Already popular during the interwar period, the Tour de Pologne cycling race is among the most important competitions of its kind in the world. This year’s edition – starting on July 12 – features a special route connecting cities particularly important to Polish and European history.
The Tour de Pologne is a multiple stage bicycle race that is held annually in Poland, as the name indicates. It is sometimes called the most prestigious sporting event in the country and its trails have been graced by world-class athletes such as Vincenzo Nibali, Bradley Wiggins and Rafał Majka. The race is over a thousand kilometres, and its week-long broadcast attracts millions of fans: very much a cyclist’s dream.
Tiger of the roads
The race’s rich history goes back to 1928. Its first edition was held under the name ‘1st Cycling Race around Poland’. It was organised by the sports newspaper Przegląd Sportowy and the Warsaw Cycling Association, one of the oldest sports organizations in Poland – Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz and leading literary figure Bolesław Prus were among its members. On September 7 seventy-one cyclists set out from Warsaw on a 1491-kilometre long race that went through Lviv, Poznań and Kraków. The 10-day competition was won by Feliks Więcek, who completed the race an hour and ten minutes ahead of the second best contender. Four more races took place before WWII. The Tour de Pologne was a very popular event in interwar Poland, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators and bringing lasting fame to several athletes, like two-times winner Bolesław Napierała, who was dubbed Tiger of the Roads. Of course, cycling races eighty years ago looked nothing like modern-day competitions. For instance competitors would stop for a proper lunch break rather than eat energy gel while pedalling…
Legends of the tour
After WWII, a race was organised in 1947 and since 1952 the competition has been held annually. In the fifties, a legend emerged: Marian Więckowski won the contest three times in a row in 1954-56. To this day he holds the record for spending the most stages (twenty) in the leader’s jersey. His first victory was overshadowed by dramatic circumstances. After having punctured his tire at the beginning of the race, he had to make up for the lost time, but he managed to catch up and eventually overtook the peloton.
Under the communist regime, Andrzej Mierzejewski also won the race three times in the 80s, but not consecutively. The communist authorities, who were not overly fond of the competition, did not encourage attendance. Fortunately, the event started receiving widespread support after the political turn of 1989.
From amateur race to professional competition
The Tour de Pologne remained an amateur event until 1992, but in 1993 the great Polish cyclist Czesław Lang, who won an Olympic silver medal in 1980, insisted that the competition be reorganised and professionalised. The race developed steadily in the following years: in 1994 World Cup winner Maurizio Fondriest took part in the Tour and afterwards more and more notable athletes enrolled. Dariusz Baranowski repeated Marian Więckowski’s feat by winning the race three times in a row during the nineties. Baranowski once said about his 1991-1993 victories that they felt like ‘a dream right from the start’. A 19-year-old underdog beats seasoned athletes from all over the world. And then does it again… and again.
In 2005 the Tour de Pologne became a fixture of the prestigious series of Pro Tour races (today’s World Tour), receiving a place among the most important stage competitions of the world like the Tour de France or Vuelta a Espana. That year the race was followed by over 20 million TV viewers. Bad weather hindered the 2008 edition and the Tour de Pologne was thereafter scheduled in August rather than September. The 2016 edition takes place even earlier in order not to clash with the Rio Olympics.
A year to remember
The 73rd Tour de Pologne will take place from July 12 to July 18 and will be historically themed. In recent years several themes have been assigned to races. During the Chopin-themed race in 2010, fans were treated to free concerts. Last year’s theme, connecting capitals, had the event start in Poland’s current capital and ended in its former capital, Kraków.
This year’s historical theme comes with a special route connecting cities particularly important to Polish and European history. The competition will start in Radzymin, where an important battle took place during the Polish-Soviet War. The battle was won by the Polish forces thanks to the efforts of cyclists from the Warsaw Cycling Association, who acted as couriers. Additionally, a special exhibition devoted to the history of cycling in Poland will be hosted in Radzymin’s city library. The race will continue through Nowy Sącz, one of the oldest towns in the Lesser Poland area, and through Katowice, where the road before the finishing line allows cyclists to reach a speed of over 80 km/h.
A special competition will be held for the Most Beautiful City of the Tour de Pologne. The cities with the best decorations will receive special cups prepared from original bicycle parts. Most importantly, the Tour de Pologne will include its first women’s cycling competition, which will start a day after the men’s competition ends. The two-day race will begin in the town of Zakopane and go through the majestic Tatra Mountains.
Author: Marek Kępa, July 2016