26 times up the Cauberg: The strange story of the 1948 world championship

It’s an unremarkable stretch of road in Valkenburg. Over the past 15 years, it’s become part of cycling mythology — the stage on which the finale of the Amstel Gold Race has played out.

But back in 1948 everything was different.

It was an unseasonably warm morning in the Netherlands and all eyes were on the two Italians, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. They were the rock stars that everyone had come to see. It was August 22, 1948 — 70 years ago this week — and the UCI Road World Championship was about to begin.

Even by pro cycling standards, it was going to be a strange and memorable day.

The Internet does not easily dispense details about this race. A chart listing the top 10 finishers is easily found. Some of the drama with Coppi and Bartali is cited in stories. But I couldn’t find a single definitive narrative of this most unusual race. I’d guess it is a riveting chapter in a cycling history book or a biography that I have not read. What follows has been pieced together from a tangle of secondary sources.

I am hardly a scholar of the Coppi-Bartali era, but I’ve read more than a few books and know that it’s not just the most interesting rivalry in the history of cycling, but also one of the most compelling rivalries in the history of sport. They were two of the all-time greats, at the height of their powers at the same time, each from alternate universes in the same country.

In an era in which Italy and the rest of Europe were nearly torn apart by World War II, Coppi and Bartali provided hope and embodied two radically different worldviews. From the North of Italy, Coppi was secular and modern, a lithe long-range escape artist, poetry in motion. Bartali was from the South, traditional and religious, a dominating all-rounder who could climb with anyone.

It is easy to deconstruct their rivalry in geopolitical or metaphoric terms, but the reality is also that they were in a class by themselves as bike racers. Imagine if Merckx had ridden in a more tumultuous time and had a countryman who was his polar opposite and his equal — that’s what it was like.

Others know the twists and turns in their relationship better than I do, but it’s clear that Coppi and Bartali mostly steered clear of each other on the racing circuit in 1948.

Coppi won Milan San-Remo in trademark fashion, finishing alone with a five-plus-minute lead, while Bartali rolled in with the pack. Coppi rode the Giro (winning two stages and the mountain classification before leaving the race in protest over the size of another rider’s time penalty) while Bartali triumphed at the Tour in dramatic fashion — he’d been 20 minutes down and contemplating abandoning, but with Italy on the edge of civil war, he promised the prime minister he’d win. He wound up riding into Paris with a 26-minute lead.

They were the most dominant athletes in Italy, the best cyclists in the world, A-list celebrities and passionate rivals. And when everyone studied the course of the 1948 World Championships, it seemed that fans would be in for a battle royale.

In a word, the course was brutal. The centerpiece of the circuit was the Cauberg, the crux of the Amstel Race since 2003. That 1.5-kilometer climb, which averages about 6 percent and tops 10 percent in spots, is tackled four times in modern renditions of Amstel Gold. At the 2012 Road World Championship, also held in Valkenburg, the field climbed the Cauberg 10 times before Philippe Gilbert saved his season with a win.

At the 1948 World Championships, racers would have to surmount the Cauberg 26 times. The circuit was a small but spectator friendly loop around Valkenburg. More than 100,000 fans packed the course—many of them expecting to see Coppi and Bartali vie for supremacy.

It’s hard to imagine the mindset of their competitors, lining up for a relentlessly hilly battle against the two transcendent champions of the era. It is said that between 1946 and 1954 that Coppi succeeded in every single breakaway he got in. Contemplate that, and then contemplate deciding to tear off the front in the opening hours of a 250-kilometer classic. It sounds like suicide.

But one of the great things about watching a bike race is that almost always, someone is willing to commit themselves to try the impossible. Most of these early attacks ultimately fail, but sometimes the incredible unfolds. That’s part of why we watch.

Just three laps into the 26-lap race, five riders got off the front. With so much racing to come and two legendary engines (from the same country) present, the field let the break go. They eventually carved out a three-minute lead.

One of the riders in the break was a Belgian guy named Briek Schotte. He’s one of those racers whose name and legacy deserve to be remembered.

Schotte grew up poor in the town of Kanegem, in West Flanders. Secondary sources indicate that he was working full-time in a factory by the time he was 17, giving all of his earnings to his family. Bike racing in Belgium isn’t easy for anyone, but for Schotte it was especially tough. He reportedly would get up at 3:30 in the morning to get his miles in before his factory job. Imagine that kid on the roads of Flanders, out in the pre-dawn drizzle, pedaling up the Oude Kwaremont and the Koppenberg. Imagine the kind of resolve that life would pound into you.

The kid was good. He was known for his stamina and people started calling him Iron Briek. In 1942, when he was just 22, he won De Ronde. If you’re a tough kid from West Flanders, that’s a pretty good place to start.

World War II put his racing career on hold for a couple years, but he found more success after the fighting was done. He won Paris-Tours in 1946 and again in ’47. That year he won the final stage of the Tour de France in Paris. And in April 1948, just four months before Worlds, he prevailed in a four-man sprint to win his second title at De Ronde.

So it’s fair to say that Briek Schotte was no chump. But winning a sprint at Flanders is one thing, and winning Worlds from the break with 150 miles of racing to go is another.

The dynamic in the pack was not normal. Bartali and Coppi just seemed to be looking at each other, more interested in watching each other than the rest of the field.

Near the halfway point of the race, three more riders bridged from the pack to the break. Apo Lazaridès was one of them.

History will forgive you if you don’t remember hearing his name. But his story is memorable.

Lazaridès grew up in the northern France, not so far from the route of Paris-Roubaix, but he was small, and loved to climb hills on his bike. He was good at it. His passion for racing was interrupted by World War II, which started when he was 13. After the German occupation, the teenager, whose family came from Greece, rode his bike around the countryside to ferry supplies to the French resistance. I would be curious if he ever traded stories with Bartali, whose cycling resistance during the war is far more famous.

When the war ended, the rider that fans called Apo (his full name was Jean-Apôtre Lazaridès) started getting results. He won the Monaco-Paris stage race in 1947. And in July 1948, the month before Worlds, Apo took tenth at the Tour de France, finishing second in the mountains classification. He was a tenacious climber. One report says he weighed about 110 pounds at this point in his career.

For a lap or two, the eight-man break chugged away. But it was a hot day in the Netherlands — one report called it sweltering — and everyone in the break knew that Coppi and Bartali were back there somewhere. Schotte decided it was time to shed some weaker riders, and after a hard push up the Cauberg, the break was down to four. Apo was still there.

The heat and the hills and the long hard miles had an impact on the peloton, too. Coppi and Bartali were still looking at each other, pedaling hard enough to put weaker riders in duress, but not hard enough to pull time back on the break. In fact, the gap kept growing. Some riders in the group went out the back while others, tired of waiting for an organized chase, took off on their own.

It was utter chaos. Before long, there really wasn’t a peloton. There was just Coppi, Bartali, and Gerrit Schulte. Everyone else was just strung out on the roads around Valkenburg or retired for the day.

Schulte was a local guy, a Dutch hero who specialized on the track. He’d wind up winning 19 six-day races in his two-decade-long career. He’d won a stage in the 1938 Tour de France. A few days after the worlds in Valkenburg, Schulte would defeat Coppi in a 5,000-meter individual pursuit at the Track World Championships.

In short, Schultewas no slouch. He was 32 at the time, an experienced pro, and it’s reasonable to guess that he thought that sticking with Coppi and Bartali was a sound race strategy. On paper, it sure sounds smart.

But Schulte’s plan hit a major hitch. With about seven laps remaining, the gap to the leaders had ballooned to eight minutes. The two Italian giants both refused to initiate a hard chase.

Exactly what happened next is not exactly made clear in news stories or historical recaps I could find. Though it’s logical to assume that words were expressed, I could not find reports of an exchange. All that I know is that Coppi and Bartali slowed and then stopped and then climbed off their bikes.

Their rivalry was deep and acrimonious. Neither man was willing to put forth effort to help the other man win. They were both prideful competitors, great champions, men who were willing to lose rather than tow a rival to a win. There is some honor in that.

But also: It was 1948 and Italy was still on the precipice and back home young children and old men leaned into their radios, hoping that their heroes would do something heroic. But their heroes just climbed off their bikes.

If the Tifosi were upset, imagine how Gerrit Schulte must have felt. Suddenly, his whole plan had gone to shit. Suddenly, he was alone at the World Championship about eight minutes in arrears.

But Schulte was a champion pursuit rider and he was pedaling through his home country, so he just went for it. It was a sweltering day and everyone had to be worn out by 20 trips up the Cauberg. Why not give it a try?

Miraculously, with a little more than four laps to go, Schulte had ridden though the remnants of the break and bridged all the way to the leaders. He had shut down an eight-minute lead by himself.

Unfortunately, he made contact right before the Cauberg and Schotte, the Flandrian known for his stamina, decided to make him pay. “I realized I must attack immediately,” Schotte told a newspaper. “In a sprint he could beat us all.”

At the top of the climb, Schulte and another rider were gone. The Dutch track star would end the day with a DNF.

Now it was just Schotte, Apo, and Lucien Teisseire, another Frenchman. Teisseire already had won Paris-Tours and two Tour de France stages and finished second at Paris Roubaix. It’s safe to say that he was not chopped liver.

A lap later, Schotte turned the screws on the Cauberg, and Teisseire was gone. He would wind up finishing third, 3:41 down on the winner.  (Oh, and that top 10 list I’d seen on the Internet — it turns out that was a list of all of the finishers of the race.)

Now it was just the big Flandrian and the little Frenchman, the kid who had worked in a factory and the kid who had carried supplies to the rebels. Reports indicate that Schotte did most of the work and Apo sat on the wheel.

It was like that to the very end. Schotte could not drop Apo, and Apo could not outsprint Schotte. The Flandrian won worlds by a second. Afterward Schotte would tell a reporter, “For 25 miles I towed Apo, but was never afraid of him.”

Briek Schotte, 1948 world road champion.

So Schotte was world champion, but the bigger story was about Coppi and Bartali. The outraged Italian Cycling Federation handed both riders three-month suspensions and released a statement criticizing the two megastars: “They have forgotten to honor the Italian prestige they represent. Thinking only of their personal rivalry, they abandoned the race, to the approbation of all sportsmen.”

Of course, the governing bodies in the sport have a long tradition of handing out largely ceremonial suspensions, and Coppi’s ban did not begin until after the Tour of Lombardy in late October, which he won.

The strange tension between these two great Italian champions would continue for the rest of their careers. Even after they famously shared a bottle on the Col d’Izoard during the 1952 Tour de France, a squabble would emerge over who had offered whom the drink. In the end, Coppi would retire with seven Grand Tour wins and nine Monuments, while Bartali left the sport with five Grand Tour victories and seven Monuments. It’s doubtful the weird drama at the 1948 World Championship kept them awake in their elder years.

It’s more likely the other protagonists remembered the race as an important life memory. Gerrit Schulte, for one, kept racing until 1960. Five years earlier, in honor of his illustrious career, the Gerrit Schulte Trophy had been created to honor the top male and female Dutch riders of the year. At one point, Marianne Vos took that trophy for nine consecutive years.

Apo would finish ninth overall at the Tour de France in 1949. He didn’t really have any big results after that and retired in 1955. He moved to Cannes and was president of a sportive there.

Briek Schotte would rack up plenty more respectable wins — two at Gent Wevelgem, for instance, and two more at Dwars door Vlaanderen. After he retired in 1959, he spent three decades coaching cyclists, primarily in Flanders.

The man people called Iron Briek, a one-time World Champion who had grown up riding hellingen in the dark, died on April 4, 2004 — the day that De Ronde took place on his native soil.

About the author

Peter Flax, former editor in chief at Bicycling magazine and features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, currently works as editor in chief at The Red Bulletin. He is the proud owner of a Strava KOM on the Jersey Shore, and he only wears leg warmers when he feels like it.

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