I do like a book with a map at the front. I’m a sucker for them. Starting a story with a visual representation of the lay of the land somehow amplifies the experience for me. I blame Tolkien: those simple maps of Middle Earth in the frontispieces of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings were, I suspect, the start of a life-long love affair with literary cartography. The almost entirely barren map at the front of Herbie Sykes’ ‘The Race Against The Stasi’ (Aurum Press. RRP £18.99 Hardback) may be a little lacking in the sort of “Here Be Dragons” elements that got me excited as an eleven year old but any cycling book which starts with a map of ‘Central Europe 1964’ has already gone a long way to win me over..
The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall last weekend was a timely adjunct to my finishing of this excellent agglomeration of politics, cycling and love set against the backdrop of the Iron Curtain. Although Sykes makes it clear that he didn’t set out to write about ‘a political book per se’, the pervasive nature of Socialism into every last aspect of East German life in the 1960’s made it impossible to do anything other. The chance sighting of a name in the 1967 Tour de France – a name which had no right to be there – set an extraordinary investigation in motion. Telling the story of Dieter Weidemann – who was pedalling just a few feet behind Tom Simpson when he collapsed on the Ventoux – and The Peace Race inevitably means also telling the story of the Warsaw Pact, the Berlin Wall and the GDR’s secret police force, the Stasi.
Told exclusively through the means of first person testimony, contemporary newspaper report extracts and translated Stasi documents, the book follows the events that defined a young man’s life from a number of different perspectives. The author’s ‘voice’ is entirely absent – consciously subjugated in order to allow the characters to relay the narrative verbatim – yet atmosphere is never lost and intrigue and even suspense is ever present. The differing tones of the various spoken and written testimonies set up a dialogue that a screenwriter would give his right arm for. Indeed, at a recent appearance at The London Sports Writing Festival, Richard Williams – interviewing Herbie in front of an appreciative audience – suggested that the snapping-up of the film rights cannot be too far away. This is dynamite material, painstakingly researched and assembled, and the fact that it can stand alone without further author interpretation is testament to that and to Sykes’ humility in the face of it.
Dieter Weidemann was an apolitical animal born into a entirely politicised world. A shy young man who just wanted to ride his bike and write letters to a pretty girl who he met briefly in his mid teens. All fine and good in most circumstances – even those governed by the stricter moral codes of the era. The trouble was that Dieter lived in East Germany and girl, Sylvia, lived in West Germany. So that should have been the end of that. However Dieter’s cycling prowess eventually presented him with an opportunity to escape the GDR – and that’s where the real troubles begin. Defecting was the gravest crime against Socialism and the penalties that were paid by the family he left behind were expectedly unforgiving.
As well as casting a welcome light on the little-known Peace Race – the annual amateur stage race between Warsaw, Prague and Berlin whose importance to the fledgling GDR state is almost impossible to convey to a modern Western readership – it is the extent of the invasiveness of the Stasi that commands attention. Even without the humanising context that the alternate testimonies provide, the petty double-speak of the official files and vast filing system send shivers down the spine. There are apparently over 180 kilometres of Stasi documents in existence. That’s slightly longer than the average length of the stages stages which Dieter rode in 1964 Peace Race and more poignantly the exact distance between his home town of Flöha and the Bavarian town of Mitterteich where Sylvia lived during their penfriend years..
It’s quite hard to quantify ‘The Race Against The Stasi’ but that is sort of the point.. Is it a book about cycling? Yes. Is it a book about The Berlin Wall? Yes. Is it a book about love? Yes. It’s all of the above and more.. It’s a window into a world that no longer exists but which conditioned the lives of millions of people directly on both sides of the divide and billions of others indirectly during the latter half of the Twentieth Century. It’s also a book about some of the small voices trying to be heard amongst the deafening, ever-present political diktat. Whether you take it as a cycling history, an indictment of the geopolitical situation in the GDR, a tale of love conquering insurmountable odds, or a combination of all three.. it’s most definitely a book worth reading..
The Race Against the Stasi is available now.