Unwritten Rules of Cycling: It’s Getting Old

Tour de France 2003 Luz-Ardiden Lance Armstrong Crash
Tour de France 2003 Luz-Ardiden Lance Armstrong Crash
Lance Armstrong goes down in 2003 Tour de France on stage 15 to Luz-Ardiden

In Soviet Union, unwritten rules of the peloton was law.

As the unwritten rules go, they were not codified. You wouldn’t go to a library, pick up a Codex Cyclicus volume and find out what’s legal and what’s not. You learned the rules over thousands of kilometers listening to your older teammates brag about a stage race they did last year. No one knew where the rules came from or who made them. The rules are the rules, do what you’re told. In a country where you’re taught from day one to shut up and never ask questions, the rules made sense because the rules were stupid. Stupidity ruled the nation so it made perfect sense if stupidity ruled road cycling too.

The first one I learned was to never sit up in a breakaway. Ever. They’ll hang you by the neck if you do. A serious offense. Never sit up, unless.

Unless what?

Lawyers call this clauses. You’re verboten to do A unless B or C applies. Never sit up unless a) the breakaway, if successful, will hurt your team’s general classification standing. Team, the collective, is king. Your success is secondary to team’s success. Don’t care if you win or not, team’s first. This one was easy to figure out by looking at the pinned numbers. Jerseys were useless as clues because everyone wore a plain jersey, most of them red, with numbers pinned to rear pockets the only difference. If you’re alone in the break and at least one team has a numerical advantage, you can sit up.

Maybe.

Can or can’t will depend on where your team is on general classification. Above or below the team that has a numerical advantage? By how much?

Question: how am I supposed to know all this stuff in the middle of a race? Well, you go back to your team car and ask or they come to you and tell you. Sit up. Or not. It’s complicated.

Never sit up unless b) someone in the break will leapfrog your teammate who is… what? Leading the race? In top three on the general classification? Might win the race overall? Can win the race overall?

Question: even though I may know all of this information, how others in the breakaway are supposed to know it? Well, you tell them when they start beefing about you sitting at the back doing nothing. No one ever buys this bunk and they call you names and swear to remember this episode for the rest of their careers. You do the same in their shoes. Spray the bastard with the phlegm every time you slot behind the last wheel and empty your nose. It’s how it is, suck it up princess, no one likes freeloaders.

And on it goes, c), d), and who knows what else is there. By the way, the never sit up rules are different for stage races and one-day races because one-day races don’t have the general classification standing. It’s complicated.

My favorite rule was the piss rule because urinating from out of the saddle never worked for me. They say it’s a skill you have to learn but it’s one of those things where trial and error procedure can get kind of unpleasant, especially the error part. How far do you think you can piss away from yourself at 30 km/h? One try and one error with a wet shoe was enough for me.

This is why piss stops were great. No one knew how many riders had to stop for a pee before the peloton would wait. The rule was, a) the race had to be quiet, or b) if the boss stops, we wait.

In my time, Yuri Kashirin was the boss. He was the law, he judged what was or wasn’t kosher.

This one day we woke up in Southern Ukraine buried under mountains of snow that had fallen overnight. In the middle of a stage race, the last one on the calendar and the most important one, the Grand Prix of Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya. Early October, not supposed to snow here yet but it did, in a big way.

Snow meant no racing, an extra rest day. At least, that’s what normal people would do, right? Snow on the roads — no bike racing. It’s stupid. You’d think so except the commissaires didn’t. They’re not the ones racing so… They said let’s wait, let’s see what the weather would be like in two hours. In three hours. By 12, the sun had turned the snow into water and the water had flooded the roads. The race is on boys, off you go.

The stage was from the mainland Ukraine to Crimea peninsula through some farmlands and farmlands are mud kingdoms. After three hours in the saddle, you couldn’t tell who was who. Everyone wore a mucked kit with mud-splattered numbers and rode a filthy bike.

And then the cops at the front of the peloton took the wrong turn somewhere. You’d think they knew where to go to but maybe too much mud confused them or they drank too much vodka to keep themselves warm. No one knows but they got us lost on the way to Simferopol.

We noticed something was wrong when the sun was leaving the sky and going to bed and we were still in the middle of nowhere riding in the mud and then someone said hey, it’s a four-hour stage and we’ve been in the saddle for almost five and where’s the bloody Simferopol anyway, what’s going on?

This is when Kashirin, the boss, went back to the chief commissaire and asked him why we’re still on the road. They told him about the detour and even said sorry.

And then the sun had set.

Out in a country, it’s a dark place without the sun. Hundred-fifty riders soaked in mud, angry on their bikes riding to Simferopol with the sun out because a couple of cops had failed the one job they had to do — take us from A to B without a drama.

The boss went to the commissaires again and asked to neutralize the stage. Racing at night is insane even for the Soviet Union. No way they said. It’s Sotsindustriya, remember?

At this point the unwritten rules kicked in. Piano, the boss said when he came back, we ride piano to Simferopol, no racing. Piano was the word we borrowed from Italian language to describe a truce in a race. The only concession the commissaires made was to allow team cars to come behind the peloton with high beam lights on and this is how we reached Simferopol, like an army of demons expelled from hell for hooliganism.

The race blew up the moment we hit the Simferopol’s outskirts. The speed went from 30 to 50 in seconds and it kept climbing as we reeled through the city streets hopping over potholes if you saw one and hitting the ones you had missed. We had a fast sprinter on the team and my job now was to get to the head of the peloton, slot in somewhere in the top ten and wait for my teammate to find me.

We did okay that day and scored a podium but I couldn’t stop thinking about the piano order. Someone had spat on it and restarted the race. A stage win trumped the rules. We followed them one minute and broke them the next. And it made sense — no one cares how you win as long as you win. No one remembers anything about an offense against a chivalrous protocol breached the moment you decide you no longer want to respect it. And even if someone does remember, so what? Who cares? A win is a win.

The day the rules’ duplicity bit me on the butt I was leading a stage race. After winning the opening time trial, I was supposed to lose the yellow on a climb later in the race, but I didn’t. We went for stage time bonuses to beef up the buffer and even though I got dropped on the climb, I raced on and kept the jersey. With two stages to go, I had the race in my pocket. In theory.

Second to last stage’s crosswinds tore the peloton into pieces but I stuck with the front group and had an easy day at the back once the break formed, nothing to do but wait for the sprint. Bored sucking the wheels for an hour, I didn’t see the roadworks up ahead. My fault. I hit the road filled with rocks and sand without slowing down enough, tried to change the gears and dropped the chain, hopped off the bike to put the chain back on, couldn’t get going again, hopped off and ran to the side of the road for the harder surface and then only got going again. The gap was about 300 meters when I reached the tarmac.

I didn’t panic. They would wait, right? I’m the race leader and I had a mechanical problem, dropped the chain. They’ll wait.

They didn’t, not even a second. Still, I didn’t panic. I waved my team car to come to me and asked them to motorpace me back to the front group and they said no, not in front of the commissaires. What? I said. We do it all the time. No, they said, not when the stage race win is on the line.

I called in the commissaires’ car too and asked if my team car can motorpace me back. They smiled and drove away.

Cycling unwritten rules amendment: UCI rules apply when the race result is at stake.

Your team car will motorpace you back to your group after a wheel or a bike change, in front of the commissaires, if it doesn’t do anything to the race’s outcome even though a UCI rule forbids “sheltering behind or falling into the slip stream of a vehicle,” a rule ignored by everyone in every road race on the planet, every day, every time you need to get back to the group you’ve been dropped from for any reason unrelated to performance.

It’s a routine. Something goes wrong with your bike, or you crash and if you’re still in one piece, you stay cool because you know your team car will motorpace you back into the race if it’s close by. You know this since you were a junior. It’s how it’s done. Sheltering behind or falling into the slip stream of a vehicle is how you mend the glitch. You can use your team car or any other car from the convoy.

Sometimes, no one can help you like when the crosswinds blow the peloton into echelons or you puncture at the foot of a mountain. In this case it’s bad luck because it would be ridiculous to pull you through from the fifth echelon to the first. Imagine how stupid and unfair this would be if you hit a rock and snakebite your tire, pull over and wait for your team car and three echelons later you get the spare wheel, hop on the bike, tuck behind your car and they pull you back all the way to the first echelon where you’d punctured from. Stupid, right? But it’s not stupid when they pull off the same maneuver in other situations because the unwritten rules allow this.

What the hell? What kind of logic is this?

This is how you lose faith in a system you never bothered to question. You put two and two together — for the first time — and go, hold on a second, it doesn’t make sense.

It never did and it never will because road cycling doesn’t work like a country club dinner does. You don’t turn up for a race to banter about politics. You turn up for a race to fight. It might not look like a fight but it is. Even when you do nothing all day and sit in the bunch smoking cigars, you’re not doing nothing, you’re getting your legs and your head ready for another race.

The chivalry and all that jazz, it’s contrary to the notion of a fight. Works well in the movies and books and TV commentary, sucks on the road. Strip the window dressing and what’s left is this: you follow the unwritten rules when breaking them won’t gain you anything. Or, to flip it the other way around, you break the unwritten rules when they hold you back from striking your foes.

Think of any chivalry episode you can remember. Twenty-first July 2003, stage 15 to Luz-Ardiden in the Tour de France. Ullrich is 15 seconds behind Armstrong in general classification. Last climb, about 10 kilometers left to race, Armstrong attacks with only Mayo able to follow while Ullrich looks like dead meat and then Armstrong catches a spectator’s musette with his handlebar and crashes.

This is where the unwritten rules should kick in, right? Hold your horses and wait for the yellow jersey to get back into the race. It’s only fair, you don’t want to win the Tour de France like that, do you? You want an honest fight, blow for blow.

Except you don’t.

As you’d expect, the cameras stayed with Armstrong and we don’t have the footage of Ullrich’s reaction to the crash. We see him passing by without slowing down as Armstrong is getting his chain back on after the crash and then Armstrong is back on the bike in 25 seconds. Twenty-five seconds is all Ullrich has on Armstrong with most of the last climb is still ahead. And shot legs too.

Forty seconds after the crash we see Ullrich riding alone with a gap to the rest of the breakaway group and this is where the legend is born. Phil ‘The Voice of Cycling’ Liggett says: “Ah, I think he’s waiting.”

Sure he is. Lance Armstrong is 50 meters behind flying like a mad hawk at him.

No one knows what went through Ullrich’s mind when Armstrong fell. It looked like he tried to go hard but then with no legs to deliver the death blow eight kilometers from the top of the climb and Armstrong back on his tail in under two minutes, the best move was to heed the unwritten rules. He lost 40 seconds to Armstrong that day but won thousands of aficionados for his sportsmanship.

The narrative never changes. It’s a repeat. Every time. Stick with the unwritten rules when nothing is at stake and pay no attention to them when you can turn the tables in the race or clinch the victory. It’s a repeat of a story told, and it’s getting old.

Cycling Stories: Made in the USSR (Part 23)

soviet cycling jersey gold medal

soviet cycling jersey gold medal

We land in Kiev. It hadn’t stopped raining since we touched down in Borispol airport. We could use a break, we tell Nikolai Rogozyan. It’s not like we’re racing next week. It’s not like you lose anything if you lie in bed for two days, dry and warm with a book in your hands and not worry about four soiled wet jerseys you need to wash, four shorts and four t-shirts and eight arm and leg warmers and eight socks and two wet pairs of shoes. I get it, it’s not like you’ve been slashed all over with a knife and thrown to the bottom of a hole in the ground full of insects. You’re in Kiev, not in Kandahar. It’s not complicated.

You want to destroy an army, you mow everyone down and make it sink in its own blood bath. Or a building. You don’t break doors and windows and say, I destroyed it. You flatten the whole structure from top to bottom and turn it into a pile of rubble so that no one can say this looks like a building to me.

Pull the trigger. Don’t be a pussy.

We’re on the Brest-Litovsk highway wet from the moment we started to ride. The guy I’m riding with has been narrating a movie to me scene by scene since we left the base. This is the third time he’s taking me through the movie and I don’t tell him this because I know he’ll keep going because I know him better than I know my own brother because me and this guy, we eat, sleep, train and race next to each other 11 months a year. My brother, I see him once or twice.

Pull the trigger.

I peel off away from the bunch, slow down and turn around. Rogozyan’s car is the size of a gasoline lighter parked on the road shoulder and I can see through the mist of drizzle he’s taking a leak in front of the car. He doesn’t see me when he flies past me in the opposite direction because Brest-Litovsk is a four-lane highway with a median strip wide enough to camp on.

The boys and Rogozyan are still on the road clicking the miles when I smoke a cigarette lying in bed in wet and dirty clothes before I take a shower. My bag is empty like a cave’s mouth after I pack my possessions without all the cycling tackle I carry with me around the country. Goodbye.

I land in Nalchik. Anton is in town on holidays my mum tells me. We play chess and chip away from a golf-size ball of hashish and empty Belomorkanal cigarettes, stuff them with pieces of hashish and tobacco and smoke and drink black sweet tea between glasses of Moldavian port. The sun is up one moment and down the next.

He’s telling me he’s making a mint flying in and out to an oil or gas rig in Siberia somewhere. Doing what? I say and he says he’s not sure but he brings a suitcase of vodka with him he buys here in Nalchik four roubles a bottle and sells them for 20 in Siberia. Why, I say, would anybody pay 20 roubles for a bottle of vodka? You kidding me? he says, it’s an oil rig. You said gas, I say. Whatever, he says. They sell no vodka on gas rigs, brother. Bet you didn’t know that. Live and learn. And, he says with a finger pointing up to the ceiling as if something profoundly important is about to come out of his mouth, they pay me 400 roubleviches every trip in wages. Shut up, I say. True, I swear, he says. I’m in, I say, sign me up. Signed, he says.

It was Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Lucky Man flowing from the wooden speakers that made him say this: “Remember Chert?”

“Who?”

“Chert, remember?”

“A crazy guy you studied with?”

“Yes. He lives in Sukhumi, did you know that?”

“Lucky man.”

We’re at the train station an hour later, hop on the train to Rostov to get off in Armavir to hop on the train to Krasnodar to catch a train to Sochi and from Sochi a train to Batumi to get off in Sukhumi to visit Chert and swim in the Black Sea. It takes one earth’s rotation to get to Sukhumi like that. If Caucasian Mountains had a tunnel we could be there in two hours.

Near Armavir the train stops at every village and this is what we want. Outlawed opium poppies grow here and no one can do anything about it because you can’t arrest and jail a plant. How Anton knows this I don’t ask. We hop off in a random village sunk in greenery with not a soul in sight and plod through backyards and gardens looking for poppies. Some of them reach our chests with hulls the size of an apple. Anton nicks them on the side or at the hull’s base with a razor blade and swabs the juice with a piece of cotton roller bandage he pulled out of his shoulder bag like he’s a rogue warlock.

My job is to carry tatters of bandages soaked with opium by two fingers and wave my hands to dry them. Part of the job is not to draw attention to my hand-waving. They catch you harvesting opium, it’s better to slash the wrists with that razor blade than go to prison for this.

Back at the train station we check the timetable and vote to hitchhike to Armavir. A man with a teacher’s looks in a tidy Lada built when I started school picks us up outside the village we milked for opium. The guy doesn’t ask us more than where we’re going and we tell him we want to catch a train in Armavir and he says yeah no problem I’ll drop you off in Armavir I’m going to work. He’s not a talker and we fall asleep on the back seat with four windows opened and the sun scorching the salad-green Lada.

“Wake up. Arrived.”

We’re in a police station’s car park. I know this because I’m looking at the signboard on the building we’re parked next to and it says in large bold golden letters on a navy-blue background that this building I’m looking at is a police station. It’s all I see, two words: POLICE STATION. Below that is something else, suburb’s name and other nonsense but all I’m looking at is the two words at the top.

This is the end, you pulled the trigger and this is how it ends. You go down long enough, you hit the bottom at some point, it’s only a matter of time. This is your time. You asked for it. This is what you wanted, to get out of here one way or another. This is one way, one of many and this one is yours.

I want my brother with me right now to help me with what to say and what to do. Three criminal convictions, he knows what to say and what not to say. What’s this brown stuff in my pockets? Don’t know, found it on the road. Brilliant.

Anton is awake too. The brown tatters in our pockets is bad enough. What’s worse is a syringe, he has a syringe wrapped in a towel in his bag.

The man who drove us here, he’s outside. He holds a police uniform folded over his left arm and stands next to the car waiting for us to get out. We step outside and I sweep the car park with my eyes for a way out of here because this car park is behind a concrete wall with an iron gate and an iron door and I can see the gate is locked and the door, I don’t know about the door.

The cop says, “Go through that door and turn left then walk until you come to an intersection. Ask for directions from there.”

We’re in Sochi standing in line to buy tickets on the Batumi train to Sukhumi. Sochi is like a second home to me. I spend four months here every winter and can ride a bike to Sukhumi blindfolded.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn around. Two cops, one is next to me, the other one is strategically at a distance in case we decide to run.

“Show me your identification document,” the one closer to me says.

I pull out my internal passport from the jeans back pocket and give it to him.

“Yours,” he says to Anton.

He goes through Anton’s passport first and then opens mine. He turns pages with a bored look on his face and then stops browsing. I know how it’s going to end. Round two, you’re on.

“Where do you live?” he says.

“In Kiev.”

He keeps his eyes buried in my passport.

“In Kiev? That’s not what it says here.”

He raises his eyes and looks at me.

Our internal passports have a stamp with a place of residence. Not having one is against the law, everyone is tied to an address and you can’t move anywhere you want, you won’t have a residence stamp if you do. My internal passport has two stamps, one with my Nalchik’s address and the second one that says I moved out from there. The second stamp is three years old. If this cop wants to, he can arrest me for vagrancy. Technically, I don’t live anywhere.

He says, “Name and date of birth.”

“Nikolai Razouvaev 26 March 1966.”

He checks that against what’s in my passport.

“Where do you work?”

“I’m a cyclist.”

“What?”

“I race.”

He pauses, looks at Anton. “Are you a cyclist too?”

“No,” Anton says.

Cop’s eyes back on me, he says, “What are you doing in Sochi?”

“Buying tickets to Sukhumi.”

“Sukhumi? What’s in Sukhumi?”

“A friend.”

He taps our passports against his thigh and I almost hear him say that we can go except he doesn’t say that because here’s a guy who looks like he hadn’t slept in bed for some nights with no place of residence since three years ago. They give you thirty days to have no place of residence, after that you’re an open game.

I’m an open game now.

He says, “I don’t believe you.” He puts our passports in the pocket of his blue cop trousers and says, “You two will go with us.”

At the police station they sit us in a room with two plainclothes cops and tell us to wait. We wait. The cop who arrested us comes back with another plainclothes cop and says with a nod at me, “This one, comrade Lieutenant.”

After he leaves, the plainclothes asks me the same questions again except he never says he doesn’t believe me.

“So,” he says, “you say you’re a cyclist.”

“Yes.”

“Say you’re me. Would you believe me?”

I don’t say anything.

He says, “Two problems here. One, I don’t know where you live. Two, I don’t know where you work. Help me out.”

My legs are shaved and arms and legs half white half black, will that help?

“He’s a world champion,” Anton says.

“Really?”

“Yes,” he says. “Show him your MSMK card.”

My MSMK card, I forgot about it. Master of Sport, International Class that looks like a KGB identification. It’s in Anton’s bag, all our stuff is in Anton’s bag where the syringe is.

“It’s in your bag,” I tell him.

He unzips his bag and rummages through it, pulls out my MSMK card and gives it to the cop.

We wait. The cop, he doesn’t need that much time to weigh up what’s on the card. He says, “You must be a proper cyclist then.”

“I’m in a national team.”

“Oh,” he says. “Do you know who Nikolai Morozov is?”

Morozov is second in command in the national team and he’s from Sochi. He knows everyone worth knowing here and they know him.

“He’s national team’s coach, one of. Lives here in Sochi,” I tell him.

The cop, he grabs a phone on his desk and pulls it next to himself. He says, “So, if I call him right now he’ll vouch for you, right?”

“He’s in Lithuania with the national team.”

“And you’re in Sochi.”

“I’m on a break.”

He grins. He pushes the phone away and says, “Guys like you, you don’t have breaks.”

“Sometimes we do.”

“What about you,” he says to Anton, “where you work?”

“On a gas rig.”

We wait. The cop picks our passports from the desk and taps them against its veneer top. He says, “Come here you both.”

We stand from our chairs and come next to his desk.

He says, “I’ll let you go.” He looks at me and says, “Pass my greetings to Morozov when you see him.”

“So we can go?” Anton says.

“Yes.”

Anton takes the passports and the MSMK card and puts them in his bag.

“Wait,” the cop says, “what’s in the bag?”

He stands and walks around his desk and sits on it. “I need to see your bag.”

He opens the bag and starts pulling stuff out. Socks, underwear, cigarettes. He pulls out the folded towel with the syringe inside and lays it in the pile with the rest. Pulls out a book, looks at the title and drops it back in the bag.

“All good,” he says.

I can taste the Black Sea’s salt water on my lips when we walk outside.

Chert takes us to a beach in Sukhumi and we swim to an abandoned dock in the sea to harvest mussels and bring them back to the shore in plastic bags. We make a fire and cook the mussels and Anton and Chert cook the brown shreds of bandage we brought from Armavir and we stay on the beach until darkness and walk to Chert’s place to drink home-made wine and eat khachapuri his mum had made for us.

All households in Sukhumi keep enough wine at home to drink every day for a year.

***

Autumn doesn’t last long in Kiev. It starts with red and yellow on the trees and the smell of burning leaves and the waves of soppy nostalgia and when the cold drizzles come you think about the start of a new season and the Black Sea and how you go there every year to click miles except this year you won’t because you had pulled the trigger to wipe out what you lived for.

The 45 square-meter apartment in a high-rise coffer on the fourteenth floor I live in isn’t mine, it’s my girlfriend’s parents’. I don’t need a job. The bureaucrats forgot to cancel my salary and a cool sum of money shows up in my account every month. I sleep until people have lunch at work and sit on the balcony with a book and smoke and drink Turkish coffee I brew in the kitchen with black pepper and cinnamon and a pinch of salt.

Wrong lifestyle my girlfriend’s parents tell her and she says I’ll get over it. She says you don’t know what it’s like. They’re never home, her parents. They live with the grandma near Kiev and wait until I stop sitting and smoking on the balcony.

I buy reels of music from a guy I met at a party. Like me, he sleeps until late and doesn’t work anywhere except nobody pays him to sleep until late. He sells music. He buys smuggled records and tapes them on a Japanese reel-to-reel and sells the reels. I’m his best customer.

He makes his own vodka at home, the samogon, and we drink it and listen to records and smoke and drink more samogon with his customers and when his wife comes from work she yells and opens all windows and the balcony door because she can’t breathe the smoke.

We go out to buy coffee beans and cigarettes or catch a taxi and go visit friends with a three-liter jar of samogon we have with us.

Sometimes, I don’t know if the darkness is the start of a night or its end.

The trees in Kiev are naked and wet from icy drizzle and I go to Pulya, my former team-mate, to say goodbye before he leaves to Europe. Nikolai Morozov is at his place staying overnight on his way to Italy where he’ll manage the all-Soviet Alfa Lum team. We drink Baileys with Belgian chocolate and Morozov pulls out a bottle of Ballantine’s. Pulya and him, they talk Giro and the Tour and I go outside to smoke because I can’t smoke in front of Morozov. When I come back, they stop talking and I say you’re talking about me and we laugh.

“You ride?” Morozov says.

“No.”

“When did you stop?”

“Middle of last season.”

“Do you want to come back?”

“No.”

“You’re stupid, you know that?”

Outside, the darkness is like a coat I’ve owned for many years. It’s mine. I did it to myself.

The drizzles had stopped and it’s dry and cold before snow falls and the winter starts. I walk to uni from Republican Stadium metro station and Elizarov’s car is parked next to the Planetarium. He’s outside leaning against the front door, arms folded across his chest. I say hey and keep walking.

“Wait,” he says.

I come closer and we shake hands.

“What’s wrong with you?” he says.

“Nothing.”

“Why don’t you kill yourself?”

“What?”

“I know what you’re doing. Find a rope and hang yourself, it’s quicker this way.”

I look at the asphalt under my feet, at his car and the bike rack where my bike used to travel to races. I know how this car smells inside.

He says, “We’re leaving to Sochi tomorrow. Do you want to come?”

Cycling Stories: Made in USSR (Part 22)

lake sevan
lake sevan
Lake Sevan in Armenia, an ideal spot for altitude training

Titan is like a clockwork, it’s how Yuri Elizarov wants it. You land in Kiev and the bus is waiting for you. The team bought it with two drivers soon after I came back from the world’s and I liked to think it was a bonus for two gold medals we earned in France.

I didn’t like the drivers the first time we met. Tolik was an old-timer long-haul trucker who could drive a semitrailer through a needle’s eye and Grisha an Afghan veteran. They knew jack all about cycling.

Grisha smoked like he was allergic to air and we made bets if he’d die tonight or tomorrow morning. Survived the bullets in Afghanistan to kill himself with Kosmos cigarettes at home.

They stayed in the same room, Tolik and Grisha, away on training camps and races with the team. For months. Tolik had four little boys and a wife at home in Kiev. Grisha, he smoked cigarettes and cracked lame army jokes and made moves on every miniskirt passing near our bus parked next to a hotel. He slept in the bus sometimes because him and Tolik got a divorce he’d say. The gimpy flirts cruised in gaudy Ladas to pick up their girls, Grisha took our bus nicknamed Titanic splashed with Titan’s logo on both sides and Modern Talking screaming out the windows to chase the girls.

Titan’s not your normal cycling team.

On long drives from races the full volume sound of an old High Voltage cassette vibrated Titanic’s windows like we drove a volcano and we shouted in one voice at Tolik to bury the pedal the hell all the way to the floor and catch that pathetic Volga up the road or you have no balls and give the wheel to Grisha because he’s our man and he’s going to die tomorrow anyway because he can’t breathe clean air and we’ve had enough racing for our short lives and it’s pointless anyway.

A band of bony dogs with legs half-black, half-white and Grisha shredding an air guitar with savage riffs of Baby Please Don’t Go.

Titan’s not your normal cycling team.

We land in Kiev and Tolik says on the way from the airport Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew up last night. Too bad and how’s that a problem, we say.

“You know where Chernobyl is?” he says. Someone takes a guess and says it’s in Ukraine somewhere.

“Hundred kilometers from Kiev,” he says. He shuts up and drives like he’s got nothing else to add. We play along, tell nothing who cares anyway.

“Fire or something,” he says bobbing in his custom-made seat on every road bump. “That’s what I heard. Everybody’s gone from Pripyat. Evacuated. It’s bad.”

They send firefighters to put out a fire and don’t tell them the nuclear reactor had cracked and is spitting out radioactive toxins killing all life on its way. Keep it a secret. Thousand kilometers from Chernobyl a nuclear alarm goes off in Sweden, this is how the world knows. We don’t fret. Red wine removes radiation from your body. They don’t know that in Sweden or in Germany.

Nobody knows anything. They lie on television. They name a newspaper Truth and fill it with lies. They play Tchaikovsky on the radio like half the country is Romeo and the other half is Juliet. You tune in to the jammed Voice of America to figure out what’s going on. You listen. It’s like someone released a death genie out of a bottle and it goes around spreading death. Some people died fast, others will die later.

My two team-mates and Yuri Elizarov will die from cancer soon after Chernobyl.

You listen to Voice of America and can’t tell if they know anything. Everyone is lying. Some lie to hide the truth, others lie to cook it.

It’s two weeks before the Peace Race starts in Kiev and two days before the rehearsal. We will race every stage, even the prologue. I led and lost a stage race days ago and want a replay to fix the mistake I had made in Tashkent.

I pick the first road race because I know its every street. Nothing you can call a climb on it but it’s not flat. Near the end is a steep cobbled berg off the Khreshchatyk street and this is where I’ll go on the last lap. I play my move over and over in my head lying in bed the night before the race.

It’s a 90-degree turn from Khreshchatyk and you hit a cobbled wall and you need to be smart with your gears. You can attack before the corner, drop back into the saddle for a quick flick up the cluster and out of the saddle again with all you’ve got in your legs. You won’t make it to the top without shifting, too steep too long for one gear. If you sit back into the saddle again to shift, you lose momentum and when you stand up on the pedals again it hurts too much and then they catch you.

The trick I learned back in Nalchik as a kid, you hit the front derailleur lever with your knee when you’re still out of the saddle and can’t grind your gear anymore. You can mess it up, you can hit the end of the handlebar but I can’t miss that lever after my left knee is scarred on the inside from shifting with it.

I roll to the start line to prove the stage race I led was normal. This is me catching up with what I’d been trained to do.

They say you know the moment you wake on the race day if it will go down the toilet or not. That cymbal cacophony clatters and clacks in your head like it’s full of boozed demons, legs are two concrete pillars and you make yourself believe you can fix them in the warm up except you can’t and you don’t.

Sometimes, you get dropped. Everyone’s earthly and you get dropped from a breakaway and it’s okay, maybe you’re stupid, maybe you worked too hard and ran out of gas or maybe you’re jumping above your head. It happens. You can miss a split in a crosswind, fine, no one’s perfect.

You can’t get dropped from the peloton. Not part of the protocol. You’re not wired that way. You put petrol in a car and it goes unless it’s broken, it’s what it does, the car, it goes where you steer it to.

You can’t get dropped from the peloton.

I’m in a car convoy before the end of lap one. First car is the national team’s car with Viktor Kapitonov behind the wheel in aviator’s sunglasses and left hand out the window hanging like a rope with a cigarette between a thumb and a finger. He barks orders or short sentences that sound like orders when he speaks. An invisible man’s hat is what I want now to erase myself from reality and out of his view. One moment you see me and then you don’t.

He gasses, moves in front of me and slows down until I reach the open window.

“Where you going?” he says.

“Stomach upset.”

“What?”

I look at him and can’t tell if he heard me or not. “Stomach,” I say and point at my stomach with a thumb.

“Need some rim glue?”

The comeback is at the tip of my tongue about the glue and his mouth and I stare at the road ahead and stop pedaling and then he speeds up to open a hole for me on my right to get out of convoy’s traffic.

I look back over my shoulder for Titan’s car to sign off out of the race. It should be fourth in the pecking order because we finished fourth in a team time trial but it’s not there. I sink deeper through the convoy turning my head again and again looking for Elizarov’s GAZ-24 station wagon.

Next time I turn my head back he’s charging on the far left side of the road with my team-mate behind the car and doesn’t see me. If I had a flat he’d have missed me and I’d be out of the race and it would be his fault except I already told Kapitonov about an upset stomach and the chances of them talking after the race are good.

Elizarov doesn’t know about my DNF until dinner when he looks at the result sheets.

“What the?” he says looking at me with the sheets in his hand and bushy black and gray eyebrows arched.

I don’t say anything.

“You didn’t finish,” he says.

“No.”

“Thought you were hiding in the bunch.”

“No, pulled out on the first lap.”

“First lap?”

“Yeah.”

Not part of the protocol. This is a code error. Terminate.

He never said this to me but there’s the first time for everything. He says, “Do you need a break?”

People flee from Kiev in all directions like quicksilver. Those who stay drink red wine. Buses from all over Ukraine stand in lines stretching from one street to another like a giant snake. They’re waiting for children to ship them out of Kiev. All children. Adults who can’t leave stay and drink red wine. We’ll never run out of red wine radiation or not.

I tell Elizarov I don’t need a break.

It rains through the night and into the morning and rains more when the race starts. They’re cracking jokes on the start line about glowing and melting from the radioactive droplets of water coming down from above and lead helmets and about never to sleep with a woman again and someone says you can still sleep with a man and they throw oatmeal cookies at him and squirt sweet tea on his shoes from water bottles.

Wet cobbles are like soap nuggets.

Western teams that land in Kiev for the Peace Race don’t leave the airport. They charter a plane and get out.

We fly to Sofia for the Tour of Bulgaria and on the rest day I ask for a road map at the reception in the hotel we stay overnight. We speak Russian here like we’re in Russia and no one raises a brow and when they speak Bulgarian I don’t understand them and I don’t know why that is.

When the race is finished I can go out in Sofia on the last day and take a bus south and get shot crossing the border to NATO’s Greece or Turkey. Romania on the north is like Bulgaria with a different flag and language. Yugoslavia is west and I don’t know how hard this border is guarded. They talk socialism and Marx and we import their furniture you can only buy if you bribe a store director and they sell us shoes that never make it to shoe stores and go straight to the black market where you pay five times more for them and the Yugos do not report to Moscow.

Last day in Sofia we split the prize money and I don’t know what to do with a pile of cash in Bulgarian leva. I go out and buy a bottle of Camus and a pack of Marlboro. The room we stay in has a snow-white deep smooth bath. I fill it with hot water, come back to the room and pour a glass for my team-mate. We shared a room in Vilnius and I made him drunk legless on Bulgarian brandy and he puked out the window from the twelfth floor so I left him where he was, bent over the open window and went out to town by myself. Now we have French brandy in Bulgaria and I leave him alone to drink his brandy and go and lie down in my bath with my brandy and my Marlboro cigarettes.

If you’re not a smoker the first cigarette makes you want to puke. You burn that with brandy and smoke another cigarette.

We drink more Camus, talk cycling trash and I smoke another cigarette. I tell him I have a theory about smoking and cycling. I tell him that if you smoke and ride a bike your lungs develop resistance and grow in size. Bigger lungs equals more oxygen. More oxygen equals more energy. This is how you win races I tell him. Smoke and you too can wear a rainbow jersey one day.

Like last time in Vilnius he’s plastered and I go outside to look for a seamy bar to find out if anyone wants to sell me dollars and tell me if I’ll get shot crossing the border to Yugoslavia.

***

We land in Yerevan and drive to Sevan lake where we’ll breathe thin air at altitude and live in isolation until Viktor Kapitonov selects the team for world championships in Colorado Springs.

Titan’s protocol is to find an obscured place in a desert and make it our base. This time it’s a boarding school’s dormitory with shared showers and a cemetery at the back with graveyard stones hewn when Anselm of Canterbury wrote his Monologion or even before because the village we stay in had been built soon after apostle John died. Mount Ararat where Noah landed after the flood towers on the background like a faded wallpaper.

Nikolai Rogozyan shuttles us to the restaurant three times a day in a military minivan he drove from Kiev. He wears nothing but thongs and baby-blue running shorts that can double as underwear. I drink more water on the bike than I have ever drank and it hadn’t rained once since we came here.

The World Cup is on. We watch games late at night and Rogozyan doesn’t mind because he wants to watch too and there’s only one TV-set in the dormitory. We watch Maradona score with his hand against England and before we stop screaming he dribbles past half the England’s team to score again and knocks the cupcakes out of the Cup.

The asphalt is like play dough with puddles of melted tar you don’t want to step on when we line up for the first road race. Flat like a tabletop out and back course with three u-turns. The air doesn’t move and some idiots step on the gas at the front right off the bat like they’re brain-dead and don’t know you can’t do that racing in a sauna.

The race never slows down and you don’t care because it’s like they’re motorpacing you and you can sit on all day except after four hours, on the last straight the wind whomps the peloton on the side and it’s single file to the end with a bunch kick downhill and tailwind and this is what you’re good at, suicidal sprints when the front guys spill all over the road like someone dropped a handful of dry peas on the floor and you hop from wheel to wheel trying to stay afloat and you get spat out anyway because you take the wrong wheel.

I run into Kapitonov after the race and he tells me I’m still on the list for the world’s but I need to show him something. He says, “A medal in the two-men team time trial will do.”

The bullhorn Takhions come from Kiev a week before the race and I ride nothing else until the race day. I haven’t had good legs like I have now since the stage race in Tashkent and ask Elizarov to pair me with Oleg Galkin who I can see is on the rise too and he tells me he can’t do that. “Kapitonov wants Oleg to ride with someone else,” he says.

He pairs me with a stage race ninja who had never agreed to line up for this and doesn’t need to torture his legs for 50 kilometers. He wants a spot for the road race in Colorado, not a team time trial spot. He’s a machine but a different kind of a machine. Give him long climbs and hours of racing if you want to see him shine. One-hour time trial is not his thing.

We trail the best time by six seconds after the first quarter of the race, turn around and lose another eight with tailwind on the way home. The third quarter against the wind is where you win or lose today. We make a nice sharp u-turn and this is where the race starts, 25 to go.

It’s uphill the first kilometer with head wind blowing in my face like we’re riding into an open oven. I mark a power pole at the top of the hill where I want to peel off and pull, head down, and look at the chain going around in circles, drive the pedals, the frame bends with each stroke like it wants to push me up the hill.

This is the place to gain time after the u-turn where you break the race’s rhythm, turn around and ride uphill with the wind pushing you back. You can take 10 seconds right here if you keep looking at your chain and focus on that and not on what your brain is telling you about shutting you down if you don’t ease off.

My throat is dry like the dust on the side of the road when I peel off at the crest of the hill and look into the face behind me and see what I don’t want to see. The ninja had cracked. His face never shows emotion when he’s on the bike except now I can see he had emptied his legs and is on the limit. He’s like that, tick-tocks like a clockwork and you think he’s okay until the mainspring runs out of energy and he’s not okay. This is the first time I’ve seen him kaput since I came to Titan.

I look at him again, maybe he’s fine but he shakes his head once and this is how I know it’s going to be hell from this point on.

We bomb down a straight like an arrow descent and I pull to the top of the next hill and peel off again. I need a break. He comes to the front and swaps when I get on his wheel. Out of gas.

Rogozyan drives ahead of us before the last u-turn to get the time splits and when we turn he screams from the side of the road that we’re four seconds off the third place. I know who the first three pairs are. They’re on heavy disc wheels and with tailwind and high speeds my only chance is if one of them punctures and we sneak in on the podium like thieves.

I time trial without swaps to the finish and we come in fifth.

After nightfall I go to the cemetery with my Marlboro and sit on the grass with my back against a medieval gravestone and stare at the dormitory and then at the sky and smoke.

I want someone, anyone to tell me why I’m here in Armenia chasing a dream I know I can’t catch. A cloud cuckoo land I had imagined waiting for me around the corner if I train harder and ride faster.

It’s not complicated. You want an apartment in a country where apartments are free but the waiting list is longer than you can stay on this earth. Win something big and you earn the right to jump the breadline and live by yourself when you’re done racing. You want an apartment with Yugoslavian furniture and Sony TV-set and Panasonic VCR to watch Bruce Lee movies. You want your rotten-cherry Lada you bought at the price set by the government, not the black market where everyone else pays double. You want privileges.

This this is why you’re in Armenia. This is the dream. Not the medals, not the results. The medals and the results are the means.

The dream is a 45-square-meter living space in a new high-rise concrete coffer with gas, telephone, hot water, split bathroom, parquet floor and views to an identical high-rise. Two high-rises, three high-rises. Near metro. You start when you’re 12 and finish sometime before 30. Not complicated and not that hard. Could be worse. You could be in Afghanistan right now with your mouth open and molten lead going down your throat.

This is my life from A to Z. The apartment I haven’t earned yet with the Sony TV-set I haven’t bought yet and the rotten-cherry Lada that hadn’t been made for me yet. This is me. The Panasonic VCR and Akai reel-to-reel stereo. And none of it is mine yet and this is what I’m chasing.

The means, I love the means but here I am with a pack of Marlboro sitting on a gravestone with Mount Ararat behind my back. This is where the human race had its second start, right here where I sit. This is where Noah planted his vineyard after he docked his boat, got drunk on the wine he had made and crashed in his tent naked. Human race version 2.0 started with Ham peeking at his father and dragging his brothers to the show. One out of eight who stayed alive learned nothing from the destruction he saw. A slave to your brothers’ slaves you’ll be is what his dad said to him when he learned what Ham did.

Destroy what you stand on to figure out what you want to stand on.

Cycling Stories: Made in USSR (Part 21)

Caucasus
Caucasus
Terskol is a base camp for mountaineers

Zyama kept his promise. Two weeks after I’d been dug out from wonderland and dumped into the pit, he showed up in his beat-up Lada and took me to Titan’s service course in the centre of Kiev where our dormitory was. He told me everyone had gone to Crimea for the last stage race of the season. He’d been talking to Ukrainian state team about getting me in but instead, the Army-ran CSKA had told him to send me to their first training camp next month.

“You know they swap riders between CSKA and the national team, don’t you?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“It’s one stable more or less. You’re still paid by the national team, right?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Titan?”

“I was.”

“They might forget to cancel your salary. Elizarov has been stressed the last couple of weeks.”

“Did they crack the two-hour mark in the team time trial?”

“No. Two hours flat and some seconds.”

“Sad.”

“How many teams on this planet can do two hours?”

“Don’t know, don’t care.”

“One of those days, Kolya, there’ll be no one to pull you out of a pile of shit you like to always walk into.”

“I’ll be good.”

“Hope so. You know where your first training camp with CSKA will be?”

“Where?”

“Terskol.”

***

Terskol village was a lazy three-hour bus drive from Nalchik. Two thousand meters above sea level, this is where you’d set up a base camp if you wanted to climb Mount Elbrus. All 5,642 meters of it.

Every team in the country with funds to burn has been on the innovation path in the eighties. I raced track in January with the national team the year before and now the CSKA wanted to spend a month at altitude early in the season. Skiers’ and mountaineers’ Mecca, no one ever before held a cycling training camp in Terskol. Not in November. No bikes, they said.

A host of lonely snowflakes has been dancing in crisp air like drunken butterflies when I loaded the Nalchik-Terskol coach and hit the Caucasus Highway. Twenty kilometers out of Terskol, the snow storm had slowed it down to a crawl. Two hours late, the bus stopped half a kilometer away from the hotel, stuck in snow. “Walk straight to those lights over there,” the driver said pointing to half a dozen flickers in the distance. “It’s your hotel.”

We ran, hiked, pranked, and ate like pigs for the next four weeks. One hero has been talking about an assault on the Cheget Peak, a 3,600-meter hill a short hike away from the hotel. He was told to go and try it solo if he wanted an adventure.

I flew to Kiev in early December to pick up my winter bike for the next training camp in Tajikistan. Like the national team, CSKA was a composite team but made up of riders in the military. Elizarov was still my boss, CSKA or not. Zyama had told him I was out the boots he put me in, training again. If he wanted to, he had the power to pull me out of CSKA any day and send me back to the army. I was a soldier with a year of service still owed to the Soviet government. Training camps, races, travel, this was a privilege, an earned privilege that hinged on Elizarov’s will to let me back in or end my career.

He let me back in. I hadn’t seen him in Kiev for two days between the flights until he turned up at the restaurant one night where Titan ate. He loved chastising us in front of everyone in the team. He said, “I hear one squeak from Aleksandr Gusyatnikov about you, I’ll bury you three meters deep with a shovel.”

I’d been staring at my plate since he walked in. He said, “This is not a threat. One squeak, no one will ever hear your name again.”

***

We clocked 9,000 kilometers in eight weeks in Tajikistan. Terskol’s fat had melted away, the legs returned, and Gusyatnikov, CSKA’s head coach, has been patting me on the back after rides every couple of days. “Good season ahead,” he’d said more than once.

In February, I went with the Ukrainian state team to Crimea for a climbing camp. We stayed in Gurzuf in a hotel 200 meters from a short, 14% wall we had to climb before getting on the main road. It didn’t matter where you went from there. East or west, you’d either climb or descend until you’re back in the hotel. The wind gusts from the angry Black Sea could knock you off the bike if you’d been daydreaming. Climbing into the wind was an out of the saddle job. It rained for four weeks with short breaks. The sun would come out for an hour in the afternoon when you’re in bed and hide again as soon as you’d swing the leg over the bike before the next ride. I gave up on washing my white socks and chucked them away at the end of the camp.

I flew to Sochi in early March to join the peloton for spring classics, the brutal, three-round national point race championships and the Sochinskaya stage race in April. The aura of a young, talented rider had faded. I read the looks, the polite head nods, the mumbled greetings, the ‘whatta hell are you doing still racing in red CCCP jersey’ stares.

The first serious road race, I bridged to Piotr Ugrumov who’d been soloing for half an hour at the front. We went full gas all the way to the finish like we were juniors, ripping legs off with long pulls. I’ve never seen him sprint, he was too light for that. Out of respect, and sure a skinny climber won’t bother sprinting, I led from the last 500 meters wondering if I should kick it or we’ll just roll to the line. I got out of the saddle to have a look at where the peloton was and saw Piotr three meters behind me, picking up speed, dancing on the pedals with his mouth open as if he wanted to swallow me.

I leveled wheels with him five pedal strokes from the line and won with a bike throw. He was laughing when I turned around and rode toward him to shake hands. “You thought I’d give it to you?” he said.

Weeks later, he was my minute man in the opening time trial stage in Tashkent. We circled around next to each other in the warm-up. He was one of those climbers who also time trialed like a beast. He said he felt rotten in the morning and joked his goal today was to keep me away from catching him. I said, “When was the last time anybody caught you in a time trial?” He shrugged and didn’t say anything.

Like most time trials in Soviet Union, this one was out and back race. After dozens of them over the years, I could judge with a five-second precision if I was catching the guy in front of me by seeing how far he’d rode away from the u-turn. I had about 40 seconds on Ugrumov when he zoomed by me on the way back. I caught him two kilometres from the finish. The cherry on the cake came in the form of the yellow jersey.

I’d done this race before with Titan as a junior. We went to Tashkent to eat our share of cement in a real stage race. Everyone believed in throwing juniors to the wolves to refine and forged them into tough items.

The race suited me. Six fast, windy road stages sandwiched between a time trial and a city crit. It favoured aggressive, smart riders who smelled a split before it happened. A 30-second buffer was good enough to keep it to the end if not for one stage with a steep climb on it.

At the dinner table after the time trial, we tossed back and forth a question no one knew how to answer. Do we defend the jersey or ride for team classification? Two different jobs, often too delicate to combine.

Someone asked how much time I could lose on the climb. Thirty or forty seconds I said, maybe a minute. We’ll go for time bonuses, they said. The climbers, they won’t sprint. We’ll stick you in and lead you out for a win on every stage. With intermediate sprint bonuses, we can build a minute or more before you come to the climb. Even if you get dropped, the finish is twenty kilometres away, you should be fine.

They placed me on the podium twice and we went for every sprint on the road we could steal. We came to the climb with a minute to spare on general classification. Everyone knew their job. The two teams who wanted my jersey thinned the peloton by half before we started climbing. At the foot of the hill, the pacemakers peeled off out of the way and the climbers took over. Out of the saddle, big chainrings on, they charged at the wall like feral cats run up a tree.

The first minute on a climb never fails to sting. In the mind as much as in the legs. If you’re not a climber, this is where you decide to rush into the fray or capitulate.

I stayed on, made my way up and stuck to Oleg Yaroshenko’s wheel, just like he told me to.

Any other day, I’d let the mountain goats slit each other’s throats and have fun with it. With the yellow jersey on, the work my team had done, and Yaroshenko’s back rocking from side to side in front of me, I kept on turning the cranks, stroke for stroke with the climbers.

You always see the end. It descends on you like a night. Always the same, slow. Nothing you can do about it but pray for the summit to come before the darkness sets in. Don’t fight the darkness, don’t be stupid. You never win. Evacuate. Ease off and let them go. Find the pace you can handle and stick to it. Don’t hit the wall. The wall is the end. You may or may not come back. Nine times out of ten, you won’t.

I didn’t evacuate. The end came with 500 metres still to climb. The legs ceased. The upper body hung off my arms like a boulder, ready to drop down on the road. The air burned my lungs, guts rose up to my throat. Vomit them out. Stop and vomit your rage on the asphalt. Make a show because it’s all over anyway.

I swung left to the other side of the road to stay upright. Back to the right side. Another zigzag, up on the pedals, dance, dance, keep it going.

“Twenty-five seconds,” I heard someone shouted when I crossed the KOM line.

Down in the valley, I looked back to check how far behind the next group was. No man’s land they call it. You can’t bridge to the group in front because they drive it flat out to snatch the yellow from you, and you don’t want to wait for the gun dogs behind because waiting contradicts racing.

I bent low and chased. Two kilometres, three. The gap grew. I looked back again. An eight-man locomotive was about to scoop me up. I waited and slotted in like I’ve been part of it all day.

We worked in a paceline. Vertushka, a spinning thing. Nine men was good for that. The gap stopped growing, we had the race under control.

A race marshal popped next to us on a red Jawa with a chalkboard tied to the passenger’s back. Forty-five seconds to the breakaway, 10 kilometres to go, it said. If we lose a second on every kilometer, I’d still keep the jersey.

We finished 50 seconds down and no one I cared about got any time bonuses. My first stage race victory in senior ranks was one road race away, not counting the crit.

That second to the last stage started in a relaxed mood. Tailwind the first 15 kilometres, jokes and anecdotes. Then the road curved east. A long curve, one kilometre-long curve with a high overpass at the end.

The chatter stopped. The two teams whose leaders still had a shot at winning the GC had lined up at the head of the peloton. Everyone who could put two and two together was on the move like a run of salmon heading upstream for spawning.

I was still moving up when they dropped the bomb and blew a hole behind themselves. No time for tactics. You don’t have twenty minutes to find your rhythm, to count how many team-mates you still have left with you. One or two seconds is all you have to find a crack to stick your wheel in. To squeeze through. Push if you have to. Use a hand or an elbow. Your head. Your knee. You have to get on the conductor’s wheel. When you get there, count yourself lucky if the wind’s angle gives you some slipstream still. If not, you can’t stay too long behind him. Without slipstream, you’ll get blown away in half a minute.

They fly full sail like a leadout train because they know I’ve been caught out by the crosswind. They want me dead. They want my jersey.

The hole was 10 meters deep when I got to the front, wind punching me in the face from the right, pushing the bike off the road. Twenty guys swapping all out at the front against a race leader caught with his pants down.

I shot to the middle of the road to form a second echelon. Never panic. We’re all human. Two legs, two arms, and an engine inside. They’re not motorbikes. With the second echelon, we can ride next to them. Give me two, three guys. Give me 10 seconds to put this together. Let me reach the top of this stupid overpass. Let me have a break. One break is all I want. Is all I need. And if it’s still 10 metres, or even 15, I can close it with one jump.

I looked back and saw Oleg Yaroshenko and no one else on my wheel. They blew this up good. He took over and I got my break. At the top, when the road flattens, this is where I’ll jump.

We reached the top without losing a meter. I was good to go. “Your hand,” Oleg yelled and stuck his hand out. A slingshot. He wanted to launch me with a slingshot.

I got behind conductor’s back with speed to spare and barged into him from the right. He leaned against me trying not to yield. I pushed him away off the road with my hand and joined the paceline. Look who’s here, suckers.

A minute later Yarosh clawed his way to the break. Our rivals had three riders each. We were losing our second spot in team classification but still had the yellow jersey. No work then, we’ll sit at the back and smoke cigars.

This is how you lose a stage race.

You get bored. You suck wheels for an hour and get bored. You daydream about a stage win. You can’t not win a stage sucking wheels all day. Not with a team-mate who knows how to set you up. You can’t not win it with fresh legs. Two podiums, a time trial, a road race, and a yellow jersey. Who’s overrated now?

I had both hands in the rear pockets fishing for pieces of oatmeal cookies in the left one and raisins in the right one. This is how you lose a stage race. One pocket at a time, brother. This is not a circus. Not when you’re in a yellow jersey.

Maybe they saw me with my hands stuck in the pockets. Maybe. They scattered in front of me all over the road like spilled marble balls, hit the brakes and dropped the chains to the small rings.

Melon-sized rocks mixed with sand laid ahead instead of asphalt. Road works, Soviet style. Rip the old surface off, dump tonnes of rocks and sand on the road, leave it there for weeks, and let the traffic flatten it for you. This was a fresh dump. You can’t ride a bike through this.

Everyone else had time to jump to the shoulder on either side of the road. I didn’t. I had to have a handful of raisins. I had a stage to win. I had to make a statement, to prove I can do this. I needed my legs fresh. I wasn’t looking ahead.

I grabbed the handlebar and squeezed the brakes but had no time to change gears. I hit the slag on 53×14, got bogged down five meters in, changed to a small ring, and dropped the chain. No panic. Off the bike, ankle-deep in sand, put the chain back on and remounted.

You can’t get the wheels rolling in the sand and rocks. Not on 42×14, you idiot. It doesn’t work. Not enough momentum to get going.

No panic. Off the bike again, lifted it and ran to the shoulder. Remounted. Gear’s still too big. No panic. Off the bike. Changed to 42×19 with the rear wheel in the air. Remounted.

This is how you lose a stage race.

Yarosh told me later someone saw me stuck in the sand. They got on the gas as soon as they reached the asphalt. Fifty-five kilometres an hour against ten. For every meter I rode, they did five.

***

I had a week to enjoy Kiev’s spring before the next round of races and camps in the Baltic region and Armenia. Coaches too busy with families, minimum control over our lives. Seven days to call and organise a meeting with Olga’s friend.

I found a lonely phone booth near the Republican Stadium and dialled the number Olga gave me in Tallinn. After a single beep, a man with a Georgian accent said, “Hello, who’s speaking?”

You. You’re speaking. I didn’t say that. I said, “Can I talk to Lena?”

“Lena? What Lena?” he said.

“Wrong number, sorry,” I said. I looked at the number again. Who the hell is this Georgian dude? Olga’s friend supposed to be a she, not a Vakhtang or a Zurab.

I walked around the stadium and found another booth. Olga never told me her friend’s name. What do I tell Zurab? Or Vakhtang? I want to talk to your wife? Daughter? Mother? Sister? I’m from Olga. From Tallinn. Send your wife to pick up cash for the off the books passport which I’m going to use to flee the workers’ paradise.

I dialled again and heard the same greeting. I said, “I’m sorry I asked you about Lena. I was looking at the wrong page in my notebook.”

I waited for Zurab’s comment and heard nothing but his breathing into the receiver an overweight man would make.

I said, “Olga gave me this phone number. Said if I need a tour guide in Kiev, I can call her friend and she’ll help.”

“What’s your name?” he said.

“Andrei.”

“Are you in Kiev?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“Somewhere on Kreshchatyk.”

“You know where the Central Post Office is on Kreshchatyk?”

“I can find it.”

“Go there and wait for me. Olga’s friends are my friends. I’ll see you in ten.”

I crossed the Krasnoarmeyskaya street and headed to Snegurochka bar. On the way, I stopped by the Havana cigar shop and bought a pair of Partagas to go with brandy I was going to drink. If I get drunk tonight and Elizarov comes to check up on us at the dormitory after dinner, this will be the end.

I downed three brandies in Snegurochka in half an hour, smoked my Partagas outside and went to Dom Kino for dinner where Titan has been eating the last six months.

Elizarov walked in at the same time desserts have arrived. Like my father, he never smoked and could smell a cigarette like a bloodhound could smell a wild boar. I poured another coffee into my cup, sipped, and focused on the ice cream. Black coffee will wash down the cigar’s and the brandy’s smell, a scientific fact I invented and chose to believe when Elizarov walked in, all at once.

He smelled it. Because when he sat down next to me, he put his arm around my shoulder, leaned in, and stared into my ice cream. We both stared.

Different ice creams melt at different rates. Depends on how much water and fat you have in it, what colour it is, how hot the room temperature is. My vanilla ice cream with a blob of cranberry jam in the middle had little lakes and lagoons where it met the stainless steel bowl. I liked it half melted. It was perfect.

He said, “Ukrainian state team had been invited to the Tour of Bulgaria. They want you in. They need a green light from me though.”

I picked up a teaspoon and stirred the lakes and lagoons with the cranberry jam into a pink whirlpool.

He said, “I don’t know why you’ve been passed over for races like this before. The passports have been already stamped and returned to the Sports Committee. You’re good to go.”

Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 20)

memoir soviet union
memoir soviet union
Kirzachi, the toughest boots in the world

Zyama pulled out his military ID, stuck it in the guard’s face and ordered to open the door.

We stepped into a sun-lit, hundred-meter wide square surrounded by two- and three-story buildings. An alley on its far-end side led deeper into the garrison.

We walked to a building on our right, climbed two flights of stairs and reached a wooden blue door at the end of a long dark corridor.

“The colonel is a nice guy,” Zyama said when we stopped in front of the door. “Don’t open your mouth unless he asks you a question.”

He knocked and after a muffled “yes” from the other side, we walked in.

An obese frog of a man with large bags under his yes sat behind the desk filled with stacks of manilla folders, printing paper, and a crystal ashtray full of cigarette butts. Colonel was about to add one more to the heap holding it next to his puffed lips between two fingers, face behind a smoke screen.

Kapitan,” he said blowing smoke out of his mouth. “What brings you here?” He pointed at the chair next to his desk and said, “Have a seat.”

I followed Zyama to the desk like I was on a leash. He sat down, crossed his mile-long legs like he always did, capped his hands on top of a knee and said, “This young man here,” he nodded toward me, “his coach doesn’t want him anymore. Wants his career to end. He wants him to rot in the army.”

“Is he in my garrison?”

“Yes.”

Colonel looked me over from the feet to the top of my head like I was a fashion model.

“How long he’s got to go?” he said.

“A year.”

“This is an anti-missile defence training unit, Captain, and you bring me a ghost? What am I supposed to do with him?”

“I’ll take him back in two or three weeks.”

“I thought you wanted him to rot in the army.”

“His coach does. I don’t. I want him to race. He was born to race, he doesn’t belong here.”

“You and your bloody super-stars, Captain. What are we teaching these kids? How to cheat the Motherland?”

“C’mon, Colonel. You like watching them winning Olympic Games, don’t you?”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass about your games. We’re here today still standing because Stalin didn’t play games. Too many players nowadays, Captain, not enough heroes.”

He paused, lit another cigarette and said, “If he’s still here after two weeks, I’ll have to get rid of him. He’s of no use to me.”

“Don’t worry,” Zyama said.

“Why would I? Thing is, Captain, the only unit I can send him to from here is our other garrison in Donetsk. You know what I’m talking about?”

“No.”

“The one where second-year soldiers are trained for Afghanistan. It’s how it is. Can do nothing about it, as I’m sure you know. This will be the end of his game, I can tell you that.”

He picked up a receiver, dialled two digits on the rotary phone, and said, “Send Sergeant Beregovoy to me.”

***

Sergeant Beregovoy took me to the barracks after the Colonel explained the situation to him. One was painted pink, the other was lemon-yellow. We entered the pink one.

“Yellow barrack is for salagas,” Sergeant said. “You’re in your second year, right?”

“Yep.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sorry. Yes, sir.”

“I don’t need your sorry. No one does. Yes or no, that’s all I need to hear from you.”

“No problem.”

“Come again?”

“Yes, sir”

The vestibule we entered had two doorways on its left and right sides. A meter-tall face of Marshal Sokolov, the USSR’s Minister of Defence, stared at me from the back wall when we walked in. The doorway on the right led to the toilets. We turned left and entered a dormitory half the size of an Olympic swimming pool. It was filled with rows of bunk beds divided into two isles by a three-meter wide passage in the middle. A lot of daylight flowed in through four human-height windows. A TV set and a white bust of Lenin on top of it were mounted on the far-end wall.

“See that bed in the corner? With no boots next to it?” Sergeant said. “It’s yours.”

He told me I could sit but not lie down on my bed until otboi at 10 o’clock. “I catch you lying in bed between 6 in the morning and 10 at night, you’ll be cleaning toilets for a week,” he said. Another rule was to never turn the TV on. “TV is for the I Serve the Soviet Union program on Sundays. That’s it. Don’t touch it.”

“Can I go outside?” I said.

“No. You go outside when I tell you to go outside plus breakfast, lunch and dinner. You sit here and wait. I need to organise you some uniform.”

He left the dorm in confident, military stride making a loud noise every time he landed a foot on a wooden floor.

I spent the next hour between my bed and a window, looking at men in khakis coming out and disappearing into different buildings on the other side of the square.

When Sergeant Beregovoy returned, I was lying on the floor, pillow under my head, eyes closed, counting Beregovoy’s steps between the doorway and my bed.

“Soldier!” he yelled. “Get up.”

I stood up with arms to the hips.

“What did I tell you about lying in bed?”

“You said not to lie in bed between 6 and 10.”

We stood, looking at each other, his lips tight, eyes glowing with hate, words, angry words just about to burst out of his mouth.

“Listen to me, smart ass,” he said in a hushed voice. “You can have an easy two weeks here, or I can make it hell for you. Take a pick.”

“Easy two weeks,” I said.

“Good. Now, I checked with our supply people, we don’t keep uniforms here, has to be ordered from the main warehouse. Meantime, you’ll wear this. Borrowed it from a dembel who owes me a favor.”

He opened a sack he’d been holding in his right hand and pulled out a well-worn pair of breeches and a gimnasterka jacket. “Had been to Afghanistan these two. You damage them, you die.”

In the Soviet Army’s bullying hierarchy, dembel was the highest caste a soldier could reach. You start your two-year conscription as a slave, a dukh (spook) in the army’s slang. You either submit to slavery and get your face and guts smashed only a few times, or you get your face and guts smashed all the time and then submit anyway. You can also hang yourself. Your choice.

Three or four weeks in, after you take the oath to die for your country and Communism, you become a soldier and move up to a salaga (rookie) caste. The beating and the abuse might stop at this point depending on how you fared as a dukh. If you’d put up a fight, you might enjoy some peace now. Or not. Depends on the garrison you’re in or how crazy the cherpaks and the officers are.

After a year, you’re cherpak (ladle), a human again. You begin to recover some of your dignity and thank yourself you’d dismissed suicide as an option when life felt and smelled like shit.

The last six months, you’re ded (grandpa). You run the show, tell cherpaks what to do—who pass the orders on to salagas—and spend your time getting ready for dembel.

In the spring and autumn, Defence Minister issued a special order to conscript and release male citizens from the Soviet Army. The day the order went out, your two-year term was up and even though you could have been held in the army for some time after the order, as a legal entity, you were a free man, a dembel. You either chilled or slept all day, waiting for the bureaucratic machinery to cough up your ticket to go home.

“Everyone will be here in half an hour,” Sergeant said. “Change. Too many Adidas logos on you.”

“What about the boots?” I said and took the uniform.

“I’ll find a pair tomorrow. Oh, and if some hard-ass doesn’t like your outfit, don’t fret. Tell them Beregovoy authorized it.”

“My outfit?”

“Yes, the dress code. We don’t enforce it on the dembels. They can wear whatever they want as long as the clothes aren’t civilian. Well, almost. Anyway, it’s a privilege, they’ve earned it. What you’re going to wear today, not even a dembel can wear. It’s unheard of. Someone might feel a little jealous, you know what I mean?”

Thirty minutes later I heard the sound of a hundred military boots rushing into the barrack like a roaming herd of bison. The soldiers spilled into the dormitory all at once in one pack, shouting, laughing and cracking jokes.

I sat on my bed in washed-out, withered by the Afghan sun khakis, white cycling socks and Adidas slippers, waiting for dress code Nazis to come close and start grilling me.

He’d been eyeing me for a minute from his bed near the window before he stood up, hands in the pockets, walked to my bed like he had an hour to do it and sat next to me.

I said nothing.

Short, black hair, dark eyes, an eagle’s nose, a deep scar running across the cheekbone on an olive skin background. I could bet my last rouble he was from North Caucasus.

“You’re in my suit,” he said with a heavy accent. Chechen. He was a Chechen.

Our peoples spilled each other’s blood for centuries. Tens of thousands would die again in nine years from now in the next round of bloodshed. If there was someone on the planet I wouldn’t want to mess with, it would be a Chechen.

I said nothing.

“How long in the army?” he said.

“Second year.”

Cherpak,” he said.

I said nothing.

“Where from?” he said.

Kavkaz.

He paused, and said, “Joking?”

“Nalchik-city, the State of North Caucasus,” I said.

This was a give away, a signal I wasn’t joking. No one outside of North Caucasus would call Nalchik a Nalchik-city or say “the State of North Caucasus.” We used to say that to make it sound like Nalchik was in America, an inside joke.

“Russian?” he said.

“Yeah.”

He touched his chin like he was thinking about something, said, “We have four Caucasians here. Two Chechens, a Dagestani and a Circassian. We’re one. Understand?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Don’t ruin my uniform. It’s from Afghan, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“What’s your name?”

“Kolya.”

“Kolyan then,” he said.

“Yeah, that’s what they used to call me in Nalchik.”

“I heard, you’re a champion.”

“Yeah.”

“What sport?”

“Road cycling.”

“Strong legs,” he said. He patted me on my back, stood up, and said, “Don’t go to dinner by yourself. You go with me.” He stuck his hand out, said, “Aslan.” I got up to shook his hand, he turned around and walked back to his bed.

I strolled out of the dorm toward the toilets with two dozen eyes glued to me, watching my every step. Some with malice, others confused by a handshake between a Chechen and a Russian.

A tall guy with unwashed, wheaten hair has been standing in the dorm’s doorway, looking at me with a derisive smile on his pimpled face when I entered the narrow corridor on the way out. He said, “Pee-pee time?”

“Piss off, asshole,” I said.

“What was that?”

I stopped and left a two-meter buffer between us. He said, “Repeat, soldier.”

The footsteps behind my back, discrete as only the Soviet-made military issue kirzachi can make, they were for me. The first blow ripped into my right kidney and knocked my legs out of function. On the way down the pimpled face kicked me in the stomach with the tip of his boot. My lungs froze. Without air the daylight dimmed all around me, eyes lost focus. I landed on my bum with one arm blocking my face from the next blow. He leapt like a wild animal, squatted down next to me and grabbed my head by the hair. “Repeat, you bitch. I said repeat,” he yelled with his fist raised, ready to strike.

“Break his nose, Benya,” the guy who hit me in the kidney said.

I heard more footsteps rumbling from afar, heavy army boots hammering against the floor, getting closer.

Aslan’s kirzach went into Benya’s face like it was an 11-meter football penalty kick. He slumped onto his back, both hands thrown wide apart, blood spilling on the floor out of his mouth. Benya’s friend was on his knees when I stood up with a knife to his throat held by the second Chechen, Kadyr. Most of the platoon was in the corridor now, watching, scared to death to get on the Chechens’ way.

Aslan’s foot was on Benya’s face, smudging the blood all over it. “He’s from Caucasus, you filthy dog, from Caucasus,” he’s been saying, squashing the stiff outsole of his boot against Benya’s face. “You got that?” He squashed harder, on his throat now. “I asked you a question,” he said.

“Yes,” Benya said.

“Repeat,” Aslan said.

“Yes,” Benya said.

Aslan walked to Benya’s friend and kicked him in the stomach, lifted his head by the hair after the guy collapsed and smashed it against the cement floor. He waited for the blood to start pouring from the nose and said, “How about you, filthy dog?”

“We didn’t know,” the guy said.

***

At dinner the five of us ate at the same table. Two Chechens, a Dagestani, a Cercassian, and a Russian taking turns, interrupting each other’s stories about what life was like in North Caucasus, how we missed the mountains, the shashlyk, the water cascades clearer than tears, and the smell of white apples in early summer.

“Benya is a dog,” Aslan said. “Never smelled gunpowder in his life. Dogs like him go home in caskets from Afghanistan. Cowards.”

“How long you’ve stayed there?” I said.

“Twenty months.”

“Crap,” I said. “How did you survive for so long?”

“By killing every damn Muj I saw,” he said.

***

Sergeant Beregovoy’s first order to me the next morning was to stay in the barrack until my uniform and the boots arrive. “Not everyone knows your slippers and white socks are temporary,” he said as I sat in bed, processing where I was. “You’ll get in trouble cruising around dressed like a clown.”

“Where is the phone around here?” I said. “I need to call someone today.”

“What do you think this is? Kremlin? You’re in the army. No phone calls unless someone blows your head off.”

Over breakfast, Aslan told me that for a pack of cigarettes the guards would let me outside the gate once the officers had gone home at the end of the day. A phone booth was across the road. “Make sure you buy them Kosmos,” he said. “Spoiled bastards.”

“Where do I buy cigarettes?” I said.

“Canteen. If they have any.”

“Lucky I had a five-rouble bill in my pants yesterday. That’s seven phone calls.”

As Aslan said, having canteen was one thing, buying something you need from it was another. They had no cigarettes when I went there after breakfast. “Maybe next week,” an overweight saleswoman in white apron said.

Nothing to lose, I said, “I’ll pay for three if you sell me one pack of Kosmos.”

She hesitated and said, “I don’t have Kosmos. Temp. Do you want Temp?”

“Are they as good as Kosmos?”

“They’re rouble a pack, the most expensive in the country. You don’t smoke, do you?”

“No.”

“Have to make a call?”

“Yes.”

“Here,” she said and pulled out two packs from under the counter. “Three roubles.”

I called Elizarov that night and told him how stupid I was and how this army thing did its job and how I see where I was and where I’m now.

“I should be training, not getting my kidneys pulped.” I said.

“You’ve missed your train,” he said. “You’d been on it going where most people don’t even dream of going, you got off, and it’s gone now. You had a shot, you missed. It’s over.” Beep, beep, beep.