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Rudi Altig: The Mannheim Steamroller

From issue 68 • Words by John Wilcockson with images from Horton Collection

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“When at the end of his career they asked Rudi Altig about his greatest race, he didn’t mention his world road championship of 1966 or his victory in the Spanish Vuelta in 1962, his yellow jerseys in the Tour de France or his numerous pursuit championships. He spoke of the Trofeo Baracchi of 1962.”

—from “The Rider,” by Tim Krabbé

In today’s highly specialized world of cycling, a race like the Trofeo Baracchi would be unthinkable. Can you imagine multi-Tour de France winner Chris Froome teaming up with a younger teammate, say Luke Rowe, to race a 111-kilometer team time trial? Just the two of them on regular road bikes? But that was the formula of the Trofeo Baracchi, an event funded by Italian businessman Mino Baracchi who paid the world’s top cyclists to race against each other at the end of each season. In November 1962, he paid the highest start money to Jacques Anquetil, who that year won the Tour for the third time and was the undisputed tsar of pro cycling. He was paired with his Saint Raphaël-Helyett teammate Rudi Altig, then in only his third professional season but already a rider with considerable presence.

Auspiciously, Altig grew up in Mannheim, a city in the Rhine Valley of southwest Germany where Karl von Drais invented, built and strode the first (pedal-less) bicycle in 1817. For Rudi and his older brother Willi Altig, Mannheim’s biggest attraction was its velodrome. In his brother’s wheel marks, Rudi Altig did his first track race at age 14, and soon took his first victory—in a cyclocross race. His all-around ability became clearer when, just after his 15th birthday, he started (and won!) his first road race: the district championship in the Youth-B category.

Looking back at his amateur days, Altig said: “There were always new goals. When I started, it was to be the best in Mannheim. Local champ, I thought, that would be nice. Then it was state champion, then German champion…then that wasn’t enough either.”

His first national senior titles came in 1957 at age 20 in the track sprint and individual pursuit. He took a second pursuit title and the Madison (with brother Willi) in 1958, and added the team pursuit to those two in 1959. That wasn’t enough so, at 22, he took the next step, traveling to that year’s track worlds in Amsterdam, where he tackled the amateurs’ 4,000-meter pursuit. At 5-foot-10, broad shouldered and weighing in at 165 pounds, Altig cut a formidable figure for his first appearance on the world stage.

Altig not only won the world title but set the media abuzz with his unusual preparations before each ride: standing on his head in the track center. “That’s why I probably stuck out from the crowd,” he remembered. “This was an exercise from my yoga practice. In addition [to relaxing], it has the advantage that no one speaks to you when you stand on the head. So I had my peace.” Later that year, at the indoor velodrome in Cologne, Altig confirmed his huge potential by shattering two world amateur records: the standing-start 1-kilometer and 5-kilometer time trials. It was no great surprise when he and brother Willi took out pro licenses in 1960, signing contracts with the French team Rapha-Gitane-Dunlop.

Altig took nine road wins in his rookie season, headed by a stage of the Tour of Germany and including seven French criterium events; but his outstanding result was winning the world pro pursuit title, on the outdoor track in Leipzig, East Germany, in the middle of the Cold War. Asked how he felt when the West German national anthem was played before the communist audience, Altig said: “When the song was played, I had goose bumps…but the anthem was aborted when the needle slipped on the record player.” So the emotional moment was only short-lived? “On the contrary—20,000 people sung the anthem. That got under my skin.”

Becoming the world professional pursuit champion was a major accomplishment in the 1950s and ’60s. That particular rainbow jersey was twice won by Italian legend Fausto Coppi and, prior to Altig, the title was taken the previous three years by French superstar Roger Rivière. Interestingly, Altig’s first pro road victory was in a two-man team time trial, the GP d’Alger in Algeria, teamed with Rivière. As world pursuit champion (and he would repeat in 1961), Altig became a sought-after “name” by race promoters—back then, a pro racers’ main source of income was start money, not the meager wages paid by teams. On the track, Altig managed to break into the “closed shop” of elite six-day racing in his first winter season, with podium finishes in Frankfurt and Essen.

Altig didn’t win as many races in his second year, 1961, but he had two significant results: 24th in his first monument, Milan–San Remo, and sixth overall at the weeklong Tour of Germany. That showed he was fast acquiring the stamina of a true road racer to go with the pursuit speed and sprint skills he’d already established on the velodrome. All those qualities landed him a spot on the higher grade Saint Raphaël-Helyett team, led by Anquetil, in 1962. This would be a big year for both men….

By that point in his career, Anquetil had won the Tour twice, the Giro, Paris–Nice twice and all the world’s major time trials multiple times. At the start of the new season, Miroir du Cyclisme magazine reported that Anquetil—who won his first Tour in 1957 and the Giro d’Italia in 1960—“envisions attacking the Tour of Spain rather than the Giro d’Italia because he wants to be the first rider in history to add his name to the palmarès of all three grand tours.”

Winning the 1962 Vuelta a España (then held in April–May) on a course without major climbs looked like being a shoo-in for Anquetil. He had the strongest team in the race, which was confirmed when Saint Raphaël won the stage 5 team time trial—after teammates Altig and Irishman Shay Elliott had already won a stage apiece. Altig would win a second road stage, while Elliott would hold the leader’s jersey for a week prior to stage 15, an 82-kilometer time trial from Bayonne to San Sebastian. Anquetil planned to trounce the opposition in this marathon race against the clock, his specialty, and take the overall victory two days later.

That was the plan, and he did indeed put minutes into all his rivals, but Anquetil hadn’t reckoned on one of his domestiques matching him. But Altig, a specialist in six-minute pursuits, ground out a phenomenal two-hour effort to beat his boss by one second (!) and claim the overall lead. It was a humiliating defeat for Anquetil and though he was lying second on GC, he pulled out of the Vuelta the morning of the final stage, feigning injury. His goal of becoming the first man to win all three grand tours would have to wait another year.

That shocking Vuelta victory greatly enhanced Altig’s reputation with the public, even while it displeased Anquetil. But Altig was now too strong a rider to leave out of the Frenchman’s Saint Raphaël squad for the defense of his Tour title, and the German’s debut proved excellent for all concerned. Altig won three stages, held the yellow jersey for four days and won the green jersey as points champion, while Anquetil played a waiting game until stage 20, a 68-kilometer time trial, in which he defeated his closest competitor by five minutes to win this third Tour.

Doing well at the Tour—especially winning stages and the green jersey in your first one—was a major part of Altig obtaining lucrative contracts in the series of almost-daily French criteriums in August/September. He and the other stars in this elite group drove around the country in their Mercedes-Benz sedans, meeting up for pre-race meals at high-class restaurants, riding the 80- to 100-kilometer crits, getting their contract money in cash from the race organizers, dividing up the substantial prime monies donated by the fans and then moving on to the next town. Altig and Anquetil both won four of those crits in 1962, including two of the more prestigious ones: the Frenchman taking the post-worlds Circuit de l’Aulne in Brittany, the German the Critérium des As in Paris.

Those races were great preparation for the six-day season’s opening event in early October in Berlin. Altig teamed up there with his now regular track partner, Hans Junkermann, who was three years older and Germany’s leading road racer, having finished top five in his last two Tour de France finishes. With Junkermann’s stamina and Altig’s speed they proved unbeatable at the Berlin Six, with Altig taking his first six-day victory on sprint points after he and Junkermann finished on the same lap as the circuit’s very best teams: Rik Van Looy and Peter Post; and Rik Van Steenbergen and Emile Severeyns.

Riding (and winning) a six-day race, with its long, fast two-man Madison sessions and repeated sprint efforts, helped Altig get ready for the upcoming Trofeo Baracchi—the formidable two-up team time trial he was due to race with time-trial king Anquetil. Since the Baracchi was made a two-man TTT in 1949, only the very best racers had won it: Italian superstar Fiorenzo Magni had three wins and campionissimo Fausto Coppi four, including his last one with Olympic champion Ercole Baldini, who then won it three more times.

For the 1962 edition, Baldini, who had broken Anquetil’s world hour record, was paired with his close friend and Ignis teammate Arnaldo Pambianco, who’d beaten Anquetil to win the previous year’s Giro d’Italia. Those recent defeats gave Anquetil all the incentive he needed to challenge the Italian team; he also had in mind his one-second defeat by Altig in the Vuelta TT six months’ earlier and needed to show his German teammate who was boss. This was the background to the ’62 Baracchi that Altig later described as his “greatest race.”

The 111-kilometer course from Bergamo to Milan was on gently rolling terrain, finishing on the famed Vigorelli velodrome, where Anquetil and Baldini had set their world hour records. For the first two hours, Anquetil-Altig worked together beautifully, averaging more than 46 kilometers per hour [almost 30 mph]; and as they headed into the outskirts of Milan, with almost 100 kilometers completed, they had a one-minute lead over Baldini-Pambianco. Curiously though Altig was now doing all the work with Anquetil tucked in his slipstream for kilometer after kilometer. That’s when Anquetil’s face turned ashen and he lost contact with the flying German. Altig turned, saw the gap, slowed down and began to encourage his teammate. He shouted at him, showed him a fist and then pushed him. It was the ultimate humiliation for the world’s then greatest cyclist.

Describing the scene from a following press car, veteran French sportswriter René de Latour wrote for Coureur / Sporting Cyclist: “When Anquetil lost contact, he had to ease the pace, wait for his partner to go by, push him powerfully in the back, sprint to the front again after losing 10 yards in the process, and again settle down to a 30-mph stint at the front.” Altig had to do this a dozen times in the closing kilometers, knowing that their rivals would be constantly closing on them. De Latour said this was the most extraordinary athletic feat he’d witnessed in 35 years of following bike races.

Luckily for the Saint-Raphaël teammates, the timekeepers were stationed at the entrance to the velodrome—just before the riders raced through a tunnel under the bleachers and turned right onto the track. The dazed and debilitated Anquetil failed to make the sharp turn, crashed into a pole and ended up on the ground with a badly bruised arm and blood flowing from his lacerated face. Amazingly, the clock showed that Anquetil-Altig won the event by nine seconds! Altig took a lap of honor to celebrate his “greatest win” while Anquetil ended up in the hospital.

Altig looked set to continue augmenting his burgeoning career. Indeed, after taking two more six-day wins with Junkermann that winter, he started the 1963 season by winning the Genoa–Nice semi-classic and placing second to team leader Anquetil at Paris–Nice. But back problems stopped him racing for the middle part of the season and he had spinal surgery in August.

This was the precursor to a stellar 1964, which began with his winning the Ruta del Sol and a hilly time-trial stage of Paris–Nice before heading to the spring classics. In Belgium, Altig enjoyed one of his most emphatic victories at the Tour of Flanders, breaking clear from a 12-man breakaway group that formed on the Kwaremont and riding the last 60 kilometers solo to win by four minutes! Altig became even more popular with his home fans when he won the national road title and, at the Tour de France, donned the yellow jersey in the German city of Freiburg. He also won three more six-day races that year—on his way to winning 23 sixes in his 12 years as a pro.

It looked like 1965 would see Altig attain greater heights when he moved to another French team, Margnat-Paloma, and became the team leader supported by brother Willi Altig and his German colleague Junkermann. The season began well when Altig won three stages at Paris–Nice and finished second overall to now rival Anquetil. He then won two stages of the Tour du Sud-Est, which was won overall by his Spanish teammate Federico Bahamontes. But at the Vuelta a España, after winning one stage, Altig crashed and fractured a femur—which put him out of the sport for two months.

After missing the Tour and its lucrative post-race criteriums, Altig made the world road championship his late-season goal. Winning the ultimate rainbow jersey would have earned Altig a small fortune in increased start money in six-day racing; and, despite his lack of racing, he made it into the successful breakaway at the worlds in San Sebastián. Just the German and Britain’s Tom Simpson remained to contest the finish. They agreed to an honest sprint. “I saw the finish line and let Simpson take the lead, and then I couldn’t come back past him,” Altig remembered many years later. “To this day, I don’t understand how he could have come around me.”

Despite a hectic six-day schedule, winning five races that winter, Altig’s road success continued in 1966—his first with Italian team Molteni. Besides winning two Italian semi-classics, the Tours of Piedmont and Tuscany, he helped team leader Gianni Motta win the Giro d’Italia (taking two stages himself) and then finished 12th at the Tour de France (wearing the yellow jersey for nine days and winning three stages, including the closing 51-kilometer time trial). He carried his good form to the world championships, held that year on the Nürburgring motor-racing circuit, not far from his home in Germany. There was a tremendous field and, on the 12th and final lap of the hilly 22.8-kilometer circuit, French rivals Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor along with the youthful Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi were among the dozen riders in with a chance of victory. Over the last few kilometers, Altig closed a 50-second gap on the leaders with Motta’s help and then launched an attack up the final short climb—and held on to win the rainbow jersey just ahead of Anquetil, Poulidor and Motta.

That famous victory more than made up for his defeat by Simpson 12 months earlier. It was a watershed point in Altig’s career, which continued with regular stage wins at grand tours (a final total of 18), continued six-day successes and significant results in the classics. His top performance in 1968 was victory at Milan–San Remo, where he escaped with six others (including Poulidor) on the final climb and then out-sprinted them, 15 seconds ahead of a 100-strong peloton.

One of his more curious events was that year’s first edition of a two-man team time trial at Baden-Baden, a German city just down the road from Altig’s hometown of Mannheim. For nostalgia’s sake, the organizers paired Altig with Anquetil, just like the Trofeo Baracchi six years earlier, the one that had bitter memories for Anquetil. Even though the two stars had grown friendly over the course of their careers, the Frenchman rode the 66-kilometer Baden-Baden TTT as if he was getting revenge for the humiliation he suffered in 1962. Setting a ferocious pace, Anquetil forced Altig to follow a few meters back and, at times, even ordered him not to take a pull. They didn’t win but finished a close second to world hour record holder Ferdinand Bracke and reigning world road champion Vittorio Adorni.

Even though he didn’t end his career until the end of 1971 at age 34, the last great performance by Altig came at the 1969 Tour de France—the one that saw Merckx make his debut with a dominating victory. The Belgian phenom was fully expected to start that Tour by winning the opening day’s 10.4-kilometer time trial in Roubaix and racing the next day into his hometown of Sint-Pieters-Woluwe with the yellow jersey on his back. But in one of his most impressive rides—a bit like his one-second beating of Anquetil in that 82-kilometer Vuelta time trial of 1962—Altig blasted around the flat Roubaix course to put seven seconds into second-place Merckx and earn his 18th Tour yellow jersey. No other cyclist can claim that they beat two five-time Tour champions against the clock!

Altig is acknowledged as one of Germany’s greatest ever athletes; he was awarded the country’s Federal Cross of Merit in 1997. After his racing career, he worked as coach to the national amateur team, as a directeur sportif of French pro team Puch, as a consultant to the Schauff bicycle company, as a race director and as a popular television commentator. He died on June 11 last year at age 79 from cancer in a hospice in Remagen, close to his home in Sinzig, a small town on the banks of the Rhine, two hours north of Mannheim, and only 40 kilometers from the Nürburgring where he won his world title and where the annual Rudi Altig Race now takes place.

Discussing his life as a cyclist in one of his last interviews, Altig said: “You do not always have to live like an ascetic. The beauty of life is that not every day looks the same—the same training program that you always reel off. To be told not to drink beer or to do other things is nonsense. But if I prepare myself for one thing, then I do it 100 percent and disciplined. When it is finished, you can let yourself go. To train every day, and to take care not to do this or that, is no fun. I’ve been cycling to live and not lived to ride a bike.”

From issue 68. SOLD OUT!