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Over 100 Years of Royal Cycling in the Netherlands

By Adam Marsal

Cycling has a long tradition among Dutch people, in part maybe because it is also exceptionally promoted by the entire Royal Family. The popularity of cycling, which is rare to see anywhere else in the world, led to an official term of the ‘bicycle monarchy’. The concept does not only refer to the popularity of that mean of transport with the family but also reflects the informal behaviour of the Dutch Royals who stay away from things such as pomp and ceremonies as much as possible. That’s actually one of the most decisive reasons the Royal family maintains constant popularity in the country. Let us go back in time to explore when it all began.

The first member of the Dutch Royal Family to show passion for cycling was Wilhelmina Helena Pauline Maria who reigned the Queen of the Netherlands from 1890 until her abdication in 1948. She reigned for almost 58 years and her reign saw the First and the Second World War. Wilhelmina fell in love with cycling during her summer holiday in Austria in 1897. When she returned back to the Netherlands, she brought a brand new bicycle.

The young Queen had a great time sporting the splendid machine in the royal garden but soon thereafter her mother was seized with harrowing scruples as to whether it was in accordance with propriety for the Queen to ride a bike. She submitted her doubts to the Queen who laughed at the idea and declined to relinquish the bicycle. The quarrel was advanced to the state council. The council discussed the matter carefully and exhaustively and finally concluded that such recreation was incompatible with the dignity of the throne.

Wilhelmina was forbidden to cycle after she was inaugurated in 1898. She obeyed the ban until the early 1930s. After her mother died in 1934, she was often seen cycling with her daughter Juliana in public places around the palace in The Hague. Photos of her cycling were occasionally published in the press until 1948 when she abdicated in favour of her daughter Juliana.

The inauguration of the Queen. © Profimedia

Juliana Louise Emma Marie Wilhelmina, the Queen of the Netherlands from 1948 until 1980, inherited the cycling passion from her mother. The historians remember how excited she was any time the state visit included a bike ride. You can see her in old, black-and-white footage riding her bike in the lead of a group that included her husband Bernhard and some official guests from abroad. With regular training, she could hardly hide the pride of her cycling skills.

In April 1980, she abdicated in favour of her daughter Beatrix Wilhelmina Armgard who regularly cycled as a kid. Riding down the road alongside her younger sister, the Princess Irene of the Netherlands, she commuted to school like every Dutch child of the time. When Beatrix got married to Prince Claus of the Netherlands, who was of German origin, the wedding day witnessed protests. The activists shouted out slogans including “Mijn fiets terug” (Give me back my bike), referring to the occupying German soldiers that confiscated bicycles from Dutch people during the Second World War. However, the Dutch society grew to love Claus. Maybe the fact that Claus was a keen cyclist himself helped a little.

Dutch Royal Family
Queen Beatrix and her family. © Reginald Davis/Rex Features/Profimedia

Claus still rode his bike at a time when his health condition almost made it impossible. Suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and heart and respiratory ailments at a senior age, he was seen cycling on many occasions. To the horror of the Royal bodyguards, he offered a ride to an anonymous girl from the crowd during the official visit in Houten, a city with a strong cycling tradition. Dutch people were delighted by the warmth gesture broadcasted on TV all over the country.

With such a family tradition, it is no wonder that the current King Willem-Alexander is the same two-wheel enthusiast as most of his ancestors. The head of state of the Netherlands from April 2013 grew up with cycling. You can find many photos showing him riding a bike from the age of five onwards. The habit of cycling in front of press cameras was adopted also by his wife, Máxima, who moved to the Netherlands from Argentina. The royal couple cycled during their foreign visits in New York City or Istanbul, and lifestyle magazines often cover the cycle trips of Willem-Alexander and Máxima with their three daughters. The photo of the eldest Catharina-Amalia cycling to school instead of taking a ride in a limo proves that the Dutch people don’t need to worry about the future of the bicycle monarchy in the Netherlands.