Copenhagen, Liverpool, Zurich, Montreal, San Cristobal, Utsunomiya, Melbourne, Richmond... and now Flanders. The UCI Road World Championships celebrate their 100th anniversary this year, and after travelling all around the world and ahead of future trips to Australia (2022), Great Britain (2023), Switzerland (2024) and Africa (2025, in a country yet to be announced), the event – “The biggest goal of all,” as the legend Lizzie Deignan puts it – settles in Flanders (Belgium) for a very special 2021 edition celebrating the history of the annual event. The inception of the UCI Road World Championships can be traced back to the 1920 annual Congress of the UCI. The Italian Federation proposed the creation of a road cycling World Championship, a proposition that attracted many supporters, notably from the French, Belgian and Swiss Federations. These first UCI Worlds were only open to amateurs and were ridden in the form of an individual time trial over 190km. Sweden’s Gunnar Sköld went down in the history books as the first UCI Road World Champion. The wheels of history were spinning and they soon meet many evolutions and revolutions that defined one of the greatest sporting events of the 20th century as well as today's global sports scene.
From Binda to Van der Breggen, hundreds of rainbows
Among the essential turns in this twisty history, the 1927 edition saw professional riders participate for the first time in the UCI Worlds. A thunderstorm greeted them at the Nürburgring in Germany. In nightmare conditions, a tricolore star shone despite the rain: Alfredo Binda, 25 years old, already an icon of Italian cycling, and then the first man to claim the rainbow stripes drawn across a jersey newly created for the occasion. Since then, the event has expanded to new horizons. A women’s race was introduced in 1958 with victory going to Luxembourg’s trailblazer Elsy Jacobs. The same year, Jacobs broke the UCI Hour Record (41.347km). Since 2008 a one-day international women’s race in her memory (Festival Luxembourgeois du cyclisme féminin Elsy Jacobs, formerly known as the Grand Prix Elsy Jacobs) has featured on the UCI International Calendar. At the UCI Road World Championships, youth categories have had dedicated races and medals since 1975; and, in 2021, rainbow jerseys will be awarded in 11 races. The latest event introduced at the UCI Worlds is the team time trial mixed relay, raced for the first time in 2019 and dominated by the Netherlands, a nation commonly celebrated for its global approach to cycling. Hundreds of UCI World Champion titles have been awarded since 1921 and the count keeps going. Some champions have racked up many global triumphs, inspired by Alfredo Binda’s early record of three rainbow jerseys. In the Men Elite event, four riders have matched this tally: Belgians Rik Van Steenbergen and Eddy Merckx (who also won the amateur race at 19 years old, in 1964), Spain’s Oscar Freire and, more recently, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, who can still dream of pushing his tally to four victories or more. A time trial expert of the calibre of Germany's Tony Martin has claimed four individual titles and three collective golds in the team time trial. But no-one has yet to reach the heights of the French legend Jeannie Longo, who won five rainbow jerseys in the road race and four more in the individual time trial. In 1995, she dominated both events in a single edition, a rare feat emulated by Anna van der Breggen (NED) last year. Four victories in the Women Elite road race went to Flanders’ own Yvonne Reynders, who was the second woman to win the rainbow jersey at the UCI Road World Championships, in 1959. She was crowned another three times: in 1961, 1963 and 1966.
A time for celebration
These champions have earned a unique place in the history of cycling and in the hearts of fans – yesterday, today and forever. The 100th anniversary of the UCI Road World Championships is the perfect occasion for celebration. This year, the UCI has launched a web series of 10 episodes retracing the history of the event. They’ve also partnered with companies like Panini (famous for its albums of sticker collections) and jersey manufacturer Santini to celebrate the Worlds.
The event is held in Flanders for the seventh time in 100 years, though the first since 2002. With its many Elite races, countless events open to everyone, and a burning passion, the region is buzzing for cycling now more than ever. A series of activities organised this month will culminate with an exceptional Gala Dinner in Leuven on Saturday 25 September, bringing together every former road UCI World Champion able to attend these unique celebrations. Leuven also hosts many cycling tours and exhibitions, including a photo exhibition selected by cycling photographer Kristof Ramon. On the cover of the event, Julian Alaphilippe is pushing through the pain and riding to victory in Imola (Italy). “You know there’s the jersey, there’s La Marseillaise,” he describes a year later. “You can turn the lights off.” Not for long though: “It’s a jersey you have to respect. You always want to make it shine.” And a year later, you defend it with everything you have.