Lech Walesa believes that Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe didn’t begin to crumble when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 but rather when the workers' resistance movement started in Gdansk in 1980. The Nobel Peace Price winner and former President of Poland will go back to the coastal city on Sunday for the first stage of the Tour of Poland, an event which will this year pays tribute to the fight against the Soviet regime.
Just before the start of the stage, wreaths will be laid on the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers in Gdansk, which marks the spot where 42 or more workers were killed by the troops of the People's Republic of Poland in 1970. Ten years later, Lenin Shipyard workers started uprising again after the cost of food escalated. That was the trigger for the strong Polish opposition, a movement which the Tour of Poland commemorates this year on its official posters, which display a view of Gdansk's docks, cranes and union banners claiming: “Solidarnosc” – Solidarity.
"Gdansk fought for democracy and freedom and the resistance spread from here to the rest of Poland and then to all the countries of Eastern Europe", the race's CEO Czeslaw Lang told Cyclingnews.
The organiser experienced himself the daily life under the communist government when he was an athlete. Indeed, in 1980, the year when Lech Walesa led the protests of Solidarnosc, Lang claimed a silver medal at the Moscow Olympics and won the Tour of Poland.
“Communism is sad, grey, not beautiful," Lang said. "My family and I were against the regime but my parents couldn't be part of Solidarnosc because we, people from the countryside, couldn't stop working. They had to work every day in the fields to feed the family.”
Lang, once a symbol of the communist Poland and now a symbol of the capitalist country, has restored his family's farm in Barnowo, 113 kilometres west of Gdansk. His property is so vast that it's said he needs about 40 minutes to drive through it inhis jeep. The property is spread across three villages (Kotczygtowy, Barnowo and Gostkowa), where Lang's parents were sharecroppers for Germans until they could buy their own farm.
“Communism has never been good, even for the athletes,” Lang added. “If you look at the Soviet Union's cycling, that was everything for the team and nothing for individuals. The management didn't want a rider to win three stages, they needed three different winners. More over, the main event of Eastern riders was the Peace Race and we couldn't try our luck against the professional riders in Western Europe.”
Lang took this opportunity once, however, at the 1979 Tour du Vaucluse, where he had a triumphal climb to Mont Ventoux. He was 24 years old and several foreign teams offered him a professional contract – and encouraged him to seek political asylum. But Lang’s family was living in Poland, and he refused to flee.
After Moscow Olympics, Lang was allowed by his government to travel to Italy, as reward for his silver medal. Again he was offered the chance not to come back to his country, but again, he returned. When martial law was established in Poland in late 1981 in order to control Solidarnosc strikes, it was expected that more people would leave the country, yet on board the plane, there was just Lang and an old woman.
When Lang returned to Warsaw, his military team was grateful he hadn't deserted and it accepted to his terms. “All the athletes were soldiers according to their status but I never wore a uniform or used a weapon,” Lang explained. “And people never saw us like soldiers. They knew we were free in our hearts.”
Lang finally turned professional in 1982 with Gis-Gelati and he stopped his career in 1989, at 34. He raced the Giro d'Italia seven times, the Tour de France twice and he captured a few successes, like the prologues of Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Romandie.
“Without the communist regime, I would have turned professional much earlier,” Lang said.
Just as Poland is said to have started the revolutions within Eastern Europe in the 80s, Lang remains famous for having paved the way for Polish cyclists, including Lech Piaseki, who won two stages and wore the yellow jersey at the 1987 Tour de France.
Until now, the Polish pioneer is one of the most respected figures in his country. “People started taking a special look at me after the 1980 Olympics,” Lang recounted. “I was second behind a Russian – Sergei Soukhoroutchenkov – and ahead of another one. In people's mind, I was the Pole fighting against the Russians. A bit of a symbol...”
On Sunday, Czeslaw Lang will certainly remember his years as a rider under the communist dictatorship, when he will lay a spray at the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers, alongside Lech Walesa and the President of the city council, Bogdan Oleszek. Polish flags will be joined to the flowers. Three professional cyclists will also take part to the ceremony, carrying the flag of the European Union – defending Tour of Poland champion, Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEdge), Poland's new icon Rafal Majka (Team Tinkoff-Saxo) and a rider from the national team.
Lang, who never publicly shares his political views now and works with politicians from various parties to build his race, wants to "show the identity” of his country. More than just a cycling race, the Tour of Poland reflects each year a new aspect of Poland's heritage: Frédéric Chopin, Pope John Paul II, the Shoah – with an impressive stage start outside Auschwitz camp in 2010.
“First of all, cycling race gives emotions through sport,” Lang said. “But a cycling race must also promote peace and freedom.”
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