Thursday, June 21, 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, www.rheinische-geschichte.lvr.de 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).

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