Thursday, June 20, 2024

Phil Cheetham – Memories, Part Two; Behind the Iron Curtain to Ride the Peace Race

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HomeStoriesPhil Cheetham - Memories, Part Two; Behind the Iron Curtain to Ride...

In Part One of Phil Cheetham’s Memories we heard about how, in 1967, he made his way to Troyes in France’s Champagne region to spend the summer months racing with one of the best teams in the country, UVA Troyes, sharing a house with future pro Derek Harrison, and ‘accidentally’ winning a race.

In 1972 he rode the legendary Peace Race, with never a dull moment. Here’s Part Two of Phil’s story…

* * *

By Phil Cheetham

Behind the Iron Curtain for the Peace Race, 1972 

On the 17th of February the BCF inform me that I’ve been selected for the Peace Race, the 25th edition. 

I really want to give it a go this year.

Early in February I run out of money. I’d only worked seven days on the Post Office since the end of the last season. 

I ask my previous sponsor, André Vistel, who runs a helicopter crop spraying business if he can take me on for a while. His firm is called Phitagri and his slogan is “du veau à l’hélicoptère” (from calves to helicopters). I was never really sure what that meant. 

He says he can. 

I’ll be helping the mechanics in his warm, well-lit workshop where about half a dozen helicopters are being overhauled. 

But I will have to clean the toilets each day. 

That’s the type of man he is; he didn’t want to see me being treated like a privileged worker in front of all his other employees. He’s one of those bosses who will give his workers a hand unloading a lorry if he passes that way. 

I work there part-time for nine weeks until the 2nd of April. I take every Thursday off to get in a long training ride in the morning. 

In the afternoon I go out with the “Ecole de Cyclisme” (the cycling school) sponsored by Phitagi. 

It’s run by Patrick Odin, the son of William Odin who was the mechanic for the French national squad in the Tour de France during the time our Sports Director, Marcel Bidot, was the selector and manager. 

Over one hundred schoolboys turn up every Thursday where they take part in bike handling exercises, sprints and short races. 

Peace Race
Phil Cheetham (l), third in 1971 National Champs behind Dave Rollinson and Phil Bayton. Photo©supplied

On the other days I ride to and from work, generally taking a long route to get home, so I’m riding about 75 km per day.

I have a bad crash in the club’s second training race on the 12th of March. 

These are ‘real sponsored handicap races’ with prize money even though the amounts are fairly small. 

I fly over the handlebars in the sprint for the line and fall heavily on my back which soon turns all colours of black and blue. 

My bruised back hampers me for a while but doesn’t affect my training programme.

The English journalist, John Wilcockson drops in to see me one day in the workshop and writes a two page article about my build-up for the Peace Race and the Phitagri cycling school in the ‘International Cycling Sport’ magazine. 

By then I have already done 3000 kms in training. 

Due to the new French Federation regulations we don’t ride our first race until the 19th of March. 

Two weeks later it’s already the club’s classic, Paris-Troyes. Alan Mellor and Bryan Edwards arrive two days before the race. 

I puncture whilst in the leading echelon and abandon after 60 km; following team cars aren’t allowed. Jacques Esclassan wins the race.

Then Alan and I really begin to step up our training and get in loads of kilometres whatever the weather. 

The Tuesday after Paris-Troyes Alan and I go to Paris to get our Polish and Czechoslovakian visas. In the Polish embassy they tell us it will take at least a week and that we will have to come back again.

That was until they see on our application forms that we will be participating in the Peace Race, and 10 minutes later we have our visas.

We have two races the next weekend. 

I finish fourth in Azay-le-Ferron and second in Chateaurenard where I go to the doping control.

The next weekend is the Tour de l’Aube. There’s a good field with 101 starters including three riders preselected on the French squad for the World Team Time Trial championships. 

I finish second on the first stage and fourth on the second. I’m lying fourth overall before the 14 km individual Time Trial on Sunday afternoon. 

My DS, Marcel Bidot comes to see me; “I’ll follow you,” he says, “but I want to see you win the Time Trial and the overall classification“. 

It had never crossed my mind. I was thinking I’d do well to hang onto my fourth place.

Marcel Bidot has already followed Jacques Anquetil, Raymond Poulidor and Roger Rivière in Tour de France Time Trials. 

He continuously shouts at me out of the team car window. I can’t let him down and gave it all I have. 

I come home with the best time beating the three French Olympic squad riders; Jean-Claude Meunier by 21 seconds, Alain Meunier by 25 seconds, and Claude Duterme by 31 seconds, as well as the overall leader Roland Eloi by exactly one minute. 

Enough to take the overall classification by 19 seconds – thanks to Marcel. 

I now know the difference between riding as hard as you think you can and riding at the extreme limit of your physical capabilities.

Peace Race
Phil Cheetham (No.11) pictured before the start of the 1969 Milk Race with (r. to l.) Pete Matthews, Danny Horton (1971 British pro champion), Martin Roach and Brian Jolly (No.13). Along with Alan Mellor (out of picture) the England team was the best of the home teams, Jolly winning three stage. Photo©supplied

The next weekend we ride an international three day event in Sedan near the Belgian border; three separate races with an overall classification on a points system. 

My teammate Claude Chabanel wins the first stage, the ‘Prix de Slavia‘, on Friday. 

I win the sprint for second on the track in Sedan.

On Saturday I win the second stage, the ‘Prix Erika‘, 54 seconds ahead of Alan Mellor in the cold, wind and rain. 

I take over the race leader’s jersey. 

We control the third stage, the ‘Prix de l’UCI‘, won by Alain Bauchet from the Pédale Châlonaise

I win the bunch sprint for fourth and hold on to the white jersey. 

Alan finishes third overall. 

A British team is riding, amongst them a certain Pat McQuaid who finishes 10th overall. 

He had a good amateur career (he won the Tour of Ireland twice) before turning pro for Viking cycles. In 2005 he was elected president of the UCI in the troubled times of mass EPO doping. 

We ride another race on Monday but without much success (I finish 10th).

Two days later, Alan and I leave to ride the Berlin-Prague-Warsaw Peace Race. 

* * *

My form can’t be better. 

We fly first to Prague then board an old, decrepit ‘plane, with smoking engines and bald tyres, for the short flight to Berlin.

We are housed in a large, high-class multi-storey hotel. Several floors are reserved for the riders and staff. 

A large group of police motorcyclists are posted on the forecourt to escort and keep an eye on us whenever we leave the hotel for a ride. 

Late in the afternoon, I go out to test my bike; two outriders clear the way and wave the traffic aside. 

I immediately turn right and lose them. 

I ride unhindered through the tram-lined streets and wide avenues of East Berlin. The featureless buildings look grey and dreary. 

Suddenly I’m opposite the Brandenburg gate. 

A green lawn lies before me guarded by barbed wire, trip wires, armed patrols and watchtowers. 

West Berlin on the other side appears attractive, fresh and inviting with the 368-metre high Fernsehturm, a TV tower built just three years before, towering proud in the distance. 

The sky is darkening, it’s getting late. I turn round and ride back to the hotel. 

Nobody bothers me.

The next day we do a 50 km ride, this time well-escorted by the outriders and our team car.

That evening there’s a huge reception at a venue about four kilometres from the hotel. Tom Pinnington, our “amateur” team manager and the rest of the squad decide they will do some sightseeing and walk back to the hotel. 

I can’t believe it, you don’t walk any distance, let alone four K, on the eve of an important event. I hitch a ride with the French team.

The British and French teams often have a mutual agreement, if one of the team cars moves up to cover the break the other car will cover the two teams in the peloton. 

I know their manager Robert Oubron and their mechanic André quite well. Andre’s only shortcoming is that he doesn’t like oiling the chains as it makes the bikes more difficult to clean but the British mechanic, if asked nicely, will usually oblige.

Back at the hotel, it’s quite obvious that our bags have been searched. Whoever it was, they made no effort to conceal the fact.

The teams competing are from the Soviet Union, Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Poland, Morocco, Cuba, Yugoslavia, Belgium, Finland, Denmark, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Norway and Great Britain. 

That makes 17 teams in all and 102 starters. 

The Peace Race is dubbed the Eastern Bloc Tour de France. The crowds are enormous, up to 60,000 at the finishes, mostly on cinder tracks which are very tricky to negotiate, especially as I’ve never ridden on one before. 

Flags and pennants are flying everywhere you look. Even when we take the bus to drive to the start, the roads are lined with clapping flag-waving crowds. We wave back as we go past, like the Queen in her stately carriage.

Each morning we leave our bags in our rooms and find them already waiting for us when we move into our rooms after the stage; each time they have been tampered with. 

At the finishes, like each rider, I have a designated boy wearing my number. 

He seeks me out, gives me a drink and something to eat, puts a blanket over my shoulders, looks after my bike and takes me to a long line of waiting buses which set off almost immediately for the hotel, even if only a few riders are on board.

Stage One

The first stage is a nine kilometre out-and-back Time Trial in Berlin. 

120,000 people line the course. 

I’ve picked up a bout of bronchitis and my breathing isn’t too good. 

I finish 29th, 22 seconds down on the joint winners Takacz from Hungary and Neljubin from the USSR. 

Ian Greenhaigh finishes 70th, Alan Mellor (suffering from hay fever) 72nd, Sandy Gilchrist 82nd, Mike Potts 88th and Howard Darby 93rd. 

Maybe I was right not to walk back to the hotel the previous night.

Stage Two

The text in italics below is from Cycling Weekly and written by Richard Froude.

“The following day’s second stage circuit race around Berlin was significant for the violent switching throughout the 121 kilometres and two of the main hopes, Janusek of Poland and Labus of Czechoslovakia, came down in the melee and broke their collarbones.

“The East German Michael Milde comes home first.”

We are all placed equal 26th in the bunch.

Stage Three

“Violent switching and crashes were again the order of the day on Stage Three and that’s where Régis Ovion (the reigning world amateur champion and Tour de l’Avenir winner) said goodbye in a major crash three kilometres from the finish in Magdeburg. 

“It was obviously not the best of days for the French for Guy Sibille came down in the same crash and broke his collarbone.

It happened just three or four places ahead of me, Régis Ovion was switched into a roadside post.

“Britain’s fortunes were mixed, with Cheetham and Mellor finishing in