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