Carsten, who is to blame
Carsten, one of the enthusiasts behind the Klassikerausfahrt series of retro-rides here in Düsseldorf, sent an e-mail around yesterday, asking for participants for a Sonntagsrunde of 2-4 hours, leaving from a café directly down the street from my apartment. With the beautiful Spring weather and the guarantee of good company, who was I to refuse?
We met at 11:00, with the idea of leaving at 11:15. Of course, put a group of Germans on tables outside of a café on a bright morning and you know that everyone is going to order coffee. It was excellent, and our departure was not delayed by much.
This was not meant to be a Klassikerausfahrt but six of the seven riders came with steel bicycles anyway. We had a Peugeot, an Eddy Merckx, a Masi 3V, a Bottechia and my Basso, among others. We rode off into the quiet city streets, our route taking us to the south and west as we passed areas new to me, including the Volksgarten park, the big Stoffeln cemetery and the university hospital. We crossed the Rhine on a bridge carrying Autobahn 46, and then turned a bit north, taking small side streets and agricultural roads through the villages of Derikum and Norf before heading south again through Rosellen, Rosellerheide and Neuenbaum.
We made another turn to the south on a dirt road. The Basso, fitted with 28mm tires and extra cyclocross “frogleg” brake levers was ideal for this and I was able to go surprisingly fast. A bit too fast as I basically rode into the back wheel of Klaus’ Bottechia! I realized that I could not stop fast enough so I turned a bit to the left to go around him–just as he moved left as well! So I bounced off his rear wheel, catching it on the side, and let the bike carry me off the path into the bushes. These stopped me pretty quickly with no damage (I did not even fall off) but I felt pretty embarrassed, although everyone else was amused and I was even complimented on my bike handling skills!
The dirt road turned out not to be what we needed, so we backtracked to the main road and swept through Neukirchen. In the next village, Hülchrath, we took a sudden left turn past a café and there ahead of us was the gateway to a really big castle! Riding through the gate, we were confronted with a massive building. It was really beautiful, surrounded by gardens made dense green by the fine weather. Flowering trees were everywhere on our route today and they were here as well. A group was sitting at a big table and we sat down ourselves to enjoy some cold drinks before continuing the ride.
There was a small sign, erected in 2005, in the gatehouse listing the dates of importance in the existence of Schloss Hülchrath, the best-preserved medieval water castle in Germany. It began in 900 AD, when a fortress was constructed to protect the area from marauding Vikings and Normans, but the first written references date to 1120. It was witness to various wars, and at one point the village of Hülchrath was completely destroyed. By 1688, many of the buildings were dismantled and the remainder was falling into ruin. It came into the hands of an aristocratic family in 1803, which held it for a century, and the last new construction took place in 1907. In 1947, 600 refugees from the former German territories to the East were housed here. In 1955 it came into the ownership of the family that still has it and it is used for weddings and other events and is available for advertising purposes. It was also the home of a Neil Young festival in April, with the Great Man himself going there on April 1! I will have more to say about the sign in the gatehouse and Schloss Hülchrath below, but back to our ride...
Cyclists: always hungry, always thirsty
Leaving the Schloss, our road took us through more villages and suburban housing until we came to Neuenhausen. An impressive hill loomed up above us and, sure enough, we were to ride up it. The road was very good, with some twists and turns, but although I could maintain a decent pace, I was huffing away about halfway up and cursing all those pastries I have eaten over the last seven months.
On reaching the top, we came to big plateau, where the huge turbines of a wind farm were to be found. This was the closest I have ever stood to one in operation and it was surprisingly quiet. The fields were pretty, with bright yellow flowering rapeseed and flowering trees (and, yes, in the distance a smoking power plant). One of the cyclists had a mechanical issue, with a broken spoke on the back wheel. The experts in the group did what they could and we then enjoyed an exhilarating descent down the other side of the hill where I reached my maximum speed for the day of 52 km/h.
Regrouping at the bottom, we retraced our route and rode past Hülchrath again and then rode parallel to the Erft, where I had ridden a few weeks ago, and eventually entered Neuss, a large city opposite Düsseldorf on the Rhine. The group lost a bit of it cohesion here and after crossing the Rhine we all made our way back separately to the café for yet more coffee. An excellent time was had by all and I am glad that I put on suntan lotion, an unusual thing for a Canadian to do in April. Returning home, I discovered that the television coverage of the Amstel Gold race was not over so I was able to enjoy a great finish before my well-deserved shower and beer.
Our route covered 78.03 kms, with 331 m of climbing. The total time was 4:22, with 3:36, giving an average moving speed of 21.6 km/h. The group does not ride a paceline so the average speed is excellent, considering how long it takes to get out of a city. It is very early in the season for me and I feel tired now, but it is a great feeling and I look forward to my next ride with the group.
More on Schloss Hülchrath
Additional research after I got home revealed some very interesting facts about the castle. The sign does not indicate what it was used for during World War II but the Schloss’ own webpage notes that various organizations, including the SS, the Reich Labour Office and the Hitler Youth and its female counterpart, the BDM, occupied it. It was an “Ordensburg,” which usually refers to the training centres administered by the SS to develop Germany’s next leaders.
In fact, Schloss Hülchrath had another purpose under the Nazis, which is not referred to on the website or the sign in the gatehouse. It was the primary training centre for the Werwolf operation, established in 1944 as a guerrilla command to resist the Allied invasion and then to conduct sabotage and destablization activities during the occupation. It executed those it felt were collaborating with the enemy. It was believed that the assassination of Franz Oppenhoff, the Lord Mayor of Aachen, who had been placed in office by American forces, in March 1945 was carried by a Werwolf unit from Schloss, although evidence subsequently suggests it was a joint SS/Luftwaffe action. Made up primarily of boys and old men, poorly-armed and led, Werwolf failed to slow down the advancing Allied forces but continued it activities after the surrender. Strong countermeasures by the Allies, coupled with the unwillingness of a war-weary populace to continue to support the Nazi cause, meant that its propaganda effect was probably more significant than its actual accomplishments.
It is curious to me that this very interesting role of Schloss Hülchrath is not mentioned on the sign or in a bit more detail on the website. Germany has not been shy about indicating where activities of the Nazi regime occurred and the creation of the Werwolf operation was the last desperate effort of the Third Reich to find a way to fight even when it was clear the war was lost.