Across the Iron Curtain

From issue 18 • Words by John Wilcockson with illustrations by Matthew Burton

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A journey to the center of the worlds during the Cold War

There were two barriers topped with barbed wire on the Communist side of the Iron Curtain, while an ominous-looking watchtower pointed skyward among the distant trees. Soviet soldiers lounged at the first barrier, scanning the horizon with binoculars. At the actual border, about 300 meters farther on, I stopped at the end of a line of cars with plates showing they’d come from Italy, Germany, France and Austria. It was a short line but a long wait, more than 40 minutes, as the border guards closely inspected passports and visas before stamping them. Then, with a salute from the soldier on the final gate, I was riding on the other side. Next stop Brno.

Heavy rain lashed the thick windowpanes of the overnight train I was traveling on through the narrow, snaking valleys of the Austrian Alps. I slept fitfully on the 17-hour journey on a hard, leather-covered bench seat, my head cushioned against the window with a sweater, hoping that my bike was packed solidly in the luggage car of the swaying train. Half-dreaming, my thoughts went back and forth: back to the weekend I’d just spent in Switzerland reporting a most unusual race, an English-style 12-hour time trial at the village of Gland in French-speaking Romandie, and forward to what would be my first bike ride across the Iron Curtain into Czechoslovakia.

As dawn broke on the Tuesday morning, I watched the storm-fueled waters of the Danube flowing toward Vienna—and then onward to Budapest, Belgrade, and the Black Sea. The rain cleared before the train reached Vienna’s Südbahnhof, where I carried my saddlebag down the platform before retrieving my precious bike—a red, hand-built Rotrax I’d recently built up with Simplex components. Thankfully, it was in good shape.

I took a quick spin around the old town, past the soaring Gothic spires of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and down shadowed streets where Graham Greene’s spy thriller The Third Man was filmed, before heading north over the not-so-blue Danube toward the Iron Curtain. And if the rumors I’d heard were correct, I’d be riding into a significant phase of the real-life Cold War.

It was August 1969. My destination was Brno, where I’d be reporting the world amateur cycling championships. It was only 120 kilometers from Vienna, but locked in a different era. Coming up that week was the August 21 anniversary of the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia that ended the so-called Prague Spring—the attempted liberalization of Communism led by the Czech national party leader and political reformer Alexander Dubcek.

While Soviet tanks were rumbling into Brno from the East, I was pedaling there from the West. It wasn’t an easy ride. A strong headwind tempered the summer warmth of hazy sunshine on the Austrian section of the E7 hochstrasse, which quickly deteriorated from a wide, smooth highway into a narrow, rudimentary affair with long, cobblestone climbs. And when I rode slowly across the barren no-man’s-land before reaching the border, I began to wonder what the state of the road would be like on the other side.

The road was even quieter on the Czech side. There were more short climbs, most of them cobbled, including one that was so steep it forced me to walk, pushing my heavily laden bike—and this was the road to be used for the world team time trial championship later in the week. It was sweaty work for me, and in one of the pretty, flower-filled villages I was happy to see a water pump, which I worked with a long handle to fill my water bottle. Evening was beginning to fall as I finally struggled into Brno, where some friendly locals understood my rudimentary German well enough to direct me to the address of the accommodations I’d jotted down in my notebook.

It turned out to be an austere, Soviet-built student hostel that was being used as an overflow from the city’s fully booked hotels. I was assigned a small twin room, which I’d be sharing with a Czech grad student, who introduced himself as Pavel. Luckily, he spoke enough English to tell me about his country’s troubles and the likely political activity to mark anniversary of the invasion, and his plans to join the protests against the Red Army. Tanks and armored cars were already taking over the downtown area and an 8 p.m. curfew would be imposed for three nights that week—though the world championship teams, billeted in the suburbs, weren’t affected.

After picking up my press accreditation at the worlds HQ, I rode out to the modest hotel where the British team was staying in the rolling countryside west of town. I knew many of the squad from previous assignments, including the Tour of Britain and Tour of Ireland, and sensed a good rapport between the riders and their team manager, the pioneering women’s official Eileen Gray, whose bouffant hairstyle gave her the air of a den mother.

Their translator Lydia, a young woman in a powder-colored skirt-and-blazer uniform, gave me some context to the social situation in her country. After the previous year’s Prague Spring she’d lost her job as a teacher because she’d collaborated with the reformists. She said there were informers in every neighborhood working for the Communist Party’s secret police—it was their way of keeping the people under their control. Her sad story reflected the image of a once-joyous people losing their freedom and dignity to a harsh, military regime.

You might be wondering why the worlds were even being staged in such a politically sensitive place. The reason was fairly simple. The Czech people wanted to celebrate Brno, or more specifically the city’s Luzanky Park, as the site of the first-ever bicycle race held in eastern Europe in August 1869. To mark this centennial, the country invited the world’s best cyclists to the world championships—though the government, because of its rejection of professional sports, only wanted the events for amateur riders. The pro men’s races that year were held in Belgium (Zolder for the road, Antwerp for the track), leaving the amateur men’s and women’s racing in Czechoslovakia.

With the worlds venues decided several years earlier, neither the Union Cycliste Internationale nor the local organizers could have known there would be political turmoil and a military invasion exactly one year before the championships began in Brno. As the country’s second city, founded in the 13th century, it was a bustling, free city, a lot like Paris or Madrid before Russia occupied the country after World War II.

The city I discovered in 1969, two decades into Communist rule and gearing up for the August 21 anniversary, had relatively little traffic, other than streetcars, mostly prewar cars and some newer motorcycles. There were also a vast number of bicyclists, many riding in the dull-crimson tracksuit tops of the Favorit Brno and Dukla cycling clubs, which had thousands of members. That participatory element of the population would result in massive crowds showing up for both the road and track racing that championship week.

At the Velodrome
My earlier Swiss assignment meant I’d missed the first few days of track racing in Brno, so I was eager to catch up. The press package advised us to use a shuttle service to the velodrome, but on hearing it was a rickety bus that first made hotel pick-ups all over town, I rode my bike (and took a padlock!) for the final track session that Wednesday night. The road was mostly downhill and I got there in just five minutes.

As I arrived in the media seating area, the unmistakable crackle of big pacing motors echoed into the night sky. Motor-paced racing was one of cycling’s original disciplines in the late 19th century and had been a worlds event ever since. The eight finalists made an impressive sight circling the floodlit 400-meter concrete track, with its 24-foot-wide straightaways and 35-degree bankings, as they reached speeds as high as 65 to 70 kilometers per hour on the big oval. The pacers were dressed in leathers, sitting bolt upright to give maximum draft to their riders, who wore solid dome-like helmets. Their extra-sturdy track bikes had the front forks reversed to keep them as close as possible to their pacers. And the motorcycles had roll bars fitted at the back, which the riders’ front wheels touched now and again without the riders risking a fall.

Despite the speed and daring of these racers from a seemingly different era, the 10,000 spectators in the velodrome were strangely quiet. A London newspaper colleague, David Saunders of the Daily Telegraph, explained that Russia (the enemy) had just beaten Czechoslovakia (the home favorite) in the semifinals of the four-man team pursuit. Saunders said the crowd greeted the Russians with a long and loud chorus of catcalls. “Welcome to the world whistling championships,” he said with a chuckle.

It turned out that, all week long, the partisan spectators had given a deafeningly hostile reception to all the Russian track racers. The fans had been eager to see their home team smash the Russians in the semifinals—especially as they were the fastest in the qualifying round. But the crowd was now stunned into silence when the Russians trounced them to go on to face Italy in the final.

Meanwhile, the motor-paced racers from Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland battled against themselves as much as their opponents when their pacing motorcycles had repeated mechanical problems. A Dutchman, Albertus Boom, kept the best focus, lapped most of his opponents, and took a popular victory, receiving a standing ovation from the fans. He had to do lap after lap of honor and was eventually lifted high in the air, still on his bike, by a mob of ecstatic fans.

The medal ceremony resembled a military operation, with a small army of people marching out to the podium in a roped-off area in the center of the arena as band music blasted from the loudspeakers. The three medalists were followed by young girls dressed in the Czech national colors of red, white and blue and holding the medals; volunteers carrying the winners’ various prizes; and, at the back, plum-blazered UCI officials surrounding their plump, balding, Pope-like president, Adriano Rodoni of Italy. After Rodoni slipped a silk rainbow jersey over Boom’s slim shoulders, the gaunt, nervous Dutchman stood still as flashbulbs flashed, his national anthem rang out over the stadium, and the Dutch flag moved slowly to the top of the tallest of three masts. Then everyone trooped off the infield, and Boom did another lap of honor.

The fans ramped up their cheering when the Czech team pursuiters came out on the track again, this time to race the French for the bronze medals, but clearly they were demoralized by their poor showing in the semis and the home squad was easily beaten. We didn’t know what to expect for the gold medal final between Italy and Russia. The tension in the air was palpable on this eve of the invasion’s anniversary. Silence blanketed the velodrome when the two teams readied themselves for the last track race of the week: Italy versus Russia, West versus East.

It was a cool evening, and prior to a short warm-up both squads sat anxiously in the pits, wrapped in blankets. Their nervousness resulted in one of the Italian riders pushing on his pedals before the starter’s gun exploded into the still air. The restart saw the four Italians go into an immediate lead, with the crowd wildly cheering them on, hoping they’d beat the hated Russians. And Italy was about 25 meters ahead halfway through the four kilometers.

The fans’ reactions couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed. They urged the Italians around the stadium with a relay of noisy “vasy, vasy, vasy” chants, while the Russians had to contend with a thunderous trail of derisive whistles. Rarely has a sports event been marked by such a unified display of patriotic animosity. However, the red-clad Russians gradually pulled back their opponents, took the lead on the last of the 10 laps and won by half a second. The crowd went silent, and the arena emptied within five minutes. The Czech public had no desire to see their occupiers take more gold medals.

On my way back to the hostel, riding up a long hill in the dark, I was overtaken by the sounds of whirring gears and panting breath. I tagged onto the end of a long line of cyclists that was headed by the American track racers Jack Simes and Tim Mountford, who’d reached the semifinals of the tandem sprint championship the previous day. It felt good to be cocooned by a peloton. Things wouldn’t feel as safe on the morrow ….

Rocks and Roads
Brno’s August 21 anniversary was supposed to be a day of silence, mourning those patriots who’d died in the previous year’s invasion, but it turned into a day of violence, with tear gas being used to disperse the thousands in the city-center protests. As there was no bike racing scheduled that day, I spent time at the press center, typing up my week’s stories and eating an early dinner well before the 8 o’clock curfew.

In the late evening, one of our hostel’s students, Moira from Scotland, returned in a distressed state, crying, and badly bruised. She said she hadn’t known about the curfew, got arrested and was taken to a police station, where officers with nightsticks beat her on the legs as she climbed a spiral staircase. Then, around midnight, my roommate Pavel returned in a disheveled yet exhilarated state. He said he’d been out with friends for several hours, ignoring the curfew, throwing rocks at the Soviet tanks and then running away down dark alleyways. He said he’d be breaking the curfew again on the next two nights.

I had an early breakfast the next day and headed out by bike for a 50-kilometer training ride with the three women who’d be representing Great Britain in the weekend’s road race, along with a couple of their male teammates who weren’t doing the team time trial later in the day. I already knew the youngest of the women, 18-year-old Bernadette Swinnerton, who was that year’s national track sprint champion and had done a bunch of road races to build up her stamina. Earlier in the week, I was told, she had clearly out-sprinted Britain’s top man, Doug Dailey, at the end of a training run.

For fun, I made a small attack on one of the hills near the end of our ride, and saw that Swinnerton and her two teammates, Ann Horswell and Pat Pepper, were as strong as most men I’d ever raced against. Horswell, who’d just won an international 10-day stage race in France, described her pedaling style as a “thrust-and-clutcher.” Like Pepper, Horswell mainly raced in British time trials and didn’t rate her bike-handling skills too highly.

I couldn’t wait to see how they’d fare in Saturday’s road race … but first I had to report that afternoon’s 100-kilometer team time trial, which provided an easy victory for the four brilliant brothers from Sweden, Erik, Gösta, Sture and Tomas Pettersson, who finished well ahead of the runners-up, Denmark.

Saturday was cool and cloudy, with rain in the forecast, for the women race, which would start at 10 a.m. I rode out to the course, based on the Masaryk motor-racing circuit, and left my bike in the British team pits, planning to get in a longer ride back to town in the late afternoon. The women would race five laps of the challenging 14-kilometer road circuit that featured a challenging switchback climb, which was longer than 3 kilometers, with a few 10-percent pitches.

Few expected the small British and American teams to stand much of a chance against the Dutch (with defending champ Keetie Hage), Italians and Russians, who all had six or more starters. But aggressive riding from the English-speaking riders, along with rainfall that grew heavier as the race went on, completely upset those predictions. The most experienced of the Americans was Audrey McElmury, 25, who’d placed fifth at the 1968 world championships and since then had sharpened her skills back home in Southern California, competing in men’s races as often as she could.

I had a great view of the race from the back of an open-top army jeep, and so saw all the key moves. Hage, 20, and Swinnerton, 18, set a fierce pace up the main hill on the second lap to split the group, and Hage went away alone as a fine drizzle made the descents tricky. My training partner, Horswell, took up the chase the third time up the climb and by the summit was only 10 seconds behind the defending champ, while a group containing McElmury, Pepper and Swinnerton was chasing hard. Things changed quickly on the downhill, when two Russians attacked out of the group (with Swinnerton on their wheels) and caught Horswell—and then passed Hage, who was standing at the roadside waiting for a new wheel after puncturing. The young Dutch champion never caught back, while 15 riders came together at the front. McElmury, feeling strong, jumped clear the fourth time up the climb, but she crashed on the now-treacherous downhill and had to chase hard to catch the group as the bell sounded for the final lap.

Inspired by her move on the previous lap, the American again went clear on the climb, racing strongly and bravely through the heavy downpour. McElmury was never more than a few seconds ahead, but no one had the strength (or volition) to cross the gap. Swinnerton and Horswell later said, “We would rather see Audrey win than take up the Russians.” The Soviets, all strong sprinters, were hoping they could retrieve their surprising American foe on the downhill. Instead, McElmury widened her 10-second lead at the summit to 30 seconds as she emerged from the forest of pine trees that lined the swishing descent with 5 kilometers to go.

By now, the press jeep had deposited me at the finish line, and I was standing under the dripping canvas roof of the British team’s pit. There was no live television for races back then, so we were getting race information at the finish line from the PA announcer. How was McElmury doing, everyone wondered. Was the unthinkable about to happen? Was an American going to win a gold medal for the first time in the history of the world road championships?

Then came confirmation: “Number 10 now has a lead of 40 seconds.” Every eye was focused down the finish straightaway through the torrential rain, looking for visual confirmation of the announcer’s words. Suddenly, by my side, a matronly American whose name I don’t recall screamed out, “Gee! It’s really her!” Yes, there was the slim Californian storming up the wide road toward us, and across the line she came: a transient flash of blue-red-and-white jersey, an upraised arm and a nervous smile. Audrey McElmury was the world champion!

As she was engulfed by the joy-crazed Americans, the British team members started screaming, “Come on, Bernie!” Bernadette Swinnerton was fighting out a fierce second-place sprint with the Russians. And she was going away! Swinnerton beat the Soviets by five bike lengths to claim the silver. America first, Britain second. What a day! None of us minded standing in the rain for half an hour while the organizers searched for (and eventually found) a recording of the “Star Spangled Banner” before the medal ceremony could go ahead.

With rain still falling, I ditched my plans for a late-afternoon ride, and took the wheels off my red Rotrax before stuffing them and the bike into one of the British team’s cars. Back in town, I helped unpack, wheeling bikes and carrying spare wheels into the team hotel before my ride back to the student hostel. But when I came back outside, my Rotrax was gone! I’m sure most cyclists have had that sinking feeling when you discover your bike has just been stolen. I didn’t report my loss to the police because who knows what would have happened to the thief in this week of turmoil—I just reasoned that whoever stole it must have been desperate and I hoped it would have a good home.

Even so, I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for racing on the final day of the worlds, the 13-lap, 180-kilometer men’s road race. It was a brilliantly aggressive contest, animated by Britain’s own Pete Smith, who forced the pace all the way up the climb on the second-to-last lap. “When I’m in that mood, I think I can roar anyone off my wheel,” he told me later. “I should know better by now, but I just can’t control myself.” Smith was still leading near the summit when Leif Mortensen of Denmark, the Olympic road race silver medalist in 1968, sprinted hard through the last turn. Smith re-accelerated, but was 10 meters short of catching the Dane—who time-trialed the final 20 kilometers to win the rainbow jersey by a minute over an elite chase group, with Smith placing eighth.

The worlds were over. It was time to say farewell to the brave Pavel, sad Lydia and the still-proud city of Brno. I’d lost my bike so I couldn’t complete a planned ride back to the West via Prague and Karlovy Vary. Instead, I gratefully accepted a long ride home in the cramped backseat of a British official’s station wagon … and re-crossed the Iron Curtain, half asleep with my head propped against a cushion, as rain lashed the windowpane.

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