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Friday, 11 May, 2001, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
End of road for Swiss army cyclists
Swiss cyclists
Swiss terrain demands very high fitness levels
By Claire Doole at a Swiss training camp

A platoon of army cyclists whizzes through the Swiss countryside - the last reminder of a past era, which saw soldiers on bicycles as the backbone of the defence force.

But it is the end of an era for Switzerland's army bicycle brigade.

The world's last remaining regiment on two wheels is to be gradually disbanded by 2003.

You can be proud of it and when you tell your family or your friends, it is something very special

Tobias Zuercher
The Swiss have decided that pedal power has no place in plans to modernise and professionalise the militia army.

The reaction so far has been muted - a contrast to the loud protests that followed the scrapping of the mounted cavalry and carrier pigeon service in the '70s.

During the Second World War, the cyclists defended Switzerland's borders against the threat of Nazi attack.

Rigorous training

Since then, like the rest of the Swiss army, they have seen no action, but that has not deterred recruits.

Only the fittest of the fit get into the cycling regiment. Recruits face a rigourous training regime which includes a 200km forced pedal march starting at two in the morning.

The bikes weigh 25 kilos without luggage and at least twice that fully-laden with equipment including anti-tank weapons.

But Lieutentant Tobias Zuercher says the tough conditions make for a great fighting spirit.

No-one can understand why they are going to abolish us - it is stupid

Julian Voeffray
"They come to the cyclists' regiment because it is something very special," he says.

"You can be proud of it and when you tell your family or your friends, it is something very special."

But the government has decided that this unique brand of military service is no longer needed. In a new technologically-advanced army there is no room for the unprotected pedal pushers.


The brigade's traditional role of defending vulnerable infantry flanks and strategic positions is seen as outdated in modern warfare. But many recruits disagree.

"No-one can understand why they are going to abolish us," said Julian Voeffray.

"It is stupid. Over short distances we are very fast, much faster than the motorised units. We can be very discreet, we are well armed and we perform well against the tanks."

Neutral Switzerland has not needed to call in the cyclists since World War II
Corporal Benjamin Marti also thinks the decision is short-sighted.

"We are much more motivated than most regiments. Here there is always something to do, unlike in other regiments which can be a waste of time," he said.

Military service is not popular in Switzerland. Every man takes part in an initial 15-week recruiting session and is then called up for three-week refresher courses every two years until the age of 42.

By the time these men are called up again, the cycling brigade will have been consigned to history.

Cyclists have a marvellous willingness to serve - they want to perform above the normal

commander Jean-Pierre Leuenberger
Brigade commander Jean-Pierre Leuenberger hopes the spirit of the bicycling soldiers will however not be lost.

"I want to ensure that these mens' motivation is maintained, their spirit is preserved in other regiments. Cyclists have a marvellous willingness to serve - they want to perform above the normal," he said.

Swiss army bikes are already a collector's item.

Officially they can only be bought by the troops themselves, but the flourishing black market is likely to get a big boost when the cycling regiment dismounts forever.

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See also:

26 Nov 00 | Europe
Swiss vote against army cuts
15 Jul 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Swiss on the cycle warpath
23 Aug 99 | Europe
Swiss 'secret army' scandal
04 May 98 | Despatches
New commander for world's smallest army
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