Nestled in the Eifel mountain range of western Germany, sitting beneath an imposing twelfth-century castle, lies the small town of Nürburg. Surrounded by lakes and by the peaks of long-extinct volcanoes, it is a place for hiking on spectacular trails that strike through the forests and meadows that bless this area of Germany.
It is also a place to press the pedal to metal and to listen to the thunderous roar of finely tuned engines. For the quiet village of Nürburg is home to the Nürburgring, one of the most famous motor-racing circuits in the world.
The circuit opened in June 1927. One month later it was put to use as the venue for the 1927 edition of the UCI’s road world championships.
Since the introduction of the amateur championship in 1921, the issue of opening the event to professional riders had been debated. As public interest in the event grew, so the voices of those arguing for a professional race grew louder, but there remained resistance.
The world championships were the pinnacle of the amateur calendar and some thought including a race for professionals, who already had numerous and increasingly prestigious races, would negatively impact the standing of the event. They counselled against including competitors who, in their eyes, were solely motivated by money.
The debate continued until 1927 when the UCI decided to hold a single race that was open to both amateurs and professionals with the titles awarded to the best placed in each classification.
The controversial decision meant that the Nürburgring would play a significant part in the history of cycling: it was going to be the circuit on which cycling’s first professional road world champion would forge their win.
Just as significantly, this was also the year the rainbow jersey was introduced – that simple white cycling jersey with its five coloured bands, mirroring the colours of the Olympic rings.
It would become one of the most sought after prizes in the sport: a unique, tangible symbol of achievement that stays on your back all season. Win the Worlds and the rainbow jersey was to be yours until someone took it off you.
The northern loop of the Nürburgring was a brutal examination of the strength and endurance of riders. The road twisted and turned and there were numerous climbs for the riders to tackle over the course of the 22.8 kilometre lap which had to be ridden eight times. Italian daily La Stampa called it ‘a continuous rollercoaster tormented by countless curves.’
Italy had boycotted the inaugural amateur championships in 1921, upset at the decision to run the event as a time trial, before Libero Ferrario claimed their first title two years later in the first Worlds run as a massed-start road race.
From that moment Italy embraced the Worlds as much as any other nation. Included in their ranks at the 1927 championships were two of the biggest names in cycling, not to mention the sport’s biggest rivals: Alfredo Binda and Costante Girardengo.
The timing of the Worlds helped the Italians. With the true worth of the Worlds to the professional peloton being questioned, the cream of riders who had just completed the Tour de France were otherwise engaged with lucrative post-Tour assignments. On the day of the Worlds for example Luxembourg’s Nicolas Frantz and Belgium’s Maurice De Waele, first and second in the Tour respectively, were racing against each other in a nocturne on the Parc des Princes track in Paris.
In contrast, for obvious and commercial reasons, Italy’s best riders had been focused not on the Tour but on the Giro, a race that had finished some six weeks earlier. Unsure of his condition, Girardengo had not ridden that Giro, but Binda rode and ruled the race, winning twelve of the fifteen stages and claiming the overall title by more than 27 minutes.
Such was his dominance that Binda was the overwhelming favourite to win the Worlds, despite the presence of Girardengo and a strong team of Belgian professionals, every one of whom had won at least one Classic.
The day of the race was cold and wet. A stiff wind blew and it was not long before riders were falling off the back and retiring. Binda launched his move with around 30 kilometres to go, on the climb to Karussell. In the space of 6 kilometres he opened a gap of more than two minutes.
The race was all but over. Binda’s winning margin over Girardengo was more than seven minutes. It was a stunning display of power, his performance head and shoulders above everybody else.
In its account of the race, the British magazine Cycling described Binda as a ‘remarkably improved rider’ somewhat overlooking his previous performances and illustrating the blinkered view of the British specialist cycling press of the time, which viewed both professionalism and massed-start road racing on the Continent with sceptical eyes.
Italy had dominated the race. After Binda came Girardengo, Domenico Piemontesi and Gaetano Belloni, with Aerts the first non-Italian, nearly 20 minutes behind.
The Worlds had struck gold with arguably cycling’s biggest star claiming the jersey, essential for establishing the credibility of the race. But the experiment of starting amateurs and professionals together and running effectively two races in one had not worked.
The incongruous sight of awarding amateur world champion status to a rider who had crossed the line fifth meant the race was dubbed a fiasco by Cycling.
But the Italians did not care. A new era had begun and in Binda they had road cycling’s first professional world champion.
‘You can view it an exaggeration to cry for a cycling race,’ wrote Giuseppe Tonelli in La Stampa. ‘But all of us Italians present at that time felt a lump in our throats and a tear in our eyes.’
Edited extract from ‘Chasing the rainbow – the story of road cycling’s world championship’ by Giles Belbin. Published by Aurum Press