensuality to them, and many of the things in our lives are void of real sensual content. When something comes along that appeals to our ears, our eyes, and our sense of smell all at once, like riding through the countryside, it takes on a lot more meaning.”

Vanishing values

Many participants at this year’s Velo Classico say looking back at better times helps them cope. “France was such a good place between the wars, and old bicycles help remind us of that,” says Laurent Udiano, administrator on France’s Velo Vintage A-Go-Go blog. “Who can relate to what is happening today? it’s total crap!”

Deutschland 3. Velo Classico in Ludwigslust (DW/K. Cote )

Riders gather at the start of the route. Picture: DW/K. Cote

Lucas Thiemann, a carpenter who travelled from Emden, sees a similarity between classic bicycles and the antique tools he prefers to use in woodworking: “An older tool was meant to last. It was built simply, so it could be maintained for generations. A modern tool is not built to last. It is built to get the job done as fast as possible. That’s a whole different thing.”

Marie Antonett Rieger, a hat maker from Schwerin, sold tweed caps on the sidelines of the first two Velo Classico events, but was so impressed with the people she met she decided to participate in the shorter ride this year herself. “It’s part of the slowness thing,” she says. “Everyone is so laid back and friendly.”

Others feel a philosophical bond to old bikes. Joan Dilé, is a graduate student in Berlin who showed up at the Velo Classico on a green Pashley bicycle and purple knickerbockers. She says Greek poet Andreas Embirikos got it right when he said reading a poem reveals truths the way riding a bicycle reveals the landscape. “For me, it is the aesthetics, says Dilé.

Manfred Galonski, an architect and vintage cycle enthusiast from Celle, says old bicycles made for professional racing take on a new life at at retro events.  “You are riding a racing bike, but you are not racing. There is no competition. Just fun!”

Though some fanatics do spend small fortunes on their vintage bikes, they are not in the majority, says Galonski. “Practically everyone has an old bicycle in the cellar. That’s really all you need.”