Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 6)

Medeo skating complex
Titan pioneered altitude training in Soviet cycling. Medeo skating complex at 1,700m above sea level. Live high, train low. Obviously that meant climbing this monster every day to get back to the hotel. From here, the road continues for another 1000 vertical meters.

Two weeks later I landed in Kiev Borispol airport, confused by unfamiliar Ukrainian language coming at me from the PA system and the signage displays. Nikolai Rogozyan was waiting for me outside in a military-issue UAZ-452, an off-road van built to eat Siberian dirt roads for lunch. “Chuck your stuff in,” he said and opened the van’s rear door. An ordinary-looking vehicle on the outside, there was no mistake what purpose it served in life once I saw its inside: Half a dozen yellow sidewall tubular tires lying on the bare steel floor; spare wheels; a plastic glue bottle with a nozzle made from a brake pad for quick, clean glue jobs on the rims; water bottles; a couple of leather hairnet helmets and even a set of wooden cylinder rollers placed on its side between the seats. A faint smell of Finalgon, an embrocation of choice among Soviet pros, permeated the van’s interior. I slotted my bike, packed in a custom made canvas sack, next to the rollers, threw my bag into the van and sat on the passenger’s seat.

The mighty UAZ-452. Known as Sharaban among Titan riders and personnel. Not the actual van of course, but close enough replica. Right color though.

“Where are we going?” I asked Rogozyan once we got moving.

“Training base in Lesnoye resort. One hour drive from here, west of Kiev.”

On the way, I learned how different my life would be from now on.

Unless rocks were falling from the sky, Rogozyan told me, Titan training rides are never canceled. The guys ride three times per day: 40km before breakfast, up to 200km later in the morning, and another 40km in late afternoon; 4,500km per month was normal for most of the season. Titan redefined the meaning of a professional cyclist’s rest day: a single, post-breakfast 50km ride after a sleep-in with a sauna session in the afternoon was how they thought a cyclist should rest at the end of a 10-12 day-long training cycle.

Cruising two abreast was minimal. During the main ride, the bulk of riding time was spent in a single file groups of 8-10 riders doing long intervals of various intensities. One of the underlying theories of Titan’s methodology required riding at speeds somewhere near 40km/h. The speed wasn’t the point — the intensity was. After a decade of experiments, information from several sources pointed to the most effective physiological adaptations taking place after prolonged training at a window of intensity achieved at about 40km/h, so they aimed riding at that speed as much as was thought necessary.

This kind of workload was impossible to sustain without sufficient rest and nutrition. When not riding or eating, Titan riders were either sleeping or lying in bed talking trash or cracking jokes at each other. Training camps were deliberately held away from civilization to create an environment where sleeping was the only option during riders’ free time. Nobody was allowed to leave the training base without permission.

Girlfriends were banned. “You’ll see a lot of female gymnasts at the Lesnoye resort from the Ukrainian state team,” Rogozyan said as we crossed Paton Bridge over Dnieper River. “If I see you within five meters of any one of them, you’ll be sent home. And trust me, I know every excuse in the world about why you think you should be near a girl, so don’t even try. If you have a girlfriend at home — and as far as I know you don’t, but in case you do — write a letter tomorrow and tell her you’re through with her. She’ll be married by the time you see her again so you might as well end it now.”

Riders were allowed four-day leave to visit home two or three times per year which meant more than 350 days of living and co-existing with the same group of people, traveling all over the country from race to race, or from camp to camp. In the van, listening to Rogozyan, it seemed like it would be a blast of a life-style going places and racing everywhere. How little did I know at the time about what a mental burden it’s going to be sharing a room with the same guy for several months in the row.

Although Titan’s support crew did its best to ensure riders’ nutritional needs were met, no one could guarantee we’d be fed quality food at all times, especially away from home base in Kiev. To alleviate the socialism’s deficiency at producing adequate amount of nutritious food, Titan, through its military connections, found access to the Soviet space program’s cosmonaut food supplies. Boxes of this space food traveled with us everywhere we went. Before energy gels were invented, we used gel-like, carbohydrate rich products made from natural ingredients and packaged in easy to squeeze 100ml tubes. It was made for weightless space but was just as useful in road racing.

As much as I loved listening to Nikolai Rogozyan’s pro life-style talk, none of it would be relevant to me if I failed to make the cut. He sounded as if I had already made the team but I remembered what he said in Kaliningrad about “evaluation” and “fitting in into Titan’s program.” I waited for an appropriate pause in the conversation, and as casually as I could phrase it, said: “Now that I’m here, does it mean I’m part of the Titan team or you’ve got some selection process I’ll have to go through first?”

“Of course there’s a selection process, I was about to tell you about it.” He told me they intended to take in eight, maximum ten new riders from 16 candidates they invited to the training camp. More than 20 guys would be there but some of them were already in the team.

The first round is the ramp test at the Sports University’s lab. “It’s a bit of a torture but we have to ensure we’re not wasting our time with someone who’s got no physiological potential to race at the highest level,” Rogozyan said. Those who pass the lab test will stay and race Titan candidates-only stage race. “We booked the Chaika car racing circuit for a week and you guys are going to do five, maybe six stages on the circuit, 100-120km each. With only about 20 people in the race, you’ll have nowhere to hide. The circuit is flat as a pancake so you’ll have to race like mad pit bulls to make a mark. Best of all, we’ll see the action up close from the car because the bunch is small and there’ll be no commissairs — it’s our own, private race so to speak. It won’t be an easy race, I can tell you that, you’ll be pushed to the limit. Which is what we want.”

With that piece of good news in the air, we turned off the Brest-Litovsk Highway into a narrow side road and two minutes later, after driving through a thick forest, the UAZ-452 stopped near a group of timber cottages. “Lunch is in two hours,” Rogozyan said and pointed at one of the cottages. “Get your stuff and the bike in there and start unpacking. You should be good to go for the afternoon ride.”

I got out of the van, breathed in a lungful of sweet, crisp forest air and for the first time since I left home several hours ago, felt like I was standing at the entrance to adulthood. My parents, teachers, my first coach and my friends, have all been left behind in another world where too many people looked after me. In this new world I was about to step into, I was on my own, not knowing how to maneuver in it by myself.

“It’s a pack of wolves out there,” I recalled Peter Trumheller’s saying. “Don’t let them maul you.”

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