Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greatest of them all?
People love to compare great athletes from different eras. What if Bernard Hinault raced against Eddy Merckx? How would that go? Or how would Wayne Gretzky and Valeri Kharlamov go against each other if both played in the NHL? Bobby Fisher vs Garry Kasparov?
At any rate, this is not a what if post. I’m not going to bore you with speculations about what could have happened if…
I have an opposite goal in mind – I’ll try to argue why comparing contemporary athletes separated by political barriers is a fruitless exercise.
This post was “inspired” by Lucio, a Facebook friend from Lombardia who asked me some time ago if, in my opinion, Sergei Soukhoruchenkov would have won Tour de France or Giro d’Italia had he turned pro at 23 instead of 33.
Some Background On Sergei Soukhoruchenkov
I realize there’s not a great deal of information available about Soukhoruchenkov (known as Soukho in the West), so I’ll sketch something for you with one hand.
I watched my first Course de la Paix (Peace Race) in 1979, the year he won it the first time. I was 13, he was 23. If there was a sports hero for me at the time, he was it.
I don’t remember how exactly he won it. All I remember was one long, crazy solo attack he did some time during the race, got the yellow jersey and never let go of it until the end.
Next year we had the Olympic Games in Moscow and as you probably know, it was boycotted by the United States. The rest of the Western world boycotted it too but allowed their athletes to go to Moscow on their own.
I don’t know how the boycott affected other sports. In my opinion, it had little impact on road cycling.
The main players were all there including some from Western countries such as the then current world road champion Gianni Giacomini, the 1978 world road champion Gilbert Glaus, Steven Roche, Adri van der Poel, Marc Madiot and of course all the heavy hitters from the GDR, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
My friend and I watched the live broadcast at my sister’s because she owned a color TV (we didn’t).
I remember that race pretty well. The tough Krylatskoye circuit was purpose-built for the Moscow Games. I raced on it 5 years later and left some skin and sweat on those roads. It’s a crazy loop with banked corners and walls to climb.
Anyway, the break went early with Barinov, Lang and an Italian guy who crashed soon after.
Soukhoruchenkov bridged to the break and the trio rode away from the peloton. Two Russians and a Pole. With about 50 km to go, Soukhoruchenkov attacked and soloed to the line. A textbook win.
Everyone expected him to win Course de la Paix again in 1981 after the Games but he didn’t – he finished second while Shakhid Zagretdinov, his team-mate, won.
This is when things went south for Soukho – he didn’t make the team for 1982 Course de la Paix, went off the radar in 1983 and then somewhat miraculously re-emerged in 1984 to win Course de la Paix again.
These are just some highlights of his career.
The UCI recognised him as the best cyclist in the world in 1979, 1980 and 1981 (at the time, UCI governed amateur cycling and a different body governed professionals).
He was often compared to Bernard Hinault – tough, stubborn, not a pure climber but impossible to get rid of even on steep climbs if he refused to get dropped. And because of that, a lot of people wondered: what if ..?
No Ifs, No Buts
Now, even though it’s clear Sergey Soukhoruchenkov was made from the same kind of dough as Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault have been made from, there’s really no way of knowing how things would have unfolded for him in professional cycling because:
(1) Amateur cycling, as tough as it was, never had anything even close to a professional racing calendar.
For example, Course de la Paix aside, there was nothing even resembling a Grand Tour. Course de la Paix itself, without taking anything from it as the mother of all amateur stage racing, lacked the Alps, the Pyrenees and hors catégorie climbs.
There are some hard climbs in Tatra Mountains but there wouldn’t be 5-6 high mountain stages in a single edition. It was a hard race, but you can’t really compare the Tour or the Giro with Course de la Paix.
There were no Classics either. This is because about 90% of amateur racing was domestic. Each country had its own domestic calendar and this is where most of the racing happened.
This, in turn, meant that international amateur calendar was pretty thin and it was thin because only national teams and well funded clubs could afford travel to international races.
A thin international calendar leads me to the next point:
(2) With world championships, Olympic Games every 4 years and Course de la Paix as the only major battleground between amateurs, it was hard to know where the best riders stood on the international arena.
Apart from these three and a couple of other bigger races (Tour de l’Avenir, Milk Race or Giro delle Regioni), the peloton’s makeup at other international races was a hodgepodge – a mixture of 2-3 top national teams racing against local teams in whatever country the race was in.
Had these meetings been ongoing against more or less the same rivals as in professional cycling, the fans and the racers would know where everyone stood in the pecking order. Everyone knew the stars, outside of that, the peloton’s makeup was different at every international race.
Speaking of racing against inferior opposition, here is my next point of why comparing amateur stars with professional stars is nonsensical:
(3) Eastern Bloc amateurs were not amateurs in any meaningful sense of the word – they were professionals.
Not only they were paid to race, they also had all the time in the world to train and prepare for racing while most European amateurs had no such luxury. These guys had real jobs to do at home.
It doesn’t mean winning the Tour de l’Avenir was easy, it wasn’t, but it does place Eastern Bloc domination of amateur cycling in a proper perspective when these things are considered.
And finally, the race dynamics:
(4) The Soviets were the only riders in the world who valued team classification more than an individual in a stage race.
The socialist ideology, enforced by the State, elevated collective effort over individual.
Applied to road cycling, it meant that the Kremlin expected the Soviet national team to chase team classification first with individual one being an icing on the cake if or when it happens. If you can do both, great, but don’t you dare to lose team classification to the GDR.
If you look at the statistics, you’ll see the Soviets won the Course de la Paix in team classification 20 times while the 2nd best team, GDR, “only” 10.
The individual classification is 12-10 in GDR’s favor.
This approach led to some awkward tactics on the road with everyone puzzled about what the Russians were up to.
For example, a typical situation might have been where the Soviets would shut down a break because it was hurting their team classification even though the break favored their individual standing. Except the Russians, no one else knew what was going on.
This partially explains why the Soviets were hopeless in major one day races like world championships (only 2 gold medals in the history of the USSR). Most of the time, they lacked the intuition and skill to throw all resources at one guy and drive him to a win.
This flaw showed later when Soviet Union collapsed and its elite riders started signing professional contracts in 1988. Only a handful of them, naturally more aggressive than others and hungry for individual success, such as Tchmil or Adbujaparov, made it to the top of professional cycling.
As for Sergei Soukhoruchenkov, when he signed with Alfa Lum as part of the first wave of Soviet riders to go pro, he was 33, way past his best years and nowhere near the level he needed to be at to race against the likes of Lemond or Indurain.