Smoke and Steam

What the Appalachian region is to the United States, or the West Midlands to the UK, the Ruhr Valley is to Germany. A place that is nearly synonymous with coal. In recent years, however, the Ruhr has fully reinvented itself – without denying its history. We could say the same about the Harley-Davidson Sportster S. Seemed like a good excuse to ride the one through the other.
Text Wiebke Brauer
Photo Kirill Kirsanov ·

Nothing is the way it used to be. The double headframe of Mine Shaft XII soars high into the sky, silvery clouds passing behind it, the sun a metallic shimmer. All I can hear is the wind – and the roar of the Harley. The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in the north of Essen has been idle for thirty-five years. Some 240 million tons of coal were mined here from 1851 to 1986, with as many as eight thousand men toiling away in several shifts above and below ground. These days, the unceasing activity and unrelenting noise that must have dominated the scene are nearly unimaginable. In a 1954 essay, writer Paul Schallück wrote, “Let’s take a look at our country: it’s teeming and buzzing with people working and getting things done; in clouds of dust and sweat, German efficiency at work, hammering, rattling, banging day and night. What a spectacle!”

When it was built, the Zollverein was planned as the first thoroughly rationalized mine, and even when completed it was considered the most beautiful industrial complex in the Ruhr region. It was called a “technical and aesthetic masterpiece of modernity”, a “cathedral of industrial culture”. From this perspective, nothing has changed. What was once the world’s largest and most productive coal mine and Europe’s biggest central coking plant still retains an impressive, almost religious significance. Since 2001, however, the complex has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the meaning of “industrial culture” has shifted dramatically over the years. Industrial culture has become a way of life that, though imbued by the past, manifests itself as a lifestyle or a way of presenting oneself.

"Your heartbeat’s of metal It hammers out through the night"

Herbert Grönemeyer: Bochum

When the last mine in the region closed in 2018, the coal era along the Rhine and Ruhr finally came to an end. But the structural changes had begun long before that, as the finite nature of mining were known very early on. Over the years, countless coking plants, blast halls and coal washes in the Ruhr have been repurposed into museums, pubs and amusement parks. The landscape was transformed into one of parks and lakes, and even the Emscher, a tributary of the Rhine that had once been an industrial cesspool, has since become a thriving biotope. Everywhere, the region’s industrial monuments were integrated into the newly created natural environment rather than being razed to the ground. The heavy industrial past was presented anew, recalling the pioneering spirit of the bygone days while transforming the entire region into a cultural metropolis rather than a coal-dusted museum. The Route of Industrial Culture, for example, 400 kilometers by road or 700 kilometers by bike, leads to scenic spots and landmarks, through old industrial sites and garden cities, to the peaks of slag heaps and the latest art exhibitions. “The route represents a path into a post-industrial future, taking the best things from days gone by and transporting them into the modern world,” historian Stefan Berger once wrote in German weekly Die Zeit.

"You’ve washed off the soot
And your furnaces are cold
But the mines are filled with life"

Of course, the traces of the area’s industrial past are not only still visible but can also be felt and heard in every corner of the Ruhr. This begins with the experience of driving through a polycentric metropolitan region, the result of decades of coal mining and the rapid urbanization that accompanied it. “In the beginning, there was the coal mine [. . .] the coal mine founded the settlement [. . .] the settlement grew and became a city,” Heinrich Hauser wrote in 1930 in his collection of journalistic reports titled Schwarzes Revier [Black Ruhr]. Here and there you can still find the former miners’ settlements with their typical colliery houses built of red stone with small windows and tiny front gardens. If you make an effort and venture farther afield, you’ll make your way through a nearly boundless urban landscape filled with people who have formed their own language and their own mentality. The dialect is gruff, but not unfriendly, the grammar confusing, the diminutives sweet. You might hear constructions like “Dem Christoph sein Vater ist am Arbeiten” (“Christoph his father is at work”) and, as you grab your helmet and get back on your Harley, are bid farewell with a cheerful “Schüsschen” (a cuter form of the typical “Tschüss” for “goodbye”).

Which brings us to the subject of motorcycles. In the Ruhr, it’s okay to forget about elegant segues. Let’s go back in time again, to 1957. The men worked six days a week underground or in front of the blast furnaces, the people here bred pigeons, bowled or played Skat, the sky wasn’t blue, the sun had to fight its way through smoke and steam, and the women still washed their laundry in a tub. In America, at a distance almost unimaginable from here, even farther out west, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company unveiled the Sportster. In the mid-1950s, the competition from England had been dominating the American market with their light and fast motorcycles. A new model was needed. The alternative to Harley-Davidson’s big touring machines went by the name of XL 55. The company had given the bike a more modern chassis, with a hydraulic telescopic fork up front and a suspension-supported swingarm in the back, plus a 45° V2 engine with OHV valve control.

"Sun still fighting Through smoke and steam, life here’s better than you could ever dream, life here’s better"

At 883 m³, the first version featured cast iron cylinders and cylinder heads, which explains the term “Ironhead” used to describe this generation of engines. The Sportster was the muscle bike of the sixties, and the series was repeatedly improved, modernized and reinvented over the decades that followed. Today, in 2021, the bike is called Sportster S – a completely redeveloped machine with a 1,252 m³ liquid-cooled Revolution Max 1250T V2 engine, 122 hp and a maximum torque of 125 Nm. The bike is built low, with a stout front tire that lends it a bobber look, plus a raised exhaust and slim solo seat reminiscent of the Harley-Davidson XR-750 flat track racer. The Sportster S weighs in at just 228 kilos, which is due in particular to the engine’s structural function and the use of lightweight materials. There are five riding modes, two of which can be individually defined. The cockpit is also new, with a four-inch TFT color display including Bluetooth connection to smartphone or headset for infotainment functions such as navigation or music.

By the way: On my tour through the Ruhr, nobody used the local diminutive to describe my Midnight Crimson Harley-Davidson factory custom cruiser. Though it certainly could have happened.

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