In the late 19th Century, as bicycles became more popular and bicycle technology more reliable, some military thinkers began to experiment with the idea of using bikes as a practical replacement for the horse. For the most part, bicycle-riding soldiers were used as scouts and messengers, but there were some army units of cyclists formed.
In 1895 Lt. James A. Moss, assigned to the black 25th Infantry Regiment in Montana received permission to create a bicycle corps. The A.G. Spaulding Company agreed to provide his corps with bicycles at no cost, which Moss helped design. Lt. Moss's bicycle corps consisted of himself and eight black enlisted men who recieved training in basic bicycle riding and maintenance; they were able to ride in formation, to drill, to scale a nine-foot fence while carrying the bike and travel 40 miles by bicycle a day. Each bicycle carried a knapsack, blanket roll and half a shelter strapped to the handlebars and a rifle strapped to the frame. All told, each bicycle soldier carried about 76 pounds of gear.
The 25th Infantry's location in western Montana gave Lt. Moss the opportunity to test his bicycle corps in rough terrain and under difficult conditions. After two weeks training, he led his corps from his base at Fort Missoula to Lake MacDonald on a nearby Indian Reservation. The trip to Lake MacDonald and back took four days and covered 126 miles up and down steep mountain grades, much of it in adverse weather. The following year, in 1896, he led his corps on an 800 mile trip to Yellowstone Park and back. In 1897 Lt. Moss led twenty men on an even longer trek to St. Louis, where they were greeted by a thousand enthusiastic cyclists.
The British also experimented with the use of bicyles in the armed forces, and the first use of bicyles in combat occured in the Jameson Raid of 1895 in South Africa prior to the Second Boer War. Military cyclists were used in the Second Boer War chiefly as messengers, although bicycle-mounted infantry conducted raids on both sides. Bicycles were also used extensively during the First World War where they were used once again as messengers, scouts and ambulance carriers.
During World War I, the bicycle began to be superceded in war by the motorcycle, but it still retained its uses, especially in remote places. Japan used some 50,000 bicycle troops in it's 1937 invasion of China. Bicycles were easy to transport, handled rough terrain well, and perhaps most importantly for the Japanese, used no petroleum.
In general, most or all of these applications reprise the role of mounted infantry, but the role of the bicycle as a "two wheeled cart" can also not be ignored. The late 20th Century has seen bicycles adopted in guerilla warfare where their ability to carry heavy loads without the kind of infrastructure required by motorized vehicles make them useful for supplying lightly-equipped forces. During the Vietnam War bicycles were used by the Viet Cong to carry supplies down the "Ho Chi Minh trail".
Game and Story Use
- Finally! A use for the "Bicycling" skill in GURPS!
- In a historical or time-travel campaign set in the early 20th Century, or in a war campaign set in remote, isolated region or utilizing unconventional forces, PCs might encounter bicycle-mounted soldiers.
- Possibly mountain bike mounted guerillas could prove a significant nuisance in rough or forested terrain.
- Or push-bike mounted zombie hunters after the apocalypse.