30. 5. – 2. 6. 2024 UCI Europe Tour

From star to traitor. The legendary Jan Veselý experienced the cruel fickleness of fate

He is rightly considered one of the legends of Czech cycling. That's not only thanks to the twenty-six national titles on both road and track. Jan Veselý is one of the main characters whose sensational performances helped create the phenomenon of the Peace Race. At the same time, he experienced first-hand how easy it was to fall from grace and become persona non grata.

The beginning of the Peace Race caught Veselý in his prime. At twenty-five, he was already crowned with laurels from domestic championships and the legendary Prague-Karlovy Vary-Prague race. And immediately during the premiere edition, he was one of the central figures of the peloton heading from Warsaw to Prague. Unfortunately, that year, it was not so much performance as the number of defects and crashes on poor-quality roads that proved decisive. And the Czech cycling phenomenon had an abundant share of the bad luck.

After the first stage, he wore the yellow jersey, but on the next stage, he first punctured the front wheel, and then immediately after a collision with an opponent, the rear went too. The selfless help of a teammate and the replacement of the bike helped to resolve the situation in a flash, but the rules forbade such help, and Veselý, in addition to the ten-minute loss, took a five-minute penalty at the finish line. From first position, he was suddenly twenty-fifth. But his fighting spirit persisted.

When bad luck sticks to your heels 

In the third stage, Veselý again chased victory, but on the descent to the finish line in Jeléní hora, a dog ran under his bike when doing 60. Despite the terrible fall, he was able to finish brutally battered on a wrecked bike with broken brakes and twisted gear cogs, but the loss to the leading Yugoslav Prosenik increased again. Next day, against the wishes of the doctors, with a stitched knee and an ankle swollen to the point that he could hardly fit into his shoes, he again took his place at the start and crossed the finish line in Liberec first. He took six minutes off the lead.

Before the last stage, which ended in Prague, Veselý was a quarter of an hour behind overall. But this time the Yugoslavian was also unlucky and suffered two punctures, and his teammates were left to their fate in the distance behind the peloton. The Czech competitor sensed a chance and went for a big solo effort. Approaching Kladno, however, his luck ran out and his chain broke. One of the spectators did place a spare part on the road - which did not violate the letter of the rules on unauthorised organised assistance - but it was too big and demolished the derailleur after a few meters.

The desperate Veselý then stood by the road for almost ten minutes before he got a new bike. Even so, he managed to win the last stage, which finished at Letná, but finished fifth in the overall standings. However, Czechoslovakia had its hero and the native of South Bohemia partly made up for the disappointment right after the second part of the peloton reached Warsaw. As part of the promotion of the new race, a joint measurement of the forces of both pelotons was organised, and Veselý reigned supreme on the 98 km track. But he had to wait another year for proper revenge. 

When bad luck sticks to the heels of others

The second edition in 1949 brought several turning points. For one thing, it was decided that only one peloton would travel between Prague and Warsaw and the direction would alternate each year. Before the start, the name Peace Race was heard for the first time, even though the race officially bore this famous name only from 1950. And the French, with independent cyclist licences and experience from the professional peloton, also lined up at the start.

And it was the Gallic riders who became Veselý's biggest challengers during the eight stages into which the organisers divided the route with a total length of 1,259 km. Right after the start in Prague, they demonstrated strong teamwork in a breakaway, which the Czech number one managed to chase down with his teammates and he crossed the finish line in Pardubice just ahead of Eugene Garnier.

Veselý thus wore the yellow jersey for the leading rider from day two, but the young Frenchman became his shadow. After triumph on the sixth stage, the Czechoslovak leader already had the fourth stage success to his account, but he was still only two seconds ahead of Garnier, in the absence of time bonuses for placement at that time. The very next day, however, brought with it a clear and simple denouement. 

"The stage was the longest that year; the peloton was already exhausted, but those who were up to it raced to their full potential. And so there were fewer and fewer of us left at the front. Garnier kept pedalling just behind me as if glued to me. Everyone laughed about it, joking that if I had jumped into the forest for mushrooms, he would have gone looking for them with me so I wouldn't get lost... However, at the 90th kilometre, Garnier suffered a puncture. It didn't shake him at all, one of his friends quickly handed him his front wheel, he changed it over, two other compatriots were waiting for him and within less than half an hour they were pedalling by our side again," Veselý recalled later, how the cards were dealt in the key passage of the second edition.

However, whilst the Czechoslovak speedster experienced bad luck at the decisive moments of the inaugural year, a year later it was his French opponent who was unlucky. At the 130th kilometre, Garnier suffered a burst tyre for the second time. “At that moment, French unity and collective spirit crumbled like a house of cards. The question of whether they should wait for their best and risk that the others won't finish, or sacrifice their compatriot and stay ahead themselves, was resolved in a flash, to the detriment of my shadow. Furthermore, they rode with me without Garnier, just so they wouldn't lose first place in the team competition," recounts Veselý in the book “Závod míru - O cyklistech z nejlepšího pelotonu světa”.

But even after the departure of the main rival, the French appetite for the yellow jersey did not wane. Maurice Herbulot was less than a minute behind in the standings, and Veselý was well aware of the direct threat. He thus launched a big solo effort. "I kept up the solo breakaway for the whole 56 km and entered the cycle track in Lodz with a huge lead. Riegert arrived alone, a full four minutes behind me, Herbulot was only seventh and Garnier only fifteenth. And the judges calculated that I was leading by more than eleven minutes," he recounted laconically after his admirable performance.

The final day did not change the standings, Veselý monitored his biggest rival and brought the yellow jersey, which he had worn since the second day thanks to his dominance, all the way to Warsaw. His lead over the second-placed Herbulot was 11:55 min. During the first twenty years of the Peace Race, no one has repeated such an overwhelming triumph. And mainly thanks to Veselý, the race became a magnet for Czechoslovak fans, although he never repeated his first place. Twice he was second and four times he led the victorious Czechoslovak team as captain.

A hero against his will 

The tenth edition of the race in 1957 brought a great reversal in the fortunes of this cycling great. During training, he began to feel unwell, and Veselý knew very well that he was not in a fit shape to be able to handle the prestigious event with dignity. But the team management needed a famous name, and they suddenly named him captain again. "I'm not good at this," he protested at the nomination meeting. "Just because your name is Jan Veselý and everyone knows what you have done for Czechoslovak cycling, you will go and be the captain," coach Ladislav "Grizly" Brůžek responded with bearish intransigence.

Veselý didn’t complete the race that year. As recalled in the book “Závod míru aneb Tour východu” by former Mladá fronta reporter and later director of the Peace Race, Jan Chaloupka, during stages "he was almost peeing with pain, he couldn't turn his legs or move his arms." A similar fate befell another South Bohemian, Jan Kubr. That's when the regime revealed its true colours. A moment was all it took for a hero to become an outcast. "He allowed himself not to complete the Peace Race and gave up!" They vilified Vesely and called him a traitor to socialism. "I remember that like it's today. How they suddenly stopped calling me Honzíčka and started Comrade, Comrade...," recalled Veselý almost three decades later.

But it didn't stop at words. The biggest figure in domestic cycling had to ignominiously return the title of Meritorious Master of Sports, the highest sports award. For two years, Veselý was not allowed to compete; an offer from France to transfer to the professionals was of course swept off the table. In addition, he naively got involved in a watch-smuggling affair with an Austrian cyclist-friend and received an eight-month suspended sentence. The communists put a forceful end to his career and relegated him to the fringes of society. 

It was many years before Veselý was rehabilitated and received his title back. As an honorary guest of the Peace Race, he received the same enthusiastic reception from the crowds as when he himself shone in the peloton. People hadn’t forgotten their hero. At the same time, it is surprising that Veselý was able to endure the regime's setbacks with the grace of a great man. "Of course I took it hard. But I'm not vindictive. And worse things happened to people in the 1950s; this is a trifle compared to that," With the passage of time he was able to put possibly the most difficult moments of his life behind him. "Emil Zátopek once said to me: Be glad they didn't burn you,”. Veselý remained the eternal optimist, steadfast in the peloton and against the regime. 

This legend of Czech cycling never got the chance to ride the Tour de France, Giro or Vuelta. Nevertheless, Jan Veselý, who got into cycling as a fourteen-year-old baker's apprentice while delivering goods, was awarded the honorary title of Cyclist of the Century in 2000.

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