Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 2)

Start of a TTT
A lot of stage races in Soviet Union started with a team time trial in a city

The system’s rules were not spelled out, there was no rule book, no instruction manual and no clearly defined path to take. You listen to those who have gone before you, like Trumheller, those who made it and if you liked what you saw, you went for it.

I liked what I saw. This guy sitting next to me behind the wheel, driving his own new car, was the best example I knew who played the system right and was enjoying now a decent life. When he raced, he wasn’t a star. Well known, reliable rider but not the sport historians’ kind of material. Yet, he was better off now than some Olympic champions he raced with. Piotr Trumheller understood how the system worked and used it to enjoy a life most Soviet citizens could only dream about.

He asked me what I thought of the Maykop race. I said that I suffered like a dog from start to finish. “What did you expect,” he said. “A walk in a park?” I didn’t expect a walk in a park but if cycling was what I went through in Maykop, I wasn’t sure it was for me. I wanted to quit. Every stage I was thinking about quitting. I didn’t know how I made it to the last stage. “I was afraid to quit,” I said. “But that’s what I wanted to do from the beginning.”

“Oh yeah?” he said, “Let me tell you something, let me tell you how your life will go if you quit the sport. In two years, you’ll finish school. Then, when you turn 18, you’ll be conscripted to the army and perhaps even end up in Afghanistan. You’ll either die there or come back with your head inside out. By 20, if you’re still alive, you’ll get a job in a factory making some useless widgets. You’ll probably go into depression after two years of mindless labor and start drinking. By 35, you’ll destroy your liver and will be good to go out of this world by 45. Or just about to. You might linger on for a while but you’ll eventually die in your own vomit, wondering what could have been had you stayed in cycling and tried to either make a good life out of the lot you’ve been dealt or even escape this dump altogether. How’s that sound for a life story?”

“Escape?” I said. “What do you mean?”

He was quiet for ten seconds, probably considering if he was prepared to risk everything by telling me what he meant by “escape.”

“I love my wife,” he said, “And my kids. I live a good life here in Soviet Union. One thing I truly regret though is not staying in Italy when I had a chance. I thought I would have many more opportunities to leave this rotten hole of a country behind when I wanted to, but that trip to Italy was the only one I ever had. I’m an ethnic German. It’s possible KGB smelled something, perhaps someone ratted me in — who knows? KGB snitches are everywhere. Riders, coaches, mechanics… You never know who’s telling on you. They probably figured out I was a “runner,” or I would’ve become one.

“Anyway, my passport was revoked and I never went anywhere outside USSR. I got stuck here, hating every fabric of this monster, never forgiving myself for my cowardliness.

“I don’t want you to make the same mistake I made. If you stay in this sport, and you’ll be stupid not to, you’ll go all the way to the top. I know that, I can see it in you. And when you do, do not hesitate, do not wait. The first Western country you go to, whatever it might be — run, don’t look back.”

We drove in silence for several minutes. What he just told me, if anybody found out about it, he would be locked up in jail for a long time. Teaching a fifteen-year-old kid to make a career in sport only to commit an act of treason was a serious crime.

“I’ll do everything I can to make you into a good racer,” he broke the silence. “When you’re ready, I’ll talk to the right people, I’ll find you the right team. I’ll teach you how the system works. You’ll cream it and make it work, if you’re prepared to go all the way that is. If not, tell me now, don’t waste my time.”

I knew the life Trumheller was talking about was what I wanted. Big races, riding Colnagos, Castelli kit, buckets of cash. And now, something I never thought about — running away from Soviet Union, maybe even doing the Tour de France.

My mind was racing, playing one crazy scenario after another. Is it real? Can this be done? Do I have what it takes to do it? Will I live somewhere in France, or Italy? Yeah, Italy, I like Italy.

“I won’t let you down,” I said. “I’ll do whatever you say. Anything. Anything at all.”

He went quiet again and I began to wonder if he believed me. Then, without looking at me, he said: “You have to decide how you’re going to do this. Option one is to climb to the top and then run at the earliest opportunity you get.

“Option two, once at the top, you stick around for a little longer, try winning something big — a Peace Race or an Olympic medal — and then run. This way you’ll be a hot property and can ask for more money from a pro team. But this is too risky — you might not win anything and get stuck here. If I were you, I would choose the safest bet and run the minute you step on a Western soil.”

“If you’re going to do this,” he continued, “if cycling is going to be your job for the next fifteen years, you have to start living like a pro.

“Get used to the idea that your body is a tool you make a living with, like a hammer or a shovel, only much more sophisticated. Because it’s a tool, you’ll have to learn how to look after it. You’ll have to learn how to read it, to know when you’re in form and when you’re tired and need rest.

“You’ll have to understand that everything you do, and I mean everything, is going to affect your riding, make you either faster or slower. Your life will be reduced to training and recovery. You’ll eat because you need to ride and you’ll sleep because you need rest. Anything else that’s not about riding or resting should be erased from your life.

“Not everyone can live like this. I’ve seen a lot of guys who have wasted their talent because they couldn’t live a life of a pro. They had the legs, the engine, everything. But even the best engine in the world will fail if it’s not looked after. You might last a year or two if you try to be a pro and someone else at the same time, but cutting corners can’t go for long, you’ll eventually run out of gas or get fired if they see you don’t live like a pro.”

“One other thing,” he said after another silence break. “You can be the next Eddy Merckx, live like a pro and still fail. So take this as the most serious rule of all: Keep your mouth shut. I already told you about KGB snitches. You’ll never know who they are. Trust no one. The guy you think is your best friend can rat you out. Do not share what we talk about with anybody. They won’t lock you up if you haven’t done anything, but if they even suspect you’re a “runner,” they’ll never give you a passport and you’ll never leave this country. Not now, not in 20 years. Once you’re blacklisted, that’s it, you’re done, it’s a life sentence.”

I started to daydream. I imagined myself in a Sanson jersey, riding solo on a Benotto bike, winning Milan-Sanremo. I drove home to Monaco in an Alfa Romeo with Toto Cutugno’s Solo Noi blasting from the car stereo.

“Tell me about Italy,” I asked Trumheller. “What it’s like?”

“What do you want to know?”

“Did you feel… it was different? Like it’s a different world?”

“The first thing I noticed: everyone was smiling the entire time we were there. Grazie this, grazie that. Always smiling. I thought they were trying to be nice, and they were, dancing around us like we were the most important people on the planet, but then I saw they smile at each other all the time too. Everyone seemed to be content. It felt peaceful and… I don’t know, they don’t look over their shoulder like we do. They’re not afraid, that’s what I’m trying to say.”

I was too young to understand what he was talking about. I wasn’t afraid of anything, not yet anyway. My first encounter with the KGB was still years away. I switched the subject.

“How was the race? Did you guys walk all over them?”

“No, we didn’t. They made us fight hard for our money. Some tough nuts those Italians. We had to collude with a Polish team after the first couple of stages to keep the race under control because they were all over the shop, attacking all the time. They don’t race like we do.”

“How do they race?” I said.

“Here in the USSR, it’s all about team classification. If you can win an individual one as well, it’s an icing on the cake, but winning team classification is the first priority. Our race tactics are based on team classification and when we go to Europe, sometimes nobody understands what we’re doing because everyone assumes our priorities are the same as everyone else’s. But they’re not.

“On one stage we shut down a breakaway that would’ve had our guy in the yellow jersey had the break stayed away. We couldn’t let it go because it would’ve cost us the lead in team standings. Everyone was puzzled why we chased our own guy who, by the way, was sucking wheels and smoking cigars all day. So we shut it down and the same guy attacked again, now without hurting our team’s position in the standings. He won the stage and got the yellow jersey. Everybody thought we pulled off some genius race plan. We didn’t. We raced for team classification and got lucky.

“The Westerners, they don’t do that. They don’t care about team classification. Some of them probably don’t even know it exists. They race for themselves. I mean, team-mates work together and help each other, but their goal is to win a stage or the individual classification. Race tactics are not driven by ideologies. They’re not racing to prove to the world how great their country is. They’re not afraid to lose, they throw at you everything they’ve got without worrying about how many team-mates they still have left.

“If you don’t care about team classification, it doesn’t matter where your team-mates finish. They do their job and then vanish out of sight while we sweat our guts out making sure we have a numerical advantage to gain time in team classification.”

“It sounds stupid,” I said. “And more difficult than it should be.”

“And it is,” he said. “But that’s what sports bureaucrats want. Team classification elevates collective effort over individual. It conforms with our ideology and opposes Western individualism at the same time. We race by our rules and they race by theirs — all in the same race.

“Look at the Peace Race. It’s the only stage race in the world with jerseys for team classification. And who is wearing the blue jerseys most of the time? It’s us, the Soviets, because no one else cares about those jerseys. We won team classification twice as many times as any other team in the history of Peace Race.”

“Maybe no one else can win it?” I said, trying to defend my faith in Soviet national team’s invincibility. “We won both classifications the last four years, didn’t we? You said it’s hard to do both so maybe our team is the only team that can do it. Because it’s a super team.”

He looked at me, grinned, and said: “Yes, we’ve been winning the Peace Race the last four years but can you explain to me why we never won the world road race?” [Andrei Vedernikov won it later that year]

“I don’t know,” I said. “Sukhoruchenkov won the Olympic road race last year though and Kapitonov in 1960.”

“Yes, they did. But if you combine the world and the Olympic road races from 1952 to this day, you get thirty plus races and only two gold medals, both from the Olympic Games. If our national team is made up of super men, as you seem to think, why is it that the gold in a world road race usually goes to Italy or Belgium? Or France? Or Netherlands? What happens to our super men when they line up for the world road race? What happens to our so called superiority?”

“I don’t know,” I repeated again. “Maybe stage races are different to one-day races. Maybe we’re not good at one-day road races.”

“Of course they’re different. But if we’re superior to everyone else, then we should be winning all kinds of races, don’t you think? Szurkowski won both the Peace Race and the world road race. And so did Schur. Why none of our guys can win the world road race?”

He was right, something didn’t add up. The absence of road race rainbow jerseys couldn’t be explained by bad luck. Our guys were either doing something wrong or…

“It’s a myth,” said Trumheller, interrupting my thoughts.

“What’s a myth?”

“Our superiority. It’s a lie just like everything else in this country is a lie. We’re not superior to anybody. Not in sport, not in anything else. The sports we dominate are rigged in our favor.”

“Rigged? What do you mean rigged?” I said.

“Why do you think you’ve been flogged in Maykop?”

“Because I’m too young?”

“That’s right. There’s an unfair advantage between a twenty-year-old cyclist and a fifteen-year-old one. Even an average twenty-year-old will usually thrash a top fifteen-year-old in a bike race. The physiological gap’s too big. It will disappear with time but for now it’s too much of a difference.”

He paused, probably waiting for me to process the information and make a conclusion. And I tried but couldn’t figure out what he was getting at. Something was still missing.

“Cycling,” Trumheller continued, “like all sports is separated into amateur and professional branches. Good idea except we aren’t amateurs. We pretend we are. We tell the world we are but we’re not. It’s all fake.”

“What’s fake?” I said, still not sure what he was telling me.

“The distinction between us and professional cyclists. It’s not real, it doesn’t exist.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about a puppet show called amateur cycling. The puppet masters, whoever they are, have divided the puppets into two groups: The real amateurs and the fakes.

“The real amateurs live under capitalism in Western Europe. They have full time jobs and can only train outside of work hours. They get up at four in the morning for a two hour ride. They ride hard, often too hard, because they think by riding hard they can level up with the pros. Then they add more over the weekend. Most of them don’t know what they’re doing because there’s no one to guide them — coaches are expensive. They grind themselves into the ground with fatigue. They’ve got no one to talk to about what’s going on and instead of resting, they go harder, thinking they’re not training hard enough. Soon, their performance stalls. They hear somewhere that to get faster, they need to race more. Or do more motopacing. Or climb more hills. Or whatever. The thinking is — you’re not training hard enough, toughen up. And they do. But they’re not getting any better. The best of them persevere and refuse to give up. They even get sent to international races sometimes where they meet the other group of puppets — the fake amateurs. It’s us, the East Germans and the Poles.

“These guys have no jobs to go to. Unlike professionals, whose future isn’t certain beyond their contract, fake amateurs — at least here in Soviet Union — are paid by the State. Once you’re on the payroll, you can stay on it until you retire without too much trouble. You don’t need to be a star, just do what you’re told and the State will look after you. And look after you they do if you’re a top level material: coaches, mechanics, masseurs, doctors, equipment, anything you need to perform. You spend winters in warm climates, they feed you as if you’re the king of Norway and pay you good money while you don’t have to spend a dime — the government takes care of everything. You train hard but you rest even harder.

“As I said before, guys at this level do only three things in life — eat, ride and sleep. They’ll fire you if you’re caught doing anything else. You don’t want to slave away digging up potatoes or building railways in Siberia? Ride your bike then and do as you’re told.

“If you deliver the goods, you can retire at the age of 30 and sail with a tailwind for the rest of your life. In fact, if you do it right, you can retire with comfort without delivering the goods. Like I did.”

1 thought on “Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 2)”

  1. Kolya,

    This line is brilliant:

    “They’ve got no one to talk to about what’s going on and instead of resting, they go harder, thinking they’re not training hard enough.”

    I’ve lived through that myself and didn’t learn how to rest until after I got hit by a car. I don’t remember the accident. The driver still doesn’t understand how I survived and why I would ever want to ride a bike again. At least the accident taught me how to rest. But it was a lesson I learned too late and the recovery from the accident was too long.

    At least I survived to ride again though. I guess I survived so I could read your work. I lived and worked in the former USSR from 1987-1991. I brought my bikes to ride. I’ve seen, know and understand much of what you write about. Thank you for bringing this time back to life.

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