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December 16, 2017
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Lost Boys

Poland’s forgotten track talents and their tragic end

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It’s no overstatement to say that the current generation of Polish riders is among the most powerful among all nations in global cycling.

In recent years, Michal Kwiatkowski, 27, has won the road world championship, Milan-San Remo and Amstel Gold Race, and has been a critical support rider at Team Sky for the last two of Chris Froome’s Tour de France wins.

Compatriot Rafal Majka, 28, is a stage winner at the Vuelta a España, where he finished on the podium in 2015, as well as at the Tour de France, where he’s twice won the KOM jersey. Last year, Majka took a bronze medal for Poland at the Olympic road race in Rio de Janeiro.

In September, veteran Tomasz Marczynski, 33, broke through with two stage wins at the Vuelta – helping move Poland into 11th in the UCI nation rankings, ahead of countries such as Switzerland, Russia, and the United States.

Now imagine that generation of riders gone before their prime, just wiped out in an instant — a fiery, tragic instant. That’s what happened to a generation of Polish riders almost 40 years ago, and their story has been all but forgotten. Until now.

The Polish landscape lay silent, grey, enveloped in the drabness of winter coming to its end. The pristine white canvas of the first snowfall was a distant memory and green was yet to return. Almost two thousand kilometres away, in the Valley of Roses, south of the Balkan Mountains, the sun’s warming rays had already brought spring and life was stirring.

Situated in the heart of Bulgaria, this region was famous for its beautiful weather, numerous discos, hotels and all the attractions missing in the harsh reality of communist Poland. It was March 1978, and a group of sporty-looking lads in distinctive red tracksuits were checking in at the Zornitsa Hotel in Kazanlak.

After a difficult transitional period, Poland was again a force to be reckoned with on the velodrome, and with the world championships and Olympics fast approaching it’s easy to guess at the mood of the boys — exuberant, motivated, flushed with life.

Within days, many of the brightest hopes of Polish track cycling would lie dead in the Bulgarian countryside, victims of a plane crash that, to this day, remains unexplained.

Within days, the brightest hopes of Polish track cycling would lie dead in the Bulgarian countryside, victims of a plane crash that, to this day, remains unexplained.

Highs and lows

Wzloty i upadki

Poland’s history in track cycling is immensely long and rich, with its spiritual home at Warsaw’s Dynasy velodrome. After Poland regained independence at the end of the First World War, Polish track cyclists daringly plied their trade across the continent, bringing home medals and records in almost wholesale quantities. This glory era was short-lived, however, and by the time the dark clouds of World War II were gathering at the country’s borders, the discipline was in decline.

Having weathered the horrors of war and atrocities of occupation, Poland’s status as a track cycling nation was slow to improve, and participation remained low. Polish cyclists openly joked that for every rider, there was a velodrome.

Having weathered the horrors of war and atrocities of occupation, Poland’s status as a track cycling nation was slow to improve.

During the first decade of the new People’s Republic of Poland, just nine international events were organised on the country’s six velodromes. Track cycling had been supplanted by the road, the new darling of cycling, which captured the hearts and minds of the public. The Peace Race was supported by the party’s apparatchiks, with propaganda as a guiding goal. The scintillating track duels between legends of the era like Jerzy Bek and Józef Kupczak couldn’t compete with the spectacle and populist appeal of a technicolour peloton threading its way through the fields of Poland, from town to town.

But in spite of the adversity of the time and distinct neglect from the Polish Cycling Federation, track cycling eventually bounced back. Soon enough, riders in white and red jerseys were again topping podiums, while in Warsaw, after many years of efforts, the New Dynasy velodrome was finally built and opened. Through Polish road cycling’s golden era in the early ‘70s, the ‘trackies’ weren’t so far off the pace; Polish shelves were being filled again with medals and cups.

Fleeting youth

Pedzaca mlodziez

The mid-1970s were a turbulent time for the Polish Cycling Federation. It seemed that the federation’s members, drunk with the sport’s success, had lost control. At a superficial glance, it seemed that the Poles were still leading the pack in track cycling. However, owing to a toxic atmosphere in the sport’s governing body, it turned out that in reality they were about to be lapped.

At a superficial glance, it seemed that the Poles were still leading the pack in track cycling. In reality they were about to be lapped.

Decisive action had to be taken. The old guard, weighed down by the medals hanging around their necks, were slowly stepping aside, and the new generation was already waiting in the wings, eager to claim their place in Poland’s track cycling lineage – and maybe even outshine their elders.

The former track cyclist Jerzy Kupczak, son of the legendary Józef, took hold of the reins and became responsible for the track training program. The aim was clear: to wrest track cycling from mediocrity, revitalise the sport and give the youth a chance to shine. The next world championships weren’t far off, soon to be followed by the Olympic Games in Moscow, and the federation’s new direction was paying dividends. Fresh names were increasingly topping the results.

Poland’s training staff were doing everything possible to provide their young charges with the best possible conditions, and to close the gap between the Poles and the world’s best. Kupczak selected the best riders of Polish track’s new wave, and sent them to the Rose Valley.

For the average man struggling through a bleak communist reality, an airplane ticket to Bulgaria was the gateway to a fantasy holiday, but for the cyclists it was time to knuckle down. At the same time in Bulgaria, the other factions of Polish cycling were preparing for the long season ahead. The legends of the road, the renowned trackies, sprinters, and endurance racers alike were rubbing shoulders in the corridors of the hotel.

Sprinting to the finish

Sprintem ku mecie

Six riders from the refreshed sprinters’ team flew to Bulgaria — two from each of the cities that were strongholds of Polish track cycling. Tadeusz Wlodarczyk and Witold Stachowiak from Zyrardowianka, Marek Kolasa and Krzysztof Otocki from Lódz Spolem, and Jacek Zdaniuk from Legia and Sylwester Pokropek from Orzel Warszaw were to train together under the watchful eye of coach Edward Nalej.

THE RIDERS FROM:

The duo from Lódz’s sports club drew inspiration from the achievements of the club’s two greats — Jerzy Bek and Benedykt Kocot. The club’s proud tradition, combined with Krzysztof’s and Marek’s talent, was cause for optimism. They were trained by Edward Borysewicz, known as Eddie B in the English-speaking world — a genius of his craft who, in the future, would transplant continents and prove instrumental in bringing American cycling to the sport’s pinnacle.

“They were extremely talented,” Borysewicz recollects while visiting his native Lódz. “Both were excellent, but Marek was truly great.”

Born in Kozlowice, but racing for the club from Zyrardów, Tadeusz and Witold were not only huge hopes for their club, but for the Polish sprint in general.

In Wlodarczyk, the younger of the duo, pundits saw a diamond in the rough. In his category, he was second to none and was already training with the elite. Guided with great care, he was on the verge of reaching his peak and becoming a hero of the Polish public. Stachowiak, meanwhile, had already proven his strength with a haul of medals, both individually and with a team, and titles at the national level.

The sprint squad was completed by two riders from the Polish capital, racing for competitive teams.

Jacek Zdaniuk, riding for Legia Warszawa, was a versatile cyclist, with success in sprints and the Madison.

Sylwester Pokropek brought results and glory for Orzel Warszawa. He was a sprinter of intuition and courage, forever squeezing his handlebars into gaps that an ordinary rider wouldn’t even consider.

Resplendent in their white and red kits, the squad trained hard and competed on the local circuit. Elated by the sunny weather and preoccupied with their training, they forgot to take warmer clothes for a race held just a bit above sea level — an oversight forcing them to retire from the competition. Another time a black cat crossed in front of them during a training ride, giving the superstitious cyclists a chance to practice their track stands.

Spirits were high. The youngsters understood each other perfectly, and the team’s training staff was focused on results.

Spirits were high. The youngsters understood each other perfectly, and the team’s training staff was focused on results, not on building arbitrary walls between age groups or disciplines. After exhausting themselves training, the whole team enjoyed the charms of the Bulgarian resort in casual clothes.

The youngsters decided to finish the training camp with a bang, planning a visit to one of the local discos. The party was fantastic, but within the context of a strict sporting regime, went on a bit too long. It had passed 2am when the boys tried to sneak back to their hotel rooms, but one of the team’s coaches, Józef Grundmann, lay in wait at reception. The trainer’s rage wasn’t just for show, but in the end, the sprinters managed to charm their way out of any lasting consequences and tame their mentors. They could finally pack their belongings to fly home for a brief spell, before their next competition in beautiful Vienna.

Going home

Do domu

The boys from Warsaw started their last day in Bulgaria hunting for a lost key. Returning from breakfast and already running late for a team briefing, the duo realised they’d locked themselves out. They quickly agreed that Sylwester would be responsible for the search and getting back into their room.

In the meantime, in another room, the briefing was underway.

An unexpected problem had arisen and had to be quickly resolved — one of the masseurs needed to head back to Poland early for a university exam. His early departure took one of the seats reserved for the cyclists; there were now only five tickets left for six sprinters. Instead of travelling back by air, the team needed a volunteer to take the arduous journey home by car. The absent Sylwester was the obvious candidate, and when he finally arrived at the briefing, triumphant from finding the missing room key, he accepted the decision with a smile. Just another adventure.

The team needed a volunteer to take the arduous journey home by car … Sylwester was the obvious candidate, and he accepted the decision with a smile. Just another adventure.

The drive home was a long and difficult one for the sprinter and his coach. Exhausted from many monotonous hours behind the wheel, their journey almost reached a premature conclusion in a roadside ditch. Having spent the night in a roadside hotel to recover, they departed in the morning only to come grinding to a stop once again. The throttle cable had to be repaired, and they were only able to continue the drive thanks to some crude bush mechanics.

Meanwhile, the other five sprinters and the masseuse were checking in for their flight to Warsaw. A Balkan Airlines Tupolev Tu-134 was to deliver them to their home country, quickly and comfortably.

Sylwester’s drive back to Warsaw continued without further event, allowing him to surprise his mother by arriving home early. His father waited to collect his boy from the airport, unaware of the change in plan.

'The boys aren't coming home'

'Chlopcy chyba nie wroca'

Sylwester and his mother waited for the return of the family patriarch, and waited some more — he had been inexplicably delayed. When Pokropek Senior finally arrived home several hours later, he passed through the room with a face as pale as a ghost, failing to notice his son.  

“The boys aren’t coming home” – his only words – plunged the room into a chilling silence. Mother and son shared questioning glances. “My father hadn’t seen me, and the silence was blood-curdling. I had to jump onto him!” Sylwester remembers almost 30 years later.

Twenty-four minutes after 1pm, on March 16, 1978, captain Hristo Hristov received permission for take-off. It was a departure remarkable only in its ordinariness, with the airplane slowly climbing to its cruising altitude. Just after 2pm, at nearly 5,000 metres, the aircraft executed a sudden 270-degree turn, unexpectedly leaving its path. A moment later, it disappeared from the radars.

Just after 2pm, at nearly 5,000 metres, the aircraft executed a sudden 270-degree turn, unexpectedly leaving its path. A moment later, it disappeared from the radars. 

The Bulgarian plane hit the ground at a speed of over 800 km/h, with 11 tons of jet fuel in its tanks. In this quiet agricultural region, scarred by gorges, the sound of the explosion could be heard for many kilometres around the impact zone. Concerned locals followed fire trucks and the wail of sirens to reach the crash site, but the army had immediately sealed the scene with a tight cordon.

“The guys [on the Polish team] who had stayed in Bulgaria drove there as soon as they learned about it. They didn’t see anything; they didn’t learn anything new. The army was everywhere,” remembers Marek Kulesza, a former cyclist and close friend of Jacek Zdaniuk.

On this warm spring day, 73 lives were snuffed out in the crash. In addition to the Polish cyclists, victims included delegates of the Polish government (among them the minister of culture, Janusz Wilhelmi), a team of Bulgarian gymnasts, and junior football and basketball teams, along with the rest of the passengers and crew.

Eyewitnesses remember the crash site as a scene from the worst nightmares. The plane, having fallen with unimaginable velocity and fully-laden fuel tanks, had exploded into countless pieces upon impact. The passengers’ bodies and their personal belongings covered the field like a kind of hellish confetti, adding to the grisly appearance of the scene.

The symbolic and almost empty coffins of the five riders were transported to Poland, where they were received at the airport by friends from the track and local cycling clubs.

The plane, having fallen with unimaginable velocity and fully-laden fuel tanks, had exploded into countless pieces upon impact. The passengers’ bodies and their personal belongings covered the field like a kind of hellish confetti.

“They were my friends. We went to collect the coffins, but they were light, empty. They were not even proper, solid coffins…” said Grzegorz Ratajczyk.

The media recorded a heart-wrenching loss for Polish sport and cycling. “Polish cycling plunged into mourning,” a bold headline screamed.

Another daily newspaper eulogised: “death is always tragic, but it’s most shocking when it steals the young, talented and promising ones from the living.”

Buried secrets

Pogrzebane tajemnice

Meanwhile, the Bulgarian press devoted just a few lines to the catastrophe and quickly forgot about the whole story.

Likewise, in Poland, media interest in the tragic affair could only last so long. The next tier of cyclists were sent for further track meetings and training camps, and the coaching staff started planning a new strategy for the upcoming world championships and Olympic Games.

“It was impossible to learn more; those were different times. We were told that it was an accident, full stop”, remembers Borysewicz. The families of the deceased riders tried to learn more on their own, but it wasn’t a favourable era for asking difficult questions. “People seized every opportunity they had to learn something new about the fate of their loved ones. They were such young boys…”, recalls Tadeusz Wlodarczyk’s brother.

The official finding of the Bulgarian authorities was that the crash was caused by an electrical circuit malfunction, but that didn’t prevent a raft of alternative theories trying to explain the catastrophe from sprouting up. Some spoke about a terrorist attack, bombs in the hold, the assassination of the anti-communist activist travelling on board, a conspiracy by other gymnasts.

One of the whispered stories, however, may be plausible.

In both Poland and Bulgaria, a story began to circulate about a civilian Tupolev mistakenly shot down by the Bulgarian armed forces.

In both Poland and Bulgaria, a story began to circulate about a civilian Tupolev mistakenly shot down by the Bulgarian armed forces — a theory that would explain the haste of the army and energy used to cover up the story. There was a secret military base located near Gabare, and the air forces received an alert about a violation of the country’s air space by a foreign aircraft. The rest, it seems, was just tragic coincidence, and trigger-happy diligence to duty.

“I heard rumours that the plane was shot down by the army, but I don’t have any evidence for it,” says Eddie B.

Decades on, definitive proof is lost to the past.

 

The lives and careers of the Polish cyclists who died in the plane crash were much like their beloved sprint discipline – full of emotion, passion and speed, but also short, like those three laps on the boards of a velodrome.

The lives and careers of the Polish cyclists who died in the plane crash were much like their beloved sprint discipline – full of emotion, passion and speed, but also short, like those three laps on the boards of a velodrome.

The cause of the catastrophe that plunged Polish cycling into mourning remains unsolved to this day. Despite the efforts of the victims’ families, a new investigation was never opened, even after the fall of communism.

“They were very nice boys, extremely talented — diamonds of the future. It was a great loss… a great loss for me personally, and for Polish cycling”, says Borysewicz, his voice cracking.

Today, in a gorge near the village of Gabare, lost wanderers may find a marble monument. No path leads to it and it’s fruitless to look for floral wreathes or candlelight. It stands far from human gaze, shrouded with vegetation and the shadows thrown by young trees. Alone it stands, a stone memory of a forgotten tragedy and the lost dreams of youth.

Epilogue

Epilog

Almost 40 years after the dramatic events near Gabare, a stone statue was unveiled at the entrance to the Polish velodrome in Pruszków, near Warsaw. It tells those who pass it: “The living owe it to those who can no longer speak to tell their story.”

In memory of: Marek Kolasa, Krzysztof Otocki, Witold Stachowiak, Tadeusz Wlodarczyk and Jacek Zdaniuk, the cyclists of the Polish National Team who died on March 16, 1978 in unsolved circumstances in a plane crash near Gabare, Bulgaria.

Acknowledgements

Podziekowania

This article wouldn’t have been possible without the wonderful help and assistance of many kind people. Sincere thanks to all of them – in particular Sylwester Pokropek, Marek Kulesza, Jerzy Kupczak, Grzegorz Ratajczyk, Edward Borysewicz, Pawel Witkowski, Adam Baloniak, Dariusz Szczepanik, Piotr Ejsmont, Mikolaj Krok and Leszek Sibilski, along with the cycling clubs of Lódz Spolem and Legia.

All images supplied from family and personal archives. Balkan Airlines picture courtesy of Lewis Grant.

Illustrations: Gregory Thorne

Production: Iain Treloar

  • MattHurst

    A great read, thankyou. Truly tragic and such a tragedy there is no official finding.

  • Leszek

    Masterpiece!

  • claude cat

    Fascinating story.
    I have vague memories of my father telling me about this.

  • Ashok Captain

    Many thanks for this JZ and CT. Condolences to the families of all those that died in the crash.

  • Isaac Feld

    Tragic. I cannot imagine losing my closest friends in such a horrible fashion. However, I see hope in that this story is getting more coverage. Thanks to Jakub Zimoch for putting this together.

  • Zeinna Estrada

    I’m so sorry to hear about this terrible tragedy. May the lives of the lost be remembered forever.

  • Kevin Ramirez

    Fascinating story it was a great read, thank you. Condolences to the families of all those that died in the crash.

  • Jordan G

    It’s so incredibly sad to hear about this tragedy. The lives of these 5 cyclist will be forever in our hearts. What a great article.

  • Loida Gamero

    Thank you for such a great article. I’m hopeful that more people become aware of this tragic loss.

  • Alix Tiako

    Great story. Condolences to the families who lost a loved one.

  • Delina Berhane

    This was written nicely and told the story many should know! The lives of all the athletes will be missed but their legacies will still live on.

  • FirstladySha Ebanks

    Great read. These cyclists were really great athletes and deserve to be honored in the Olympics. May their legacy live on forever.

  • Abdurrahman Afeefy

    A sad and still unexplained tragedy. It’s great how the cyclists are finally being recognized. I cannot even begin to imagine how the families most feel, but hopefully they feel better now that their lost boys will be remembered.

  • Astrid Maizon

    Great article!

  • Manisha Parajuli

    Written in a fascinating manner!! Touched!!

  • Kuba Forma

    Chapeau bas Kuba

  • Thank you for bringing back the memory to the new generation and not leting forget about history of polish cycling;

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