30. 5. – 2. 6. 2024 UCI Europe Tour

A woman’s bike and concussion. Motorcycle legend František Šťastný never forgot the Peace Race

The stories that the Peace Race has given rise to over its almost 60-year history have appeared in stacks of books, and we can even find them where we would not expect them. For example, the biography of the legendary racer František Šťastný "Full throttle" opens with the chapter on how the most famous Czechoslovak motorcyclist completed the first year of the Peace Race alongside Jan Vesely in 1948. And the famous storyteller serves up stories that still entertain and send a chill down the spine to this day.

The native of Mladá Boleslav apprenticed as a machine fitter at the Škoda factory during the Second World War, and it was then that he acquired a taste for racing cycling. But he was lured by the intoxicating speed of motorcycles and petrol fumes. Between the years 1954-1962, he triumphed in the Brno Grand Prix a total of eight times, in 1961 he finished second overall in the World Championship of Road Motorcycles up to 350 cc. He also made a name for himself with his performances in the famous Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, although he never won the most demanding race on the planet.

As Šťastný himself recalled, loneliness brought him to cycling. His classmates and friends from school would disappear to cycle races at the weekends, and in order to spend his free time with them, he also took to the saddle, but without any significant success. "On a bike that would suit a 100kg strong man, I couldn't really pedal and I ended up hopelessly last. My friends didn't appreciate my efforts at joining in at all, they started to call me a broom: I always swept up behind them in races," he described.

Determination kept him in the saddle

He wanted to give up cycling, but in the end, stubbornness won out and he started training hard. "The years went by, I even got to win, and sometimes it even appeared in a hidden corner of the sports section that Šťastný from Benátky has talent," he recounted. Together with their friends, they literally devoured information about famous battles on the Tour de France, Giro and Vuelta from available sources, everyone wanted to be like Bartali and Coppi. And, at the end of 1947, news began to spread that there would be a stage race and even an international one in Czechoslovakia. 

This was a magnet that attracted the determined athlete and did not let go. What about the fact that he was a track cyclist? "That I had no road racing experience at all? Anything can be learnt!" said Šťastný determinedly and started preparing together with his friend Stanislav Čapek. But while Čapek was nominated for the premiere edition of the Peace Race, there was no room left for the former "broom". "Thousands of kilometres ridden for nothing. I would have preferred to hide somewhere and cry like a little boy," he remembered. 

However, he then won the Prague-Český Brod-Prague race, and a member of the Peace Race team had to pull out through illness. Šťastný was pleasantly surprised to receive a late invitation! And just the journey to the start in Poland was an experience in itself. "Of course, the butt of all the jokes and insults could only be the newcomer, a rookie - that was me. In particular, Honza Veselý, my cycling role model, excelled, and at one point he even promised me: If you, big-eared boy, make it to Prague, I'll give you my bike!" recalled Šťastný. "I'm looking forward to it, I'd just like it nicely cleaned and oiled," he cheekily fired back at the then Czechoslovak number one.

In the war-torn Warsaw, the rookie was overcome by nervousness in a camphor-scented common dormitory. "I realised that I had nothing to boast amongst these road racers. My mood was at least lifted a little by one Pole who ignored the camphor and brazenly smeared himself with vodka," recounted Šťastný.

University of cycling

The very first stage was a real education for a newcomer. Inexperienced, he rode where he shouldn't have; after a puncture he had to expend his strength catching up with the peloton, he didn't take care to eat. "I don't even know how I crossed the finish line. I got off the bike, I wanted to take a step, but my legs give way under me and I remained sitting helplessly. If they hadn't taken me to the dressing room, I would probably be sitting there until today," he recalled. 

With a sore body, he started the second stage, unsure if he would even be able to continue. "Getting on the saddle was out of the question. I experienced a sensation as if it was studded with red-hot nails," he described. Although he finally managed to overcome the discomfort, he faced an unprecedented number of punctures instead. He patched some from his supplies, then friends helped. During that last stretch before the finish line, he stood helplessly in the streets of Wrocław. Suddenly he noticed a girl standing nearby with a bicycle. "Please ma'am, bike!" he barked an unexpected request and before the girl knew it, he was pedalling towards the finish line. "My knees were shaking all the way down to my chin. I was the sensation of the day at the stadium. The audience had fun as if watching a grotesque show. I finished in twenty-second place," added Šťastný.

After another stage endured in the sweltering heat, the competitors had to overcome the Krkonoše Mountains in the following stage. Šťastný unfortunately broke the stem, and then the handlebars of his bike on the descent. A horror crash followed. After treatment, the indomitable competitor refused to get into the collection truck, patched the damaged bike up into working order and headed for the finish line in Liberec. "The radio reported on my hard fall, so they hailed me almost as a winner. At the finish line, curious onlookers crowded into the cycling lane, leaving only a narrow lane for passage. I sprinted with my last remaining strength, driving the bike through the lane, but then a small boy, about seven years old, ran directly into my path. They say nothing happened to him, but I flew up, and fell straight on my head - and I don't know anything more..." added Šťastný, on another incredible moment.

He finally came to in hospital where he was diagnosed with mild concussion and ordered to rest for several days. But the desire to master the last stage was stronger. "They brought some paper, I signed it, it's done. I don't know what was on that paper. Probably some kind of statement that I'm not normal," Šťastný recalled many years later.
After all, even the team management thought he was crazy when he arrived at the hostel. He had a fever at night, and in the morning he felt like nails were driving into his head. Nevertheless, after the opening kilometres he got up to speed and immediately came up with another cheeky stunt. To be the first at the sprinter's premium in his "native" Boleslav. 

A bet won

"Beyond the village of Obruby, my brother is standing by the forest and I hear him calling: 'Hello Standa, where is Franta?' What must I look like if he didn't recognise me? However, I am interested in only one thing at the moment: maintaining first position. Boleslav is already in sight. I'm pedalling like mad. I hear gasping from behind. I prefer not to look back. Another hundred meters, fifty, ten. I'm flying, and I cross the line first, half a bike length ahead of Honza Veselý," Šťastný recalled his private triumph over the Czechoslovak cycling legend. He eventually reached the finish line in Prague Letná after a puncture in 30th, and overall he finished in 45th position out of fifty-two competitors who completed the premiere race between Warsaw and the capital of Czechoslovakia.

And what about his bet with Veselý? Immediately after finishing he hurried over to him. “Rub your eyes, I’ve made it to Prague,” he announced to the star of the Czechoslovak team “You will have the bike – you sly one” replied the great athlete with a smile, who had finished fifth after many setbacks. Next year’s race Veselý was supreme, winning by a long distance. And Šťastný? His first race was also his last. 

"I believe I could have been a good cyclist. After all, I never came to hate cycling. But at that time I already had other plans in my head. Speed and motorcycles. They dominated all my thinking, influenced my entire life. The future had been decided," he wrote, rounding off his cycling intermezzo, in the biographical book “Na plný plyn” (Full Throttle).

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