It’s an old chestnut: Britain’s inability to produce a Grand Tour winner, as old as Simpson’s sickening demise in the kiln that is Ventoux. On, on, on…
Well, it seems that now cycling is the new golf, and as such Sky TV, the people’s friend, is stepping purposefully into the breach. We are told that Sky will scratch the itch in manfully investing £35million on a new team – or, as is their wont, they will bludgeon the problem to death. With the hard cash systematically extracted from heedless fans of Torquay United, Hull Kingston Rovers, casual violence and Stella Artois, they will blow away British cycling’s collective neurosis. A mammoth budget, a track cycling alchemist and the aggregation of small gains will bestow upon the great unwashed that which they are being herded into believing they need, Britain’s first Tour de France winner.
Time, perhaps, for a reality check. Notwithstanding Bradley Wiggins’ excellence in finishing (a distant) fourth at last year’s race, Britain still has precisely zero potential Tour winners. For all Dave Brailsford’s genius, Wiggins’ newfound fortitude and Peter Kennaugh’s potential, the fact remains that Grand Tour winners are born. They can’t be engineered.
A British Grand Tour winner within five years? I can do better than that. Permit me 20 minutes and I’ll give you that for which you’ve apparently waited a lifetime. I’ll tell you a new story, the true story of British cycling. I’ll tell you the story of a British Grand Tour winner, a man who won a bicycle race that transcended mere sport. So keep hold of your £35million, I’ve no need of it. For the £9 you’ve lavished on this publication, I’m going to give you something money can’t buy. With the aid of a truly heroic figure fighting insurmountable odds, I’ll deliver unto you your very own stage racing messiah, a man who won the biggest race in the world, the biggest annual sporting event in the world, bar none. Because in stage racing there’s nothing revelatory or high definition about the aggregation of small gains – he’ll be delivered in glorious 1950s monochrome, in stunning low definition. With the supreme arrogance of the disciple, I’m going to rewrite the history of British cycling. What you are about to receive is nothing less than the first edition of the New Testament. Better still, you can eBay it later. May the Lord make you truly thankful.
First, though, we have to go back. Way back.
The National Cycling Union, British cycling’s pompous, priggish governing body, was having none of it. For 50 years it had refused to entertain the notion that continental-style massed start racing, infected with heresies like stealth, tactics and drafting, be permitted to wreak havoc on Albion’s burgeoning road network. Road racing, they said, was a mongrel sport, best left to indolent Frenchman, conniving Italians and ignorant Flemish farmhands. In Britain, track time trialling prevailed.
By 1933, however, the UCI had jettisoned time trialling almost completely; now Olympic and world championship events would be held as massed start road races. In light of their decision, the NCU was compelled to sanction, under extreme duress, circuit racing around motor racing tracks as a means of selecting who would represent us at the worlds. Just two venues, Nottingham’s Donington Park and Brooklands, in Surrey, were licensed on the mainland. The flat cap and whippet merchants of the hooligan north could take a running jump.
At Brooklands, 10,000 dissidents turned up to watch the infidels at the world championship eliminator. Percy Stallard, a rough-hewn cycling hard case from Wolverhampton, earned selection and would finish a creditable eleventh, while a Parisian, Georges Speicher, triumphed on his home roads. The following year another Black Countryman, the redoubtable Charles Holland, finished fourth on a brute of a course at Leipzig. On the Isle of Man, outside of NCU jurisdiction, a circuit race on the open mountain roads of Snaefell pass was permitted in 1936. A thrilling epilogue to TT week, it would become a week-long event in its own right, a beacon for the starry-eyed dreamers of British cycling. A ferry ride from Liverpool and a world away from England, Manx week offered a glimpse of a life less ordinary, of European exotica, of the Tour de France. The following year, Charles Holland rode and almost completed the Tour.
Now a weird, troglodyte underclass started to emerge. Desperate to bring variety to their riding, they would surface, clad entirely in black, in the small hours. In the half-light just before dawn they would ride clandestine events on Britain’s B roads, then dissolve into the night, leaving no trace. Though they dared not race continental style for fear of being seen, arrested, fined and banned, they were planting the seeds of revolution in British cycling.
By December 1941, Britain, a country of 14 million bicycles, had no petrol, so her roads were empty of cars. Meanwhile, given that all the airfields and most motor racing circuits were being used by the military, British cyclists had almost nowhere left to race. Uniquely in Europe, they remained barred from using the highways. Stallard badgered the NCU endlessly, wrote time and again imploring them to see sense. They told him in no uncertain terms to sling his hook, and by the spring of 1942 he had got the message. Done with pissing in the wind, he called a meeting of his cycling mates in the Shropshire hills and told them he was organising a road race sponsored by the local paper and, crucially, sanctioned by the local police. On June 7th 1942, road racing was born in Great Britain as a crowd estimated at 1,000 waved them home at the finish in Wolverhampton. The 40 participants were banned for life by the NCU.
Stallard’s race had been a success and, thus emboldened, he formed his own organisation, the British League of Racing Cyclists. Now the NCU’s hegemony started, ever so slowly, to blister. The traditionalists cried foul, but in their intransigence they had forced Stallard’s hand. Suddenly heretic new BLRC clubs, run by cycling’s happening crowd, appeared the length and breadth, chiseling away at the NCU power base. The union, and by extension the UCI, still ignored them but they paid no heed. A new magazine, Bicycling, a rival to the NCU’s staid, dreary Cycling, sided with the revisionists, reporting on and endorsing BLRC races; bitter arguments raged on hitherto quiet country lanes. By VE day, the BLRC was running a parallel national championship and, shortly after, began sending teams abroad to compete in non-UCI-affiliated races. The force was with them. The troglodytes were coming into the light.
In 1939, ten-year-old Ian Steel and his sister Margaret, six, had been evacuated, bewildered and bereft, from their Glasgow home. Settling along the way at their grandparents’ place in the Argyll town of Dunoon, they dug in for the long haul, like millions of British kids. By and by, Ian, a skinny, purposeful kid, found his feet. Crazy about bikes, he enquired at the local butcher’s shop as to whether they might be in need of an errand boy – anything for a ride. They did, and he learned his trade and became a truly formidable errand boy, one of the best around. Ian Steel, you see, simply loved his work. It gave him a pretext for going out with the true love of his life: his bicycle.
Returning home at the cessation, he got an apprenticeship as a patternmaker. He worked hard and saved hard, and pretty soon he had a bike of his own, a racing one. Of a Sunday he would roll out with the Glasgow United, the local (NCU) time trialling club: “When I got back from my first ride with them, my mum thought I’d been drinking. I was so knackered I could barely stand up. Anyway, I did my first 25 in 1hr 11min – not bad for a scrawny kid on his first outing. They even gave me a prize!”
On Saturday mornings, he and his breathless mates would make straight for the town centre. Here they’d thumb their furtive way through impossibly glamorous French magazines. Salivating, the way teenagers will, over the pictures they contained, they became hopelessly addicted.
“Robic, Coppi, Bartali. Campagnolo, Peugeot, Legnano – like illicit, guilty pleasures. I was desperate to race. I’d nothing else in my mind: not girls, not work, not anything. For me, it was just cycling. Cycling, cycling, cycling. In 1950, I joined the Glasgow Wheelers, the local BLRC club, defected to the enemy. By now the League had pretty well caught up. They still weren’t affiliated to the UCI, but there were quite a lot of road races. Anyway, there was a hell of a fallout, but what could I do? I wanted to be Fausto Coppi.” Ian Steel trained hard that winter, harder than he ever had before. Armed now with a four-speed block and 27-inch wheels, he rode his first 25 of the season in 1hr 1min, a giant leap forward.
“The NCU lot said it was a cheat, because we’d used Scottish Cycling Union [to whit: BLRC] watches. That may seem absurd, but they were absolutely, deadly serious. Regardless, I was going well, improving all the time. I won the Scottish time trial championship, then in July I won the road race on a mountainous course over 120 miles. About 20 miles from the finish there was a climb, and I just rode away. All of a sudden I was the champion of Scotland. I’d always enjoyed climbing the most, but it was becoming apparent that nobody could hold my wheel when the road went up. I started to realise that I was quite good at it.” Ian Steel is an extremely modest man. His contemporaries, to a man, reckon he wasn’t “quite good at it” at all. He was, in fact, very good at it.
Through a French café owner in Soho, the BLRC forged a reciprocal agreement with the gloriously named Fédération Sportive et Gymnique du Travail, a communist sporting body from the Parisian suburbs, whereby riders from either side be permitted to race across La Manche. Steel was invited, for the first time, to race overseas at Paris-Lens. Here he rode away again, only this time in the company of one of the NCU’s surly French archetypes, who sat on for 50 miles before pilfering the two-up.
“It was a great experience for me, but I’d no idea that cyclists could be so ruthless. I’d even shared the primes with him! No matter – Viking, the frame builder from Wolverhampton, was the best team in Britain at the time, and they were also represented there. One of them, Ted Jones, came up to me after the race and said he couldn’t ride the Tour of Britain, and that I could probably take his place. I was amazed. These were the blokes I was reading about in the cycling magazines, the very best in the country. I’d always assumed they would be much better than me, but now they were wanting me to ride for them.”
In austere post-war Britain, cycling had boomed. The BLRC’s exploits persuaded the Daily Express, Britain’s favourite newspaper back then, to sponsor a 1,400-mile, two-week stage race, the Tour of Britain. Although taken aback to be invited, Steel jumped at the chance. On the road, he was imperious. He won the third stage into Plymouth, the sixth into Morecambe. The following day, on a 160-mile, six-and-a-half-hour marathon over Shap Fell into his hometown, he smashed it up again. He was dominating the race. At Hampstead Heath, 20,000 turned up to watch as he confirmed his excellence, his winning margin the thick end of seven minutes. They paid him £120, three months’ wages for a patternmaker, and now 22-year-old Ian Steel was the best racer in all of Britain.
“The race finished on September 1st, pretty much the end of the season. I came home and started working in my brother-in-law’s bike shop in Irvine. Through the winter I’d ride to and from work, and that was me. Then in February, a letter arrived from the BLRC, inviting me to ride something called the Peace Race, a two-week stage race in Eastern Europe. I knew not the first thing about it, but it was a chance for me to race overseas. It was Christmas all over again…”
Sometimes as a writer the subject matter becomes too big, too intimidating. Sometimes the very magnitude of it becomes terrifying, threatens to overwhelm you. With this in mind, and begging your pardon for being so utterly ill-equipped, I’m going to try to explain the enormity of the Peace Race.
Eastern Europe lay in tatters at the end of the War, its infrastructures obliterated, the will of its peoples crushed by years of human carnage and ideological bewilderment. Now Poland and Czechoslovakia faced a new totalitarianism. Under Stalin, arguably as heinous and certainly more indiscriminate than Hitler, they were once more condemned to rebuild their ruined lands, their broken lives. Feelings in the two states ran high over how best to deal with their ethnically German peoples. In Poland, it was initially decreed that only German citizens be expelled; Germanic Poles had their land confiscated and were subject to bloody reprisals by angry mobs. In Czechoslovakia, the new regime kicked out all Czechoslovakian nationals of German origin, estimated at two to three million people. Tensions over the “German problem” escalated and turned into a number of border disputes between the two sides – and would ultimately lay the foundation for a cycle race that would dwarf anything ever seen in Western Europe. In both scale and political and cultural significance, the Peace Race was no less than a behemoth.
The true origins of the race are, in the best Eastern Bloc tradition, somewhat murky. It is thought that during the 1946 Pan-Slavic Boxing Championships in Prague, Czech and Polish journalists discussed how best they might improve relations between the two nations through sport. Jan Blecha, from the Czech Communist Party daily Rudé Právo, is believed to have spoken to Zygmunt Dall, a Polish colleague from the newspaper Głos Ludu. It was decided that a bicycle race linking the two capitals, Warsaw and Prague, would provide the perfect symbolism. Rudé Právo joined forces with Trybuna Ludu, its Polish counterpart, to organise the event. And so, in the spirit of Soviet comradeship they set to. Sort of.
Both Klement Gottwald and Bolesław Bierut, the Stalinist leaders in Prague and Warsaw respectively, were adamant that the race finish be celebrated in their national stadia. Each reasoned that a local winner would be the source of huge national pride, not to mention a healthy dose of political one-upmanship. An unseemly row emerged around the sovereignty of the event, setting the tone for the most politicised sporting contest in 20th century history. A compromise of sorts was reached and, on May Day 1948, two pelotons took to the road, one headed southwest from Warsaw to Prague and another traversing in the opposite direction. The two sets of riders, comprising national teams from the host nations, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia and a few local independents, generated massive interest in the local populations. Millions were given the day off work and urged (some believe corralled) onto the roadside to smile for the camera, to add weight to the spectacle. In the maelstrom that was the nascent Soviet Bloc, the political point scoring potential of the event was lost on neither regime. Both recognised that it represented a massive propaganda opportunity, which was why both had insisted on hosting the triumphant conclusion: our Peace Race is bigger than your Peace Race.
In the event, both would be disappointed. Two Yugoslav riders, Alexander Zoric and August Prosenik, rained on their beautifully orchestrated parades.
Notwithstanding the fact that neither had won the inaugural event, the two parties now agreed that moving forward there would be a single race, the route reversed annually. The race immediately became part of the sporting lexicon, a source of pride in those backbreaking post-war years. The 1949 edition, Prague-Warsaw, saw the extraordinary Czech champion, Jan Veselý, triumph under 100,000 Polish noses. So significant was Veselý’s victory that he is still an iconic figure in Czech sporting history – not quite a Czech Coppi, but not very far off. Put simply, everybody in the Czech Republic knows the legend of Jan Veselý, just as everybody who grew up in Eastern Germany knows their own great champion, Täve Schur. In East Germany, cycling was so colossal a sport that Schur would win, nine times in succession, the East German sports personality of the year award. If Veselý was the not-quite Fausto Coppi, Schur’s status in his homeland transcended his profession. The closest thing to royalty in a nation of 16 million people, it is no exaggeration to state that Schur was infinitely more significant a figure for Germans than Coppi or Merckx ever were for Italians and Belgians. Though ostensibly amateurs, those who represented their nation in sports, professional athletes in all but name, were working first for their country, next for themselves. More than mere sportspeople, they were genuine (and highly visible) ambassadors. In Eastern Europe, nothing wasn’t politicised – least of all sport.
In 1950 the race adopted the Peace Race moniker (Závod míru in Czech, Wyścig Pokoju across the border) and Picasso’s white dove as its symbol. Thousands of doves would be released at the beginning of the race at an opening ceremony attended by seas of humanity and alive with national flags. Immense portraits of Party and military leaders, alongside the benign, avuncular-looking Stalin, signalled a towering communist riposte to the Fascist rallies that had predicated Europe’s implosion. For all that it was politically motivated and charged, the race delivered delight to millions, became synonymous with the joy of the springtime, time off work and, crucially for the party grandees, community. Furthermore, it was a celebration of Russia’s new empire, and in 1952 the route was expanded. The race, the greatest sporting manifestation of communist ideology, was to visit the very symbol of Europe’s so-called Cold War, the very heart of the new world order. The Peace Race would carry the battle right to the Fascist doorstep. They were taking it to East Berlin.
In Glasgow, guileless, lanky 23-year-old bicycle repairman Ian Steel set about getting fit to ride 2,135 kilometres in 12 days. He had been told that there were long stretches of cobbles in the East and so he went out and found every inch of pavé he could and taught himself to barrel. That taken care of, he took a train to London to meet his new teammates.
“There was Les Scales, a cockney toolmaker. Bev Wood was a cracking little climber from Hyde, then Frank Seel, a plumber from Manchester. He was the most superb teammate I ever had, tireless and hard as nails. Ken Jowett, from Bradford, was another good climber, as was Ian Greenfield, a real hard case from Edinburgh. Ian was a squadie, if memory serves. We were all the same age excepting Frank, who was a little older, and we got on really well, though we had not the faintest idea what we were getting into. Percy [Stallard] was manager. Bob Thom, from Viking, was mechanic, Charles Fearnley the masseur. I remember thinking that Bob would have his work cut out because we all rode different frames, different gearing, different everything.
“We all went to the Polish embassy to get our visas, but they told us that once we were over there we would be on our own. If anything happened, they couldn’t offer any diplomatic help. I thought that a bit strange, but didn’t think anything of it – too excited about the race. None of us had ever flown before, so we were really excited. We had a big send-off from the Polish-British friendship society then flew to Copenhagen – an unforgettable experience. After a night in a swanky hotel, we flew off to Warsaw. We arrived on April 26th, and immediately it became obvious that this was no ordinary race.
“When we landed, we noticed that all the other teams were dressed immaculately. They all had these smart suits with their national flag on the pocket. We, on the other hand, were a shambles – a right bunch of tail-end Charlies! Anyway, we were all met off the plane by a great phalanx of people, given flowers, treated like kings. Then there was this armoured escort through Warsaw, which was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life, almost completely flattened. They took us to this very grand civic reception in a hotel, and we all felt a bit out of place. Nothing for it, we joined the queue, a bit sheepish in our bomber jackets, to meet Marshall Rokossovsky, the commander of the Soviet forces in Poland. The protocol was that he stood behind a desk, and when it was your turn you’d salute him collectively, he’d knock back his vodka and off you went. He must have been in a right state by the end, because there were 16 teams! Our problem was that we couldn’t work out what they were saying. They just seemed to bark something, then he’d knock it back. Anyway Bev Wood chirped up in his cockney accent. He said, ‘Let’s say bollocks,’ and so we did. We said ‘bollocks’, with military precision, to the most dangerous man in Poland.”
Post-war Warsaw, even seven years on, was a city on its knees. According to Frank Seel, it felt like it had “had its guts scraped out. In Britain we thought we’d been the heroes of the war. We had absolutely no idea.
“The place was ravaged, absolutely terrible. They took us all to a cinema which they were really proud of. It had been built using nothing but the rubble from the war, so it was some kind of a metaphor. I remember we were all shocked by it. On the eve of the race we went out for a spin to test our gear, and it was astonishing, the warmth of the people, really humbling. Then the send-off in the national stadium was just a mind-blowing spectacle – bands, marching, flags, Stalin everywhere. At the end, they released a thousand white doves into the skies above Warsaw.”
Ian wasn’t about to allow himself to be distracted.
“People talk about the scale of the Peace Race, and in truth it was bigger than any of us could have imagined. I rode the Tour in 1955, but this was completely different. Millions and millions of people watched the race, seas of them. It shook us rigid; you can’t imagine it. I’d no idea about politics, or any of that stuff, and I was determined to ignore it all. I was focused on riding my bike. If I’d stopped to take in the scale of the thing, either politically or in a sporting sense, I would have been overwhelmed by it.”
During the first week, the cobbles wreaked such havoc that the Belgian team ran out of frames. Britain alone, for all that they were a riff-raff off the bikes, got off lightly.
“I have an idea that Ian [Greenfield] crashed badly on the cobbles, but I was OK with them. Our bikes were the most reliable, not a single frame breakage. They always talk about the shocking state of the Eastern European roads, but I rode the Peace Race without a single puncture, not one.”
Stage three, into Chorzow, saw a young Frenchman, Jean Stablinski (later a world road race champion), claim the yellow jersey with a glorious 200 kilometre solo ride. Stablinski was an immense talent, but he’d won the phony war. The Brits knew the business end of the race would begin in the mountains of central Germany. Sure enough – on day seven, Berlin to Leipzig – the chaff started to detach.
“A Pole won it, but me, Woody and Jowett rode really well that day. We all finished in the lead bunch and suddenly us lot, the scruffiest bunch in the race, were leading the team competition. They gave us these lovely sky blue jerseys with a big white dove on the front. By now I was right up on GC, I think about fifth. I felt great, but Veselý, the big star, had the jersey. I knew he was the one I’d have to beat.”
The following day, on a big mountainous stage to Chemnitz, Ian went out and won the biggest bike race in the world. He, Ian Greenfield and Ken Jowett smashed nine minutes into the invincible Veselý, the greatest cyclist in Eastern Europe, and into anybody else that mattered. Ian is a quiet, self-effacing man, a gentleman in the most literal sense, but when he talks about that day and riding in the hills, his attitude and surname are eponymous. Three hours into our conversation, as we watch a DVD of him climbing the legendary cobbled climb known as the Wall of Meerane (think Koppenberg, but steeper and a little longer, and on 46×23), Steel becomes, once more, the man who won the Peace Race. Suddenly there is a change in him, a hardening over which he has no control. Suddenly he’s there, transported back 60 years, at war on his bike. Ian Steel, retired racing cyclist, has become Ian Steel, racing cyclist. He’s baring his teeth.
“I felt good, hadn’t had any problems, and I loved the hills. What I loved about hills was that I could sit there, maybe on the front of a little group, and I could just turn on the pressure, and I could put on real pressure, then go steady and look back to who was there, and then do it again. I could turn it on and watch them go…”
I’ve interviewed a great many cyclists over the years, but I’m stunned by this. When Ian Steel says “reeeeal pressure”, he reveals the sheer malice that lurks within the champion cyclist. For fear of appearing immodest he tries to check himself, to reign himself in. The power of it. It’s beautiful.
In Prague’s mammoth Strahov Stadium, 220,000 people watched as a shy, undemonstrative Brit, the other Ian Steel, was crowned winner of the 1952 Peace Race. Because he, a Westerner, had defeated Jan Veselý, his wasn’t a popular victory, and he never got to ride the traditional lap of honour. Even more churlishly, they withheld the motorcar promised to the winner at the outset, and his teammates didn’t get the motorbikes set aside for the team victory they had achieved with such crushing authority. They received not a penny, though they did get some crystal, a camera, a radio and a watch – bits and pieces. Ian’s most treasured possession is a very large, very wonderful book, full of photographs of the race and extraordinarily intricate calligraphy, given to him at the end of the race. He alone was given one, and no copies exist.
With the exception of the communist Daily Worker, the British press completely ignored the event, save for the odd sentence from Reuters. Cycling magazine, firmly in the NCU’s pocket, wrote precisely twelve words about the greatest achievement in the history of British bike racing. Later that year, Ian was set to win the Tour of Mexico, but crashed on a descent. His friend Bev Wood finished third. Peaks and troughs.
At the end of the year, they offered him a job working for Viking in Wolverhampton. When he got there, the accommodation they had promised wasn’t ready, so he moved into Bob Thom’s spare room, and here he met Bob’s sister-in-law, Peggy. He rode the Vuelta a couple of times, rubbed shoulders with Louison Bobet, but he freely admits that he struggled to impose himself without meaningful support. Viking made an Ian Steel frameset to commemorate his achievements, but British cycling was in decline by now – sponsors pulling out for lack of cash, factory teams falling over. Still contracted to Viking, he was invited to ride for a British national team at the 1955 Tour. By now, though, doping was so prolific a practice as to be almost part of the job. Going well but disillusioned with being confronted with a lose-lose decision (to dope or not to dope), Ian climbed off his bike. He unscrewed the lid of the little tin bottle he had been ordered to carry around with him, and emptied its contents onto the tarmac. He signed to ride a season for the great Swiss champion, Hugo Koblet, but it was a hopeless endeavour, and he’s honest enough to admit that his heart wasn’t in it. Aged 27, Ian Steel retired from cycling.
For all that the Great Britain team’s exploits remain largely unheralded in their homeland, the legacy of the 1952 Peace Race lives on. Ian’s victory saw the UCI finally recognise the BLRC. The NCU threw their toys out, whereupon the UCI threatened them with expulsion if they failed to get their house in order. Finally, the two bodies started to communicate with one another and another cold war began very slowly to thaw. In 1959, the British Cycling Federation emerged from the crossfire.
All of you riding and racing in this sceptred isle owe a debt of gratitude to Percy Stallard, to the late Messrs. Wood, Jowett and Scales. You are indebted to Ian Greenfield and to Frank Seel, Steel’s two surviving teammates. Most of all, you are in the debt of an 81-year-old living out his days in an unpretentious bungalow in Ayrshire, for he invented who you are. He invented British Cycling.
Go in peace.
To gain an appreciation of the Peace Race, go to
www.youtube.com and search for “Wyscig pokoju 1952”.
It’s a Polish propaganda film of the race, made by the
Dutch communist Joris Ivens. Ian Steel wears number 5.
Herbie Sykes is a writer and author. He would like to
thank Dave Orford and Stephen Flockhart for their help
in researching this article.
It’s an old chestnut: Britain’s inability to produce a Grand Tour winner, as old as Simpson’s sickening demise in the kiln that is Ventoux. On, on, on…