by Matthew Bailey, with thanks to cycling4fans.de
The Tour of Germany was first held in 1911, but 2018’s edition is only the 33rd in the 107 years since. Long absences from the calendar and frequent changes of name – there have been thirteen in all – reflect the difficulty the race has faced in establishing itself.
2018's Deutschland Tour started at "Deutsches Eck" ('German Corner'), where the Rhine and Moselle meet in Koblenz (@Conquista)
1911 – 1931
Famously, most major stage races were created by newspapers seeking to fill their pages with drama and romance. By contrast, Germany’s national tour was conceived of - rather more prosaically - as a marketing vehicle for the domestic bicycle industry, various members of which provided funding from the first edition in 1911 until the fifteenth in 1955.
The third and fifth editions, in 1927 and 1931, had a headline sponsor in the form of Opel, then part of General Motors and the largest bicycle manufacturer in the world. This was innovative stuff: the sale of naming rights in sports is generally held to have begun only in 1926, when chewing gum magnate William Wrigley named the stadium of the Chicago Cubs ‘Wrigley Field’. The Opel employee responsible, Hermann Schwartz, who would later become the company’s head of marketing, organised all thirteen editions of the Deutschland Tour between 1927 and his death in 1953, despite Opel selling its bicycle manufacturing arm to NSU in 1937.
Herr Schwarz’s ambitions extended beyond race organisation and creative sponsorship. He also thought he could improve on bicycle race design.
He was wrong.
1927’s edition took place over fifteen stages, but not – as has become traditional – on fifteen consecutive (or near-consecutive) days. On the contrary, stages were spread throughout the season, with the first taking place in April and the last in October. Unfortunately, it proved difficult to sustain the interest of either public or competitors in such a fragmented ‘race’, with as few as sixteen elite riders taking part in some stages.
Undaunted, Herr Schwarz took three years off to come up with something different. He excelled himself. But not in a good way.
In the next edition, held in 1930, any rider who pulled out of a stage for mechanical reasons was automatically given a time equal to that of the winner plus a penalty of 90 minutes (if he pulled out in the first 100 km) or 60 minutes (if he struggled on beyond 100 km). While these penalties may sound material to modern ears, the huge stages (there were ten, covering over 2500 km) and appalling weather and road conditions meant that far more time would have been lost by continuing than abandoning. On stages 3 and 4 even the favourites were pulling over and jumping into race vehicles or even passing trains, remaining free to continue on subsequent days with their position in the overall standings unaffected.
The race was also intended as a means of comparing the performance of low-pressure tyres, used by two of the teams, with the standard tyres used by the others. Imagine the spectators’ excitement as they awaited the verdict! And imagine also the delight of the riders on the soft tyres as they quickly established that while they were rather better than standard tyres on rough terrain they were markedly inferior on the normal roads that made up the bulk of the route.
However, despite Herr Schwarz’s efforts the race attracted a lot of public and media interest and a large number of roadside spectators. Unfortunately, further bad weather meant that hardly any paying customers turned up to watch the end of the financially all-important final stage in Berlin, leaving the sponsors with significant losses.
1937 – 1939
In 1937, after several more years at the drawing board, Herr Schwartz finally hit upon a brilliant idea. He would stop mucking about with the format and simply organise a traditional stage race along the lines of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia.
Twelve immense stages (with three rest days) covered a continuous loop of over 3,100 km all around Germany. Public reaction was nothing short of ecstatic, with a barely believable 14 million spectators believed to have turned out at roadside and 80,000 people packed into the Berlin Olympic stadium for the finale.
When 1938’s edition generated a similar frenzy the event had clearly become too big and too symbolic to escape the attention of the Nazi government. 1939’s edition was structured overtly to show off the scale of the expanding Reich. Rebranded the ‘Groβdeutschlandfahrt’ – Tour of Greater Germany – it covered over 5,000 km, more than either the Tour or the Giro of the same year, and passed through parts of both annexed Austria and what is now Polish territory.
For the first time the race included a leader’s yellow jersey, a mountains classification and a team classification. Though the overall winner was a German – Georg Umbenhauer, who had ridden the 1922 edition at the age of just 14 – it was Swiss rider Robert Zimmermann who was crowned King of the Mountains, and the four foreign teams took the first four places in the team competition. Sadly, Hitler’s reaction to this demonstration of Teutonic inferiority went unrecorded.
1947 – 1955
The first post-war edition, which took place in 1947, could not have presented a greater contrast to its predecessor. The indefatigable Schwartz had created a new industry body and with the help of its members he organised a series of criteriums in the ruins of six cities in the British zone (Solingen, Bonn, Aachen, Mönchengladbach, Düsseldorf and Cologne). Despite its humbler status the racing was again extremely popular, bringing onto the bomb-damaged streets thousands of people grateful for any distraction from the privations of day-to-day life.
The 1948 edition combined six long road stages with five town-centre crits, to a mixed reception, but when the race returned to a more traditional format in 1949 it was a great success. This was partly thanks to Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, whose epic battle at that year’s Tour was keeping cycling in the headlines. But more important was the creation that same year of the new Federal Republic of Germany, since this paved the way for (West) German riders to compete internationally and for international riders to visit (West) Germany. And in 1950, once the new country had been recognised by the UCI, 17 foreign riders competed alongside 43 Germans. The future seemed bright for the Deutschland Tour.
In fact it was the start of the end. Hermann Schwartz fell seriously ill in 1951, missing the race, and the industry body was dissolved in 1952. While another organiser was found that year, declining interest on the part of sponsors and public meant there was no race in 1953 (when Schwartz died) or 1954. The event was briefly resurrected in 1955 as the centrepiece of a week of promotion for the German bicycle industry (Die Deutsche Zweirad- und Radsport-Woche) which included shorter races for amateurs and schoolchildren. But despite this, and the squadron of specially-trained moped riders who accompanied the publicity caravan, public reception of the race was lukewarm. Only 35 riders started the race, all of them German, and only 21 of them finished.
1960 – 1982
Hennes Junkermann (@Cor Vos)
The idea of a Tour of Germany serving as a shop window for the German bicycle industry was dead. Henceforth the event would be staged only when the success of particular German riders briefly attracted public interest and therefore sponsorship from outside the industry.
Rudi Altig (@Cor Vos)
So, races ran from 1960 to 1962 to take advantage of the profiles of Hennes Junkermann, Rolf Wolfshohl and Rudi Altig, all stars of the contemporary peloton. Financial support was provided by a soft drinks manufacturer, who lent the races the catchy name ‘Internationale Afri-Cola-Deutschland-Rundfahrt’. But even Altig’s wins at the Vuelta (1965), Milan–Sanremo (1968), the Tour of Flanders (1964) and world championships (1966) didn’t generate enough interest to save the Tour of Germany.
Dietrich Thurau (@Cor Vos)
It was not until Dietrich Thurau’s exploits at the 1977 Tour de France, where he won four stages plus the prologue and finished fifth overall behind Bernard Thévenet, that the sport’s profile began to revive. 1979 saw the peloton back on the roads of West Germany in the ‘Internationale Vitamalz-Rundfahrt’. Thurau himself took the win, beating a strong field which included Gerri Knetemann, Jan Raas, Francesco Moser, Bernard Thévenet, Roger de Vlaeminck and Sean Kelly. But Thurau’s career stalled, the big names stayed away, no new German riders emerged and the public, media and sponsors again lost interest. After 1982 it would be another seventeen years before the country saw road racing at the highest level.
Learn about the golden years of German cycling, the Deutschland Tour and Team Telekom in Conquista issue 20 - available here.
For more on the history of the Deutschland Tour see cycling4fans.de