Monday 27 December 2010

A Herd of Tin Donkeys: c. 1962/3 Bauer Track Bicycle

In a surprise even to me, a very interesting bicycle came up on E-Bay Deutschland just before Christmas and my rather low bid was the winner, so now I have added a German fixed gear 1960s track bicycle to the Herd of Tin Donkeys. The bike looked irresistible in the photos and today I picked it up in a small town between Bonn and Cologne and found it to be as advertised. I paid just a bit more than I would have for a new mass-market Bianchi Pista made in Taiwan.

The Bauer-Werke, which manufactured carbide bicycle headlights, was established in 1911 in Frankfurt and moved to nearby Hanau (Klein-Auheim) in 1914. Hanau is the town where the famous Grimm Brothers, of fairy-tale fame, were born. The company began to build complete bicycles in 1922 and continued to do so until going bankrupt in 1968. The company also manufactured a range of small motorcycles and even built an engine in-house for them. The bicycle range was quite broad and the racing program included Reynolds 531 frames built with either in-house lugs with nice cut-outs (as is the case of my bike) or curly Nervex lugs. Track frames are, unsurprisingly, quite rare.

There seems to have been a factory team, and Bauer bikes did appear in the Tour de France as well. In 1936, the Rund um Berlin road race was won by Fritz Ruland, racing for the RV Bauer Klein-Auheim team and there was a Bauer Preis race in Gross-Auheim. In 1952, Heinz Müller, riding a Bauer, won the professional World Championship on the road and the upper-range models subsequently were festooned with the rainbow stripes. Incidentally, Müller was the first of only two German pro world champions, although five German women have won the title.

Post-1961 Bauer bicycles had a "50" included in the headtube badge to note the 50th anniversary of the founding of the company. The company was building over 100,000 bicycles annually but clearly not at a profit as it went broke 43 years ago. The Bauer name was purchased in 1968 by another firm, which continues to build city bikes under the brand. There is still a street in Klein-Auheim named after the founding Bauer brothers. I gather that the Bauer company was held in some esteem in its heydey. The factory building still exists but has been renovated into apartments.

My bicycle seems to be in very good original condition, at least with respect to the frame. I have some doubts about the originality of the Campagnolo components, which look somewhat newer but are still quite attractive. The stem is definitely wrong but I am not sure I want to pay much to replace it with a period track stem. Cinelli stems were used then but also an obscure Belgian brand named Titan, which I am sure is unavailable at any price and probably not roadworthy any more if used. The bike is surprisingly light but then again it has no brakes or variable gears. I have never ridden a track bike and although the fork is drilled for a brake I will probably not use it on the street. I am fortunate that here in Düsseldorf there is actually a covered bike track and perhaps I can re-enact the Good Old Days there...once the snowstorms keeping everything shut down here have ended!

Friday 19 November 2010

My Latest Book Review

Hooray! My latest book review for can be found here. Enjoy!

Thursday 18 November 2010

Danny MacAskill Rides Again

I previously put in a link to Danny MacAskill's YouTube video, which apparently has now been watched 20 million times. He has a new video out showing a ride from Edinburgh to Skye and there are things in here that take your breath away. Pure poetry.

Thursday 11 November 2010

A Herd of Tin Donkeys: 1988 Basso

Following my experience riding Richard's singlespeed bicycles and with the endless rain here in Nordrhein-Westfalen, I thought that I would look into building up an inexpensive used bike into a cheap winter trainer with mudguards that would be light, simple and cheap. And cheap.

A quick search of the famous on-line auction revealed some attractive offerings. I thought it would be better to go with as complete a bike as possible so that I would not have to buy a lot of extra parts for the build-up. I missed the chance for a nice but not-quite-complete Vicini as my sniping software failed me but there is no shortage of bikes in Germany and patience is rewarded. Soon afterwards a blue Basso, in excellent condition, came onto the market and I was the successful bidder. By the time it reaches me, I will have a set of SKS mudguards in hand and will discuss with Richard how best to make it into a singlespeed if we go that route. And it already comes with a bell so I can make my presence known to the omnipresent German strollers on the bike routes here.

Basso bicycles are built near Vicenza, Italy and the family firm has been in operation since the late 1970s, first as a retail operation and then with the factory opened in 1981. The three Basso brothers include Marino, who was World Cycling Champion in 1972, but the main driving force is Alcide, who was a racer but made his mark as a mechanic. He apprenticed under legendary builder Ugo de Rosa. Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso is not related to these Bassos. The company has a rather low profile and there is not much out there about older models, unlike Colnago or Cinelli. While Basso bikes have been used by some celebrated racers, it has never had the publicity that comes from sponsoring a top pro team. Nonetheless, the company, which continues to produce all its bicycles by hand in Italy, has a reputation for quality and the bike I purchased looks very good. And it was relatively cheap as well!

The frame is made of Oria 0.9 straight-gauge tubing, suggesting that this bike was at the lower end of Basso's offerings, confirmed by the lower-end Shimano Sport LX parts. The components date the bike to 1988. Oria was drawn by the German steel firm Mannesmann and while fairly stiff it is not considered to be as light or responsive as the better Reynolds or Columbus tubing. However, not only is the bike in surprisingly good condition, but it has many nice details, including the Basso name engraved on the seatstays and the logo engraved in the chrome fork. The dropouts are also marked as Basso. The finish work on the lugs is very clean and I am curious how the bicycle rides compared to my premium bikes. The Concor saddle does not really match well but when the bike gets wet I will not feel bad about it. However, that Shimano Bio-pace chainring will be the first thing to go!

As mentioned, Basso continues to build bicycles and even offers a lugged steel frame, the Viper. However, it has impressive capability in carbon, aluminum and titanium, as you will see in this technical paper. The small but modern factory is located only 5 kms from that other Vicenza bicycle operation--Campagnolo.

"The racing bicycle is derived from practical principles! You need to be comfortable on the bicycle, whether you are riding a short distance or a long one. You can't go as well if the ride is cannot win the race if you cannot finish the race." - Alcide Basso

Sunday 7 November 2010

A Dusseldorf Training Circuit

It was a profitable day. For the first time in several weeks I woke up this morning with all the symptoms of a head cold, apparently a very common problem in Fall in Germany. I had organized myself enough yesterday that I spent part of the morning putting up the last of my pictures in the apartment. Previously, while living in Washington, DC, I had a nice big empty wall and, inspired by a collection of Indian paintings at the Renwick Gallery, I arranged all my cycling posters/certificates/cowbells to occupy all that space. One of my friends referred to it as "the Shrine." In Ottawa I did not have any suitable space so all the framed pictures stayed in boxes for three years. They have now been liberated as the Shrine has been reconstructed in D'dorf.

I did not have much time to admire my handiwork as Richard, he of Ricci-Sport, gave me a call. The weather was good enough (that is, not raining for once) so that we were able to go for a ride together. I met him at the shop at 11:30 and we headed out together. He had a different bicycle as his admirable silver Ricci singlespeed, which I had tried out a few weeks ago, had been stolen yesterday. He put together another bike to ride today, so off we went.

Richard is proud of the courses he has worked out in the area and today's was impressive: we live in the most densely-populated corner of Germany and yet almost all of the ride was on roads with no traffic, taking us past farms and through quiet valleys. The course was challenging as it includes some very difficult little hills. I actually had to walk up a piece of one. The 17% grade was hard enough but I lost all my traction on the rear wheel due to the wet leaves. He is also proud of the fact that we were never more than half an hour from the city, although our course was nearly 60 kms.

I did not feel 100% and climbing with a head cold is not easy as the increasing blood pressure tends to make your face hurt but I could not keep up to Richard anyway, even on my Marinoni which has a triple. How he can ride this course on a singlespeed is beyond me, although I think that in one or two spots he would have been happy to have some extra gears. He tells me that if I ride this course often enough I will have the legs and stamina for L'Eroica next October and I do not doubt it. And I hope that my weight will drop enough to make climbing hurt less!

We rolled back through Gerresheim and then back to Grafenberg, where it was time for coffee and cake at a little Konditorei I had noticed a while back since not a lot is open on Sunday. It was a delightful ride, although with 819 meters of climbing in 57.61 kms, I suspect I will sleep well tonight.

Unfortunately, it was too grey and nasty for photography but it was a joy to ride though the autumn colours. Perhaps not as impressive as what I would see in Ottawa but since there is snow there already I will not complain. Although the bike is filthy...

Friday 5 November 2010

Chasing Legends: 2009 Tour de France DVD

May 2010 saw the theatrical release, on a very limited basis, of Chasing Legends, a documentary about the 2009 Tour de France seen through the pro team HTC-Columbia, led by super-sprinter Mark Cavendish. The movie is now out on a 2 disc DVD set and my review of it has just appeared at and can be found here.

The film was produced by a group based in little Harrisonburg, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley and on a shoestring budget. A labour of love, it is certainly worth adding to your collection.

Saturday 30 October 2010

Riding in the Bergisches Land

Coat of Arms of the Dukes of Berg

Once my shipment of personal effects arrived from Canada, I was very anxious to assemble the bicycles and get out for a ride in one of several scenic areas that I had marked on my maps. The most promising of these looked like a tour in the Bergisches Land which I found on the Internet. I worked out a GPS route and put it onto the Garmin, hoping that perhaps this time my homemade route planning might actually work!

The weather in Düsseldorf had been pretty wretched since my arrival, with perhaps five days with rain in every seven. After two weeks, I ended up with the Mother of All Head Colds and suffered a great deal. I was feeling better at the beginning of October and tried to arrange a ride with a Brit living near Cologne, but then it was his turn to get sick! Feeling still so-so, I went on Saturday evening to the Düsselstrand , a swimming pool/sauna near my apartment, for their Midnight Sauna event, in the hope that I could clear out my breathing passages. It seemed to help, and I was able to sleep well enough.

The next morning I rode the Tarmac to the Wehrhahn S-bahn station, a short distance from home. The train took me in the direction of Cologne, past the massive Bayer chemical works in Leverkusen. One transfer and I was on the next S-bahn to Bergisch Gladbach. Incidentally, I have noticed “No Smoking” signs at S-bahn stations in Berlin and Düsseldorf, completely unenforced as there are always smokers standing around and puffing away. So much for the German reputation for following rules...

Bergisch Gladbach is kind of an ugly place, with heavy traffic everywhere. I started the GPS and, to my amazement, it actually showed the correct direction to get out of town! Hooray! Getting out of town was not so much fun. It was a holiday (October 3: German Reunification Day) but since it was a Sunday anyway things were closed, but everyone was out in their cars. I rode through the city on the rather narrow bikepath, working my way around obstructions like parked cars, and as the road began to gently climb I came to the sorry realization that seven weeks off the bike had done terrible things to my form as I was starting to feel the first little uphill stretch. But then again I had not had much of a chance to warm up either.
Following the signs to the Odenthal, I was soon in the Bergisches Land Park, which covers much of this region. There was a very wide paved bikepath next to the main road, which was much pleasanter than what I had experienced in Gladbach. The GPS was pointing me the right way and soon, off to the left, I saw the imposing bulk of the cathedral in Altenberg. Ignoring the GPS’ suggestion, I rode parallel to the cathedral and then turned onto a small road that took me directly to it.

There were many people standing around the cathedral, and there were a pair of fancy restaurants there as well. That pretty much looked like all of Altenberg to me. The cathedral is not really a cathedral since the town was never a bishopric. The Dukes of Berg had had their family seat here and in the 13th Century they moved to Schloss Burg on the Wupper, giving the property to some Cistercians who built an abbey. The cathedral, begun in 1259, is owned by the State of Nordrhein-Westfalen, and is used for both Protestant and Catholic services, as well as for concerts.

A comment on names is in order here. The Bergisches Land refers not to mountains (Berge) of this quite hill region but to the Dukes of Berg, who reigned in one form or another from 1101 to 1666. The second linguistic oddity is that their new castle, which still exists near Solingen, was Schloss Burg, which translates to “Castle Castle,” or, more accurately, “Palace Fortress,” which is a contradiction in terms.

Leaving Altenberg, I discovered the Berge indeed as I had a very steep climb up a hill to get to Scheuren. I was proud of having used satellite images to plot my course on very obscure backroads but of course you don’t get a feel for the gradient when you are looking straight down at the photos! There were quite a few hikers enjoying the sunny weather but this wheezing cyclist eventually made it up to the top, enjoying the sight of the neat farms and little patches of forest in the rolling countryside.

I stopped at what would turn out to be the only Konditorei en route that would be open on this Sunday and enjoyed a wonderful piece of Heidelbeerenkuchen with a cappucino. I stocked up with some buns for later in the ride and took off my arm warmers as the day warmed up rapidly.

The weather was really terrific now and I was enjoying myself. There was no traffic at all and the road was in excellent condition. I felt much better after the cake and pushed the speed up past 30 km/h at a steady pace. I passed one of the few cyclists I was to see that day at a good pace but then again he was on a mountain bike.

As I was enjoying the great weather and the fine scenery, having put in 22 kms of my 80 km ride, I carelessly let my front tire slip off the asphalt. There was a lip on the side of the road and not much of a shoulder. I turned the wheel back towards the road and suddenly realized that I had not turned it sharply enough, meaning the rim was about to hit the edge of the asphalt at a flat angle. This meant in turn that when the wheel slammed into the pavement, the whole bike would flop over sideways and then fly over to the left. As if in slow motion I watched the whole crash take place, thinking as I went down that this was going to hurt but I had to protect my teeth.

When I stood up there was a lot of pain. I had ripped my right glove and there were abrasions in the knuckles; my nice Pezcycling jersey was torn in the middle of my chest; my left elbow and my left knee were bleeding and there was a cut in my upper lip and the right side of my chin. Even though I had felt an impact on my mouth, my teeth seemed intact.

I mopped up the blood as best as I could and the mountain biker arrived and offered to help, although I could see he was pretty distressed by the way I looked. He offered to call someone for me but since there is nobody to call I thanked him and said that I would probably be able to get back on my own. He thought that the clipless pedals were partly to blame and was very sympathetic. I thanked him and he rode on.

I felt pretty terrible and was not sure if my nose was bleeding as well or this was just from the cut in my lip. I used up some of my water to clean up as best as I could and then looked at the bike since I was in the middle of nowhere and really needed to have it functional if I wanted to get back to Düsseldorf somehow. Fortunately, there was no damage whatever to the bike. The seat was twisted far off to one side, as was the front wheel, but all I had to do was loosen the bolts, reposition everything and tighten it all up again. The water had revived me and the pain was not so bad (although I must have looked scarey), so I decided to just keep on going. After all, my GPS route was plotted perfectly so far and I wanted to see if it would get me back as promised!

The road was extremely rural and most of the time I rode in empty countryside, passing only the outskirts of a few villages. The course was a big Figure 8, with Biesfeld at the centre, and I found myself recognizing the place names I had entered on the course. One section was a dirt path but although it was a bit muddy it worked out fine. It was quite hot now and I was being careful with consuming liquids as I had used up quite a bit of water cleaning up the blood. I was also not feeling in the best of condition and when I reached Thier, the furthest point on the ride, I suffered from some bad cramps in my legs. There was a bench on the edge of a little forest, so I sat down and ate some energy bars and drank a bit.

After a bit I felt better and enjoyed the nice stretch that took me from Thier back towards Biesfeld, riding along the Sülz river and passing a nice golf course. The route was quite lovely but there was a lot of climbing and occasionally the cramps returned under the exertion. At one point the GPS took me off the main route and up a brutal little climb, so hard I had to walk for a few moment to compose myself. Fluids were now getting to a critical level and I was not even able to find a water trough or fountain in a village. Luckily, as things were getting particularly painful I found an open gas station.

I had some change and gave it to the cashier for three bottles of ice tea. She then said I had to pay extra for the deposit but then she laughed and said that cyclists always drank everything on the spot, so if I promised to stay on the premises I would not have to pay. I filled one of my water bottles and then drank down the two remaining bottles on the spot. I think even by the standards of German cyclists I had consumed those ice teas at a record rate!

There was the odd bit of downhill left and I soon rolled into Bergisch Gladbach again. The GPS brought me to the train station without a single misdirection and soon I was heading back to Düsseldorf. There was a marathon run in Cologne and quite a few people got on the train, so it was pretty much standing room only to Leverkusen. I noticed people looking at me strangely and realized it was from the wounds, although they were not bleeding much at that point. I did chat with another cyclist who got on the train, and we talked a bit about helmets. I never ride without one and am always surprised to see people on racing bikes in Germany that don’t wear them.

Getting out at Wehrhahn, I was on the platform putting on my helmet when a lady came up and offered my some Kleenexes. At first I thought my nose must have been running badly but then I realized it was because of the abrasions on my knee and elbow! I thanked her but said I would be home soon and would look after the mess there.

Once I was home, I cleaned up the wounds. When I had last had road rash, in 2000 in Mallorca, they cleaned out the abrasions with what felt like a wire brush to get out all the little stones. I thought this was the usual method and I gently rubbed the wounds to get out any foreign material before having a shower, which was not all that warm since I could not bear any heat. It turns out that scraping out wounds is no longer the approved method of dealing with road rash, as I looked things up on the Internet afterwards. I was pretty sore and probably dehydrated and was not sure how I was going to shave with the cut on my lip.

On Monday I went to the pharmacy as the Internet recommendation was to get some disinfectant cream on the wounds and bandage everything up. The star at the pharmacy were horrified by the way I looked and thought I should get a tetanus shot. That probably would have been the right thing to do but I did not think the abrasions were really all that bad, looking worse than they were. As I write this four weeks later everything is pretty much cleared up, with the only evidence of the accident being the cut on the knuckled on my right index finger, and the small crack in my right front tooth. I was very upset about the jersey, which was really nice and had only been worn a few times, but Pezcyclingnews is sending me a new one. And my old Swatch chronograph watch was so badly scratched up from the impact that I have treated myself to a new 60 Euro Haas & Cie pseudo-Swiss chronograph.

I am still angry with myself for making a stupid beginner’s mistake but also relieved that the damage was not worse. The Bergische Land is ideal for cycling but perhaps the 82 kms I rode was a bit too ambitious for an out-of-training rider on a hot day. I will go back, and may even do this route again, but will work out the water/energy drink situation better. On the other hand, the GPS functioned flawless and although I had one in my little backpack, I never opened a map for the whole day.

Distance ridden: 81.74 kms in 4:21 Average speed: 18.8 km/h; maximum speed 56.5 km/h Elevation gain: 1324 m

Meandering to Neandertal

One of the differences between Berlin, where I lived from 1998 to 2002, and Düsseldorf is that Berlin is a huge, sprawling city whereas here I am able to get out of the city very rapidly.  Although my office in the Alt Stadt is only 3 kms west of my apartment, if I continue a mere 1.3 kms east from my home I will already have left the city and find myself in the Grafenberger Wald.

Looking at my maps, I realized that heading in a slightly different direction I could easily get to the village of Neandertal, which is a suburb of Mettmann, which in itself looks pretty much like a suburb of Düsseldorf.  Usually, you think of scientists making great paleontological discoveries in the dessert or badlands, far from civilization, but this most famous of discoveries is only a short bike ride away, surrounded by bakeries and beer gardens.  I went to the Very Popular Search Engine and using the “Walking” function rather than the automotive one, I was easily able to map out a quiet route.

The weather was excellent one Sunday and I was joined by my colleague Henri on our expedition.  Given the short distance, we both used our city bikes for the ride.  The route was really good as some sections were entirely given over to pedestrians and cyclists.  Unfortunately, as we neared the small town of Erkrath we discovered that the nicely-paved bike path was actually very bumpy but since there was no auto traffic we switched to the main road.  Bike paths are all well and good but they really need to be maintained properly!

There was a bit of traffic in Erkrath and then we were on a better bikepath alongside a fairly busy road, the L357.  We were following a small river, which was in fact the Düssel, after which the city is named and of which there are only slight traces in the metropolitan area.  The ride was very pleasant as there was forest on both sides of the road.  Occasionally someone went by on a racing bike, not on the bike path.  In Brandenburg, my own experience was that drivers would lean on their horns if they saw this as cyclists in Germany are actually obligated to ride the bikepath if it is marked with a blue sign, but nobody seemed to care much here.

We passed a small park on the right which seemed connected to the museum and then came to a large stone, commemorating the discovery of the famous bones.  It was near a little footbridge across the stream but we continued on to the museum, which was a short distance ahead and on the left.  It was a popular place as there was quite a bit of traffic here.
The Neandertal Museum (photo by Hochtief)
As is usually the case in Germany, there were plentiful bike racks and after locking up we entered the modern building, constructed in 1996 after a design competition involving some 130 architects in 1993.  It is a concrete structure fronted with Japanese glass and the layout inside is quite simple: a spiral ramp that climbs four floors and which represents evolution.

Stepping into the main lobby, you are met with a cheerful-looking reconstruction of a Neanderthaler.  (Incidentally, the German spelling of “Thal”, or valley, was changed in the late 19th Century to the simpler “Tal.”  The old orthography is still used when referring to the cave people, but the village itself seems to use both spellings.)  After getting the admission ticket, and a genuinely useless audio guide that requires you to plug in to stations along the way, we walked through the introductory section, which was about the natural history of Neandertal.  The region was a choice spot for landscape painters of the Düsseldorf School due to the dramatic gorge through which the river flowed.  To my surprise, the name was only applied in the early 19th Century to the area.  It was named in honour of Joachim Neander, a Calvinist theologian and poet, who enjoyed going to the area in the 1670s.  His family name was actually Neumann but his grandfather had turned it into Greek, which was apparently a fashion of the time, and “Neander” means “New Man,” as “Neumann” does in German.  This was certainly a happy coincidence.

The paintings showing the gorge of the Düssel were lovely but having ridden along the river I could not imagine where it would be as the banks were quite flat on both sides.  The answer is simple: there is no gorge anymore.  It was quarried in the 19th Century to provide building materials until nothing was left.  It was during these digging operations that workmen, in 1856, discovered the 40,000 year old human remains that became famous as Homo neanderthalensis.  At first, the discoverers thought they might be bones of a bear, but a local schoolteacher, Johann Carl Fuhlrott, believed them to be bones of an ancient human species, and together with a professor of anatomy from the University of Bonn, Hermann Schaffrath, announced the discovery of another human species in 1857.  At first, this was not accepted as it ran counter to literal Biblical interpretation but the publication of Darwin’s  “On the Origin of Species” in November 1859 provided an explanation.  Although Neanderthal bones had been discovered in Belgium and Gibraltar earlier, it was only through the work of Fuhlrott and Schaffrath, today credited as the founders of paleoanthropology, that their significance was understood.

Between the original discovery and excavations in the 1990s on the same spot (then between a car repair shop and a storage shed!), a total of sixteen Neanderthal bones were found.  This would not seem to be enough to establish a museum on but in fact the museum tells the story of human development.  After providing the story of the discovery, the pathway takes you through important milestones, classified under five general themes such as “Life and Survival,” or “Myths and Religion” and so forth.  The museum was well-attended and it was heartening to see the number of enthusiastic children.  The displays were very clear and the ideas well-documented.

After our visit to the museum, we went back across the main road and walked over the footbridge to look at the area where the bones had been found.  There is really nothing much there now but a timeline is built into the path so that you can trace major developments from the arrival of Neanderthalers in the valley 200,000 years ago to the present.  The original discovery site is marked with red-and-white poles and there is an area indicating the kind of plants that would have been in the valley in prehistoric times.

An easy ride brought us back to Düsseldorf and Café Bazaar on Grafenberger Allee for a coffee.  In all we had ridden a mere 23 kms, but gone back in time to the origins of humans.  I will revisit the friend Neanderthaler in November when there will be a special display on mammoths–and everybody loves those!

Sunday 24 October 2010

My First Ride Along the Rhine

I was not the only Sunday cyclist riding along the Rhine
Taking advantage of the very rare opportunity in Düsseldorf to enjoy some weekend sunshine, I finally took the rather neglected Marinoni down from the rack and decided to make my way to the banks of the Rhine and meander down the bikepath for a while.

The route was easy as I am now getting used to riding the smaller side streets of the city and avoiding the traffic and streetcar tracks.  Even nicer, the bridge over the railway tracks that joins Grüner Strasse and Jülich Strasse is closed to motor vehicles while it is undergoing repairs so I happily sailed across it all by myself on the marked bikelane.

Reaching the Rhine’s east bank, around 4 kms from the apartment, I turned right and rode along a bikepath, a little way back from the river.  There are a lot of sports fields, which were well-used by people playing soccer, and there were many many joggers out as well.  The bike path here is not ideal, being broad but unpaved.  Further to the north, one has the choice of riding amongst the pedestrians on a wider and smoothly-paved path, or riding a bricked and rather narrow bidirectional bikepath.  There were not too many pedestrians out, so I took the smoother route.

I stopped to photograph some of the barges on the Rhine.  The amount of commercial river traffic must be seen to be believed and this fine Sunday was no exception.  I rode past the huge Messe Düsseldorf trade fairgrounds and then alongside the municipal waterworks.  The path was much better here, with few pedestrians.  I would have put on some speed but for the fact that there was a massive headwind making its way south from the North Sea, so I could not get much more than a steady 28 km/h.  I looked forward to the ride back, however.

It was pleasant enough to cruise along the river, and look at the barges.  Sometimes I passed fields with horses and I saw a few impressive modern bridges.  Aircraft passed overhead, taking off from the nearby Düsseldorf airport, one of the busiest in Germany.  The landscape is fairly flat and not all that interesting here but I was not complaining as it was good to get out in the fresh air.  The path turned a bit more towards the river and I passed a charming restaurant with a garden, “At the Old Rhine Ferry.”  And, sure enough, just ahead was a ferry for crossing the river.  There was a small village on the other side, but since a large bridge was just up the Rhine, it must be kept up by tradition.  It was fairly busy, but there were pedestrians and cyclists as well as automobiles using it.

The ferry sets off against the current, all flags flying in the wind
Riding back past the inn, I found a rather narrow paved path that would lead me to my destination today, Kaiserswerth.  The path was marked for pedestrians, and “frei” for cyclists, meaning I would have no special rights.  It was slow going as I had to navigate carefully between the Sunday strollers with the children and dachshunds, but soon I saw some impressive ruins on the right and a bit further Marktstrasse, which seemed promising.

Kaiserswerth has been part of Düsseldorf for 80 years but is in fact an older place.  It was apparently founded by St. Suitbert (or Swithbert) when he established a monastery there at the end of the 7th Century.  He is one of Germany’s six (as far as I can tell) patron saints.  The others include the famous St. George and then a lot of not-so-celebrated names: Kilian of Würzburg; Bruno of Cologne; Peter Canisius; and the euphonious Adalbert of Magdeburg.  Canada only has two patron saints and neither has a particularly impressive name.  But I digress.

The cobblestoned street was fairly easy to ride up and I saw several very old buildings.  One was very much in the Dutch style and is now a restaurant, “Im Schiffchen,” a common motif in Nordrhein-Westfalen.  The other was the old customshouse, and dated to the 17th Century.  Around the corner was a little square with a fine church and related buildings.  One was a hospital, where Florence Nightingale learned to become a nurse.  Next to the church are the impressive ruins I saw while cycling along the river.  These are the remains of the Kaiserpfalz, a fortified structure that was the temporary seat of the Holy Roman Emperor.  The town had been known as Werth previously but the imperial association turned it into Kaiserswerth.  This did not work out so well: Emperor Henry IV, who was a minor, was abducted from Kaiserswerth by the Archbishop of Cologne in 1062 as a way of establishing a regency to control the Empire.

All that remains of the Kaiserpfalz
When St. Suitbert set up his monastery, Werth was actually an island in the Rhine, and over time it became strategically very important.  It changed hands a number of times during various wars, most recently in 1702 during the War of the Spanish Succession, when the French occupied it and it came under siege for two months.  By the time the Allied powers defeated the French garrison (and believe me, you don’t need to know much about the causes of this war), the place was pretty much wrecked.  The Kaiserpfalz, or what was left of it, was used as a quarry by local residents rebuilding.  And Werth had long ceased to be an island: the Rhine silted up and the island found itself attached to the east bank of the river.

Leaving Kaiserswerth, which is a popular place although not much was going on, I rode back inland from the river a bit, passing a number of fancy equestrian establishments.  I eventually rejoined the Rhine bikepath after enjoying some nicely-paved agricultural roads and arrived back home after a ride of 30 kms.  A bit less, actually, because I had a flat tire about 600 m from the apartment and walked the last bit rather than fixing it on the street.  Even acquiring a very sharp bit of metal in my tire was not enough to dampen my spirits after this pleasant ride.  And my timing was good as soon after the skies closed in and the rain came down yet again.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

The Day I Rode on Didi Thurau’s Wheels

Cycling has afforded me some interesting experiences, as well as keeping me fit, letting me see some of the most beautiful places in the world and making a lot of great friends.  My newly-acquired Chesini Olimpiade was not quite up to standard mechanically and on Tuesday during a break in the omnipresent rain I rode the short distance (it would have been short except for my classic Lost Boy detour that enabled me to see considerably more of Düsseldorf than I had planned) to Ricci-Sports to drop off the bicycle for some work.  High on the agenda was to change the appalling 18mm tires.

When I rolled in, Richard was seeing another customer, so he sat me down with Reg Harris’ autobiography to while away the time.  Soon enough we were discussing the fine points of cycling history and the needs of the Chesini over a glass of Mt. Ventoux rosé.  Richard told me about the joys of riding a singlespeed bike and pointed out the cosmetically-challenged bike in the stand next to the Chesini.  It was a 1940 Umberto Dei that had been set up as a singlespeed and which he said rode fantastically well.  He suggested I take the bike outside for a spin around the block, but since it was pouring rain again at this point I demurred.

After we had agreed on the work to be done on the Chesini–I have no idea how I am going to ride L’Eroica with no gear smaller than a 42-24–I was about to walk home when he pressed a bottle of 2008 Gino Bartali Chianti (yes!) upon me but then insisted I ride the Dei home.  At first I thought he was joking but he was quite serious and we headed out into the rainy streets.

The Dei does not look at all like a modern bike, being very long and having narrow handlebars that pretty well force you to ride in the drops, although it is not uncomfortable to do so.  It fit me extremely well and I found the long saddle typically found on bikes of this period extremely comfortable.  I followed Richard, who had lights on his bike, and quickly found that the bike, which ran completely silently, was a pure joy to ride.  It accelerated very quickly and smoothly, although once at high speed my reflexes wanted me to shift higher.  The non-original Universal brakes are very uneven in application and pretty noisy so I just avoided using them to avoid, as the young people say, harshing my mellow.

After seeing Richard off at his place, I continued on home and was surprised how quickly I arrived.  I put on a headlight and a flashing taillight to continue the ride and headed back out into the night.  It was a bit late and I had not eaten, so I broke down and rode over to the all-night McDonald’s on nearby Grafenberg Allee.  Riding in the cool darkness on this black museum piece was wonderful and my doubts about singlespeeds were erased as I laughed out loud on the bike.

A restored 1935 Umberto Dei, featured a tricolore paint scheme (photo by Alex Clarke)
Now some history.  Umberto Dei began building frames in Milan in 1896 and within a few short years was recognized for his meticulous craftsmanship.  Although noted particularly for track bikes, his road bikes were also conspicuous for their success under riders in the Giro d’Italia and many foreign teams riding in the Berlin Olympics in 1936 chose Dei bicycles in spite of their higher cost.  The workshop was destroyed in a bomb raid in 1943, along with Signore Dei’s home, but he rebuilt and continued to construct fine bicycles.  In his workshop some of Italy’s renowned framebuilders learned their craft under the master, Faliero Masi among them.  Following Umberto Dei’s death, the rights to the name ended up with Atala and today the brand still exists for a range of elegant, albeit heavy, city bikes that are of no great interest to lightweight classics lovers.

The Distinguished Milanese loaned to me has a number of interesting characteristics.  The Gara stem is original, judging from the few photos I have found of Dei bicycles of the period, and in superb condition.  The bicycle features, to my surprise, an integrated headset, the lower section of which would not be out of place on a new carbon bike.  The fork has an impressive crown and is half-chromed, from the tips upwards.  Near the tips there is a screw on each side, presumably for mounting fenders.

The headtube features some rather elaborate lugwork with a kind of slotted effect, echoed in the lug at the top of the seat tube.  The seat stays are sturdy-looking indeed, and again end in a chromed section, with another little screw in each side.  The chromed dropouts are nicely finished, and nearly horizontal.  The saddle is fairly narrow but unusually long and is festooned with lovely little copper rivets on the nose and tail.  The only accessory is a cartridge-style inflater from the period, proving once again that there is nothing new under the bicycling sun.

The bicycle looks a bit stretched-out, with the rear wheel some distance from the seat tube.  One has the impression that there is clearance for any kind of tire you might like to put on this bike, reflecting the fact that bicycles of the period often had to serve other purposes for their owners besides as racing mounts.  The wheels of this particular bike are fairly modern and are interesting in their own right besides having tubular tires.  Featuring high-flange Campagnolo Record hubs and tied and soldered spokes (the first I have ever ridden on), the wheelset came from a bicycle used by German pro cycling star Dietrich “Didi” Thurau, who wore the Yellow Jersey for 15 days in 1977 and won Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1979, as well a being victor in no fewer than 29 Six Day Races.

The Umberto Dei is a superb bicycle, showing not only excellent craftsmanship but skilled execution in design, judging from its handling.  The bicycle’s glorious decals are pretty much undecipherable now and the paint has seen better days but there is no rust nor any dents.  In seven decades it has come a long way: through wars and new generations, and somehow wandering from Italy and Germany and ending up, for a short moment, ridden by a Canadian.  I am grateful for the opportunity to ride this time machine.  It wears its patina well and I hope that I will be in as admirable condition when I am 70 years old.

Monday 18 October 2010

The Enchanted Workshop

Richard Pratt, the "Ricci" of Ricci-Sports
Shortly after my arrival in Düsseldorf, I was walking back from the post office when I saw, down a side street, a sign for a bicycle shop, Ricci-Sports.  It was late in the day and I knew the shop would be closed but I walked over anyway to look in the window.  The store was conveniently located to my apartment and I was hoping to find somewhere to have my herd of bikes serviced.

From what I could see looking into the window, I could see this was no standard bike shop.  The most normal thing visible was a Colnago Ferrari.  Even this was the only one I had ever actually seen, as opposed to being listed for insane prices on E-Bay.  There was an old Dürkopp track bike hanging on the back wall and glass cases with ancient but shiny parts.  A racing tricycle, again the first I had seen in the metal, stood near the Colnago and a modern Koga Miyata racing bike.  In the window was a wooden case housing a complete Campagnolo tool kit and a bright green stayer track racing bicycle.

1947 Durkopp Track Bike
I sent an e-mail to the shop’s proprietor and two evenings later I made the acquaintance of Richard Pratt, a Scottish exile from the electronics industry who followed his heart and ended up in Germany and, eventually, running a shop that might look out of sync with a modern retail operation but to lovers of classic bikes is truly an enchanted workshop.

Richard is generous with his knowledge and after warmly welcoming me into the shop, he proudly showed his impressive collection of hubs, displayed behind glass and gleaming in as-new condition, often packed in the original boxes.  As a newcomer to classic racing bicycles, the names were not well-known to me–Atom? Gnutti?–but they were gorgeous.  Also to be seen were NOS Lyotard pedals and some BSA parts as well.

The Newport Racer
In addition to these parts for connoisseurs, the main area of the shop housed some marvellous bicycles.  The aforementioned tricycle had been built up by Richard and sported his shop name on the repainted frame.  “Ricci-Sports” is the name he has adopted for the shop, both as a play on his own first name and in recognition of a lesser-known Italian bike racer, Mario Ricci, who was quite successful in his day, winning the Tour of Lombardy twice and four stages of the Giro d’Italia in the 1940s, and whose brother, Leopoldo, also raced professionally.  Richard mentioned he himself had done some time-trialling when I asked him about roads around Düsseldorf suitable for training; he did not mention that he had been twice Scottish road racing champion and has contested 1,000 bike races.

The Dürkopp, a fine example of a famous German marque, dated to around 1947 and was used in the closing years of his career by legendary track racer and Six Day winner Gustav Killian.  Also displayed was a late 1890s Newport Racer, manufactured in New York, as well as some classic clothing, such as a fine red Wilier jersey.  In addition to the Koga Miyata (Richard also works as a mechanic for the Koga Miyata women’s pro racing team), the newest things to be seen were lovely wooden Ghisallo rims produced in Italy and for which Ricci-Sports has rights in Germany.  Besides the Campagnolo corkscrew, there was also a clever wine rack in the shape of a gigantic hub, including a wingnut release!

Richard took me into the Inner Sanctum, the workshop itself.  This room has more tools in it than any other bike repair shop I have known, and a lot of tools that looked as if they went back to the days of the Newport Racer.  Hanging along the wall were several frames of interest, including a very nice Carlton from the 1940s, possibly originally fitted with a Campagnolo Cambio Corsa gearchange system, and a Rickert Spezial from a highly-respected German builder in Dortmund.

From his enthusiasm, it is clear that Richard can handle pretty well any bike repair and clearly takes great pleasure in classic machinery.  However, he recognizes that not everyone understands his focus and so offers a range of modern equipment and coaching/training for riders.  He was very generous with his time and we talked about track racing in Düsseldorf and doing some training together.

He is working on a history of wooden rims and regaled me with the story of A.C. Fairbanks, known to me as a producer of banjos but who introduced wooden bicycle rims to the world in 1893 and whose Fairbanks Wood Rim Company had large plants in the USA and England.  On parting, he insisted on presenting me with a racing cap from one of the teams of Fausto Coppi’s twilight years, a cap that may (or may not) have belonged to Il Campionissimo himself.

Richard’s website, a work in progress, shows some of his treasures and has much to interest enthusiasts of classic lightweight bikes.  It is well worth stopping by his shop (although I think he needs an espresso machine) which can be easily found in Düsseldorf at Grunerstrasse 35.  Give him a call first as the hours are somewhat variable depending on what he has on the go.

Grunerstrasse 35
40239 Düsseldorf
Tel/Fax: +49-211-4 93 14 54

Store hours: Monday to Friday from 14:00 to 19:00, Saturday 10:00 to 14:00