Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 1)

USSR cycling jersey
USSR national team jersey from the 1980s era

In this great future, Bob Marley once sang, you can’t forget your past. A good deal of my past is buried in a country you can’t find on a map anymore. Once a mighty, all-conquering powerhouse, it crashed to the ground like a falling star seven decades after it rose to the global stage in 1917, waving a red flag in one hand and shaking a fist at the rest of the world with another.

We stood alone, our teachers taught us. In the sea of capitalism, an inhumane system of exploitation and greed, we were the first nation on earth to stand up from our proletarian knees to start a new era in human history, a new social order of equality, peace and prosperity.

In less than 20 years, we turned an agrarian, feudal empire into a leading industrial nation. We laid down 30 million of our fellow men to rid the world of Nazism. We rose from rubble and ashes of the WWII and launched the first spacecraft in the history of humankind. To safeguard our way of life, we built a nuclear arsenal deadly enough to destroy the planet more than once. Firmly on our feet and with the world rotting away in its immoral pursuit of riches, by the 1950s we were ready to show socialism’s power on the international sports arena.

We sent an ice hockey team on the tour of Canada and the USA in the 1970s to humiliate the NHL and demonstrate our supremacy. The amount of Olympic medals we harvested every four years was so large we thought that by 21st century there will be nothing for us to win. We marched to world dominance on all fronts in steady, unstoppable stride.

This, in essence, was the mindset I had when I started cycling at the age of twelve. The Peace Race and the Olympic Games, both closed for depraved professionals, were the two most important events in the sport. Yes, there are the “pros” and the Tour de France but they play on their own playground, fuelled by drugs and money. Without the dope and the pay cheques we’d own them just like we own everyone else, save the East Germans and maybe the Poles.

***

I was fifteen and on my way back from my first fair dinkum stage race. My coach, Peter Trumheller, drove his shiny red Lada in an awkward silence. I was sure he wanted to talk to me about something but didn’t know where to start. I wasn’t going to help him. I didn’t want to talk at all. I knew something changed, something was different.

As we drove, and I kept thinking back about the race, I began to realise I wasn’t the same kid I was before the first stage. The cycling I knew a week ago was a Mickey Mouse version of it, a comic strip.

That first stage, an 80km criterium on the frozen streets of Maykop, was the divide between play-doh cycling I knew and the real thing. At the time, what looked like the most cruel, merciless two hours on a bike I have ever had, was nothing but a prelude to seven more road races still to come.

Wall graffiti
The graffiti says: “Welcome to hell.” I must’ve seen this when I came to Maykop for my first stage race. Or at least that’s what I think now.

We raced through sleet, rain and mud in temperatures only a single digit degree above zero. By stage three I ran out of dry, clean cycling kit because I only had two sets. The place we stayed in had no hot water, no heating and no showers. Before the start, I pulled on my half-wet wool shorts. Without chamois, my skin rubbed against sand – the shorts were full of it from previous stages because I couldn’t wash them properly in a toilet sink in cold water. This didn’t bother me in the race because I was busy trying to stay in the bunch. The peloton was full of guys much older than I was, most of them over 20, some even older. They raced at speeds I’ve never raced at before.

When I got off the bike after the finish, my thighs burned as if someone spent the last three hours rubbing my perineum with sandpaper. I was bleeding between my legs by the end of stage four. By stage five the wounds got infected and I had trouble walking, never mind riding a bike. I finished the sixth stage with a tiny creek of blood going all the way down to the white sock on my left leg.

I went to bed every night hoping I would discover a crack in my frame next morning to have an excuse to quit the race (we didn’t have a spare bike). I imagined myself crashing and breaking a collarbone, or an arm, or whatever, anything to escape another day in the saddle in cold, wet weather with gusting cross winds.

I wish I could say I cried at night but I didn’t. I wish I could say I soldiered on, full of perseverance, tenaciously reaching out to the depths of my soul to stay in the race, or some nonsense like that, but I didn’t. Those last four stages, more than anything, I wanted to quit. I kept thinking about my schoolmates sitting in a warm classroom back in my hometown while I was standing on a start line, cold to the bone, shaking, scared of all these mean twenty-year-old assholes who made my life miserable. How stupid all of this is, I thought. Why are you doing this? Why don’t you quit?

I finally crashed on stage seven and ripped a hole in the palm of my right hand. I sat on the tarmac, nursing my wrist, pretending it was broken. “Get up!” I heard Trumheller shrieking, running toward me after he pulled to a stop in his car. He grabbed my bike, spun each wheel to check if they were rideable and yelled again: “C’mon! Get up!”

Twenty kilometres later when I lost all hope of rejoining the bunch I was in before the crash, he pulled up alongside me and asked if I needed anything. I showed him my hand and said I didn’t know how much longer I could ride with this pain. The roads were rough, I had trouble holding on to the handlebar.

He slammed on the brakes and then reappeared a minute later. He stuck his hand out the car’s window, holding a pair of fine, Italian-made cycling gloves. He kept them in his car, a habit from the racing days. “Put them on,” he said. “I’ll see you at the finish.”

I didn’t quit. The system I was already a part of didn’t allow it. You’re either in, or you’re out. No middle ground, nothing in between. You either commit your entire self 100%, or you don’t. It’s OK if you don’t, but then we don’t want you and we don’t need you. Don’t waste our time. Go do something else. Play soccer. Study. Get a job. Build communism. Serve the country. The minute you quit, without a good enough reason for it, you’re written off, you’re no longer a building material to make a champion from. And making champions was the system’s sole purpose.

7 thoughts on “Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 1)

  1. Hello Nikolai
    Excellent read, looking forward to your other posts. I recall, back in the ’80s, watching a young Russian rider purported to be a former junior World champ showing up at the Mardis Lachine crit race here in Montreal and putting the hurt on the field, any chance this was you?
    Cheers

  2. You’re descriptions are so raw and macho I laughed so hard I cried. I realize it was hardly funny at the time you were living it, but like most horrible things you go through in life they can sound hilarious when you put them “on paper” years later. I was looking for some Soviet Cycling memoirs to help me write about my husband’s experience as a Soviet Cyclist (among other things). Thank you for some of the most fecund writing about Soviet Russia I’ve come across… and such a beautiful command of the English language. Bravo! I will be giving you credit in my book where I have used your story as inspiration.

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