The Swiss surely have a knack for inventing quirky gadgets, from velcro to the zipper. More than a century ago, they've put two and two together to invent: a snow bike. Out of pure ingenuity, the Velogemel snow bike was born in Grindelwald in 1911.
Why the Velogemel snow bike was invented
At the time, it was common across Switzerland's mountainous regions to leave the roads snow-covered. While this allowed for sleds to pass, the snow presented a challenge for many. One of the Grindelwald residents, the son of a carpenter who also suffered from impaired mobility, figured that a bicycle sled would allow him to get around more easily.
Christian Bühlmann filed patent #52628 for a "single-track steerable sports sledge" on no other day than April 1, 1911. The officials in Bern must have thought of it as a joke. But boy, were they wrong: the Velogemel invented by Bühlmann caught on with mailmen, farmers, children, and even doctors.
And the Velogemel snow bike is still being used today, albeit for an annual competition and less for the sake of getting around.
What is a Velogemel snow bike really?
A Velogemel snow bike essentially combines the technology of a bicycle (Velo) and a sled (Gemel in the local Swiss dialect.) It consists of four elements: the frame, the runners, the handlebar, and the saddle.
Inventor Bühlmann would use ash wood for the frame, a tradition that still continues. For the remaining components, including the two runners, he used maple wood.
Similar to a road bicycle, this contraption can be steered using a handlebar. The biggest difference to a bicycle is the lack of any brakes. The only way to control the speed of a Velogemel is by using the feet. On flat stretches, the feet are used to push the snow bike forward.
Where do they use the Velogemel snow bike?
The Velogemel snow bike is used almost exclusively in its birthplace of Grindelwald, Switzerland.
Meanwhile, local craftsmen ship Velogemel snow bikes to all corners of the world. According to Grindelwald Tourism, buyers' locations include Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the US.
The Velogemel World Championship in Grindelwald
In 1996 when Grindelwald celebrated the 850th anniversary, the first-ever Velogemel World Championship was hosted. Now an annual event, the championship attracts contenders from all parts of the world: Dutch, German, Japanese, and naturally, many Swiss locals.
The races are traditionally launched on Bussalp above Grindelwald. Spectators can get there from Grindelwald within 35 minutes by using the local bus line 126. Starting at noon, every 30 seconds a new rider will zip down the track from Oberläger to Mittelläger.
In order to practice this sport on more occasions during winter, local sled racing competitions usually add a special category for snow bikes.
Where to rent a Velogemel in Grindelwald
Those among you in need of a challenge may rent a Velogemel in Grindelwald. It is important to wear good shoes, preferably snow boots or hiking boots with a good profile. In the birthplace of the snow bike, inquire at one of the following outlets:
- Bahnhof Grindelwald
- INTERSPORT Grindelwald (various locations)
- Kaufmann Sport
- Skiservice Egger, Grindelwald Grund