Friday 10 February 2012

It’s Hammer (and Sickle) Time!

Germany has not been considered a great cycling nation on par with France, or Belgium or Italy.  Sure, a German, the quite sturdy Josef Fischer, won the first Paris-Roubaix race in 1896, and more than a few Tour de France stages (and one overall) have been won by Germans but probably the country’s greatest two-wheeled tradition is on the track and Berlin continues to host the oldest Six Day Races in the world, which began in 1906.  There were large-scale manufacturers of bicycles (Opel comes to mind) but as Germany industrialized and produced the first electric trains and (arguably) the first practical automobiles, attention turned elsewhere and the individual victories recorded by German cyclists were not the stuff of legends.  Even now, the German Sports Hall of Fame only includes two cyclists.

Gustav-Adolf “Täve” Schur at speed

The division of Germany post-1945 meant that those behind the Iron Curtain would end up with races and heroes and stories quite different from those in the West.  A colleague in Berlin sent me an article about a museum near the capital that covered some aspects of this and on a recent weekend I persuaded relatives to take me to the Radsport-Museum Wünsdorf.

Around 30 kms south of Berlin’s shortly-to-be-inaugurated international airport in the state of Brandenburg is the small and sleepy town of Zossen, which was consolidated from a number of villages in 2003. It was not always so sleepy as Zossen, and particularly the area that is Wünsdorf, was once the command centre for the Wehrmacht, with massive bunkers and its most modern telephone communications system.  After World War II’s end the town housed up to 70,000 Soviet troops, who departed in 1994, leaving a bit of a shambles behind.  Subsequently efforts have been made to renovate the old military buildings and many have been turned into very attractive housing developments.
The museum is on the top floor

With the departure of the troops and nothing much in the way of industry or agriculture, Zossen-Wünsdorf looked to new ways to survive.  It offers tours of sections of the huge old bunkers, along with a great number of used books.  It is categorized as a “Bücherstadt,” or “Book City,” such as the much more famous Hay-on-Wye in England, but it also refers to itself as a “Bunkerstadt.”  There is what appears to be an unsuccessful restaurant seeking new management and a small art gallery and village centre, along with some souvenirs.  Above the art gallery there is a sign made from an old bicycle fork and we figured this was where the bike museum should be.

Billboard outside the museum

The bike racing museum is above the gallery
We had called first to make sure that the museum would be open on this ice-cold Friday and the man answering the telephone had seemed astonished that we wanted to visit.  He confirmed that it was in fact open and also helpfully warned us about a police speed trap on the outskirts of town.  He told us to come into the bookstore to get our tickets.  We found the store without much effort, passing a big sign on the road advertising the Wünsdorf Radmuseum, and met our interlocutor.  He still seemed nonplussed that we were there to see the museum but he sold us our 3 Euro tickets.  I bought some postcards but we had to invent a price as he had no clue.  But he happily enough took us back outside to the museum and unlocked the door for us, telling us we could also tour the art gallery if we wanted.  He also mentioned that the museum, which is on the top floor of a long building, was not heated and in summer had no air-conditioning.  He reflected with amusement on the seasonal sufferings of visitors and then left us to ourselves.
Walking up the stairs, we went by a mid-1930s Derny track pacing bicycle and then past a very nice green Wanderer racing bicycle that was used by Bruno Roth to win the German pro road championships in 1935.  The bike was displayed with his jersey and a nice photo, showing him in a natty eagle-and-swastika (!) outfit.
Bruno Roth's Wanderer
Moving into the museum proper, there was a nod to bicyle pre-history, with a copy of Baron von Drais’ “Laufmaschine” and an impressively crude high-wheeler.  Then there is a stand with two Diamant road bikes from 1924 and 1940.  Diamant (“Diamond”), founded in 1885, has produced bicycles since 1895 near Chemnitz, Saxony, and after various changes in ownership (including that of Opel from1928-1930) and conflicts the firm ended up as the predominant manufacturer of bicycles in the DDR.  While in the 1950s its products were considered state-of-the-art, it gradually stagnated and by the end of the Soviet era it had been combined with another bicycle company, Texima, under the control of a knitting machine collective.  The company was privatized and since 2003 has been part of the Trek group and continues to build non-racing bicycles in Chemnitz in what is probably Germany’s oldest existing bicycle factory.

Diamant Road Bikes (1924, rear and 1940, front)
The organization of the Wünsdorf collection is not completely clear but seems divided into discrete theme areas.  The first part really seemed to cover East German (DDR) international success and there is a big emphasis on the exploits of Gustav-Adolf “Täve” Schur, nine times DDR Athlete of the Year and, as part of the single German national Olympic teams of the era, winner of a bronze and a silver medal in 1956 in Melbourne and 1960 in Rome in team events.  Six times national DDR champion, he was World Amateur Champion on the road in 1958 and 1959.  His green Diamant road bike is on display with supporting documentation.  “Täve” was the DDR’s most popular athlete and became a member of the Communist legislature after his retirement from racing and after the reunification of Germany in 1990 continued to serve as a parliamentarian in the Bundestag, still representing the East German Communist successor-party.  He is now 80 and apparently supports, in addition to the Wünsdorf museum, another museum dedicated to the famous Peace Race in Sachsen-Anhalt.  He is not without controversy in German sports circles as he has consistently denied institutionalized doping by DDR atheletes, contrary to statements by other East German atheletes.
Schur's Diamant
Close-Up of Schur's Diamant

The Peace Race, known as the Course de la Paix or, to the German, the Internationale Friedensfahrt, was the Soviet Bloc’s answer to the Tour de France and clearly the most important race in Mitteleuropa.  Beginning in 1948 on a route from Warsaw to Prague, it included East Germany in its itinerary in 1952.  One of the highlights that year and in subsequent editions was the inclusion of a brutal little climb in Meerane, a small town in Saxony.  The “Steiler Wand” (“Steep Wall”), as it came to be known, is 342 m in length and averages an 11 per cent gradient.

The race (won by the above-noted Täve Schur in 1955 and 1955) was an event for “amateurs” which continued in that form until 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.  Its subsequent history was a gradual decline as East Germany, Russian and other cyclists migrated to Western professional teams and competed in the Tour and other big name races and the final edition, after an uninterrupted 57 year run, was in 2005.
Peace Race Display
Wreath for the winner of the 1960 Peace Race: note the DDR "Hammer-and-Compass" insignia
Many winners of the Peace Tour went on to impressive careers: 5-time winner Steffen Wesemann, for example, was a force in the Spring Classics  won the Tour of Flanders in 2004 and Jens Voigt won in 1994.  The race is marked with a display case of medals and clippings at the museum as well as the pristine blue Colnago Master ridden in 1983 to an unexpected victory by Falk Boden.  The race was also a proving ground for younger riders.  Winners of the junior edition of the Peace Race include Fabian Cancellara, Denis Menchov, Roman Kreuziger and Peter Velits.  I cannot resist adding that a British team, made up of semi-pros and real amateurs, won the Peace Race in 1952, with Scotsman Ian Steel taking the overall, undoubtedly to the shock and astonishment of the other “amateurs.” 

A section of the museum is dedicated to the four man team that won the silver medal at the 1960 Olympics in the Four Man Pursuit event on the track.  Althought the Italians were supreme in cycling at the games that year, the East Germans (competing as part of the combined East-West team) won silver on the track and on the road (Täve Schur leading his four man time trial team); as well, a West German, Dieter Gieseler, won silver in the 1 km track event.  In addition to the various Olympic certificates, jerseys and photos, the museum also has an impressive silver trophy awared to the pursuit team when the riders set a world record of 4:32.8 at the Vigorelli Velodrome on October 26, 1959.
1959 Trophy for World Record in Team Pursuit

Positioned next to Falk Boden’s Colnago is an evil-looking all-carbon FES time trial bike which was ridden by Jan Schur (son of the inevitable Täve) to a gold medal in the 100 km team time trial at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, bringing the family haul of medals to a complete set of gold, silver and bronze.  FES, which is an abbreviation of the less-snappy Institut für Forschung und Entwicklung von Sportgeräten, was established in 1962 in Berlin by the East Germans as a research and development institute dedicated to sports equipment.  It continues to operate today financed by the Federal Republic.  It began working on bicycle technology in the 1970s and in 1984 produced its first carbon disc wheel.  FES is involved in a wide range of sports projects, including speed skating and kayaking.

1983 Colnago Master (left) and 1988 FES Time Trial Bicycle (right)

The museum is worth going through slowly as there are lots of interesting artifacts, including plenty of signed jerseys from German stars.  Here is one from Jen Voigt; another from Erik Zabel.  But some of the stories are a bit more obscure.  I was very much taken with a lovely silver Rickert track bike hanging from the ceiling.  It had a big sign on it and I was delighted to learn of the bike’s Canadian connection:

Rickert Track Bike

Heinz Dieter Reinhold lived in West Berlin until immigrating to Canada in the mid-1960s.  Shortly thereafter, legendary Dortmund framebuilder Hugo Rickert constructed this track bike for him and it was brought to Canada by Gussi Kilian, son of Germany’s famous track star Gustav Kilian, who was then retired but serving as a coach on the West German national team.  Reinhold competed in seventeen Six Day Races, placing well although never enjoying outright victory, and rode in races in Montreal, Quebec, Toronto and Delhi, Ontario before retiring from racing in 1973.  He returned to Germany and the Rickert continued to see service as Reinhold was a trainer at the track in Kaarst-Büttgen, near Düsseldorf. 

Bernd Drogan's World Championship Time Trial Bike
In addition to Reinhold’s Rickert, the museum displays two more track bikes, representing the outstanding success of DDR athletes.  Both are Diamant/Textima bikes and one was ridden by Bernd Drogan to gold in the 1979 World Championships at Valkenburg in the 100 km team time trial, and the other one of the team bikes used by 5-time track World Champion Detlef Macha in the same era.

1989 Rund um Berlin winner's certificate: 210 kms in 5:15:27

Rund um Berlin jerseys

The final part of the museum tells the story of Rund um Berlin, the oldest German road race with its start in 1896 and, sadly, extinct since 2008.  The race had national signficance primarily and was only won three times by non-Germans but the winners’ ranks include, yes, Täve Schur, Erik Zabel, Jan Ullrich, Olaf Ludwig and Robert Bartko, as well Wolfgang Lötzsch, who was probably the DDR’s finest cyclist in the 1980s but denied opportunity to compete in big races for his refusal to join the Party and contacts with the West.

Rund um Berlin Trophy

Rund um Berlin ran uninterrupted, with the exception of the war years, from 1896 until 2000 and then a final time in 2008.  The museum has posters, jerseys, photos, certficates and medals spread out over the entire time of the race.  Included is a trophy that is apparently modeled on Lady Godiva, probably the only nude-woman-with-long-hair-on-a-horse trophy ever awarded for cycle sport.  The first race originated in Zossen and made its way in a big loop completely around Berlin without ever actually entering the capital.  Recently, a professional road race has returned to Berlin with the expansion of the Velothon gran fondo in May to include a pro race managed by Erik Zabel and won in 2011 by Marcel Kittel in its first edition.

German national team jerseys

The museum also features memorabilia from cycling clubs in the region, which have a long and impressive history as well.

The museum was opened in September 2009 and I believe that much of the collection originates with its curator, sport journalist Werner Ruttkus.  He has written a book about the numerous cycling World Championships that have taken place in Germany, as well as a book about the history of the BDR, the national cycling organization.  As a personal collection, the museum is impressive but visitors should not expect much interpretive presentation.  The difficulty of any bicycle-focused museum is the problem in conveying the speed and excitement of racing in a static display of artifacts.  Some big-screen videos of historic races or interviews with stars would help but I suspect the museum is not really equipped to invest in this kind of thing.  Wünsdorf is not an obvious place for a cycling museum (Herr Ruttkus lives there) and the surrounding countryside is not necessarily going to bring in many passing cyclists.  Inexpensive but modern media has not been used to promote the Radsportmuseum and it is not easily found on any lists of bicycle museums in Germany or even on search engines.There are questions about the continuing operation of the museum given the few visitors.

As a person with a good knowledge of the history of bike culture and races in Western Europe, I found the Radsport-Museum Wünsdorf to be well worth the visit and very informative about chapters in European racing that were new to me.  See it if you can!

Radsport-Museum Wünsdorf
Gutenbergstraße 1
115806 Zossen/OT Wünsdorf
Tel: +49 (0) 33702) 9600
(Please note that the Website and all exhibits in the Museum are in German only)

Opening hours:
Monday to Friday: 10:00-18:00
Saturday and Sunday: 11:00-17:00
(Tickets are 3 Euros each and can be bought at Haus-Oskar, across the street)

1 comment:

Andrea Ingram said...

Looks like a fabulous place to visit. When I was acoach at the Manchester Velodrome [1999-2006] we used dernys like the green one you show here. We bought them from Simon in Holland - secondhand. So smooth and better than the later ones.