Classic Lightweights UK
Chasing Rainbows - the first 99 years of official world cyling championships
Author Geoff Waters
World championship winners are awarded a rainbow jersey … From the top down the stripes are blue, red, black, yellow and green … Once the cyclist’s year as world champion has ended, he or she retains the right to wear the rainbow stripes on the collar or cuff of their racing jersey.
William Fotheringham (2010) Cyclopedia
Cycle racing on both
dedicated cycling tracks and public roads
from the late 1800s. Its popularity was closely related to the public
craze for cycling during this period. Enthusiasm for cycling for both
pleasure and sport swept through the industrialised nations of North
America, Britain and continental Europe as well as many of their
overseas colonies. Leading racing cyclists of the period became
international celebrities, regularly travelling to compete wherever the
The international revolt against the ICA
In April 1900, representatives of cycle sport from Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland and the United States met in Paris and established the ‘Union Cycliste Internationale’ (UCI) in opposition to the ICA. The ICA quickly lost most of its core member-nations to this new organisation. In effect, it was a coup d’etat. Not only did the UCI hijack the annual world championships starting with Paris in 1900, it also resolved to exclude those national cycling bodies which failed to join it at the outset for a period of three years. British cycling thus found itself internationally isolated and it was only in 1903 that the British NCU was admitted as a member of the UCI.
The UCI retained the same four world track titles as the ICA had held: professional sprint, amateur sprint, professional stayers and amateur stayers. However, the results of the early UCI world championships reflect a shift in the balance of power in world cycling (compare Tables 1 and 2). Whereas before 1900 British riders had won 33% of all ICA titles and France only 8%, in the period 1900-1913 France won 31% of the UCI titles and Britain 26%. Moreover, Britain’s early UCI world titles were all in the amateur category and 11 of these 14 were won by only two riders: 7 amateur stayers titles by Leon Meredith and 4 amateur sprint titles by Bill Bailey. This is a further indication that in the early 20th century British cycle sport remained firmly wedded to the puritanical variety of amateurism. In marked contrast, Denmark’s six world title victories during this period were all won in the pro sprint event by the remarkable Thorwald Ellegaard between 1901 and 1911.
However, WWI ended most cycle sport including the annual UCI world championships and it decimated the ranks of a generation of cyclists. Three early Tour de France winners were amongst those killed in action. Lucien Petit-Breton, who won the Tour in both 1907 and 1908, was killed in an automobile accident at the front; Luxembourger Francois Faber, Tour winner in 1909, died while fighting for the Foreign Legion; and Octave Lapize, the 1910 Tour winner, was killed in aerial combat.
World championships in the interwar period:
1920-1939 Post-WWI, political and administrative power within the UCI continued firmly in the hands of representatives of its founding nations. Long-serving presidents drawn from Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy became an established UCI tradition. The UCI resumed annual world championships in 1920 but the amateur stayers event was not revived. Instead, in 1921 a world amateur road race title was introduced to be followed in 1927 by a professional world road race title. These proved to be popular and enduring changes.
Although its exact provenance is unclear, it was around this time that the white ‘rainbow jersey’ (‘maillot arc-en-ceil’) with its distinctive five coloured bands was first awarded to world championship title winners. It was a mark of distinction to be worn by current world title holders in their events over the ensuing year. The rainbow jersey was instantly accepted as the hallmark of a UCI world champion.
For much of the interwar period there were three track titles (pro sprint, amateur sprint and pro stayers) and two road titles (amateur and professional) contested annually. However, as previously, these were reserved exclusively for male UCI-affiliated riders. Table 3 contains further details.
Belgium was the most successful nation at the world championships in this period winning 22% of all titles followed closely by France (20%) and then by the Netherlands and Germany with Italy ranked fifth. In contrast, Great Britain won only two world titles, both in the amateur category in 1922 when ‘Tiny’ Johnson won the sprint and Dave Marsh the time trial road race. The road event was held in Britain while the track events were all contested in Paris.
During the interwar years, several track sprinters emerged who dominated their events. In the early 1920s, Piet Moeskops (Netherlands) won the pro title 5 times. In the late 1920s and early 1930s Lucién Michard (France) won a total of 6 amateur and pro titles. The Belgian Jef Scherens took the pro sprint crown 6 times in the 1930s and then returned after WWII to win it for a seventh time in 1947. On the road, Alfredo Binda (Italy) was a triple pro winner (1927, 1930 and 1932). Australia’s Bob Spears won the pro sprint title in 1920 but US cyclists disappeared entirely from the list of world championship winners in this era. Thus cyclists from the Anglophone nations were generally eclipsed by the Continentals during this period.
The 1939 world championships in Milan were abandoned as war threatened, but not before the Dutchman Jan Derksen had won the amateur sprint title on the Vigorelli velodrome. The British team, which included a youthful Reg Harris, was already homeward bound by the time of Derksen’s triumph. Remarkably, Derksen was to win the world pro sprint title twice after WWII: once in 1946 and then again in 1957, by which time Harris had retired from racing.
WWII took a heavy toll on the world’s cyclists. Reg Harris was wounded in a tank battle in the western desert in North Africa but ultimately recovered. Others were less fortunate. Toni Merkens (Germany), the world amateur sprint champion in 1935 and Olympic sprint champion in 1936, who was a great favourite on British tracks, died in 1944 from wounds sustained while fighting for the German army on the Russian front. Merkens’ fellow German, Teddy Richter, the world amateur sprint champion in 1932, refused to wear the Nazi swastika emblem on his national jersey. He died in in 1940 in mysterious circumstances after being removed from a train at the German/Swiss border allegedly by the Gestapo.
The UCI world championships of the immediate post-WWII period (1946-1957)
Competitive cycling in the late 1940s and the 1950s was dominated by Italy. Italian amateurs and professionals triumphed at the top level on both road and track. Coppi, Bartali and Magni were the leading roadmen and Ghella, Faggin, Messina and Maspes were the stellar names on the track. Italians annexed 33% of the 84 world titles contested in this period with the Belgians a distant second (15%) and the French third (13%).( See Table 4).
In 1946 the UCI added the amateur 4,000m. individual pursuit and the professional 5,000m. individual pursuit to the roster of world track titles. The new pro pursuit event attracted top roadmen like the Italian Fausto Coppi and the Swiss ‘pedaleur de charme’, Hugo Koblet, to the track. It was an era in which top pro riders rode both the road and track.
Coppi won the world pro pursuit title in 1947 and 1949 and the Tour de France in 1949 and 1952. He first took the Giro d’Italia in 1940 and then added further victories in it in 1947,1949, 1952 and 1953. In 1953 he won the world pro road race title. Koblet had been the Swiss national pursuit champion on several occasions and won the Tour de France in 1951. However, it was his fellow Swiss, Ferdi Kubler, who triumphed in the Tour de France in 1950 and took the rainbow jersey in the world pro road race in 1951. Frenchman Louison Bobet who won the Tour successively in 1953, 1954 and 1955 was world pro road champion in 1954. Belgian Rik van Steenbergen, who was also an accomplished six-day track rider, was world pro road champion in both 1956 and 1957.
The Australian Sid Patterson proved himself to be a remarkable trackman in this period. In 1949 he won the world amateur sprint title in Denmark and then the amateur pursuit the following year. After turning professional he proceeded to take the pro pursuit title twice, first in 1952 and then again in 1953. His fellow-Australian Jack Hoobin won the world amateur road race title in 1950.
After WWII British cyclists staged a track racing revival led by Reg Harris. In 1947 Harris sensationally won the world amateur sprint title in Paris to become a national hero. He then proceeded to take the world pro sprint title four times, winning it in 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1954. Together with an international group of fellow top pro sprinters - Van Vliet, Derksen, Plattner, Maspes, Gerardin - Harris drew thousands of spectators back to British tracks to watch sprinting contests between them. Cyril Peacock, world amateur sprint title winner in 1954, and Norman Sheil, world amateur pursuit champion in 1955 and in 1958, further signalled Britain’s international cycling revival.
But during the 1950s the Soviet Union and the newly-established socialist states of Eastern Europe began to actively promote amateur competitive sport for both men and women. Cycle sport was high on their agenda and they joined the Olympic movement and sporting bodies like the UCI. Their flagship amateur road stage race was the ‘Peace Race’ or Prague-Berlin-Warsaw which was held over the rough war-ravaged roads of Eastern Europe. It was won in 1952 by the British independent (semi-professional) rider, Ian Steel, who was sponsored by Viking Cycles and rode the event as a member of the dissident BLRC (British League of Racing Cyclists) team. This was the era of the Cold War between east and west when Eastern Bloc amateur riders increasingly began to successfully challenge their western counterparts at UCI world championships. Simultaneously, Eastern Bloc apparatchiks became involved in the UCI’s politics and its administration of world cycle sport.
The ultimate goal of the Eastern Bloc’s initiative was to achieve international sporting success, thus tangibly demonstrating the superiority of the state socialist system as manifested in amateur sport over western capitalist societies and professional sport. As a result, the future course of cycle sport and the nature of the UCI’s world championships in particular were to be profoundly influenced.
East meets west at the UCI world championships, 1958-1969
During this era dramatic changes were made in both the structure of the UCI and the nature of the world championships. The changes particularly favoured the ambitions of the Eastern Bloc nations.
In 1965 the UCI, apparently under pressure from the strictly amateur IOC, formally split into the amateur FIAC (Fédération Internationale Amateur de Cyclisme) and the professional FICP (Fédération Internationale de Cyclisme Professionel) with the UCI assuming an umbrella role. The UCI president at the time was the Italian, Adriano Rodoni, who had been elected as the organisation’s sixth president in 1958. He was to retain the position for a total of 23 years, finally retiring in 1981 when he was succeeded by the Spaniard, Luis Puig.
The amateur FIAC rapidly expanded to include over 120 member nations. Eastern Bloc representatives succeeded in assuming key bureaucratic positions within the FIAC which enabled them to heavily influence the organisation’s policies. By the early 1970s, the members of the four man FIAC executive committee consisted of a Pole, a Russian, an East German and an Italian. Whereas the professional FICP was content to retain the existing pro world title events, the amateur programme was revolutionised by the FIAC. Specifically:
• A programme of amateur women’s world titles was introduced in 1958. This consisted of three events: match sprint; 3,000m individual pursuit; mass-start road race.
• Also in 1958 the men’s amateur motor-paced stayers event was reintroduced. It had been discontinued after WWI some 40 years earlier but was an event which remained popular, especially in socialist East Germany.
• In 1962 both the men’s 4,000m amateur team pursuit and the men’s 100km amateur road team time trial became world title events.
• In 1966 the amateur tandem and amateur 1,000m individual time trial both for men were added to the world title programme.
Four of the new amateur events for men – team pursuit, road TTT, tandem sprint and 1,000km individual TT – were already established Olympic Games events which remained strictly amateur at this time.
Table 5 contains details of the world titles in the period 1958 -1969. When compared to Table 4, the massive expansion in world amateur titles becomes apparent. Whereas the number of pro world titles remained the same as in the previous 12 year period (4 per annum x 12 years = 48), the amateur titles trebled. They increased from a total of 36 for 1946-1957 to 108 between 1958 and 1969. Of these, 72 were for amateur men and 36 were women’s events.
The dominance of the Soviet Union in the amateur titles, particularly in the new women’s events, is a striking feature (See Table 5). For the Soviets, the outstanding women’s sprinter was Galina Ermolaeva who won the world title five times (1958-1961 and lastly in 1963) while the pursuiter Tamara Garushkina was world champion in 1967 and then again from 1970 to 1972.The significant number of women’s titles won in this period by Belgium (8) and Great Britain (7) is deceptive since in both cases this was largely due to each having one leading competitor – Yvonne Reynders for Belgium and Beryl Burton for Britain. Reynders won three road championships -1959, 1961 and 1963 – and three pursuit titles – 1961, 1964 and 1965. Burton took the world pursuit title five times -1959, 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1966 - and won the road race in 1960 and 1967.
During this period, Britain also won two pro titles: Tom Simpson triumphed in the1965 road race while in 1968 Hugh Porter won his first world pursuit title. In 1967 Britain’s Graham Webb won the world amateur road race. However, the Italians continued to dominate the men’s world championships on both track and road. In 1968, Vittorio Adorni won the pro road race. The Italians were followed in the title stakes by the Belgians with the likes of Rik Van Looy winning the pro road race in both 1960 and 1961 and Eddy Merckx first taking the amateur road title in 1964 and then the pro road race 1967. The incomparable Merckx went on to win the pro road title twice more, first in 1971 and then again in 1974.
East German amateur men won six world titles in this period, with Gustav Schur - a multiple Peace Race victor – winning the road title in 1958 and 1959, followed by teammate Bernhardt Eckstein in 1960 with Schur finishing second. Schur reputedly held back to allow Eckstein to take the title. Rudi Altig was the star West German cyclist during this period. Noted for practicing yoga, he won the world amateur pursuit title in 1959, the world pro pursuit title in 1960 and 1961 and the pro road title in 1966 after finishing second to his breakaway partner Tommy Simpson in the 1965 event.
The Swedish team consisting of the four Pettersson brothers won the amateur road 100km TTT in 1967, 1968 and 1969. In 1968 when the TTT was held in Montevideo, Uruguay, along with the amateur road race, the brothers set a record average speed of 49kph.
Overall, this was an era of dramatic changes and a shift in the balance of power in the UCI’s world championships as Eastern Bloc amateur competition gathered momentum.
World cycling and the UCI world championships in the 1970s
It was resolved by the UCI at this time not to hold world title events duplicated in the Olympics in the years of the Games. This was the case in both 1972 and 1976 when the events dropped were the world titles for amateur men. In these Olympic years, therefore, only the world titles for women, pro men, amateur stayers and amateur tandem (in 1976 when this event was dropped from the Olympics) were contested at UCI world championships. Cycling events for women were not introduced into the Olympics until 1984. (See Table 6).
The most notable features of the worlds during the decade of the 1970s were:
• The Netherlands emerging as the most successful nation, winning 18% of all titles overall. These successes were achieved across all three categories – amateur men (7), women (7) and pro men (11). Hennie Kuiper won the pro road title in 1975, followed by Gerrie Kneteman in 1978 and Jan Raas in 1979. Keetie van Oosten-Hage won the women’s pursuit title in 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1979 as well as the women’s road race in 1976.
• Italy, after having dominated the world titles in the previous period with 21% of the total, slumping to 7 titles (5%). Felice Gimondi won the pro road title in 1973 and Francesco Moser the pro pursuit in 1976.
• Combined Eastern Bloc (Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland) dominance of the amateur world titles for both men and women, taking 48% of all of these.
• The intense rivalry between East and West Germany in the world title stakes at this time with both vying for top honours, particularly in the men’s amateur events.
• Polish riders winning the amateur men’s road title twice in succession: Ryzard Szurkowski in 1973 and Janusz Kowalski in 1974.
• The dominance of the women’s events by the Soviet Union (15 out of 31 titles) but also the emergence of USA women who won three titles.
• All three titles won by Great Britain being taken by Hugh Porter in the pro pursuit (1970, 1972 and 1973).
• Australia winning three pro sprint titles – one by Gordie Johnson in 1970 and two by John Nicholson (1975, 1976)
• Daniel Morelon (France) winning four amateur sprint titles (1970, 1971, 1973 and 1975) after having already won in 1966, 1967 and 1969.
• Japan winning its first world titles with Koichi Nakano taking the pro sprint crown in 1977, 1978 and 1979. He went on to win a record total of 10 world pro sprint titles in succession, his last victory being in 1986.
The final countdown: amateur and pro world titles, 1980-1992
On the world stage, towards the end of the decade of the 1980s and spilling over into the 1990s, there was a domino-like collapse of state socialist systems in the countries comprising the Eastern Bloc. Under this revolutionary wave, the powerful lobby for retaining the distinction between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ in sporting codes at the Olympics and elsewhere disappeared. In cycle sport this finally occurred in the early 1990s and in 1993 the UCI introduced a new set of rider categories and world titles. It was the end of an era after nearly a century of the amateur/professional distinction in official cycling world championships.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, world cycling titles continued to be intensely contested even as the Eastern Bloc’s geopolitical meltdown gathered momentum. A united Germany emerged while in other Warsaw Pact countries restrictions on cyclists entering the professional ranks were eased. The old divisions began to crumble rapidly and these were reflected at the cycling world championships. (See Table 7).
Notable features of the world championships in this era include:
• The introduction of the Japanese-inspired derny-paced Keirin track event for professionals in 1980. The Australian track ace Danny Clark won the title in both 1980 and 1981. Clark also won the pro stayers title in 1988 and 1991.
• In 1980 France’s Bernard Hinault won the pro road title. Hinault had won the Tour de France in 1978 and 1979 and went on to win it again in 1981, 1982 and 1985.
• The women’s points track title introduced in 1988 when it was won by Britain’s Sally Hodge.
• Other British successes: Mandy Jones (women’s road race 1982), Tony Doyle (pro pursuit 1980 and 1986) and Colin Sturgess (pro pursuit 1989).
• Pairings from Czechoslovakia winning the amateur men’s tandem world title. In 1980, 1981 and 1982 Ivan Kucirek and Pavel Martinek were the winners followed by Voboril and Rehounek in 1985 and 1986. The tandem sprint first emerged as a Czech speciality in the 1970s when the team of Vackav and Vymazal won the world title four times (1973, 1974, 1977 and 1978). The tandem sprint event was to survive into the early 1990s but was replaced in 1995 by the ‘team sprint’ title. The tandem sprint had been dropped at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
• East German riders winning no fewer than 21 amateur men’s titles during this period. Most were on the track. These were in the individual pursuit (Detler Macha in 1981 and 1982), team pursuit (in 1981 and 1989), the sprint and kilo TT. But they also included the road TTT in 1981 and two amateur road titles in 1983 and 1986.
• Russian amateur men winning 19 titles and Russian women six. The men dominated the individual and team pursuits on the track, won four road TTTs and two road titles. Viatcheslav Ekimov won the amateur individual pursuit in 1985, 1986 and 1987 and then, following glasnost, the pro pursuit in 1990. Russian women won the road TTT title when it was introduced in 1987 and again in 1989.
• In 1987 Stephen Roche of Ireland winning the pro road race. It completed a remarkable treble as he had already won the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia earlier that same year. The last Irishman to have won a world title was H. Reynolds, the amateur sprint champion of 1896.
• New Zealand’s first world title being won by Karen Holliday in the woman’s points race in 1990.
• Jeannie Longo (France) emerging as the leading woman rider in this era. In 1989 she won the road race, points and pursuit titles, having previously won the pursuit in 1986 and 1988 plus the road race in 1985, 1986 and 1987.
• Urs Freuler (Switzerland) taking the pro points title seven times between 1981 and 1989 as well as three keirin titles (1983-1985).
• Italian winners of the prestigious pro road event were Saronni (1982), Argentin (1986), Fondriest (1988) and Bugno (1991 and 1992). Italian amateur men registered 10 track victories, several in the stayers category, and won the road TTT on two occasions.
• Australian pros winning six track titles, led by Danny Clark with four titles. Steele Bishop took the pro pursuit in 1983 and Stephen Pate the pro sprint in 1988. (Carey Hall won the pro sprint in 1991 but was disqualified after testing positive for drugs).
• Japan, headed by Koichi Nakano in the sprint, winning nine pro world titles on the track.
• The United States winning 12 women’s titles, with 11 being on the track after Beth Heiden won the 1980 road race. Greg Lemond lifted the pro road race title for the US in both 1983 and 1989. In 1992, the US’s Mike McCarthy triumphed in the pro pursuit.
• Poland winning two amateur road titles, with Lech Piasecki in 1985 and Joachim Hulopczok in 1989. (Hulopczok died in 1994, aged 26).
• The last stayers world title was contested in 1994, ending a tradition which began at the first world championships in 1893. Originally, riders were human paced by tandems or multiple machines. In the early 1900s the use of motorbike pacing machines became more common and ultimately took over completely. The amateur world title event was first discontinued in 1920 then reinstated in 1958 only to be abandoned after 1992. The last winner of the pro stayers world title in 1994 was Carsten Podlesch of Germany who had won the last amateur event in 1992.
Review: the first 99 years of world cycling championships
After having been in existence for 27 years since 1965, the amateur FIAC and the professional FICP were disbanded in 1992. With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc the rationale for the amateur/professional distinction had ceased to exist. Both organisations merged with the UCI and their functions were centralised at the organisation’s headquarters in Switzerland.
Between 1893 and 1992, official world cycling championship titles were contested by several successive generations of the world’s finest cyclists. Over this 99 year period, a total of 756 world titles were awarded. Of these, 344 were titles for amateur men, 109 for amateur women and 303 for professional men. (See Table 8). Of the total, 166 (22%) were decided before WWII and 590 (78%) post-WWII.
The title winners came from a total of 25 different nations. Only one came from the African continent, none from Latin America and in the case of Asia exclusively from Japan. (See Table 9).
Points to note in this regard are:
• Italy, with a total of 104 world titles, heads the list of winners for the first 99 years of world cycling championships. Italian cyclists were particularly successful in the 24 year period 1946-1969 when they won 60 (58%) of all their world titles.
• France and the Netherlands tied in joint second place with 91 world titles each. A total of 36 (40%) of all the French victories were achieved before WWII.
• For the Netherlands the period 1970-1979 was particularly successful with 25 (27%) of all their world titles being won during that time.
• Belgians won 19 (25%) of their world titles between WWI and WWII and 25 (33%) between 1958 and 1969.
• Of the grand total of 756 world titles, the four most successful nations - Italy, France, Netherlands and Belgium – won 362 (48%) between them.
• All 68 of the world titles won by the Soviet Union (USSR) came from 1958 onwards. The same was the case with the other Eastern Bloc nations: East Germany (45 titles), Czechoslovakia (14 titles), Poland (10 titles).
• The 50 British world title winners were concentrated into two periods: 22 before WWI and 18 from 1946 to 1969. Together these amounted to 80% of all British world title victories.
• The USA won no world titles in the interwar period but 50% of their total of 30 from 1980 to 1992. Eleven (37%) were achieved before WWI.
• If the world titles won by East Germany (91), West Germany (45) and Germany pre-WWII and post-1990 (28) are aggregated, the total is 105. This is one more than the Italian total.
• Last but not least are the five nations with one world title each: South Africa (Laurens Meintjiies, stayer 1893), Luxembourg (Elsy Jacobs, women’s road race 1958), Norway (Knut Knudsen, amateur men’s pursuit 1973), Canada (Gordon Singleton, keirin 1982) and New Zealand (Karen Holliday, women’s points 1990).
After 1992, new forces began to reshape the world cycling championships. These, together with others, will undoubtedly continue to do so into the future.
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