Trofeo Baracchi

Words: Suze Clemitson / Images: Cor Vos

“The end of this stage has been like watching the Trofeo Baracchi.” That was Rob Hatch’s commentary over the closing kilometres of stage 6 of the 2019 Giro d’Italia as Fausto Masnada and Valerio Conti pursued a two-up time trial to the stage finish in San Giovanni Rotondo. Old cycling buffs will have nodded their grizzled heads in agreement, while the young guns may well have scratched theirs, wondering WTAF Hatch was talking about.

The Trofeo Baracchi harks back to a time when riding against the clock wasn’t all about technological innovation and geekery. When rain-slicked legs and pumping muscles powered ordinary road bikes for a hundred kilometres, two riders harnessed together by team or loyalty or sheer bloody-mindedness. To a time when giant personalities still dominated the sport and a bizarre two-man time trial could capture the imagination of the tifosi just before the season was put to bed.

The heartland of the Trofeo was the rolling roads around Bergamo, an exquisite southern city camped out in the Alpine region of Lombardy. Sharing its finish line favours between the pure white heart of Brescia, the Leonessa d'Italia, and the bruising might of Milan, this extraordinary race often finished on the boards of the fabled pista magica itself, the Vigorelli velodrome.

But it’s another velodrome that plays a part in the creation myth of the Trofeo. The open-air velodrome at Sempione was built by public subscription in 1914, under the patronage of Carlo De Vecchi. And it was on the 333-metre track that four teams met to contest the first-ever Giro della Provincia di Milano on 24 June 1917.

Quality always trumps quantity and the two-man teams who met to contest that first edition were a ‘Who’s Who?’ of the glory days of bike racing:

Costante Girardengo, at 24 not yet one of the greatest of them all, but already twice Italian champion and twice winner of Milano-Torino, and Angelo Gremo, stage winner at the Giro and third in that year’s Milan-Sanremo.

Gaetano Belloni, the winner of that Milan-Sanremo, and his partner Ugo Sivocci, who switched sports and became a pioneer racing driver for Alfa Romeo.

Ruggero Ferrario, who would win gold in the team pursuit at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, and Lauro Bordin, winner of the 1914 Giro di Lombardia.

Oscar Egg, the Swiss time trial king and Hour record holder, with Luigi Lucotti, a prolific stage winner at the Tour and the Giro.

In the 20s Belloni would become l’eterno secondo to his great friend Girardengo, but not today. As the race covered the 102 km out and back from Milan via Como and Erba to finish in the recently-built velodrome, Belloni and Sivocci spun out a 54” lead over the duo Girardengo-Gremo, with Egg and Lucotti a distant third, 2’26” back. The day’s racing finished with a track event and was such a success that they did it all again, with minor interruptions, until 1943.

It was the perfect blueprint for Mino Baracchi to work from when he decided to start a race in honour of his father Angelo, a devoted tifoso. Baracchi, a wealthy Bergamo businessman, tried a variety of races before he hit on the idea of tweaking the format of the Giro della Provincia di Milano. First the race was run for the dilettanti, then the amateurs and finally the professionals. But the two-man time trial gave Baracchi what he craved – the opportunity to invite the champions of his choice and mix it up a little.

A man of few words but strong character, Baracchi was used to getting things done. The first race in the new format took place right when he wanted it, as the final race of the 1949 season. This gentleman’s competition, regularly contested over distances between 100-112 km, rolled out on 6 November. He couldn’t have hoped to make a bigger splash.

The race was won by the all-Italian pairing of Wilier Triestina teammates Adolfo Grosso and Fiorenzo Magni, the undisputed hard man of Italian cycling. Magni had won his first Tour of Flanders that spring and would double up with the Baracchi again in 1950, riding with Italian road race champion Antonio Bevilacqua, and then again in 1951, when paired with neo-pro Giuseppe ‘Pipaza’ Minardi, who’d won a stage at the Giro that year on his first attempt. Magni was a complicated champion, equally at home in black shirts and pink jerseys, a man who was booed at the finish of the Giro in 1948 and excluded from the opening ceremony in Rome in 1951 for his fascist sympathies, but who won both races anyway and another Giro in 1955.

The eternal third behind Coppi the moderniser and Bartali, Righteous of All the Nations, Magni had to fight hard for the respect of the tifosi. Brute strength and stubbornness were his calling card and he muscled his way to a palmarès that would have looked outstanding in any other era.

The Trofeo Baracchi had set out its stall, and the public were definitely buying.

The Art of the Time Trial

Chris Sidwells characterises the Trofeo Baracchi beautifully when he writes “It was a celebration of two-man teamwork, the swish of silk tyres scattering autumn leaves, each rider giving their all.”

The time trial is a Marmite discipline, loved and loathed in equal measure. The North Road Cycling Club is generally credited with creating the esoteric discipline of riding alone against the clock, dressed in black and carrying a bell. But it was the Tour de France that refined the discipline for professional road racing and created a race that either sees you deciding to visit Ikea for the day because nothing is worse than a time trial or has you salivating at the precision piston-pumping action of toned thighs as the critical seconds tick by.

If the mountain climbers are the fearless adventurers through oxygen-poor air, the baroudeurs the swashbucklers, and the sprinters the adrenalin-pumped boy racers of the peloton, the time triallists are the undisputed geeks, with their gadgets and their science and their quest for the most marginal of gains. An undeniably beautiful discipline when done well – the implacable might of Induráin or the lightness and grace of Anquetil – it’s an exercise that sometimes seems at odds with the free-for-all of the peloton. The genius of races like Bordeaux-Paris and the Trofeo Baracchi was to create the spectacle that the individual time trial lacked.

Watch the old footage on YouTube and the precision is clean as a whistle, the two-man chain gang looping and re-looping effortlessly as the front rider sticks his nose into the wind and then switch-switch-switch like teeth ratcheting along a chain. Kilometre after kilometre of irresistible cadence, the endless rinse and repeat of rolling bone, muscle and tendon making the pedals spin. But the Trofeo was never an easy race, the relays never quite as smooth and efficient as a snatch of black and white footage might suggest. It was one to be taken by the scruff of the neck and tamed – and pray to the cycling gods that your partner’s pedal stroke and stamina were as fluid and effective as your own.

By the 1940s the best-dressed Italian riders were wearing silk jerseys, crafted by a Milanese tailor called Armando Castelli. Lighter, faster and far more stylish than the heavy woollen jerseys of the early days, silk swished with a knife-like efficiency through the air. When Fausto Coppi took four wins at the Trofeo in the 1950s, he was wearing a Castelli silk jersey, maybe even the silk skinsuit that Castelli had designed for its superior aerodynamic efficiency. It was an added bonus that silk worked so effectively with the sublimation print processes that were being developed at the same time.

Lycra wasn’t far behind, with Dupont debuting Fibre K in 1959. Renamed Spandex, a nifty anagram of expands, and finally Lycra, this long chain synthetic polymeric fabric provided the kind of stretch and rigidity that was ideal for swimsuits and leotards, and finally the peloton. It was the fabric that had it all: supreme comfort and stretch, the moisture-wicking properties of wool and the aerodynamic and dye-absorbing properties of silk. When Toni Maier-Moussa went into the wind tunnel in 1978 in a Lycra all-in-one, the modern skinsuit – or Chronosuit as it was dubbed – was ready to revolutionise the world of time trialling.

But on the roads of Lombardy throughout the 1950s it was silk that sliced the air and looked so supremely stylish doing it. And the most stylish of them all was Fausto Coppi.

The Heron Flies

Coppi had a series of solid rides in the Giro della Provincia di Milano, culminating with a trip to the top step of the podium in 1941 alongside Mario Ricci, winner of that year’s Tour of Lombardy and second in Milan-Sanremo, a Venetian who knew the local roads well. Twelve years later, Coppi would finally win the Trofeo after taking second place in 1950 riding with his beloved brother Serse – they lost out to Magni – and a third place with his faithful gregario Michele Gismondi behind the unfancied pairing of Astrua and Defilippis in 1952.

Once he broke his duck, Coppi dominated the race during the 1950s, winning three times on the trot (1953-55) with Riccardo Filippi and once more in 1957 with Ercole Baldini, who would complete his hat-trick with wins in ‘58 and ‘59.

1953 was a great year for Riccardo Filippi. He was crowned amateur world champion in a thrilling two-man sprint against future Tour champion Gastone Nencini, the pair finishing just 8” ahead of Rik Van Looy, who would go on to win all five Monuments and become world champion twice in his professional career. Coppi, who had won the professional men’s race, with the Belgian duo of Germain Derijcke and Stan Ockers finishing a distant second and third over 6’ back, looked on with interest. A month later the twenty-two-year-old turned pro in Coppi’s Bianchi team. By the season’s end the pair were standing together on the top step of the Trofeo Baracchi.

Having taken Anquetil’s scalp in 1953, the pair did it again in 1954. This time Anquetil, one of the most fluent time triallists ever to push the pedals, was teamed with Louison Bobet. Bobet had the manners of a gentleman, the demeanour of a matinée idol and the legs of a professional footballer. Exquisitely courteous and well-dressed off the bike, he was never the most graceful rider on it, always seeming to wrestle his way through the air. Despite winning the Critérium des As time trial on four occasions, including in that 1954 season, he couldn’t match Anquetil’s souplesse and the pair were beaten by the well-drilled Coppi and Filippi, who obliterated the course record.

Bobet – in his pomp, having won the Tour for a second time and riding out his season in the rainbow jersey – was carried away by the crowds in the Vigorelli, and vowed to attack Coppi’s long-standing hour record. It was a disaster. Bobet made a fool of himself and retired after just 39 minutes of effort. He’d have his revenge on Anquetil at the Vel d’Hiv, winning an exhibition omnium as the 1954 season was finally put to bed.

Coppi and Filippi continued to rule the roost in the 1955 edition, beating the Belgian duo of Brankart and Janssens, both handy when it came to time trialing – Brankart a gifted team pursuiter on the track and Janssens a future winner of the gruelling Bordeaux-Paris in 1960. Anquetil was third, this time partnered with André Darrigade, the crack French sprinter with an impeccable Tour de France record, who took 5 stages in the 1958 race.

Darrigade would be back the following year with a new partner, the Swiss rider Rolf Graf. Riding in the distinctive Swiss champion’s jersey, Graf and his partner beat the record holders and overwhelming favourites Coppi and Filippi by 30”. But you wrote off Coppi at your peril. Even at the arse-end of his career il campionissimo still had the panache, the style, and the sheer glamour to pull off one last victory.

In 1957 Coppi was teamed with Ercole Baldini. The ‘Forlì train’ had an all-too-short but dazzling career, setting an amateur world hour record at 21 and winning the men’s road race at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. He finished that season by bagging Anquetil’s hour record at the pista magica and taking the world individual pursuit title on the track in Copenhagen. He turned pro for the Legnano team the following year and in 1958 won the Giro and the world road race championships and became Italian champion for the second time.

By 1957 Coppi was thirty-eight, the years of broken bones and injuries and drugs and scandal catching up with his elegantly wasted frame. Baldini, eager to show off what he can do, virtually tows the older man to the finish line. Coppi can barely hold the wheel as the Italian champion powers through the kilometres. But he hangs on for grim death and it’s enough. Coppi is gracious enough or helpless enough to let Baldini cross the line ahead of him, as they clock an average speed pushing 47 kmh.

Baldini will win another three times, clock up two top-ten finishes at the Tour, win a handful of one-day races and the Grand Prix des Nations, the unofficial world time trial championships, before retiring from the sport in 1964 after years of injury and illness culminated in career-ending leg surgery. For Coppi it was the last professional triumph of an astonishing career.

Whatever Happened to the Two-Man Time Trial?

The history of cycling is littered with dead or discarded races. Like the LuK Challenge Chrono, whose palmarès saw the UK’s own time trialling legend Chris Boardman paired with Uwe Peschel, Pascal Lance, Jens Voigt and, most unlikely of all, Claudio Chiappucci in a two-up TT that fell foul of Germany’s disengagement from the cycling scene in the mid ‘00s.

Or the long-standing and illustrious Grand Prix des Nations, the unofficial time trialling championships of the world for so many years, where Beryl Burton put in a creditable performance in 1968. Or the Criterium des As where riders were originally tandem-paced for 27 laps of a 3.6 km circuit at Longchamp before their elegance and magic lost out to the comedy of Derny-pacing in the 1940s. And the Grand Prix Eddy Merckx, christened for the greatest of them all, which disappeared as a result of the creation of the UCI ProTour in 2005. Abraham Olano had the distinction of winning both the last edition ridden as a solo TT in 1997, and the first edition ridden in teams of two – with José Vicente García Acosta – in 1998.

All are gone now except for the Duo Normand, where pairings like Vaughters and Voigt, Durbridge and Tuft, Bäckstedt and Neuville and the all-GB pairing of Boardman and Manning have stood on the top step of the podium. And that race is an oddity, confined to the Europe Tour.

The Trofeo Baracchi in turn would not escape its inevitable fate. But while it lived it was the repository of as much Italian style, drama and élan as any race could muster, and lived longer than most, spanning five decades with the effortless ease of Rudi Altig punishing the feckless Anquetil on the roads of Lombardy in 1962.

The Chrono That Maître Jacques Couldn’t Master

The Trofeo Baracchi is a repository of stories triumphant and tragic. How Herman Van Springel got shafted in the 1969 race, when Eddy Merckx’s chosen partner Roger Swerts got sick and so Van Springel’s partner Davide Boifava was drafted in to replace him. And how, paired with the Portuguese cowboy Joaquim Agostinho, he stormed to the top of the podium beating Merckx and Boifava by over a minute.

Or the story of Gerben Karstens and Henk Nijdam, who stormed to an unexpected late lead in the 1965 race as the road approached the finish in Milan. 20” ahead of Anquetil and Stablinski and with victory surely in the bag, Nijdam skidded on the tarmac made slick by autumn rain and cracked his skull, remounting his bike and peddling off like a dazed automaton. They haemorrhaged time over those final kilometres and entered the Vigorelli over 6’ behind the French pair. But when Karstens stopped, Nijdam rode inexorably on, round and round the velodrome, first to the hoots and cheers of the crowd and finally in an eerie and horrified silence.

Wiped out by exhaustion, or doping, or a combination of the two, the experienced pursuiter was taken away on a stretcher, his hands still turning to simulate the inexorable rotation of the pedals, on, on, on.

For Maître Jacques, Monsieur Chrono, the Baracchi was a race that refused to bend to his will. This was a rider who was so obsessive about the accretion of marginal gains that he would scan the roadside for bushes to shelter him, who knew the right line through preparation as much as instinct, who could recite a time trial route with his eyes closed. Anquetil, like Coppi before him, wanted to shift the sport forward, refine its rough edges, create a place where science and beauty could meet in the annihilation of his rivals.

After the humiliation of 1962, when he was hauled to the finish line by his much stronger teammate Altig before crashing at the finish line to win by just 9”, the Frenchman would stand on the top step of the podium twice more in 1965 and 1968. Pushed, cajoled and humiliated by Altig on the rain-slicked roads leading to the Vigorelli, Anquetil completed a blood-soaked lap of honour and then left in an ambulance, the final ignominy.

In 1963, in one of the impishly spiteful pairings that delighted the crowds, Anquetil was paired with his arch-enemy and eternal second, Raymond Poulidor. In a simple twist of fate they were beaten into second by the unfancied pairing of Velly and Novales by just 9”. Then in 1967 the Peugeot team’s all-Belgian pairing of Bracke and Merckx crushed any opposition, pushing Anquetil down to the second step of the podium again.

Yet, paired with the equally patrician Felice Gimondi, the Italian resplendent in the tricolore jersey of Italian national champion, Anquetil demonstrated an incredible synergy with his bike and his partner, the pedals turning with an almost languid fluency and deadly efficiency as the pair cruised effortlessly across the line in a display that was beautiful to watch. It was the finest of Anquetil’s victories. Still, 3 wins in 10 participations somehow seemed a poor haul for one of the most elegant and lethally effective riders to ever take on the Race of Truth.

The Inevitable Evolution of the Time Trial

By the 1970s the US was riding the wave of another bike boom, the Dutch were rejecting the idea that town planning should be car-centric and developing cycling infrastructure that remains the envy of the world, and the turnover of the Tour de France, the bellwether for professional cycling, had doubled. Meanwhile riders’ wages and prize money were falling in real terms and the huge exposure as a result of 1980s TV deregulation was still in the future. Race organisers were in trouble and races were going to the wall.

But not the Trofeo Baracchi. For that race the glory days would continue deep into the 1980s, the crowds as dense and passionate, even though the challenge was increasingly outrageous as black and white gave way to colour.

Eddy Merckx and Francesco Moser define the changing era as no other riders could. Merckx’s participation was brief but dominant, two early wins with pursuit champion and future Vuelta a España winner Ferdinand Bracke in 1966 and ‘67 bookended with a third in 1972 riding with Roger Swerts. Merckx had cried in the 1969 race when victory eluded him but, coming off the back of the terrifying crash at the velodrome in Blois that arguably blighted his career, the young champion had nothing to berate himself with.

His partner that day was Davide Boifava, a new pro who would visit the Baracchi podium three more times. A valuable domestique, Boifava’s race smarts really revealed themselves when he moved from the saddle to the DS car – in his career with Inoxpran and then Carrera he steered Giovanni Battaglin to success at the Giro and Vuelta, Roberto Visentini to the Giro and Stephen Roche to his extraordinary Giro-Tour double in 1987.

Merckx was impossible to categorise as a rider, so deep was his hunger to win and keep on winning. Excelling at every discipline, he won ten straight time trials in the Tour de France in the days before disc wheels and tri bars. Instead Merckx had holes drilled in his headset, handlebars and helmet to reduce his weight, never realising that it was drag and not weight that was his enemy against the clock. It never mattered – Eddy always mastered the clock anyway. He was so successful it was rumoured that the length of the time trials in the Tour de France was whittled away to curtail his supremacy.

Moser was the undisputed emperor of the Trofeo Baracchi, winning the race 5 times between 1974 and 1985 and defeating the sulphurous pairing of Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck in his first victory. His older brother Aldo had stood on the top step of the podium with Ercole Baldini twice in the late 1950s after Coppi pedaled away towards a long, slow professional suicide. But kid brother Francesco had more ambition, more talent and more balls and he was about to take the time trial by the scruff of the neck and give it a proper seeing to.

In 1984 he did the unthinkable, breaking Merckx’s hour record and putting a bomb under the very idea of how the time trial should be ridden with his strange silver aerodynamic machine. No surprise that the same year he won the Baracchi for the fourth time, his lenticular wheels slicing the asphalt like a razorblade through silk. Partnered with Bernard Hinault, he set a record for the race of 49.753 kmh, beating Luis Ocaña and Leif Mortensen’s previous mark of 48.706 kmh.

That night, at a dinner of past champions – Anquetil, Gimondi and Baldini were all there by invitation of Mino Baracchi – Ocaña, dapper in a gray double-breasted suit and tortoiseshell specs, was presented with a little silver plaque engraved ‘to Luis – until this evening the Baracchi's record man.’ Ocaña jokingly pleaded to be allowed to enjoy his last night as a record holder.

Moser won the Trofeo with five different partners: Dutchman Roy Schuiten, the crack pursuiter and time triallist (1974); Gianbattista Baronchelli, a rider who flourished on the roads of Lombardy (1975); Giuseppe Saronni (1979); Hinault (1984); and finally Hans-Henrik Oersted, a Danish pursuit specialist with multiple medals to his name.

But it was the 1979 victory he relished most. Paired with his arch-rival Saronni, the Coppi to his Bartoli, Moser determined to make his companion suffer. Under a blue Bergamo sky Moser tested the younger man’s legs again and again, teasing and taunting him with pace and cadence. With the time taken on the second rider across the line, Moser couldn’t afford to drop Saronni, but you could see in his style the desire to rip Saronni’s legs off like a fly’s. Saronni said later that he felt Moser would have enjoyed losing by breaking him rather than having to win in his company.

Like Day of the Dead and the Summer Holidays

What made the Trofeo Baracchi so special? It was a beautiful confluence of sport and patronage, a golden age when intrigue and volatility and reward trumped science and precision, where loyal teammates enjoyed their moment in the sun and sworn enemies were forced to cooperate or fail miserably. When the time trial was all about the combustibility of the personalities involved, not the cold dead hand of science and technology.

Mino Baracchi knew what he was doing when he put his race together. Claiming the end of season slot was a clever way to claim the spotlight without being try-hard – the atmosphere was like Day of the Dead and the last day of school, a dizzying blend of camaraderie and high-jinks, where the tifosi got to see their heroes without the circus and pressure of a high-stakes race.

Not that any rider worth their salt didn’t want the Trofeo Baracchi on their palmarès, and it’s a measure of its enduring influence that it is always invoked when two riders go balls-out in a breakaway, spinning and slipstreaming with fluent ease. That popular clamour was a great driver when it came to showing up in Bergamo and rounding off your season with a win. It was a way to settle some scores, to see out the season on a high, to have your name be the last one on everyone’s lips as another year’s racing was put to bed.

And Now We Come to the End

It’s not difficult to see what killed the Trofeo Baracchi. The inevitable shift towards a more professional and commercialised sport, formatted as a narrow vision of what cycling should be. The move away from an all-purpose skillset to individual specialisms. It got harder and harder to attract the superstar names that the race had thrived on. It was an anachronism, a hangover from the Stone Age – too long and too tough, requiring the kind of training that an exhausted pro didn’t have time for any more. It was the triumph of the pragmatic over the simple beauty of a dream.

The bloating of the season and the arrival of the UCI’s ill-fated World Cup would finally drive the last damn nail into the Baracchi’s coffin – it was cobbled together with the GP des Nations and run as a bog-standard chrono, with the Swiss specialist Tony Rominger taking the last bouquet. And that was that. On the 26th October 1991 the Trofeo Baracchi disappeared from the cycling calendar once and for all, after an uninterrupted run of 42 years.

In the Vigorelli, the soigneurs and the commissaires and the riders have left the stage. The public files towards the exit as the evening light leaches out of the sky and night descends. Whisper their names one last time – Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Moser – because the season is over now and the velodrome descends into silence.