Dieter Pfänder, an official with heart and passion
No races without commissioners, no organization without officials. Naturally, at the World Cup in Albstadt or at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships presented by Mercedes-Benz they are part of the inventory. Dieter Pfänder is one of the people who has been in Albstadt every year since the first Gonso Albstadt MTB Classic in 2005, in various functions. But the man from Neuffen has also accompanied and coordinated important changes in the German mountain bike sport. He is representative for many in the background who keep the sport running in general and, by the way, he also explains why mountain bike orientation competitions are more dangerous than downhill.
Dieter Pfänder is not a person who puts himself into the foreground as the representative of the Association of German Cycists (Bund Deutscher Radfahrer BDR) for endurance sports in mountain biking. But if there is a cross-country race in Germany, you will almost inevitably run into him.
Whoever deals with him will experience an official with the heart and passion for the sport in the right place, someone who acts pragmatically. “Rustic and casual,” he calls himself. He understands his task always primarily from the perspective of the sport, the athlete and fairness also as a commissioner – and he tries to decide things under these premises.
He is not a great communicator, he says himself, but he is always open to discussions. And always available for a joke.
Dieter Pfänder, due to the Corona pandemic, no mountain bike races will be held until further notice. Are you currently unemployed as BDR representative for the MTB endurance disciplines?
No, not at all. Behind the scenes we are trying to save as many races as possible, especially the German cross-country and marathon championships. However, in Germany we mainly depend on the international calendar, i.e. the World Championships and World Cup events. Only when these are newly fixed can we see where to find a spot. If the situation allows it, it would be important to host as many events as possible in autumn. After all, there are (financially) many people connected to the developments, too.
So despite the ordered lockdown, this is not a quiet phase.
No, the situation is constantly changing. It’s only quieter for me because I retired last year and now have time to do other things.
You have been in the mountain bike sport for 20 years and have invested a lot of time as a volunteer official. What was your entry ticket to mountain biking? Did you do cycling yourself?
No, up until 2000 I had nothing to do with cycling. It was my two children Christoph and Carmen who introduced me to it. Their friends went mountain biking at TB Neuffen and they wanted to join in.
The TB Neuffen was already very active in the 90s. Not a typical cycling club, but one with a mountain bike department and especially very involved in the work with young people.
Yes, the TB Neuffen had its own race, in the quarry, which was very well known. That’s where all and sundry went. Unfortunately, it was no longer permitted at some point. But for a long time there was the Swabian Kids Cup. A series with Neuffen, Bad Urach-Hengen, Römerstein-Böhringen, Krumbach and Sonthofen, which was later called Spätzle-Cup and Metabo Kids-Cup.
This was a kind of showcase series throughout Germany.
Technical tests were an integral part of it. Rainer Heissenberger, the man who was in charge at that time, had received an invitation to France for a competition from Thierry Nuninger (today the UCI’s first secretary at the World Cup). The TB went and you could see what they were doing.
What were they doing?
Besides cross-country there was trial, downhill and MTB orientation. We were last everywhere without a chance, except in cross-country. Rainer Heissenberger, Rolf Schneider and Hans-Jörg Ziehe said that this is the right thing to do, we have to do more technique and think about how to do it. The scoring mode in the trial mode was imitated as well as slalom. So we had a score from three disciplines. We also received criticism for that.
Well, the kids were busy all day, of course. That was a bit much.
It was about students up to U15.
Yes. They reduced that then. But the series was successful. With the help of TB Neuffen, Baiersbronn also hosted the Black Forest Youth Games seven times (1996 to 2002). That went over three days with trial, slalom and cross-country. National associations were involved, but also foreign clubs. From Hungary, Alsace-Lorraine, from Tyrol. We had about 200 participants. The highlight was always a visit to the Europapark.
The last Black Forest Youth Games were held in 2002?
Baiersbronn had a different orientation. But then, with the help of the then Lieutenant Colonel Christoph Stephan, we organized the international MTB Youth Games at the military training area Stetten am Kalten Markt. We had two buildings in the barracks for overnight stay and were allowed to eat in the canteen. One afternoon we could visit the tanks and the highlight was a Bike-Biathlon with shooting. That was something very special back then. Unfortunately, Christoph Stephan retired early and his successor as site commander had no interest in it.
Did any of the children who participated in Baiersbronn and Stetten at that time, make it into the national team or professional teams?
I just browsed through the results lists from back then. Barbara Benko (multiple Hungarian champion, junior vice world champion and current member of the Ghost Factory Racing team) was there. And Simon Stiebjahn (professional in Team Bulls, German champion in the eliminator, vice chamoption in the marathon and five times overall Bundesliga winner), in slalom with a high double-digit position (laughs). I can also see Nadine Rieder (Rotwild Factory Racing, German Champion in the Eliminator, vice champion in marathon and XC World Cup rider) and Ines Thoma (today’s Enduro professional, 2007 European Junior Championship bronze medallist).
Seems to have been a good place for youngsters. The introduction of technique tests seems to have had an effect?
Before it was simply: ride, ride, ride, kilometers, kilometers, kilometers. In France, they have already done downhill with children of eleven, twelve years old. With us there was headwind – you can’t let little kids like that go downhill.
Where did the headwind come from?
We had a lot of problems with the Württemberg Cycling Association (WRSV). They did not accept that we went to France at all. We went to the Grand Ballon in Alsace again and again, because we wanted to know what they did better. We also went there to have the experience with the children. We wanted to absorb the atmosphere. It was very different there. But the worst thing was not the downhill, but the MTB orientation. If you send 13-year-olds off with a map, and they don´t arrive for 2,5 kilometers after two and a half hours and you have to ask the French to look for them with bikes, some parents were in a cold sweat – and we were, too. But we brought everybody back home (laughs).
Apart from a few individual athletes, the development of cross-country sports in Germany has been lagging behind more and more since the mid-90s. The training of young talents lacked above all the increasingly important technical driving component. Therefore what was initiated at TB Neuffen with bonds from France was of great importance.
In 1999, the then national coach Klaus Jördens told the author in an interview that junior Verena Berger was faster uphill than the top riders at the 1998 World Championships in Mont Sainte Anne, Canada, but lost so much time in the technically difficult passages that she only finished seventh, more than six minutes behind the leader. That said a lot. Berger was from Neuffen of all places, but the
impulses came too late for the talent.
In the end, the Neuffener path was followed at national level.
I think that was the impulse for the right path. Whether it was all right, how we implemented it, that’s debatable. But it was helpful to think outside the box. You don’t have to say that they do everything better in France or Switzerland, but you can still see what they do differently.
Anyway, the findings were transferred to the Swabian Kids Cup and the event in Stetten. And it became a talent pot to a certain extent.
A lot of bikers learned their trade there and well-known names appeared in Stetten. Eliminator World Cup winner Simon Gegenheimer, European Junior Champion Mona Eiberweiser or European Junior Championship bronze medallist Martin Gluth, the later U23 champion Andy Eyring and Junior Champion Marcel Fleschhut were also part of the series. Sascha Bleher from RSC Hengen and the Haase sisters Katharina and Julia also became national riders. And a few more, which I cannot list all now. The series was a great success. We always had starting fields of over 200 kids (U15 and younger) and rather problems to get them all through the trial tests.
Being the father of two MTB-riding children standing at the side of the track was not enough for you? You also got involved in the organisation early on.
Yes, that went relatively fast. I didn’t like the fact that I just stood around stupidly all the time. I thought, I´d take the kids to the races and see what else I could do. I was already fully involved in the organization in Baiersbronn and then also in Stetten.
Apart from supporting your children, you must also have been hooked yourself on mountain biking.
Yes, absolutely. It still fascinates me today, over and over again.
And what was or is it that fascinates you? Did you also look beyond the sport for young people?
With the international race in Münsingen, we had a parade race almost at our doorstep. Of course we were always there, watching, getting to know people, and I thought it was simply great what the companionship was like. Among the parents, but also that you could talk to every athlete. Everyone was accessible.
Mountain bikers were a special breed of people at that time, who held together well.
In those days?
That has changed a bit today, but back then it was really, really close.
Dieter Pfänder can be found – apart from the Corona year 2020 – almost every weekend at an MTB event. He has already been on the road a lot professionally until his retirement in 2019. Twelve times a year, the application engineer has jetted from Nürtingen to China for a Swabian plant engineering company. But somehow he was always able to coordinate the trips with his volunteer work for the MTB sport.
In 2008 he could also combine a trip with a visit to the Olympic mountain bike races in Beijing. The “flight didn’t take off”, he says with a wink. So he had to change the booking. Thanks to his contacts in China, he was able to obtain tickets on the black market – but at a decent price, as he points out – for the races that were actually sold out. This is how he witnessed the Olympic victory of Sabine Spitz. It was “very emotional”, he says. London 2012 didn’t work out, but in 2016 he was also in Rio de Janeiro in the small German fan community.
About 15 years ago, people observed and found out that the young talents in the MTB sport mostly had no parents who had been in contact with cycling before. In this respect, this was yet another clientele, an extra bubble so to speak.
The fun and the sitting together, even suffering together, was different from road racing.
After all, you were also involved in the association.
In 2007 I was nominated for the position of MTB officer at WRSV.
But you have also trained as a commissioner.
I started that already in 2002. Fritz Feucht (Magstadt) was my tough instructor (laughs).
What do you mean by “tough”?
Consequent, but very fair.
If he reads this, what would he say?
He would laugh (laughs).
You have been at many events as a duet.
He’s a man you can always ask how you can make something happen. Can you turn a blind eye so that we can do it this way or that way? He is very farsighted and has an unbelievable feeling for people.
The rule-keepers are sometimes feared by athletes, especially if they lack sensitivity.
Fritz Feucht is certainly a positive example, as is UCI commissioner Ulf Luik. They also think of the athletes. In the meantime, the UCI also attaches great importance to this in training. In the past the commissioner used to enforce the regulations with brute force, but today the UCI teaches tact and sensitivity – and so does the BDR. It is always important to know that you have a common goal. After race weekends with athletes I try to review the event and get feedback.
If you look at the commissioner’s training, or the set of rules they had to learn: there was a lot taken from the road for the mountain bikers. Some things didn’t fit right away, did they?
There was a lot that didn’t fit. Year after year, the regulations were adapted or corrected. But I believe that today we are on a good level. At the beginning it was really very road-heavy. Then with the general tenders some things were adapted. At TB Neuffen we also have a member who supported us in the background in the technical sections.
Who was that?
That was Speedy (today’s national coach Peter Schaupp). He is still a member of TB Neuffen today. Because of his downhill background he was technically very well trained and we were also allowed to do technique training on his home track in Grötzingen. For us it was great. Speedy came to the TB Neuffen via Rainer Heissenberger, also Markus Kaufmann (double German marathon champion) got his license via the TB Neuffen.
In the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s there weren´t many cycling clubs which also took care of mountain bikers.
Nobody had the know-how and hardly anyone wanted to know. In Neuffen we had no road cyclists, it was not like that there.
And in the Württemberg association?
In the beginning only road and track counted. I was more or less told that mountain biking was not important. But it improved relatively quickly. For one or two years you fought hard, then it got better. We put the numbers on the table with the licensees from the mountain bike and on the road, then it got better.
And how was the distribution?
I would say 40 percent MTB and 60 percent road and track. (Including smaller shares BMX and art bike). We were already very strong here in Württemberg. The state coach at that time, Thomas Schediwie, also kept setting points, in his unlikely way. As someone who came from road racing, he knew his way around there, but he was able to argue incredibly well for mountain biking and show where things had been neglected.
So that you were able to establish the MTB sport in WRSV together?
Yes, we really were.
And how did you experience BDR in this context?
Like everyone else (laughs).
I didn’t think much about the BDR at the beginning of my work for WRSV. At some point I had the opportunity to go to conferences in Frankfurt. There I already felt left alone. Luckily I got to know Udo Sprenger (then vice president of the BDR), who was a bit like me and I was able to work well with him. He always supported us well. Because of the France trips I had a good contact with Thomas Freienstein (in the BDR responsible for U17 and U15) and so we were able to rubber-stamp the one or the other.
We have deviated from the competition regulations once or twice. Just to develop the sport further in the junior sector.
That was maybe ten years ago. It’s remarkable that you had to take such detours at that time.
Yes, but they are huge differences to this time. We are much more open and much freer. Today there is a much greater awareness for the importance of competitions for young talent for the future of the sport. That the young people have to develop and need a platform is something that was not seen in the past. It is a matter of course when today a Marc Schäfer (U19 national coach) says that the athletes coming from the U17 have to know what a training plan is and what their diet should be like. It wasn’t like that back then. The coaches weren’t ready either. That really only developed further with Speedy (who has been the responsible national coach since 2013). He put a lot of emphasis on this and invested a lot.
Since 2013 you are the BDR representative for the MTB endurance disciplines.
Suddenly I had to deal with people I only knew from protocols.
When you look back over the seven years you have been here, have you achieved the goals you set yourself?
At the moment I have to say: I have missed my goal. I was hoping to push the sport further. I wanted more riders, more events, more spectators. With a few exceptions, that is not the case.
And why is that?
I suppose it’s a social problem. Volunteer work in clubs has become less frequent. To put it bluntly, people want to hand in their children and pick them up three hours later. But few people want to get involved themselves.
You complain that long-term commitment – which is important for planning and organising events – is becoming rarer.
The professional event services do it for the money. A Stephan Salscheider with Skyder is an exception, because as a former racing rider he also invests his heart and soul. I simply think it’s important that we have as many up-and-coming races as possible. Only a few will make it to the top, but then there will be people with mountain bike experience who can be at switching points later. We have tried to set up the races so that you can do them anywhere. In some states it was accepted, but we effectively didn’t get more junior races.
You mentioned the initial differences with the federations before. What´s it like with the BDR now?
They give me free hand. Sure, some coordination is involved, very good support from the Technical Commission, Vice-President Günther Schabel is a very good partner, and there is good communication in the branch office and with the chairman of the Cycling Youth Jan Schlichenmaier.
Let’s get back to your personal relationship to the sport. You didn´t quit as an official when your children quit doing sport for health reasons. What motivated you to continue?
It is still a mystery to me why I didn’t quit (laughs). I don’t know. It’s the camaraderie, it’s the friendships you make, the sport that still gives me goose bumps. The whole flair, the respect for each other. You get into conversations with everyone, even with the athletes, that’s just great. I’ve thought about it a lot. Actually, I wanted to quit after the World Championships in Albstadt, but at the moment I’m asking myself whether I can do that after such a year (keyword: Corona crisis).
What would you most look forward to at the World Championships in Albstadt?
To Ronja (Eibl) getting the U23 title and Manuel (Fumic) winning (laughs). To interesting races and that the right person wins.
Short profile: Dieter Pfänder
Married, two children
Official positions: BDR cycling commissioner, MTB-Manager in the cycling association Württembergische Radsport-Verband, BDR commissioner MTB-endurance sports (Cross-Country, carathon, eliminator, Short Track)
Photos: Karla Sindlinger