For those of you who see cycling as having begun with the Jan Ullrich-Lance Armstrong dual, the name Klaus-Peter Thaler may not be very familiar. But before Jan Ullrich, Eric Zabel, and Jens Voigt, German racing could boast Gregor Braun, Dietrich Thurau and Klaus-Peter Thaler. Of the three, Thaler represents one of the most successful German cyclists for both road racing and cyclocross.
His success started early, as he hit the ground running by twice becoming German junior champion, and topping that off by winning the Amateur Cyclocross World Championships in 1973 and 1976. By 1976, he was representing Germany at the Olympics, but had his silver medal taken away due to an interference charge. He was only 26 at the time, and had to make the very difficult decision of whether to keep to the amature ranks, or test the professional waters. Not one to avoid a challenge, he turned pro, and followed up his Olympic-sized disappointment with a successful 1977 season that saw him win a stage of the Tour de France at Rennes, and place 3rd overall at the Vuelta. 1978 saw further successes with a second Tour stage win, and the opportunity to become one of the first Germans to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour.
He retired from road racing in 1983, but after two years of coaching the German Amateur Cycling Team, he caught the bug again for the mud of cyclocross racing, and returned to the trenches. After only five weeks training, he won the 1985 World Cyclocross Championships in Munich. Having boycotted the 1986 Championships, he returned in 1987 to successfully, defend his rainbow jersey.
Few cyclists from any nation could boast such a grand list of palmиres. An honored member of the UCI cycling Hall of Fame, Klaus-Peter Thaler has succeeded at every level of the sport – junior, amateur, elite class – in multiple disciplines – road dogs, Euro-dog CX racing – and has moved onto running a prosperous sports wear business, as well as becoming a proud member of the German Tour der Hoffunung cycling tour to help the fight against cancer, and the “Menschen fьr Kinder” cancer foundation.
What were his inspirations? What were his goals? Where did he find the energy? These and other choice tid-bits came rolling out when we reverently approached the rider the German press calls “Der Gelдnde-Experte”, or in other words, the all-around Teutonic bad-ass of the bike.
Klaus-Peter in action in the mud.
PEZ: You have worn the maillot jaune, won three stages in the Tour de France, won both the amateur and professional world cyclocross championships multiple times, won endless numbers of German cyclocross championships, finished third at the Vuelta, and raced the Olympics. When you look back at your career as a racer, what victory stands out as being the most satisfying for you?
K-P Thaler: I think 1973 1st world cyclocross championship stands out in my mind, because it was the first time that I had so much success on such an international level.
PEZ: That was when you were an amateur?
K-P Thaler: Yes – the other victory which is quite important to me is the 1985 World Cyclocross Championship, when I had my comeback after two years of being a coach for the amateur team. I had only around eight weeks after I had started to train again, and yet I still was able to win and become world champion in Germany. But there was a certain amount of “spannung” – or how do you say? – tension between myself and the German cycling federation.
PEZ: You also race the Olympics and won the silver medal, but were disqualified for having apparently interfered with another racer. You understandably have called that the greatest disappointment of your life. Then in 1977, you bounced back to have an amazing year. What was that like and how did you reclaim your motivation so successfully?
K-P Thaler: Olympic games in Montrйal for me were, of course, a great success.
Though I started in second place of the group, I sped from one side of the road to the other and finished the sprint in first position. That meant I was second in the race, since another rider had won solo. But there was a video of the group sprint, and the jury thought that I hindered another rider when I traversed the road, and they relegated me to eighth. The charge of obstructing other riders during the sprint, of course, had not been the case. That naturally, was a great frustration but on the other hand, my whole time at the Olympics was the experience that made me want to become a professional. I otherwise would not have turned professional at the age of 26/27. And it was my time as a professional which afforded me, with inverted commas, the “real” victories like 3 stage victories at the Tour de France and two days in the yellow jersey, third place in the Vuelta, front placings in several road race championships and two cross championships as a professional.
RACING ALL SEASON
PEZ: As you list several of your victories, it is immediately apparent that you were of a generation that raced hard throughout the year, and you certainly had success both on and off the tarmac. In today’s racing, people like Lance Armstrong are criticized for only focusing on one or maybe two races a year. Where do you stand on the issue of riders focusing on one or two events a year, after having had such a successful time yourself racing basically year-round?
K-P Thaler: Today’s situation is completely different. I used to race at a time when great road racers would do cross cycling during the winter season. I competed in many cross country races with people like Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. They would start out from these cross country races leading into the first road races of the season, and we all used it as a way to prepare for the road racing season.
When you look at Eddy Merckx, in particular winning Paris-Nice, at the beginning of the year, the Tour de France in the middle of the year, and the Tour of Lombardy at the end of the year in one season, you are looking at a different type of racing than what we are seeing today. You have to keep one thing in mind – the racing season today is much harder. You race at higher speeds, which takes a lot more out of you. There are more races of greater importance today than in those days, and you also start racing much earlier in the year.
For instance, elite racers travel “down under” or to South Africa for the months of November and December. And when they return to Europe in January/February, these riders race at speeds that people in the days of Eddy Merckx would only be doing by the middle of the season. This is why I believe that the races have become much tougher.
If a Tour de France winner like Lance Armstrong or Jan Ullrich was to ride at the very front of some earlier races, they would probably find it much more difficult to win the Tour de France by mid-July. There is an altogether different timing for your physical peak during certain racing periods. I therefore do not believe it to be right to criticise the cyclists for focussing on one particular thing. But of course it is just as dangerous for the riders to plan their season around only one or two things, because focussing can also mean that if that particular race does not come out right, then more often than not you find that you have screwed up your whole season.
At the 1976 Montreal Olympics: (l-r) George Mount (USA), Bernt Johansson (Sweden), Fons de Wolf (Belgium), Joe Waugh (GB), Klaus-Peter Thaler (Germany)
On The PRO TOUR
PEZ: The new Pro Tour is almost here, and there seems to be a lot of emphasis being put on a relatively few number of races. The UCI has been criticised that they are trying to create more of a motor-sport format, for example, with a set number of participants and teams allowed to race. Do you agree that it is trying to Formula 1-ize professional cycling, and do you think it will work?
K-P Thaler: For a long time cycling was not as professionally organised as many other sports, but recently cycling has introduced many changes. Beginning with the salaries of cyclists – cyclists earn more money today than they used to, which I believe is only right since it is the world’s toughest and most demanding sport, in terms of both time and physical commitment.
Now there is the attempt to introduce some form of organisation to the large numbers of races that are springing up everywhere. Races that were previously amateur races, have in the past been upgraded so that they are now being raced by professionals. There are so many races available and vying for riders, that it does make sense to introduce a fixed “tour” that includes all of the most important races.
Of course this can be tough and there will be some “casualties” along the way. Certain races in certain countries may no longer be part of this “tour”, even though it may be of great importance to one particular country. This may lead to good riders from individual countries no longer taking part in certain races.
But the success and value of the ProTour is something that can only be determined in a few years. It will be interesting to see if, from a financial point of view, it will be something that can be adequately handled by the various teams, because not all countries have the possibilities to sponsor their teams in a way that will be required by this new set up.
The DOPE SPECTRE
PEZ: And leading on from the team support issue, I hate to have to bring this subject up, but especially in light of the recent troubles Phonak has had, even as drug testing is becoming more sophisticated, so are the drugs and the methods of doping. Where will it end, and how can it be eradicated?
K-P Thaler: In this context I will be referring to sports (as a whole) and not exclusively the sport of cycling. Though cycling is the sport not only with the most frequent controls, but also the most rigid and reputable controls, it has to fight for its reputation as a sport since there are many of the sportsmen and women being caught doping.
But this is not unique to cycling, and the problem is the same in other sports. Take athletics or winter sports, cross country skiing, and other endurance sports; look at the “kraftsportarten” (ed: power sports, like weight lifting or pulling semi trucks up a ramp with beer bellied girlfriends looking on). In many types of sport the issue of doping is not yet systematically examined because no one really believes that anything untoward may be happening.
Doping is a general issue with professional sports but also mass sports (ed: i.e. marathons) and recreational sports. I personally am categorically against doping in professional sports, but I am worried that the dangers are even greater in amateur, or if you like, hobby sports in particular. In such situations, there are, of course, no controls, and this allows people to use substances in an uncontrolled and unregulated manner.
And this practice includes certain substances or medication that have nothing at all to do with sports. I always find it particularly sad when cyclists are being caught because we have always been the “bad boys of sport”. That is because for years no controls had existed, and it seemed almost obligatory to “do something” for yourself.
I have always tried to keep out of all of this, which incidentally is something people do not always believe. To say that I have never ever used anything would be something that I would not like to have set in stone. All I can say is that I have ridden the Tour five times and that during these times I have never taken a banned substance, but of course I also never won the Tour. Being 35th overall, winning three stages, finishing many times in the top ten in stages, two days in the yellow jersey – these are certainly successes, but not too much in the grander scheme of things.
However there were many others who would overtake you, and who would develop in ways that one would never have suspected. Medication was certainly a part of that, but that was and is part of this profession. The question is always – where are the limits?
Today looking at the positive side to all of this, one can use proper medical supervision. With the help of specialists and doctors one can determine where one’s natural limit is and when that limit has been reached as a professional sportsman. While I was racing, the big problem was that almost no team had a doctor, only the very big teams would have one; and with the other teams, it was mostly self taught individuals who would hand out the medication.
Perhaps there were also other helpers or physiotherapists who had no proper medical training, so there was always a certain risk to become dependent on people who lacked the proper training. This was never an issue for me. I rode all year round, road racing in the summer and cross country in the winter time, and if you were not training and working professionally, but rather relied on dodgy medical assistance, then you would only have maybe one single good year. I raced successfully until the age of 37 which I believe to be proof that I made sure not to mess with my health.
The CYCLISTS UNION
PEZ: And what is your opinion of the talk of a cyclists union being needed? With wages being unpaid, and the cyclists having practically no voice in making the decisions for what they do?
K-P Thaler: Difficult question. I believe that by now riders have the ability to organise themselves because they ride on good teams where they are being looked after and their interests, too, are looked after in a way. That, I believe, is part of the free market economy that they manage to make themselves heard on their own. I am not a great believer in the idea of creating a cyclists’ union. I don’t really think you need it.
Up until today, the riders have managed to sort out issues that have arisen amongst themselves. For example, I once rode a Tour de France where the riders protested against the sometimes inhumane conditions under which we had to ride. We weren’t given enough time during the stages. We would arrive late every evening at the hotels, our team support would have trouble keeping up with the massages. They would work until after midnight, would prepare the food, and I once even fell asleep on the massage table. The next morning you would have to get up very early, sometimes taking a two hour train ride to get to the start of the stage. In those days you sometimes still had three stages in one day.
So, on one of these stages we protested, everyone dismounted just before the finish, and walked their bikes across the finish line. This to me demonstrates that the riders are very well able to take care of their own interests. They have thus far managed to sort them out without the help of a larger organisation.
REMEMBER THE GOODTIMES
PEZ: What is your fondest memory of being in the peloton?
K-P Thaler: The problem for me, in a way, is that when you’re in the middle of racing you find yourself thinking “this is so painful and difficult” and your are sort of looking forward to the end of the season. But once you reach the post “active racing” stage in your life, you look back and think that it was actually rather a fun time. It was hard work but like with everything in life, you tend to remember more the good times.
And what really stands out for me with professional cycling, was the chance to travel throughout the world, though it was mainly a European racing calendar in those days. Perhaps a World championship would take place in Venezuela, for instance, but other than that we raced almost exclusively in Europe. But it was really great to be touring the whole “region”. I raced in Spain for two years and it always was a very friendly thing. Even though no concrete friendships would be forming among the riders, not even among German ones, it was always a very nice time practicing a great sport.
I still enjoy this sport today and, if possible, take out the bike two or three times a week. I would not want to have missed those days because they did a lot for me. Cycling did not necessarily lead me to where my formal training (as a teacher) would have lead me since I have remained in the sport.
But I can say that I have turned my hobby into my profession in three different ways: for one thing I became a professional racer, then I was the coach for the German federal amateur team for two years including during the Olympic games in Los Angeles, and my latest project, the distribution of cycling clothes through my company “Thaler Sport” also builds on my passion for the sport.
And thanks again to Klaus-Peter for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with us, and watch for the next part of our interview, where we gets into the future of German cycling
Read Part 2 of our Klaus-Peter Thaler Interview here.
Check out Klaus-Peter’s links – and test your German!
The Tour of Good Hope – Tour-DerHoffnung.de
Thanks also for Photos:
– and for headshot at top: VSO.de