Cycling Stories: Made in USSR (Part 22)

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.

1 thought on “Cycling Stories: Made in USSR (Part 22)

  1. I have been following for a bit now, and l have enjoyed every installment. The incite into living in the USSR as a top level athlete is fascinating. I very much look forward to a book hopefully.

Leave a Comment