Not knowing much about Czech cycling…

…Let me start that again.

Knowing nothing about Czech cycling, it was rather wonderful to be brought face to face with a bit of its history in an unexpected fashion during a flying visit to Prague this weekend.

I’d actually gone to the Czech capital to watch some Mixed Martial Arts. Don’t ask me why – it’s a long story for another day. In case you were unaware, MMA involves folk were being paid to smack the hell out of each other, dressed only in their pants, in front of tens of thousands of drunk Czechs. It sounded like the ultimate bad dream, and the reality was not far removed. An interesting way to spend a Saturday night.

But on Sunday, I had the freedom of the city to explore. After stomping around avoiding tourists on motorised segways for a few hours, I crossed the river and stumbled across the National Museum of Technology, which seemed like a decent place to spend a few hours. And it was.

In among the intimidatingly vast steam locomotives (massive Austrian beasts that used to bind the old Hapsburg Empire together, ploughing up snowy Mittel Europa mountain valleys) and Sptifires from the RAF Czech Squadron, I found exhibition devoted solely to the most famous brand of bicycle in Czechoslovakia, and in the Czech Republic: “favorit”.

 Czech steel, as far as the eye can see. Czech steel, as far as the eye can see.

And now, I want one.

The company was founded when two competing bike brands, Tudor and Tripol, both of which were based in the little town of Rokycany, merged in 1948. Newly-communist Czecholsovakia aimed to create a people’s brand from the two formerly private enterprises, and “favorit”, with its famous logo, was born.

From the very start, the brand’s intentions were to aim high and try to emulate the great Italian bike brands on which they were based, to whose components they were denied access. So, they developed their own technologies from a modest warehouse factory, where a highly skilled workforce, many of whom were women, lovingly created these iconic bikes by hand. “Favorit” developed a reputation for quality and churned out a series of much admired track and road bikes, as well as a plethora of bizarre looking Indoor Cycling bikes, designed for dancing on and stuff (you don’t believe that this is a thing? You are wrong. Try searching UCI Indoor Cycling Artistic Cycling and prepare to be amazed). As the years rolled on, they became a genuine Czech success story, a point of national pride, and the subject of widespread affection.

 Workers at the “favorit” factory in the mid 1960s Workers at the “favorit” factory in the mid 1960s

Over thirty years, they rose from producing 5,000 to 65,000 per annum, many of which, unusually for an Eastern Bloc enterprise, found their way into the West, where they had a loyal, if limited, connoisseur’s fan base.

In 1964, Czech pursuiter Jiří Daler took Gold on the track in the Tokyo Games; arguably the greatest achievement by a Czech rider – their Chris Boardman, but without the revolution in aspiration that ensued in the UK. He did it, of course, on a “favorit”.

 Jiří Daler wins Gold in Tokyo. Jiří Daler wins Gold in Tokyo.

Of course, the Czech had its own, rather more existential revolution, when communism collapsed, some three decades ago. Predictably, the free market spelt trouble for “favorit”, and by the late nineties, they were effectively defunct. Unlike Skoda, who were hoovered up by Volkswagen, there was no massive multinational prepared to snap up the brand. It rusted in the bike shed.

But, not everyone gave it up for dead. In 2011, an entrepreneur and enthusiast Richard Galovič bought the brand and breathed new life into it. This story has a happy ending. “Favorit” is still alive and kicking, producing an attractive range of bikes to suit all tastes, including, in a break with their past, everyday town bikes.

Like I said, I want one.

Czech cycling itself is still hanging on, if not setting the world on fire. The 2004 Junior World Road Race Champion Roman Kreuziger, now 32, starts again at a new team (Dimension Data) after a very useful year with Mitchelton-Scott. But the production line of talent behind him has not been endless, and the investment in the sport, especially road racing, is a bit scant. How nice it would be, for example, if the Czech mining oligarch Zdeněk Bakala, one of the richest men in the world, invested in a Czech team, rather than sitting on the board of Deceuninck-QuickStep. Perhaps it will come, but at the moment, Slovenia, Poland and Slovakia are a long way ahead of the Czechs in cycling. Which isn’t to say they don’t have their stars, two of whom, interestingly, race for Bakala’s team.

It’s great to see Petr Vakoč back in the saddle after a hoffifying accident a year ago when he was hit by a truck in South Africa. As I waited for my flight home on Sunday, news came through to me that the tremendously likeable, strong-as-an-ox Zdeněk Štybar had won the final stage of the Tour of the Algarve.

Even if he didn’t do it on a “favorit”. Now that really would be special.

 Czech marginal gains. Czech marginal gains.