Thursday 21 June 2012

Toni Merkens: June 21, 1912 - June 20, 1944

Living as I do in the Rhineland, I have come to learn something of the history of cycling in the region.  Cologne has a long and impressive tradition as the home of a number of famous figures in the racing world.  Today, June 21, marks the centenary of the birth of one of them, Anton "Toni" Merkens.

Born in the Eigelstein quarter of Cologne, Toni grew up with three brothers and a sister at No. 20 Im Stavenhof, a small, narrow street.  He became an apprentice of the noted bike mechanics Fritz Köthke and Wilhelm Hennerici, who quickly noticed not only the young man's mechanical skill but his racing talent as well.  They loaned him a track bike they had constructed, sponsored by the Gold Rad bike company.  What is probably a later bike from the same sponsor was on display at the Rennradbörse in Rommerskirchen-Nettersheim this past Sunday.

 Merkens took part in various races in the Rheinlandhalle track in Köln-Ehrenfeld, without much success.  In 1928 he suffered injury from a bad crash and withdrew from racing.  He made a triumphant return in 1931, scoring a victory in the Rheinlandhalle with his partner Hans Krewer (who was to die of appendicitis two years later at the age of 20) in the two-man team event.

From 1932 on he made his reputation as a fearsome sprinter and after winning the "New Year's Prize" race, he went on to defeat the reigning World Champion, Dane Helge Harder, as well as the Cologne favourite son Albert Richter, who was to become World Champion later that same year.  Merkens was noticed by German national team trainers and he began his strong of remarkable wins, taking the German national amateur title for sprinters from 1933 to 1935, as well as winning the national title on a tandem with another Cologne rider.  In 1934 he won the international championship of England, as well as a number of other races in that country, riding a Hetchins bicycle.  He won that year's Grand Prix de Paris, but was defeated unexpectedly a few weeks later by Dutchman Ariet van Vliet at the Worlds in Leipzig.
Merkens on a Hetchins "Curly-stay" track bicycle

Van Vliet was to become Merkens' chief rival and in 1935 in Brussels the German succeeded against his opponent, winning the Rainbow Jersey of the World Champion.  He was also to defeat van Vliet in 1936 for the Olympic gold medal in Berlin, although the Hollander claimed an interference foul after the first heat.  The protest was disallowed by judges although Merkens was fined 100 Swiss Francs for failing to hold his line but Merkens went on to win the second heat and the medal.  There is a nice photo of Merkens standing in a white suit, the attire of the German team, on the podium and another, not so nice, showing him in a swastika-adorned jersey giving the Hitler salute with a group of officials and fans.

In 1936 he set a new record on the track, covering 1 km in 1 Minute 9.6 seconds.  (The current World Record for this distance was set at altitude in La Paz by Arnaud Tournant in 2001 at 58.875 seconds.)

Switching to the professional ranks in 1936, Toni Merkens was not as successful as he had been as an amateur and in 1936 and 1937 he came second to Albert Richter in the race for the German Professional Championship.  Turning to Six Day Races (which were soon banned by the Nazis) and then to stayer (motor-paced) racing he met with some success, winning the German championship in 1940 and placing second in 1941.  In 1942 he finally became German Professional Champion in the sprint discipline but his racing career soon came to an end as he was drafted.

Sent with his unit to the Eastern Front, Toni Merkens was wounded in August 1943 by shrapnel and in February 1944 was sent to the military hospital in Bad Wildbad in the Black Forest, where he died of meningitis the day before his 32nd birthday on June 20, 1944.  A jovial Rhinelander, he was liked and respected as a competitor and as a person.

A street in Munich at the Olympic Stadium is named after Toni Merkens and at the bicycle track in Cologne, which is named after Albert Richter (of whom I will write soon) there is an oak tree which was planted in 1936 to mark Merkens' Olympic victory.

Toni Merkens in the Rainbow Jersey on his Gold Rad
(Most of the information in this posting is taken from a website on Rhineland history, and was prepared by Udo Schmidt-Arndt, who maintains the International Cycling Archive, a gold mine of information about track racing.  The translation from the German original is mine).

Monday 18 June 2012

The Old Bicycle Weekend

Day One: The Rommerskirchen Rain Romp

As a prelude to the annual “Deutsche Rennradbörse,” or German Racing Bicycle Exchange, held in Rommerskirchen-Nettesheim, Düsseldorf’s esteemed Klassikerausfahrtgruppe decided to establish the Rommerskirchen-Düsseldorf-Rommerskirchen one-day classic ride for old bikes and indefatigable cyclists.  So this past Saturday a group of us appeared at the Alte Schule (Old School) to ride our Old School Bicycles and socialize.

Registration was limited to 60, although Konrad told me that there had actually been 70 who were prepared to pay 5 Euros for the ride, a food stop and a barbeque afterwards.  The start time of 3 pm seemed a bit late in the day but as it was we missed the very heavy rain in the morning.  Well, not entirely.

The threatening weather was not enough to scare off most of those who planned to come and around 50 showed up and registered.  The rules were that your bike had to be pre-1990, use downtube shifters and cage-and-strap pedals.  In addition to the usual Klassikerausfahrt suspects, we had people who would be participating in Sunday’s old bike jumble and, due to my influence, my riding buddies Tom (on a fine Mondonico, with pedals borrowed from my Chesini), Rudiger (riding my l’Eroica veteran Peugeot PXN-10) and Nick on his glorious tricolore Faggin.  My plan was to take my purple Rickert Spezial on its maiden ride so in addition to the new white bar tape on the bike, I wore my new Timberland old-style cycling shoes and my classic wool l’Eroica jersey from Coq Sportif.  Look out for a posting on Herr Hugo Rickert of Dortmund and his much-treasured bicycles soon on this blog.

Nick and Faggin; Rudiger and Peugeot; me and Rickert; Tom and Mondonico
There were a lot of interesting bicycles, as expected, and after registering we wandered around and admired them.  There was another sea-green Peugeot, Gazelles in numerous colours, a Mercian with a typical English saddlebag, a beautiful black Pogliaghi, a Raleigh Record Ace with Sturmey-Archer 3 speed gearing, a fine blue Olmo, some Diamants from East Germany and a wonderful yellow 1928 Opel.  Yes, the car-making Opel was once the biggest manufacturer of bicycles in the world.

The group gradually organized itself into two groups: the fast “espresso” people and the more leisurely “cappuccino” types, although it was always intended that “fast” was a relative term.  Old bicycles do not always have very effective brakes and although we would be riding quiet backroads there would always be a need to be careful.  The four of us were all in the espresso group and Nick, who rides in the Bergische Land’s hills most of the time, was excited at being able to ride a flat course.

Rudiger and the PXN-10
The espressos rolled out precisely on time and everyone was in high spirits, although the first drops of rain were beginning.  Leaving Nettenheim we rolled north-west, turning at Dekoven and observing the big coal-fired powerplants to the left.  Now going north we rode through quiet farm roads, turning again at Neukirchen.

The rain grew heavier as we approached the Rhine and this was unfortunate.  The organizers had wanted to give us the real Eroica feeling and included segments of dirt road which had now become muddy and even those with the foresight to have fenders on their bikes were splashed with mud.  At least the rain was not cold and soon enough we were off the dirt and crossing the Rhine to enter Düsseldorf.  Our route continued south-east, alongside of the river and at around 39 kms it was time for our food stop near Urdenbach.

Everyone looked pretty messy and the bikes were no longer very shiny but the mood was very positive.  For the first time I recall at a food stop there were trays of olive oil and bread to soak it up.  There were bananas and melon and some great dips for the bread, as well as lots of water to refill our muddy bottles.

Time to roll again and this time we did not go across the bridge but instead headed to the ferry that brought us to Zons.  This is a town I had always wanted to visit but today there was no tarrying as we continued through the rain.  Well, actually there was some tarrying as soon after our group had the second of two flat tires but this was soon looked after and we passed through the larger town of Dormagen before rejoining the quiet roads through farm fields and forests and suddenly we were back in Rommerskirchen-Nettenheim and the Alte Schule.  Although it was supposed to have been 70 kms, the circuit was actually 64.9, with around 200 m of climbing.  Time for a beer!

We looked a sight with our muddy bicycles, filthy shoes and wool jerseys that had stretched alarmingly in the rain.  After fifteen minutes the cappuccino group pulled in and the barbeque was soon started up.  We were a bit wet and cold and it was time to go home, so Rudiger brought Nick to the train station and Tom drove me back to Düsseldorf, three dirty bikes on the roof rack.


Day Two: The Rennradbörse and Zons

On Sunday I got up early and rode to the S-Bahn station to take the train to Dormagen.  There was nobody on the 07:34 train and my Basso (which, unlike yesterday's bicycles, enjoyed the luxury of clipless pedals) had lots of space to stretch out.  The trip took 35 minutes but then I had a short ride of 12 kms ahead to reach the Alte Schule.  Reaching the train station in Rommerskirchen proper would have taken twice as long as it required going south to Cologne and then transferring, so I plotted a course on my Garmin GPS and soon found myself riding in bright sunshine, passing signs promising fresh asparagus or strawberries.

A short way out of Dormagen, I turned off the road to stop at the old monastery of Knechtseden, established in the 12th Century.  The impressive basilica was constructed in two stages between 1138 and 1181 but was damaged in series of local wars, most destructive being one in the 15th Century.  But the monastery had money and was rebuilt and expanded in various architectural styles.  It was an entire community and there was a printing shop, among other small industries, agriculture and schools.  The monastery is still used by an order of monks (numbering 25) but it is also home to a school for opticians and a small hotel. 

Church services were just coming to an end as Signore Basso and I rolled through.  After taking some photos, including one of the Rare Fruit Walk (yes!), it was back out on the fine bikepath along the main road.  Near Anstel I turned away from my mapped route to follow the bikepath through some fields, away from traffic.  It quickly brought me back on course and I found myself quickly in Rommerskirchen-Nettenheim and my goal: the Deutsche Rennradbörse.

Compared to the empty school under cold wet grey skies we had been in the day before, the scene was transformed in the June sunshine.  Stands had been set up in the parking lot and everywhere there were bikes and framesets and parts of every description.  It was great to see but I had taken care to a) ride my bicycle, meaning I could not buy another one and b) only brought 60 Euros, meaning I could not buy much of anything else.  Of course, I quickly found a very nice Peugeot-branded stem for my Peugeot, which currently suffers the indignity of having a black Bianchi stem.  The new stem is quite beautiful but knowing my experience with bicycle parts will probably not fit.

After looking at jerseys and heat tube badges (I almost went for the Bismarck one) and some very nice celeste-green Bianchi frames, and catching up with Ricci-Sports Richard and his son, who was visiting from Scotland, I went into the Old School.  More irresistible objects to be resisted but of particular interest to me was the room off to the side with display bicycles.  My friend Hartmut from Münster had brought three bikes: two Ric-Sports, as Hugo Rickert once named his bikes, from c. 1961/62 and a very interesting stayer racing bicycle built in Berlin in the 1960s.  One of the Rickets had an Altenburger rear derailleur, which moved to the side when shifted.

Other bicycles included a fine pair of Dürkopps, some 1950s Diamants, with Peace Race memorabilia, and a remarkably fine Gold Rad which had been used by German Olympian Toni Merkens, who enjoyed a successful racing career in Britain as well as Germany.  He was born in Cologne and was World Champion in the sprint in 1935 and after his gold medal sprint win at the 1936 Olympics (under somewhat questionable circumstances) he turned professional and won a number of German titles before his death at the age of 32 after being wounded in World War 2.  This coming Thursday will mark the 100th Anniversary of his birth.

Taking my leave of the happy bargain hunters, I rode out of Rommerskirchen, passing Dormagen and returning to the Rhine and Zons.  This time I had the chance to look around at the small walled town with its towers, gates and impressive windmill. The wall runs around 300 m per side and there is place for only about 125 houses inside.  It was formally called Feste Zons, or Fortress Zons and although its history goes back to the 7th Century, the town was most important as the Rhine customs centre and was fortified in the 14the Century.  Along with the charming buildings and impressive walls, there is an herb garden in the centre of the town and a lot of elderly day visitors.

It was time to head to the Dormagen railway station, arriving there with a total of 34 leisurely kilometers for the day.  Soon I was on the S-Bahn headed for a late lunch in Düsseldorf, and two hours spent cleaning the Peugeot and Rickert of the layers of mud accumulated the day before on my sunny balcony.  And so ended my Old Bicycle Weekend.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Mr. Carl Burgwardt (1931-2012)

I was saddened to learn recently of the passing of Mr. Carl Burgwardt, whom I met at his marvellous bicycle museum in Orchard Park, New York in December 2008.  My report on that visit, which remains one of the most popular postings I have ever included here at Tin Donkey, can be found here.

As it was a snowy day when I was there, Mr. Burgwardt was generous with his time and we had a very illuminating discussion about early cycling history and bicycle manufacture.  He and Mrs. Burgwardt had a great interest in Western New York State history and the cycling end was only part of that, although the museum was exceptional for a private collection.  The collection, with a strong emphasis on the once-vibrant marques of Buffalo and region, was sold within a year of my visit and the museum closed in November 2009.  This was most unfortunate as Mr. Burgwardt had once hoped to house the museum in a striking  new building on the site of the old Pierce bicycle factory in Buffalo but this did not come to pass, although it would have been a fine attraction for the city.

The Western New York Heritage Press published Mr. Burgwardt's 2001 book "Buffalo's Bicycles," which is not only a fine example of a regional history but also a valuable survey of the growth of the American bicycle industry.  WNYHP has also posted an obituary here today.

My impression of Mr. Burgwardt was of a warm and hospitable man who enjoyed sharing his impressive knowledge of bicycles.  Through him I became aware of the International Cycling History Conferences and have made contact with other historians.  I am glad that I had the opportunity to see the Pedaling History Museum and my meeting with Mr. Burgwardt remains one of my best memories connected to my cycling hobby.