WHEEL OF TIME: 60 years passes from Baltic Chain Tour’s first live broadcast

The predecessor to the Baltic Chain Tour, the Baltic Tour, first touched Estonian soil in 1959. The multi-day ride was held on the course of Vilnius-Kaunas-Šiauliai-Riia-Valmiera-Riia-Pärnu-Tallinn. At the time, the audiences thirsted after exciting sports competitions and the streets were full of cheerers.

The finishes of cycling tours were often held on the coal-covered running tracks of athletic stadiums, under the watchful eyes of thousands if not tens of thousands of onlookers. This was also true for the Baltic tour, with mostly the very top-level athletes of the republics were the participants. The cycling tour passing through town was a big event.
In 1962, Riga’s Television Studio tested a simplistic form of broadcast, showing the last 15 kilometres of the Saldus-Riga stage. What was shown in the broadcast? Tough to say. The most likely scenario is, the cameras were set up at the finish line and just waited for the winners to show up – all this accompanied by the clever commentators’ conversation, of course. And surely, there was plenty to say, as cycling events offered, and still do, a variety of heroic self-defeats.

In this year’s Baltic Chain tour, taking place August 18-21, the side event “Tartu I Retro Ride “, on August 20th, day of the restoration of Estonian independence, is bringing some of the old times back. The participation is open – 10km easy course waits anyone strong enough to finish it. To sweeten the pot, the Estonian Bicycle Museum will also be attending with a small exhibition of historic bikes, and potentially some interesting bikes for the onlookers to try out as well.
And, of course, The Baltic Chain Tour is also an important attraction. The start of Stage 3 will be given in front of the Estonian National Museum, and the live broadcast of the competition can be observed from the big screen throughout the day – obviously now in a significantly more colourful way than 60 years ago. The live broadcast can also be viewed online on BCT’s Youtube channel for example and is simultaneously held in 4 different languages: Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and English. Production bigger than the beginning years’ versions could ever have imagined.

More detailed information of the stages, courses, approximate times and other important facts is available on the tour’s website.

Interesting facts from the early years:

The tour first touched Estonia in 1959. The first Estonian finish line was held in Pärnu, and the stage of Riga-Pärnu won by Estonian athlete Vello Heamägi, who represented the Riga ASK (Army Sports Club).

In 1960, the Aluksne-Ape stage was won by Jüri Randmaa, who initially crossed the finish line with the second-best time – him 41:31, Rein Leegu with 41:27. But the winner was declared to be Randmaa, since the judges decided to deduct 15 seconds from his final time, which he had spent waiting at a railroad crossing.

In 1961, the Tour lasted a whopping 12 days, which included 3 days off. The overall length of the tour was 1382 km, and for the first time ever, there was a team event (40km) in the program as well.

In 1962, the leader of the tour wore a light blue shirt, members of the leading team, yellow armbands.

In the 1963 stage of Ape-Valmiera, the last 35km more resembled a Saharan desert than Latvia – an uneven badly-conditioned gravel road and very deep sand, in places almost half a wheel in depth. The stage of many falls was won by an Estonian, Olavi Ulm.
The entire tour had to have the judges make a call for the winner, as the two top athletes finished the 1264km tour with the identical final time of 29:32.28! A special decision declared Lithuanian Juozas Grabauskas as the winner, as he had placed in front of Latvian Vladimir Rybakov in the final stage.
In 1964, the first and so far only triple winner of the tour was crowned – the Estonian Ants Väravas. The tour culminated in Riga, on the Daugava staadium.

Some memories in video format: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-PVy0N9ClA

This year, the Baltic Chain Tour is supported by Enterprise Estonia, the Estonian and Latvian Culture Ministries, Visit Estonia, and local city governments of Tallinn, Tartu, Valga-Valka, Panevežys, Jelgava and Sigulda. Private supporters of the tour have, for many years, included Škoda Laagri, Hansgrohe and Hawaii Express, with Ramudden, Solar Wheel and SleepAngel joining the ranks.