Once upon a time, long before money-rich, entertainment-poor events far away from the European heartland, the cycling season ended in November with the Trofeo Baracchi.
It was arguably the grand daddy of all the end-of-season time-trial events. This was where great champions converged, fighting to have the final word.
Mino Baracchi devised the event in memory of his cycling-loving father Angelo in 1941. It started out as a road race for U23s, switching to its celebrated two-up time-trial format in 1949.
The event took in the rolling roads between Baracchi’s home in the northern Italian city of Bergamo and those of Milan or Brescia, regularly switching between the two over the years. For periods in the Fifties and Sixties, the contest concluded in the much-missed Vigorelli velodrome, adding to its prestige and atmosphere.
This was an invitation-only race and Baracchi ultimately had the final say on the pairings that would compete. The allstar format quickly became popular: in the Fifties, there would be Bartali and Kübler pitted against Bobet and Anquetil and Coppi and Van Est. Italian great Fiorenzo Magni won the first three versions, before Coppi and his gregario Ricardo Filippi took control.
The Trofeo Baracchi was unusually long – habitually between 100 and 120 kilometres – and came unusually late in the calendar. Held in early November until 1971, it came to represent the glorious sunset of the cycling season.
One of the great appeals of the Baracchi was its potential for volatility. Two stars working in harmony and pacing the effort adroitly is nice to watch, but it can be just as dramatic and engrossing when everything falls apart, as it often did.
Some partners saw it as a way to settle scores, pushing the pace until their partner cracked. There's no hiding in a two-up time-trial, and the Baracchi was the scene of several champions overcooking things and falling apart.
In 1962, as rain lashed Bergamo in the days before the race, Jacques Anquetil neglected to train. However, his partner Rudi Altig found a road tunnel and went up and down it for hours, resolving to teach his lazy St-Raphaël team-mate a lesson on race day.
Altig ended up having to constantly cajole and push Anquetil for the final quarter of the 112-kilometre test (above). Utterly knackered, the Frenchman rode straight on at the turn onto the Vigorelli track and crashed after passing the time keeper. The pair won by nine seconds, but it was a Pyrrhic victory as the bleeding Anquetil was taken to hospital after the race. It was the first of three wins for the Frenchman here.
Eddy Merckx was also triumphant three times, but he suffered too. In 1969, the Baracchi came four weeks after his serious crash on the track in Blois. The great champion started like a rocket, fizzled out just after halfway and had to be nursed home by young team-mate Davide Boifava. Merckx cried at the finish; third place wasn’t too bad in the circumstances.
Tom Simpson (1964) and Sean Yates (1990) finished third over the years, but the only all-British pairing on the podium was Dave Lloyd and Phil Bayton in 1973. The TI-Raleigh duo were invited after catching the organiser’s eye with a long, two-up breakaway at Milan-Sanremo.
“It was bloody long,” Lloyd recalls of the Baracchi. “And we had these awful Raleigh frames. I had my Harry Quinn sprayed as a Raleigh, Phil Bayton rode a Harry Quinn without even changing the decals.”
The pair finished 4-09 adrift of winners Felice Gimondi and Cochise Rodriguez. It was a memorable experience for Lloyd. “I’ve never seen so many people out at a race before or since. It was unbelievable. You couldn’t change position on the climbs, people parted in front of you like a wave,” he said. “The tifosi were deafening, shouting right in your ear. The Baracchi was huge in those days. It should come back again, it was a fantastic event.”
The loveably authoritarian Mino Baracchi could be mischievous when it came to picking partnerships. Poulidor and Anquetil were paired together one year and in 1979, he hit upon the ultimate combustible duo: arch rivals Francesco Moser and Giuseppe Saronni. They won, but Saronni was left hanging on. “Had he broken away from me, Moser would have enjoyed losing like that more than winning,” Saronni reflected.
Moser (pictured below) enjoyed most success in the Baracchi, winning five times with five different partners, including Bernard Hinault. But into the 1980s, the event began to wane.
The habitual problem for the organiser was that riders were exhausted at the end of a long season. Fewer big names were taking up the Baracchi invitation and modern cycling was evolving. The race switched location to shake things up, moving to Pisa and then Trento in the north, but there was no saving it.
The final edition in 1991 was an individual time-trial won by Tony Rominger, serving as the curtain call in that season’s World Cup competition.
It left in its wake a roll of honour that reads like a who’s who of 20th century cycling: Magni, Coppi, Baldini, Motta, Gimondi, Anquetil, Merckx, Ocaña, Maertens, Moser, Saronni, Hinault, Fignon.
The Baracchi may be gone, but it’s not forgotten. For a certain generation, mid-October still stirs memories of legends barreling along with pained faces, flat backs and hands on the drops, battling the wind and one another.