In the late 1980s the UCI, which was then as it continues to do increasing the amount of central control over the somewhat anarchic world of professional cycling, was determined to spread the sport outside its traditional heartland in France, Benelux, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. One of its main instruments in the quest for mondialisation was a season-long points competition, vaguely modelled on motor racing's Formula 1 series with a name borrowed from football, for single-day races - classics, in cycling terminology - which would combine the "monuments" of the sport, some of its oldest and most famous races, with new or vastly upgraded events in the countries which they had their eyes on.
The "existing" big races were the spring classics Milano-Sanremo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Amstel Gold Race, the somewhat neglected sprinter's autumn classic Paris-Tours and the traditional season-closer the Giro di Lombardia; to these were added revamped versions of a minor Spanish race at San Sebastian and the Meisterschaft von Zürich, plus two new races in Canada (the GP of the Americas in Montreal) and the UK (the Wincanton Classic in Newcastle-upon-Tyne). The first couple of years a team time trial round was included; it was not very popular with anyone except team sponsors for whom it provided admirable advertising coverage, and was replaced by a specially commissioned individual time trial finale in 1991 and 1992 and the inclusion of the GP des Nations TT in 1994; since then the format has been strictly "ordinary" road races only.
The attempts to "spread the word" were not entirely successful. The British and Canadian events, handicapped by field selection rules that largely prevented any local riders from taking part, failed to break through to a mass audience as hoped, and there were safety issues with police and public unused to the sport and its attendant road closures; the Montreal race was dropped after three years while the British one was moved around the country, first to Brighton, then Leeds and lastly Rochester before being dropped in 1998. The only other venture outside continental Europe was the one-off inclusion of the Japan Cup at Utsonomiya in 1996.
With the boom in cycling's popularity in Germany following Jan Ullrich's win in the 1997 Tour de France, the British round was replaced by a German race. Germany's hitherto most major race, the Rund um den Henninger Turm (Frankfurt am Main) had been included in 1995, but its May date was deemed unsuitable and instead a new race, the HEW Cyclassics Cup, was introduced on a rather dull, flat course in Hamburg, enlivened only by a bit of estuary scenery and a finishing run in down the Reeperbahn; it is rumoured that a new German venue is being sought for the end of Hamburg's contract, however. The Zürich race has gone through a few ownership changes and is now known as the Züri Metzgete.
Looked at critically, the series has not been an unqualified success. The way races are ridden has been compromised to some extent by the presence of riders content to ride for the the certainty of a placing rather than the chance of a win, and some major traditional races have been diminished by their exclusion. The lesser events have never really reached the same status to the riders or fans, although the development of a rider ranking system which has become vital to career prospects with a very large points premium in World Cup ranking scores means they are never short of riders, although it may have saved the highly specialised and painful Paris-Roubaix from a lingering death. The popularity of the sport has not, however, been pushed far beyond its traditional borders, and the vertical C&A logo-esque rainbow vest of the World Cup leader does not have the iconic status of a maillot jaune or rainbow jersey, or even of the unjerseyed number 1 on the UCI rankings.
More successfully - and more globally, with rounds in Australia, New Zealand and Canada as well as Europe - a women's world cup road competition on a similar basis has also been run since 1996, and the "World Cup" brand has also been expanded to include track cycling (senior and junior competitions), cyclo-cross, mountain biking, BMX and cycleball, all, in these disciplines less based on professional trade team structures, competed for by national teams.
Elite Men's Road World Cup winners
1989 - Sean Kelly (Ireland)
1990 - Gianni Bugno (Italy)
1991 - Maurizio Fondriest (Italy)
1992 - Olaf Ludwig (Germany)
1993 - Maurizio Fondriest (Italy)
1994 - Gianluca Bortolami (Italy)
1995 - Johan Museeuw (Belgium)
1996 - Johan Museeuw (Belgium)
1997 - Michele Bartoli (Italy)
1998 - Michele Bartoli (Italy)
1999 - Andrei Tchmil (Belgium)
2000 - Erik Zabel (Germany)
2001 - Erik Dekker (Netherlands)
2002 - Paolo Bettini (Italy)
2003 - Paolo Bettini (Italy)
2004 - Paolo Bettini (Italy)
From 2005 onwards the Elite Men's road competition was replaced by the UCI ProTour which encompassed a much larger number of races, but the competitions for other categories continue.