They called it the “Tour de France of the East”, but of course it wasn’t. The Tour was predicated upon and constructed around stolid commercial imperatives. It was created to sell newspapers in the first instance, then later bikes and biros, fizzy drinks and ice cream. Its constituents, extraordinary human beings or otherwise, were nought but 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 an 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, much less to propagate crass 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 Czechs with Poles, socialists with former Nazis, the victors with the vanquished. 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 – for in the socialist canon financial inducement was the antithesis of sport – but rather the Peace Race would constitute an invitation. The daily papers of Polish and Czech communist parties would organise the event, and would provide board and lodgings 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 be no time limit (for sport belonged to everyone, not just the great champions) and as such entrants need simply cobble together a six-man team. If they could do that they would 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 would be 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.
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. Amateur teams came not only from Stalin’s minion states, but also from the likes of Denmark and Finland, Holland and Belgium, Britain and France.
Rooted as it was in utopian socialist principle, the race began to accumulate all manner of geopolitical baggage. The blue 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 contributed to the legend of the blue jersey.
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.
India would also send a team, (the Sikh rider, Dhana Singh, became a household name across half a continent), as would Mongolia, Egypt and China. All were enthusiastically received but their presence was routinely exploited by the party ideologues.
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 sporting model could they truly express themselves. The Peace Race became a pawn in a massive, all-consuming ideological chess match. The race was communism’s sporting synthesis, and like everything back then it became politicized. Through it the public was informed that only communism could deliver peace, and that Washington’s European serfs were intent on undermining it. How, in the propaganda maelstrom of post-war central Europe, could it realistically be otherwise?
Why, then, have we chosen to honour the 1952 edition? Not only was it the first major international sporting contest to take place on East German soil, but it was won by a genuine cycling icon. The quiet, dignified Glaswegian Ian Steel wore yellow in Prague, his British team-mates blue. The symbolism of their success was colossal and greatly informed our choice. It was a seminal race and, for better or 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.
Our jersey and board game has been intended as a homage to the 1952 peloton. Accompanied by 1,000 of Picasso’s doves, 94 cyclists rolled out of Warsaw one beautiful spring afternoon. Humble bike riders or otherwise, each was engaged in the realisation of a superlative idea, and in the reconstruction of a continent.
Notwithstanding the political grandstanding around them, they were genuine couriers of peace and we salute their brilliance, their courage and their fortitude.
Go in peace…
Rapha thanks PROGRESS FILMVERLEIH for providing the original Peace Race footage above.