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By Sebastian Moll and Alexander Heflik, Special to VeloNews
That a bicycle race can bring out millions of fans to line rural roads and jam up the boulevards of a finishing town is actually a relatively recent phenomenon in Germany.
Cycling enthusiasm did spike – albeit briefly – in Germany when Didi Thurau, the “angel face” from Frankfurt, wore the maillot jaune for 15 days in the 1977 Tour de France. But German interest faded as Thurau’s career derailed through doping scandals and fans saw a remarkable talent wasted on too much racing for quick money. Instead, in the 1980s and ‘90s, Germans returned to what they knew best: soccer. But the passion – buried as it was – lingered in German hearts. It took the inspired rookie ride of a young Jan Ullrich, who finished second in the 1996 Tour de France to re-ignite the interest of his compatriots in the sport. Since Ullrich’s Tour victory the following year, cycling’s popularity in Germany has been booming.
When the Tour swung through Freiburg in 2000, stopping only miles away from Ullrich’s itinerant home town of Merdingen, massive German crowds shamed the French. The route of that day’s 58km time trial was so densely lined with supporters from start to finish, riders likened it to finishing the last two kilometers of Alpe d’Huez … for more than an hour. That success fueled the ambitions of other German communities near the French border. Every mayor capable of finding the obligatory 200,000 Euro fee in his budget sent an application to Paris, asking to become part of the spectacle. Because of such fierce competition the French organizers looked for a special connection of the applying community to cycling and the Tour. That’s top among the reasons ASO chose the towns of Karlsruhe and Pforzheim, the finish of Friday’s and the start of Saturday’s stages.
Karlsruhe is the hometown and Pforzheim was the residence of the nobleman Karl Drais, the inventor of the so-called Draisine – a wooden vehicle with two wheels upon which you would sit and propel yourself forward by pushing off the ground with your feet. It was the craze of the day, accelerating mid-19th-century travel by over four times in comparison to the stagecoach. It was another 50 years before it was surpassed by the first real bicycles – the penny-farthings of the 1870s. Karl Friedrich Drais von Sauerbronn – as Drais was properly called – didn’t live to see the first bicycles, which were based on his invention. He died in 1851, embittered, misunderstood and impoverished. He had lost his fortune in court, because a tax attorney had betrayed him. Instead of celebrating his success, he had taken to drinking because his contemporaries belittled him and laughed at him. Among the few things that he left to the world was his curious Laufmaschine – literally “walking machine” – which remains on display in the Karlsruhe museum. After finishing school in Karlsruhe, Drais started as an apprentice forester under the tutelage of his uncle in Pforzheim, watching over the game and tree population. He didn’t have a particular affinity for the work, however, and his uncle soon let him go. Remarkably, his uncle continued to pay him his full salary, giving Drais the liberty to pursue his biggest interest: invention and design.
He came up with a machine for reading music, a steam pressure cooker and an early ancestor of the automobile. His masterpiece, however, was the walking machine, which he personally presented to both the Grand Duke of Baden and Russia’s Czar Nicholas I. The noblemen, however, showed little interest in the invention, dismissing it as “unnatural.” That the Tour de France is now coming to his hometown – with 187 proud athletes zipping by on modern-day versions of the Laufmaschine – would be deeply satisfying for Drais. It underscores the fact that his was the fate of many geniuses – misunderstood by his time, proven right by history.