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The Race Against The Stasi, by Herbie Sykes

Maglia Rosa author Herbie Sykes returns with a biography of Dieter Wiedemann

Dieter Wiedemann with Sylvia Hermann
Dieter Wiedemann with Sylvia Hermann
The Race Against The Stasi

Title: The Race Against The Stasi - The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, The Iron Curtain and the Greatest Cycling Race on Earth
Author: Herbie Sykes
Publisher: Aurum Press
Year: 2014
Pages: 399
Order: Quarto
What it is: A biography of Dieter Wiedemann, Peace Race podium-finisher and Tour de France veteran
Strengths: With most biographies, the best part of them is the chorus of voices the author calls upon to add to the story he tells. In The Race Against The Stasi Sykes lets his chorus - Wiedemann himself, friends, family, contemporaries - take centre stage, while he takes himself off to the wings and out of the story
Weaknesses: There is still a book to be written about the Peace Race and its stars

Over the last few years, as the UK cycling publishing industry enjoys its renaissance, a handful of writers have consistently delivered books that are worth buying just for the name of the author on them. Herbie Sykes is one such author. Starting with his biography of the overlooked Giro d'Italia winner Franco Balmamion (The Eagle Of The Canavese), moving on through his history of the Giro d'Italia (Maglia Rosa) and even with his biography come coffee-table photo-album (Coppi) Sykes has consistently delivered stories about riders whose names you will probably have come across at some stage but who generally have been overlooked elsewhere (Coppi was as much about the riders who told Sykes their stories as it was about il campionissimo). For his latest offering Sykes has turned to a veteran of the Tour de France whose name few - even dedicated followers of Tour history - will be familiar with: Dieter Wiedemann.

Wiedemann's appearance in Tour history happened in 1967, when - after a brief dalliance with trade teams - Jacques Goddet and Félix Lévitan decided that they missed the national team format that the race had used between 1930 and 1962. At this stage Wiedemann was proving himself to be a capable rider with Torpedo, a relatively small German squad. With ten riders needed to fly the flag, Wiedemann got the call, and joined his Torpedo team-mates Hans Junkermann (who had finished fourth and fifth in the Tour at the start of the '60s), Peter Glemser and Herbert Wilde along with Horst Oldenburg, Wilfried Peffgen (Ruberg), Dieter Puschel (one of the Groen Leeuw green lions), Rolf Wolfshohl (then with Bic and who had won the 1965 Vuelta a España), Karl-Heinz Kunde (then with Peugeot and who had finished ninth at the 1966 Tour and worn the maillot jaune for five days) and team-leader Winfried Bölke (also from Peugeot and the reigning national champion).

After stage three - over the pavé of Roubaix - Peffgen was up to fifth overall, three minutes off the maillot jaune of Roger Pingeon, having profited from the day's breaks (the peloton finished six minutes down on Pingeon). Peffgen was able to hold his high GC position through to the race's arrival in the heart of the Vosges and the ascent of the Ballon d'Alsace. In Provence, briefly, Puschel climbed into the top ten. In Toulouse Wolfshohl won a two-up sprint to take the stage victory. All told, it wasn't a bad Tour for the Germans.

Wiedemann himself, he did the job that was asked of him without ever really getting the opportunity to do anything for himself:

"I was in decent shape when I arrived, and I only had one really bad stage, the second. We lost Kunde and Oldenburg that day, but somehow I made it around."

Judging Wiedemann's best day isn't easy, but it was probably that day in Provence when his team-mate Puschel climbed into the top ten. That day in Provence when the Tour tackled Mont Ventoux. That day in Provence when Tom Simpson died:

"I was climbing reasonably well, and I was behind Simpson when he started zigzagging across the road. I watched him fall, and I saw them pick him up. As I rode past I looked in his eyes and you could see he was in a terrible state. I said to myself, 'There's no way he's making it to Carpentras.'"

Wiedemann made it home that day just over four minutes down on the stage winner, in company with Junkermann who it was his job to protect.

"I think I did reasonably well considering it was my first Tour. I'd weighed seventy-two kilograms when we started, and sixty-seven when I go home. Had I been riding for myself I'd probably have placed quite a bit higher, but that was academic to me. So in answer to your question, the Tour was the realisation of the impossible dream. It gave me some of the greatest moments of my life, and some of the saddest. I wouldn't say that it justified the defection in itself, but none of the other GDR riders will ever know what it feels like to ride into Paris."

* * * * *

The Race Against The Stasi, by Herbie Sykes – Dieter Wiedemann (right) with Dieter Mickein The defection. The German team Wiedemann rode the 1967 Tour for was really the West German cycling team, those being the days of two Germanys, East and West, the Federal and Democratic Republics. And Wiedemann, he grew up in the other Germany, the one in the east, the German Democratic Republic. The one on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Germans, back then, were big on cycling. Andrew Homan noted in his Bobby Walthour biography (Life In The Slipstream) how, back in the early years of the twentieth century, the Friedenau Sportpark in Berlin had a capacity of 40,000, at a time when it took 15,000 paying punters to fill the Vélodrome Buffalo in Paris, or 20,000 to fill the Parc des Princes. In Wiedemann's time the sport was still popular:

"There was always a great bike-racing tradition around Chemnitz, and always lots of big champions. Twice a year they would hold a big evening criterium, and 30,000 would turn out to watch. All the best riders would be there, and they were heroes. Like all the boys in my school I would try to get autographs, and of course I dreamed of being like them one day. Everyone did."

Everyone may have dreamed, but Wiedemann set about making his dream come true:

"At first a group of us used to go out and ride, but I was much better than the others. After a while they stopped coming with me because they couldn't keep up and they said I was a maniac. I would ride as fast as I could for as long as I could, and I didn't seem to be able to stop myself. Pretty soon I only had myself to ride against, so I started timing myself. I decided I wanted to start racing when I was fourteen, so I only had two years to get ready."

The Race Against The Stasi, by Herbie Sykes – Peace Race poster Even growing up in East Germany, Wiedemann was able to dream about the Tour de France, but the reality of his world was that it wasn't a dream he could never realise, he could only aspire to represent his country at World Championships and the Olympics. And at the Peace Race:

"Everybody followed the bike races, and the biggest of all was the Peace Race. It was a two-week stage race and it always started at the beginning of May. It ran between Berlin, Warsaw and Prague, and the route would be rotated annually. So one year it would start in Poland, the next Czechoslovakia, and then the GDR. It crossed the three borders, and that was the whole point of it. It was all about disseminating the message of peace, and demonstrating that through socialism different states could live side by side in harmony. In that sense it was much more important than a traditional bike race."

Quite a few bike races have some form of political element to them. At one stage or another all three of the Grand Tours have helped sell their citizenry the notion of national unity. Conversely, races like the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Vuelta al País Vasco or the Volta Catalunya, they sell regional identity. The Peace Race, while nationalism and unity were part of what was being promoted, it was mostly about promoting a particular political ideology:

"The race was jointly organised by the communist party newspapers in each country, and for us that was Neues Deutschland. They used it to disseminate the message that they were peaceful countries, that only socialism could deliver that peace, but that Bonn and Washington were intent on undermining it."

Politics was a part of daily life in the GDR in a way that is sometimes hard to comprehend. Words and actions are always political, but in the GDR a very different kind of politics ruled. Some people embraced that world, some struggled against it. And some - like Wiedemann - simply got on with getting on:

"Politics wasn't something that interested me, and I certainly wouldn't describe myself as a dissident or anything like that. I suppose you could say that I'd managed to avoid it until that point, but that all changed on Sunday 13 August 1961."

That was the day the Wall went up in Berlin and Wiedemann's world began to close in:

"When people talk about the border closure they tend to focus on the fact that you could no longer travel. [...] For most people the bigger problem was that day-to-day life started to become more oppressive once it was built. Previously they'd been trying to dissuade people from defecting, but now there was no way for them to leave. So they didn't have to pretend any more, and the political rhetoric started to become even more aggressive."

In 1962 Wiedemann made the GDR team for the Peace Race. By this stage GDR riders had won the race three times and taken the team prize - arguably more important than the individual - also three times. In '62 they scored a duck, with not even a consolation stage win to take home with them. On the one hand, in his native Flöha, Wiedemann was a hero for just finishing the race. But on the other, in the upper echelons of GDR sport, questions were being asked. A week or so after the race ended Wiedemann was out training when he was halted by a car filled with men in leather coats:

"they started by asking me whether there had been differences of political opinion within the Peace Race team. I told them there hadn't, because there hadn't been any political opinion - we were a bunch of cyclists doing a bike race. They were wanting to know why the results hadn't been good enough, and I said that we were a new team and that the Russians had just been stronger than us. They made a big thing of whether the coaches had stuck to the training plan. It lasted about forty-five minutes but it seemed like an eternity. You could probably describe it as an interrogation, yes, and it was certainly a harrowing experience. To the best of my knowledge it was the one and only time in my life I had a direct conversation with the Stasi, but I could be wrong."

Three months after the Peace Race it was time for the World Championships and Wiedemann was more or less on the long list for selection. The Tour of the GDR offered the selectors a final chance to decide just who would be sent to Italy:

"After four stages I was lying comfortably second on GC behind [Klaus] Ampler, climbing solidly and recovering really well. I was earning my ticket to Italy, but then at Zschopau an official came up to us and told us we wouldn't be going. Apparently when the federation had applied they'd received a letter back which said, 'Please refer to the NATO agreement to understand why you are unable to participate.' It was absolutely devastating. You knew that as a GDR amateur you'd never be able to ride the Tour de France, but you wanted the chance to be part of the World Championships. You wanted to see the great Belgians, French and Italian professionals at close quarters, and to ride on the roads they did. [...] I just wanted to be able to race my bike, and to feel like I had the same chance as everybody else. Now it really dawned on my that I didn't, and we'd be limited to riding in non-NATO countries."

And so, bit by bit, Wiedemann found himself growing ever distant from his own country, and more and more open to the idea of defecting.

* * * * *

The defection, when it came, was not just about Wiedemann's sporting ambitions, not just about him wanting to be able to race his bike. It was also about love. In 1964 - the year he defected - Wiedemann was twenty-three and for the previous four years had been in a long-distance relationship with a girl from the other side of the Curtain, Sylvia Hermann, who had relatives living in the same town as Wiedemann. In the summer of 1960 she was visiting those relatives and the two met. When she returned home they became penpals. Then, as time went on, they fell in love and wanted to spend the rest of their lives together:

"To you, it's all perfectly normal. It looks like a boy and a girl writing letters, but actually you have no idea what it was like to live under those conditions. We're talking about the GDR in the immediate aftermath of the wall. The country was being run by Leninist-Marxist fundamentalists. They were absolutely convinced that capitalism threatened not only their ideology, but their very existence. They were crazy, and they were convinced that people from the west were their enemies. I was a sportsman being supported by the state, and I was writing letters to a girl from Bavaria. They didn't care about human beings, and they certainly didn't care about bourgeois sentiments like love."

* * * * *

One of the problems with writing about East Germany before the Iron Curtain collapsed is that the author is going to editorialise, is going to present the Stasi in particular in a very particular way. This is something Sykes acknowledges in the outro to The Race Against The Stasi:

"My starting point for this book was that it wouldn't fall into the Stasi 'trap'. I was broadly supportive of the socialist canon, and resolved that the narrative wouldn't become mired in what Klaus [Hunh, sports editor at Neues Deutschland] euphemistically termed 'The Flying Dutchman'. My conviction was that I would avoid making sweeping judgements about the GDR as a state, and it was precisely this conviction which informed my methodology in writing it. Put simply, I'd no intention of writing a treatise on GDR socialism, much less the Stasi. Rather, I would let Dieter and Sylvia tell their story and, with a fair wind, that of the sporting leviathan which was the Peace Race."

And that is pretty much what Sykes has done with The Race Against The Stasi, he has allowed those he interviewed to tell the story. To such an extent that the normal editorial joining up of interviewees' statements is removed. Sykes has absented himself from the (visible) telling of the story and given over the stage to those who were there. Dieter Wiedemann and his wife Sylvia. Friends, family and contemporaries of both. And the historical record: as well as voices in the present talking about the past, Sykes adds contributions from Neues Deutschland (East Germany's communist newspaper), letters to Sylvia and - most notably - pages from Dieter Wiedemann's Stasi file.

The Race Against The Stasi, by Herbie Sykes

The Race Against The Stasi, by Herbie Sykes

The Race Against The Stasi, by Herbie Sykes

The Race Against The Stasi, by Herbie Sykes

The Race Against The Stasi, by Herbie Sykes

Pages from The Race Against The Stasi

When I first opened The Race Against The Stasi the presentation in particular of the pages from Neues Deutschland and Wiedemann's Stasi file got me thinking of the way John Dos Passos used document inserts in his USA trilogy and I asked Sykes if this had influenced him in any way. He pointed to a different inspiration, a British writer by the name of Tony Parker who wrote (among other things) a book about the Troubles, May The Lord In His Mercy Be Kind To Belfast, in which the voices of those living in Northern Ireland - on both sides of the divide - were presented without comment from the author. For Sykes, the pages from Neues Deutschland are more than just old newsprint, they are the voice of the man who wrote most of them, Klaus Huhn. Along with the pages from the Stasi's files, they are voices from the past adding counterpoint to the points made by Wiedemann and others, in places adding balance, in places adding context, in places adding an alternative view.

In terms of allowing others to tell the story, Sykes did something similar with Coppi, allowing the likes of Vito Ortelli, Ercole Baldini, Guido Messina and others to paint a portrait of il campionissimo. But there, each voice stood alone. In The Race Against The Stasi they are twined around one and other. And this is the genius of The Race Against The Stasi: Sykes's himself may be all but invisible in the telling of the tale - save for an intro and outro to the book the rest of the story is told by others - but it's his role as orchestra conductor that allows the story to flow naturally, this person telling this bit, another that, all the parts joining up harmoniously.

Dieter Wiedemann's story, it's not really that of a man who saw Tom Simpson die on the Ventoux, and it's not really that of a man who once finished on the podium in the Peace Race. It's more than the story of a cyclist, more than a story about cycling. Yes, it does shine a light on the history of the Peace Race. But like Tim Lewis's Land Of Second Chances last year, this is a cycling book for non-cyclists. It's a story about a man growing up in a society whose strictures were - for him - impossible to live with. It's the story of a man who chose a remedy for that which affected not just his own life, but those of others. As with the best of the stories heretofore told by Sykes - who is becoming the Studs Terkel of cycling, drawing out unexpected stories from unlikely sources - it's the story of a man forgotten by history but who deserves to be remembered, not just for the life he lived, but for the way the story of that life has been told.