As a professional cyclist, you don’t get a nice jersey for winning Milan-San Remo. Or Paris-Roubaix. Or the Tour of Flanders. Winning the San Sebastian Classic entitles you to wear a big black beret that looks like a giant floppy pancake for a humiliating moment. But there’s a special jersey that, once won at a one-day event, is yours for a year, wherever you race – at the Spring Classics, Tour or Meiji-Jingu Outer Garden University Criterium. This jersey is, of course, the gorgeous rainbow-striped confection first worn by Alfredo Bind in 1927 and most recently graced by the flamboyant entertainer Giuliano Alafilippe for Elite Men and Italy’s Elisa Balsamo for Elite Women. His fascinating story is the subject “Chasing the Rainbow: The History of the World Road Cycling Championships” British writer Giles Belbin.
Surprisingly, the idea of the World Road Championship was developed for a long time. The UCI, formed in 1900 after dissatisfaction with the British sanctioning body, the ICI, didn’t get there until 1921, and even then it was a time trial for amateurs only. It felt that professionals did not really need such an event. Six years after the amateur program began, the pros raced at the Nürburgring in a joint pro-amateur event, which seems strange in retrospect. The UCI came to its senses and next year professionals and amateurs competed separately.
Marcel Kint – Valkenburg 1938
The author’s structure of the book is a summary of a series of races, followed by an interview with the professional cyclist who won the Rainbow Jersey, followed by other stories about the races. The exception is a great conversation with the grandson of Marcel Quint, the Belgian winner in 1938, who held the jersey for an unbeaten eight years, as the next race for it (in which he competed!) did not take place until 1946 due to the Second World War. Marnick Kint runs the bicycle shop his grandfather founded after he retired from a 16-year professional career, although in typical Belgian cyclist style he opened a small bar after his big win in 1938. Marcel Kint sounds like a true Flahut, such a tough man is celebrated in the cycling culture of Belgium. “I wasn’t boisterous, I was never a verbose rider. And what did I have to say? I worked on the bike to have a better life, that’s all.’ Yes, the words spoken by the man who would win Paris-Roubaix during the war (1943).
Benoni Begate – Ronse 1963
One of the highlights of the Road World Championship is the fact that it is held on a different track in a different country every year, giving cyclists of all categories a chance, whether sprinters, climbers or big grinders. It seems that over the years the idea of teams was cursed as winning was seen as an individual achievement, so there was a situation where you had compatriots wearing the same uniform with you but were not allowed to help you. Eventually, reality set in and, as with the Tour de France, teamwork was taken for granted. This did not always mean that the riders really understood it, as the book is filled with stories of teammates acting against each other and against the interests of their country. Although there are not many photos in the book, the best of them is from the 1963 race, where Rick Van Looy, receiving his silver medal on the podium, looks with undisguised menace at Benoni Beheit, his comrade on command, who chased him and broke into a sprint. gold medal in Ronse, Belgium. Beheit didn’t have much of a cycling career after that.
Tom Simpson – San Sebastian 1965
Few Beneits have worn the rainbow jersey, which has instead often gone to cycling’s biggest names, although two of them (Anquetil and Indurain) have never finished better than second. Anquetil may have spoiled his own chances to spoil the chances of Raymond Pulidore, his eternal rival and teammate, while Indurain sacrificed himself to help Abraham Olan win in 1995. But Indurain won the World Time Trial Championship shortly before that, so he already had something to take home.
Eddy Merckx – Herlen 1967, Mendrisio 1971, Montreal 1974
Only four male riders besides the reigning champion have won the Rainbow Jersey three times: Alfredo Bindo, Rick Van Stenbergen, Oscar Freire and of course the titanic Eddy Merckx. Merckx took his third victory at the tough 262km Montreal circuit in twenty-one laps, which included a 2.5km climb up Mont Royal. His victory in 1974 not only tied him with Binda and Van Stenbergen, but also made him the first rider to win the Giro, the Tour and the World Championship in the same year, a feat only repeated once since Steven Roche in in 1987.
Oscar Freire – Verona 1999, Lisbon 2001, Verona 2004
Three wins? Big deal! Another Belgian, Yvonne Reynders, won her rainbow jersey four times (surpassing France’s Jeanie Long, who managed it five times, along with four time trial victories) when women were allowed to compete from 1958. An interview with Renders and her friend Paul Van Bommels is quite revealing about the state of affairs at the time. Van Bommel: “In one year she ran 64 races and won 61 times, she was really great. Yvonne’s parents owned a coal shop and she delivered coal to their customers. She had a tripartite, you know what it is? It’s like a cargo bike, with a large area in the front to carry cargo. With its help, she delivered 10 kg bags of coal and transported 24 bags on a bicycle – 240 kg of coal!… Some people refused to deliver coal to the fifth, sixth, seventh floors of buildings, and to earn extra money, she carried coal up the stairs – no there were lifts so it was a good workout.’ I bet it was.
Yvonne Reynders – Zandvoort 1959, Bern 1961, Rene 1963, Nürburgring 1966
By the way, the first women’s champion in 1958 was from Luxembourg. The popular Elsie Jacobs arrived in Reims three minutes early, finishing second. Her brothers were racers and she borrowed their bikes for practice and soon started racing and winning herself. After winning in 1958, she set the women’s hour record of 41.437 km at the Vigarelli Velodrome, a mark that stood for 14 years.
Elsie Jacobs from Luxembourg – Reims 1958
Unsurprisingly, the author has a British focus, and the accounts of the British champions are well done. There’s an interview with a sympathetic Barry Hoban about the first British professional champion, Tom Simpson, and plenty about the force of nature that was Beryl Burton (awarded Britain’s best female cyclist for 25 years running). Burton never went professional, but given the era she lived in, it’s hard to see how that was really possible for her or some of the other women mentioned in the book. During the day, Yvonne Renders was at a vocational school, and in the evening she trained. Beryl Burton picked rhubarb on a farm but still managed to win the World Championship twice and the World Pursuit Championship five times (not to mention no fewer than 80 national titles). The last owner of the “Rainbow jersey” from Britain was Mark Cavendish in 2011.
British Mark Cavendish – Copenhagen 2011
Mario Cipollini is mentioned as a member of a national team that was famous for infighting, but was invincible when it could get together. Under team manager Franco Ballerini, the Italians enjoyed back-to-back wins between 2002 and 2008, but after that nothing happened in the competition, which the Italians won over the years, often alternating with the Belgian winners. The last of them was Tom Boonen, who completed the most remarkable 2005 in Madrid.
Tom Boonen – Madrid 2005 and Paolo Bettini – Salzburg 2006, Stuttgart 2007
One of the three-time winners interviewed in the book is Oscar Freire, whose remarkable victory in Verona in 1999 was a surprise as he was not well known and none of the favorites tried to chase him after he a brilliantly executed escape. . Not only did he win two more times (including again in Verona at a different circuit), but he also had an excellent record, including three wins at Milan-San Remo and the green jersey at the 2008 Tour de France.
Of course, the other three-time winner interviewed is Marianna Voss, “perhaps the most accomplished racer in history, with multiple road, cyclocross and track world titles and Olympic gold in road and track”. Her participation in the World Road Championship won no less than eight places on the podium, including three on the top step. With her career resurgent in 2019, she is once again considered one of the favorites.
Of course, we won’t know until Sunday who won the women’s elite race, but either way, it’s nice to bow to Marianne Vos!
Mariana Vos – Salzburg 2006, Limburg 2012, Florence 2013
The section on the World Time Trial Championship seems like an afterthought, but it’s only been around since 1994, and the drama of this race, which isn’t that dramatic to most people anyway, is that only four male riders have been responsible for its history for 13 wins!
Peter Sagan – Richmond 2015, Doha 2016, Bergen 2017
“Chasing the Rainbow” offers cycling history at its best, personal reflections on the careers of those who raced and stories – some familiar, many less so – that illustrate why racing in a special jersey is so special and so unpredictable in its own right.
“Chasing the Rainbow: The History of the World Road Cycling Championships”
Forward Brian Cookson (former UCI President)
304 p., 8 pages of illustrations, hardcover
Quarto Publishers, London, 2017
RRP: US$30 / CAD$38 / £20
• BUY Chasing the Rainbow at AMAZON.COM.
# Stay tuned to PEZ for all the results from the 2022 World Road Championship, which kicks off with the time trials this weekend. #