The World Road Cycling Championships: A History Lesson
By definition, professional Cycling's World Championship Road Race is an event organized by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and is a single day, 'mass start' road race. The winner earns the right to wear the coveted “Rainbow Jersey” for a year. The “Rainbow Jersey” is the distinctive jersey predominantly white with five horizontal bands of color around the chest (from the bottom up the colors are: green , yellow, black, red and blue ).
The first edition of the UCI's World Road Race Championships was held in Nürburgring, Germany, on July 21, 1927, and covered 182.5 km. Alfredo Binda led an Italian sweep of the podium.
However the storied history started years earlier in 1883 on a velodrome in Leicester, England. Promoted by British bicycle builders, the event was dominated by local riders until Frenchman Frederic De Civry won on a penny- farthing , giving the Brits a bit of a setback.
By 1889, the British had a new promotion, the first road World Championships in the form of a 100-mile time trial, which was won by Frenchman Charles Terront in 5h58'20”. But --similar to modern day professional boxing, with its multiple concurrent world champions--through the late 1800's and early 1900's various cycling promoters in different countries awarded impressive-sounding titles for road and track events .
By the 1920's, the racing began to standardize. The French had the GP Wobler in 1922, which was considered the unofficial World Championships for professional riders. The Italians had in 1923 a world championship series of amateur en ligne (in line or road) races in Switzerland. The French and Italian races became so popular the UCI took control in 1927 and offered the first official World Road Race Championship.
The Grand Tours and the great one-day classics each have their own well-known ‘parcours. ' Legends abound on the Mur de Grammont and the Kemmelberg of the classics, the mighty Tourmalet of the Tour de France, the awesome Dolomiti of the Giro or the fearsome Angliru of the Vuelta; each is suited to a certain type of specialist. Not so with the World's. All types of riders have worn the rainbow jersey: from Grand Tour winners to classics winners; from mountain men to flatlanders; from stars to humble domestiques. This rich variety is dictated by the choice of venues from the pan-flat roads of Holland to the rarified air of Colombia mountains. Wait long enough and a course to suit your skills will come along ! But rarely do the same stretches of road see the World's race courses.
WCRR 1928- After Binda's first championship in 1927, Belgian George Ronsse grabbed back-to-back victories in 1928 and ‘29. Ronsse in 1928 had great team support and took full advantage of a squabbling Italian team to score a 19'43” victory – a record margin. Defending champion Binda and Campionissimo Costante Girardengo both abandoned the race. An angry Italian Federation suspended both Binda and Girardengo for ‘not having defended with faith and determination the prestige of Italian Cycling.'
WCRR 1933- Tour de France Champion Georges Speicher provided a unique story in 1933. Shortly after the Tour was over, a strange and somewhat controversial French selection process left Speicher off the national team for the World Championships. Speicher returned home to rest and stopped training. The day before the Worlds, one of the national team members became ill and withdrew from the race. Scrambling for a replacement, the French officials found Speicher and convinced him to race. Despite little training since the Tour, he was told to just set a fast early tempo for the race. After fifty kilometers he launched a decoy attack to make the other teams chase. By the time the other teams started the chase it was too late. Speicher completed the race with a 5-minute victory. He became the first rider to win the Tour and the World Championships in the same year.
WCRR 1938- The Second World War stopped the World Championships for eight years. The final race before the war was in 1938. Belgian Marcel Kint drove a three-rider breakaway up Holland's notorious climb of the Cauberg 27 times. So tough was the course most other big name riders abandoned in large numbers. Kint won the sprint for Belgium.
WCRR 1946- After the war, Kint was back to face 1938 amateur champion Hans Knecht of Switzerland. The race, held in Zurich, saw Kint break away early in the race and ride solo into the closing kilometers. Kint's victory was almost assured when controversy arose. Belgian Rik van Steenbergen chased down his teammate with Knecht glued to his wheel. On the final climb, Kint surged away again, but then a spectator grabbed him and Knecht rode away to the win.
WCRR 1954- Perhaps the best World's Road Race was contested on August 22, 1954, in Solingen, Germany. A very demanding 15 km race course was covered 16 times (240 km) with a 3 km climb to the finish. In addition to the difficult ‘parcours,' cold temperatures and heavy rain made the race a battle to survive.
Frenchman Louison Bobet drove the pace through the second half of the race over the rain soaked roads, weakening the remaining seven riders each lap. Inside two laps to go only three riders remained. Fausto Coppi was dropped under Bobet's relentless pressure. Only Swiss Fritz Schaer and Bobet remained when the drama began with one 15 km lap to go. Just passed the pit area, Bobet punctured. An alert (and very fit! -ed) French team mechanic spotted the trouble and jumped on a spare bike. He sprinted to Bobet and changed the wheel. Bobet used all his reserve and chased hard for 20 km. He caught and passed Schaer with 7 km to go. The Frenchman claimed an extraordinary victory.
WCRR 1963- Champion in 1960 and 1961 Rik Van Looy entered 1963 with great confidence. Van Looy offered each Belgian team member $1,500 if Van Looy won the race. The Belgian team worked gallantly as the final lead group of 28 approached the finish. The finish seemed perfect for the Belgians until an impatient Van Looy jumped past his lead-out man too early. Suddenly on the opposite side of the road teammate Benoni Beyeht made a charge to the line. Van Looy bolted across the road forcing Beyeht to put out his hand. Was it a push, was it a pull or was it just to avoid crashing? Beyeht crossed the finish line first just in front of an angry Van Looy. The resulting feud lasted for years. As time passed a mellow Van Looy admitted the hand was only to avoid a crash.
Each and every year the World's provides its own exciting stories of individual effort and accomplishment. This article only addresses a few great races. As part of Cycling Revealed's 20th Century Timeline, we will attempt to bring you more exciting accounts of World Championship Road Races.