It’s late August 1995. In the streets of Zürich, a seven-man breakaway has dashed away from a reduced peloton and is heading for the outdoor velodrome in the leafy suburb of Oerlikon, the legendary finish venue of the Championship of Zürich. Among the leaders is the Italian national champion Gianni Bugno, still searching for a classics victory that has eluded him all season long. Also there is Johan Museeuw in the white jersey as leader of the UCI World Cup competition. The race will be decided between these two multiple classics winners—as is entirely fitting for a monument.
Did I just write monument? Well, yes, certainly, for in its heyday the Championship of Zürich was virtually the sixth monument, on a par with Milan–San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris–Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Tour of Lombardy. To win on the Oerlikon’s hallowed concrete bankings meant a great deal—and on this summer Sunday Museeuw and Bugno both know it.
The Belgian, supremely confident, sweeps onto the track first in the now six-strong lead group. Unlike Roubaix, this race has just one lap of the track and it is a much shorter lap than at Roubaix: 333 instead of 500 meters, and with steeper bankings. Packed around the bleachers, the crowd erupts as the racers arrive. Tentatively, perhaps too tentatively, Bugno launches his finishing effort in the back straight. Museeuw sees him in his periphery vision and jumps, sprinting out of the saddle. He holds the inside line, forcing Bugno to come the long way around. On the final curve they are shoulder to shoulder. Stenciled in black on the concrete just above them are three big names: Coca-Cola, Campagnolo and McDonalds. At the Oerlikon even the sponsors are classic. Museeuw wins by half a wheel.
Wait a moment. When the group got away, weren’t there seven men? Rewind that scratchy old Eurosport coverage… yes, racing along the wide Zürich boulevards there are seven men. And inside the final kilometer the leaders are led into a tight right-hander by the Italian Giorgio Furlan, riding for the soon-to-be notorious Gewiss squad. But Furlan doesn’t read the corner and flies between two marshals, off the course. By the time he has slammed on his brakes, circled around and got moving again, the group has departed. Commentator David Duffield hints that this sort of thing often happens at the Zürich classic. In itself it’s not a race defining moment—the 1992 Flèche Wallonne winner was never likely to trouble Museeuw in the sprint. And yet there is something rather symbolic here, something easy to see with that sparkling crystal lens of hindsight….
What makes an enduring classic? It has little to do with the racing, although consistently boring races would probably sound the death knell for any classic. No, the answer lies in the alchemy of history, geography and culture. The monuments resonate beyond a simple bike race, because they have a clear regional identity and are beloved by their communities.
Switzerland may not be the cycling powerhouse to compete with Belgium, France, Italy or Spain, but it is an integral part of European cycling culture. The UCI has its headquarters in Aigle; BMC and Assos are just two examples of cycling companies using precise Swiss technology; the roads offer amateur riders some of the most testing and beautiful climbing on the Continent; and Switzerland has consistently produced high-quality riders—including Heiri Suter (who in 1923 became the first rider to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris–Roubaix in the same year), the charming but tragic Hugo Koblet (winner of both the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia) and the unstoppable Fabian Cancellara (winner of multiple classics, world championships and Olympic titles).
Accordingly, it would seem fitting for Switzerland to have a classic one-day race. In the salad days of the mid-1990s, before the Festina affair and the whole house of cards collapsed, the Zürich classic started in Basel and covered several loops of the pretty, orderly and lush countryside between that city and Zürich. It was hilly, but the climbing was balanced through the route, with no single killer climb. That made it an interesting and nuanced tactical race. The winner had to be strong, of course, but also had to make decisions about when to use his strength, when to show his hand. And being held in August the weather was usually pretty good, which helped with the television pictures. Belgium looks better in rain and wind; Switzerland does not.
The Zürich race began life in 1914 as the Züri-Metzgete. Züri is the familiar Swiss name for Zürich; Metzgete loosely translates from Swiss German as “Butcher’s Delight” and refers to the season between fall and winter when fresh and smoked meats are prepared for the colder months. Here we see the famous Swiss sense of humor at work—”Come to our race to be butchered, ho, ho, ho.”
From 1917 (the race skipped the war years of 1915 and 1916) the Züri-Metzgete continued every year until its demise as a pro classic in 2006, not even stopping for World War II when Switzerland was a neutral country. Unsurprisingly, the locals scored virtually all the victories until the early 1960s, when the race became more international. In the 1914–2006 span, the Swiss took 40 wins, Italy 20 and Belgium 13. The riders with the most victories were all Swiss: Suter won six times between 1919 and 1929, Paul Egli took three wins in the 1930s and ’40s, while Fritz Schaer and Koblet took two apiece in the 1950s.
Koblet’s relationship with the Züri-Metzgete was especially close. He was born and raised in Zürich and at 17 he left the family bakery to work at the Oerlikon velodrome as a trainee mechanic. Three years later he won the national amateur pursuit championship on his home track before he went on to a glittering professional career. In 1950 he won the Giro d’Italia and the following year he won the Tour de France and the Grand Prix des Nations. A handsome and charming man, Koblet became a celebrity rider and, unlike many of his peers, no one seemed to have a bad word to say about him. And yet, after 1951, his fortunes began to ebb. In the high mountains he fell away from the leaders—his pedaling still as stylish as ever but his old power gone. In the context of his steady decline Koblet’s Züri-Metzgete wins in 1952 and 1954 must have been very welcome. After retirement he opened a car garage close to the Oerlikon but fell into debt, experienced marital problems and six years after retirement he died in an unexplained car crash.
The Züri-Metzgete is unique among major classics in that neither Fausto Coppi nor Eddy Merckx won it. The Belgian came close in 1975 while riding in the rainbow jersey, losing in a tight sprint to archrival Roger De Vlaeminck, with Francesco Moser in third. Coppi too finished second to an archrival, Gino Bartali. The pair rode clear of the field in the 1946 edition, racing through the Swiss landscape at a then record-breaking average speed of 42.2 kilometers per hour. Bartali claimed to having a bad day and did a deal with Coppi: If Coppi did not drop him, Bartali wouldn’t contest the sprint. Yet in the finale, when Coppi paused to tighten his toe straps, Bartali attacked. Furious, Coppi gave chase, but Bartali held his advantage to the line. The duo’s rivalry deepened.
The only North American to win the Zürich classic was Canada’s Steve Bauer in 1989, while Greg LeMond (1990) and Lance Armstrong (1992) both placed second. A week before Museeuw’s 1995 victory, Armstrong outfoxed the Belgian and Bugno at the Clásica San Sebastián—the first victory by a U.S. rider in a European classic. A modern race, created in 1981 to satisfy the Basque Country’s passionate cycling fans, the San Sebastián classic has grown in stature and reputation.
So why has the Spanish race prospered, while Züri-Metzgete foundered? The answer is multi-faceted. Ultimately, the Swiss race was no longer a credible financial proposition, but the key question is why? First, calendar slots. From World War II until 1987, the Züri-Metzgete was held the first week of May. This had its own challenges, because it was often held the day after the one German classic, Frankfurt’s Rund um den Henninger Turm, at the end of the spring classics season when riders were weary from their exertions in March and April.
Still, for those able to peak for the month of May, this was a golden opportunity. Riding for the famous Peugeot team, Australian Phil Anderson won both the Frankfurt and Zürich races in 1984. Four years later, the race was moved to late August, a positive move, because Züri-Metzgete became a summer classic following the San Sebastián race. Classics riders could now mix it up with the climbers and GC riders coming out of the Tour de France with good form. But in 2005 the UCI made another calendar adjustment and moved the race to the first weekend in October. Ever been to Switzerland in October? No, nor have I….
Nomenclature was a problem too. Besides the Züri-Metzgete in German, the race had several different names. In French, it was the Grand Prix de Zürich, Grand Prix de Suisse and Championnat de Zürich. Throw in the fact that the course was changeable, and didn’t have any iconic climbs, like a Poggio or Koppenberg, and we can start to see that the race’s identity was blurry around the edges.
Switzerland has the highest gross national product per capita in the world; the economy saw decades of continued growth through the 20th century; and Zürich, home to the country’s many financial institutions, is particularly wealthy. The Swiss are a hard-working and serious people and retain the tough mentality of their ancestral mountain folk. Frivolous, extravagant or risk-taking are not words one associates with the Swiss.
It’s ironic that a race based in one of the richest cities in the world folded because of financial problems, but its demise can also be explained by understanding that the Swiss are an eminently sensible and business-like people. A dearth of sponsors caused by the doping crises that began with the Festina Affair of 1998 was one reason given by the organizers, but that reason rings a little hollow. If the Tour of Flanders got into money trouble, half of Belgium would pawn the family silver to get the show back on the road. If the Tour de France got into trouble, the government would probably step in and nationalize it. But Switzerland’s only classic fizzled out after its move to the autumn.
On October 2, 2005, rain bucketed down on the Swiss countryside. Resplendent in gold helmet and gold shoes as reigning Olympic champion, Paolo Bettini plowed a lonely furrow in the lead of the Züri-Metzgete. After the race he’d admit that the cold rain almost forced him to quit in the feed zone, but having decided to continue he thought he might as well try to win the bloody bike race—not a literal translation! With 36 kilometers to go he attacked the leading group and they never saw him again. By the finish he had almost three minutes, arms red raw from the cold and a few extra wrinkles around the eyes.
The following year, on October 1, 2006, Samuel Sánchez emulated Bettini’s feat, winning alone in the pouring rain. It was to be the last Züri-Metzgete. Somehow, the race had become something to be endured, a late-season test of your wet-weather kit. How different from those bright days of May or August when fans watched the peloton roll over the Regensburg or Pfannenstiel climbs and wondered whether a vacation in Switzerland might be quite nice. Let’s hope some young entrepreneurial spark in Zürich re-establishes the race and takes it back to its roots. I, for one, would be there at the Oerlikon, jumping off my bench in the bleachers and cheering for a new monument champion.