02 March 2015

My Princeton Education From A Guy Named Fritz

Four decades ago, when I first became a dedicated cyclist, we didn't have the Internet.  So we learned about cycling from the few books and magazines that were available in the US at the time.  Often, they contained misinformation:  I recall an article that dubbed the Campagnolo Gran Turismo as the perfect derailleur for bicycle touring.  I couldn't help but to think that the author of that article had never actually ridden Campy's white elephant.   After all, much better wide-range derailleurs from SunTour were widely available in the US, and they quickly became the most common upgrade for folks whose Simplexes snapped in two, Hurets (or, more specifically, Allvits) that snapped cables or Campagnolo Valentinos and Veloxes--and Gran Turismos--that shared only the Campagnolo name with the then-vaunted Nuovo Record.

We also learned about cycling from each other:  In those days, the few longtime cyclists I met always seemed willing to share what they knew as well as some entertaining stories.  I'd also talk with other cyclists when I went on the few (at least, compared to today) organized rides held on weekends or at meetings of the clubs to which I belonged and for which I would later organize and lead rides. 

And, of course, there were shops.  Some were Johnny-come-latelies, while others were "family" shops where parents bought kids bikes for Christmas, birthdays and such.  There was nothing wrong, really, with those the second category:  They at least had some working knowledge of what worked with what.  Most of them sold some lightweight bikes; some, like the first shop in which I worked, might keep one high-end bike on display but if you needed a different size or wanted a different color--or different model--it had to be ordered.  The first shop in which I worked--Michael's Bicycles on Route 35 in Hazlet, NJ--kept a Schwinn Paramount on hand but, among the bikes they regularly stocked, the most expensive was a Raleigh Super Course.

Then there were the few shops that dealt in high-end racing and touring bikes, even during the Dark Ages of cycling.  The nearest one, in those days, was Kopp's Cycle in Princeton.  The proprietor, Fred "Fritz" Kuhn was one of those gruff but friendly people you might expect to find in a coffee shop in a working-class neighborhood in, say, pre-hipster Brooklyn.  But the man was a veritable encyclopedia of cycling knowledge:  He was a six-day racer in the heyday of that sport and became a coach for Olympic cyclists as well as the Princeton Cycling team, one of the few such collegiate squads at the time.

Fred (Fritz) Kuhn Owner Kopp's Cycle
Fred "Fritz" Kuhn

In fact, it was he (or someone in his shop) who built my first set of custom wheels, which I mentioned a couple of days ago.  Even though Japanese bikes and components were rapidly gaining popularity in the US, he did not stock them.  He thought Japanese designs and manufacture hadn't stood the test of time. "Best to stick with the tried and true," he'd growl.  By that, he meant Campagnolo and other European makes.

I would later learn that the real reason he wouldn't stock Japanese goods was that his son was killed by a soldier from that country.  Ironically, the fact that he never shared that made him a natural fit with the Princeton gentry.  But as I came to know him a bit better, I realized that it was a manifestation of something people often said about him:  "He's a gentleman."  And, as I recall, he didn't bad-mouth anyone, not even those who were his competitors in cycling or in business.  He even said the company that produced the Excel Dynamic--believed to be the first US-made derailleur and a copy of the by-then-obsolete Huret Allvit--was a "good company" but that they "should have stuck to what they do well. "

Kopp's Cycles, more or less as I remember it.

I am thinking about Fritz, his shop and the cycling scene of those days because I recently came across a few articles mentioning Kopp's Cycles.  It's still in business, as it has been since 1891.  Fritz bought it from the Kopp family, for whom it is named, in 1948.  I recall his daughter, Marie, and son, Charlie, working there while in high school and college.  Now Charlie is in charge of the shop.  While he has updated the shop's offerings, it still has the "old world" atmosphere I recall from so many years ago.  I'm sure that whoever goes there will come away educated.  And, oh yeah, there's a university in the town, too!


  1. Though there's no familial connection, another Fritz Kuhn was the head of the German American Bund prior to WW 2. Also in New York. The Bund Kuhn was jailed for tax evasion in the same way as Al Capone a few years earlier.

  2. Steve--That's interesting. One name, two different lives, huh?

  3. I am Fritz's oldest son. He didn't have any sons killed by a Japanese soldier. Back in the 50's and 60's the Japanese alloys were much to brittle, the Japanese companies had poor quality control.
    During WWII when he was in the Army he had papers stating that he was not Fritz Kuhn head of the German American Bund. There was such hatred against Germans after WWII, he refused to teach his children to speak German. However, I learned anyway in high school and living over in Germany.

  4. Brad--It's great to see you here! Thank you for clearing up the reasons why he didn't stock Japanese components. I don't remember where I heard the story about the Japanese soldier, or why it stuck with me. I'm sorry for spreading misinformation.

    Interestingly, Germans were the first "minority" group in this country, and German was the most commonly-taught foreign language until World War I. Then, it became unpatriotic to teach German. And, at that time, all things French (especially Art Deco) became popular. So French became the most commonly-taught foreign language. Things got so that people were referring to "German Shepherds" as "Alsatian sheep dogs"!

    Ironic, isn't it, that some places started to call French Fries "Freedom Fries" after the Iraq invasion?

    I digress...One of these days, I'll have to take a trip down to the shop. Thanks again for stopping by!