17 November 2008

Religious studies in Ihringhausen

The reason to take a big detour via Kassel instead of following the river Rhine from Holland to the Black Forest is a small specialized company called Rohloff. Bernd and Barbara Rohloff started with their production of bicycle chains more than 20 years ago somewhere in a crappy shed in a German back garden.
They had the vision to produce an entirely new concept of flexible chains because they anticipated a rise in chain-based gear shifting. In the years to come they consequently (and with the help of relatives and friends taking shifts in the production shed) developed and tested a new kind of chain which today simply has become the best bicycle chain in the world that you can purchase over a counter - the Rohloff SLT 99.
After the successful development of the chain it kind of turned quiet around Rohloff for a decade or so. Until a couple of years ago a revolutionary new shifting system appeared - the Rohloff Speedhub. 14 gears integrated into an internal hub shifting - no more need for a dozen chainwheels and sprockets to whiz and whirl with the help of derailleurs in the front and back. The hub is filled with oil that automatically lubricates the whole system during the rotation of the wheel.
I had installed a Speedhub on my bicycle before my trip through Tibet in 2006. The terrain would be tough, the air sandy, the temperatures challenging - a perfect place to test my new gimmick with the idea to maybe take it all around the world.
Now, 12.000 kilometers later I am absolutely convinced of this technology and see if I can meet the grand masters in their factory in Ihringhausen.

The visit turns out a fantastic experience. I arrive Thursday and receive a comforting introduction into the technical details of the shifting. Other cyclists turn up unexpectedly who just traveled three years in South America by bicycle - also Rohloff equipped. The factory has a comfortable, almost cozy feel to it and the distinctive metallic-lubricant smell of all metal works. It is easily recognizable what counts most: quality instead of quantity - every hub is assembled and tested by hand here.
Thomas (technical support) gives me a nice and useful introduction. But where are the grand masters themselves? Sorry, too busy. Understandable with today’s output of 20.000 units per year.
Thomas and I discuss possible wear and tear that might happen during my trip around the globe and he hands me some spare screws and parts to take along. I then leave my bicycle in the factory and head to the city of Goettingen by rail to see an old friend from highschool and her family over the weekend. How time flies - we haven’t met for 10 years…!!!
After a few days of beautiful family life I return to Ihringhausen on Saturday afternoon, to pick up the bike and still have some daylight to find a place to camp. Well, that was the original plan… on my way back from Goettingen the train is taken apart in the middle and the front part goes this way while the rear part goes another. I am - guess what - in the wrong part and go the wrong way smack into the middle of German nowhere. I curse the German railway system including all managers, station officers, sales agents and conductors and then figure out that it didn’t help and I am still standing on the same platform in Fuck-all-nowhere-town (…wind blowing, tumbleweed rolling by, music fades out…); alone with only a strange looking woman sitting next to me who is wolfing down a generous helping of potato salad (40% mayonnaise) with the aid of a torn up wheat roll (half the sauce runs along her chubby fingers and she later licks them with her whitish-green mayonnaise tongue… *hrgggh*).
“Great!” I think but then remember how we (happily and voluntarily) used to watch films like “Delicatessen” or “The Blob” when I was young. “Mayonnaise Queen” isn’t so bad entertainment after all - I mean it is still another two hours until a train heads back to the junction and there isn’t even a coffee machine here, leave alone a newspaper agent. After a while I notice another detail: a small metal plate on the opposite wall announces an interesting geographical fact: The ass of the world is situated precisely 232 meters (700ft) above sea level! Who would have guessed?

When I arrive back at Rohloff’s the sun has long sunk. Barbara picks me up from the train station and we drive to the factory. Bernd is sitting on a bench in front of the door having a smoke. They are both very nice, communicative people and not only offer me their sofa for the night but also to take me along to a friend’s birthday party. Fantastic! Over beer and roast pork we philosophize about the universe and its bicycle mechanics.
We also talk about their company logo - a black raven. Barbara and Bernd have for years rescued young ravens from the surrounding villages. Some fall out of their nests or get lost during their early days and it became a passion for the Rohloffs to take care of those highly intelligent birds. They tell plenty of funny anecdotes about how their ravens grew up, raided brunch buffets and trained themselves in thievery of important metal parts from the production line… and then they just became integrated into the Logo.
The next morning, before I leave (Sunday!), Bernd gets up early to change my run down Shimano chain into something proper. I try to assist but stand there like angels must do in heaven when God is creating new earthy gadgets. I observe but feel kind of silly with my morning coffee in hand while right next to me THE bicycle guru himself installs a new SLT 99 (my fist one) on my blue elephant!!! I look at him and think to myself: “Yes - God does have white hair. Both of them - Barbara and he.”

Thank you guys for the great time, the spare parts and all the good advise!

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