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Frans Pauwels: Founding Father of Portland Bicycle Racing

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on December 29th, 2010 at 9:21 am

[This article was written by Kelly Dodd. It first appeared in the June 2010 issue of Jan Heine's Bicycle Quarterly magazine and is being published here with the author's permission. We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to share this historical account of a Portland bicycling pioneer, devoted advocate, and legendary bike racer.]

Frans Pauwels
Founding Father of Portland Bicycle Racing

by Kelly Dodd

Frans Pauwels and his father Rudolph after he won a
100-mile road race in Antwerp, Belgium.
(Photos courtesy Kelly Dodd)

Inside the front door of the bike shop is a wall of old photos, many depicting a handsome racer covered in dirt and sweat, holding a victory bouquet. There is a glass case displaying medals, ribbons, plaques, and awards – evidence of a long and successful bike racing career. "This is just a tiny fraction of my Dad’s trophies," says Dirk Pauwels.

Kissler’s Cyclery, owned and run by the Pauwels family since 1959, closed its doors last year and joined forces with the Washington County Bicycle Transportation Coalition to open the Frans Pauwels Memorial Community Bicycle Center in honor of the man who worked tirelessly to promote the sport of cycling. Dirk, who took over the business from his father, is semi-retired but continues to work part time fixing up donated bikes to give to kids in need and participating in bicycle safety clinics and helmet fittings. Like his father, he has devoted a lifetime to cycling, "I started working at Kissler’s with my Dad when I was a kid, putting bikes together for twenty-five cents a piece."

Six-feet tall, tan, and lean with powerful legs and a strong Dutch accent, Frans Pauwels was an impressive figure. Kids who discovered Kissler’s Cyclery in downtown Portland in the 1960s gravitated to the store to marvel at the exotic bike frames hanging from the walls, leaf through foreign cycling magazines, admire Tour de France posters, and listen to radio coverage of European bike races. Those kids knew Pauwels was the real deal — a professional bike racer — and they wanted to be like Frans.

Frans Pauwels during his days as a
member of the OK Cycles professional
team. The goggles protected the racers’
eyes from stones as they drafted
others on gravel roads. A spare
tubular tire was slung around
the shoulders.

After World War II, European immigrants opened a small number of bike shops across the United States: Oscar Wastyn in Chicago, Antonio Gatto in San Jose, Thomas Avenia in New York. These men and their shops served as sources of expertise and suppliers of state-of-the-art equipment in their communities, and they sparked a resurgent interest in cycling in the 1960s. In Portland, Oregon, that spark was Frans Pauwels.

Pauwels was born in 1918 in the small town of Hulst in the Netherlands on the Belgian border. His son Dirk described the area as "scattered villages of maybe a thousand people where cycling was the norm. It was the easiest way to get from village to village."

Pauwels started his racing career as an apprentice at age fourteen. He turned professional and joined the Dutch national team in 1936, mostly participating in Kermesse races — fifty to sixty-mile circuit races — that formed a popular part of village festivals. Professional racers could make a living going from town to town and competing in two or three races a week. Frans made his way up the ranks during a time when there were about 400 professional racers in Holland. From 1936 through the late 1940s, he participated in the major European road races: the Vuelta de España (Tour of Spain), the Tour of Switzerland, and the Tour de France. He was known as a devastating sprinter.

Frans Pauwels (center) after stage win in the Vuelta a España, Madrid 1946.

What would have been his greatest racing victory was snatched from his grasp on the sixth day of the seven-day Tour de Catalonia in May 1940. As Pauwels led the pack of racers through the Pyrenees Mountains, officials halted the race. Germany had invaded The Netherlands. "We somehow finished that leg of the race," Pauwels told a reporter in 1962, "but we got together immediately afterwards to decide what to do." The five riders from Holland and Belgium hired a taxi to take them 350 miles to the border before it closed at midnight, their bikes strapped to the roof. The cyclists went home to join the war effort.

During the war, Pauwels worked as an interpreter in collaboration with the British Army, even though he knew little English. He was a link in the European escape network, helping Allied servicemen and refugees cross the Dutch-Belgium border. He also used his bicycle to smuggle food back to his village.

He retired in 1950 at age thirty-two during a time when he was racing against Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet.

After World War II, Pauwels continued to compete in international races, winning three stages and placing 20th in the Tour of Spain in 1946. The following year, he placed 11th in this race. He retired in 1950 at age thirty-two during a time when he was racing against Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet.

Pauwels moved his family to Portland in 1953 with the help and sponsorship of his cousin, Ed Verdurmen, who gave him a job pumping gas. "I came to America with my wife, three children, two suitcases, and $500," he loved to tell his grandchildren, remembering his humble start in the U.S.

While pumping gas at his cousin’s filling station in a small suburb of Portland, Oregon, Pauwels was astonished when a small group of cyclists rode by. At that time, only children rode bicycles in North America – cruisers with balloon tires for riding around the neighborhood. It was the first time he saw ten-speed bicycles since moving to the United States.

Pauwels in front of Kissler’s Bike
Shop (Portland), circa 1960.

When the riders came by the gas station, Pauwels asked where they came from and where they met for rides. "My dad was so excited to see a ten-speed bike here, he immediately asked to join them for a ride," said his son Dirk. They told him about Kissler’s Cyclery located in downtown Portland at SW 3rd and Jefferson. He arranged to meet the cyclists and discovered that the shop was looking for a mechanic. He took the job, and several years later, in 1959, he bought the business. He later moved it one block to SW 4th and Jefferson.

His first order of business was to import European bicycles. "He wanted to bring in bikes that would really move,” says Dirk. Some of the early brands he brought to Portland were Peugeot, Helyett, and Geminiani from France, Frejus and Olmo from Italy, and Raleigh from England. His next move was to get more people involved in cycling, especially children.

In 1962, Pauwels convinced Carl Cadonau, son of Alpenrose Dairy owner, to add a dirt racing track to the growing number of attractions on the dairy property located in Southwest Portland. Next to the baseball diamonds, the rodeo arena and the pony rides, Cadonau bulldozed a quarter-mile track below a duck pond and through the trees to create the Tour d’Alpenrose. Kids throughout Portland found out about bike racing at the dairy from the milk delivery box: The Dairyland Gazette flyer announced coming events and news. Dirk remembered that first track, nicknamed the Tour de Fleur, "It was so dusty and dirty, and water would seep onto the track from the duck pond. We’d have to clean up the moss, or riders would crash."

"If we had a track here, we could make it grow. We could bring the Nationals here and put Portland on the map."
— Frans Pauwels, as remembered by his son Dirk

One kid, who received a notice in the milk box, showed up to race the Tour de Fleur. At age fourteen, Nick Zeller won the race. "I had a job as a paperboy," says Zeller. "I delivered papers on my Stringray and realized I was pretty fast." He later went on to win numerous Oregon State Road Championships, became a member of the 1967 Pan American Games Road Cycling Team, and trained under Pauwels’s tutelage.

The dirt track at Alpenrose continued to attract racers every week, and Pauwels realized that he could bring real racing to Oregon with a better track. Dirk, who had also become involved in bike racing, remembered his father saying: "If we had a track here, we could make it grow. We could bring the Nationals here and put Portland on the map."

In 1967, Cadonau agreed to invest $30,000 and build the Olympic-style Alpenrose Velodrome. Pauwels went to work, with the help of Mayor Terry Schrunk, to bring the National Bicycle Championships to Portland. Quoted in a Sports Illustrated article from that year, Cadonau said: “Our fellows finished laying cement one week before the race. The painting was done this week, and the striping was done today. That 41° bank looks severe, but it helps the riders. You go into it at a speed of 26.7 miles per hour to be perpendicular to the surface."

The 1967 Nationals were a huge success complete with a stunning victory by hometown racer Steve Maaranen, who won the ten-mile senior race in a split second upset over favorite Jackie Simes from New Jersey.

Pauwels employed racers like Maaranen, his son Dirk, and Zeller. "When I was working as a paperboy,” recalled Zeller, "I could make $25 a month if I was lucky. Frans paid me $25 a week. I thought I was a millionaire." The shop had become a Schwinn dealership, ranking ninth in the nation in sales, and Pauwels paid for his employees to go to the Schwinn School to study bike mechanics.

To further encourage cycling and road racing, Pauwels sponsored two racing clubs, the Pacific Cycling Club (PCC) and the Multnomah Touring Club (MTC), out of Kissler’s Cyclery. Other bike shops around town also sponsored racing teams, and each shop wanted the best group of guys riding for their club. Phil’s Bike Shop on NE Broadway, owned by Phil Hohnstein, was home to the long-standing Rose City Wheelmen. Looking back, Zeller is convinced that "the reason Portland is such a bike-friendly city and has the infrastructure it does, is due to the rivalry between Frans and Phil. Phil was there at every race with the starting gun, and Frans was either in the race with a bunch of youngsters or on the sidelines offering advice."

Pauwels knew how to instill confidence in his racers. He coached Zeller, Maaranen (who became a U.S. Olympic team member in 1968), and many others to compete in state, national, and international races. He held evening coaching rides on Mt. Tabor in SE Portland where he taught the basics of hill climbing and cornering, and he organized roller races at his shop in the winter months. Racers could compete against each other or against the clock on training rollers. His philosophy was simple enough: Prepare well, go out there, and ride hard.

According to Zeller, "Frans said you got to ride the miles. I did forty miles before and after work—10,000 miles in 1967—to get ready for the Pan American Games." Pauwels told him, "You know you did those miles, and you’re tougher than the other guys. The toughest guy wins."

Pauwels was a gifted tactician who knew how to win bike races. He passed along racing strategy and training tips to Zeller: ride low gears and spin on a fixed gear in winter. "We didn’t have any scientific coaching. You just rode your miles. None of this heart monitor stuff," said Zeller. But the most important thing he learned from Pauwels was to believe in himself.

Pauwels was a successful bike shop owner, started the Alpenrose Velodrome racing circuit, coached up-and-coming cyclists, served as director of the Amateur Bicycle League of America, and still found time to lobby for bike paths and cycling advocacy. It helped that his shop was located across the street from City Hall.

He wanted people to see the bicycle as something more than a toy, as something to be used for sport, fitness, and transportation. Pauwels loved all aspects of cycling and saw a huge potential in Portland. According to Dirk, "He was the pioneer bike commuter. We lived in the Raleigh Hills neighborhood, and his commute was about five miles down Barbur Boulevard." But as Frans told a reporter in 1962, commuting in Portland was not easy. People are always drawing alongside in their car and offering me a ride. They seem to feel sorry for me," said Pauwels. "And several times I’ve been ordered off the road by the police, who think a cyclist is a traffic hazard."

His advocacy led him to Salem where he lobbied for wider roads, including bike lanes, and bike safety. Dirk remembers that his father loved politics. "It was competitive, and he had a captive audience," he said laughing. "People were really interested in what he had to say about cycling."

Pauwels continued to compete throughout his life. When he was in his mid-forties, he teamed with Zeller in the two-man Madison races at Alpenrose. He participated in road races at the Portland International Raceway car racing track and won three jerseys in the U.S. Nationals in his age group. He raced until he was seventy-four years old.

Jerry Powell, a long-time racer in Portland, remembers competing with a sixty-year-old Pauwels in 1978. It was the Veteran’s Race at the Sherwood Criterium. "A third of the way into the race, I felt like I was doing okay, so I took the inside line on a corner. I caught a shoulder and went flying. It was Frans. I asked him after the race why he threw me, and he said, 'Because you shouldn’t have been there.'" Powell learned his lesson and went on to train with Pauwels. He learned how to control his speed in a pack without using his brakes and how to corner smoothly without losing speed just by following Pauwels around a course.

Pauwels “retired” from cycling, leaving the bike business to Dirk, only to take up skiing, tennis, and marathon running. Dirk said: “He couldn’t just play it, he had to compete. He was always striving to be the best he could."

"I’d see him," recalled Zeller, "well into his seventies, still riding on the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. He wasn’t going fast, but he was still riding. He was such an inspiration."

Today, Portland is considered by many one of the most bike-friendly cities on any continent. More than a dozen framebuilders craft cutting-edge bicycles in the city. Bike races continue to be held every week at the Alpenrose Velodrome. Portland is home more than 30 amateur racing teams. Frans Pauwels would be proud of this heritage.

- Kelley Dodd is a graphic designer, a dabbler in writing and a seasoned bike commuter in Portland, Oregon. She wrote this story for her husband, Andy Newlands of Strawberry Bicycles, who bought a Frejus racing bicycle in 1963 from Frans Pauwels.

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Comments
  • David Feldman December 29, 2010 at 10:01 am

    If anybody needs any more reason to buy a multiple-year subscription to Bicycle Quarterly.................

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    • Creag December 30, 2010 at 12:58 am

      You're right - Very fun article, a nice recap of how racing got started in PTLD.

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  • One Less :( December 29, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Great Article about Frans! I was lucky to meet him while working for Dirk out at Kissler's Cyclery in Beaverton. The guy sure loved to dish out a bit of advice whenever around racers. Great guy who helped start the cycling community here in Oregon. Too bad his son Dirk didn't listen to his employees, or others around him, or his shop still might be in business.

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  • Kt December 29, 2010 at 10:40 am

    That's a great story!

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  • BURR December 29, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Great story! Too bad the downtown shop location was lost to redevelopment.

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  • Roger Averbeck December 29, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    Nice article - a fine tribute to Frans Pauwels and a good piece of local cycling history. Please consider stopping by the Community Bicycle Center in Aloha - it's a great resource in an area not otherwise known as bike friendly (compared to much of Portland).

    You might to get to meet Dirk, a great guy, amazing mechanic and excellent bike safety instructor.

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  • Joe December 29, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Love this article.. nice work.

    be safe all its snowing :)
    Joe

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  • Lenny Anderson December 29, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Dirk and I ran cross country together at Wilson HS in the early '60s. I got me to do a race at PIR after I bought a Swinn Continental 10 speed from their shop. Wow, that final sprint killed me!
    My brother Jim bought a ten speed in 1960...I still ride it. We rode ours to California in 1961, to Canada in 1962.
    Congrats to Dirk and thanks to him and to his father for Portland's early bike days energy.

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  • Todd Boulanger December 29, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    As a long time reader of Jan's magazine ... I highly recommend it to all of BikePortland's bloggership. Share a subscription if you have to...or get your library to buy it. Then you will be hooked to get your own.

    It is fabulous ...the care and depth of technical analysis [of products and frame design] make other mainstream bike mags pale in comparison. It is hard to pick them up now...other than Momentum or Bicycle Times/ Dirt Mag. It is a book quality publication.

    I have only one compliant ... that it comes out only a few times per year. My family knows to leave me alone for a day when it arrives as it is hard to put down. I am always surprised that it is rare to find at local stockists such as Powells given this is a bike town. (I had to find my first copy in Berkeley 5 or so years ago.)

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  • Todd Boulanger December 29, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    I always smile when i see a Kissler tube sticker on a 60's / 70's bike.

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  • Brad Ross December 29, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    Thanks for the article. Don't forget that Franz was the founder of the Tues. night races at PIR. And founded racing at Tabor. He is a badass that has been largely forgotten. I wish other modern local pro's felt the same level of responsibility to the sport as he had.

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  • Simone DPJ December 29, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    Thanks for reprising a well done article and bringing to light my father's contribution to Portland cycling. He was an absolutely amazing husband, father and grandfather as well. He is so very missed.

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  • Denise PL December 29, 2010 December 30, 2010 at 12:17 am

    Thanks Kelly for honoring my father. His knowledge and love of cycling was enormous. I remember many weekends of my youth riding to different cycling events in the NW and Northern CA with him and Dirk.
    I was with him in St. Louis at the last National Championships in which he participated and recall him being upset that he didn't do better though he medalled! A week before he passed away at 83 years we went for a ride along his old training route on Skyline RD and out towards the coast and did some reminiscing about his Oregon cycling years. He was a very special man.

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    • zik a no go January 3, 2011 at 10:21 am

      Denise, I too miss your dad, he was so enthusiastic about life and bikes. I'm still riding, and he's still an inspiration to me. Best to you and the family.

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  • Paul Tay December 30, 2010 at 4:02 am

    W.O.W.

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  • David Feldman December 30, 2010 at 7:04 am

    I knew who Franz was before this article, but didn't have the slightest idea what he'd done in the interest of all kinds of cyclists in the Portland area.

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  • Dan O December 30, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Great story! Frans was undoubtedly instrumental in making Portland the progressive place it is today with respect to bicycling, with growing influence worldwide.

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  • Brian Johnson December 30, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Wow-- what a great story! I had no idea.

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  • Sharon Fekety December 30, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    I rode with Frans in his later years on Portland Wheelmen bicycle rides. He was still a competetor and always had to be out in front. This was true of skiing with him also. And what a gentleman. He would do anything to help you. He gave me lots of good cycling tips. He is still missed.

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  • mello yello December 30, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    That picture with him standing next to his bike in the doorway of his shop could have been taken yesterday. Bikes are timeless whereas cars date pictures. It's easy to relate to Portland of the sixties in time period bicycle photographs because style stays relatively similar with "ten speeds."

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  • riversiderider January 3, 2011 at 7:51 am

    Thanks for the great story! I don't know how but I had not heard about Bicycle Quarterly. Just subscribed and am looking forward to it.

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  • Evan January 3, 2011 at 10:19 am

    I started working at Kissler's from the summer of 1987. Little did I know that I would continue to work there on and off, literally until the day the store closed. The last official sale was to me. Other than Dirk and Frans, it is quite possible that nobody spent more time in that shop than I did. Both Frans and Dirk were like extended family for me, and that shop was like my second home. Frans was one of those people who you might have only met once, but after he passed away you wished you could have gotten to know him better. I owe a debt and a thanks to the entire Pauwels family, and feel honored that a small part of that shop, including a few of those frame stickers, lives on in my personal shop.

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    • Ernie Page July 10, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      I feel the same way about working with Dirk.He is a nice guy. when I told him i was a schwinn fan He told me he had owned kissler that is when my whole life flashed before me because all I collect is kissler bikes and have ridden them since I was a kid. I only wish I could have been older to have had a real conversation with Frans about the ten speeds.

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  • JBrown January 4, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Awesome story! Thanks for the leg-work, great job articulating it and sharing!

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  • Frank Van Eynde January 11, 2013 at 10:49 am

    As a former Belgian bike racer I remember Frans. He was the same age as my oldest brother and they raced together in he Antwerp area. Frank also stayed at my parents place when he was racing in Antwerp.

    I raced with Frans in the mid 1960s at the Redmond, WA races.

    Very interesting story that brings back some old memeories

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  • Ernie Page July 8, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    Hi, I work with Dirk Pauwels. When I met him I down played the fact that I new who he was and he began to tell me he was the owner of kissler and his dad is Frans. I was grinning from ear to ear but I still wanted to hear more. I now work side by side with Dirk we are assistant trainers for first student and I like my job probably for the simple fact I get to work with the legend of portland's racing.

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