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German demand for 'wire donkeys' rivals Mercedes

Item. The bikeways in this late 19th-century coal-mining town in the Ruhr are -- well, not quite as good as they would be in the Netherlands, perhaps, but almost. Marl is recognized as one of the top two dozen West German cities in providing for two- wheeler traffic.

Item. The city of Mainz has just appointed a commissioner of bicycles, with a $333,000 budget.

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Item. Part of the Tour de France took place in West Germany this year.

Item. This month's American Express bills to West German cardholders came accompanied not only by the usual hotel and rent-a-car ads, but also by an order form for a handcrafted, titanium-frame, 12-speed, 16- pound, $3,900 bicycle.

The bicycle age obviously has arrived in this country.

West German bike manufacturers are both reveling and wringing their hands at the boom. Sales willexceed 4 million for the first time this year, the Bicycle and Motorcycle Association reports. but domestic producers are being far outclassed by the Japanese in the fastest-growing market of quality two-wheelers.

The West German bicycle renaissance is a phenomenon of the past few years. Back in 1975 (with annual sales of only 2.9 million) cyclists practically felt obliged, notes one commentator, to wear signs saying, "I have a car, too." Nowadays it's more likely to be the automobile driver who advertises that he also has a "wire donkey" or a "steel horse" at home. And any customer who wants a new 10-speed aluminum-frame bicycle has to wait almost as long for delivery as if he had ordered a Mercedes.

The reasons for the boom are various. Soaring gas prices, greater environmental concern, a fitness kick, and the whims of fashion all play a role.

To be sure, the prosperous West Germans can pay the current 1.14 deutsche marks per liter for regular gas -- but they are less and less inclined to do so for the third of all in-town trips that one recent survey showed to be within a few miles of home. Neighborhood mon-and-pop stores are much more abundant here than in the United States, and people live closer to their places of work than do Americans. so it's easy enough for housewives (or the 35 percent of retirees who own bikes) to pedal their way to the local bakery, or for 48 percent of Bocholt residents to commute to work by bike.

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The result is that almost 2 our of 3 West Germans now own bicycles -- twice as many as own cars.And the end is not yet in sight.

For West German bicycle producers the warning signs are out, however. The bikes they make best -- the solid but unspectacular models -- aren't the ones that have the Mercedes-like waiting lists. The 1950s stars, Rabenich and Bauer, have been eclipsed by the French Peugeot, the English Raleigh, the Japanese Koga Miyata. Fichtel and Sachs gears and Weinmann brakes just don't excite buyers the way Shimano gears and Colnago brakes do. West German exporters lost out to the Japanese competition in the American boom market five years ago, and now they are losing out at home. Bicycle imports shot up 36 percent in the first half of this year, while exports rose only 10 percent. And that $3,900 job that American Express is pushing here is an Italian Lamborghini -- with Japanese gears and English handlebars.

It is both a triumphant and a disappointing story West Germany's bicycle companies would have to tell that 1816 Karlsruhe inventor of the velocipede.

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