The story that the East European propaganda machine circulated after the 1952 Peace Race was that the “Westerner” winner Ian Steel had been approached by his country’s intelligence agency before he travelled to the race and was asked to; ‘keep his eyes open’ whilst behind the Iron Curtain – to spy, in other words.
The rider declined and received a telegram from his employer on the day he won, firing him from his job.
All nonsense, of course.
But the Peace Race wasn’t just a bike race; it was where the East could battle with the West in the Cold War – and demonstrate their physical and mental superiority over the decadent Capitalists.
‘The Peace Race,’ Warsaw to Berlin to Prague.
When I was a boy it was spoken of in hushed tones.
The East European riders were the hardest of the hard – as they had no problems demonstrating when they came to the UK to ride the Milk Race and its little brother, the Scottish Milk Race.
They dominated the amateur world championships – road and team time trial; and won every notable amateur stage race world-wide.
During the entire history of the Peace Race from 1948 to 1989 there were few Western winners and no English speaker ever won.
Except one that is, in 1952, the year we mentioned in our opening paragraph – the rider was Ian Steel of Scotland.
As Steel himself says;
“We were very unpopular winners, there was supposed to be a Tatra car for the winner and motorbikes for the winning team – but they never materialised.”
And as VeloVeritas pal and Peace Race aficionado, Ivan explains; “Traditionally the leader of the race would wear a yellow jersey which bore Picasso’s representation of the white dove of peace.
“But not Steel, he wore a plain yellow one while Stablinski, an earlier leader of the race was given one with the dove; the same was true of the blue jerseys of the leading team, no dove on the blue jerseys given to the GB team while earlier leaders, the GDR, were given blue jerseys with the white dove.
“And there were no laps of honour for Steel and the GB team in Prague.”
Steel takes up the story;
“There had been Danish winners in the past but they weren’t seen as being as close to the Americans as the British; and Britain was a member of Nato, unlike Denmark.”
Despite the lack of enthusiasm for their performance the team was well looked after;
“We had a great interpreter with us all the time and at the end of every stage there was a boy or girl scout there for you to take your bike and give you a blanket to wrap yourself in – and hot mug of tea.”
The win may have been an unpopular one with the East Europeans but the British Government didn’t want the team to go in the first place;
“‘If you go over there on a British passport then we wash our hands of you’ they told us,”
says Steel. He recalls that it was an alternative British group which met the team in Poland, not official embassy staff.
Ivan explains; “there was GB consular representation in all three Peace Race cities but they would not be interested in looking after some cyclists.”
And Steel’s BLRC (British League of Racing Cyclists) team was the ‘second choice’ GB squad for the race – the original invite went to the BLRC’s bitter rivals, the NCU (National Cyclists Union) who refused it.
The welcoming of the teams fell to Marshall Konstantin Rokossovsky, Marshall of Poland and Polish Defence Minister.
“He was very animated – but that was probably the vodka!
“All of the teams had a greetings message prepared for the Marshall, but of course, we didn’t.
“Bev Wood suggested ‘bollocks!’, so when it came round to our turn to meet the Marshall, we chanted in unison; ‘Bollocks!'”
Steel also recalls that the squad had no team uniforms;
“Les Scales was the only one with a blazer so he was chosen to lay the wreath at the Soviet monument.”
The roads were every bit as bad as legend suggests;
“We had to wear goggles to protect our eyes from the coal dust.”
He also remembers that the Belgians had many mechanical problems;
“They were constantly breaking frames. The Italians were on lovely bikes, I remember that their spokes gleamed – ours were dull.
“They offered the Belgians their spare bikes, which had Campagnolo Paris-Roubaix gears; I had to teach the Belgian riders how to use them!