Racing through the fallout
It had been full and frank and, in the way of these things, it had taken several years. In reality however, the whole back and forth of it had just been so much window dressing. The Poles, the Czechs and the Germans had chuntered about maintaining the ‘integrity and traditions’ of the event, but the consequence had been inevitable.
The Soviet Ministry for Physical Culture was mandated to act upon the will of the proletariat, and the proletariat had spoken. The International Peace Race, for almost 40 years run off between Warsaw, Prague and East Berlin, had after all been a socialist construct. Moscow remained the crucible of world socialism, its nerve centre and its ideological command post. In the end the minister himself had ‘appealed to their comradely conviction’, and then they’d understood that the time for talking had passed. They’d acquiesced reluctantly but, as ever, they’d acquiesced all the same. The event had finally been reconfigured to include Mother Russia.
Berlin in particular had been recalcitrant, but that had been entirely predictable. Little brothers often are, and the ministry had very well understood their concerns. The Peace Race was the highlight of their sporting year, it brought them out in their multitudes, and logistically Moscow was extremely problematical. They’d protested in the strongest possible terms, and as such they’d been thrown a bone. The 1985 edition of the race, designed to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the great victory, had included but a single stage in the motherland. They’d begun in Prague, and from there they’d flown to Moscow on 11 May. There, on the anniversary of the German capitulation at Slivice, a team time trial had been the perfect metaphor for the triumph of the collective will.
Of course the hosts had prevailed, though the Russian public hadn’t necessarily embraced it as they’d hoped. In some respects that was to be expected though, because it had been a single stage and there had been a lot going on elsewhere. In time they would get used to the Peace Race though, and in time the Peace Race would get used to them. Next time they’d start in Kiev, the westernmost outpost of the union. There would be four full days of cycling and, with just a short hop across to Warsaw, they could have no reason to complain…
On 26 April 1986, ten days in advance of the Peace Race, reactor four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded 108 kilometres from Kiev. Four hundred times more radioactive material was released than had been unleashed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Built in 1970, the plant at Chernobyl had been strategically positioned. It had been built on the banks of the River Pripyat, which in turn fed into the great Dnieper reservoir system, supplier of drinking water to Kiev’s 2.5 million inhabitants.
The Politburo issued a reporting embargo and as such Pravda, the communist party organ of the Soviet Union, made no mention of the catastrophe in its 27 April edition. Likewise Rudé Právo, Neues Deutschland and Trybuna Ludu, the party dailies of Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland collectively responsible for the promotion and organization of the Peace Race, printed not a word.
The town of Pripyat (‘peaceful atom’), created twenty years earlier to service the plant, wouldn’t be fully evacuated for 36 hours. By then, alarming levels of radiation were being recorded in Finland, and even in Sweden. The first news the world at large received emanated not from the Soviet Bloc, but from Sweden. On the morning of 28 April, workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, approximately 1,100 kilometres north of Chernobyl, were found to have radioactive particles on their clothes. When it became apparent that no leak had occurred locally, logic suggested that the source had to be the western Soviet Union.
Emergency workers contracted Acute Radiation Sickness, radioactive rain fell across a continent, apocalyptic levels of Caesium-137 were recorded in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. As the enormity of the catastrophe revealed itself, so the world at large began to speculate on its medium-term consequences. And all the while Moscow’s propaganda juggernaut sought to persuade its constituents, and an incredulous global community, that all was well. Only all wasn’t well. There were very few certainties in the days that followed, but it was abundantly clear that all was very, very far from well.
All was well, they lied to their own subjects, and there was no cause for alarm. Kiev was perfectly safe, and by way of proving it the Peace Race would go ahead as per the plan. For forty years the race, at root the sporting synthesis of a beautiful, utopian ideal, had been a geopolitical blunt instrument. It had been despoiled and defiled by geopolitics, and now its contamination was complete.
The cycling federations of Belgium, Britain and Switzerland returned their invitations forthwith, and so too Holland and the USA. Communist Yugoslavia politely declined, and even Ceausescu’s Romania refused to contemplate the idea. Others, however, held firm to the party line. Five of Moscow’s Warsaw Pact allies sent teams, as did socialist Cuba, Syria and Mongolia. Of the western European invitees, only France and Finland sent delegations. The Finns were at liberty to choose whether they travelled. In the event they found four prepared to travel (six-man teams were the standard), though they didn’t arrive until after the prologue.
Thus, on 6 May 1986, sixty-four racing cyclists took the start in Kiev’s October Revolution Square (now known as The Maidan). Some did so under political duress, others of their own free will, others in near total ignorance.
Four of them told us their stories…
DAN RADKTE, GERMAN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC
We were at a training centre getting ready for the race when we heard about it. Yes of course we were deeply concerned — it was a nuclear explosion. Who wouldn’t be concerned?
Some functionary turned up and told us the wind was blowing from the east. He said that Chernobyl was east of Kiev, so we needn’t be worried. He said there weren’t any issues around riding, and that he had absolute conviction that everything would be all right. Nobody believed it for one minute, not because we thought there would be radiation, but because he’d have told us that regardless. We were accustomed to listening to their lies.
The point is that it wasn’t like we were being given a choice. Either you went, or your cycling career ended there and then. Bear in mind that to represent your country you had to be a member of the party, and that I was a soldier in the army…
My memory is a bit hazy but I seem to think that a few days before the race there were discussions about the Russians, Czechs, East Germans and Poles each fielding a second team to fill the peloton. That never materialized though.
We flew out on 4 May, two days before the race. When we got to Kiev we saw that there were no women or children on the road. We went to see one of the functionaries and said, “Look, it’s clear that something is wrong here. Are you absolutely sure that it’s safe for us to ride?” The guy just said, “What I think is immaterial. You’re here to race, and race you will.”
When we went out to ride it was a ghost town. The only people out and about were policemen and men in white overalls with Geiger counters. The journalists who were there stayed in the hotel.
They told us the food had been flown in for us, but that was contradictory. On the one hand they were telling us everything was all right, and on the other they were saying our food was fine because it had been flown in especially.
There were no physical after-effects, at least as far as I know. However, as I see it that’s not really the point. The point is that they couldn’t have known that at the time, because what happened at Chernobyl was unprecedented. It would have been easy to start the race in Warsaw, and it would have made absolute sense. However, they wanted to demonstrate that everything was fine, and they knew that millions of people would be watching the Peace Race on TV.
It served their purposes really well, but like the race itself it was just a big lie. They made out it was all nice and friendly, but in reality it was a war between the Soviets and us. I rode it three times, and the first objective was to stop the Soviets. If that meant we won then so be it, but it often felt the main aim was to ensure they didn’t. They called it the Peace Race but it was a ‘war race’. There was too much pressure to get a result, too much politics and far too much stress. Just too much of everything really…
Dan Radtke was 26, and he was riding his third Peace Race. He would finish eighth on GC, while teammate Olaf Ludwig won. He was the only one of the six-man GDR team not to race for a non-German pro team following unification. He rode on the domestic circuit instead, and nowadays helps to run the cycling programme at a sports school near the Polish border.
SŁAWOMIR KRAWCYK, POLAND
We used to listen to Radio Free Europe, so we knew immediately what had happened. We were at a training camp near Wroclaw, sharing a hotel with Americans. They were due to go to the Peace Race as well, but as soon as the news broke they packed and left in a rush. I think they left a lot of their stuff.
Officially they told us that it was only the roof that had collapsed. They did everything they could to convince us, and to reassure us about our safety. There were no threats of jail if we didn’t go, but the pressure was obvious and one way or another we all felt it. The Polish Cycling Federation started putting a B team together, and it was clear that if we didn’t go, they would.
It was a big honour to ride the Peace Race back then, and I’d only signed my army contract the previous year. So of course there was pressure from their side as well, and I didn’t want to let them down. I remember that Ryszard Szurkowski was a member of parliament at that time. He’d won it four times, and at first he was on our side, minded to avoid going. Then he changed his mind, because obviously he was under pressure too. So it wasn’t threats, and it’s hard to say that we were forced to go. It was more a kind of… collective pressure.
Nobody refused to go as such. However, during our camp near Wroclaw we were out on a steady ride. It was a sunny day but Andrzej Mierzejewski, our leader, just stopped and said he couldn’t continue. He said his knee hurt too much, but he’d never mentioned his knee before. As I say it was just a steady ride, and that sort of knee pain doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. It accumulates over time, but he just climbed off complaining about this terrible knee pain. Later we asked him about the surgery — where was it performed, what the problem was, where the scars were — but he always avoided the topic. So to me it looked like he simulated it to avoid going to the Peace Race.
There were some people in Kiev, but it was strange. We’d heard that whoever had been able to flee had gone, mostly mothers with their children. I met a Polish contract worker while I was there, and he told me his passport had been confiscated so he had to stay.
There weren’t so many people at the roadside, but it’s hard to say whether that was because of the catastrophe. I only started one Peace Race, so I can’t compare it to others. The Germans fought with the Russians and we just raced. So we were relieved when it was over, but it wasn’t anything special.
The air was strange, but maybe that was just an impression. I remember that in Poland all the farm animals where hidden in barns at that time, but when we flew over Ukraine I saw them grazing in the meadows as if nothing had happened.
Everyone was more or less worried about the health implications. They promised us we’d undergo medical check-ups after the race, but it never happened. We just went home, but I remember my brother helped me get a double dose of Lugol’s Iodine Solution to block the radioactive uptake. I drank it down straight away so yes, we were afraid.
I got married at the end of ‘86, but we were aware of the risks so we postponed having a baby for a year…
Sławomir Krawcyk finished third in the stage to Gorzów Wielkopolski, and 23rd on GC. He was Polish national champion in 1986, and twice represented his country at the World Championships. Though no stage racing specialist, he finished runner-up in the 1989 Tour of Poland, and won the points jersey. Following the collapse of communism he finished runner-up in the Paris-Roubaix espoirs race aged 26 (!), then rode professionally for Lampre in 1992.
RADOVAN FORT, CZECHOSLOVAKIA
We were doing a qualification race in Russia when it happened. I was actually first reserve for the team, but then Vladimir Kozárek fell ‘ill’ so I was selected after all. I can’t say I was worried, but then again I had no information about the severity of it.
I remember feeling quite comforted by the fact that the French and the Finns were there. I reasoned that if free countries were sending teams then the Chernobyl situation probably wasn’t so bad…
You have to understand that the Peace Race was very political. My club was RH Plzeň, but in effect you rode the Peace Race for the Ministry of the Interior. Cycling was both my life and my livelihood, so there was no way you could refuse to go. Had I done so my international career would have been over, and in Czechoslovakia that meant the end of your cycling career.
Nobody told us anything, but people in Czechoslovakia were always in the dark. I had a girlfriend at the time — we have two sons now, 24 and 26 — and she knew nothing either.
When we arrived in Kiev we were just watching. There were very few people out and about, and those that were seemed to be washing vehicles and hosing down the streets. The Peace Race itself was very tense, particularly where the Russians were concerned. They couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t combine with them against the Germans. There was a real battle between the Russians and the Germans.
When I got home Rašev, the team doctor, arranged for me to undergo radiation tests in Prague. I sat there for about half an hour in front of the machine. They told me I’d been exposed to the same radiation as all the other inhabitants of Czechoslovakia. It may be true I suppose; I’m not a doctor.
I didn’t tell anyone I’d been for the tests, but then after a week or so I was summoned to the head of the sports club. He told me he’d heard about my having been, and I had no business having radiation tests without his consent…
Brought up in the great Czech cyclo-cross tradition, Radovan Fort had finished third in the Junior World Championships in 1982. He was just 21 when he rode the Peace Race, but he podiumed in the stages to Kijov and Halle. He never again took part in the event, but would represent the Czech Republic in MTB at the Atlanta Olympics. He now runs a bike shop in Lanškroun, Eastern Bohemia.
VALENTIN JIVKOV, BULGARIA
I found out what happened about 3 or 4 days before leaving for Kiev, through the Bulgarian Media. The Bulgarian team didn’t have a choice; the decision was made by the officials. The federation decided who would go, the incident didn’t change that, and there was no discussion whatsoever about withdrawing. They didn’t say anything to us, so whilst we knew what happened, we didn’t fully understand the extent of it. We didn’t contemplate what effect our presence in Kiev might have on our health. Of course we’d heard about it on TV, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realised what had actually been going on and how dangerous it had been for me to be there.
At the time I wasn’t thinking about whether or not it was important politically. As cyclists we were pretty isolated from that, and in 1986 people weren’t as politically informed as they are today. The whole organization of the event was on point, and at no time did I have the impression that things weren’t as they ought to have been.
The atmosphere was completely normal, as if nothing had happened. All the riders travelled together on one plane, and I’d say it was no different to Moscow the previous year. There was no particular stress coming from the people in Kiev, though it may be that they weren’t completely aware of what was going on either. Of course there were normally at least 120 riders, so that felt a bit different. However it wasn’t strange or weird, because it was still a bike race. The crowds were a bit smaller than usual, but still quite big.
Beyond that I remember that a teammate, Petar Petrov, had the climber’s jersey. I was really happy for him because we had trained together and he was in great shape. When we flew to Warsaw I was indifferent. I was excited to take part in the race there, but there was no sense of relief as regards leaving Chernobyl.
What I do remember is that every morning the streets were rinsed with water. At first I didn’t think much of it, but over the time I realised that perhaps they were being decontaminated. The streets were wet most of the time, so obviously they’d just washed them…
Valentin Jivkov finished this Peace Race, his third, in 32nd position. Though traditionally one of the weaker Soviet Bloc teams, here Bulgaria won a stage through Petrov, and finished fourth (ahead of Poland) in the team prize. Like many Bulgarians, Valentin left his homeland in search of a new start when the Berlin Wall fell. These days he lives and works in Germany.
The following year the race returned to the traditional Berlin-Warsaw-Prague route. The Soviets, chastened by the Peace Race experience, instead opened negotiations with the organizers of the Tour de France. However, the great project, a Paris-Moscow pro-am stage race, never saw the light of day.
The collapse of communism denuded the Peace Race not only of its raison d’être, but also its operational capacity and sole revenue source. Rudé Právo, the party organ and organizer of the Czech stages, was immediately privatized. The new owners, understandably keen to distance themselves from the regime, pulled the plug straight away. Meanwhile Poland’s Trybuna Ludu, its circulation 2 million, ceased to exist within three months. By then the (capitalist, opportunist) vultures were circling above and around East Berlin, with Giro d’Italia race patron Vincenzo Torriani at the head of the queue. He conceived a so-called ‘Giro of Peace’ to take place in Berlin and Leipzig, but mercifully the plan was stillborn.
By 1993 none of the Peace Race host cities remained, as it became a witless capitalist parody of its communist self. For all that it had been the highlight of the sporting calendar, potential new sponsors, cowed by its overtly communist past, dared not engage. It became an itinerant event as the geopolitics that had created it and sustained it now refused to let it be. Instead they haunted it and mutilated it, and ultimately destroyed it. Despite the best efforts of those who still believed in sport’s greatest ever idea, it was finally put out of its misery in 2006.
Ironically — and somewhat perversely — the winner of that first Kiev stage recently tried to resurrect it. When the Czech Jozef Regec had a kidney removed in 2005, he claimed that the cancer had likely been triggered by the radiation in Kiev. However, he later became vice-president of Czech Cycling and, like millions of Central Europeans, he loved for the Peace Race boundlessly and unconditionally. He set about trying to generate sufficient political traction to relaunch it, but sadly the money never materialized. These days Regec is a senator in the Czech parliament, and he chose not to participate in this story.
A three-stage under-23 version of the race still takes place each June in the Czech Republic. It’s run by an iconic peace racer. The great sprinter Jan Svorada was the winner of the first post-communist edition. His father, Jan senior, took part in the first race to visit Czechoslovakia after the Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968.
Go in peace.
* The author would like to thank Richard Pompoes and Jakub Zimoch for their contribution to this article.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 16 where it was first printed.