Judging from the last Tour de France or World Championships, Germany is currently one of the most successful cycling nations in the world, without a doubt. German professionals have had a much harder time of it back home, however: in the wake of the doping scandals in recent years, the general public’s interest in the heroes of the road has declined drastically. Today, instead of being celebrated, German professional cyclists fight for mere acceptance. For them, attaining success also means having to contend with accusations. In stark contrast, there are millions of passionate amateur cyclists who worship the bike and contribute to a flourishing German cycling culture. Perhaps Germany is not a nation with a great cycling tradition – but instead simply a country full of passionate cycling enthusiasts?
The light-blue Cinelli Laser Pista edition is a true collector’s item. This Italian racer proudly sits in the display window of a shop in Berlin, its steel components gleaming underneath the showroom light. A devoted paragon to a fading tradition, with its forward-sloping top tube design and delicately handcrafted details, this is surely a classic, but only one of many here. Throughout the shop, the premises are tightly packed with kindred racing machines, each telling its own story, surrounded by the sundry posters and paraphernalia of the biggest cycling races in the world. Hairnet helmets of bygone days wait patiently on the shelves alongside stylish modern helmet caps, leather cycling shoes, and historic racing saddles. There’s wool jerseys in abundance, with the odd messenger bag to compete with the thoroughly retro look. Here, too, a dizzying array of components from epochs past pile up in numerous boxes neatly stacked near the mechanics, one of whom has just finished rebuilding a green and red time-trial frame that belonged to the former Grassei-Mapei pro team. This particular oversized steel machine dates back to the 1990s. It’s retro, of course, like everything else in this shop.
This small side street in the north of Berlin is a bastion of cycling history, home to what is surely one of the most exciting and interesting bike shops in Europe. The name: Cicli Berlinetta, one of the foremost addresses in Germany when it comes to retro bike culture. The owner: Dustin Nordhus, someone you can confidently describe as a bike freak – in the nicest sense possible. The Canadian has been living in the German capital for almost twenty years, initially spending much of that time working as a bike courier, and later opening his own shop in 2005. “Germany is definitely one of the countries where cycling plays a huge role, and there have always been successful German cyclists – whether on the road or the track. In recent years, though, it was particularly difficult for the pros in this country”, he said.
Nordhus came to Berlin in the mid-1990s, when German cycling was at its peak. Until then, Germany had only been able to celebrate individual stars like Didi Thurau, who hit his prime in the 1970s. Suddenly, a sensation erupted as a German team became the strongest force in the international peloton for the very first time. Its name was Team Telekom, and in 1997 Jan Ullrich became the first German to win the Tour de France, while Erik Zabel was on his way to becoming one of the most successful sprinters of all time. In the slipstream of these two celebrities, a cycling boom gripped the nation. Nordhus proudly presents a vintage Pinarello in the characteristic Telekom magenta of the period. “This is an original bike from Jens Heppner – even has his personal signature here. With a bike like this, he won stage three of the Tour 1998”, the expert offers enlightenment.
The turn of the millennium was a golden age for German cycling. The duel between Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich enthralled millions of viewers, from the roadside to the television screen where, in 2003, the Germans lost to a notorious squad of Americans by a hair. At this time, the Tour of Germany introduced a separate national tour, which would eventually compete with big stage races like the Tour de Suisse or even the Giro d’Italia. Along with Gerolsteiner, T-Mobile and Milram, Germans had three teams competing at the highest level of cycling, and there was no indication that the black-red-gold bicycle boom would come to an abrupt end. “But then came the Fuentes scandal and all the doping cases. The Germans were disappointed with their heroes, really much more than all the other nations. And they still are”, says Nordhus.
The issue of doping had preoccupied the German media for some time previously – as early as Thurau’s time, in fact. In 1998, the Festina scandal gave the newspapers even more ammunition. However, it was not until 2006 that the doping revelations around Spanish physician Eufemiano Fuentes finally rocked German cycling to its core, ushering in a definitive turning point. In the eyes of the mass of the German people, their idols Ullrich and Zabel had suddenly toppled off their pedestals.
Within a short time, all major German teams disappeared off the radar of sports coverage. With the loss of media coverage, the big sponsors soon left too. Once the hope for a classic stage race, the Tour of Germany was cancelled in 2009 and has not returned since. The same fate befell the track: once numerous, the only six-day races to survive were those held in Bremen and Berlin. The publicly-owned media institutions withdrew their support as well: since 2012, public broadcasters ARD and ZDF have no longer shown live coverage of the biggest cycling race in the world, the Tour de France – or any other race for that matter. Whether they had been involved in scandals or not, German cyclists were henceforth no longer interviewed about their successes, only their doping habits.
One man who has witnessed this phase from the beginning is Simon Geschke. Since 2008, the Berliner’s distinctive beard has been a permanent fixture in the professional peloton. Geschke can sprint, he loves the classics, and he currently performs alongside the star German duo of Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb for the Dutch team Giant-Shimano. “In Germany, you will get asked quite directly if you ‘take something’. We can really do without these conversations; we have come a long way in recent years. It’s a shame when an entire sport is so demonized. Other countries are much more neutral about the topic. I think that this is a very German problem”, the 28-year-old states. He can only speculate about the causes: “Countries like Belgium or France have a much greater tradition. Cycling is a national sport and the riders are celebrated. In Germany, most people are more interested in football and Formula 1.” Perhaps this is part of the reason that, when rumours surface about illegal doping in those sports, the media and the public conveniently turn a blind eye.
Nordhus is sufficiently familiar with references to doping. The topic is frequently discussed in his shop as well. “You hear the usual jokes, of course, but I’ve always tried to support the professionals. You have to understand the background, see the whole system behind it and the causes. It’s just not right to destroy an entire sport. The Germans should learn to be more understanding. Cycling is an incredibly great sport that has much more to offer than discussions about doping.” Above all, it is cycling’s passion and tradition that make the sport great for him. Old books filled with heroic stories of pro cycling in the 1950s abound in his showroom, as do movies and videos of long-finished races. “Sometimes I meet up with friends so we can cook something good and watch the old duels of the Giro d’Italia”, he grins.
It should all be so easy. In Germany, cycling has been booming for years; the vicarious disgrace experienced by the professionals stands in sharp contrast to the situation of average cyclists throughout the country. It doesn’t really matter where you go; with its wide variety of different landscapes and plentiful interconnected bike routes, Germany offers road cycling enthusiasts both the scenery and the infrastructure to enjoy their sport. Every German city has cycling clubs with thousands of active members. Sporting races enjoy ever-increasing starter fields. For example, every August, Hamburg transforms into a cycling mecca when the Vattenfall Cyclassics take place. Here more than 20,000 participants pound the pedals, just as they do in similar events in Berlin and Cologne. Following in their wake, hundreds of other events of all sizes draw riders of all ages and skill levels each weekend throughout the summer to pursue their passion. “That’s the strange thing: cycling in Germany is huge! There are many amateur races and you’ll see more than enough recreational riders out cycling. Add to this all the many people who commute to work by bike. Nevertheless, the sport is acknowledged very little by the general public, and often negatively”, marvels Geschke.
For years, the German cycling industry has been solidly in the black. Around 70 million bicycles currently cycle German roads, and nearly four million bikes are sold to German people each year. Eurobike, held in Friedrichshafen, is the largest bicycle trade show in the world. In 2014 alone, the organizers received nearly 70,000 visitors to its exhibition halls. When asked about the growing gap between a booming industry and rampant cycling enthusiasm, and a simultaneous lack of interest in professional cycling, Nordhus points to the many Italian models in his showroom. “The German bicycle industry is large, and of course there are many fans of cycling – but the problems in professional sports are probably due to a certain lack of tradition. Italy, for example, has many old companies that have written bicycle history: Campagnolo, Cinelli, Colnago, and many others. In Germany, there are huge companies like Canyon or Focus that are building great bikes and writing high sales figures, but they still are working to establish that long history, that tradition, that helps shape Italian identity.”
Stylish handmade track bikes, retro wool jerseys and courier bags from San Francisco. With his concept completely dedicated to bike culture, the Canadian may have his own particular perspective on the difficult reputation of professional cyclists in Germany. A customer enters the shop and asks about one of the bikes in the showroom, a black fixed-gear from Nordhus’ own brand, ‘Cicli Berlinetta’. With his ever-present bicycle cap on his head, one of hundreds in his collection, he receives the visitor as a typical representative of another cycling scene, one which has also seen enormous growth over the past few years in Germany: those who regard racing bikes and their attendant odds and ends as fashion accessories, not exclusively tools for racing cyclists. “In Germany you have the traditional road cycling scene and you have the ‘street’ scene. For the former, the big races, individual riders or high-tech materials come first. For the others, the bike is more a tool for getting around for fun, or in style. Or both”, says Nordhus.
Retro is cool. Retro is happening. Especially on the streets of Berlin, where many such passionate bike lovers cavort. The number of stores with a concept similar to Cicli Berlinetta is growing in this city, and across the country. “When I came to the capital in the 1990s, everyone was crazy about trekking or mountain bikes. Then the bike messengers started using track bikes. Most people at that time didn’t even know what a track bike actually was. Now stylish fixed-gear or racing bikes have become a trend that has exploded, and almost everybody here wants a cool bike to ride. Almost like little status symbols”, says Nordhus. In front of the shop, a Fixie rider happens to pass by at that exact moment: sawed-down handlebars and minimalist design. It is an image that illustrates an important fact: despite the negative press and the difficult, ongoing situation of the professionals, many Germans simply love their bicycles and love to ride.
It is Saturday and the Canadian is finishing up a week’s work in the back of the shop. The red-green Tomassini, once perhaps belonging to Leif Hoste, another member of that notorious American team, is still in the work stand – its large-volume, aero steel pipes marking a classic that incorporates rare factor. It was with this bike that the former Grassi-Mapei team joined the Baby Giro, the Giro d’Italia for younger riders. “This is an actual professional time trial frame from 1997. With those thick pipes, it’s one of the most amazing frames of that time. I’m looking now for some fast wheels to build it up with – maybe with an old Campagnolo Disc”, he says. “The frame is pretty heavy, but once it gets rolling, it is unstoppable. It would be amazing to see a pro riding it along at 50 km/h. Someone like Tony Martin”, he adds with a laugh.
Tony Martin. Triple time trial world champion. Olympic medallist. One of the fastest and most successful riders ever to compete in the fight against the clock. He is one of the heroes of a new generation of German riders. It is a generation that had only just started cycling when Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel celebrated their greatest successes; and as they themselves turned pro, those former heroes were no longer racing. Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb also belong to this elite group. The former is currently the fastest sprinter in the world, dominating races for the past two years, and owning the flat stages of the Tour de France. The latter is one of the most dangerous competitors inside the peloton. Simon Geschke is also part of this circle. “We are all about the same age and started cycling during the hype surrounding Ullrich and Zabel. Germany benefited enormously from the boom at that time”, he says assuredly. Despite the recent successes, however, there is a lot of pressure on the shoulders of today’s German professionals: The weight of their predecessors’ past.
In recent years, Geschke has begun to notice a change. “I think it’s starting to slowly improve again. Cyclists are perceived more as real athletes now”, he says. It does in fact seem that this new generation of riders, led by Kittel & Co., seems to be recovering the trust of fans, public, and the media through their sophisticated and successful performances. Even the bosses of top network ARD are poised to be on board again, broadcasting live coverage of the Tour de France starting in 2015. And with German brand Alpecin stepping up as co-sponsor for the current Giant-Shimano team, the Germans will have a team in the highest league of cycling next season, for the first time in years. “I was at the World Championships in Spain when I heard the news. Of course I felt immense joy that a German company will once again venture into cycling. The fact that it also is a brand from outside the cycling world is a very good sign”, Geschke says. He will also be part of the team himself in the coming year.
A difficult situation for the pros co-existing with many passionate hobby cyclists. The negative media coverage combined with the booming bicycle culture is precisely the balancing act that distinguishes the sport of cycling in Germany. “Even if it goes uphill again, we are unfortunately not yet a cycling country. The chance is always there though, it could still change, but for this you need a certain tradition. Legends, like the Tour of Flanders in Belgium. Sadly, something is missing there for us”, Geschke continues. “In future, it would be great if the media would once again focus more on competition, and report in a neutral way. It is not pleasant when you have to constantly answer the same things”, he reveals. Nordhus also hopes to see the dawn of better times soon for German professional cyclists. “In my opinion, the Germans were a bit too hard on their pros. This seems to be changing again. I’m sure now that it’s starting to get better.”
Just before he closes his shop, the retro connoisseur shows off one last bike: a Coppi Lugano from 1995, its Columbus steel tubes accented by several green Coppi stickers ornamenting the bright yellow frame. “German ex-pro Dirk Baldinger rode this bike for the Italian Team Polti in the mid 1990s. After painstakingly removing all the energy drink dribbles, it cleaned up nicely”, he jests. Like the light-blue Cinelli Laser Pista, still gleaming in the light of the display window, this frame is another collector’s item. A picture frame on the wall next to it encloses an old jersey from the German national team. Not far from this hangs a plaque commemorating the year 1987, when the Tour de France Prologue set off from Berlin. At the end, Nordhus says something that offers a pithy summary of where cycling in Germany stands today: “Cycling in Germany is great; it always has been. But for the pros, it will take time for old wounds to heal.”