I got off in front of a 20-something-story building made from dull concrete blocks. The entrance I needed had a metal door painted decades ago with what must’ve been a shade of blue once. I opened it and walked into an unlit vestibule with a dash of daylight coming in through a window on the wall opposite the entrance. It stunk of urine, beer and French perfume. The elevator’s door was open as if someone sent it for me. I paused for a second unsure if I should entrust myself to a Soviet-made machinery or play it safe and take the stairs. The cyclist in me won the argument — walking was bad enough, climbing up the stairs was unacceptable in all but the most dire circumstances. I wasn’t in dire circumstances, so I stepped in and looked at the display board to find the button I wanted. Each one had a hole in the middle burned with a cigarette to hide the level numbers. Level 13 was left alive. I counted six more buttons from 13 with my finger and hoped the pranksters hadn’t rewire the lift to send strangers to a wrong floor.
I reached the floor I needed without a drama and rang Anton’s door. Ten seconds later his smiling face was looking at me. “Come in, come in,” he urged me, waving his hand. I stepped into a dark apartment filled with thick cigarette smoke mixed with a strong smell of weed. I followed Anton to the kitchen, a sacred place in a Soviet apartment where the populace liked to congregate in for small parties and tea drinking. Three quarters of the kitchen window was covered with a curtain leaving a way for the smoke to escape and a ray of daylight to sneak in through an open sash. Led Zeppelin’s Tangerine was blasting from inside the apartment. I saw a large reel-to-reel recorder standing inside a bookshelf in a living room with a pair of meter-tall, three-way speakers in the corners.
When I entered the kitchen, I saw a guy and a girl sitting at a wooden dining table. The guy — about 21 or 22 — had a long, wavy blonde hair that fell on his thin face from both sides like a hood. A ducktail beard made his face longer than it was already. With light muted and wrapped in cigarette fog, he looked like an Eastern Orthodox saint on a medieval painting. His right arm was up, resting on its elbow with an unlit joint in his hand between the thumb and the index fingers. His blue eyes glared at me with warmth and goodwill I’ve never seen in anyone else’s eyes before.
“You wanna fire it?” he said looking at me. “Yeah, sure,” I said and took a chair at the table. The girl, I assumed his girl, was smiling as if I brought her the best news she was about to hear today. “Privet,” she said, “I’m Lena.”
Lena was beautiful in the same way a sunset or a sunrise can be beautiful. Her beauty wasn’t sexual. She was attractive, but that part of her image was smothered by the allure of raw femininity and irresistible, primitive magnetism unleashed like a wild storm from inside her. A round face of classic Slavic stock, molded by soft contour lines, was adorned with a cascade of blonde hair that disappeared somewhere behind her back. Her blue eyes the size of a lake glowed in the dark.
“I know who you are, Kolya,” she said. “Liosha and I were on the train with Anton when he found that newspaper article about you and the Olympic Games you won.”
“World championship,” I mumbled. She ignored my correction and I cursed myself for thinking she cares or knows the difference. She spoke with a silky voice, each word coming off her lips like a music note you had to take in to understand the sentence. She had a tiny, cute Muscovite accent and a smile never left her face when she spoke. In less than two years Liosha would kill himself with an overdose of opium and Lena followed him not long after by doing the same thing. But this was still in the future. For now, I was getting baked, listening to these three talking about philosophy, Christianity, existentialism, Buddhism and rock’n’roll. The names of Sartre, Hermann Hesse, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Garcia Marquez and Max Frisch rolled into the foggy kitchen with casual familiarity. I had never heard of these men before and wished I could chime in or at least nod with an intelligent expression on my face. I couldn’t chime in and it bothered me. It bothered me that I haven’t read a book since cycling took over my life even though I used to read like a maniac in childhood. It bothered me I knew who Robert Plant or Eddy Merckx was but not Borges or Cortazar. It bothered me I wasn’t sure who Jesus Christ was — my mind was polluted with Eastern Orthodox superstitions and raped by atheism. Although I carried a Bible in my bag everywhere I went — not as a source of knowledge about God, but as a good-luck fetish — I read 10, maybe 20 pages of it ever since Anton gave it to me as a gift a couple of years ago.
Liosha kept rolling his little rockets like a supercharged robot. The Armenian cognac I brought evaporated sooner than I thought it could. By midnight we faced the perpetual problem of Soviet citizenry when we gather around our kitchen tables to party: Where do we get more alcohol? Anton said he knew a place a short cab ride away, a bar, where we can buy booze from a rogue waiter. It was expensive though and they’ve been broke for the last two days, he said. They’ve only eaten a bag of apples all day, no money for food. The 10 roubles they had this morning was spent on three bottles of Chardonnay they emptied before I came. I said money wasn’t a problem, just take me to the bar. This is when Lena said a phrase that stuck with us for years. She said: “Kolya had everything, but he had no equals.” This sounded so excessive, so outrageous it made us laugh. For a short moment, I think I believed I had no equals.
Anton and I caught a taxi and five minutes later arrived to a sombre-looking joint in a basement of what looked like a 200-year-old building. I gave the bouncer 10 roubles before he even opened his mouth and we walked in.
The place was full. Everyone, including a fat bartender, smoked. You could throw an axe in the air and it would float — that’s how thick with smoke the room was. Anton and I argued about who was going to ask a waiter for alcohol. I said that since I was paying, he should do the talking. He rebutted it with, “This swanky leather jacket you wear, it screams ‘I’m in a gang.’ No one but gangsters wear this kind of clothes. Go grab a waiter and tell him what you want. Make sure he hears your accent so he knows you’re from North Caucasus — we have a reputation here, if you know what I mean.” I knew what he meant. Corrupt from top to bottom, North Caucasus was famous for drug trade and vicious, criminal gangs that operated all over the country, a lot of them in Moscow. People often assumed that if you were from North Caucasus, you were from the underworld, you don’t negotiate, don’t reason, armed and shouldn’t be messed with. “Keep one hand in the jacket’s pocket,” he added. “Let the butthead wonder what you might be holding in there.” I looked at him to see if he were serious and we laughed again. We still had plenty of growing up to do.
I didn’t have to chase a waiter around the joint, one came up to us and asked what we wanted. I pulled out a 50-rouble note, shoved it in his breast pocket and asked if per chance he had a couple of decent cognac bottles lying somewhere doing nothing. In less than two minutes we walked out with two bottles of Napoléon brandy and headed back to Anton’s place. Without a single taxi in sight, we decided to take a walk, clear our heads and talk.
Clearing heads and talking involved emptying one of the brandy bottles. We made a few rest stops at playgrounds and random park benches, drank from the bottle taking turns and talked. I heard about movie festivals and the screening of banned films Anton went to through his brother’s connections in the industry. He talked about Tarkovsky, Fellini and Buñuel as if he dined with them last night. Agitated, he’d ask me if I saw this film or that. The answer was always the same: No, never heard of it. Oh man, he’d sigh, you should see this or that. He was a changed man, with a grown intellect far removed from the banalities of sport. I asked him if he missed cycling and he said he did miss the fun and the mucking around but not the training and not the racing. “I don’t want to hit the floor ever again,” he said. He had a couple of awful crashes in his time on the bike, one of them in front of me on a downhill sprint when he slammed into a parked car — head down, Abdujaparov-style — at 65km/h. His bike flew over my head and when he landed on the tarmac, I was sure he’d never get up.
We were near his apartment building when he said, “Why don’t you move to Moscow?”
“Man, you have no idea how cool this place is.”
“Yeah,” I said. “A Russian-speaking Paris.”
“I never been to Paris, but you’ll enjoy living here, I can tell you that.”
“How would I even move here? They’ll kick me out from Titan and the national team.”
“Titan shmitan. Forget your stupid cycling. Remember what Trumheller used to tell us?”
“He told us many different things…”
“That’s right. One of them was: Prepare your Plan B. You crash tomorrow and your cycling goes out the window. What’s your Plan B?”
“Dude, I’m not sure I have a Plan A, never mind B.”
“Exactly. That’s because you’re stupid. You think you’ll race forever and your bosses will look after you all your life. Wrong. You’re nothing to them but a brainless machine with a pair of good legs and a supercharged engine. Are you a brainless machine, bro?”
“I’d like to think I’m not but you’re the seer, you know better.”
“I’m not a seer, but I don’t want you to look back 10, 15 years from now and say, crap, I should’ve stopped in 1985 while I was young.”
“And why would I say that?”
“Because we change, man. What used to make sense to me five years ago, like risking my life, or living like a chattel in exchange for some ephemeral reward that may never come, seems foolish now. What if, God forbid, you crash tomorrow and can’t race anymore? What are you going to do?”
“I don’t crash like that.”
“Of course you don’t. You’re made from steel, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Look, I found out about this postgrad sports medicine school in Tallinn. It’s a two-year course. They only take students from some universities, it’s a bit of an elite institution, but they do take them from mine. The physiology professor in my course recommended it to me and already spoke with someone in Tallinn and they said I should apply. So I thought, why don’t you do the same thing? Transfer from Kiev to Moscow, finish the uni here and then go to Tallinn. You can probably stay there after you graduate or come back to Moscow and leave your stinky Kiev for the stinky Ukrainians to live in. How’s that for Plan B?”
“Awesome, especially the medicine part. I can’t tell chemistry from physics and you think I can be a doctor?”
“It’s sports medicine, man, remember? You’ll be dealing with idiots like yourself. You give them vitamin C, tell them it’ll make them stronger and, voila — they’re stronger. It’s not like you’ll be treating cancer patients or anything like that.”
This planning ahead for both of us was one of Anton’s favourite things to do. He was always full of plans and I never followed them.
Liosha was alone in the kitchen when we came back with the last bottle of brandy. I saw two 50-cubic interchangeable syringes on the table half-filled with brown liquid. I knew it was home-made opium even though I’ve never seen it before. “I left some for you, boys,” Liosha said pointing at the syringes with his head. “Lena’s gone to bed, I feel like going too. Have fun.”
I looked at the syringes and remembered that I had a 50km team time trial to race on the streets of Moscow in a few hours, gave this as an excuse and announced it was time for me to go back to Krylatskoye.