30. 5. – 2. 6. 2024 UCI Europe Tour

We are not riding because of the occupation! The Communists severely punished the protest in 1969

Who caused the Chief himself to issue such twisted orders? A paraphrase from the famous Cimrman play, Conquest of the North Pole, could very easily frame the story of the 22nd edition of the Peace Race, which in 1969 went down in history thanks to the non-participation of the Czechoslovak team as a protest against the occupation by the Soviet army and other troops of the Warsaw Pact in August a year earlier.

Peace Race winner, Jan Smolík, was also nominated for the first May race following the Soviet occupation. In 1964 he ended the fifteen-year wait for the first Czechoslovak triumph since the victory of Jan Veselý in 1949. At the same time, he was preparing to start in the peloton after a one-year break, because in the year of the Prague Spring, he was in the group of national team cyclists preparing for the October Olympic Games in Mexico.

The XIX Summer Olympics witnessed the famous anti-racist protest of black American sprinters, who raised their hand with a clenched fist on the podium. At the same time, footage of Czechoslovak gymnastics legend, Věra Čáslavská, as she turned her head away during the Soviet anthem played for Larisa Petrik, went viral around the world. The judges added extra points to Petrik only after Čáslavská had won more points on the floor exercise.

If we ignore the absolute sacrifice of Jan Palach and those who followed him, the competitions in the period after August against the Soviet athletes presented a symbolic chance for revenge. The fierce battles of ice hockey players are legendary to this day. In March 1969, two victories over the Soviets in the space of one week at the world championship in Stockholm sparked spontaneous street demonstrations in Prague, which ended with the demolition of the office of the Soviet airline Aeroflot on Wenceslas Square.

The peace peloton in the fight against the Czechs

The 22nd edition of the Peace Race was prepared during the spring in this tense and uneasy atmosphere. At the same time, the route itself gave the impression that it would not be an ordinary year. After the start in Warsaw, the peloton headed to Berlin and only crossed into Czechoslovakia for the sixth stage from Harrachov to Wroclaw. In the meantime, a bold plan had already matured in the heads of the Czechoslovak cycling representatives and the competitors themselves.

Did Jan Palach's death in January influence the thinking on non-participation in the "peace peloton"? "I think that Palach's act was not a direct impulse for us. We completed the winter training in the mountains according to the original plan. Only with the passage of time did people start talking about non-participation as a form of protest against the occupation. In the end, we didn't even go to the final training before the Peace Race," recalls 80-year-old Jan Smolík today.

The absence of a team from one of the founding countries understandably caused a shock in Warsaw. The then regime, which was about to tighten the reins of normalization, had a simple explanation for the matter. "It's just a pity that the shine (of the 22nd edition) was slightly tarnished by the actions of right-wing forces in the leadership of Czechoslovakian cycling at the time. In the whirlwind of hysteria against our allies, they managed to hoodwink the sports officials for a short time, draw Czechoslovak competitors into a web of peculiar intrigues, and finally enforce the non-participation of the Czechoslovakian team in the 1969 Peace Race. And so this traditional participant - a team from a founding country - was missing from the Warsaw start. .." describes the book the “Závod míru - O cyklistech z nejkrásnějšího pelotonu světa” in 1987. "That so beautifully reflects the times," laughs Smolík spontaneously when looking at the above lines. 

But at that moment, nobody was laughing. The year 1970 was approaching, the degrading swearing on the Lessons from the Crisis Development was taking place and the so-called normalization of the regime was creeping in. The cycling "provocation", which the communist leadership did not like, also came to the fore.

Cycling repression

And just like thousands of other citizens of Czechoslovakia, severe repression fell on the management of cycling. "Professor Böhm, then chairman of the association, was the first to face the music. After him, General Secretary Vítek also had to leave his post, and then this purge gradually continued," recalls Smolík. "In place of Böhm, the comrades installed my father-in-law at the time, Jindřich Kotal," recalls the hero of the 1964 Peace Race with a bitter smile.

Professor Rudolf Böhm, a veterinarian by profession, was forced to leave his day job in addition to his cycling position. At the same time, it was only thanks to him and his diplomatic skills (he was the first Czechoslovak to be elected to the executive committee of the International Amateur Cycling Federation FIAC) that Czechoslovakia, and Brno in particular, were to host the 1969 UCI Road World Championships.

But 1968 rattled everything that had until then seemingly stood on firm ground. At the August World Championships in Rome, to which Böhm travelled on the night that the troops were crossing the Czechoslovak border, Böhm had a big falling out with the Soviet team. It was apt that the Brno championship a year later fell exactly on the anniversary of the occupation.

"They called us to the then City Defence Council, there I explained that we were mainly concerned with cycling, I spoke to the citizens of the city on television, I reassured them, appealed to their feelings and begged them to keep calm during the championship. The leading officials of the UCI understood the whole unfortunate situation and kept their fingers crossed for us, even though some of them found themselves in difficult situations on the streets of Brno. These experiences were even worse than those I experienced as the president of the cycling union in the same year during the Peace Race," Böhm recalled in the almanac the Brno Favorit.

"It was a terrible time. But every era has its troubles," says Smolík, more than fifty years later.

The sad paradox is that the 22nd edition of the Peace Race could not be faulted from a sports perspective. A sensational fight for the overall victory was fought between the Frenchman Jean Pierre Danquillaume, whose cycling family tree dates back to the second half of the 19th century and the absolute beginnings of the new sport, and the later international cycling legend Ryszard Szurkowski. The rising Polish star still had to settle for second place in 1969, but later won the Peace Race three times, as well as the World Championship. 

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