History: cycling, trading and the black market
Racing cyclists from Eastern Bloc nations were often given liberties beyond what many living under communist rule could enjoy… and the temptation to cash in on that advantage was too much to resist.
– By Jakub Zimoch*
Life in Leninsk-Kuznetsky, city in central Russia, was never an easy thing. The whole existence revolved around coal mines. Whenever you looked, there they were: mine towers erecting far into horizon and many of them shadowing the city limits. You either dug underground or worked in a business that supported miners. The Soviet empire was already a colossus with clay feet when young son of a miner went to Sankt Petersburg to study in a… mining institute in the 1980s.
Different continent, different Russia, different reality.
Malchik took up cycling as he wanted to see as much world above the ground as possible.
On a bike he was not that bad and because of this he got to travel across the Soviet republics. After a race in remote Uzbekistan he spent all his savings to buy a pair of jeans. But the trousers were not for him. As soon as he got back to Petersburg he sold them and earned a huge profit. Life might have been unlike it was in his home town, but it was still poor Russia, troubled with shortages of almost everything.
Another race, the same story: buying cheap, sell for more. Jeans or lipstick, it didn’t matter.
Cycling was still around, but it quickly became just a vector of escaping coal miner’s son destiny. You probably know the character who did all this. He is no one else but Oleg Tinkov.
If you think that his story is exceptional, you cannot be wrong more.
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On the road or track, there was always an opportunity for trading…
(Photos: courtesy Velo Classic Poland unless otherwise credited.)
Shelfs with vinegar
The torment of the second world war left Europe divided. The border between the two German states split a continent like a wound with the free West and the communist East.
In the latter states, democratic governments were replaced with administration subordinate to Stalin.
The invisible hand controlling the market was changed to the iron fist of Lenin’s ideas for economy. The state owned virtually everything and produced virtually all goods from bread to tractors. Virtually.
Operating by means of five-year plans the state-driven economy could not react to needs of the market. Unemployment might have been negligible and jobs secure, but that came to nothing when you wanted to buy basic, everyday products. Food was available only in exchange for stamps and even then people had to fight for a place in long lines, waiting for hours to buy not what they wanted, but what was available. ‘Shelves full of nothing but vinegar’, this became an era’s cliché.
But what the state could not fully control, was its people’s willingness to contrive solutions to the lives they had behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. Travellers became almost kings of life, and who in sport travels more than cyclists? Especially in times when friendship events across the borders where so popular. Skinny boys made serious business.
If we speak about trade teams today, I wonder what we would have called teams from the Soviet past.
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Never mind compatibility – riders in the 1980s took whatever products they could get and then set about trying to make it function.
If you ask anyone who raced in those time, they will probably tell you a story how they bought something nice while abroad or how they made some money.
“Of course, I have some stories about trade… like everyone.” This was a common answer to my first question. It was a part of a culture, kind of a cycling’s folklore like shaving legs or coffee stops during a training ride.
No initiation was needed, no oaths or secrets. For most, the trade was just addition to their sport scholarships or factory salaries. From time to time extremes happened, but people knew where to draw a line.
“People traded because it was social enterprise and a stepping stone from their dull reality. People wanted to have something nice for themselves,” Leszek Sibilski told me. He was a former Polish track specialist and is now a professor in the US. “It was just fun to try to sell some clothes or cycling parts in a foreign country and bring back home nice shirts or jackets to impress the ‘civilians’ on the streets.”
In a distorted reality, on the cycling map communist countries specialised in the production of certain goods and the buying others. For instance, Germans produced great cycling knicks and had excess of Czechoslovakian Kovalit tubulars.
“There Germans were selling their bib shorts right at the track just after the competition was over,” laughs Sibilski. “You had to be careful and check if they were clean inside!”
When going back to Russia one could take everything and be certain that it would be bought – in exchange gold and tubulars alike were brought back.
Other countries in the Eastern Block were not immune to this nature of trading. Poland, for example, had their shoes.
The only exception was Czechoslovakia, an Eastern bloc country that seemed to have everything and yet riders from there were not interested in this style of trade at all.
Usually trade revolved around things that could be easily transported in sport bags but some big deals also took place. After the world championship race in Waregem, Belgium, in 1957 the Polish team went out on a hunt for… cars!
“We went there prepared,”recalls Eligiusz Grabowski. “Everyone was sharing information about what to take for a trip to Belgium, France etcetera, so we had everything handy. Back then, in Poland, cars guaranteed big profits so from Waregem we went to Antwerp. The next morning, we had wonderful western cars.” Grabowski went back home with a Ford.
One might have taken the greatest treasures with him, but he also had to find buyers to make a deal come through. Apparently, in many cases, it was the buyer who looked for a seller.
In the West and in Russia people knew that cycling teams were visiting to race or train in different locations. So they wandered around hotels and asked about stuff. In East Germany things were a bit more complicated; you had to set up a deal beforehand. Because of a constant fear of the Stasi, they were suspicious. In the West amateurs wanted to buy cheap bicycle parts like tubular tyres or “saved” Campagnolo components. Some tried to sell things in shops in a city, but this approach required more effort and language skills, and the results were not guaranteed.
Tubular tyres were almost better than genuine currency…
What could be universal currency between the East and West before Europe was even united? Tubulars of course! Russian made tyres were not of the best quality, but they were extremely cheap and worked perfectly well for training rides. For a few dollars amateurs from western countries, like Italy or France could have stocks of tubulars greatly exceeding even their long term needs. Nikolai Razouvaev remembers that rubber currency was even used to bribe customs officials.
It is hard to imagine but many clubs and riders waited for the new season and new international races to begin, not because they were hungry for competition; rather, they wanted to grasp new parts to start their pre-season training.
Races like Memorial of Colonel Skopenko, the Baltic Friendship Race and the Peace Race were hotspots for equipment – not only for the people who race but, above all, for those who did not.
Piotr Ejsmont remembers the antitipation well. “As a cyclist I waited for the result of this race. Smuggling results!
“I do not know why, but there were constant shortages of equipment,” explained Ejsmont.
National teams usually always had the best equipment available but thousands of other riders had to live without generous support. If a national team did not have a cycling tyre manufacturer on side, sometime clinchers were sutured so many times that it was impossible to mend them again. In another state production of cycling clothes was not sufficient – or it simply didn’t exist. Some teams had great knicks but never saw rain jackets. It was the same everywhere.
Deraileurs, it seemed, were worth their weight in gold. Bikes where assembled from whatever parts that were found. The only way to deal with it was to take matters in your own hand and trade. Those that were good enough and could travel abroad were in a privileged position, the others had to wait for whatever surfaced on the market.
Amidst all the trading, there was also a bit of racing.
A group of young boys emerged in the arrivals hall. They all wore tracksuits and carried sports bags. At Warsaw’s Okęcie Airport all eyes were fixed on them. No, they were neither that famous nor did their national team outfit attract much attention. Every one of them put another layer over his national team outfit. It might have been leather jacket, winter coat or sheepskin coat. It was mid-April when the boys came back from a training camp in Bulgaria, a country that was famous for its leather products. “To avoid problems with clerks and customs we had to wear them! It was April already and it was both hot there and in Poland.”
As he told his anecdote Leszek Sibilski could not stop laughing at memories of this event.
Another time people waiting at the arrivals saw one member of the team in flip-flops. Outside the snow was falling from grey skies. “In Russia they bought literally everything. I had brought few pairs of jeans with me for that training camp in Sochi,” recalls Slawomir Krawczyk, a member of the Polish national team in the 1980s. “I was selling them to a Russian, when he asked me for my sneakers. They were not the newest ones; I had them for some time already. I thought, ‘Hey! I am going to trash them soon anyway…’ I sold them to this guy, but I did not have any other spare shoes. I walked onto a plane in flip-flops in the middle of winter.”
Sometimes business went so good that simple wearing new clothes for a trip back home was not enough. There were ways of dealing with this as well.
Once, just after the Tour de l’Avenir, riders made so much by selling clinchers and other bike parts that they could go on a real shopping spree. Colourful designer clothes were like something from another planet, but now they could afford them. One clever shop keeper found a way to trick customs. For a reasonable bonus he packed clothes into packages and posted them to their families as… “clothes from charity”. Everyone was happy.
Another time complementing a cycling wardrobe helped to design club colours for a home team. “At the junior world championships in 1975 I sold two pair of cycling shoes,” recalls Adam Bałoniak, a former track rider. “Oh my, I was rich! I bought two jerseys. One with some names on it, I had to put tapes over them to hide them before I could use it in Poland. Another one, black with orange stripe, was very nice. Everyone liked this design, so they copied it in my club. That is how I ‘designed’ our club colours”
“Once I bought wonderful moccasins in Egypt,” one rider, Grabowski, explained. “In Poland people where stopping me in the street and asking me where have I bought them.”. Another time, also in Egypt, one rider was missing. The team came back from a farewell shopping trip but no one has seen Henryk Komuniewski, the calmest and most decent man of them all. Suddenly an elegant looking man entered the dining room. Wearing a beautiful silk suit with matching shirt and tie, signet ring on his finger and delicate leather shoes, he looked like a character from a Hollywood movie. Henryk decided to go back home in style.
One pair of shoes… for an entire career!
(Photo: Gordon Singleton private collection)
When some cyclists had to search for goods to trade, one of them decided it was perhaps easier to just make things himself. Tadeusz Zadrożny made cycling shoes. They were true pieces of art and craft. He became a cyclist, like many, during the boom that followed after WWII. He raced for the so called “people’s club” and when he was not on his bike he learned the shoemaker’s craft. He progressed easily through all levels of the apprenticeship and became a master craftsman. While still racing for Polish national team, in Rome he spotted a fantastic pair of cycling shoes: stiff but light and elegant. ‘I could do better than those,’ he thought. And did promptly did exactly that.
Back in Poland he prepared a self-made hoof designed for cycling shoe production, ordered steel plates and the best leather available. The first pairs of Zdrożny’s shoes were indeed better than Italian ones, but he did not stop his research and development plans. He raced in his shoes and so did his peers. Word spread quickly and other cyclists started coming to his workshop asking for shoes. Recognition of his products crossed borders. “I had been to the Milk Race a few times,” he told me. “The first time I brought a spare pair of my shoes and sold them to one guy. Next time I went there they all kept asking about my shoes!”
Whenever he went to a race he took one or two extra pairs with him.
“You could always say that they were for you and nobody cared. I never wanted to take more than one or two pairs to trade. You know those clerks, they could start checking, asking and all this nonsense. Two were fine for me,” he said before crucially adding: “and for them.”
Other Poles going to race abroad made orders for his shoes and took their two pairs to trade. The price of Zadrożny’s shoes was extremely high but it was still a very profitable business.
“When going to the West, Zadrożny’s shoes were the best investment,” said Adam Bałoniak. “We bought them for 1,500 Polish złotys, and sold for 100 US dollars. I sold two pairs during the junior track world championships in 1975 and was rich as ever.”
The story of two pairs of these shoes provides a remarkable insight into the quality of Zadrożny’s work. A young Gordon Singleton bought them during competition in Czechoslovakia in 1978 for exceptionally low price of 10 dollars. He heard about them from older members of Canada’s team and decided to get a cheap pair, What did he have to lose? They were not good, they were excellent. He used them for over 30 years, throughout his entire career, winning world titles in them and many medals with them on his feet. Singleton still used them when clipless pedals where already in use for years. The reason was simple: “They were always so comfortable – like wearing slippers.”
Zadrożny created the shoes with the three Adidas stripes. Team Canada was sponsored by Adidas at the time, so no one was aware I was wearing Zadrożny. I raced with the one pair of Zadrożny from the end of 1978 through my Masters world titles in 2006, finally retiring them last year.
“The other pair I always kept new. I simply never needed them. Now they are vintage.”
The shoemaker was very happy to hear this story, but he immediately recalled: “Once I sold a pair to a young American when the national team was in Poland. He won a lot later on. What was his name… ah, LeMond.”
Pedals like this were quite a find on the black market… even if they weighed about the same as a modern frame.
Minister of Trade
Widespread trade, however popular, was not accepted by the state. The enterprise that cyclists had undertaken exposed the weaknesses of communist systems in many ways. How do you deal with the fact that, in a brother state, they have some very nice goods while in your own country people cannot get them? How you can explain that products of the capitalist West are better? Above all, however, the black market trade disrupted the policy of social equality, where everyone should have the same.
After Grabowski came back with his Ford, officials from the Polish cycling federation where outraged. “They earned fortunes!” they said, and the press published caricatures of cyclists dragging cars behind them. The cyclists were called on to the carpet and reprimands were issued. From now on, they had to restrain themselves to less obvious gems.
Jan Schur, the son of the icon of the Peace Race, said that he never had to trade anything. “My life in the East Germany was very good. However, I know people who traded and were caught. They got into very big trouble,” he concludes. Punishments depended on many factors and it might vary from harmless reprimands to passports being revoked. Apparently, the way in which it was dealt with was also based on contacts with officials and attitude towards the party.
Some riders made conscious decisions and decided not to risk their hard fought for careers. Being able to compete at the world championships or the Olympics was more important than adding revenue to the relatively poor salaries they received from the factories or the army, where they officially ‘worked’. “I fought so hard, I sacrificed so much to get on the national team, said Jan Brzeźny, an Olympian from the Montreal Games. “I did not want to put this in jeopardy. Of course, I brought some small souvenirs for family, but nothing more. Being expelled from the team or losing my passport was my biggest fear.”
Andrzej Ruciński, the coach of Polish national team, did everything to prevent his cyclists from trading. “I thought that they should not do this. They were representing country, riding with the eagle on their chest. How did it look when, just after the race, they started trading? It was shame, at least for me.”
The coach’s effort did not stop his cyclists from making business. “I had to appoint a ministry of trade. Someone from the staff took whatever they brought and went away from our hotel to sell it,”recalls Ruciński, with his bitterness about the deals still very apparent.
A couple of spare tyres… great for repairs – and the black market!
With the fall of communism in Europe capitalism took over. From now on, the trade would have been more appropriate but with professional contracts, trade teams, and good more of everything more widely available everywhere the black market cycling trade quickly died out. For over 50 years, doing sly international business was part of cycling’s culture and a source of various joy for many cyclists. It may have been wrong but some still smile at their memories of the trade.
– By Jakub Zimoch
*Jakub Zimoch is a Polish academic who enjoys writing about cycling. His first contribution to RIDE Media was a feature on the history of the Peace Race. He has also written a story about the pronunciation of Polish names at a time when his compatriots are becoming quite a force in the pro peloton.
He currently lives in Switzerland. His neighbour was, until earlier this year, Ferdi Kübler.
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Many thanks to Artur Chart, Kamil Błachnio and Paweł Sapiecha from Velo Classic Poland for sharing their photo-archive.
For more, see: www.facebook.com/veloclassicpoland/