Theo Känel - Prince of Thieves

May 28, 2021 10 min read

Theo Känel - Prince of Thieves

In the third and final his exclusive blog posts on cycling’s vanishing teams, Herbie Sykes recalls the tumultuous story of Theo Känel and his eponymous cycling team.

 

Prince of Thieves

He was an upholsterer by trade, and he was a bit of a prance. He’d this shock of blonde hair, he dressed like his life depended on it, and he seemed quite needy. Evidently what he most needed was attention, because he was forever bigging himself up. Cycling people didn’t generally care for that sort of thing, and Swiss cycling people certainly didn’t care for it. They tended to be quite pious, and they’d a predilection for sobriety. He, on the other hand, seemed to have one for chaos. He was forever falling out with someone or other, this Theo Känel, and he was terribly, terribly yappy.

He fancied himself a bit of a high roller, you see, and he reckoned he’d upholstered the top hotels, addresses and celebrities. He was a bit vague on the detail, and there’d been a bankruptcy somewhere along the way. The term they’d used was “financial impropriety”, and seemingly there’d been a twelve-month suspended sentence. Most concluded that he probably wasn’t to be trusted, but needs must and what have you. He’d chipped in to get the 1975 World ‘Cross Championships to Zurich, and getting people to invest in Swiss cycling was like getting blood out of a stone. He wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but at least he’d put his money where his big, fat, larruping mouth was.

Anyway the Worlds had given him a taste for it, and then he’d decided to sponsor that nice young René Leuenberger (pictured). He was a bit other, René, but everyone knew he was a class act. Känel had built a little team around him for 1976, and they’d ridden Catalan Week, Romandie and the Tour de Suisse. René had distinguished himself, and mouth-almighty Känel had been photographed with Merckx and De Vlaeminck. That had given him something to crow about, and so crow he had. He was Charlie Big Potatoes, and he reckoned his cycling team was going to get bigger and better in ’77.

First he squared it up with Colnago, and then he’d set about getting the Spaniards signed up. That was the oldest trick in the (cycling) book, because the peseta was weak and you got a lot of rider for not much money. There were loads of stage races down there, and the organizers liked to decorate them with foreign teams. Both he and Colnago wanted a foothold in the Spanish market, and with a fair wind they’d get a local sponsor to come on board. He reckoned he’d be in profit if he did that, because the hotels were cheap and so were the wages. He’d make a name for himself down there, and maybe even emigrate. They didn’t know him down there, so it wasn’t like his reputation would precede him.

The key to it all would be Jesús Manzaneque. He wasn’t the rider he’d once been – he was going on 33, after all - but he was extremely popular and he reckoned he had a couple of good years left in him. The other Spaniards, Plaza and Cobo, weren’t all that, but they’d do for starters and so would the rest of them. They were ‘cross riders, beginners, guys who’d been spat out of bigger teams, and a German six-day specialist. For the most part they were dreamers, and some smart-arsed journalist described them as a “hotchpotch”. Känel had had it out with him about that. He’d told him to stuff his newspaper where the sun didn’t shine, and told them that if they did as he told them he’d get them to the Tour de France. He launched it all at a swanky hotel in Zurich, and then they went down to St. Mauritz for a bit of skiing. A bit of skiing and, in his case, a whole load of flannel.

The racing started down in Levante, and it went better than anyone had expected. Schütz had the Six-Day circuit in his legs, and the Spaniards couldn’t get near him. He won three sprints, and Leuenberger finished second on GC. He did OK at Tirreno as well, and three of them got round Sanremo. Objectively that wasn’t too bad, but he was insufferable. He acted like a neurotic person, and during the races he would try to humiliate them in front of the other riders. He became belligerent, like it was all about him and the riders were incidental.

Worst of all, though, he still hadn’t paid them any wages. When they asked him where the money was, he just started shouting. He said it would be sorted, but he didn’t say how or when. He was getting expenses from the race organizers, getting pissed in the hotel bar of an evening, and not paying the riders or the staff.

They were riding for primes, but at Catalan Week he told them that anyone who failed to finish would forfeit his salary. They said they still hadn’t had any salary, so what the hell was he even talking about? Leuenberger got out of the camper without having put his cycling shoes on, but the soigneur drove off in the camper without telling anyone. He and the mechanic were effectively on strike, and Leuenberger was left standing there in his slippers. Puttini, who had the same size feet, agreed to lend him his shoes. That was all well and good, but then immediately they hit the climb Puttini was out the back. He turned himself inside out to try to get back on, but it’s not easy in a pair of slippers. He was grovelling, but Känel sent Summermatter and Amrhein to the front to do turns all the same. At that point Jos Deschoenmaeker came up. He was of Merckx’ domestiques, and he told them that what they were doing made no sense. He said if they knocked a gear off then Puttini could get back on, and so that’s what they did. Problem was that Känel went berserk again. He started ranting and raving at Summermatter and Amrhein, and the whole thing was just embarrassing. Embarrassing and unfair. Summermatter was barely 21. Poor kid…

Anyway Leuenberger finished eighth on GC, and top ten in three of the stages. When, at the conclusion of the race, they asked the organizers about their primes, they were informed that Känel had already spent them.

The weather was dreadful at the Tour of the Basque Country, and six of the seven Swiss climbed off ten kilometres into the third stage. Two days later Manzaneque, who’d finished the race, went public. He told the guy from “El Mundo Deportivo” that he hadn’t been paid, so he was 225,000 pesetas out of pocket. The guy asked him what he thought would happen, and he said he hoped it would be OK. Känel needed to be at the Vuelta, the future of his team depended on it, and the only way for it to happen was for him to pay them.

Amstel came and went and then, on 13 April, the Vuelta announced its teams. In addition to the Spanish outfits, Freddy Maertens’ Flandria had accepted an invite. So had EBO, another Belgian outfit, and Luis Ocaña’s Frisol. Italy would be represented by Magniflex, while Manzaneque and Plaza would ride for Switzerland’s Känel. Two days later, however, the riders went public. There’d been rumours that the thing was going bad, but nobody could have seen just how bad…

 

 

Cycling didn’t often make the back pages, but here they positively screamed their opprobrium. The whole sordid affair spewed scandalously forth, and it was unthinkably bad. Pulling no punches, the Italian-language Gazzetta Ticinese ran with “THE SPORTS DIRECTOR DRUGGED HIS RIDERS!” Over in Zurich, Die Tat headlined with “KÄNEL: I’M GOING TO COURT!”, and so on and so balefully forth. Whistle-blower-in-chief was young Summermatter. He claimed that Känel had administered doping products at a training camp in February, and again during the Tour of the Basque Country. Two of the riders had started to feel unwell, and it had become apparent that Känel’s “vitamins” weren’t vitamins at all. That was as outrageous as Känel’s dress sense, and on stage three the situation had spiralled out of control. He’d insisted they start, but the weather had been “Siberian” and the Swiss contingent had abandoned almost immediately. Heavy snowfall had seen the stage annulled anyway, and when they’d got home the riders had decided enough was enough.

Känel denied it – as they tend to – and counterclaimed he’d been blackmailed. Arriving home in Switzerland, he’d taken a call from Leuenberger. He’d informed him that, unless his wages were forthcoming, he’d denounce all of the above to the press. Känel said that amounted to blackmail, and what’s more he’d never doped his riders. He said he’d be seeing young Leuenberger in court, and evidently he was a regular there. Il Giornale del Popolo reckoned his latest indiscretion had seen him punch a journalist in the face, and it became apparent that that the upholstery business had long since gone under. Colnago still hadn’t had a lira for the bikes, and Leuenberger was adamant. He’d seen what he’d seen, and so had the others. He’d recorded the ‘phone conversation with Känel, and to a man the riders wanted nothing more to do with him.

Theo Känel

Theo Känel had always claimed to be a bit of a trailblazer, and his having been sacked by his own team was a first even in a sport as potty as cycling. His former riders, however, had a whole heap of problems. They were a group of racing cyclists, and they were under contract to ride the tours of Spain, Romandie and Switzerland. The organizers were expecting them, their careers were hanging by a thread, and if they scratched there’d likely be no way back. Problem was that as of now they’d no sponsor – not that Känel had been “sponsoring” them in the traditional sense – no back-up and no money. The bikes they were riding weren’t theirs, and with the vehicles parked outside Känel’s house, they’d no way even of getting to the races, let alone taking part in them.

Step forward one of Swiss cycling’s more redoubtable figures. Adolf Märki had been a solid bike rider, and he’d built a very robust furniture business. He was one of Swiss cycling’s principle benefactors, and he agreed to bankroll a trimmed-down version of the team for the Swiss races. The chaff would have to go, but he’d cover their expenses and work out a bonus scheme, and the federation would help out insofar as it could with the costs of the Vuelta. One of one of Känel’s old lackeys would be their DS down there. Werner Büchi didn’t know much about cycling, but the mechanic did. Ernesto Guidali had ridden professionally, and he agreed to give it another go. So, seemingly, did Colnago, notwithstanding the fact that Känel had been stringing him along as well.

The arrangement was strictly temporary, but it was better than nothing and it bought them a little time. The federation would canvas potential backers, and if nothing else the Vuelta was a shot at saving their careers. If they could land a stage win and a few intermediate sprints it would be worth their while financially, and perhaps a new sponsor might even emerge. It would be difficult in light of the situation, but not impossible. Their influence in the Spanish peloton was nil because, quite simply, they were broke. However Leuenberger was talented, and Manzaneque well-connected. They were a rabble with an unsponsored jersey, but Känel’s abdication might just engender the esprit de corps they’d been haemorrhaging these past weeks.

That, at least, was the theory…

What happened next isn’t entirely clear, but the essence is that the cycling team formerly known as Känel set off for Spain on the afternoon of 25 April. Their destination was Dehesa de Campoamor, a little fishing village down in Alicante. It was to host the prologue the following evening, so the Zurich-based riders took two cars. They’d no money for airfares, and by taking turns and driving through the night they’d save on hotel bills. Meanwhile Büchi, the mechanic Guidali and the soigneur set off towards Milan. They were to pick up the Ticinese Puttini, and from there proceed directly to Ernesto Colnago. They’d collect more equipment, and ultimately everyone would rendezvous at the Vuelta. They’d be met by the Spaniards Manzaneque and Plaza, and for once it all seemed straightforward enough.

Didn’t it?

The riders arrived at about 8 o’clock in the morning, and waited for Puttini, the staff, their bikes and their camper to arrive. They waited and waited, but and then they waited some more. At a certain point an exhausted Puttini arrived and so, according to Godi Schmutz, did the soigneur. The clock was ticking, however, and there was no sign of Büchi, Guidali and the bikes. When it became apparent that none of the above were going to show, the organizers pulled the plug and they accepted their fate. They’d no bikes and no chance, and as such no choice but to turn tail and head home. Känel had been a farce from the get-go, but this was pure – and very public - pantomime.

Walter Müller.

The official version had it that Büchi had misunderstood the start day. We were expected to believe that his Spanish wasn’t all that, and so he’d confused Martes (Tuesday) with Miércoles (Wednesday). That seemed fanciful in the extreme, but the reality was still more bizarre. Though it remains something of a moot point, it seems that somebody – nobody cares to enunciate precisely who – decided that it would be better to sell the bikes than take them to Spain. Colnagos were valuable back then just as they’re valuable today, and none of the staff had seen any money.

More bizarrely still, one of them did ride the Vuelta. Magniflex were a man down, and given the circumstances the UCI (its president the Spaniard Luis Puig) broke its own rules. While his team mates crossed the border empty-handed and broken hearted, Manzaneque pinned on a number, got stuck in and got the hell out of Swiss cycling.

And the rest of the poor, wo betide riders? René Leuenberger, arguably the most talented, was offered a ride at the Giro by Selle Royal. He caught bronchitis though, and failed to make it round. The following season signed for TEKA, a very good Spanish team, but it didn’t work out and by the Spring he was a former bike rider. A devout Christian, he lost contact with the cycling community, but died in 2010 aged just 59. The neo-pro Godi Schmutz would enjoy a very distinguished career, and both Puttini and Guido Amrhein did a few more years. Most, however, were lost to the professional sport. Swiss cycling was in a deep, deep trough, and absent a big star the money was being sucked out of it.

It’s inarguable that Theo Känel loved cycling, but also that he was a thoroughgoing wrong ‘un. He resurfaced in 1995, this time as the subject of the hidden-camera TV investigation show. He was still in the upholstery business, but “Kassensturz” (loosely “Cash Crash”) exposed his nefarious business practices. He was invited to the studio to explain himself, but instead traded insults with a former customer before an incredulous live audience. You can see it on YouYube, and it would be funny were it not so predictable. The poor guy claims to have been hoodwinked by Känel, and what’s more he’s one of many. It goes without saying that Känel, dressed as ever to “impress”, appears utterly ridiculous. He wasn’t good for much, but he’d always been quite good at that...

The author wishes to thank Bruno Wüest and Jan De Smet for their help with this article.

If you have enjoyed reading Herbie Sykes' latest blog for us, we have a selection of previously published stories for you to enjoy.

 

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