Sensitive tinkerer and visionary
The series 20 heads for 2020 delves deep into the early days of mountain biking with the number eight. Mike Kluge is ambassador for the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Albstadt and no one in Germany embodies the early days of this cycling discipline as much as the Berlin-born. It was only in 1989 that he came across the wild discipline with the new sports equipment and celebrated successes as a road and cyclo-cross rider. He looks back on an eventful life, with many funny moments, but in which there were also great disappointments to cope with.
For the younger audience, Mike Kluge must first be placed in the cycling landscape. In the 80s he was one of the best cyclists in Germany. At a time when amateurs and professionals were still separated, he was one of the very best cyclists in Germany as an amateur on the road and in cyclo-cross in the 80s. Two world champion titles in cross-country are sufficient proof of this. When he discovered mountain biking, he was equally successful. To this day he is the only male World Cup winner from Germany in the elite class. In 1993 he won two World Cup races.
Kluge, who today works as a consultant, riding technique coach and brand ambassador in the bike industry, with his sassy, sharp Berlin tongue and his feeling for the importance of publicity, was also a kind of cover boy for the sport with a certain charisma
Mike Kluge, it all started with a Bonanza bike. Was that a thing that was just cool at the time or did it have something to do with sports for you?
I liked several things about the bike. The wheels were more stable. Until then I always rode on folding bikes and we liked to do jumps with them. We did long jumps. But then they broke off regularly at the folding mechanism. So we needed something more stable. It was also cool that I was able to take my classmate with me.
Because the Bonanza bikes had a long seat and backrest.
…yeah, you could ride on them together. Later on, we also played a little bit of pileup. I mounted the long bar of the backrest in front as a bumper so that no one could hit me. That was the sporting value, so to speak (laughs).
So the bike had a playful meaning to some extent?
The bike had a great significance for me. But it was also the way to school, which was too boring on foot and took too long. There was an efficiency with the bicycle and I had fun. That’s why cycling was buried somewhere inside of me early on, it just needed the right initial spark. My parents recognized that. We watched the Tour de France back then. It was the time of Dietrich Thurau in the yellow jersey (1977). I watched that every day and read everything about it in the newspaper.
So that was the point when you started cycling?
Exactly. Then I bought a racing bike, a Peugeot (the brand that Thurau rode). I think everyone did that back then. It’s a pity that the brand didn’t continue its tradition. They had a lot of potential back then.
Was there any other sport you played before?
Yes. Handball and volleyball. In handball, I must say I wasn’t really big back then, I had elbows in my face all the time. That made me so angry and aggressive. I liked to give the ball a rotation, but I didn’t like the contact with the opponent. Volleyball was much more charming. I would have liked to become a beach volleyball player. The location would have suited me well, but it was the wrong time.
The racing bike doesn’t make a racer. How did it come about that you became a racing cyclist?
At first it started counterproductively. I had fun with my comrades making skidmarks. I was best in school at the time (laughs). In my family, the rear tyres of all the bikes were worn down and braked off. We had a lot of flat tyres in the basement. Logically, I gotin trouble with my family because of this. At the same time the Tour de France topic came up and my parents had the following idea: to take me to a race open to everyone. They registered me, I drove three races and won all three. Then I thought, that’s cool man, cycling is easy. My father then registered me with the Zehlendorf Eichhörnchen club who were known for their youth work.
So that was the real start?
Then I bought a bike that was much too big. A used one because we didn’t have the money to get a new one. Then it started.
Did you have success right away?
No. I didn’t know anything about slipstreaming. First of all, I discovered what it means to have the taste of blood in your mouth. I got lapped one and a half. It went on like this for a few weeks.
My father, who had invested in the racing bike for me, although we didn’t actually have the money and there was also trouble with my mother – it cost 400 DM – so my father was always shouting that I should pull myself together and keep at it. At some point I reached a point where I said to him: if you shout at me again, I’m going to stop here. School is exhausting, not being able to sleep in at the weekend is exhausting, not being able to go out and having to listen to the cool stories that went on at school on Monday. Some of the races were in Berlin early at six o’clock in the morning.
Did he accept that?
Yes. But of course I also knew what was expected of me when I got a bike for 400 DM. Then I understood how it works with the slipstream. That it works better if you brake less. Yes, then I was at my best again at some point and finally I won the Rollberg race in Neukölln which was a really tough race with cobblestones and lots of corners. A bit of Paris-Roubaix.
At what age was that?
I think it was 1979, when I was 17.
How long did it take from the three opwn races to this victory?
So you were just following up. Talent wasn’t really apparent at first. Did you work for it?
I already had talent. But in road racing I couldn’t show so well what I was able to do. That actually only came with the cross. Then I became Berlin champion in this discipline in the U17. With the drifting in, jumping around, sometimes falling, getting up, falling again, it was easier for me and it was fun to find out these limits. For example what is possible to do with the ground. At that time I was riding drop bars. There were only the brakes on the outside, not yet on the handelbar, but I knew that with the grip next to the stem the steering manoeuvres were not so big. So I always had two or three corners in my everyday training, which I drove to the limit. That was a big advantage in the race because I was always able to make up a few metres in the corners.
Apparently, you were involved with such subtleties early on.
It helped me on the street. In a race like the Rollberg, I knew exactly what the right tyre pressure can mean.
That sounds like a real tinkerer.
Exactly. My trainer at that time, Gerald Scholz, who taught me to ride cross and later Wolfgang Scholz, who gave me the right toughness, but Gerald said to me: people beat you at your weaknesses. The less weaknesses you have, or rather, the less visible they are, the better your chances are of catching your competitors unawares. I understood early what it meant to be able to drive a high frequency. Or to be able to drive a high gear in extreme situations. I noticed this later on the track when I was racing six days races.
So it wasn’t just self purpose to ride there?
As a professional I wanted to be able to know a thing or two about everything, wanted to know what they were doing and what the tricks were. At my first six-day race in Dortmund, I stopped after one hour – out of six days – when the physiotherapists had to lift me off my bike. I cried in pain because I hadn’t yet understood what it meant to ride without brakes. You have to drive cleverly, with foresight. So, I did the tinkering, I did that in all areas.
Probably also with the material.
Yes, also with my bikes. They always had to be in top condition. When I think about the first time I centered a running wheel. I had no idea how to do that. I got a centering key and my inspiration was an orchestra I had seen shortly before. How they tuned their instruments, how they stretched their strings. To sound. So I knocked on the spokes and when they sounded the same, they were centered for me. The wheel was totally fucked up, of course (laughs). It barely fitted through the frame.
How important was the environment for you?
Very much. In the national team, there was a certain amount of interaction that took away one, two or three percent of my performance. It totally pulled me down. I’m very sensitive to vibrations. Negative energy, when people are grumpy or something, it costs me a lot of energy. When you’re looking forward to people, it’s fun and you can enter the pain zone. Unlike when you’ve been racking your brain before because of unqualified comments.
You were talking about your own opinion earlier. Did you have any trouble with that? Or other people with the fact that you didn’t keep your opinions to yourself?
I mean, everyone assumes that they are doing it right the way they live and act. From my father and also from my former coach there was only right or wrong. And if it’s right, then it has to be done. There’s no beating about the bush. Diplomacy didn’t play a role with the two of them. But the fact that you can’t say everything, even if you are right, I had to experience painfully. That was very difficult for me, because I assumed that you can only build trust if you deal with each other honestly. This honesty sometimes played no role, even when it came to nominations. That is how I was cheated out of two Olympic participations. In 1984 and 1988. In 1984, I was one of the two or three best racers (on the road) and with a line-up of twelve racers I was not chosen.
These two missed, respectively refused Olympic participations are a sore point in the career of Mike Kluge. The first time it was said that he was too young (22), the second time he was not considered without any real reason.
The people responsible at that time and the character Mike Kluge were two worlds. He expressed his opinion, the close understanding of competitive sports in Germany at that time and his view of the world, which was dominated by the big city, did not match. He rubbed the wrong way. However, Mike Kluge must not be imagined as a person who just blurts out what comes to his mind. In conversation, he often takes his time of a few seconds to think. When it comes to the interpersonal aspect it becomes clear that you are talking to a sensitive mind.
Were you not adapted enough for the people in charge at the time?
I came from the big city, I liked the other side too. Having a little fun. To go to one or the other party, even if I did it very limited. They wanted to integrate me into a very tight system. They expected Prussian obedience from me, which I couldn’t provide for 250 Marks sports aid. When I travel around the world for 200 days, am at some place, even won the race, then walked around the city and was called back to the room, I didn’t understand that. Then they didn’t have success at the 1984 Olympics.
And in 1988?
The decision was probably related to my boycott of the Cyclo-Cross World Championship in Hägendorf (Switzerland).
…as defending champion in the amateur class at the time.
…I had pointed out to the organizers half a year before at a press conference and track inspection that we would have a disgusting mud battle when it rained. They more or less laughed at me. It would be winter and frozen anyway. And what the hell, we would be cross-country riders and we could also walk a little. It happened just like that, more than half had to be walked. I was threatened by the German Cyclists Association that my boycott would have consequences.
And you think the non-nomination for Seoul in 1988 was the consequence?
In any case, I achieved the required results. But maybe people were afraid that Kluge would make a fuss in South Corea again because something didn’t suit him. In the end, that took away a lot of my trust.
After 1988 your career took a break. In
an interview you once spoke about how you had become “reckless” then. What did you mean by that?
On the one hand, there was the loss of confidence in the association structures of the time. I did so much for the benefit of the Olympics in 1988, fulfilled everything and was still not chosen. I learned that from the teletext.
There was no explanation?
No. No. It was just things like that. I think it turned me off completely.
And you took the consequences.
I quit cycling, threw my bike in the basement and went to California to visit my girlfriend, almost a whole year. I bought and restored a convertible, did a little surfing. Then I had requests from Paul Köchli (sports director of the Helvetia team at that time) and from Jan Raas (Kwantum, later Rabobank) for their road teams. I told them, I feel honored, but road is not for me. That was the end of my fun. I declined both offers.
This finally opened the door to your second career.
Two months later I got a call, they wanted to invite me to a mountain bike race. I said: to what? Mountain Bike World Cup. I had never seen it before, I didn’t know it. We can talk again tomorrow. Then I informed myself and looked at the bikes in California. I thought they looked kind of cool. A few days later we talked on the phone, I stated my conditions and they accepted them.
So you have competed in a mountain bike world cup right away.
In Berlin. In the last lap I rode a bit clumsy and then came second, behind Volker Krukenbaum. They said at the time: what, your first mountain bike race? But it was so similar to cyclo-cross and I really enjoyed it. Riding off-road in summer and not freezing your feet and hands off in winter.
So that’s how your career as a mountain biker began?
Specialized approached me – I had a borrowed old thing – and asked if I would ride for them. I asked, where are the races? In America, Australia, South Africa. I thought, oh my goodness, that’s great, that could be my sport. Then I packed my bags in California and got on my mountain bike in 1989.
So it was a year break.
..yes, I got out, just got out. And I’m glad I did. Sometimes you just have to make a break to reset yourself. Nothing would have been worse than riding on the road any longer, with all the bad experiences I’ve had.
At this point, the discipline has not yet arrived in the association structures. In the old-established cycling disciplines, the boom in off-road bikes is viewed with some contempt. There is a World Cup sponsored by the Grundig company, but the World Cycling Union (UCI) did not include MTB in its regulations until 1990, and in the same year the first World Championships were held in Durango, Colorado. A World Cup series of the UCI was first held in 1991.
For Mike Kluge, things are going well on the mountain bike. He is one of the best and in 1990 he wins the Grund World Cup series. But in the background he experiences disappointments again. On the one hand because there were always material problems and on the other hand because his sponsor did not fulfil the terms of his contract. He changed the brand. But his demands regarding the development of the material were not fulfilled here either. This eventually led to him and friends founding their own brand, Focus, in 1992, and thus also becoming an entrepreneur.
In the beginning, many riders still competed in two disciplines. Downhill and cross-country. And you were also successful in downhill.
In 1992 I won the then biggest European Downhill World Cup in Kaprun. I benefited a lot from car racing. You have to memorize so much, the curves. There was fog and you had to be able to drive by memory. Those were twelve-minute races back then, you had to be able to pedal a bit. But after it was clear that downhill wouldn’t be Olympic, I concentrated on cross-country and hung up downhill.
You have ridden road, cyclo-cross, track and on the mountain bike cross-country and downhill. You say that you learned something new in all areas that was beneficial for the other discipline. Do you think today people are specializing too much and they should look more outside the box?
Up to a certain point this is still possible today. For me, I am glad that I did it. I even learned from car races. To forbid mountain bikers to ride cyclo-cross, as it was partly done, I can’t understand that. I mean, Mathieu van der Poel (cyclo-cross, road, mountain bike) stands out of course. You just have to plan it well. I would say until the age of 23, do as much as possible. Then you can still focus everything on one discipline. The variety of training influences has also saved me from injuries.
That Mike Kluge drove endurance races at the Nürburgring in 1987 was due to his passion. But he also realised that he could also learn something for cycling at car races. “The precise exploration of corners,” he said. Looking outside the box became his credo and in some aspects he was ahead of his time.
When you were 30 years old, you and two friends founded the Focus bike brand. Was this as a plan for your career after sport?
That was the second thought. The first thought was that I had the best bike for me. I wanted to have my own bikes as I needed them. I took care of the chassis, brakes and so on. I was the first to ride a hydraulic caliper brake in the World Championship 93. I was also able to brake and shift gears at the same time, because I put on appropriate levers. In any case it was just the right thing with the bike brand, it was very successful.
In 2000 you sold the brand. What was the reason?
Derby Cycle has sold my bikes under licence. My two contacts there lost their jobs overnight. I didn’t get on well with the financial manager who was then responsible. That, in combination with the trademark dispute with Ford (because of the name Focus) and tax issues, motivated me to sell. That was a real pain in the ass and I was no longer able to perform.
So your career was over?
Yes, it was inevitably ended. Mentally I was blocked afterwards. I was disappointed in people.
So you took a break from sports.
I didn’t see any task at first. To do something for the association, I don’t have to explain, that was no option. Which is actually a pity. In the bicycle industry I lacked the motivation. But there was also a personal fate. A few weeks after the sale, my girlfriend died of a pulmonary embolism while we were on holiday. So within six months everything that motivated me was gone. My bike brand was gone, my sports career was gone and my relationship was gone. From that point on I was only travelling the world and only cared about myself. I also took psychological support because it pulled me down extremely.
At the end of the 70s, the history of the sport of mountain biking begins in California. Also as a competitive sport the roots are in North America. When the distinction between cross-country and downhill was first made, cross-country races were held on tracks with a length of over ten kilometres. At least. And the winning times were well over two hours. That was still the case in the 90s. It was usually not particularly exciting. The spectators didn’t get to see that much and for the TV the broadcasts were firstly elaborate and secondly boring. Mike Kluge recognized this early on and was a visionary here too, although little attention was paid to him. The 2005 World Championships in Livigno were held on a twelve-kilometre track and even in the late noughties the race lasted over two hours. It was only after that that the rules were changed and races became successively shorter. Today the goal for men and women is 1:30 hours, but it can also be reduced to 1:20 hours. The track lengths were first set at six to nine and later at four to six kilometres.
It was certainly a great challenge to fill all these empty spaces again. Listening to your story, you would have been predestined for the role of team manager, wouldn’t you?
I would really like to do something like that and I think I could do it. At my bike events I get together a lot with people I have to teach. I really enjoy watching people grow on them. When I coached Hanka (Kupfernagel), I probably had a part in her becoming world champion.
To start a mountain bike team yourself, was that never an issue?
Well, I know the effort it takes. In Germany, it is not so easy for the media for this sport. A big sponsor also needs something in return. But basically I think that I could benefit from what I have done. For a few years now I’ve been working for Focus again as a consultant and brand ambassador, but unfortunately Focus no longer has a professional team.
After 2000, you had a certain distance to cross-country sports for several years. For some time now, but at least since you became a co-commentator for the World Cup livestream, you have come closer again. How do you perceive the discipline compared to the past?
I’d say it feels like all has to run like clockwork. There is less room for individual action. It’s become very professional. I don’t like artificial rock gardens that become dangerous when wet. People ride over them without protectors and if you fall, you almost inevitably get hurt. For me it is counterproductive. But what do you want to do when the pros say they like the extremely difficult races. But I think it’s better for the spectators on site and in front of the screen if they’re not so difficult. And the marketing of the sport also depends on it.
That sounds critical. Do you also see positive developments?
Sure, the scene is very professional.
The format today is different from the one you used to participate in yourself. The courses are shorter, the races too. Even as an active participant you had already suggested this.
It was a tough process. Actually, I realized two things. On the one hand, by boycotting the Cross World Championship in Hägendorf, I caused the UCI to change the regulations. From then on it was only allowed to run ten percent of the course. In 1992 I wrote a letter to the then UCI President Hein Verbruggen and to the Technical Delegate Martin Whiteley. They did not understand what I was telling them at that time. I was a professional, I made a living from having my races broadcast on television. I knew that the races and the courses had to be shorter for that so I suggested to reduce the tracks to plus-minus five kilometres, the women’s races to one hour and the men’s to 1:30 hours. That’s when people laughed at me. I would not understand that this is not cyclo-cross, but mountain biking.
What we have today is pretty much what you suggested.
If people want to ride longer, they can do marathons, I guess. But the supreme discipline must be shorter. Then it took 20 years to get that far. The first Olympic Games in Atlanta were held on an eleven-kilometer lap. Half a year before I was there and thought, oh dear. 50 drivers, we’re all basically riding around on our own. I said, you can leave out the one loop. Then we also have a lap that can be followed with cameras. No, they said mountain biking is different. I was in fourth position when I had a chain suck and then ZDF went off the broadcast because only individual riders could be seen. So I’m glad that the riders finally have a reasonable and exciting platform. Albstadt offers this optimally, so that you as a viewer can see extremely much. I think Albstadt is very good per se, but I would like to see a few meters less altitude.
Speaking of the Worlds in Albstadt. After 25 years Cross-Country World Championships will again be held in Germany. What are your memories of Kirchzarten 1995?
A lot of people remember that I was driving around in a pink convertible back then and my bike was in the back seat (laughs). Unfortunately I rode it with a broken rib and on antibiotics. Unfortunately, I was only in 32nd place which of course was totally disappointing. But the passion for mountain biking in the Black Forest was great of course.
And how do you see Albstadt?
Albstadt also has a mountain bike history and as a World Cup location for many years, the region has been sensitized. For Germany, this will have an extremely high value. I think the companies that show up there will benefit. It will be a big party. And for the athletes, the possibility of being able to participate in a World Championship in Germany is of course of great value. I hope that the athletes will take advantage of this for themselves in Albstadt. My first World Championship title in cyclo-cross was in Munich and it was live on TV. I really benefited from that.
What are you looking forward to most in Albstadt?
To the races of women and men. It’s a meeting of highly trained athletes. When such high-class characters as Mathieu van der Poel and Nino Schurter meet, it’s exciting. I’m also looking forward to the relay race. I think it’s really nice per se, because the different categories can deal with one another. It’s also nice to see how you can act tactically, what pressure you can cause with the line-up or which joker you can send into the race at the end.
You can also find a video interview with Mike Kluge on Instagram and in the Youtube Worlds Studio Champions in Albstadt
Short profile Mike Kluge
Born in Berlin
Occupation learned: Dental Technician
Today acting as: Consultant for and in the bike sector
Greatest sporting successes:
Road racing: overall winner Schleswig-Holstein Circuit 1983, stage wins Rhineland-Palatinate Circuit and Hessia Circuit
Cyclo-Cross: Professional World Champion 1992, Professional Vice World Champion 1993, Amateur World Champion in Cyclo-Cross 1986, 1988, sixfold Professional German Champion, fivefold Amateur German Champion
Before the establishment as official biking discipline overall World Cup winner 1990, 3 World Cup wins
World Cup win Downhill 1992 in Kaprun, World Cup win Cross-Country in Bassano del Grappa and Houffalize 1993, German Champion 1993
Further information on: www.wm2020albstadt.de