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Cycling's World Championships, by Les Woodland

Tales tall and true from cycling's world championships

Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Tom Boonen, Doha, 2016
Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Tom Boonen, Doha, 2016
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

CyclingTitle: Cycling's World Championships - The Inside Story
Author: Les Woodland
Publisher: McGann Publishing
Year: 2017
Pages: 123
What it is: Tales tall and true from cycling's world championships
Strengths: Woodland is a raconteur and serves up a selection of stories that entertain while also offering the reader a broad history of the world championships
Weaknesses: Facts sometimes take second-place to narrative, but that's cycling for you

Back in the day - those days when Victoria sat on her throne and America had those presidents whose names you can never remember - cycling had world champions out the wazoo. All you had to do was say you were champion of the world and that was that: promoters on both sides of the Atlantic loved telling the paying punters that such and such was champion of the world and the punters loved thinking they were paying to see a champ and the media, well what do you think, they did what they always do, they got their pom-poms out whenever one of their own was claiming to be the best of the best and forgot about all the other claimants to the throne. That was how things were done back then. Unofficially.

Then the blazers came along. Blame Henry Sturmey, editor of The Cyclist (not that one, they probably don't even know where they nicked the title from) and one half of the eponymous three-speed hub gear company. Through his position with Britain's National Cycling Union Sturmey decided to wage a class of warfare on professionalism in sport and champion the cause of amateurism. So in 1892 Sturmey created the International Cycling Association, with Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Canada all signing on as founding members. As did the French - not through the Union Vélocipèdique de France, French cycling's official governing body (which just sort of shrugged its shoulders at the problem of professionalism), but through the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques. Which was actually rather ironic, for the NCU in Britain had battled with the Amateur Athletics Association over which of them ruled British cycling, and here was Sturmey now turning to the French version of the AAA in order to push through his plan. (Italy and the United States both joined Sturmey's little club later, as did others.)

One of the first things the NCU resolved to do was to hold a world championships. On the track (the British didn't 'do' road - it scared the horses and frightened the ladies) and open only to amateurs (Sturmey really did have a downer on the idea of people actually earning a living from sport). With Chicago hosting the World Fair in 1893, that was where it was decided the first world championships should be held. America's Arthur Zimmerman won two of the three events at the inaugural championships (the sprint and the 10 kilometre, with South Africa's Lawrence Meintjes taking the motor-paced title). As well as being a brilliant rider Zimmerman was also - much to Sturmey's annoyance - a shamateur, professional in all but name. Zimmerman had a way of playing right up to the edge of the rules, and getting away with it, Woodland quoting a New York Times inventory of his winnings, which included "29 bicycles, several horses and carriages, half a dozen pianos, a house and a lot, household furniture of all descriptions, and enough silver plates, medals and jewellery to stock a jewellery store." From the outset, then, Sturmey's ideals were being undermined from within by his new friends. It took only until 1895 for the pros to get their foot in the door and get admitted to the ICA's world championships.

It was the French in 1900 who fully put paid to any lingering dreams of a pure state of sporting excellence the idealistic Sturmey might still have had. They led a rebellion that sought to limit Great Britain to just one team at the championships, one team that would cover not just the constituent parts of the British Isles - Scotland and Ireland had each been sending their own teams while the Welsh were considered English - but would also cover the rest of Victoria's wee empire: Australia and Canada would both be part of the single 'British' team. To which the British, naturally, objected. And so the French led an exodus from the ICA and set up the Union Cycliste Internationale instead, pointedly refusing to invite the British to the party. Paris got to host the UCI's first world championships: the Olympics were on and people seemed to like the idea of having the world championships take place in the shadow of something else. These new world championships, they were the exact same as the ICA-organised championships that had preceded them, amateur and professional men getting to duke it out over two events each. Minus, of course, participants from Victoria's dominion.

It took until 1921 for the roadies to get a look in at the worlds, with the Italians lobbying for a road race and the French, Belgians and Swiss all throwing their support behind the project. It took the support of the British to mess the whole thing up, they nixing the idea of a mass start event and calling for a time trial, which was restricted to amateurs and run off on a 190 kilometre circuit near Copenhagen. The following year, it was another time trial.

That same year (1922) the pros decided they wanted a slice of the action on the road as well as the track and cycling stepped back to the idea of unofficial world championships with the creation of the GP Wolber: "It brought to a single race in France," Woodland writes, "the top three of the best races in France, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland in a critérium des champions." In 1927 the UCI caved and awarded the pros their own road title (effectively signing the GP Wolber's death warrant, it breathing its last in 1931). But while the pros got their own road world champion, they didn't immediately get their own road race: in the initial event the pros and amateurs had to mix it up together as they tore around the Nürburgring.

The GP Wolber wasn't the last unofficial world championships to be organised while the UCI gazed on scornfully: in 1927 cyclo-cross got the Critérium International (not that one, that wasn't even the Critérium National yet, that was still a few years off in the future): "Stars frequently took part," Woodland tells us, "including Charles and Francis Pélissier, Sylvère Maes and Georges Ronsse. The sport took off because Octave Lapize said he had won the Tour in 1910 thanks to cross-country racing the previous winter. The status of the Critérium assured sponsorship and it became the Grand Prix Martini and a battleground between the Tour winner, Jean Robic, and another Frenchman, Roger Rondeaux. Their rivalry extended to the road, reaching the point at which Robic rode up beside Rondeaux and said: 'If you let me beat you today, I'll never bother you in a cyclo-cross again.'"

It took until 1950 for 'cross to get a rainbow jersey (the arc en ciel had been brought in in 1927, when the pro roadies, who already got to wear the maillot jaune in the Tour, joined the party - meaning that the rainbow jumper is older than the Giro's maglia rosa, which didn't arrive until 1931). Before that first 'cross worlds, the UCI had already extended the championships franchise: in 1929 cycle ball players got a chance to duke it out to see who was best in the world.

In 1956 artistic cycling got a rainbow jersey, as did cycle speedway. By the second half of the 1950s, then, the UCI were recognising world champions in road, track, 'cross, speedway, cycle ball and artistic cycling. Pros and amateurs. All men. Women, they weren't allowed to don a rainbow jersey until 1958, when road and track (sprint and pursuit) got world championships.

There was still something missing, though: time trialling. You would think that, the ICA having been a British thing, there would have been time trial champions from the get go, but, well, it's all rather complicated, time trialling in the UK actually having been a sort of secret sport that even the NCU frowned upon and you had to pretend it wasn't actually happening, that's why they have all those code-named dragstrips and liked to start races at stupid o'clock and even today talk a different language. The British did manage to get the 1921 and 1922 road championships run as time trials (they'd sweet-talked the Danes in 1921 and organised the championships themselves in 1922) but they didn't get to pull that stunt again until 1931, when the Danes again were in charge and again were somehow sweet-talked into putting the road race on as a time trial.

The only good thing to come out of that was the birth the following year of the GP des Nations, the unofficial time trial world championships. Paris-Soir's Gastonne Bénac saw potential in the format and based his new race in Paris, using a rolling 140 kilometre course that somehow managed to avoid level crossings: "It started near the Versailles château," reads Woodland's description, "and ran round a triangle through Rambouillet, Maulette, Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse, Versailles and Boulogne to finish on the Buffalo track".

At which point let's hand over to Woodland and Wim van Est's account of how he failed to become the unofficial time trial champion of the world in 1949:

"I'd never been to France. I went on the train to Paris and you had to take a little carnet, a little book for the bike for the customs. Everything, spare wheels everything, had to be in the book. And I didn't understand a word of French. Niks! And there was this Frenchman, great big moustache, and he was talking French and I was speaking Dutch and he was saying 'Parlez français!' and I was shaking my head, 'Non, non' and he couldn't understand me and I couldn't understand him and, anyway, eventually I got away after an hour.

"And so then I had to get to a hotel. All I had was a card from the manager, Boulevard Magenta, Hôtel Angleterre, near the Gare du Nord. I'll take a taxi. And there was this other Frenchman saying 'Pas bicyclette, pas bicyclette!' and I was saying 'Ja, ja bicyclette!' and we got it all taken to bits and I shoved it up in the front with the meter, and we were driving and driving and driving. Eiffel Tower, Place Pigalle, Place de Napoléon, the Sacré Coeur... and then the Eiffel Tower again.

"I said: 'We've already been by here! Allez, hotel, hotel!' And he was saying 'Piano, piano! Doucement!' And by then I was getting really angry and I was banging on the window and shouting 'Godverdomme, hotel!' I was in that taxi for an hour and a half, godverdorie!

"And when I got there, there was the garçon, with a moustache and a blue apron, and I took the bike upstairs to my room. I mean, it was no chic hotel — just bare floors and old furniture. Well, by five o'clock the cleaning lady was complaining to the patron because the bike was dirty, because the previous day I'd won a race in Belgium and it had been raining all day. My leather saddle was soaked, my shoes were wet through, and so he said, the patron, 'Let's take them down to the boiler room,' and that was fine.

"Next morning — the race was in the afternoon — I thought I'd go out training. So I put my tracksuit on and I went down to the boiler room, and I just about fell over with shock. He'd put my shoes on the top of the stove and leaned my bike up against it as well. And, verdorie, the saddle was about twelve centimetres long. Dried up. All crumpled up from drying out. And my shoes would have fitted a five-year-old."

Time trialling finally got its own world championships in 1962, when a team time trial was added to the menu. That died in 1972 and it wasn't until 1994 that it returned (for one year only), alongside the first individual time trial championships (which meant that, like the GP Wolber before it, the GP des Nations's days were numbered, ASO nursing it along for another decade before giving up the ghost). The team time trial, it returned in 2012, the first world championships to be awarded to a trade team. The sound of turning was heard in the vicinity of Henry Sturmey's grave.

* * * * *

With tales about the wrong champions (1895, Robert Protin and Georgie Banker, 1931 Willie Falk Hansen and Lucien Michard) and the hung-over champion (1933 Georges Speicher) and the champion too thick to be sure he'd won (1967 Graham Webb), there's plenty here to entertain you in this collection of tales tall and true from throughout the history of cycling's world championships. It's the Brief History of the Worlds that Graham Healy's The Curse of the Rainbow Jersey wanted to be had that book not just been a collection of over-familiar tales regularly rolled out elsewhere. Yes, some of Woodland's tales will be familiar - often from some of Woodland's own previous books, which include histories of Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen - but there are more than enough tales here that are fresh, such as the Wim van Est story above. And even when the tales are familiar, there is still Woodland's telling: the man is a raconteur, one who revels in the ridiculous and doesn't see the need to sanitise stories in order to make them 'approachable' for an audience new to cycling and still in thrall to the same silly ideas of purity that drove Henry Sturmey to start the world championships ball rolling all those years ago. This is cycling without the rough edges sanded off.