The kaiser of the velodrome

Walter Rütt

This post was prompted by an e-mail from a reader in Germany.
“Since more
than 20 years I am interested in the life and career of the German track cyclist Walter Rütt,” said the message from Bernd Wagner, who maintains an impressive German-language website on Rütt.
Bernd wrote that he owns a “unique collection of memorabilia” on the cyclist.

Walter Rütt on a bike

And after years of searching, he said, he found a short film that shows the burning on May 3, 1931, of Rütt’s velodrome, called the Rütt-Arena, Berlin’s most famous cycle track of the time.
The film strip, damaged in several places, was sent to a laboratory for restoration. It was cleaned by ultrasound and each frame was scanned and enhanced by adjusting the black-and-white contrast in the image. The result was the 34-second video below. Other than the crackling of the flames, you hear a bell from a nearby church tolling an alarm.

So who was Walter Rütt?
The basic facts are these: Rütt was born on Sept. 12, 1883, in Morsbach, Germany, and died on June 23, 1964, in Berlin. Known as Der Kaiser, he was a professional cyclist from 1900 to 1926.

New York Times, Dec. 15, 1907

He specialized in long-distance races on closed courses in velodromes. Perhaps the most grueling of these was the six-day, or 142-hour, race during which a solo rider or a two-member team would try to ride as many miles as possible within the alloted time.
A story from The New York Times of Dec. 15, 1907, reports on a race in New York that was won by Rütt and his partner, John Stol:
“Walter Rütt of Germany dashed across the finish line amid a deafening roar from 10,000 throats, winner of the six-day bicycle race at Madison Square Garden last night a few minutes after 11 o’clock. He landed victor after a desperate struggle with Joe Fogler of Brooklyn, who was on even terms with him when the final sprint began.”
Rütt and Stol rode 2,312 miles and five laps in 142 hours, edging Fogler and his partner, Jimmy Moran, by half a wheel.
At the end of his racing career, Rütt built the velodrome in Berlin. The Rütt-Arena opened in 1926 and enjoyed some early success. But the open-air velodrome fell on hard financial times. Some events were rained out and water damaged the wooden track. The 1931 fire completed Rütt’s financial ruin.
Rütt found work as a trainer of aspiring sprint cyclists, and later spent time as a radio reporter, a bicycle salesman and cafe owner.
I’d like to be able to tell you more about Rütt, obviously a legend in the history of German cycling. But Bernd’s website and most of the Internet material that I’ve come across are in German.
I speak and read some German as a result of a college minor in the language, but I’m not proficient enough to extract more than the basic details.
Bernd’s e-mail to me ended: “I would be very thankful if you could put a note on your blog, it would help to keep the memory of the athlete alive.”
I was glad to oblige.


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Filed under Cool stuff, History, Urban cycling

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