Fair Play Cycling In an Authoritarian Society

I should say this upfront: I do not believe bike equipment has a decisive influence on race results. Within limits of course. Trying to win a road race on a mountain bike wouldn’t go far, psychology matters aside.

Why then do we have so much cycling equipment to choose from? Free market, you gotta love the free market.

The Beauty of the Command Economy

As you may or may not know, in its day, the Soviet Union had done away with free market and private property. The land, everything built on it and everything produced on it was owned by the State. You, as a citizen, owned absolutely nothing.

To deal with the issues of personal belongings, such as clothes, furniture or cars, the Communists invented “individual property” in place of “private property”. The peculiar differences between the two is a fascinating subject to talk about but not on a cycling blog.

At any rate, without the free market there was only one bike manufacturer where racing bikes were built. We’re talking a 350,000,000 country here, not Liechtenstein.

Cycling shoes were produced by one factory too, jerseys by two or three factories and so on. What it all meant was that regardless of whether you were a 12-year-old beginner or an accomplished member of the national team, you and the vast majority of riders you competed against at the same level used pretty much the same equipment, wore exactly the same or similar jersey, helmet, and shoes.

It went something like this.

You Start On Real Steel: the Start Shosse

When you start cycling, usually between the ages of 12 and 14, the State gave you a secondhand Старт-Шоссе (pronounced start shosse), a beginner’s racing bike. Made of water pipe tubes and mostly steel components, it weighed over 14kg.

Старт-Шоссе was not a bike you would be excited about unless you’re a kid and your family could not ever afford to buy this kind of a bike for you (it cost about an average monthly salary or an equivalent of around $4,000 in buying power).

At any given time, there was always something wrong with Старт-Шоссе. If it’s not a headset (constant problem), it’s a bottom bracket, rear or front derailleur or a broken spoke.

Look at the photo, it’s an almost exact replica of what I started on in 1978. Ten speed, 51/40 (or 51/48 as in the photo) front with either a 13-21 (2-tooth step) or 13-17 (1-tooth step) thread-on freewheel at the rear. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the state of the art saddle. No, it’s not Brooks even though it was made from leather.

Soviet-made Старт-Шоссе
Soviet-made Старт-Шоссе

The Bike of Chamions: the Champion Shosse

After 2-3 years of consistent, full time training and some promising race results, you prove your commitment to road cycling. At this point, you’ll be upgraded to a serious race machine, the Чемпион-Шоссе (pronounced champion shosse).

The high-end Soviet race bike — the Champion Shosse

Depending on where you live (big or small city), how well your cycling club was funded or what kind of connections your coach had, Чемпион-Шоссе may or may not be free. If it’s not free, the street price for these bikes was 4 times the price of Старт-Шоссе or an equivalent of 4 average monthly salaries (unlike Старт-Шоссе, Чемпион-Шоссе were not available to the public, and in fact were only made to order, by the so called спец-заказ (spets-zakaz or “special order”).

I lived in a small city and my club was under funded so my parents ended up paying for 2 Чемпион-Шоссе and a Cinelli Super Corsa before I turned 17.

Чемпион-Шоссе, known as чемпик (chempik) among racers, was a decent racing rig built from German tubes (Witberg) and equipped with mostly aluminium components. It weighted around 10kg.

With Campagnolo components, Чемпион-Шоссе was good enough for serious racing. As a matter of fact, plenty of champions made their breakthrough at the national level on a Чемпион-Шоссе.

If you continue to perform well, you’ll be selected to race for a national, state or various top level teams run by government organizations such as the Soviet Army, the Police or the Central Trade Union.

Pro Level: Center of Olympic Development

Early 1980s saw the birth of a new breed of cycling teams in the USSR. These teams, called Centers of Olympic Development, resembled European pro teams. You end up in any of these and you’ll be riding a Campagnolo Record equipped Colnago provided to you for free by the State. In a national team, you’ll also be supplied with cycling kit from Castelli, Santini and Adidas.

This 3-tier equipment supply system was common for the vast majority of racers in the USSR. Of course, there were some exceptions.

Some bikes, equipment and other cycling gear was brought in from Europe and sold privately by racers, mechanics or team staff. This is how I was able to buy a Cinelli, Santini knicks or Concor saddle when I needed it (except, I didn’t really need a Cinelli to be honest).

If you turned up at a state level road race in the 1980s in any of the “cycling” Soviet republics such as Russia, Ukraine or any of the Baltic republics, you would see most riders on almost identical Чемпион-Шоссе, a few beat up Colnagos and an odd Cinelli, De Rosa or something of this sort.

Step up to the national level, and the peloton is filled with Colnagos (old and new), some Campagnolo equipped Чемпион-Шоссе and again some odd Italian bikes here and there.

It’s Not About the Bike, Princess

The end result, however unintended, was that this system bred a road racer least of all concerned about equipment (as long as it worked) and instead focused on making sure he’s got good legs on the race day.

This breed of a racer would not waste his time searching cycling forums seeking opinions on whether or not he’ll be better off buying 40mm or 50mm deep rims, this brand or that brand, 16 spokes at the front or 20, elliptical shaped spokes or flat, or whether to upgrade the frame to this year’s model or wait for the next year’s one (50g lighter), and on and on.

In other words, his thoughts are about what he can do to have a good race rather than what equipment he can get so that he can get a result.

The former is a road racer, the latter is a bike equipment consumer. The former will look after his equipment with care and attention and be always content with it, the latter will neglect it and throw it away as soon as something “better” is on the market.