For some people in the world of cycling the Peace Race will mean little, for others it was as important as cycling the grandest of grand tours. Recently, Podia met with two British veterans of the ‘Tour de France of the East’.
For professional bike racers Alan Jacob and Doug Collins (both with the Condor – Mackeson racing team) riding in the Peace Race in 1962 and 1960 respectively was a highlight of their careers. The fact that the two Brits were even involved in a race, that for the most part acted as a communist propaganda vehicle, makes the story even more intriguing.
In 1952 a British team was invited to the event for the first time and proceeded to win both the team competition and the GC with Ian Steel, much to the dismay of the race organisers. As a result it cemented their place in history and guaranteed the participation of the British team thereafter.
The Peace Race began as a non-political event but it’s popularity was quickly adopted by the communist parties newspapers of then Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland. It was seen as the perfect way to demonstrate positive relations with neighbouring countries as well as highlight the power of team participation in reaching goals.
At it’s most popular, huge crowds would turn out in every village to watch the racers fly by. This was in part because local schools and other institutions would be given time out of school/work to ensure they would watch.
Competing in the Peace Race was like being involved in a Football Cup Final every day for two weeks stated Alan Jacob. Almost every stage finished in a stadium, which had a cinder running track around a football pitch. This allowed vast crowds to witness the stage finishes.
Doug agrees; We were treated like royalty everywhere we went. We stayed in the best hotels. If you rode the Peace Race, you were a king.
Of course, under such regimes with heavy security they were never far away from a chaperone, keeping an eye on their movements and regularly reporting back on them. Occasionally their minders were girls such as Doug’s; I kept in touch with my chaperone, she was from East Germany, but I never knew if she was just interested in getting to the UK?
It seems the racers were popular with the ladies and Alan remembers it well; We finished the race in Warsaw, it was still devastated after the War, but we got to look around then got taken to some shops and then a nightclub. The next day we were supposed to go to the airport and were waiting in the lobby for one of the others in the team. It seems he was still locked up in the bathroom with a girl. We had to get the manager to open up the door and get him out, otherwise we would have had to leave without him.
But it wasn’t all fun and frolics for Alan. I remember the 100km team time trial at that race. It was one of the most miserable experiences on a bike I have ever had. We were going strong at the start, second to the Russians. But by halfway, our team was down to the last four and we had a puncture. We were at the mercy of the slowest man, forth man to finish counted for the team time and we had to fight a headwind and driving rain. We went from second fastest to the second slowest in the final 50km.
It seems the Russian’s were always a strong team, even in Doug’s race. We had no idea there was any funny business going on, we just thought they were all Army officers and trained on the Black Sea where it was warm. They always had a team of doctors with them, we never knew what was actually going on.
On one stage Doug found himself in a break that didn’t feature any Russians; we knew there wasn’t much chance with the Russian team behind working on the front to catch the break.
It was probably only the Polish who were a match for the Russians at my race. There was always a huge rivalry between them.
Rumours seem to back up Doug’s view with Russian and Polish teams feuding constantly. Reports suggest of battles with pumps in tunnels during races where it was hidden from the commissars.
Towards the end of 2015, Ian Steel, the only British winner of the Peace Race passed away. While neither Alan nor Doug raced with him, they knew him well. He achieved celebrity status after his win and used to attend later events as an ambassador.
His win at the Peace race was actually a key moment for British Cycling, Alan remembers. Before that there were many fractions but his win caused the UCI to intervene, which resulted in the creation of British Cycling. This change enabled Steel and the British Team to later participate in the Tour de France.
The Peace Race struggled after the fall of communism when state funding was withdrawn. The main event was last held in 2006 although the Junior and Under 23’s versions continues to this day. Notable winners of the junior versions include Roman Kreuziger, Fabian Cancellara, Michał Kwiatkowski and Podia friend Michael Moureček, co-owner of Festka.
Thank you to Alan Jacob and Doug Collins for sharing their stories with us and to David Jacob for arranging our meeting.