CHASING THE RAINBOW
Tuesday 12th September 2017
Who doesn't love the World Champs?! Completely caked in history and tradition, for most, it's the pinnacle of their cycling careers but only an elite and legendary few get to forever wear those rainbow bands on their sleeves. Giles Belbin has dived into the history of this well respected event and we caught up with him to get this thoughts on things past, present and future.
Hi Giles. Thanks for having the time to speak with us. Your new book Chasing The Rainbow focuses on the history of the World Road Race Championships. We will start with the easiest question. Your favourite championships to date?
Hi, no problem. If we are talking about a race I watched at the time I think Nicole Cooke’s win in 2008 stands out for me. It was a great finale, five riders all trying work each other out in the closing stages after a race played out on an interesting Varese course with a couple of decent climbs that finished with a British winner. I have a massive amount of respect for Cooke and so the fact she became the first rider to record the Olympic / Worlds road race double that year just puts the icing on the cake. Further back Hinault’s win in Sallanches in 1980 on a brutally tough Alpine course when the French hadn’t recorded a win for nearly 20 years stands out for me – a grim day weather-wise, a grim course and a grimly determined legend of the sport conquering all that came before him to deliver on home roads.
You interviewed quite a few legendary male and female riders in preparation for your book. Did you get the sense that the World RR was the pinnacle of their career or were the Grand Tours and classics another level in their eyes?
It depends on the rider I think. For someone like Mandy Bishop (née Jones) I think it was definitely the highlight of her career. She targeted the 1982 Worlds as soon as it was announced they were coming to Britain and dedicated two years of training to it. For others, Felice Gimondi for example, it was a hugely important win but I think he would probably say his Tour and Giro titles were more important to him. Regarding the Classics I think the position is a bit greyer. The Worlds are often billed as the biggest one-day race in cycling - of course there are five monuments a year but just one Worlds. And because the Worlds courses change every year, a top rider may actually only get one or two realistic shots at winning, so I think that increases its importance. What definitely shone through all of the interviews was a respect for the jersey and how much it meant to them to be able to wear it and represent it.
When you ask a rider what they are most proud of you often quite often it won’t be the answer you expect. I remember Gimondi told me that it was the longevity of his career that he was most proud of rather than any particular win. The fact that he won his first Tour in 1965 and his third Giri in 1976 as well as Paris-Brussels in 1966 and again in 1976, that there were 10 or 11 years between those wins was the aspect of his career he was most proud of.
We have been following cycling for about a decade now and a championship that stands out for us would have to be Cav’s win in 2011. Historically, Britain have had more female world champions than men. Why do you think there was such a big gap from Tom Simpson’s win in 1965 to Cav’s triumph?
I think several factors. You have to remember that until recently cycling here was very much a niche sport so perhaps we didn’t have the depth in the pool of talent at our disposal. More importantly there wasn’t much support for our riders, certainly when compared to today. It was interesting to talk to Barry Hoban about when he rode in support of Simpson in 1965, particularly looking at it through today’s eyes. It is remarkable what they did.
For example, he had no idea how he was even going to get to Spain for that championships - he had to grab a lift from a fan he bumped into who had come to watch him in a race a few days before. I actually think Hoban could have placed highly for Britain during his career, maybe even won, if he’d had a little more support. He told me that the timing of the championships affected his chances – he had to cash in on post-Tour criteriums and used to drive himself all over France after the Tour, covering thousands and thousands of kilometres a week, sleeping in his car and going to as many races as possible which meant his preparation for the Worlds was severely compromised. Hoban finished 18th in 1972, the year Marino Basso won for Italy and told me he felt good that year but Basso had been paid by the Italian federation not to ride any post-Tour criteriums but to instead concentrate on getting ready for the Worlds. Whereas Hoban said he’d have been happy to have just had a driver!
Also, of course, you need some luck as well - quite a few things have to fall your way. Cav’s win was the result of a three-year project specifically designed to deliver the rainbow jersey, and the team rode perfectly throughout the race, controlled things extremely well, but even then Cav had to freelance a bit come the end when he lost the wheel of Thomas. I guess that’s not luck exactly, it takes talent and ability to be able to adjust like that, but it does show how that race could have turned out quite differently despite all the effort and planning that went into it.
Peter Sagan is the man to beat these days being the defending Men’s World Champion. Has history shown that hosting countries and routes have been chosen to dictate what sort of rider UCI want to win?
I don’t necessarily think so. I think host countries have generally been selected on a number of factors based around the strength of their bid and their organisation and what they can offer the cycling community in that country and beyond in terms of providing a legacy etc, not really because the route suits any particular rider – though from a domestic point of view I guess that may well influence the route the country puts forward for consideration. Sometimes they have been selected because they were the only nation willing to host – Switzerland in 1946 for example.
Sometimes it’s more about the UCI taking the sport beyond its European heartlands, which I think should be encouraged but doesn’t always go well, last year for example when they took a lot of criticism for going to Qatar. I spoke with the Sheikh who played a large part in getting the Worlds to Qatar and he was very defensive over their right to host the event, as of course he would be. But I think you’d struggle to find many people who would say that was a good move. Personally I think getting some variation in the routes year on year should be an important consideration - I’d love to see a Worlds one year designed with pure climbers in mind.
Women’s road racing is still fighting the battle to be recognised and accepted globally in terms of broadcasting and equality, the Tour de France (La Course) has begun to try and erase this stigma that it attached to elite women’s racing. The Women’s Worlds have been a long established event, what’s the secret behind the success that other cycling races should be following?
I’m not sure there is a secret they should be following. I agree women’s cycling is battling for recognition and finance – I couldn’t believe it when I found out the prize money for winning the Giro Rosa was just over a paltry €1000. But I don’t think the problem lies within women’s cycling at all. I think the races are just as watchable and as exciting as the men’s, quite often more so, and the athletes are just as talented. Really, what’s there for them to change? The problem lies more within the culture of the business of sport generally, within the media, sponsorship etc. It’s more a sad reflection of a society that for some reason doesn’t give equal value to both women and men’s sport than anything else. It isn’t a women’s cycling problem per se, it just needs more coverage, including in the cycling-specialist media.
Interesting that you say the Tour has begun to try to change this and I assume you’re thinking of La Course but I think the Tour hasn’t done nearly enough. Not so long ago there was a decent women’s Tour de France stage race before it disappeared from the calendar. Then because ASO react to a call for a women’s race and instigate what was at first essentially a criterium on the Champs Elysees (before this year moving it to the Izoard - which was an improvement for me - but then tacking on a weird kind of second day pursuit race), it is seen as progress. I agree it is better than nothing but I do think the organiser of the biggest race in the world could and should do more. It cannot be beyond them to organise a women’s stage race under the banner of the Tour. I know we have Liege and Flanders and also the Madrid Challenge but I think cycling needs to get to a position where the most prestigious races – at a minimum the three GTs and the monuments organise a women’s race comparable to the men’s, on similar routes, similar in approach to the grand slams in tennis. That could only help raise the profile of women’s cycling. It just needs to get out there for people to watch and enjoy and read about and discover the races and the riders are every bit as engaging as men.
Looking into the future, do you see the World’s keeping it’s traditional format or do you expect an omnium type event to find the perfect all round rider (e.g. flat TT followed by a criterium style road race followed by hilly TT followed by full length road race – just our mind wandering here!)?
I can’t see that happening. Too complicated and runs the risk of a rider winning the jersey who never won a single event. I can’t see it. I think it will keep its traditional format for some years to come. It is an oddity that the Worlds are ridden in national teams but the benefit of the jersey is ultimately enjoyed by trade teams. Of course that has often been the underlying reason behind some of the more interesting stories the Worlds has thrown up over the years. Perhaps that may change one day as commercial pressures come to bear more and more and the Worlds change to a trade team race. When it was reintroduced to the programme it was decided the team time trial was to be ridden in trade teams, maybe that’s the first step? I hope not but if anything was to change it’s in that area that could see something happening one day.
The rainbow stripes are well respected in pro races. Are you a fan of replica jerseys being worn by your everyday cyclist? It seems a taboo topic when cyclists get together if others should be wearing the Maillot Jaune for example (we own one but only worn it once!).
Ah. Sorry, you’re not going to like this then! No, I am definitely not a fan of people wearing replica yellow jerseys etc. For me the jerseys are sacrosanct, riders make huge sacrifices in order to try to win them and they are the visible symbol of an important victory. So for me should only be worn by those who have won the right to wear them. If someone goes out running they don’t wear a replica Olympic medal around their neck, for me it’s the same sort of thing. But that’s just my opinion, so while I don’t understand it and would never wear one myself, no way would I have a go at someone out riding wearing one. If they’ve bought one and want to wear it then it’s up to them, it’s a free country and life’s too short. Just be pleased to see a fellow rider!
Final question, what is the next country break into the elite (Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Colombia quickly come to mind – our opinion!) and be a dominant force at the Worlds in both men and female races?
Oh that’s a tough one. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with those nations being amongst the elite, though would definitely add Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany in there at the very least. It’s very difficult to answer. Denmark or Norway maybe? Denmark lead the U23 men’s rankings, while Norway lead the male junior rankings and have placed four different riders on the podium the in U23 Worlds in the past four years. But then you’d probably be right to argue that Norway are already amongst the men’s elite given that in Boasson Hagen and Kristoff they have a couple of serious contenders for the elite race already. For women, maybe Finland or South Africa? In Lotta Lepistö and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio they have riders capable of winning the Worlds.
It’s difficult. Look at the last four years of men’s races, won by Portugal, Poland and Slovakia (twice). Would you say as a nation Slovakia has the depth to be considered amongst the elite? Probably not but Sagan is surely the dominant force in the Worlds as well as countless other races, and probably will be for some time to come. It’s hardly going out on a limb to say I think that Sagan will surely be the first male rider in history to win four road race titles, and very possibly the first to take three in a row.
Thank you for your time and we wish you all the best with the book, let’s hope for more British champions this year!