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

Sunday 17 October 2010

A Herd of Tin Donkeys: c. 1987 Chesini Olimpiade

My latest acquisition was a rather unexpected one.  I discovered that here in Düsseldorf, around 6 kms from my apartment, a gentleman who refurbished older steel bikes as a hobby found there was such a demand that it became a business and he is now operating as Eisenherz-Bikes ("Eisenherz" being German for "Ironheart").  One of the bicycles he had available recently was a Chesini Olimpiade, a mid-level racing bike produced in a small shop in Verona, Italy.

Here is some history of the brand, courtesy of Angel Garcia and his excellent Italian Cycling Journal blog, and he actually interviewed the current owners of the shop in 2007 here.
Chesini was founded in 1925 by Gelmino Chesini who had been a bicycle mechanic before he began building bicycles. The first business location was in Nesente on the outskirts of Verona, later moving to Verona. He developed what became a well known slogan in Verona,"O Chesini o cammini". The son, Gabriele Chesini, continued the business. Chesini built bikes only for their own brand and were not a sub-contractor for another brand at any time. They also performed their own pantographing. Photos of their manufacturing facilities in the 1980s show a very impressive capability.

Large numbers of Chesini's were sold in Europe, particularly in Austria, Germany, and other European countries through representatives. A much smaller number were sold to the USA.

Four world championships have been won on Chesini bikes:
Juniors, 1963,
100KM race 1964,
100KM race, 1965,
Juniors, 1990
Verona's Roman Amphitheatre (photo Wikipedia Commons by Chensiyuan, 2009)
My Olimpiade is made of Columbus Cromor, rather than the higher-end SL or SLX of the period, and the parts are a mishmash of predominantly Campagnolo parts, but spanning 25 years.  There is nothing to definitely establish when the bike was built but judging from various features of the frame, it is probably around 1986-87.  The frame is marked as 56 cm in size but has no serial number; there is some pantographing on the chainring and some very nice detail work elsewhere on the frame, such as the Olympic rings on the downtube above the shifters. The Chesini brand name and logo, Verona's famous Roman amphitheatre (constructed in AD30 and now used for opera performances) are cut into the headtube rather than in the form of a badge or decal.

The workmanship is very neat and the fancy paint job convinced me that I needed an espresso pick-up bike, along with the condition of the frame.  There is only a bit of pitting in the chrome chainstays and fork and only some minor marks in the paint.  Unlike my Raleigh SBDU bike, which is pristine, I would not be worried about riding the gravel roads of Chianti for L'Eroica next October on this bike.

I picked it up on October 10 at the shop and discovered I could not get my feet into the clips and straps, but after some adjustments, I managed to get underway.  My maiden ride took me into the Grafenberger Wald on the outskirts of Düsseldorf where I discovered several things.  First of these was that the right shift lever was not quite tight enough, so the Campagnolo Nuovo Record rear derailleur proceeded to shift for me, in the wrong direction naturally.  I tightened this up easily, so one problem solved.  Of course, I discovered this on what must have been a 15% grade in the forest, so I actually had to walk for a moment or two to a spot where I could straighten things out.

I learned that not only is the Grafenberg Wald impressively hilly, it has about the worst roads I have seen anywhere, with massive potholes that I had to carefully pick my way around.  Of course on the descents, I also discovered that the brake levers were positions exactly where I could not really reach them, so that was exciting too.  Again, a minor adjustment as I only had to reposition the handlebars when I got home.  The bike rides superbly and the mixed componentry works well enough.  The vintage Sella Royal Superleggera saddle looks great and is quite comfortable as well.

When I did return to my apartment after my 15 km maiden ride, I checked out the bike more carefully.  The front brake is a bit weak, the rear freewheel cogset of 13-21 is probably not going to work too well in Chianti, and I was astonished to see that the Continental tires were 18 mm, a size I was not aware was even produced.  They are impressively narrow and will probably be replaced with Continental Grand Prix 24s sooner rather than later.  In terms of other parts, I would like to switch the Tange headset (the only non-Campy part besides the bottom bracket) for a Campagnolo one, and possibly change the recent Campy front derailleur for a more period-appropriate one.

A friend near Cologne has recently purchased his own L'Eroica bike, an early 1980s Faggin in tricolore as well, so the fever is contagious.  I will loan this bike to a colleague who is interested in riding a lightweight bike (although I will suggest clipless pedals and shoes for him) to introduce him to the sport and ensure I have a riding buddy!  Viva Italia!

Thanks to Klaus Hogrebe of Eisenherz-Bikes, here are excellent photos of my latest Tin Donkey:

And who could resist this 1951 picture of a young amateur, Adriano Zamboni, proudly standing with his Cambio Corsa-equipped Chesini?  Signore Zamboni went on to compete in the Giro d'Italia six times, winning a stage in 1961.

Monday 11 October 2010

Cycling’s Promised Land: Visiting Eurobike 2010

Having moved to Germany at the end of August, I have been unable to devote much time to feeding the Tin Donkey.  However, this does not mean that I have not been cycling-busy and I have a lot of new material for the coming days.  One disappointment was that my cycling equipment arrived too late to go to l'Eroica this year, and when I saw that this was the situation, I decided on the spur of the moment to attend the largest cycling trade fair in the world, Eurobike, instead.  Here is my report, first published in a different version at, for whom I was an accredited correspondent!

In German folklore, the most perfect place on earth is called Schlarrafenland.  Fountains flow with wine, or beer, and the pigs frolicking about in the fields already have knives and forks thoughtfully stuck into them for convenience.  In terms of trade shows and bicycles, the closest thing to this surely must also be found in Germany: Eurobike in Friedrichshafen on beautiful Lake Constance, where Germany, Switzerland and Austria meet.

This year the show ran from September 1-4.  Unlike the Other Enormous Bicycle Trade Show held in the United States, Eurobike has its final day open to the public.  Germans love trade shows and I was a bit apprehensive about trying to make my way through vast crowds of salivating bicycle enthusiasts and seeing enough to interest Tin Donkey readers.  I had been told that two days would be necessary but I could not take advantage of this good advice due to my own time constraints, but I am glad that at least I took to heart the “wear comfortable shoes” suggestion.

The Pride of Friedrichshafen
A shuttle bus brought me from the main train station to the impressive exhibition grounds located adjacent to the Friedrichshafen airport.  Throughout the day we were to be entertained by the coming and going of the Zeppelin NT airship, based in a huge hangar adjacent to the show.  Friedrichshafen was the original home of the Zeppelin works, and a number of descendent companies, including the ZF transmission manufacturer, are still located there.  The company was a world leader in building lightweight, high-strength structure and old Count Zeppelin would have undoubtedly been impressed with what was on display at Eurobike.

I wandered about the show trying to gauge where the bicycle industry is headed and to enjoy the more idiosyncratic elements of our all-consuming lifestyle.  However, here are some numbers to impress you with: the show, which covers 100,000 square meters of exhibition space spread over 12 halls, saw 41,482 trade visitors from 102 countries; there were around 1,100 exhibitors from 42 countries; 1,732 journalists from 35 countries reported on Eurobike; there were 300 new product introductions; and on Public Day, 22,300 visitors paid to get in and look around.

My clever plan was to move rapidly through each hall, up and down each aisle, and then return to points of particular interest.  I also planned to limit my literature collecting to avoid dragging tons of paper along with me and concentrate on photos.  The plan fell apart immediately as I entered the largest hall , A1, which had some many interesting things going on that I ended up spending three of my allotted nine hours at the shows there.  However, to get to Hall A1, I first had to pass a demonstration area where merry participants were racing around on recumbents and tricycles in a wide variety of designs.  Nearby were several different Human Powered Vehicles (HPVs) on display, including one that resembled the famous Vector that set speed records and was tipped to be the auto replacement of the future three decades ago.  Although this never came to pass for various reasons, the Europeans have clearly not given up on the Velo-car idea entirely although human-powered air conditioning might be a prerequisite invention.

Entering Hall A1 (which the show guide helpfully noted was devoted to “bikes, accessories, parts,” as were all the remaining halls except for two), I was first drawn to the displays devoted to the huge number of show prizewinners, covering the range of everything bike-related.  I spent some time looking at the accessories and bikes displayed but was already beginning to feel overwhelmed with the crowds, so I headed to the area devoted to bike touring.

“Bike touring” tends to conjure images of sweaty adventurers on heavily-laden bicycles dragging all their worldly goods through the Kalahari or Tibet but many European regions have not only come to the realization that cyclists bring money but that they have to be proactive in attracting them.  There are private companies offering tours, which are generally of a fairly sedate nature, but I was impressed by the number of regions that were notable for mountain biking that were now working to attract more serious road cyclists.  Particularly strong pitches were coming from government agencies in Italy, Germany, Slovenia, Switzerland, Cypress and Austria.  Spain was represented by Mallorca, which draws thousands of German cyclists every Spring and there were even tour offerings for Thailand and Africa.  Literature included detailed routes–I particularly liked the fact that almost every ride featured in the Friuli Venezia Giulia booklet seems to take you over the unspeakable Monte Zoncolan!  Also commendable was the booklet, “The Climbs of Champions,” from Piedmont, suggesting a route with six major climbs on it where you can “measure your strength with legendary champions to achieve your victory.”  In addition, many regions also provide links to routes to load into your GPS unit before you arrive.

There are exhibitors at Eurobike who would be of limited interest to the public on Open Day (manufacturers of decals come to mind) but should not be overlooked in terms of the industry as a whole.  For example, a German trade school specializing in training bicycle and motorcycle mechanics had a stand and was seeking students.  The course sounded very comprehensive and there was even a version available for people who do not plan to be professional mechanics but only want to look after their own bikes.  As bicycles become more complex, the need for trained mechanics will not decline and apparently a shortage already exists in Europe.

Already loaded with brochures, I was now confronted with the hundreds of stands of manufacturers that are the core of Eurobike.  The majority of exhibitors in Hall A1 were Italian, with celebrated names including Campagnolo, De Rosa, Wilier and Santini.  De Rosa’s stand, in particular, was most impressive, with each of the bicycles on display exhibited like artworks.  Smaller manufacturers, without the same global presence, had much more modest displays.  However, bicycles shown by Milani, Viner, Scapin and others did not appear to be of lesser quality, although the crowds were elsewhere.  It was good to see that some of these builders had not given up on lugged steel frames.  Milani not only offered a very fine racing model, but also a nicely-equipped touring bike.

The majority of offerings by the Italians are as modern as anyone else’s predominantly Taiwanese- or Chinese-sourced goods.  There was a considerable presence of firms from Taiwan at the show and several of them showed carbon frames with no names that looked as if they could have been produced for several noted brands.  There were many brands that are marketed primarily in Europe and unknown to me but the bikes looked very similar.  There was even a line of carbon bikes named for Mario Cipollini and the stand featured a great video of the Lion King which was at least attracting more people than the bikes named after Marco Pantani.  No sign of Jan Ullrich bikes at all, though.

Shimano had an enormous stand, as befits is predominant role in the global bicycle components business.  The Dura-Ace Di2 electronic shifting system was to be seen all over Eurobike 2010 and visitors were given an opportunity to try the system out on trainer-mounted bikes, if they were willing to stand in line long enough.  One of Mark Cavendish’s bicycles was on display, as was a time trial bike belonging to Andre Greipel but Shimano seemed to downplay these compared to the new expanded Alivio internal hub system for commuting bicycles.

A company that did not downplay its role in racing successes was Specialized, which overshadowed all the other exhibitors in Hall A3 with a gargantuan display of seemingly every product it markets, and where it introduced the new Roubaix SL3 to consumers.  At the front of the display in the place of honour, behind a plexiglass wall, were bicycles that had been used this year by Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellara.  The stand featured some strange things, including the one-off tandem Transition time trial bike that made everyone smile, but showed just how wide the Specialized line really is.  A large part of the stand was devoted to the Globe line of commuting/transportation bicycles.

The Specialized stand was mobbed by visitors, as were the smaller stands of Cervelo and German mail-order seller Canyon.  Other stands looked more like bicycle parking lots and did not draw as well, even if the sellers were well-known and long-established.  Bianchi is part of a company that markets other brands, including Gitane and Peugeot.  Some of the stuff was pretty strange: Sparta, which has given up on that diamond frame idea to produce bikes that look like ladders with handlebars and saddles, offered its own retro bike with a salute to modern artist Mondriaan; PG-Bikes saw its stand, where it showed bicycles that looked like 1920s motorcycles but with ridiculous gold plating, continually mobbed; and a Swiss entrepreneur showed a slightly Alex Moulton-like bicycle under the rather unfortunate brand name of Bruno.

Speaking of sissies, a strength competition, sponsored by the people from Austria who want you to come to the Őztal region, saw me try to put out my maximum power on a mountain bike.  I managed a not-dishonourable 863 Watts, which is pretty good with street shoes and jeans and earned me a water bottle with the bilingual motto “Not for Weicheier!/Nicht fűr Pussys,” which seems to have lost something in translation in both directions.  My friend Frank, a dedicated and very powerful cyclist, took a crack at this Great Test of Strength and scored less than I did.  This is simply ridiculous but at least they announced his name when he did the challenge whereas I guess I looked so pathetic they did not bother.

On the non-retro end of things, another trend was builders to take a leaf out of the Cervelo book and emphasize the aerodynamic qualities of their road bikes.  Scott showed its “Project F01,” with supposedly 20 percent less wind resistance than its Addict frame, while Canyon’s Aeroad CF claimed the same advantage over its Ultimate CF stablemate.   However, one of the more interesting developments was Cannondale’s refound enthusiasm for aluminum as it introduced the new CAAD 10, which weighs in at 1150 grams in a 56 cm frame.  The suggested retail price of the bicycle, outfitted with Dura-Ace components and boasting the BB30 bottom bracket, is 2599 Euros, which would make it highly competitive in the market.   And Bavarian manufacturer Corratec is now outfitting some bicycles with its UBBS (Universal Bottom Bracket System), which lets you use an adapter to fit any kind of bottom bracket you like.

Tommasini Tecno
Besides me, e-bikes were on the move all day long.  There is no question that this was a major element of Eurobike in 2010, with a huge number of exhibitors and a large demonstration area.  In Germany, no license is required if the bicycles cannot exceed 25 km/h.  Unlike some of the Chinese electric scooters now appearing in North America, all the e-bikes on show in Friedrichshafen used lithium-ion batteries rather than lead-acid ones, so are perhaps a bit more environmentally-friendly.

E-bikes seem to be opening cycling up to a new market, including older riders and commuters, as well as those of insufficient fitness to enjoy a standard bicycle.  Although I can understand the attraction of a motor assist as you pedal, it seems that the weight of the bikes, which ranges from 24-32 kgs, would neutralize the benefits.  Of course, components have to be matched to these higher weights and stresses and this has not been the case as over 11,000 e-bikes were recalled in Germany when forks did not deal with the forces imposed by front hub-mounted motors.  Nonetheless, with e-bikes retailing for much higher prices than standard commuting bicycles, this may be an important new profit centre for the industry.

For those with an interest in classic bikes and gear, the show, which represents pretty much everything that is state-of-the-art in cycling, has a limited amount that is not here and now marketing driven.  There were a few salutes to the past besides the two high-wheelers on display for people who believe pneumatic tires are a passing fad.  For example, it seems that attempts are underway to reinvigorate Peugeot as a new lion logo has been developed and some crazy futuristic show bikes were on display, as well as a completely retro bike that looked like it could have been used for delivering newspapers in 1951 in Paris.

Another interesting retro stand was that for Cooper Bicycles, which is run by the son of famed racing driving John Cooper (think Mini Cooper) and produces what I first took to be steel fixed gear bikes but which in fact feature a Sturmey-Archer three speed hub.  The models are named after race tracks where John Cooper had success, such as Spa.  The bikes are understated and very attractive.  The stand was located outside and it was quite noisy as BMX riders were jumping monstrous berms behind us to entertain the crowd, flying high into the air all day long.

Another familiar name was that of  Eddy Merckx and at the stand a cross bike in the Molteni orange colours was positioned next to a current and equally orange Merckx bicycle.  The Merckx stand was also impressive in its size considering that the parent company operates from what seems to be a large barn near Brussels.  However, Mr. Merckx’s successors running the business are not interested in any steel bikes, unlike the fine offerings from Casati, Milani, Tommasini and Scapin.  I was particularly taken with the Milani bikes, where not only a racing model but a touring one was on offer, as well as with the absolutely dazzling Tommasini Tecno, which will blind oncoming traffic with its gorgeous polished bits and pieces.  And Colnago continues to soldier along with the Master, alongside of its carbon offerings, but the fixed gear steel Super was not in evidence, nor was Bianchi’s celeste steel racing bike.  Incidentally, Milani is looking for more North American representation, so if any Canadians want to import these lovely bikes I would be happy to pass along the information.

Campagnolo had its Athena 11-speed groupset at the show, and its aluminum parts would look very good on a more traditional bike, although the brake/shifters are still carbon.  And there was at least one competitor to Brooks in the luxury leather saddle market: Sella Montegrappa had some beautiful offerings, including a saddle and tool kit presented in a wooden case.  Other more traditional offerings include some very nice retro gloves by Roeckl, the German glove specialist.

Of course, there are always fringe offerings at a show this size, and not only were there highwheelers but the ridiculous Pashley Guv’nor, a copy of a 1928 English path racer as well as bikes made of wood and bikes that are beyond any sign of good taste.  The aforementioned PG Bikes not only had a huge stand of ugly bikes, but one of those was the world’s fastest e-bike, which will hit 100 km/h and retails for the hilarious amount of 59,000 Euros.

Staggering to the final hall, I was confronted by the ongoing bicycle fashion show, where energetic, not to mention photogenic, models jumped around in alternating choreographed routines and managed to get changed into the right clothing for the next fast-paced presentation in time.  With my legs exhausted after eight hours of walking, this was more than I could take and I headed back to the beer tent to enjoy the end of the day in the best tradition of Germany, and of course Schlarrafenland.

Arrividerci!  The lovely Erica at the Nalini stand.