A carpenter's tale

A total of 101 World and European championships and Olympic games. 164 medals won by riders on bikes maintained by him. More than 30 years of active duty all around the world. 7 days a week. As little as 2 weeks of holiday during all these years. A life always on the move.

The numbers about Fritz Brühlmanns life as head mechanic of the Swiss national cycling team, are impressive. Such as he himself is. A man, with impressive achievements and as honest and humble as one can only be. 

Now 81 years old, he still returns weekly to his workshop in Zurich Oerlikon, close to the hoary open race track, where more than 50 years ago his career as amateur racer started. This is where we meet him this afternoon, to talk to him about his moving life and work for the Swiss cycling scene.

"I actually told myself not to do such things anymore" says Fritz in a sarcastic tone when we enter the underground car park, where his workshop and his office are. His topping that sentence off, smiling at us: "You're ruining my whole Friday afternoon."  In all the years, he never lost his sense of humor.

Born and raised as a farmers boy in Lohn Schaffhausen, close to the German border during the second world war, he started his cycling career by the age of 17. By that time, he was doing an apprenticeship as a furniture carpenter. But his family was reliant on hard working hands, so there was no such thing as free time; everybody had to help out back home at the farm as well. In the little time that was left, he took every opportunity to jump on his bike and go for a little spin in the surrounding hills. 

One discipline always outshined every other thing for the young Fritz Brühlmann. He was fascinated by track racing, which became his best discipline - sprint and américaine were his favorites back then. 
This brought him to Zurich Oerlikon when he was 22, spinning his rounds on the open race track, which is situated just a couple of hundred meters from where we are sitting now together with him.  

Asking him about his favorite memories of all these years, he tells us to hand him an old cardboard box that is sitting on one of the workshop shelves next to us.  He opens his treasure box and we start digging through his collection of old photographs from the old days, when he was still travelling the world and enabling his riders to perform the top results they brought. 

His favorite Olympic games were the 1968 games in Mexico and 1972 in Munich. But his most unforgettable memory will forever be the winning of the Gold medal by Robert Dill-Bundi on the track, at the 1980's Olympic Games in Moscow.
Fritz Brühlmann has a remarkable memory. He remembers the dates, riders and events on every photograph in his hands. His eyes start glowing while telling us all these stories. But how did he even end up in this position? Wasn't he meant to become a carpenter?

2018.02.09 Fritz Brühlmann_11.jpg

Fritz Brühlmann (middle) with Gimondi und Bernard Thévenet, at an event at the Hallenstadion Zurich

An emergency situation determinating destiny

After ending his active cycling career in 1966, he originally wanted to set his focus back on carpenting. Although he was a hard worker on the bike, the big breakthrough never really happened. But through all the years as an amateur rider, he became a well known person not just around riders, but also amongst other officials in the business. His mechanical skills did not go unnoticed.

So it happened that one day in 1967,  he received a last minute call by the great Oscar Plattner, asking him to look after the Swiss amateur team at the Tour of Guatemala. Surprised and overwhelmed, he didn't really have much time to make a decision. In fact, everything was already arranged for him and two days later, Fritz Brühlmann was sitting on an airplane, starting the adventurous journey that will determine his life. 

First he was working part time on the job. And from 1972 on, he was working full time as the official head mechanic of the swiss national cycling teams - although humble as he alwyays was, he prefered just to be simply called a normal bike mechanic.

A pioneer and inventor

In all his years, Fritz Brühlmann was never just satisfied with the material that was available to work with.
He invented dozens of special tools, such as his own portable bike stands, wheel centering stands, a special fork straightening tool and countless things more.
He perfectionized aerodinamical flat spokes, made trials on super slim tubular rims and a fine share of his knowledge went into the development of the famous Nadax bottom brackets.

Being fast in his work was key, especially during a race. In his best years, it took him only 17 minutes to build a whole wheel from scratch.

In the seventies, Fritz Brühlmann produced a small batch of less than 50 frames for his riders and special customers.
Leo Estermann, a well known and highly praised Swiss frame builder, manufactured the frames on his order. The bikes were then built up by Fritz Brühlmann, to meet his customers demands.

The few bicycles with the typical "fb" logo on them, became a true rarity. The lucky owners who are still in posession of one of his bikes, are keeping a symbol of true passion for this wonderful sport and keep telling a story about a man who's been working with bicycles for more than 50 years and has not grown tired of it a little bit. 

It was a great honor and pleasure having the chance to get to know such an inspiring man like Fritz Brühlmann is.
Now that he officially retired from the professional cycling business, we wish him all the best for hopefully many more exciting years to come. 




Radio srf 1 - Menschen und Horizonte - Ein Leben mit dem Velo