Join respected author & journalist Herbie Sykes whose enthusiasm for the Peace race shines through this insightful piece.
First held in 1948, Tour of Flanders 2004 winner Steffen Wesemann holds the record with five victories, with Ryszard Szurkowski (Poland) and Uwe Ampler (East Germany) on four with other familiar names such as Olaf Ludwig (1982 & 1986), Jens Voigt (1994) and the late Michele Scarponi (2004) on the top step of the podium.
They called the Peace Race the Tour de France of the East, and they couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Tour was constructed around stolid commercial imperative, no more and no less. It was created to sell newspapers in the first instance, and later bikes, ice-creams and video recorders. Its constituents, extraordinary human beings or otherwise, have always been moving billboards. Finely calibrated billboards, but billboards all the same…
In 1948 a group of Polish and Czech sports journalists conceived something entirely other. Warsaw-Prague would be a two-week stage race, but it would aspire to altogether higher principle. Its riders, disparate young men drawn from all corners of a ruined continent, would be couriers of peace. They would ride not for money, and much less still to propagate consumerism. Instead, they’d pedal the idea that sport – and specifically cycling, the most popular sport of all – might build bridges between their respective nations. Here on socialism’s western frontier, bike racing would unite Germans with Poles, Christians with Muslims, socialists with former Nazis. Riding through communities defiled by fascism, they would broadcast the notion that sporting values could promote unity on a continent torn asunder by hate.
There would be no financial inducement because in the socialist canon financial inducement was the antithesis of sport. Instead, the Peace Race would constitute an invitation to amateur cyclists the world over. The daily ‘papers of Polish and Czech communist parties would organise the event and would provide board and lodge for the bike riders of any nation. Regardless of colour, creed or political orientation, regardless even of cycling ability, all would be welcome. There would no time limit (for sport belonged to everyone, not just the great champions) and as such, they need simply cobble together a six-man team. If they could do that they need simply embrace the idea of the peloton as a collective, a coalition of the willing. And embrace it they emphatically would; the post-war Peace Race peloton was a band of brothers in a very real sense. Meanwhile, the proletariat, given a day off work to contribute to the spectacle, would line up in their millions…
Estonian Aavo Pikkuus won the 30th edition of the Peace race in 1977. He was part of the mighty Soviet team that won the 100km TTT at the 1976 Montreal Olympics Games. Photo: Hartmut Reiche, 1977.
The race was staggeringly successful, and it quickly took root in the collective consciousness. It was like no bike race before or since, and it became socialism’s great sporting metaphor. With its precepts of inclusivity and tolerance, the propaganda machine portrayed it as its perfect sporting distillation. In 1950 the race adopted Picasso’s white dove. Furthermore communist East Germany, hitherto a pariah state, fielded a team for the first time. Thus the Peace Race played a major part in healing the deepest, cruellest wound of all, and two years later Warsaw-Prague became Warsaw-Berlin-Prague. Now the German Democratic Republic became one of the cardinal points of the race, and the Friedensfahrt became irrefutably the biggest stage race on earth. That’s right – bigger than the Tour and the Giro, and bigger than any annual sporting event anywhere on the planet.
Teams came not only from Stalin’s minion states but also from the capitalist bulwarks of Denmark and Finland, Holland and Belgium, Britain and France. In 1954 India sent a team, (the Sikh rider Dhana Singh became a household name across half a continent), and later Mongolia and All were enthusiastically received by the great unwashed, and their presence was ruthlessly exploited by the party ideologues. Not least the legendary Egyptians. They’d never seen snow before, but then they’d never ridden through the Harz Mountains in May.
I rode the Peace Race three years running - they looked after us like Gods. The crowds were certainly bigger than the Tour of France.
I'm incredibly proud to still hold the record for the longest solo break at the race. I gained a maximum lead of 15 minutes during the 88 miles I was away during a tough 120 mile stage in '89.
Glenn Longland. Peace Race 1987/88/89
The problem was that, like most things rooted in utopian socialist principle, it began to accumulate all manner of geopolitical baggage. The blue leaders jersey of the team competition, as distinct to the yellow of the GC, quickly became the event’s great leitmotif. Whilst yellow symbolised individual excellence, blue represented the collective, Marxism’s bedrock and founding principle. The yellow jersey was almost scrapped on ideological grounds but survived a very communist purge principally because it was a contributory factor to (and ergo indivisible from) the blue.
As the cold war became a matter of quotidian fact, the participation of non-communist nations assumed still more political resonance. Their riders were portrayed as an enlightened minority, who understood that only through the communist – ergo amateur - sporting model could they truly express themselves. The Peace Race had always promulgated the idea that sport was no mere consumable, but gradually it became a pawn in a massive, all-consuming ideological chess match. Through it the public was informed that only communism could deliver peace, and that Washington’s European serfs were intent on undermining it. The race was communism’s sporting synthesis, but in their world, nothing wasn’t politicized. How, in the propaganda maelstrom of post-war Central Europe, could it really be otherwise?
For better or for worse, the Peace Race was about much more than podium girls, hearts and flowers. Like the Tour, it was a promotional blunt instrument, but this wasn’t about selling washing powder, or bicycles, or chewing gum. It was promoting a different way of living and, in the wake of WWII, a new way of being. Over time the ideological zeal which had created it began to undermine it, but those who bore witness – those who truly understood it – have never fallen out of love with it.
A band of brothers, drawn from all corners, cycling across the borders of a ruined continent. Couriers of peace in the most literal sense.
The Tour de France of the East? Nie, ne, and categorically nein. The Tour is a thing of wonder, but ultimately a thing of Coca-Cola, PMU and Credit Lyonaisse. It’s bookmakers and bankers, Spanish mobile phones and Dutch travel agents.
The Peace Race was something else entirely, and the clue is in the name.
It was – and remains - the greatest idea in the history of sport.
The final edition of the Peace Race in 2006 was won by the Italian former road rider, now professional mountain biker Giampaolo Cheula whilst riding for Barloworld. Photograph: Harald Weber.