Monday, December 12, 2016

Rickert Spezial

Another Brand New Old bike!
 Earlier this year, a friend(we'll call him John since he didn't tell me not to) I know through the blog "Lovely Bicycle"  offered to pass a frame to me that he wasn't riding anymore. That would have been a pretty cool gesture in any case, but it turned out to be even more special when I learned a little more about the bike that was coming my way.

I knew it was over 50 years old, handmade from Reynolds 531, still in good strong condition but getting a bit scruffy from surface rust and sporting a couple of dents in the top-tube from handlebar strikes. It was also a bit smaller than my ideal size, a 58 instead of the 60cm bikes I'm more comfortable on now. It was built by  some German guy I'd never heard of, Hugo Rickert, so I wouldn't have been expecting that much except John  was offering it to me because he thought I might be able to appreciate how special it was, treat it respectfully, and actually RIDE it. So it obviously wasn't like some used Specialized or other old scrub. John's part of the generation of  industry veterans and serious cyclists who were doing deeds of honor and glory on road and track about the time I was a kid getting pulled into bikes and bikery. He's also a direct connection to even earlier generations of Racers, Builders, and Bad-Asses going WAY back to the days of Professional 6 Day Races from the 20s and 30s when the best Racers were earning more than a first-rate Professional Shortstop, up through the years after the War when the Immortals were creating a legacy to inspire us forever on the roads of Europe, and so on into the 50s and 60s. If someone like that tells you they have a bike they want you to take care of for them, you accept it and expect good things whether it says Cinelli on the downtube or not.
Rickert eh? Pleased to meet you...

Ouch. That's a nasty bar-strike right there.
Silver medal, Rome, 1960.

 Feeling connected to Cycling's earlier times is important to me. So it's cool to get to know someone who raced with the guys, who raced with the guys who Slayed the Dragons, and when one of them hands me a sword picked up from the Battlefield it feels like an important thing. A thing that if treated with respect and ridden hard enough to glimpse what it's capable of, can in a small way, give me a part in a story that matters to me. It doesn't even have to be anything particularly valuable or fantastic on it's own, as long as it provides that connection and a bit of a glimpse into that earlier time. But as it turns out, it's a really special bike from a really special builder who's story and legacy is as worthy and honorable as Colnago or Masi, and possibly easier to relate to on a human level.

Let me see if I can explain...

It's a little difficult to really dig into all the information about Hugo Rickert on the web unless you read German, which I don't. But there's a number of  English sites that refer to him, his bikes and the surprising number of Riders who rode his Machines to win everything from Club Races to Olympic Medals,  and Big-Time Championships(National and World, Amateur and Professional). His ratio of bikes built/Glorious Victories has to be as good as anyone's.

 He lived and worked in Dortmund, an Industrial Center in western Germany that has a history of Mining and Steelmaking stretching back to before the Industrial Revolution. The more I learn about Dortmund the more it seems like Pittsburgh. Older of course but it seems likely to me that the Men and Women there would have some of the same characteristics of being tough, smart and hard to hold back, as those in "Steel City USA. It's fitting as well that great steel bikes would come from a town where people had steel and steelmaking in their blood. Some good steel bikes still come out of Pittsburgh too you know. Plus they used to brew a tremendous amount of beer in Dortmund, so I suspect someone from Pittsburgh might find it a comfortable spot and a Dortmunder(is that the term?) might not die of Home-sickness right away if they had to spend a season in "Piksburgh". 

 Anyway, Hugo was born in 1928 and while in his teens worked as a Mechanic for Brose, a local bicycle manufacturer. Perhaps inevitably, he got involved with a local club, RV Sturmvogel 25, which in spite of sounding like the name of an 80s Tecno Band, was the sort of Racing Club where young riders got thrown into the scene and immersed in the Sport in a serious way. In 1951 at the age of 23 he opened his shop and by about 1956 was building a reputation for producing first-rate bikes. It seems that he was a pretty prolific for a small shop, mostly under his own name but also producing frames for others that didn't carry the Rickert name but were none the less built to the same standards. He particularly specialized in Track bikes but turned out Top-Drawer Road Bikes as well. He was part of the German National Team organization in the 60s and 70s(and perhaps beyond), building team bikes and acting as some sort of Technical Advisor and Mechanic. He was a thinker and innovator as well, you may remember the Campagnolo High-Low rear hubs from that period. It was his idea to use a large flange on the drive side with a small flange on the other in an attempt to equalize spoke tension and prevent spoke failure, and it was him who badgered Campy into making the first run of those hubs and he that stepped up and bought the minimum of 500 sets that Tullio required to make it worth his while. It wasn't the solution to the problem but it produced an Iconic bit of kit that evokes strong memories in anyone who was part of 70s and 80s Racing Culture.  He worked hard and did what it took to be involved at the very top. He kept at it too, building bikes for over 50 years with the help of his wife Doris(she was the one who did the striping including the Rickert signature double lines on the seat-stay ends), finally putting down the files and turning off the Oxy/Acetylene in 2002 after suffering a stroke. As someone who makes things and takes pride and satisfaction from doing it well, I think it had to have been tough to close up and turn out the shop lights the last time. Hugo Rickert died in 2011. His bikes are actively sought after all over Europe and farther afield, by collectors and riders wanting quality traditional bikes. Any Rickert with a "For Sale" sign on it changes hands pretty quickly in Germany from what I gather.

"My" Rickert (which by the way will eventually get handed off to someone else to preserve in some sort of dignified state and RIDE for as long as the old thing can safely make it's way in the world. Applications accepted in a decade or so) spent at least part of it's life in Poland before coming to my friend John via E-bay. It was built around 1963, it's hard to be sure, but since the decals on the top-tube listing Olympic Medals and World Championships don't include any of the victories after 1962, and the construction details are so very typical of an early 60s Race Bike, it seems safe to assume 63'.

  It's a nice Dark Blue with some pretty badly deteriorated chrome and nicks and scuffs EVERYWHERE. It's got the normal braze-ons from the time; Derailleur cable stop on the chain-stay, front and rear derailleur cable guides at the bottom bracket, including a nifty roller for the rear derailleur cable. Brake cable stops on the top-tube with a slightly crude but perfectly designed cable stop on the seat-stays to accommodate center-pull brakes, pump-pegs under the top-tube, fender mounts on the drop-outs and fork-ends and a little hand filed stop for a clamp-on shifter brazed on the top of the down-tube(right where you can see it in all it's ever-so-slightly lop-sided glory, no hiding it on the bottom of the tube for old Hugo). As was normal for the time there are no water bottle braze-ons. In 1963 you would have still seen lots of racers rocking their bottle on the handlebars and I think it's one of the little details that help put bikes from that period in context. I think it's sort of charming in it's way, like baggy wool Baseball uniforms or Bowling-Ball football helmets. A nice Handlebar Mounted Waterbottle Cage is pretty rare these days and can cost more than I can get from raiding my Daughters pocketbooks so I made one using materials and techniques that were common then. It took me a couple hours but it's not beat to death and didn't cost $150 , plus it's fun to make crap like that so it makes me happy to see it there.
Clever little screw dontcha think?

I built it up with good quality period parts, nothing very blingy but about what a serious guy on a budget would have done way back then. I did make or modify some stuff. A little screw on the front brake cable hanger that braces it to the headset to eliminate the flex typical in that area, some loops brazed on the back of the nuts that hold the caliper arms to the mounting yoke on the front brake so I could wire them to the fork and eliminate the flex that can keep centerpull brakes from being as firm as possible. It also goes a long way towards eliminating the squeal people sometimes associate(unfairly) with vintage brakes. I really like centerpulls and have a big bag of tricks to make them Spectastical. Eliminate the flex and use the best pads you can find(I like Kool Stop Salmon) and they are absolutely the equal of any modern dual pivot, since mechanically that's what they really are, along with being more adjustable and dang near FREE.

A bit of low-grade engineering...
 I also needed to do a bit of reconstructive surgery on the damaged ears on the seatlug. That's not unusual for a bike with pressed lugs that's had to work hard for a living. After years of use the tabs get deformed a bit and are no longer parallel, bending the binder bolt which further distorts the ears. I like to straiten things as much as I can without applying any heat,then make some little wedges that provide nice parallel surfaces for the bolt. After getting that accomplished I splurged and bought a beautiful New-Old-Stock Cinelli binder bolt from Boulder Bicycle so the old War Horse would know I cared.I also drilled and polished the heck out of the brake levers so it could hold it's headbadge up in polite company.

One of the great things about bikes from that era is the tire clearance. I want to be able to ride this bike on all the dirt and gravel roads here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and since I grew up with, and dig tubular tires, I appreciate clearances that allow me to use 33mm Tubular CycloCross Race Tires and still have room for fenders. I don't think I'm going to ever use this bike in the wet so don't think I'll put fenders on it, but bikes from that period typically have enough room to do about anything you want. In fact, before bike racers got snooty and decided they needed a hat for every day of the week, lot's of hard-core 'cross riders would have just used their Roadbike for 'cross after a bit of part and tire swapping. There's some nice buff singletrack trails around here that that old Rickert is going to see as well so those big Fatties will be just perfect.

I just got this bike all put together and haven't put any real miles on it yet, just some spinning around in the driveway and some laps around the kitchen. It's been too cold and windy this weekend for light-hearted goofing off but maybe next weekend will be better. The rear tire ought to cure a bit more anyway. But the little bit of rolling around we've done together shows it to be eager, and ready to get on with it.

It's not without it's quirks though. There's one thing in particular that makes me scratch my head and wonder what sort of guy Hugo really was. There's a 1/4" ball bearing rolling around in the top-tube. There's only one opening in that tube, a neat little milled slot in the seatlug assembly that serves as the vent. It's decidedly too small for that bearing to pass through and its in perfect shape so nothings ever been forced through it either.  It seems obvious to me that it's been there from the day Hugo brazed it together. You can take a magnet and drag that bearing over to the slot and get a good look at it anytime you feel like taking the seatpost out and having a peek. It seems like just the sort of accident or co-incidence that would happen in a busy shop where bike parts get jumbled up doesn't it? At first I just thought "Why shouldn't a Bottom Bracket bearing end up in a tube sometime?" but really wasn't quite ready to leave it at that.

One day I was poking around some internet bike sites and searched "Ball Bearing In Top-Tube" and some other variations of that theme, and SHAZAM! Up pops a Bike Forums  post Titled something like "Mysterious Pebble Rattling Around in My Frame" with a bunch of comments, including one from a person who writes about a Rickert he had with something rolling around in the top-tube.His comment ended with him saying "I always thought of it as Hugo Rickert talking to me" or something like that. So now I knew about 2 of his bikes with the rattle and became sort of "interested" in an even more compulsive and irrational way. I also started getting a bit more determined. In time I was introduced(via Bob Freeman and the internet) to a German Collector who brought one of his Rickerts to Eroica-California this fall. I asked him if he had ever heard of any Rickerts with a "something" in the frame and he responded that in his collection of 30(!?) examples there were at least 3 or 4! One of which is a Best Grade Track Iron. The sort of bike Hugo built his reputation on and the last thing you would expect something accidental to happen with. I hope I didn't make him think I was accusing Hugo Rickert of sloppy work or being mean or difficult because that's not what I think at all. I'm just not quite convinced it's an accident that these bikes sometimes have a something(always one thing, never two) rolling around in the top-tube(but never any other tube), the one tube where it would roll around, lazily tumbling along, repeating some message over and over again. I keep wondering if that's possible and if so what that message might be.

When I asked a couple of more or less Elder Statesman type Framebuilders if they had ever heard of anyone doing something like that as a prank, they all responded that they couldn't imagine anyone doing something like that AT ALL. Except one. He just chuckled and said that the evidence would seem to indicate that someone had done just that, then related that he'd heard a couple of things rolling around in one or two nice handmade frames over the years that rolled too smoothly to be a bit of flux or a blob of brass. His next comment was "Wouldn't that be the sort of thing a mischievous builder might do to a customer that complained too much about about the price or kept nagging to have their bike moved up the production schedule?" Then he winked and said he wouldn't have ever been tempted to do such a thing in a tone that was anything but reassuring. Now I can't see my neat old Handbuilt German Racer without thinking about whether Hugo Rickert was sort of a merry guy who along with being a Top-Notch Craftsman might have had the sort of confidence and sense of humor that would let him play a little practical joke if he thought it was warranted.

 I don't know. If it's so, it doesn't make me thing less of Hugo Rickert or the fine bike he built that I get to ride now. On the contrary, it makes me appreciate them both in a deeper more complicated way.

Thank you Hugo, and thank you John. You can both be sure I'm going to take good care of your old bike and try to ride the tires off it.


  1. i like your theory of how and why that ball bearing wound up in the top tube.
    I'd like to see a close-up of your handlebar bottle cage sometime. Thanks! Great bike! Enjoy the ride.

  2. Hi Mike, I sort of hesitated to write about the mysterious case of the wandering bearing because I didn't want it to look like I was denigrating someone like Herr Rickert, but it IS a pretty interesting little mystery and maybe someone will read this and be able to shed a little light on things...

    As far as posting pictures of the bottlecage, I have a bunch of stuff I've made that I'll post photo's of pretty soon. I just spent hours learning how to take/edit/upload/insert photo's on this blog so I could do some of that. I'm slowly clawing my way into the present...


  3. I find the mystery of the top-tube bearing wonderfully interesting. The notion that it was a little "jab" at a bothersome customer is kind of funny.


  4. Good morning Spin

    The frame is 60cm c-t. 58cm top tube. Does it look small because it's blue, or because it has a lowish BB? Anyway you'll be fine.

    Like the bar tape.

    For Weinmann and Mafac brakes the thing that matters that I am aware of is swaged pivot posts versus bolted posts. For Mafac it's real simple, they changed it in 1970 and all the old good ones were shipped before '71 was over. If it says dural forgee on the arm it's the good one. If it is swaged and says something else you have a nice old old brake. I've got swaged Weinmanns on the Bates, they are probably end 1950s like most of the parts on that bike. The swaged Weinmanns are not nearly so easy to find as the Mafacs, think the change was much earlier than '70. The old brakes stop really well.

    Now go ride that thing and tell us about it.


  5. Spin

    Have you done this brake modification before? Looking at it for like the sixth time it finally dawned on me what you were doing. The braze to the nut holds? You could do a whole post on just this. Ride report please.


    1. I've done the screw on the cable hanger a few times and it always works great. This is the first time I've tried the loops brazed to the nuts on the caliper. I don't know how well it's going to work but I have just bound the whole yoke to the fork with wire before on BMX bikes and it definitely made a difference. If the copper wire I've used to bind it to the fork doesn't do the job I'll do Stainless Steel Aircraft Safety Wire and use my handy Safety Wire Pliers to get it super tight. You could also use a small hose clamp but I think the wire would look better if it will do the job. The ideal would be to braze some mounts on and be done with it, but not on a neat old bike like this one.


  6. A fine machine, totally worthy of you. I too would like to see the bottle cage.

    How would you compare the ride of this bike to a similar era 531 bike from a British maker?

    1. Not sure yet exactly how it rides since the re-build. It's colder than the bridge of the Titanic here lately and I'm hiding inside till it warms up this weekend.

      I'll do a ride report when I get more miles on it. I'll also do a post about how to do all the obsessive little things I've figured out over the years to get the best out of Center-Pulls.