By John Wilcockson

The last time the worlds were in Mendrisio, the bikes were steel, the cables were exposed and the world was in black-and-white.

The last time the worlds were in Mendrisio, the bikes were steel, the cables were exposed and the world was in black-and-white.

Photo: Agence France Presse – file photo

Unlike a grand tour or a classic, or any other major annual bike race, the world road championships is the sport’s only prestigious event that has the whole world looking on — and the organizers have only one chance to do it right. That’s because the Union Cycliste International selects a different country (and city) every year to be the host.

To make a successful bid for the worlds, a potential host has to put together a group of competent organizers, attract a battery of sponsors and find road race and time trial courses that are worthy of world titles (and have the blessing of the local authorities). And that’s even before the organizing committee gets the chance to be selected by the UCI; and by the time they do get the nod they have just three years to put everything together.

With a population of only 12,000, Mendrisio is one of the smallest towns to host the world road championships; but this Sunday the ancient Swiss municipality will be invaded by 20 times that number of people to watch the sport’s most prestigious title race. Coping with the crowds is another problem the organizers have to deal with; and I expect everything will look perfect on the weekend, even though rain is in Saturday’s forecast and fog on Sunday morning.

Pulling everything together as director of this week’s championships has been a rather unique woman, Agnès Pierret, a Belgian native who speaks fluent Dutch, English, French, German and Italian. Pierret lives in Lugano, a short drive from Mendrisio, and has been working fulltime on the project following a professional career that has taken her from Belgium to America, and from France to Switzerland, working on all aspects of cycling: the media, pro teams, race organizers and the industry.

It all began in the early-1980s when Pierret became the business manager of the U.S. edition of Winning, the now defunct monthly cycling magazine, when it was based in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Agnès and I worked together at Winning (and left together in the late-1980s); I moved fulltime to the United States, she returned to Europe.

Pierret went on to work for pro cycling teams run by Swiss coach Paul Köchli and then joined the Société du Tour de France (before it became ASO), where she worked around the clock on expanding the Société’s business when Jean-Marie Leblanc was the Tour director. She could have stayed in Paris and perhaps become the Tour’s first female director; instead, Pierret moved to the European Broadcasting Union as an executive at its Swiss headquarters before becoming CEO of Swiss Cycling. In recent years, she worked as a consultant for Assos before accepting the directorship of the Mendrisio worlds.

Most of this week’s multi-million-dollar budget has come from Mapei, the Italian based building products giant that sponsored the world’s best pro team for a decade, with Swiss bank Raiffeisen and clean-energy corporation Alpiq as co-sponsors. Interestingly, one member of the worlds’ committee is Renzo Bordogna, who was the organizer of the world road championships when they were last held in Mendrisio, 38 years ago!

Mendrisio may be a small town but it looms large in cycling history — mainly because of the scintillating 1971 edition of the world pro road championship that used some of the same hilly roads that the world’s elite men, women and under-23s will be competing on this weekend.

That 1971 race lives strong in my memory. Not just because it was won by Eddy Merckx in a dramatic two-man breakaway from Felice Gimondi, but also because of the wonderful people whom I accompanied on that trip to southern Switzerland: British sportswriter Geoff Nicholson, his wife Mavis, and one of their three sons.

Geoff, who died 10 years ago after a long fight with cancer, was a wonderful journalist. He wrote about rugby throughout his career, and fell in love with cycling after he reported a mountain stage at the amateur Tour of Britain in 1959. He began to cover the Tour de France for the distinguished London Sunday newspaper, The Observer, and he would eventually report Le Tour 19 times and write a seminal book, “The Great Bike Race,” in 1977.

Geoff’s prose was both poetic and spare, reflecting his geniality, his dry sense of humor and an eye for detail — whether it was for a an anguished expression on a rider’s face or the strength of the wind blowing a roadside tree. He was a wonderful traveling companion, regaling us with anecdotes while puffing a Gauloise — he got through three packs a day.

On that early-September weekend in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, we stayed at a beautiful campground near the head of Lake Lugano, setting up our tents in the shadow of Monte Generoso, the 5,580-foot mountain that separates Switzerland’s Lake Lugano from Italy’s Lake Como.

The worlds back then was comprised of just four events: a 100km team time trial for amateurs on the Thursday (it was won by Belgium from the Netherlands and Poland), road races for women and amateurs on the Saturday, and the pros on the Sunday. Individual time trials weren’t added until 1994.

We had a first look at the road course in the women’s three-lap 50.4km race, which ended in a bunch sprint (not surprising given the short distance) won by the defending champion Anna Konkina of the Soviet Union. The 10-lap, 168km amateur men’s race was hard fought, given the nature of the hilly circuit and the average speed of 41.328 kph. The winner, Frenchman Regis Ovion, went on to win that year’s Tour de l’Avenir, but he never made it in the pro ranks.

We knew that the pro race — 16 laps of 16.8 km for the 268.8km distance — would be dominated by the Italians and Belgians. Their 10-man teams were stacked with winners. Italy, supported by perhaps 70 percent of the vast crowd, boasted 1965 Tour winner Felice Gimondi and stars like Franco Bitossi, Michele Dancelli and Marino Basso. Belgium was led by the incomparable Eddy Merckx (who was on his way to 54 road wins that season!), with helpers like Roger De Vlaeminck, Walter Godefroot and Herman Van Springel — all of them winners of multiple classics.

The course included the same climbs being used this weekend, the 2km, 5-percent Castello San Pietro (which includes an 800-meter stretch at 10 percent) and the 1.5km, 8-percent Novazzano, but the 1971 circuit included an extra 3km of flat roads. The pro race was fast (40.410 kph for the 6:39:06 winning time) and hard (only 57 riders finished).

Significantly all 10 Belgians and all 10 Italians were among the finishers, and it was their respective team leaders, Merckx and Gimondi, who broke away together over the final climbs. Merckx easily won the two-up sprint, with Frenchman Cyrille Guimard leading in a small chase group 1:13 back.

The epic finish between the two best riders of their generation (it would be like Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador sprinting it out for the rainbow jersey!) gave plenty of ammunition for Geoff Nicholson to shoot off a colorful story to his newspaper, while I was also pleased to see the lone British finisher — Billy Bilsland of Glasgow, Scotland — come home in 14th place. My story of the worlds appeared in the monthly magazine I was then editing, International Cycle Sport.

I’ve been back to Mendrisio a number of times, most notably in 1989, when the 18th stage of the Giro d’Italia was a mountain time trial up Monte Generoso: Colombian Lucho Herrera won the steep 10.7km hill climb at an average speed of 22.526 kph (that shows how steep it was!). The defending Giro champ Andy Hampsten was third on the stage, 35 seconds back.

For a couple of years, Mendrisio saw the start of the Tour of Lombardy, and before the start of the 2005 race I well remember having a chat with a young American rookie who seemed to have a strong future in the sport. It was Saul Raisin, who finished his first Lombardia in 52nd place after blowing up near the end. That would be Raisin’s only classic finish because the following April he suffered the horrendous crash that put an end to his pro career.

Had that crash not happened, Raisin would likely be one of the nine Americans lining up this Sunday in Mendrisio for the 2009 world championships. There weren’t any Americans in the 1971 worlds for the simple fact that the United States did not have any pro racers back then.

As they did then, the Italian fans will stream across the border to watch this year’s title race, hoping that one of their boys can go one better than Gimondi did 38 years ago.

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