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What’s astonishing about bike racing is that you’re never going to get even remotely close to the bottom of it.
When Stalin hermetically sealed off half of Europe in 1949, he simply turned the lights out. The Eastern lander of Germany, for decades her most fertile breeding grounds for cyclists, vanished. In Poland cycling had been the most popular of all sports between the wars, her riders huge stars. Now, though, they were lost to us. Cycling was tremendously popular behind the iron curtain, but it existed in a vacuum. A sporting black hole.
The point about the Peace Race, of course, is that it was forged as an instrument of détente. Two of Stalin’s surfs, Poland and Czechoslovakia, built it to engender peace as they bickered over what to do with their respective Germanic populations. And it worked.
So too in East Germany, when they had the courage and humility to allow them to compete, in 1952. It was the first sporting event to recognize GDR as a sovereign state, to offer legitimacy to the 19 million people hitherto derided as the pariahs of Europe. The Peace Race delivered not only international sport but – finally – a place to belong. For the sporting public of Eastern Germany nothing mattered more.
Schur and Vesely, Kapitonow and Królak. Then Moravec, Sukhoruchenkov, Szurkowski. For fourty years these, and thousands like them, built the one-eyed legend of the biggest bicycle race on the planet, the biggest free spectacle in all of Europe. When a decent, unassuming Scot named Ian Steel won it in 1952, 250,000 packed into Prague’s national stadium to bear witness. He’d won the biggest race in the world, thrilled millions. And yet the British press… and yet nothing.
Ostensibly an amateur event, the Peace Race fired the public imagination like nothing else. In Leipzig, Katowice and Brno, and in the thousands of towns and villages it passed through, the race delivered joy and genuine community. Like so much cold war sport it was shabbily treated, a political football. Impossibly compromised (and on occasion almost unfathomable), it was the ultimate communist paradox.
This was a bike race for anybody, regardless of creed, of athletic prowess, of wealth or political orientation. It crossed the literal and metaphorical borders which the people transfixed by it could never hope to. They were living, millions of them, in a prison, but for two weeks of the year it mattered not. The Peace Race remained something genuine, and genuinely good. Travel amongst them and you’ll see that it was nirvana. It made them dream, and it still does. In their hearts and in their minds it’s still beautiful. It’s the race of peace.
Issue 30 of Rouleur Magazine is available soon
The prints seen above are available here » www.rouleur.cc
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