I won the first stage in Samarkand — an individual time trial — then followed it with a TTT win the next day and topped it up with another first place in a road race. If one stage was enough to qualify, how about three in a row? The national team’s head coach came to our team car after the third stage to shake my hand and welcome me to the national team. I was in.
The national team qualification meant going to races in Western Europe and, if I decided to go for it, staying there and never going back to the USSR. The first trip didn’t take long to wait for — the Schleswig-Holstein Rundfahrt, a stage race in West Germany. I had two days to kill before flying to Hamburg, so I jumped on a plane and went to see Piotr Trumheller in Nalchik, my hometown.
The Business of Road Cycling, Soviet Style
He poured me a vodka shot when we sat down to dine at his apartment — a sign he considered me on equal ground with him, as one man sharing a meal with another man. I told him the East German national team was lined up for the race with Olaf Ludwig, Uwe Raab (the current road world champion) and Uwe Ampler among them.
“Are you worried?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said. “These guys have been just humiliated by Sukhorouchenkov in the Peace Race a couple of weeks ago. They’ll be looking for a revenge and here we come, in our red jerseys. They probably won’t even know we’re juniors. They’ll go after us like mad dogs. It’s going to be some race.”
“They’ll give you hell, for sure,” he said. “But that’s the kind of guys you’ll be racing against from next year. The earlier you learn what it’s like, the better prepared you’ll be. It’s the same thing we did in Maykop. You went against guys a level above you to harden up. It did work, didn’t it?”
He said how funny it’ll be that I’ll see Germany before he has a chance to see it, an ethnic German, and I joked that maybe he should travel to Berlin and jump the wall. “Who is going to look after my wife and kids if I do that?” he said. We stopped talking for a moment and had another round of vodka.
“Are you coming back?” he said and poured us another shot.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “I want the rainbow jersey and then I’m gone. But I’m also afraid I won’t make the team and won’t go to France for the world’s. Then what? Maybe I should defect in Germany after the last stage?”
He left the room for a minute and came back with a huge pile of tubulars, bound in industrial strength wrapping paper.
“One hundred,” he said, nodding at the pile with his head. “A stash I prepared for you when I heard you made the national team. Take it to Germany, make some money, save it, make more until you go to France, then take the cash with you on the way to the world’s, win the gold medal and then run. You need that gold medal to get a good pro contract in France.”
With the rouble a worthless currency outside of USSR, Soviet-made tubulars — trubki in Russian — were the means of exchange everyone understood and accepted. The math behind this socialism-induced business was simple. The street price of our tubulars in Soviet Union was four roubles; the US dollar fetched about the same on the black market — four roubles more or less (and not 0.7 rouble as the official rate was) which meant each Soviet-made tubular could be bought for about one US dollar; you buy a 100 of them for 400 roubles and sell them to Italians, Belgians, French or whoever for $15-20 each and end up with $1,500-$2,000 in your pocket, a nice 400 percent profit (from a $400 outlay). Western riders loved our trubki because similar quality stuff in their countries costs twice as much.
Once you’ve got your dollars, or Deutsche Marks, you can bring it home and sell it on the black market for about four roubles per dollar again, so the $2,000 you brought back from a race becomes 8,000 roubles. This time it’s a cool 1,900 percent profit from an initial 400 roubles outlay. At the time, my parents made less than 400 roubles per month combined and I could make 20 times more from a single race, not counting the prize money. I wondered how this kind of game went on undetected by authorities.
“The KGB knows what’s going on,” Trumheller said, “but they don’t care as long as they have no interest in you. It’s the small guys at the customs you should worry about. They see you going to Paris or Rome, places they know they’ll never visit, and if they have a hangover or a bad day, they can give you trouble just because they can.”
“Well, if you’re flying out of the country, they might ask why do you bring so many ‘tires’ with you. Mind you, there are six of you flying out, plus mechanic and a coach. They too might tug tubulars along with them. Mechanic for sure will have at least 50 just for the race and some for sale. Your entire team may be carrying few hundred tubulars in one go. They’re not dumb those customs officers, they know you don’t need 600 spare tubulars.”
“So how do you get through customs?”
“You bribe them. You tell them you took 50 or a 100 ‘tires’ too many and leave them for the customs officer who is on your back. He’d know what to do with them. Even gymnasts sell tubulars in Europe but they don’t know where to get them, the shops don’t stock them. I heard they pay about eight roubles for one tubular. So you leave a hundred of them at the customs and that’s 800 roubles for a guy who earns 150 a month. Do you think he’ll still bother you after that?”
Flying out of the country didn’t worry me as much as coming back did. I could lose 400 roubles’ worth of tubulars, at worst, on the way out, but how do I bring the dollars in through the customs? Owning, buying or selling, and especially smuggling foreign currency in or out of USSR was a criminal offense with a jail term longer than I could care to know.
The solution, as with so many things in a nation of “three hundred million people all with the same face,” was so ingenious I thought I must have been blind not to see it myself — the seat tube. I learned about the seat tube’s smuggling properties from a teammate when I wondered aloud what’s the safest way to get a wad of cash through the customs. “Roll it, rubber-band it and drop it into a seat tube. They never check bikes. Luggage — yes, always. They can even search you if you look worried, but bikes — never.”
I qualified for the world championship and flew to France with a week to spare before the race. The Los Angeles Olympic Games, which Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern Bloc boycotted, have just finished. We’ve been told our championship is the first international event since the end of the Games with Soviet and American athletes competing against each other. Our country’s leadership, we’ve been told, doesn’t want to see Americans win even a single event.
The championship’s organisers must’ve had a laugh when they decided to put us in the same hotel with the Yanks. We came from a training ride one morning and saw a group of guys in stars and stripes uniforms unpacking their bikes in front of the hotel — they just arrived from the airport. The time trial equipment they pulled out of their bike bags looked like it was built by aliens. Frames with massive aero-shaped tubes, small front wheels with ridiculously tall rims, rear disc wheels and half-a-meter-long aero helmets. What was even more strange is that our coach was chatting to the American one, and when we passed them by on our bikes, we heard they spoke Russian.
“It was Eddie Borysewicz, an old friend,” our coach informed us at the lunch table. “Defected to the United States from Poland some years ago. Used to coach Polish national junior team and now works with the Americans. Says his boys are on fire and that you’ll be lucky if they won’t catch you. They’re last to start, remember? You go right before them.”
Although we chuckled at the idea of another team catching us, I felt that the guys were offended by what Borysewicz said. At least I was.
We put 20 seconds into Americans in the first 10 kilometers of the race and the gap grew after that at every time check. Working like a Swiss clockwork, pulling 30-second turns without a glitch, we sailed from start to finish in one breath. With less than a kilometer to go, we started smiling and shaking each other’s hands because we were more than a minute ahead of the second-placed team USA. We won it, the gold was ours.
Our team came with only six riders to France and two spots were available to do the road race. Its lumpy course with a long finishing straight suited me well and coach asked me if I wanted to do it. I said no. I was drained from going through the selection process, training and staying at the top of my game for four months. With a rainbow jersey in my bag now, I had no desire to race any time soon, I wanted a break. And while everyone was going to be at the road race, I thought, I’ll make my run and nobody will even see me going.
The Road to Freedom
On my trips around Caen where we stayed during the championship, I scouted a police station I could ride to from our hotel in 15 minutes. From the stories I heard on Radio Free Europe — a CIA-sponsored radio broadcast in Russian — about other defections, going to police was the fugitive’s best option. If I told them my life was in danger and I didn’t want to go back to the USSR, they would have to let me stay.
Once my teammates and everyone else was gone to the road race, I packed my rainbow jersey, the medal and the cash into a small rucksack I bought for the run, hopped on the bike and rode toward the police station in the city center.
I felt my heart pumping blood through my veins in powerful, steady blows, and something tickled me in the guts. The legs went soft like overcooked macaroni even though I was on a low gear. I kept turning my head, afraid that the KGB officer assigned to watch over our team was following me.
This is it, I thought, 10 more minutes and I can kiss the Soviet hellhole au revoir. I wondered if in the midst of a mess I was about to create with the defection, the bike I rode now will be forgotten about. A Saronni Red Colnago Nuovo Mexico was only two weeks old and I wanted to keep it. Nah, they won’t forget it. Will I be on the news? Here, for sure. “A Russian world champion defects to France!” What about back home, will they even mention it in one of their so called newspapers? Strange, I thought, will I ever stop calling home the country I was born in and was now running from like a fugitive.
I thought about my dad, how he was silent on the phone when I told him I was going to France to race the world’s. I knew why he was silent — he cried. Then I thought about Yuri Elizarov and how much I’d want to look into his eyes, shake his hand and thank him. My mum, she said I’ll quit cycling in a week when I got into it, and now I wanted to show her my medal — see? I didn’t quit.
I stopped in front of the police station and stared at the door. Three steps and I’m in, never to return, never to wear the red CCCP jersey again. I looked across the street and saw a bistro a 100 meters away. Maybe I should sit down, have a beer and think it through one more time.
I didn’t make it to the bistro. I couldn’t leave, not like this. I decided to go back and do it all over again next year, but this time, pick a small race and jump the ship quietly, without stupid headlines.