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From the outside, it appears German cycling is on the rebound.
Much like in America following the slump in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, German cycling hit the skids after it turned out that 1990s powerhouse Telekom and Jan Ullrich were not winning on bread and water.
German TV refused to broadcast the Tour de France. The Deutschland Tour folded. Other German riders and teams were implicated with doping, and as a result, the bottom fell out of the once-burgeoning German cycling scene.
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Fast forward to 2016, and a new generation of credible German winners has emerged with André Greipel, Marcel Kittel, Tony Martin, John Degenkolb, and Simon Geschke. German TV has returned. And the Tour de France is bringing Le Tour to Dusseldorf in 2017 for the Grand Départ, and reviving the Deutschland Tour. So everything’s great, right? Well, not if you ask Rolf Aldag, a former German pro and sport director.
“Yes, all that helps cycling, but our bigger problem is, ‘Where are the talents? Where are the young kids on the bike? Where is the support?’” Aldag said. “For sure, the return of the Tour of Germany is good of the business side. And the Tour de France in Germany is big business, and the Tour of Germany will carry that on over time, but will that create any new German bike rider? I don’t know.”
Aldag, a former Telekom rider who rode alongside Ullrich, welcomed the renewed German interest in the Tour and in professional cycling, but pointed out that the grassroots support for cycling in Germany has all but evaporated. With the German government unwilling to back cycling similar to support in the United Kingdom or Australia, for example, he said it’s hard to believe that Germany will produced the next (clean) Jan Ullrich anytime soon.
“The level of German cycling is pretty good right now, with Kittel, Degenkolb, Greipel, Geschke, and Tony [Martin]. If you don’t manage to get young children on bicycles, you will have a problem in 5-10 years,” he said. “I know the federation is trying, but they have little government support.”
When Aldag was coming up through the ranks in the 1980s, Germany was still divided in two parts. In the east, Soviet-style sport clubs churned out potential bike champions. In the west, well-financed sports clubs also backed all sports around the country. With the reunification of Germany, those grassroots programs on both sides of the former Iron Curtain have diminished.
“We don’t have the development schools like we did before in Germany,” he said. “If that doesn’t change, then it’s pure luck that some kid steps on his bike, and he’s supported by his family, and he turns out to be a super talent. We have no scouting or development of talent in Germany now.
“To find and motivate young kids on bicycle doesn’t exist anymore. You don’t have all the East German clubs, or like those in the West. We always had big cycling clubs. That was a big step toward turning pro.”
Aldag, 47, said Germany needs to follow a similar model like British cycling, with an early emphasis on track cycling. He said that not only does the velodrome get young kids excited about racing and hones their bike-handling skills, but it also represents a safe riding environment.
“I wouldn’t want to be the one who has to go to ring their door and say your boy isn’t coming back because of the aggression of the cars,” he said. “With the traffic situation in Germany now, I find it very brave to take out a group of 12-14-year-olds, and take them training on open roads in the daily traffic.
“Unless there is a big change in the mentality, I don’t see that changing with the arrival of the Tour de France for one year for only a few days.”