There are a few cycling stages, or sections of them, that can boast the epithet legendary. We probably find these most often on the Grand Tour races, and traditionally these are famous climbs that separate the wheat from the chaff and have historically witnessed epic battles among cycling greats. However, a similarly unforgettable moment also took place during the 40th anniversary of the Peace Race in 1987. The 22 km time trial in Harrachov was the ninth stage on the schedule.
"Is this some kind of joke?" the peloton murmured at the sight of the famous large hill ski-jump in Harrachov and the winding road next to it with dizzying twists leading to Čerťák. But it was by no means a joke. In short, one of the organizers, Jan Chaloupka, had the idea of presenting a challenge to the peloton of the famous Tour de France of the east with parameters that would make anyone who has ever stepped on the pedals break out in a sweat.
At the end of the loop around the mountain resort, the last 300 meters from the landing zone around the jump structure with an elevation of 83 meters, which represents a 27.6% gradient, awaited the competitors. And the biggest horror came at the very end: at 53 meters, the cyclists gained a height of 18 meters. That's a 33.9% slope!
The diabolical time trial itinerary caused a stir among the competitors and team officials present. "This is not cycling, it's a circus," said legendary Pole Ryszard Szurkowski, a four-time winner, already a coach at the time, as recalled by Chaloupka in his book ‘Závod míru aneb Tour východu’. "I could never climb that hill, it's terrible," reported Andrzej Mierzejewski, his charge, with tears in his eyes at the edge of the hills.
The Germans threatened to withdraw
The anger was directed at the coach of the Czechoslovak team, Kamil Haťapka, who was identified as the author of the idea. "However, I was not to blame. On the contrary - I did not agree with the time trial for a long time in advance and wrote three letters to the management of ČSTV stating that we were not ready for it and that it would be suffering for the competitors. At the union, they forbade me to contact the head of physical education, Himla, and other comrades. It was simply an order," Haťapka recalled in Lidové noviny many years later.
The atmosphere became so tense that the East Germans even threatened to withdraw from the race. "But first they went to complain to the Soviets, and they held us back," Chaloupka still remembers the harsh moments. Paradoxically, the Soviet team support continued even after the coach sent ex-world champion Vedernikov, who lived in Czechoslovakia, to try a test climb. The experienced rider rode halfway, then a steep gradient stopped him and Vedernikov fell to the ground with his feet still clamped in the pedal clips.
The tough climb was especially difficult for the mechanics, who feverishly began setting up ideal gear sets. Szurkowski warned that a 32-tooth rear cog would be needed, but this was not available. According to the Soviets, a 28-tooth cog might be sufficient, but they did not have such cogs themselves and tried to twist the arms of other teams. In the end it was the unhappy East Germans who heroically travelled to Leipzig the night before the time trial, for 28-tooth cogs and then prepared wheels with the gearset under the ski-jump hill, where the competitors switched to them as if they had a puncture.
At that time, the Czechoslovak team could forget about the ideal cogs with 28 teeth. In short, they weren't any available. "Climbing the hill to the ski-jump hills is not only a question of gearing, but above all of riding technique," mechanic Jiří Zelenka, a former competitor with a stage win on the Peace Race in his collection, reassured the rider while he assembled the 12-25 gearset for the Harrachov hell.
The evening before the race, Harrachov was buzzing like a beehive. "If at least ten cyclists ride the time trial to the end, it will be an outstanding sporting achievement. However, I will not allow any changes to the track. It is perfectly prepared, sporting and fair," chief referee Wim Jeremias told the disaffected riders with firm conviction.
During the race itself, on May 17, it seemed at first that the words of the race arbiter would come to pass. Of the initial half of the starting field, only eight competitors remained in the saddle all the way up the hill. In the final reckoning, there were 47 of them. However, 68 cyclists had to ignominiously walk to the finish line, the murderous climb was simply beyond their capabilities. In addition, the cycling shoes slipped on the asphalt, so they walked in socks. Curses in many languages flew under the Harrachov ski-jumping hill that day. It was also an unforgettable experience for spectators at the track.
Instead of a boycott, a triumph
In the end, the overall race winner and reigning world champion, Uwe Ampler, won the time trial by a solid 22 seconds. "At that time, the time trial was set against the East Germans, but it turned against us," recalled Libor Matějka looking back with a slightly bitter smile. He, together with Jozef Regec, was the only Czechoslovak competitor at the time to finish the trial without dismounting. "It was cruel, but I would do it again," added his former partner Regec.
"Imagine if no one had ridden it! They would probably have stoned me to death," Chaloupka laughed, returning to 1987. In the end, the extreme stage is remembered fondly. "Perfect track, beautiful, unprecedented, I'm excited," the then chairman of the UCI technical commission Arthur Campbell in praise of the creators of the track. "A big race cannot have low goals," the coach of the Soviets, Alexander Gusjatnikov, acknowledged sportingly. "Harrachov will be remembered for a long time," added Campbell. And the words of the UCI official came true. The time trial in Harrachov is written large in cycling history.