1987 and all that...

The Peace Race, the Tour de France and the lunacy of the two Berlins


It’s no secret that, between 1961 and 1989, the Wall conditioned everything. Therein lay its great paradox, because in that sense at least it made no distinction between those in the blue corner and those in the red. It informed all that you said, all that you read and did, all that you felt and all that you were. Europe’s sporting Stakhanovites, her toiling bike riders, were no exception.

To the east the Peace Race, the annual Berlin-Warsaw-Prague stage race. Conceived in the spirit of post-war détente, it had been the Soviet Bloc’s greatest sporting event. And, it could reasonably be argued in retrospect, its greatest idea…

When they’d conceived it back in 1948 the cyclists had been, quite literally, couriers of peace. They’d traversed war-torn Poland and Czechoslovakia, and in so doing bestowed hope and diversity, colour and community. Professional sport didn’t exist in the socialist canon, and the great race wouldn’t be undermined by squalid financial imperative. Rather it celebrated the kollektiv and as such the blue jersey of the team, far more than the yellow of the GC, became its great leitmotif. All for one…


By 1952 Berlin had become one of its cardinal points, and it had started to accumulate all manner of geopolitical baggage. Ultimately it had mutated, like everything else in that maelstrom, into an ideological wrestling match. Its precepts had been peace, fellowship and diversity, but its quotidian reality was ideology, ideology and ideology.

Not so the Tour de France. By the mid-eighties it was pedaling Spanish kitchenware, Italian jeans and Dutch videocassettes. It was Toshiba, Hitachi and Panasonic, sport as a consequence of and a vehicle for West’s heedless consumerism. It was liberté, égalité, Charly Mottét, everything the Friedensfahrt categorically wasn’t. Seamlessly choreographed and increasingly profitable, it represented a gigantic, high-summer pastiche of French grandeur.

And so it was that in October 1985 the worst-kept secret in cycling became official. 1987 would see Berlin (or more specifically the Berlins) host not one but two great races. The Peace Race would commemorate VE Day by rolling entirely symbolically out of Karl-Marx-Allee. Two months later, as the West too sought to appropriate the 750th anniversary of the city’s founding, the Tour would begin on the other side of the Wall. Our bike racing’s better than your bike racing…

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The mayor of West Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, had paid $1 million. He’d paid whatever it took and so now the Democratic Republic would extract tit for his tat. State Secretary Erich Honecker’s visit to the other side of the “anti-fascist rampart” was summarily cancelled. Our Berlin’s better than your Berlin…

The Soviets took everything on VE Day. The blue of the team, the yellow of the leader, the white of the youngster and the pink of the points. That’s right; cycling really was the great metaphor.

The Pole Lech Piasecki had won the 1985 Peace Race, and also the World Amateur championship. In so doing he’d honoured his country, and by extension its ideology. His reward (and here’s the most bewildering of all the Cold War contradictions) had been a way out of both. Poznan’s finest had earned himself a passport, and with it he’d ridden through the Brandenburg Gate and into a professional contract in the west. On 2 July 1987 he rode out of the shadows of the Wall and – the delicious irony of it – into the yellow jersey of the Tour de France.

Astonishing, isn’t it?

Welcome to Rapha Berlin.

Find out more about Rapha’s upcoming Clubhouse in Berlin, and join us for Rapha Rides Berlin as we uncover the local knowledge, the shortcuts, the places to visit, and the roads to ride.