Cycling With the Tsars

May 21st, 2019

For three long months, Nicholas Romanov and his entourage had been imprisoned in a villa in Yekaterinburg, Russia, just east of the Urals. In the early hours of July 17, 1918, a Bolshevik official roused Nicholas from his bed and led the ex-tsar down to the cellar. In their wake trudged Nicholas’s wife Alexandra, a son, four daughters, the family physician, and three servants.

After the commandant had his unsuspecting charges huddle in front of a dank wall, as if to pose for a group photograph, he obligingly provided two chairs for the mother and son because both were too sickly to remain standing. He then pulled out a scrap of paper from his pocket and read aloud a brief execution warrant.

Before the condemned could even fully fathom their fate, a dozen soldiers stepped forward and opened fire. Minutes later, when the smoke had cleared, the commandant himself fired two more bullets to silence the faint moans of young Alexei, the would-be heir to the Russian throne. Under the cover of darkness, the killers brought the 11 corpses to a nearby forest and buried them in shallow graves that would remain undiscovered for decades.

The tragic tale of that glamorous but doomed royal couple has long captivated the public. The classic film Nicholas and Alexandra, released in 1971, depicted their stunning trajectory, starting with the rich and dashing Russian bachelor’s courtship of the lovely German-born princess. The film captured the genuine love that they had for each other (it was a rare royal romance) and for the beautiful children that would be born in rapid succession.

When at last a son and heir to the throne was born, after four daughters who were ineligible to rule on account of their gender, the parents were devastated to learn that he was stricken with hemophilia, a rare and often fatal blood disorder. In the film, Nicholas comes across as a devoted family man, and Alexandra as a pious and protective matron. But the film also exposes their bizarre reliance on the devious mystic Grigori Rasputin, and Nicholas’s disastrous leadership characterized by a callous indifference to the plight of the Russian masses, who are mired in abject poverty. The seemingly inevitable outcome is the fall of the house of Romanov and the rise of Vladimir Lenin and communism.

The recent centennial of the brutal Romanov murders has renewed the public’s fascination not only with Russia’s last king and queen, but also with the entire Romanov dynasty. For just over 300 years, a succession of tsars and tsarinas, including such notable personalities as founder Peter the Great and the incomparable Catherine the Great, ruled over nearly one-sixth of the earth’s land. They gradually transformed a predominantly agricultural country into a major world power.

One minor — yet intriguing — aspect to the last half century of Romanov rule is the family’s affinity for cycling. To be sure, since the introduction of the first human-powered vehicles (or “velocipedes” as they were generally called), European royals had occasionally lent makers their encouragement. In 1858, for example, Edward, Prince of Wales (the eldest son of Queen Victoria, who happened to be Alexandra’s grandmother), patronized Willard Sawyer, a maker of quadricycles. In 1868, the 12-year-old son of Napoleon III gleefully rode his newfangled bicycle in public, helping to spark “velocipede mania.” And by the time Nicholas was crowned tsar in 1894, scores of princes and princesses across Europe were eagerly partaking in the bicycle boom.

Alexei Romanov and Tsar Nicholas II.
Alexei Romanov, on a tricycle, and his father Tsar Nicholas II.
World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Among royal families, the Romanovs can easily claim the strongest connection to the bicycle. Clinching their case is the Imperial Bicycle Museum at Peterhof, formerly the Romanovs’ grand seaside summer resort, some 15 miles west of Saint Petersburg. There reside a dozen cycles that once belonged to various Romanovs.

Indeed, the family’s involvement with bicycles began practically with the bicycle itself. In June 1867, shortly after selling Alaska to the U.S., the tsar Alexander II (Nicholas’s grandfather) headed to Paris. There he negotiated a strategic alliance with his French counterpart, visited the Russian pavilion at the Universal Exhibition, feasted at banquets, carried on with his mistress, and dodged the bullet of a would-be assassin. Somehow he still found time to purchase one of those slender, gravity-defying vehicles that had just begun to rattle about Paris.

Or so legend has it. Andrey Myatiev, a Russian bicycle collector and historian, has been unable to trace the original source of that 1867 claim, which only seems to have gained currency years after the purported fact. Moreover, the velocipede held by the Imperial Bicycle Museum, said to be that vehicle, is in fact a latter model made in 1869 or 1870 by the Compagnie Parisienne.

Still it is entirely possible that Alexander II did indeed spot the first-generation bicycle while he was in Paris. Widely considered the most Western-leaning and liberal of the modern tsars (he freed Russian serfs two years before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation), he might well have taken a shine to the curious contraption that aspired to become the “people’s nag.”

And the tsar might well have snapped one up then and there, as did a number of other foreigners in Paris at that time (notably one C. G. Wheeler of Chicago, who was reportedly America’s second cyclist, after the patentee Pierre Lallement). Even if the middle-aged autocrat had no intention of riding the thing himself, he may have wanted one to give to his five rambunctious sons, whose ages at the time ranged from seven to 22.

In any case, several of the tsar’s sons were definitely cycling within a decade — though perhaps not in the manner that their father had intended. In late 1876, the tsar’s second-youngest son Sergei — aged 19 — described in his diary a reckless romp through the Winter Palace, the family’s primary residence in Saint Petersburg (the imperial capital city) that now houses the Hermitage Museum. Wrote Sergei under the tagline December 9 (as translated from Russian):

Here is a frost! -25°! Mom [the Empress Marie of Hesse] ordered sbiten [a hot and spicy Russian tea], scarves, mittens, and felt boots to be handed out to our cab drivers in front of the palace. Then I rode with my brothers on a velocipede through all the halls of the Winter Palace. I was on a four-wheeled one. I was very amused and we rolled everywhere, even in front of the guards who didn’t intervene.

Apparently, Sergei rode a quadricycle whereas his brothers had a mix of machines, including perhaps a tricycle or even a bicycle. A two-wheeler at that time would presumably have been a “high wheeler” of the sort that had become popular in Britain (though it had yet to gain a foothold in the U.S.).

In 1881, Sergei’s father, Alexander II, finally fell victim to an assassin. A young revolutionary managed to land a bomb at the feet of the tsar, who was traversing Saint Petersburg in his bulletproof carriage. Mortally wounded, he suffered an agonizing death with his grandson Nicholas at his bedside.

Alexander’s oldest son and namesake (Nicholas’s father) thus became Alexander III. He was a powerful, hulking man with a gruff temperament. Infused with a desire for revenge, he quickly gained a reputation for being ruthless and regressive.

For all his flaws, he was nevertheless the first certifiable cyclist to be crowned tsar. He had probably ridden the boneshaker as a youth and almost certainly the high wheeler in the 1870s. And shortly after assuming the throne, he acquired (possibly as gifts) two British-made high wheelers, now on display at the Imperial Bicycle Museum.

Just as the boneshaker had apparently appealed to his progressive father, so did the high wheeler speak to Alexander III’s large and over-the-top personality. The imposing second-generation machine was unapologetically elitist and purely recreational in spirit. By the early 1890s, most cyclists, including Alexander’s wife, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, were happily cruising about on the third-generation bicycle, the remarkably tame safety. It is unclear whether the emperor himself ever made the transition. But even if he did, a report published in an American cycling journal in 1892 stressed that he was still riding exclusively as a thrill seeker:

The mighty and bewhiskered tsar of Russia has several times been reported as coasting down the Ural Mountains before breakfast as a means of stimulating his appetite, and finding unlimited enjoyment in the hair-raising performance.

Two years later, at age 49, Alexander III died suddenly from kidney failure. His eldest surviving son, 26-year-old Nicholas, immediately took over the reins of government. By all accounts, he was totally unprepared for the job. He tried to buckle down — hastily marrying his fiancée, Alexandra — and he did his utmost to follow in his father’s reactionary footsteps. But he quickly proved utterly unfit to rule the vast Russian empire.

In 1905, after a decade of tenuous reign, Nicholas was nearly relieved of his duties. His oppressed people had had enough. That year, his army had mowed down scores of peaceful protesters who were demanding better living conditions. An ill-advised war against Japan proved both bloody and futile. Only by reluctantly agreeing to cede some power to the Duma, an elected assembly, did Nicholas manage to salvage his teetering regime.

Although the new tsar was widely denounced in the foreign press as “Bloody Nicholas,” he was in fact a gentle soul who had little interest in amassing riches or wielding great power. He much preferred relaxing with his family and taking photos with the new Kodak camera, as well as engaging in vigorous outdoor activities such as gardening, hiking, kayaking, playing tennis, and — of course — cycling.

In his youth, Nicholas likely rode the high wheeler, just like his father, but he came to power as an ardent devotee of the safety. In 1896, a humorous story about his passion circulated in the press. One day, while visiting relatives in Denmark (his mother was Danish), Nicholas set off for a spirited ride through the wooded countryside. When he realized that he was lost, he asked a passerby for directions. The man responded in perfect Russian. Nicholas was stunned. Then it dawned on him: his secret service men, realizing that they could not possibly keep up with him on his wheel, had fanned out before his departure to patrol the territory where he was likely to pass.

Like many cyclists at the time, Nicholas was also keenly interested in the latest motorized cycles (automobiles were still rare and largely experimental). In late 1898, a French newspaper reported:

It is well known that the young tsar Nicholas II rides a bicycle perfectly. In the past few days a factory has sent from Puteaux [an industrial Parisian suburb] to Saint Petersburg a superb petroleum-powered tricycle with a trailer. It is destined for the tsar’s two younger brothers. One of them, the grand duke Michael, is strong and robust. He will drive around the tsarevich [the heir apparent, Grand Duke George] whose weak state only allows for passive participation [while seated in the trailer].

Six months later, however, it was George alone who rode that tricycle (or something similar). The heir apparent (since Nicholas had no son at this point) was suffering from tuberculosis and convalescing at a spa in the province of Georgia when he decided to go for a joyride in the countryside. Hours later, a horrified peasant woman discovered the unconscious grand duke lying on the road in a pool of blood, his tricycle at his side. He died on the spot a short time later, his wounded head cradled in her arms.

According to Russian officials, George had suffered some sort of medical emergency that compelled him to descend from his motorcycle and ultimately caused him to collapse to the ground. Some historians, however, refuse to rule out foul play. Perhaps the most convincing theory — but not necessarily one that the regime cared to affirm — is that George somehow lost control of his vehicle, either because of a mechanical mishap or reckless driving. In any case, his untimely death delivered a terrible blow to Nicholas, one that left him feeling guilt-ridden as the provider of that deadly machine.

Somewhat surprisingly, neither George’s tragic death, nor the fading of the bicycle boom, nor his mounting duties, would keep Nicholas off his bicycle. Surviving records affirm that he continued for years to buy and service bicycles. And his diaries show that he often went for short rides on the estates surrounding his various palaces, notably Peterhof and Livadia in the Crimea where the family generally spent springs and falls (and where the famous Yalta Conference would take place at the end of World War II).

Nicholas did most of his riding, however, in Tsarskoye Selo (meaning “the tsar’s village”), a sleepy town some 30 miles south of Saint Petersburg. Indeed, by the time the new tsarevich came along in 1904, the family had settled there, ensconced in the neoclassical Alexander Palace, which was surrounded by acres of pristine parkland. There the family felt safely removed from the rabble in Saint Petersburg and could more easily guard the dark secret of Alexei’s fragile health from the enemies of the regime. Consequently, the tsar made only occasional visits to the capital city, becoming ever more detached from his suffering subjects.

Nicholas frequently cycled on the estate. He was, however, by no means the only cyclist in the family. True, Alexandra did not ride, for she was constantly bedridden as she coped with an endless barrage of illnesses, both real and imagined. But all of the daughters — Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia — learned to ride at a young age, and all continued to cycle through adolescence into young adulthood, often with their father.

Alexei too longed to bicycle, but his mother forbade him for fear that he might fall off, cut himself, and possibly bleed to death. That was a painful prohibition for the restless lad who longed to pedal alongside his father, his sisters, and his many cycling cousins. On at least one occasion, he defiantly grabbed an idle bicycle and took off, forcing his frantic guardians to chase after him. At last, his mother agreed to let him ride on a bicycle, seated in a velvet seat suspended over its front wheel. When he turned seven in 1911, he was even allowed to pedal a tricycle, custom made for him in a factory in Riga.

Even after Russia entered the Great War, in the summer of 1914, the Romanov children continued to cycle whenever and wherever they could. 

After Russia entered the Great War, in the summer of 1914, the Romanovs established a makeshift hospital ward within the confines of Alexander Palace. There, Alexandra and the so-called “Big Pair,” Olga and Tatiana dutifully nursed the wounded soldiers who were arriving by the truckload from the German frontier ( The “Little Pair,” Anastasia and Meria, were too young to be exposed to such horrors). The older sisters, nevertheless, occasionally found the downtime to cycle around the palace grounds. Those quiet moments communing with nature gave them, no doubt, a peaceful respite from the growing turmoil swirling around them.

In March 1917, Nicholas’s tumultuous 22-year reign came to an abrupt and humiliating end. The Russian army, woefully undertrained and poorly equipped, had already suffered millions of casualties with no relief in sight. And living conditions in Russia had gone from horrible to unbearable. Under intense pressure from centrists and revolutionaries alike, Nicholas was forced to abdicate. Initially he floated the preposterous proposal that Alexei take his place, before tapping his brother Michael, who promptly renounced any claim to the throne.

A provisional government emerged in Saint Petersburg, committed to abolishing the monarchy altogether. It ordered the Romanovs to stay put in Alexander Palace, under house arrest, until it could make arrangements for permanent exile abroad. Nicholas’s cousin, King George V, initially invited the family to relocate to Great Britain, but he quickly rescinded the offer after his subjects voiced strenuous objections.

Still, the close-knit clan clung to the hope that they would eventually find a safe haven. In the meantime, they resolved to continue living in Alexander Palace as normally as possible. After all, in some respects their lifestyles had not changed all that much. They still had a large staff at their disposal. And even under the watchful eyes of hostile guards, they managed to keep to their daily routines, which included sitting down together for meals, attending church services in their private chapel, playing card games, reading books, and knitting.

There was even an upside to their ordeal: Papa was no longer absent for long spells to strategize with his generals. He was home now and in good spirits, ever available to his adoring children. He especially enjoyed exercising with them outdoors — gardening, chopping wood, going for walks, sledding, or, in fine weather, riding bicycles around the palace grounds.

That spring, Nicholas pedaled as much as he ever had, often with one or more of his children. As late as May 10, he was still paying a local mechanic to service his bicycle. Not every outing went smoothly, though. One day, just as Nicholas pushed off, a spiteful guard stuck his bayonet into a wheel, only to howl with delight when the ex-tsar and his bicycle tumbled to the ground. Nicholas calmly stood up, brushed himself off, picked up his bike, and resumed his ride as if nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred.

Perhaps Nicholas, as he pedaled around his sanctuary, pictured himself on a rural road in England, a country famed for its culture of cycle touring. He may even have fantasized, like his contemporary Woodrow Wilson, that he would one day roam the French countryside on a bicycle, unmolested. One thing is certain: those outdoor cycling jaunts he made with his children at his side in the early summer of 1917 were among the last truly happy moments that they would ever spend together.

Late that July, the family received an urgent order to pack their bags immediately with only the most essential items (needless to say, no bicycles). But they would not be heading to Britain or even abroad — at least not yet. They would be taken discreetly in a night train to an undisclosed location somewhere deep in Russia. And they would stay there until authorities were ready to decide their fate.

That place turned out to be Tobolsk, the capital of Siberia, almost 2,000 miles east of Saint Petersburg. The official who made the arrangements to house the family in what was formerly the governor’s palace would later insist that he chose that remote location for the family’s safety. It may be no coincidence, however, that the Romanovs wound up in the same rugged region where generations of tsars had sent their worst enemies to languish, if not perish.

By November 1917, the Bolsheviks had seized control of the government. The fate of the Romanovs was now squarely in Vladimir Lenin’s hands. He had never met Nicholas, but he despised the man and all that he stood for. His grudge went beyond politics — it was deeply personal. Nicholas’s father had executed Lenin’s older brother Alexander in 1887 when the radical student was just 21 years old. And Nicholas himself had forced Lenin to spend a decade abroad living in exile.

In May 1918, the Bolsheviks relocated the Romanovs once again, this time in Yekaterinburg, roughly halfway between Tobolsk and Saint Petersburg. Lenin probably wanted the ex-tsar closer to Moscow, the new seat of power, should he decide to publicly prosecute him. In the meantime, the guards tightened their security around the Romanovs and imposed ever harsher restrictions.

Lenin himself likely ordered the slaughter of the Romanov family and the loyal retinue that had steadfastly refused to abandon them in their hour of need. Lenin took pains to leave no paper trail that would link him to the deed. Indeed, until the Soviet Union itself collapsed on Christmas Day 1991, the entire episode remained shrouded in a torrent of official denials, half truths, contradictions, and outright lies about the fate of the Romanovs.

Ironically enough, the two Russian archrivals shared a passion. Lenin too had been an avid cyclist. During his long exile, between 1909 and 1912, he lived in Paris. There he acquired a bicycle and rode it daily between his apartment on the Rive Gauche and the French National Library, then located in the center of the city. He became so enamored with cycling that he began to go on long weekend rides in the French countryside.

Sadly, that common thread of humanity was not enough to induce Lenin to spare the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra, or even those of their children and the other innocent victims who perished on that dark night the world will never forget.  

David V. Herlihy is the author of The Lost Cyclist, and Bicycle: The History. The author dedicates this article to his late mother Patricia Herlihy, a Russian scholar. Special thanks to Natalia Grishina, Andrey Myatiev, and Helen Azar for their assistance.

This post has been updated to remove an inaccurate quote. 

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