Wolfgang Renner, MTB pioneer and adventurer
The number 16 of the series 20 heads for 2020 goes far back into the history of mountain biking, or rather the mountain bike. Anyone who has studied the subject of mountain biking a little more intensively knows that Wolfgang Renner has produced the first mountain bike in Germany in the Swabian town of Magstadt and under the Centurion brand. This helped the sport to have its first major development boost. But apart from that the 72-year-old Swabian has also done a lot more. And mountain biking in Albstadt is a must for the pioneer, even if he himself prefers to stay in the background.
Punctually on the agreed minute the phone rings and Wolfgang Renner answers. Yes, punctuality, he says, is something he demands from his employees and he himself wants to be on time, too. Even if this is not always doable. Life and work are becoming increasingly complex, the reporter says. Whereupon the entrepreneur for bicycles shifts from the level of banter directly into the philosophical aspect of life with his next sentence:
The longer you look at things, the easier they become.
What a way to start our conversation. What do you mean by that?
At first glance the mountains are always steep the longer you look at them and when you tackle them, they become flatter. Almost anything is possible. Okay, the mountains get steeper the older you get (laughs). But no, human perception is deceptive.
Perhaps Wolfgang Renner is thinking of his tours in the Himalayas – cycling legend Eddy Merckx once participated in one – or of his first crossing of the Alps on a mountain bike. Perhaps he also thinks of the many challenges he has mastered as an entrepreneur. He launched the BMX bike in Germany, built the first BMX track in Germany, launched the first mountain bike in Germany, co-founded the road bike magazine TOUR. At first, insurmountable obstacles seem to build up, but then the cyclist hits the pedals and masters the mountains meter by meter. This certainly describes a part of Renner’s personality. Connected to this is the pioneering spirit. Being open to new things is something you have to keep, he says. And showing courage. Like in 1982, when he launched the first mountain bike on the German market, the “Centurion Country”.
Your first encounter with the sport equipment mountain bike took place at the fair in Long Beach, California in 1980.
I saw that there. In California they rebuilt the bikes, the so-called Klunker. They had thick tires and brutal wheel bases.
What does that mean in numbers?
Seat tube angle of 70 or 69 degrees and a rear end length, you could put two fists between the seat tube and the tire. That wasn’t sporty enough for me. I made a hand sketch right there, put down the measurements and gave them to the Japanese (from Centurion). Ekkehard Teichreber (former vice world champion in cyclo-cross) was there at that time. The Japanese built us a frame. At that time Centurion was distributed in the USA by the company Western States and therefore we had the chance to produce in larger quantities. Then the first bike arrived, which is still standing in Magstadt to this day and still functioning – quite sporty even.
What convinced you back then about the mountain bikes you saw there?
What convinced me? In 1976 I cycled through the Karwendel Valley with the cross bike and tubular tyres. I had three flat tyres. I didn’t even finish because I had no tyres left. Then I saw that elder people from Mittenwald rode into the valley with such old bikes, Hercules maybe or NSU, that is, with normal city bikes, so that they didn’t have to walk everything again after climbing the mountains. I thought they weren’t that stupid. You just need a bike with thicker tires but I just didn’t have the time. In California, people were more leisure-oriented and had time for crafting such as Joe Breeze (one of the MTB pioneers) and so on. They went up with the truck and down with the Klunkers. I rode down the original track with Gary Fisher (another one of the pioneers) and Uli Stanciu (founder of Bike-Magazin).
You didn’t notice in Europe what was going on in California?
Not really. There was no internet and no magazines like that. If you went to a trade show, you had a year’s lead. At most, if you had relatives there, you’d know something. There was no mobile, no fax, just telexes with the punched tape. Calling America was like starting an expedition (laughs).
The original mountain bikes, the “Klunkers”, were used by their Californian inventors to ride downhill. But Wolfgang Renner wanted to be able to ride uphill on his mountain bike, too. Specialized brought the first mountain bike in mass production to the market with the Stumpjumper in 1981. But for the time being only to the American ones. It took a while until the bike was introduced in Europe. By then Wolfgang Renner had already lauchned his Centurion Country onto the market.
So after your experience in the Karwendel Valley, you simply didn’t have time to develop accordingly?
In 1977 Dietrich Thurau rode in yellow at the Tour de France. Then Eddy Kahlich, a Czech, came to me and said: Wolfgang, you have to help me, Thurau rides in yellow, we have to make a magazine (laughs). Then we founded the TOUR (at the beginning called RAD).
Then you worked as a journalist, took pictures and wrote. Was that also a passion, the writing?
Or rather a must?
A must. I’ve always liked photography, but writing… German was always my absolute worst subject at school, I had average grades. It was hard for me. The fact that I couldn’t do it so quickly without thinking. We didn’t have a computer for correcting. Eddy Kahlich did the layout and put it together. If you had to change anything, it was a disaster.
The TOUR was a success.
Very quickly. The TOUR was founded when Jochen Möller was editor-in-chief. He was chief editor at Ehapa, which published Readers Digest. Jochen Möller was a man of action. He immediately rented a villa in Stuttgart and new editorial offices. I told him I wasn’t in it financially. Then Lütze bought it in Reutlingen.
So you never got involved financially?
No, I just took pictures, wrote articles and took care of the technical stuff. Once I wrote a TOUR almost on my own. I told Eddy it wasn’t right. When you read the texts today, you crack up (laughs). But we had a few sheets in colour, people were waiting for it.
Back to the mountain bike, which you therefore built years late. So what was the impulse to bring it to the market after all?
The impulse was the Karwendel mountains indeed (laughs).
The original Klunkers were only for going down the mountain. But you wanted a bike that you could ride uphill, too. Other people had the same idea.
Yeah, there was Specialized with the Stumpjumper, Joe Breeze, there were a few in America.
But they weren’t that common yet.
Not at first, but they got to Europe pretty quick. All of a sudden, there were brands jumping on the bandwagon. I had already launched BMX in Germany before and that was a run. And people thought that if the Renner puts an MTB on the market, we have to go along with it. There was a slump around 1984, 1985 when the Taiwanese produced and the quality was partly bad. The real hype started when the TOUR introduced the first special edition mountain bike magazines. I then rode the Iditarod Bike Race in Alaska and in 1989 Uli Stanciu founded the Bike Magazine. Then there was a real hype. The TOUR didn’t do it right, only special editions. With the own magazine it was easy.
You have already written about mountain biking in the TOUR. How was this new piece of sports equipment received by the road cycling community?
I come from cyclo-cross racing where you were used to riding in the woods and looked at like an alien. How can you ride through the woods in winter with those narrow tyres and those wheels? Cross-country sports was incredibly popular in Germany at that time mainly due to Rolf Wolfshohl (three-time world champion). He appeared on television ten times a year, on the 6th year races were broadcast in full length and live. I studied in Mannheim and with my cross bike I was in contact with the Mannheim experts like Willi Altig or Jürgen Tschan. The cross riders had such a negative image. In the beginning it was the same with the MTB, but then it was accepted as a fashion. It was hip for every tennis player to buy a mountain bike with which they went to the ice cream parlor and to the tennis court. Riding around in the mountains and trails was really cool, maybe 10 percent did that. The real road bikers, they were not that great technically. Then came John Tomac.
Who was a road rider and won mountain bike races.
Then they realized they were technically much better than us. That’s not necessarily the case today. When you see a Peter Sagan (three-time road world champion and twelve-time Tour de France stage winner, junior world champion on the MTB 2008), who can ride on the rear wheel. That is a different generation. But back then it was a kind of cult device.
So it was no problem to write about mountain bikes in the TOUR?
No. Unlike when you started writing about e-bikes in mountain bike magazines. There was a lot of resistance. Things look different today. If you ride around in the Karwendel with a normal bike, they ask you: where is your motor. The resentment in road racing towards mountain bikers was far less. There were a lot of road bikers, who were baffled by MTB races. Ready, set, go and 120 percent, they didn’t like that either. Mike Kluge managed that as a top man, but I know many others who didn’t. It was even more extreme when they went to the cross. A Mathieu van der Poel is an exception.
The mountain bike was a success story for you and for Centurion. When you look back, what was the perspective you handled that with? With a passion for racing, as an adventurer, as a designer or from a business perspective?
In retrospect, I would say: I was too much in love with technology, with the sport, and saw too little of the business side. The Americans have always been the first to see the business side of things and have used sport for that purpose. I did it the other way round (laughs)…I don’t do that anymore.
Was there a moment of realization?
The learning effect was there when we launched the “No Pogo”, it became the bike of the year and won the Shimano Design Contest, but worked with an Italian frame manufacturer. They always delivered too late or not at all. I should have gone to Taiwan like the Americans and said: build me the bikes. I didn’t and thought I was big enough myself. It was an economic mistake. I was simply too enthusiastic.
So it would have been better to have worked with Merida then?
Yes. The advantage of Taiwan is that the whole accessories industry has developed around Taipei and Taichung. Access times are very short. If you used to get the seat post with the wrong diameter in Germany, it took three months to get a new one. Then maybe the season was already over and you had old bikes. The material procurement was the main problem.
You were kind of born with the enthusiasm for the sport, although in a slightly different form. Your father was an artistic cycling athlete?
That’s a sport that you can’t make money with. Was that more of an artistic thing?
Artistic cycling is a fine thing. Maybe it’s like this. Artistic cycling is like playing the violin, and cycling is like…
…playing the guitar?
Or drumming, I don’t know. I don’t want to make this comparison now, other instruments are also high art (laughs). But artistic cycling was simply something more noble. You just grew into it. I started in 1957, there wasn’t much there, you were still playing in ruins.
You used to do double artistic cycling with your twin brother Jürgen. For how long?
Until the age of 19. We were German champions twice, once second, once third. Two days after my 18th birthday I rode my first cross-country race in Bad Randringshausen, which is near Paderborn. I still remember it like it was today.
That wasn’t the next path from Magstadt either.
Karl Stähle, a second cousin, was already racing cross-country at that time and was really, really good. He was five years older and gave me a ride. There was no motorway back then, it stopped before Heilbronn (laughs). It was like a world trip and I was second. And it was said in the newsletter that Karl Stähle had found his successor.
That was indeed the case. Karl Stähle was German Cyclo-Cross Champion three times in a row (1967 to 1969) and his relative and club mate at RV Pfeil Magstadt won the titles from 1970 to 1972. At home at the Renners, however, this was not so well received and Wolfgang Renner then already let it be known that he would follow his own path, no matter how steep it would be.
So that was the end of the artistic cycling career?
My father read about it in the newsletter, he didn’t know that I rode the cross race. He then said that I either do cross-racing or artistic cycling. If I chose cross-country, I could move out.
And you made a decision.
I said to him that I then would be moving out. That’s what happened. That was a tough time.
We rode artistic cycling for another year, but then my brother had other interests, too. He climbed the Eiger north face, became a ski instructor. There were also no world championships in artistic cycling yet and training five times a week for a German championship title? Well, no. That wasn’t really my world anymore.
Keyword world. The change from indoor artistic cycling to winter sports in the mud, that seems serious. There is not much overlap, except maybe the bike control.
Technically I was superior to everyone at the cross.
So you took that with you?
Yes. Today it’s not a problem anymore, they’re all technically not bad. But back then I had a big advantage.
So did that make it correspondingly fun?
It was just a different world. Cycling in nature, seeing things, riding races all over Germany. Meeting Rolf Wolfshohl, who was a role model. He was a special guy, but he was a pro in terms of techniqe and riding. Rolf also made many mistakes in life. A few years ago he opened up to me and explained what it was like when he came to France as a professional at 19. Why he didn’t show us anything, because he was afraid of us. In the beginning he lapped us, then not anymore and at some point I lost him. Sure, he was seven years older.
Was it possible to earn money with cross-sporting? You went to college, after all.
I studied electrical engineering and actually financed my studies with sports. You didn’t get rich then, but you could pay for your room and stuff.
Where there was even more money to earn, that was in road racing. Was that never an issue for you?
I studied electrical engineering and that didn’t go along with road racing. In cross-country you could do a lot with talent. I didn’t have time to train for the road for five hours. I wanted to finish a degree first and then go out on the road. Just like Klaus-Peter Thaler. Then I had a car accident.
The accident was with a Porsche. How did you get a Porsche at a young age?
(Laughs). Now you become curious. I already earned money with cycling, and then I worked part-time at a tuner, at Karle Armbrust in Renningen. He tuned mainly Porsche and I earned that. In 1972 I was the boss of a team in the Olympic Hall, we changed a Porsche engine in 20 minutes. That’s why I drove a Porsche.
The sports career ended with the car accident at the age of 25, intensive stress was no longer possible. Wolfgang Renner still studied business administration, took over a watch bracelet manufacture from the family and in 1976 his former racing driver colleague Ekkehard Teichreber, who works for Radvertrieb Messingschlager, asked him if he wanted to sell Japanese components. Renner did so, first as Nowak Radsport-Artikel, later renamed Centurion and in the same year the first Centurion frame was created from Japanese production. This is the birth of Centurion bikes and Wolfgang Renner’s cycling career takes off.
The Swabian is the first to bring BMX bikes, which are already booming in the USA, to Germany. He is in charge of bringing the discipline into the national cycling association, becomes a BMX specialist and ensures that the first BMX tracks are built in Magstadt and in Bremen. He is also the first to ride a mountain bike in Germany. At the end of the 80s he also organizes MTB races and in 1990 he brings dynamic into the association structures with a coup.
So your own career was over. But you have given decisive impulses to the sports BMX and mountain biking. The UCI and BDR associations took their time in incorporating bikers into their structures. There were already international competitions before 1990. Then came Münsingen.
(Laughs). The officials were unyielding and not open to new ideas. They said, the discipline should first prove itself, whether it will work out or not. Then came Münsingen. If the horse doesn’t move into the stable forwards, you have to push it in backwards (laughs).
Was that also a bit strategic? According to the motto: if we have a German championship, then they can’t help it?
Hans Klug (head of the bike department at TSG Münsingen, which has been organising the event since 1987) came to me and said he wanted to do a bigger race, asked what we could do. I said to make a German championship. He was afraid that they would then take away his license. I calmed him down and said, Hans, you organise the race and I’ll do the rest. To put it bluntly, I used Hans because I enjoyed it. As a functionary I was always on the side of the athletes, because I was one myself.
But it was not that simple.
I said to Hans, now we’ll make an announcement in the RADSPORT (association magazine). He doubted that it would be passed, but I said: just let me do it.
BDR waited to reply to the application. In January nothing had happened yet for the race in April, but the preparations had long since begun. Then it became an “unofficial” German championship.
You had good contacts, which were helpful.
Through my work for the TOUR I got to know the photographer Hennes Roth very well, who worked for the publishing house that printed RADSPORT at the time. I called Hennes and told him that we still have an advertisement, which is almost not finished. When do you start printing? Well, if you bring it in at 3:00 pm, it’ll be included. I said okay, a messenger will come. The next day the advertisement with the announcement for the German Championship was printed in RADSPORT (laughs).
What a coup!
Then all hell broke loose (laughs). Fritz Ramseier (at that time federal sports director in the BDR, †) raged, he would suspend all of them. Mike Kluge called me, I said, no you all go, nobody will be suspended. I think there was a prize money of 1000 DM, which is quite a lot. Everyone was there, everyone. There was a film on TV about this German championship. Then the BDR caved in and in the same year they made their own German championship (in Kirchzarten).
That broke ground for the discipline.
That gave the discipline a real momentum, it was a tailwind.
The races took place under the most unfavourable conditions. Münsingen was to cultivate a reputation as a mud race in the 1990s and at some point was awarded the title of “Paris-Roubaix of mountain biking”. The local press wrote of almost 1000 starters. 218 riders entered the men’s race, which Mike Kluge won, only 20 finished! There was hardly a bike left. The women’s race was won by Anneliese Weber from Darmstadt. Wolfgang Renner and Hans Klug can still laugh lustily about the coup today.
Your enthusiasm for the sport is one side of the coin. But there is also the adventurer in you. There is, for example, this first crossing of the Alps by mountain bike. Where did the idea come from?
I was in Tibet for the first time in 1987 with Andi Heckmaier. From Lhasa to Kathmandu. There I said to Andi, „Riding over the Alps would be great, too. Why don’t you organise it?“ He did all the research. In those days, people still used compass maps. He organized it and I went along. From Oberstdorf over the Schrofen Pass, you had to carry your bike up there. I think Andi rode with clipless pedals for the first time and kept falling flat on his face. We were on the road for six days. The route is still known today as Heckmaier route.
And what was the conclusion of this tour?
That you can reach great destinations on a mountain bike. You can organise your own adventure. At that time it was still something extraordinary. The hut owners were not yet used to someone arriving by bike (laughs). So you were an exotic.
Business wise, at least at one point you were an exotic, or rather a pioneer. But the attempt with the Thermoshape process for frame production went a bit wrong and you lost a lot of money.
„A bit“ is put nicely, the Thermoshape story was a mistake. We had the frames made by Battistello, but that was not reliable. Regardless of the Thermoshape thing, I knew we had to change something.
This then led to the collaboration with Merida
The Ike Tseng (boss of Merida, †) was at one of the first Eurobike fairs in Friedrichshafen and came to my booth. He spoke very bad English. We had the bike of the year and he thought, well, the Renner is not interested in a Taiwan manufacturer like that. And I thought, with 20000 bikes a year, the big company Merida, they are probably not interested in us either. But after Thermoshape I met Thomas Klotzbücher who brought me to Merida.
Thomas Klotzbücher from Schwäbisch Gmünd had the European distribution of the Taiwanese brand under his wings at the time under the title Merida Europe. Merida was rather considered a cheap brand and Klotzbücher tried to change that. To this end, he also set up a cross-country team as a marketing unit from 2000. He started the whole thing with the individual sponsoring of Sabine Spitz, but in 2001 Irina Kalentieva joined the team and in 2002 Gunn-Rita Dahle-Flesjaa. The trio is partly on the first, second and third place in the World Cup. Multivan joined the team as co-sponsor and under the title Multivan-Merida Biking Team, the team has helped shape the cross-country scene for 15 years. The Spanish Jose Antonio Hermida and the Swiss Ralph Näf also became faces of the Merida brand. Wolfgang Renner had long since taken over Merida Europe and Merida-Centurion GmbH was created.
You also sponsored athletes with Centurion back in the 90s.
Hansjörg Rey (trial world champion and freeride pioneer) got his first trial bikes from us. With Diddie Schneider we made a freestyle team, Uli Rottler (road and cross professional), the Betz brothers or the track sprinter Michael Hübner. Also the triathlete Thomas Hellriegel, first German Ironman winner.
In the 2000s, Team Alb-Gold was equipped by Centurion, today it is the marathon team Centurion-Vaude. But the showpiece was the Multivan-Merida Biking Team. How important was the sponsorship for the brands?
It was significant, it wasn’t patronage. After all, for athletes, patronage is not satisfying. They want the sponsor to get something out of their work, it’s a form of appreciation. But of course I also enjoyed it.
Multivan-Merida has not only been extremely successful, but also shaped by personalities.
It was perfectly organized.
How much did your racing heart beat for it?
Very much. I was always there. I was very close with José (Antonio Hermida, Spain) and I still am. With Ralph Näf. I rode with them on tests. That was a great time. The mountain bikers were a bit different from the road bikers. It was more informal. They also worked on the bike themselves. I also rode the Cape Epic with the team (together with ex-road professional Raimund Dietzen). I followed everything, not only our riders. It was also about finding successors.
That didn’t really work out.
We had Julian Schelb (Münstertal), who unfortunately was thrown back extremely for private reasons. Rudy van Houts (Netherlands), Thomas Litscher (Switzerland), Ondrej Cink (Czech Republic). But there was no one left in the men’s, whom we could groom. Not to an absolute top professional anyway. In the front there was the exception of Nino Schurter (Switzerland), Julien Absalon (Switzerland), who was older and Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) who we were not allowed to take (because he rode for Specialized, in which Merida is involved). José, Gunn-Rita and Ralph embodied Merida. You can’t do that if you’ve only been with a team for two years.
Were these circumstances also the reason why the team was not continued at the end of 2016?
It was a mix of a few things. There were no athletes who could follow in those footsteps. The successes were so great that they could not be surpassed. The importers were spoiled, podium was minimum, but you can’t carve athletes. At some point there was also a decrease in the sales of mountain bikes and they demanden from Taiwan to sponsor a road team. When José said he would end his career, it was clear that we would stop.
With the Centurion brand you are still represented in the sport.
That means something and we had great successes. Many Transalp victories. Without the broken chainstay at Jochen Käß there might have been (with Markus Kaufmann) even a Cape Epic victory. That still hurts today.
You were also present with Merida at the World Cup in Albstadt. What significance does the event in Bullentäle have for you?
It’s a great event, great spectators. It was one of the events you were able to promote. You could invite dealers, just make more of it. I think it’s a great pity that the World Championship has gone down the drain now because of the Corona crisis.
Have you been to all seven Albstadt World Cups?
Yes, all of them.
You can read it in various articles that you are someone who is not looking for the spotlight.
I was also in Albstadt and paid for my stuff (laughs). Although I was invited. They didn’t even know I was there.
Do you prefer to enjoy the sport quasi undercover?
I like to put my employees first.
Anyway, your riders always spoke of you with a huge respect.
Maybe that’s in addition to the fact that up until a few years ago I was still a very good cyclist. When we did tests, at some point I was almost as fast as the guys.
How often do you ride your bike these days?
I ride mountain bike almost all the time, racing bikes rarely. Always Saturday and Sunday. Up to four hours, every which way. Sometimes I don’t even know where I am anymore (laughs). Across the field and through the forest, that’s wonderful. The landscape, the clouds, at the time of the rap, all senses are involved. Hearing, seeing, smelling, everything is there.
Short profile: Wolfgang Renner
Home town: Magstadt
Sportive successes: two-times German Champion in double artistic cycling with his twin brother Jürgen, three-times German Champion in Cyclo-Cross (1970-1972).
Milestones and pioneer accomplishments:
Brought BMX bikes to Germany
First mountain bike on the German market: Centurion Country
First Alp-Crossing with the mountain bike together with Andi Heckmaier
Co-founding of the magazine TOUR
Initiator of the first (unofficial) German Cross-Country Championship in Münsingen 1990.
Photos: Archiv Renner