RETRO: CHAMPIONSHIPS OF ZÜRICH
The Züri-Metzgete, the Championship of Zürich, was one of the most prestigious one-day races in the world even into the 21st century. Procycling looks at how a race that could have been the sixth monument met its demise
We look back at one of the biggest one-day races of the 20th century, and its sad demise
Covering any race in the weeks after the Tour de France was always a let-down, no matter how distinguished the event’s history or how high quality the field. The sense of anticlimax, bizarrely enough, makes them all quite easy to remember. The Wincanton Classic in Newcastle in 1989 seemed light years away from the high-octane battle between Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond that had decided the Tour. After the Lord Mayor’s Show and all that.
The following year, to give me a proper sense of perspective after four weeks Tour-ing around France, my then editor sent me to a one-off race, the Forth Bridge Two-Day, run around the eponymous bridge with a mainly Scottish field and three men and a Scots terrier watching. But as I recall it, that low-key domestic race felt more impactful than the 1991 assignment: the Züri-Metzgete, or Championship of Zürich.
The race’s denouement was uneventful. It didn’t feel like there were many people around the finish adjacent to the vast Oerlikon velodrome; out in the countryside away from the main climbs the race felt like an optional add-on. The Swiss Germans don’t really do hype Latin style, but even accounting for that, there was no buzz.
I can remember the winner, Johan Museeuw, largely because the future Classics star was going bald at this stage in his career and reappeared later in the decade topped with a hair transplant. That, sadly, was the most memorable thing about this venerable race: the denouement was uneventful, the finish a reduced bunch sprint and Museeuw not, at that point, a rider to reckon with. I didn’t realise it then, but what I was seeing was part of the lingering end of what had been considered cycling’s sixth monument, alongside the five that we all know today.
The demise of the Championship of Zürich is an object lesson in why the biggest races can die. The Metzgete, as it was called locally, had everything going for it. The race possessed an immense history, dating back to 1914. It had an illustrious list of winners, although it was exceptional in that – trivia lovers alert – neither Eddy Merckx nor Fausto Coppi ever won it. It even had a velodrome finish, on the 333-metre outdoor bowl of the Oerlikon.
It took place in an area offering perfect racing territory, dipping into the foothills of the mountains outside Zürich. The backdrops were perfect for television – the lake on the return loop into the city was particularly attractive. It took place in a country that had always been part of the core of European bike racing culture: Assos and Cilo have been industry names to be reckoned with. Hugo Koblet and
Ferdi Kübler didn’t need any introduction to fans. At times, such as in the early 1980s, Switzerland had fielded its own pro team, Cilo-Aufina, led by the elfin climber Beat Breu.
Professional cyclists loved Switzerland for one good reason: the money. It’s a rich country, and competing there was always lucrative. World War Two neutrality meant that the racing never stopped – the Championship was the only major bike race, along with the Tour of Flanders in occupied Belgium, to continue without interruption between 1939 and 1945 - and it was where the likes of Rik Van Steenbergen would travel to race after the war, returning to his native Belgium with his arms festooned with smuggled watches to sell on.
The nickname of the race always amused me. ‘Metzgete’ is a Swiss term involving butchery, charcuterie and plates of lovely sausage-y things, such as might be found on the table of a Swiss country restaurant at the start of the winter. It also refers to a festival at the start of winter, when pigs would be slaughtered and the bits that couldn’t be conserved would have to be eaten rapidly: a time of plenty.
The timing doesn’t seem related to the bike race; perhaps the sense of a gargantuan, indigestible feast is one explanation, but the online Swiss regional dialect dictionary – in which the Championship still features – conjectures that the name stems from the poor roads at the time of the race’s foundation, which would result in bloody crashes that left the riders like exhibits in a butcher’s window.
At a time when Switzerland seemed to have a host of local races, the Championship created its own stars. Early on, it was dominated by the locals, the best of whom was Heiri Suter. His six wins in the 11 years between 1919 and 1929 remain a record, but his success went well outside Swiss borders. In 1923 he became the first non-Belgian to win the Tour of Flanders and the last Swiss before Fabian Cancellara, and when he won Paris-Roubaix in the same season, that made him the first man to win both of those monuments in the same season. His other wins included the GP Wolber, which was viewed as an unofficial world championship, BordeauxParis and Paris-Tours.
1950 Tour de France champion Ferdi Kübler figures on the victory list (1943), but perhaps the most illustrious name associated with Zürich is Hugo Koblet, the Pédaleur de Charme, possibly the classiest and most ill-fated star to emerge from European cycling in the mid1950s. Koblet won the Metzgete in 1952 and 1954, victories which carried massive resonance because he was the champion from Zürich. Born into a baking family, he lived with his widowed mother and brother, and delivered bread and cakes around the city on his bike.
He also worked as a mechanic at the Oerlikon velodrome, before making a huge name for himself as a major rival to the ageing Fausto Coppi. In 1950, Koblet became the first non-Italian to win the Giro, and staged an epic win in the 1951 Tour de France based around a dramatic stage victory which went down in the history books as ‘Le Coup d’Agen’.
Switzerland was mightily attractive as a race venue as Europe recovered from the second world war, with intact roads and cash prizes aplenty, which explains why stars like Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali would travel there. The Italian twosome had one of their most celebrated battles at the Metzgete in 1946, culminating in a victory for Il Vecchio Gino. Controversially, Bartali told Coppi he felt ill and asked his great rival to go steady for the day, as he wouldn’t contest the sprint; he then attacked Coppi in the finale when he bent down momentarily to tighten his toe straps.
Swiss domination of the race ended in the late 1950s, after which the winners list reads like a who’s-who of classic racing, with the notable exception of Merckx. There were a couple of freak winners along the way. In 1999 the unknown Pole Grzegorz Gwiazdowski survived from an early break to win by just 28sec from the likes of Andrei Tchmil and Paolo Bettini. It was Gwiazdowski’s only victory of note; he retired two years later.
The most illustrious name associated with Zürich is Hugo Koblet, the Pédaleur de Charme, the classiest star in European cycling
In 1982, meanwhile, it seemed briefly as if New Zealand had won its first one-day classic, when first-year professional Eric McKenzie, then riding for the Capri-Sonne team, outsprinted Adrie van der Poel. The rider from Kawerau was then ruled to have tested positive for cortisone – a verdict he contests to this day, on the grounds that there was no test for the product.
“Looking back, if we’d had good lawyers the tests would have been thrown out,” Mckenzie said in a 2013 interview with Pez Cycling, adding, “The product wasn’t even detectable and the B sample shouldn’t have been tested without my representation being present.” Whatever the ins and outs of this one, the world is still waiting for a Kiwi to win a race of this stature.
By 1991 when I visited Zürich, other classics were struggling for identity as well. The Tour of Lombardy had moved from its central Milan finish to the Monza Fair, in a proto industrial estate. Gent-Wevelgem and Flèche Wallonne had been eviscerated, their distances slashed to prioritise weekend races in Hein Verbruggen’s World Cup and had to reinvent themselves completely. In the case of Wevelgem, that took 20 years. Paris-Brussels and Paris-Tours were increasingly marginal. BordeauxParis was already dead. Where Zürich suffered was that it had no fixed, iconic landmark. There was no equivalent of the Madonna del Ghisallo, the Muur or Arenberg.
Like many races in the area, the Metzgete was run for years by the legendary Swiss organiser Sepp Vögeli. Vögeli had gone from running a brasserie to organising the Tour de Suisse and the Metzgete. He was also in charge of the Oerlikon track – where the race finished with a single lap, although not in the year I was there - and the Hallenstadion at Zürich. He was heavily involved in running the Zürich six-day, which was infamous as the last old-school six in which the riders spent more hours on the track than off it.
His death in 1992 was probably a turning point. There was a power struggle over the race and the Swiss slot in the UCI World Cup between the journalist Serge Lang and the local owners of the rights to the Metzgete, RVZ, that resulted in the race being briefly retitled the GP Suisse; for 1999, the UCI simply allotted a Swiss World Cup race a calendar slot without it actually being clear who was running it. Eventually, RVZ linked up with the Tour of Romandie organisers, Daniel Perroud Organisation.
As early as 1998, press reports were describing a lack of sponsors and questioning the race’s future.