See also The Pedal Club Golden Book
Ian Steel, who has died aged 86, was a Scottish cyclist who won the 1951 Tour of Britain; became a member of the first British team to be invited to compete in the Tour de France; and in May 1952 won the Eastern Bloc equivalent, known as the Peace Race, from Warsaw to East Berlin to Prague.
First organised in 1948 by the newspapers of the ruling Communist parties of Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the Peace Race was created with the intention of relieving tensions after the end of the Second World War, but by the time Steel took part as a member of a British team organised by the British League of Racing Cyclists, the Cold War was in full swing. The team had to defy official opposition from British cycling authorities to travel to Poland and were warned that they would be on their own if anything went wrong.
After a two-day journey, the cyclists arrived in Warsaw, where they were greeted by Marshall Rokossovsky, the commander of the Soviet forces in Poland, who stood sternly behind his desk, knocking back glasses of vodka. Not knowing what they should say, one team member suggested they should simply say “bollocks”. “We said ‘bollocks’, with military precision to the most dangerous man in Poland,” Steel recalled.
The ceremonial preliminaries took place at the Polish Army Stadium, adorned with enormous portraits of Communist heroes, watched by a crowd of 60,000. It was, Steel recalled, “a mind-blowing spectacle – bands, marching, flags, Stalin everywhere. At the end, they released a thousand white doves into the skies above Warsaw.” The 14 teams then made their way to the official start for the first of 12 stages.
The cyclists faced horrendous road conditions, torrential rain, hail and freezing temperatures. They had to contend with wheel damage and numerous punctures, and had to wear goggles to guard against clouds of dust. The East European riders, many of whom were believed to be using performance-enhancing drugs, were strong, and the organisers were not especially keen on a westerner winning.
Yet Steel took the lead during stage eight and at the end of the final stage entered Prague’s Strahoy Stadium, where 220,000 people were waiting, as the overall winner.
He also led the British team to the team victory. But it was not a popular triumph: “When we finished the different stages there was always a lap of honour,” Steel recalled. “But when we got to the finish there was no victory lap.” When they returned to Britain, the cycling authorities refused to recognise their achievement, and it was only reported by the Daily Worker.
The British team won £2,000 of miscellaneous goods, including brief cases, watches, radios and shaving gear. Steel won a bicycle which he gave away to a fellow Scotsman living in Prague. But the prizes did not matter. “If I had died the next day after winning I wouldn’t have worried,” Steel recalled. “At the time it was the best day of my life and I couldn’t have wished for anything more.”
John Steel, always known as Ian, was born in Glasgow on December 28 1928. Evacuated from the city in 1939, he spent the war years living with his grandparents in Dunoon where he gained his first experience of cycling as a butcher’s delivery boy.
In 1946 he joined the Glasgow United Cycle Club and soon showed his potential in time trials. But British cycle racing at the time was in a state of civil war between the old National Cyclists Union (NCU) and a new body, the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC), which had been set up to organise mass-start races on public roads, a form of the sport the NCU had banned in the 19th century. In 1951 Steel moved from Glasgow United to the Glasgow Wheelers, which supported the BLRC.
The BLRC sent national teams abroad and in 1951 Steel rode for Scotland in the Paris-Lens race, coming second. His ride led to an invitation to join a semi-professional team sponsored by Viking Cycles. Later the same year Steel made his first ever visit to England to win the 1.493-mile Tour of Britain – against the odds, after crashing three miles before the finish line. He won another stage the following year and became national champion.
Steel’s win in the Peace Race played a crucial role in cementing the place of “mass start” racing, leading to a reconciliation between the NCU and BLRC. But factionalism in the sport continued to cause problems for Steel.
These came to a head at the 1955 Tour de France. Steel was selected for a British team that was listed in the official team programme as “England”, despite the fact that he was Scottish. While he rode for Viking, most of his team-mates were from a rival team, Hercules, and the team was managed by the Hercules boss, Syd Cozens.
Seven days into the race Steel was with a small group at the front in the first of the mountain stages when Cozens approached in a car and told him to go back to support a Hercules rider, threatening to send him home if he refused. “I thought, blow it, if this is what I’m up against,” Steel recalled. He did as he was told, but pulled out of the race the following day.
Soon afterwards he retired from professional cycle racing.
Steel is survived by his wife Peggy, whom he married in 1953 and with whom he ran a B&B that subsidised their extensive travels around the world, and by their son and daughter.
Ian Steel, born December 28 1928, died October 20 2015
Daily Telegraph, Thursday 29 October 2015
Best of British – Ian Steel
born December 1928 – died October 2015
Known as the Iron Man, Ian Steel was the first Scot to take part in the Tour de France
in 1955. However his greatest achievement was winning the 1952 Peace Race from
Warsaw to Prague. He was the first Brit’ to win a major international stage race. Ian
loved riding a bike and at 10years old was a butcher’s errand boy -on his bike of course!
In 1946 he joined a club and took part in his first competitive ride – a 25mile time trial,
but soon switched to another club because he wanted to take part in “massed start”
road racing, and had a special interest in the glamour of iconic continental riders,
dreaming of being the new Fausto Coppi.
He became Scottish time trial & road race champion but went off to race in France and earned himself a place in the Viking team for the Tour of Britain in 1951. And he won it!
His exploits in the ’55 Tour were not as memorable – having been part of the Viking Pro’ team he was riding with other Brits, Brian Robinson & Tony Hoar. Ian became a victim of the ever present team politics and pulled out of the Tour after he was ordered to drop back and wait for a team mate. He quit competitive cycling later that year and pursued a different lifestyle in tandem with wife Peggy, travelling far and wide living on boats and in motorhomes as they traversed France, Spain, Majorca, USA and Canada, before returning to Scotland. Ian still enjoyed watching cycle events and was a popular raconteur until his death.
I am given to understand that some current Pickwickians may have competed against Ian, although they look much to young to make such a claim. Thanks to our contributors for this info about a celebrated British cyclist.