How the Soviets crossed the Iron Curtain to compete in the Milk Race

On the 50th anniversary of the first Soviet visit to the Milk Race, Herbie Sykes looks back on a race full of intrigue, suspicion — and good manners.

Even Maurice Cumberworth, the man at the helm of the Milk Race, seemed in a state approaching agitation. Cumberworth was a blazer man, a functionary to his very marrow.

A born stoic, he wasn’t much given to emoting. Today though was different; very different. The waiting, thrillingly, was almost over.

He’d had word that they’d landed safe and well, and were trundling up the A1. He’d worked long and hard for this, and now his event, a two-week gallop around Britain’s seaside towns, was about to enter a new dimension.

>>> From Burton to Armitstead: Britain’s road race world champions

It was May 26, 1966 and two days on it would acquire its own slice of Cold War intrigue. The Soviets were coming to the Milk Race. Who’d have thought it?

Even the mainstream press were paying attention, and the Milk Marketing Board was, well, milking that for all it was worth. The terrible Russians, the story ran, were on the march.

A formidable ‘red army’, they’d conquer sleepy New Brighton, then Aberystwyth, and then all points down to Hove.

>>> Paul Smith: A lifelong love of cycling

Relentlessly north then to “bracing” Bridlington, across to lovely old Morecambe and finally to the big one, the mighty promenade at Blackpool.

Truth be told, they looked somewhat pallid when they arrived, and more than a little bemused. Cumberworth figured that was probably to be expected because it wasn’t every day a team of crack Soviet athletes clattered across the Pennines in a mobile chicken crate.

The Milk Race took the Soviets all over England, a marked change to the USSR. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

The Milk Race took the Soviets all over England, a marked change to the USSR. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

Moscow to Merseyside was one hell of a trip in just about every sense, a genuine step into the unknown. Cumberworth told the translator all they needed was a good fish supper inside them and they’d be as right as the Lancashire rain.

He explained that here you raced on the left-hand side of the road, and that the right-hand side would be open to traffic as normal.

>>> Vic Sutton: British climber who was ahead of his time

The interpreter passed this on, but then he told Cumberworth, very politely, that they hadn’t quite understood what he’d been going on about. Cumberworth told him not to worry, because it would soon become clear. All being well they’d have two weeks to get used to it, and it to them.

They looked even more perplexed as they shuffled off to their digs, but no matter. He’d done it; they were here. There were commies on the Wirral. Don’t panic!

>>> Peter Graham: The man who raced and beat five world champions

The journey had begun five years previously when Cumberworth’s predecessor, Chas Messenger, had persuaded the Poles and Czechs to send teams. They generally rubbed along pretty well, mainly because they had much in common.

They shared cultural, linguistic and historical markers and a visceral aversion to Germans and Russians. The Poles, in particular, had ridden well, and had become a fixture. They were attentive and very polite, and also pretty good on their bikes. Good, but, thankfully, not that good.

(Not the) cream of the crop

The Russians were greeted with a glass of milk upon arriving in Blighty. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

The Russians were greeted with a glass of milk upon arriving in Blighty. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

They generally sent their second string, those who hadn’t been selected for the famous Berlin-Warsaw-Prague Peace Race.

The Milk Race began just a few days after its conclusion and, as such, it was a great consolation prize for the also-rans. That was no bad thing, and Cumberworth had no issue with them sending their ‘B’ teams.

>>> Tom Simpson: A life in pictures

The best of them would likely have made mincemeat of the locals, and that would have been counterproductive; the last thing anyone wanted was for our boys to take a pasting. It had been eight years since Bill Bradley won Britain’s last Peace Race stage, and six since a Brit had made the top 10 on GC.

The Peace Race was as good as it got then, and Cumberworth had witnessed it first hand. Not only was it the first and biggest amateur stage race on the calendar, but probably the biggest annual sporting event in the world. Millions turned out to watch, but they probably didn’t have much choice in the matter.

>>> Beryl Burton: British Legend

They closed the schools and factories because attending the race was regarded as an obligation. Failing to turn up was tantamount to failing communism, playing into the enemy’s hands. For that you’d most likely receive a knock on your door.

The Eastern Bloc riders were also ostensibly amateurs, but their interpretation of what constituted amateurism was a bit, well, different. Technically at least, professional sport didn’t exist under communism.

The Soviet team relaxing between stages. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

The Soviet team relaxing between stages. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

So while the best Western youngsters turned pro in their early 20s, their Eastern counterparts just kept on keeping on. Rumour had it that over there they were sponsored by the state, coached by elite former riders and looked after by ‘sports scientists’ (whatever they were).

As often as not they were in the military, but it was questionable whether any of them ever pulled on a uniform.

>>> Is cycling the toughest sport?

It wasn’t that Britain didn’t have some gifted riders. It did, but all but a handful struggled to compete at the top level. Most were third division because they were truly amateur and strictly blue-collar.

They were plumbers, fitters, bike mechanics and warehousemen, and those that weren’t were on the dole. A few of them were scratching about trying to make a living from their bikes but that, as everyone knew, was a pretty hopeless endeavour here.

The Eastern Bloc riders were more organised, more robust physically and just plain stronger. It had been five years since they’d built the Berlin Wall. You could neither get over it nor around it, but as regards preparation and resources you could see straight through it.

It really was a different world over there, though in 22-year-old Les West the Brits had unearthed an international star in the making.

>>> What’s the next big thing in training?

He’d been making a name for himself in the Potteries, and the previous year he’d received a late call up to ride for the Midlands. He’d been lying a splendid second, but then the Spaniard leading the race had failed a dope test, resulting in ‘Westy’ winning the thing outright.

And this time around he’d been riding in Holland to prepare. If anyone could challenge the ‘red army’, it was him.

Business, not pleasure

A Russian rider enjoys a rare moment of self-indulgence in the 1966 Milk Race. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

A Russian rider enjoys a rare moment of self-indulgence in the 1966 Milk Race. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

Cumberworth very well understood that the Russians did not come here for a jolly. As ever with sport, their presence was strategic and above all political. The Milk Race didn’t exist in a vacuum, and he knew that the French had a significant (if perhaps) unwitting hand in their having accepted the invite.

Stage races had been springing up all over North Africa. They took place in February and March, and there were perfectly good reasons for that.

>>> Tom Simpson’s World Championships win: 50 years on

The main one was that ‘Communism Plc’ was buying up those states with hydro-electric power stations, promises of ideological enlightenment and suitcases of hard cash.

The second was that the weeks spent in sunny Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia constituted the selection process for the main event.

They ensured that, come the first week in May, the best of them would hit the ground running at the Peace Race. The other was that, in powering to victory, they acquainted the local populations with socialism’s sporting pre-eminence.

With that in mind Jacques Marchand, a left-leaning race organiser, had been charged with the creation of the Tour de l’Avenir, the ‘Tour of the Future’ — a sort of mini Tour de France, open only to riders under 25.

>>> Elite cyclist, full-time worker: finding the right balance to stay at the top

It would take place in the Alps during the Tour proper, albeit with shorter stages. It would roll out of St Etienne, the French cycling industry’s spiritual home, and thus the next generation of Soviet Bloc riders would experience Alpine climbs for the first time.

The French sporting public would finally have a chance to see them in the flesh while the local climbers, accustomed to bigger mountains, would have a crack at them on their own terrain. Everyone a winner? Not quite.

The Czechs and Poles had accepted invites but not so, initially at least, the East Germans and Soviets. Instead they’d chuntered about the “ideological deficiency” of capitalist racing and refused to send teams.

The USSR team raced and won for the collective benefit of all. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

The USSR team raced and won for the collective benefit of all. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

The deficiency, it transpired, wasn’t simply a geopolitical construct. Rather it was a matter of fact, and it revealed itself in the way the races played themselves out. The Westerners generally rode for the GC first and the team prize either second or not at all.

Capitalism encouraged individual betterment over collective responsibility, but that was anathema to the Soviet sporting model. As a consequence their respective approaches were as different as night and day.

>>> How to prepare for an overseas cycling event

Under socialism the prime objective was the team prize, because it perfectly embodied altruism, selflessness and the collective spirit. It was a metaphor for the best values of the system, and as such its symbolic value was much higher.

It would be a further two years before Moscow embraced the Tour de l’Avenir but even then their tactical approach left local observers bewildered. They were riding the same race, but their objectives were completely different.

For them it was all about the power of three — the three who counted each day towards the team’s standing. If the yellow jersey followed then all well and good, but it was a resounding second in the
priority list.

Don’t let age slow you down

As ever, sport was on the front line of the propaganda war and the Soviet Ministry for Sport decided it needed to increase its investment in cycling. ‘Little Brother’ East Germany was becoming just too powerful and that didn’t do at all. Furthermore, l’Avenir represented both a threat and an opportunity.

If they had aspirations to be the best they had to prove it there, in the cradle of world cycling, and that implied a greater commitment of resources. There would be more riders on the programme, and they’d need to be riding at a higher intensity.

For that to happen they needed more training and more races, because through them there would be greater competition for places.

Milk monitor


The Russian visit was a cultural and sporting clash. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

So the Russians had two or three teams on the road at any one time, and the Milk Race made perfect sense. While the Peace Racers rested, the rest would fly to England.

The Milk Race was a nice consolation prize, and also good preparation for France. What’s more, it marked the beginning of another selection process, the one for the Worlds.

>>> Are you addicted to cycling?

Cumberworth understood all of this, but it wasn’t the time to ruminate on cycling’s place in the great geopolitical paradigm. Nobody was deluding themselves that Banbury was Berlin, and the Milk Race was neither promoting world peace nor building a new order through Marxist-Leninist collectivisation.

However, Cumberworth reckoned the ‘Milk for Energy’ slogan was a surefire winner, and the ‘Mary Poppins’ character (“Mary says pop in for a pinta”) would be a big hit in Coventry.

A journalist from Socialist Worker said Cumberworth had pulled off a major international coup in getting the Russian team here, and asked him what message their presence sent to the global proletarian movement.

>>> Can you buy your way to a fitter you?

Cumberworth, though, had seen him coming. He told him it was just a bike race, that he didn’t much care for philosophical naval gazing, and that sports and politics didn’t mix.

Besides, he’d a fish supper to organise for a bunch of hungry Russians.

Two-time Milk Race winner Les West kept the red army at bay. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

Two-time Milk Race winner Les West kept the red army at bay. Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

East and West

Poland’s Józef Gawliczek won the 1966 Peace Race. However, the Soviets placed three in the top five, and duly ran away with the team prize.

Les West won stages in Rhyl and Northampton, and finished sixth on GC. He was the best of the Brits, and he’d be back the following year to claim his second Milk Race.

>>> How to deal with a setback in your cycling

When we asked him how he’d got on with the ‘red army’ he said they’d been a joy to ride with: “The Eastern Bloc riders were always extremely polite; real gentlemen. The funny thing is they got on well with everybody, except one another.

“The Poles didn’t seem to like the Russians one little bit. Gawliczek was a lovely chap, and so was Shepel, the runner-up. And yet for some reason there seemed to be a bit of ill feeling between them.”

West’s assertion chimes with the prevailing winds. The Eastern Bloc athletes were representing both a country and an ideology, and they were very well aware of the fact. They were effectively acting as diplomats, and it was implicit that they’d behave accordingly.

The Soviet Anatoly Starkov won stages at both the Peace Race and the Milk Race: “I enjoyed the Milk Race a lot. It was friendly, and the spirit around it was healthy. My abiding memory of it is that it was fun. My abiding memory of the Peace Race is that it was war.”

Funny old game…

Upcoming events