Two-time Tour de France winner, Laurent Fignon, battling against the aces of the amateur peloton! A subsidy of two million Swiss francs! There was no shortage of hyperbole in the headlines of April 1988 after the presentation of a planned Paris-Moscow race, which was to be run as the 42nd edition of the Peace Race a year later. But the tempting venture, which was supposed to become a symbolic bridge over the Iron Curtain, ultimately failed.
Some aspects of the time before 1990 may be hard to grasp for today's young generation. A world politically straddled between democracy and totalitarianism, capitalism and socialism, the regular treat of nuclear war... Nevertheless, the second half of the 1980s bore signs of relaxation thanks to Gorbachev's perestroika. And so, in 1988, six representatives from France, West and East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union met at the Eiffel Tower and presented to the world the bold project of a race from Paris' Bastille Square to Moscow's Red Square.
The idea of connecting the two large metropolises was not new; it had already been floated in 1982 by the head of the Tour de France, Félix Levitan. It was not until six years later that it acquired more concrete form. The trio of communist newspapers from Czechoslovakia, the GDR and Poland, which officially organized the Peace Race, were supplemented by the papers of the communist parties from France and West Germany, and after some hesitation, the Soviet Pravda again joined. This sextet took over the patronage of the 42nd edition of the Peace Race and even presented a planned route at the iconic location of Paris.
It was to have started on May 7, 1989 in the city on the Seine, and on May 27 the peloton should have reached the Kremlin after nearly 3,000 kilometres. In addition, the race was to be run in the "open" category, which would open the door to professionals as well. The organizers calculated that eight of the twenty-three competing teams would be amateurs.
A good idea, but not feasible in practice
The division of sport into amateur and professional is also a relic of the time. For example, the Olympic Games was only open to "amateurs" until the beginning of the 90s, but it must be said that the competitors from the socialist bloc only had sham employment and their only real activity was sport. In contrast, for example, ice-hockey players from the Canadian-American NHL did not compete at the Olympic Games until 1998 in Nagano, and American basketball players from the NBA appeared under the five rings for the first time in 1992 in Barcelona.
In this regard, the upcoming race from Paris to Moscow was supposed to represent a real breakthrough.
"It's a good idea, it will bring together not only people in Europe, but, in particular, us cyclists. Open competitions for amateurs and professionals are held in France, but have not yet crossed the borders of our country. For myself, I am a supporter of this project," said Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault, who did not miss the presentation on the Eiffel Tower, according to former journalist and cycling activist Jan Chaloupka in his book “Závod míru aneb Tour východu”.
This was followed by a meeting of the organizers in Prague, where further details of the planned seventeen-stage event were discussed. The approval of the technical commission of the International Cycling Union UCI was considered a foregone conclusion, and the first opening of the hermetically sealed border between the West Germany and the GDR was planned. At the Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea, in the summer of 1988, promotional bulletins were even distributed, presenting the Paris-Moscow 42nd edition of the Peace Race as a fait accompli. The prize money was even supposed to exceed the rewards at the Giro d'Italia.
Seven months had passed since the press conference at the Eiffel Tower, and in November the UCI Congress was held in The Hague, which fired the first warning shot across the bows. The professional cycling commission issued a clear opinion: the race between Paris and Moscow will not receive open status and professionals will not be permitted to compete. The verdict was later revised and at the next meeting in Pont Chateau a decision was to be made whether at least three pro teams could enter the peloton. It was an absolute shock for the organizers of the traditional Peace Race from Czechoslovakia, Poland and GDR.
Contact with the professional scene was taken onboard by the French, but not even a hint of any possible problems was heard in the East. "Not once did I hear from the executive secretary of the organizing committee, the Frenchman Michel Zilbermann, that the negotiations were stalling. He informed us about the interest of at least fifteen teams, named major teams, negotiations were promising. He always expressed only optimistic views," quotes Chaloupka in an interview in Mladá fronta.
No professionals, no change
However, the situation was far from optimistic. "The French side failed to present any signed contracts with professional teams for negotiations, and therefore the competent UCI body did not grant the Peace Race open status. When the whole matter was then adjourned to Pont Chateau, the situation did not change. Again, just promises. UCI President Verbruggen wanted to have a clear conscience and even asked for the riders' names at the last meeting. He didn't receive any," we also learn from Chaloupka in the interview.
The dream of a cycling bridge between the west and the east began to collapse. The last hope was a joint meeting scheduled for February 1, 1989 in Berlin. Even there, however, the French side was not able to guarantee the participation of at least three professional teams. In addition, the traditional amateur participants from Great Britain, Italy and the Netherlands declared that they would not send their representatives to compete over the 2,800-kilometre course. "In Berlin we found that we are where back at the beginning. Apart from a beautiful idea, we had nothing," admitted the Czechoslovak representatives on the organizing committee.
The French side tried to save the heated situation, but it was too late for serious negotiations. "Apparently there is still hope; it is the last to die. However, that was not enough for us. We had to decide to hold the Peace Race over a standard route without professionals. We were sorry, the project was interesting, it would bring both a sporting and political rejuvenation, but it's better to be modest at the right time than to be embarrassed on the roads between Paris and Moscow in May," describes Chaloupka in his book.
The 42nd edition of the Peace Race was held in May 1989 on the Warsaw-Berlin-Prague route, with German Uwe Ampler claiming his third triumph in a row. By this time, however, a fuse was already alight in Europe that would rearrange the political map by the end of the year. By autumn, the Iron Curtain had definitively fallen, and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had embarked on the path to democracy.
Understandably, not even the Peace Race could escape the sudden changes that came soon after. The traditional support of communist newspapers ended and the 43rd edition took place in 1990 for the first time in a commercial spirit with professionals on the starting list and advertisements on the jerseys. And also, after a wait of many years, it was won by a Czechoslovak rider. The winner of the first Peace Race in the new era was Ján Svorada, whose victory was also supported by Pavel Padrnos in overall third place.