Friday 29 November 2013

A Visit to the Rhenish Hesse Bicycle Museum

Museum opening on April 21, 2002
Germans adore engineering and the country is filled with technical museums covering every possible theme (cars, airplanes, grain threshers, wire, x-ray machines, wallpaper, corkscrews, etc.) and in the wine district of the Rhineland-Palatinate, not very far from Frankfurt and not very far from where Baron Drais invented the bicycle (or at least its forerunner) in 1817, a small band of enthusiastic individuals have established a charming museum dedicated to our beloved two-wheelers in an old Schloss.  Welcome to the Rhine Hesse Bicycle Museum in Gau-Algesheim!

Gau-Algesheim, found between Bingen and Mainz and situated 3 kms from the west bank of the Rhine, is a town of nearly 7,000 inhabitants.  First mentioned in chronicles in 755 it was raised to the status of a town in 1355 and is surrounded by vineyards.  A charming town it does not actually have much to distinguish it from the others in the region except for the impressive Schloss Ardeck, a castle that has been much reconstructed since it was first built in 1112, becoming property of the town in 1925.  But, as is often the case in Germany where there are a lot of impressive old castles in addition to all those technical museums, it is not always easy to find a use for them and Schloss Ardeck was used for numerous local purposes over eight decades.

Enter Prof. Heinz-Egon Rösch, a retired academic who taught sports subjects at the Universities of Mainz and Düsseldorf. A singularly energetic man, he has had 15 cycle touring books published in addition to his academic work and at 82 years of age still rides 4,000 kms annually. With his contacts in the bicycling community he realized that there were some excellent examples of cycling history available that people were willing to donate. With the assistance of the local cycling club and some financial backing by the State of Rhineland-Platinate the Rhine Hesse Bicycle Museum (das Rheinhessische Fahrradmuseum) opened its doors to the public in 2002, occupying the ground floor of Schloss Ardeck. Staffed by volunteers, including the irrepressible Prof. Rösch, the museum is open on Sundays and holidays from Easter to the second Sunday in October from 2 to 6 pm or you can give them a call too. The museum is featured in the book "111 Places You Must See in Rhineland-Palatinate."
Prof. Heinz-Egon Rösch and a high-wheeler

Museum floorplan
Entering the museum (admission is free but donations are welcome) one first enters a nice exhibition area devoted to the origins of the bicycle which economically shows the changes from the draisine to the bone-shaker to the high-wheeler and ultimately to the safety bicycle.

Turning to the left, one next enters the exhibition area covering bicycles used in daily life. Here there are solid Dutch roadsters, an impressive shaft-drive Dürkopp, a Diamant with a carbide lamp and a knee-wreckingly massive chainring and other ancient but honourable machines.  
Shaft-drive Dürkopp

Another left turn takes us into the room devoted to bicycle sports. In addition to a number of classic road racing machines (Gios, Bauer, Pinarello) there are some excellent time trial bikes, including a spectacular yellow Giant used by Laurent Jalabert of the ONCE team.

There are the usual items to be found in bicycle museums along with the bicycles themselves: waterbottles, posters, accessories, flags and trophies. This being Germany there is also a display exhibiting cans and bottles of Radler, the beer and soft drink combination known as a shandy or panaché in other countries.

Something very unusual is an example of the bicycle used for Radball, the UCI-recognized sport of, well, bicycle ball (what is this actually called). Imagine bike polo with no mallets but instead you move the ball with your front wheel. Even stranger is Kunstrad, where cyclists, sometimes two on one bike, perform stunts more often seen in a Chinese circus before a panel of serious UCI-qualified judges.

Crossing to the other side of this compact but nicely arranged museum where everything is lovingly labelled there is a display of children’s bikes and an area where children’s educational events are held.
The final area is devoted to changing exhibits and during our visit featured a display about bicycles and art. In addtiion to posters and some original paintings and three dimensional pieces there was a couch with wheels and handlebars. Every cyclist should have one of these in his or her living room!

Prof. Rösch has found a successor (a more recently retired person) and his band of six will continue to manage the little museum. Cycling events take place from its front door and the local tourism office has prepared maps and brochures for suggested riding routes in the area. Educational programs for the local children have been successful and the Rhineland-Palatinate probably does not need to worry about where the next generation of cyclists will come from. Modes but charming and surprisingly effective in telling the story of the bicycle, the Rhenisch Hesse Bicycle Museum is well worth a visit. And you can be sure that Prof. Rösch can tell you where to go for a most excellent glass of Rhine wine afterwards!

The Rhine Hesse Bicycle Museum
Schloss Ardeck
Schlossgasse 12
55435 Gau-Algesheim
Tel. +49-6725-992143
The town of Gau-Algesheim has its website (with bits in English!) here.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Dutch Treat: the 2013 European Elite Track Racing Championships

Apeldoorn in the Netherlands is a not terribly distinguished place although it does boast the nearby country residence of the Dutch royal family but in the cycling-mad Netherlands it does offer something special: the Omnisport sports facility. I was there in October for the European track championships and following the one-track minds of some of the world's top racers.

Driving into Apeldoorn (population 157,057 and twinned with Burlington, Ontario) it looks pretty much like anywhere else in the province of Gelderland until you pass the gigantic bicycle on the main road and then another on entering Omnisport. The inhabitants of the Netherlands are the tallest in the world, but still...

Omnisport Apeldoorn, opened in 2008, is an impressive facility with a hall seating 2000 for volleyball and a 250 m velodrome seating 5000, the latter being the venue for the 2011 UCI World Track Racing Championships as well as the European Championships that year. It also offers an ice-skating rink for winter plus the usual concessions. 

The European Elite Track Championships are a surprisingly recent event, first held in 2010. Previously the European competition was only for junior and U-23 but the change was made after a review of Olympic qualification brought about a wholesale structural reorganization. Regulated by the European Cycling Union the program includes all the 2012 Olympic track events as well points races for men and women as the big finale: a men's madison because, well, people like it.

Great Britain leads the cumulative medal standings since 2010 with 24, including 13 gold, while Germany is close behind with 23 (10 gold) and tied with Russia, which also has won 23 but only seven gold. At the races in Apeldoorn this year 24 nations were represented and covering most of the world powers in track racing: Britain, Germany, Russia, France, Ukraine and of course the Netherlands. At the other end of the spectrum, Slovakia sent a single rider while the Hungarians numbered two. Gold medallists from the 2013 Worlds in Minsk were plentiful and in many respects the European Championships are almost another Worlds but without the United States, China, Australia and some individual non-European standout riders.

After a training day the Championships opened on October 18 with the Men's and Women's Team Pursuit and Team Sprint races, along with the Points Race. The British men (Doull, Burke, Clancy Tennant) took gold in the pursuit ahead of Russia and the Netherlands, while the women's race saw Britain (Trott, King, Barker, Archibald) also win, with Poland and Russia next. In the Team Sprints, the German men (Enders, Förstemann, Levy) came first ahead of France and Russia while the World Champion German women were not able to hold off the Russian pair (Brejniva, Stretsova) but did come ahead of the British. Points winners were Elia Viviani of Italy on the men's side and Kirsten Wild of the Netherlands for the women. Already on the first day the home nation had improved its medal standing with a gold and a bronze compared to Minsk, where the Dutch finished with a single disappointing bronze.

Day 2 of competition saw lots of Sprint qualifying events as well as the start of the Omnium, with flying laps, points race and elimination race. There was a lot of very exciting racing although the stands were fairly empty for most of this Saturday afternoon and evening. At the end of the day medals were presented for the Men's and Women's Sprints. The Germans had made a very strong showing but on the men's side some tactical mistakes were made and relegations came near the end, with World Champion Stefan Bötticher finishing out of the medals and Robert Förstemann, with the most impressive thighs in cycling, also being relegated so that he took the silver medal after Russia's Denis Dmitriev, who had finished second in Minsk.

Kristina Vogel prepares to overtake a Russian competitor in the sprint
Stefan Bötticher trackstands with a Spanish rival

Robert Förstemann warming up
On the women's side there was no doubt at all who was the fastest rider as Germany's Kristina Vogel, who won silver in Minsk in this discipline, easily outrode her rivals to win gold but a brave effort was made by Elis Ligtlee as she earned the third medal of the competition for the Dutch with silver (and having a wildly enthusiastic crowd behind her) and Jessica Varnish took the bronze for the UK.

Kristina Vogel leading Elis Ligtlee in the sprint final

Kristina Vogel, the newly-jerseyed European Sprint Queen
 On the final day of the Championships the stands filled up with spectators and there was a special exhibition organized by classic bicycle enthusiast Harrie Hofstede of vintage track racing bicycles. After he spread the word collectors brought in nearly 30 old steel bikes, including a very early (1903) stayer bike, a gorgeous 1934 Ernie Russ, a shaft drive bicycle and a wonderful Raleigh. The crowds that gathered around were very enthusiastic and peppered owners with questions and, in some cases, reminiscences of their own track days.

My Bauer Super Sport was not out of place

The glorious shaft drive
The racing on the track continued with more Omnium events (individual pursuit, scratch and individual time trials) and qualification and finals for the keirin and madison. Final results in the Men's Omnium saw Viktor Manakov take gold for Russia, followed by Tim Veldt for the home nation and Ireland's Martyn Irvine (World Champion in the Scratch Race) came in third. Laura Trott (silver medallist in Minsk) of Britain was the best woman, followed by Kirsten Wild of the Netherlands and Jolien D'Hoore of Belgium on the podium. There was also Dutch success in the keirin as the Women's Sprint results were reversed with Elis Ligtlee getting gold ahead of Kristina Vogel, followed by Virginie Cueff riding for France. Germany's medal count continued as Maximilian Levy won gold in the keirin with a powerful performance ahead of the UK's Jason Kenny (reversing their standings at the World's in Minsk) and France's François Pervis.

Swiss rider setting off on his time trial during the Omnium

British rider after completing his Omnium pursuit ride and barely able to stay upright from fatigue
Starting the women's keirin
Women's keirin racers setting off with the derny pacemaker
The last event was the extraordinary madison race, a veritable circus of colour and speed with 32 riders, paired in 16 teams, slung each other around the track 200 times in a 50 km event. In the centre of the velodrome on a raised platform was a man with evening wear, including a top hat, who job was to point at the leading cyclist since it was easy to get confused as the racers attempted to lap the field and get sprint points. In the end the Spanish duo of Juane and Barcelo were relegated for unsportsmanlike conduct in the 7th sprint (the madison is not a race for the faint-hearted) and Italy took gold ahead of them with Viviani and Bertazzo triumphant. Belgium's De Ketele and Van Hoecke won bronze. Interestingly, in this non-Olympic discipline the other track powers (UK, Germany, Netherlands) were pretty much at the bottom of the standings.

At the end of the competition Germany took three gold and three silver medals, while Great Britain (the dominant force in track racing for the last several years) also had an excellent time with three gold, two silver and three bronze. Russia was third with six but the home town crowd must have been delighted the Dutch haul of two gold, three silver and one bronze. Clearly it pays to ride those big bicycles...

Maximilian Levy (centre) of Germany celebrates his keirin victory
In November many of the same racers assembled in Manchester for the UCI Track Cycling World Cup and there were many repeat winners, including Kristina Vogel (gold in keirin, sprint and team sprint), Laura Trott (Omnium), the British men's pursuit team and the German men's sprint team. The art and science of track racing at the elite level is not everywhere to be seen but don't pass up the chance to see it if you can. The racing is exciting and even a bit dizzying at time but it is all out in front of you. The bikes with no brakes and single gears are stripped down and the competition is just as direct.

Friday 15 November 2013

Book Review: “Wiener Mechanikerfahräder 1930-1980”


Vienna: it conjures up images of schnitzel, strudel and Johann Strauss waltzes but a new book from a tradition-rich publishing house in the Austrian capital reveals another aspect of the city now nearly forgotten: the construction of bicycles, often in tiny workshops and to a surprisingly high technical and aesthetic standard.  The book “Wiener Mechanikerräder 1930-1980” confirms its authors’ contention that “Vienna is big but the range of its bicycle manufacturers was once even bigger.”

In 1930 Vienna had more than 100 makes of bicycle and for the next half-century brands would come and go.  The marques in this book, teutonically organized from “Alpenrad” to “Ziel” by the four (!) authors, have been painstakingly researched and the heading of each chapter indicates when the company existed, who owned it, how long the brand was in production, the location of the workshop, whether the firm produced its own bikes or brought in bikes under its own name from elsewhere and sources of information.  The effort to uncover all of these things must have been daunting and indicative of the fanatical obsession of collectors of which the authors are representative.  One of them owns 85 racing bikes.  Reference is made to the “tide of bikes” occupying basements and that during research for the book the authors managed to accumulate 16 more bicycles and eight frames!
From the number of brands it seems as if pretty much every Viennese bicycle shop must have had its own production as the beautifully-produced volume is over 350 pages in length.  This is understandable perhaps as in the Age of Steel building up a bike was a fairly straightforward tube-brazing operation with components coming from a few large suppliers.  In the winter months the shops could be occupied with production for the coming year.  However, the imaginative Austrians were not limited in their cycling vision and some of the bikes featured here have aluminum lugs screwed into lightweight steel tubes or aerodynamically-shaped tubing or even a leaf spring suspended frame.  There were folding bikes and aluminum children’s bikes and bicycles with jewel-like paint finishes.  It is proper that this book is Volume 2 in the series “Austrian Technical History.”

"Wiener Mechanikerfahräder” has a charming, personal touch to it, perhaps because the companies and framebuilders really were so individual.  One is struck by the brand names.   Some, such as “Williams,”  “the Champ,” “Sussex” or “Champion” were meant to convince buyers that they perhaps reflected the glory of English manufacturers.  But a larger group used the names of the builders, usually taking the first two initials of the first and last names.  Hence: BBW (Bruno Beranke Wien); Capo (Otto Cap); Elan (Eduard Lachnit); Er-We (Eduard Reininger); FAB (Fahrradhaus Adolf Blum); FH (Franz Hrabalek); Frado (Franz Dorfinger); Frigo (Friedrich Gollerstepper); Friha (Friedrich Hamedl); Geoga (Georg Gartner); Igro (Josef Grosstab); JoWi (Josef Wilfing); Mipf (Michael Pfeiffer); and so forth. 

In addition to the racing bicycles one would expect to find there are plenty of lady’s road bikes, the odd bike used for indoor ball games and some very cool children’s bikes, including one that could alternatively be used as a scooter.  Some of the companies offered a wide product line.  The producers of the “Select” brand, which made its own bicycles from 1947 until at least the 1980s, offered track and road bikes of excellent quality and the book features thirteen of them, including a remarkable bike meant for mountain road racing and built with a split seat tube to allow a very short wheelbase by moving the rear wheel forward, an idea taken up in these later times of composites by others using curved seat tubes.  “Select” enjoy the services of a virtuoso framebuilder, Michael Steinkellner, whose “S” initial was placed on the seatstays.

In addition to the excellent full colour photographs of Philipp Horak there are vintage black-and-white photos showing the cycling scene in Vienna in the period covered in the book, with lots of local race meets and local heroes.  The accompanying text is quite interesting as well and often reveals the sly humour of the Viennese.  If you don’t read German you will miss that but the quality of the book and the wealth of photos certainly obviates the need to go for language classes.

The old bike hobby is a niche within the greater cycling community, which in itself (at least as far as racing bicycles go) is simply a larger niche.  Upon learning of this book we thought that this must be the most obscure topic that anyone could write about (and we own three books on the history of variable gearing).  French, Italian and English builders have had global fame but, as the book admits, the brands highlighted here were “world-famous in Vienna.”  The book is of very high quality and not inexpensive but the publisher has told us that more than half of the print run of “Wiener Mechanikerfahräder” has already been sold although the book only was published this year.  And of course if you don’t want to shell out the 59 Euros (approx. US$ 83) plus shipping for the book you can order a lovely calendar featuring photographs from it for 19.95 Euros and shipping. 
The subtext of the book is “From Zero to One Hundred to Zero.”  Of the 100 different brands described only one company, Capo, still exists.  Yet there is hope as there is a brief chapter on the brave few framebuilders who are working in Vienna today, including Peter Gross although another, Hans Pöllhuber, who operates a store and workshop, has given up framebuilding himself as uneconomic. 

Many of the builders and brands in the book are known only from a single frame and the authors present a number of mystery frames they have found and invite readers to send them any information about them they might have.  Another personal touch.


“Wiener Mechanikerfahräder 1930-1980” might be about an obscure era to anyone outside of Vienna but this book is a true labour of love and a source of great entertainment if you like old bicycles and want to dip into a different world around them.  “World-famous in Vienna” deserves to be just world-famous and would make an excellent gift, ideal for browsing through on those long winter evenings while enjoying a Café Melange mit Schlagobers.

For more information and to order the book or calendar go to:

“Wiener Mechanikerfahräder 1930-1980”
by Michael Zappe, Walter Schmidl, Martin Strubreiter and Werner Schuster,
 with photos by Philipp Horak
347 pp, ill. With text in German
ISBN 978-3-85119-342-8
Verlag Brüder Hollinek, Purkersdorf, Austria, 2013
59 Euros, plus shipping