Lost Classics: From the one-day race that took three days to the ‘sixth Monument’

From a one-day classic so long it actually took some riders three days to complete it to a race in Switzerland prestigious enough to be dubbed ‘the sixth Monument’, many events that were once important fixtures of the cycling calendar have disappeared over the past half century.

Here’s some of what we are missing.

Bordeaux-Paris

The second oldest classic – after Liege-Bastogne-Liege – was first run in 1891 and was nicknamed ‘The Derby’, though it’s unlikely any thoroughbred race horse would have been capable of completing the 347 miles (yes, that’s miles) course that saw the peloton setting off from the France’s east coast wine centre at two o’clock in the morning and arriving at the finish in Parc des Princes some fifteen hours later.

Aside from its epic length, the unique feature of Bordeaux-Paris was that about half the course was ridden behind pacing machines – initially tandems and later motorised dernys (mopeds with special windshields) and, occasionally, cars –which allowed the riders to slipstream and achieve higher average speeds.

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The pacing machines were picked up after about seven hours in Poitiers or Chatellerault and led the riders along until the outskirts of the French capital.

Despite its length and eccentricities, Bordeaux-Paris was recognised as one of cycling’s great races and for eighty years attracted the world’s best riders. Winners included the Pelissier brothers, Francis and Henri; the great Swiss Heiri Suter; first man to wear the yellow jersey, Eugene Christophe and in the post-War years Ferdi Kubler, Louison Bobet, and Jacques Anquetil. The latter’s victory in 1965 was arguably the most remarkable in the history of the race.

“The Master” had entered and won Dauphine Libere which finished at 5pm on the 29th May. He then hopped straight on a plane, flew to Bordeaux and started ‘The Derby’ at 2am the following morning, winning it by less than a minute from Jean Stablinski and Tommy Simpson.

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Bordeaux-Paris began to lose prestige in the 1970s mainly because entering such an arduous race in late-May interfered with preparations for the Giro D’Italia. The pacing dernys were dropped in 1985 and then three further editions were run before ‘The Derby’ was finally sent to the knacker’s yard in 1988.

Here’s a Thing: Bordeaux-Paris remains the most successful classic for British riders (well, all things are relative). The first edition was won by George Mills of Paddington (who’d begun racing on a penny-farthing) with fellow Brits Monty Holbein and Selwyn Edge just behind him.In 1896 Welshman Arthur Linton recovered from collapsing by the side of the road to lead into Paris, but then took a short cut to the finish line and had to share victory with Gaston Rivierre after the Frenchman understandably protested. Tommy Simpson made it a trio of Brit victories when he won in 1963.

Paris-Brest-Paris

By modern standards Bordeaux-Paris was a monster race, but compared to our next lost classic it was a turn around the park with a pause for ice cream and a foot massage.

Paris-Brest-Paris was massive,initially covered 1200kms from the French capital to the Breton port and back again and taking over 50 hours to complete, pretty much all of it spent in the saddle.

According to Hubert Opperman, the legendary Aussie endurance-rider who won the race in 1931, one of the major hazards he faced was the other competitors dozing off over their handlebars and crashing into him.

First run in 1891, Paris-Brest-Paris only had a total of seven editions, but since the event was a once in a decade extravaganza, that meant it’s life in the pro cycling calendar stretched through until the final professional epic in 1951.

The first race – seen very much as test for bicycle frame and tyre makers – was sponsored by the newspaper Le Petit Journal. Victorian superstar Charles Terront’s epic victory (he finished a magnificent three weeks ahead of a motor car that had also been entered, suggesting that the future of human transportation might be leg-powered) delivered such a massive boost to the paper’s circulation that a light bulb lit up over the head of a watching Henri Desgrange.

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As editor of L’Auto, Desgrange took over sponsorship of Paris-Brest-Paris when it was next run in 1901 and the experience would inspire him to organise the Tour de France two years later.

The winner of that 1901 race was that tough little French-Italian chimney-sweep Maurice Garin. He’d go on to win the first two editions of the Tour.

1911 saw Paris-Brest-Paris run in packs – five riders grouped together pacing one another until the final time control from which point it was every man to himself. Emile Georget – a double winner of Bordeaux-Paris – was first across the finish line with 1910 Tour de France winner Octave Lapize in second place.

Francophone Belgian Louis “The Iron Man” Mottiat won in 1921 and then ‘Oppy’ Opperman took the prize ten years later claiming that his success was in part down to consuming 12 pounds of celery during his 52 hours in the saddle.

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The final professional running of Paris-Brest-Paris was in 1951. Maurice Diot, a pro with a moderate record that included a win in the next of our lost classics Paris-Brussels, was the winner in a record time of 38 hours and 55 minutes.Since then, Paris-Brest-Paris has continued as a randonneur event for amateurs

Here’s A Thing: Aside from everything else, Paris-Brest-Paris is the only bicycle race to have a cake named in its honour. The Paris-Brest – a circle (or perhaps bike wheel) of choux pastry filled with whipped cream and praline – was invented in 1910 by Louis Durand. You’ll find it in most French patisseries to this day.

Paris-Brussels

The race between the capital cities of two great cycling nations began life in 1907 and lasted through until 1966 when it was temporarily removed from the calendar due to traffic problems on the congested roads of northern France. It was revived in the 1970s, but was downgraded in importance and disappeared forever in 2013.

Unlike our first two races which fell by the wayside because they were far too long, Paris-Brussels bit the dust largely because it was just, well, unloved.

Characterised by evil headwinds and proceeding along a grim route that seemed designed to deter roadside crowds, this was very much the ugly duckling of the classics calendar, albeit one that was never destined to turn into a swan (in fact it morphed into The Brussels Classic).

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Originally Paris-Brussels was run a couple of weeks after Paris-Roubaix and followed the same northerly trajectory starting some 80km north of the French capital and finishing in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht.

Its proximity to the heroic ‘Hell of the North’ – both chronologically and geographically – tended to work against it. Few of the top contenders in the spring classics had the energy left to tackle the 290km race full on.

As a consequence many of the best riders from Italy or Spain decided not to bother with it and in its entire history up until 1966 Paris-Brussels was won by only three riders who weren’t either French or Belgian, the first, Loretto Petrucci, in the 39th edition.

Although Paris-Brussels might not have had the prestige of Paris-Roubaix it could be just as brutal, especially when the wind was howling in the riders’ faces. In 1962 for example Jos Wouters of Solo-Van Steenbergen won the race at an average speed of just 21mph and declared the experience of pedalling into the remorseless gale an ‘eight hour nightmare’.

Despite all this negativity, Paris-Brussels was won by some of the giants of the sport –Octave Lapize, Henri Pelissier, Briek Schotte, Rik Van Steenbergen and Rik Van Looy amongst them.

In 1928 Hubert Opperman finished third in the race behind Belgian Georges Ronsse and Nicolas Frantz of Luxembourg, a stirring performance which along with his win in Paris-Brest-Paris and his eleventh place finish in the Tour de France marks the Australian out as the greatest English-speaking rider of the first half of the 20th century.

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Paris-Brussels was suspended in 1966. When it returned from its hiatus in 1973 to a new slot in the autumn schedule, Eddy Merckx won in his home city.

Perhaps the greatest edition of Paris-Brussels came two years later when those giants of Belgian cycling – Merckx and his arch-rival Freddy ‘The Ogre’ Maertens went head-to-head and, benefitting from a for once favourable tailwind, thundered north at a record speed.

As the two leaders entered the suburbs of the Belgian capital Maertens would later claim that Merckx begged him to let him win “in front of my own people”. To which Maertens allegedly replied, “They are my people too, we are all Belgians!” which if it is true was something of a first for a Flemish rider, most of whom regarded the French-speaking half of the country as a place of godless communist mobsters.

Despite Merckx’s entreaties Maertens won the sprint finish, his average speed over the course so high it earned him the Ruban Jaune.

Here’s A Thing: As well as evil winds and clogged roads, Paris-Brussels seemed also to be characterised by misfortune. In 1912 Lucien Petit-Breton and Cyrille van Hauwaert had broken away and seemed destined to contest first and second place. Unfortunately a police horse knocked them both off their bikes a few kilometres from the finish.

In 1922 three-time winner Felix Selliers lost ground on the leading pack after being attacked by a cloud of mosquitoes, while Shay Elliot broke away in 1958 only to have his bike frame collapse on him with the team car far adrift. The Irishman borrowed a bike off a female bystander and pedalled away on that, but by the time he had got a bike with a cross bar again the field had ridden him down.

Zuri-Metzgete

Of all the vanished classics this one over a demandingly hilly course around Zurich was arguably the greatest and back in its glory years in the 1930s and 1940s was often referred to as “the sixth monument”, a race to match in prestige the likes of Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix.

Originally named the Meisterschaft von Zurich(The Zurich Championship) the race came to be better known as Zuri-Metzgete – a local slang name which means, more or less, “The Zurich Butchery”, a tribute to the toughness of the 240 km route which included over 3000 metres of climbs.

Zuri-Metzgete was first run in 1914. The early years were dominated by Heiri Suter, arguably the first rider to train scientifically, and one of a select band who have won the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix in the same season. Suter would win the Zuri-Metzgete a record six times.

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Those other great Swiss riders Ferdi “The Cowboy” Kubler and “Beautiful Hugo” Koblet were also multiple winners.

Perhaps the greatest edition of the Zuri-Metzgete came in 1946 when the two great Italian rivals Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi battled each other all the way around the course.

The duo set such a ferocious pace that by the finish in the Oerlikon Velodrome they were far clear of the rest of the field. As Coppi bent down to adjust his toe-straps in preparation for the sprint, Bartali controversially launched his attack. The rift this sneaky victory caused between the two men never healed.

Amongst the list of winners one name is conspicuously absent, that of Eddy Merckx. It was not that the Belgian didn’t try. In 1975 he contested the final sprint in the velodrome with Francesco Moser, the two getting so fiercely entangled they almost ended up trading punches, and while Bruxelloise and Italian elbows were flying one of Merckx’s most fearsome critics, Roger de Vlaeminck snuck by to win.

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Originally held in May, often the day after our next and final lost classic, Zuri-Metzgete was moved to mid-August in 1988 and then to the autumn in 2005. Such shifting around was an indication of how the race had lost prestige, a feeling that was added to in 2007 when it was cancelled when no sponsor could be found.

Zuri-Metzgete’s last outing as a pro race came in 2006. After that it continued as an amateur event until 2014 when it dropped from the calendar completely.

Here’s A Things: In 1982 it appeared that New Zealand had recorded its first classics win when Eric McKenzie sprinted across the line first in Zurich. Sadly for Kiwi road race fans the man from Kawerau’s victory was chalked off when he failed a post-race dope test and they are still waiting…

Rund um den Henninger Turm Frankfurt

Sometimes called the Frankfurt Grand Prix, this was once Germany’s most prestigious race and stands alone amongst the one-day classics in being named in honour of a reinforced concrete grain silo (although to be fair it was the world’s tallest grain silo, concrete or otherwise).

Sponsored by the grain silo’s owners, Henninger, one of the three largest breweries in Germany at the time, the race was run through the great banking centre and the nearby Taunus Mountains.

The 227kms course was a figure of eight, starting and finishing at the tower. The race featured plenty of climbs, and though most of them were gentle and the road surfaces good, the Rund was considered something of a battle and the winner was generally a rouleur rather than a sprinter.

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The massive Henninger Turm had been completed in 1961. It was the highest building in Frankfurtat the time with a viewing platform at the top as well as a revolving restaurant. The race was organised to celebrate its opening and the first edition, held in 1962, was won by the Belgian Armand Desmet.

Yorkshireman Barry Hoban won in 1966 and the following year Rund um den Henninger Turm was awarded classic status as a replacement for Paris-Brussels – which, as those of you who’ve been paying attention will know, temporarily disappeared from the calendar in 1966.

The race took place on the first of May, a fixed date that was a German national holiday. Massive crowds turned out in the seventies largely to see Germany’s new cycling idol Dietrich Thurau, a Frankfurt native and the winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1979.

Only Erik Zabel has won the race three times and perhaps more remarkably Eddy Merckx only won it once, though The Cannibal did so in typically barnstorming style in 1971 riding off alone and leaving everyone else floundering in his wake.

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In 1995, partly because the fixed date often fell awkwardly in midweek the race lost its status as Germany’s most important road race to the newly created HEW Cyclassics in Hamburg.

In 2008 Henninger announced that they were withdrawing sponsorship and in 2009 the race, now re-categorised on the UCI tour as a on a par with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad the Strade Bianche and other ‘semi-classics,’ became the catchily-named Eschborn-Frankfurt Rund um den Finanzplatz.

The Henninger Turm was closed to the public in 2002 and demolished in 2013. A block of luxury apartments now occupies the site.

Here’s A Thing: In 1983 Adri van der Poel’s victory in Rund um den Henninger Turm was chalked off when he tested positive for…strychnine. The Dutchman later explained that the banned substance must have got into his system through eating a pigeon pie that had been prepared by his father-in-law! Ironically it had been van der Poel who had been bumped up to first place after Eric McKenzie’s disqualification in Zuri-Metzgete the previous year.

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