My plane landed in Kiev late afternoon the next day. No one heard from me for six days. If I’d gone missing for a day in a transition period between training camps and races, I could get away with it, but not six days, and not when another training camp was under way at Prolisok resort near Kiev. They’d fired others for smaller offences.
This training camp was scheduled to drill and sharpen Titan’s riders for its second most important team time trial in the season. The squad was set up to develop TTT specialists for world championships and Olympic Games. The nationals was the season’s pinnacle, but what was coming now on the calendar was the national-level TTT event where all Olympic development centers like Titan competed against one another. It was a national team time trial without the title and it was held in Kiev.
Yuri Elizarov had fixed his sight since the year before to win this race and break the two hour mark, the Holy Grail of TTT. At the time, I only heard of two or three teams in the world who went outside of two hours. One verified result was by the Pettersson brothers in one of their hat trick world titles in late 1960s. Elizarov hungered for recognition of his work and couldn’t wait to show what his boys can do on a smooth, fast Brest-Litovsk highway.
I was meant to be in America doing the Coors Classic and this training camp and the time trial wasn’t on my mind. When I flew to Tallinn, I wasn’t certain I’d be back in Kiev any time soon and now I needed Titan more than ever. I had to hang on for a couple of months, pay Olga and get the hell out of here.
I didn’t want to call Elizarov to tell him I was in Kiev. He radiated so much authority, fear and respect, I couldn’t lie to him about where I was for six days. I had to lie, so I called Rogozyan and told him some humbug about my uncle’s sudden death in a car crash and how we don’t have a phone at my parents’ in Nalchik and how organising a long distance call from a post office was too complicated. He bought none of it, but what could he do? He asked me to bring a plane ticket with me to prove my story and of course I didn’t keep it, I said. I remembered the Minvody’s flight number and departure time from six days ago when I tried to buy a ticket on it. Once I landed in Kiev, I checked the nearest flight from Minvody on the arrivals display. When Rogozyan, the sly bastard, asked me what flights I flew on to and from Minvody, I had the info ready for him. He told me to wait at the airport — no other way to get to Prolisok without spending half a day on regional buses — he’d come in an hour to pick me up.
I saw Elizarov at the dinner table later that day. He didn’t say hello, didn’t even send a nod in my direction. Missing out on the Coors Classic made me one of two key men in the time trial he’d been getting his boys ready for in the last few months. Chances of achieving the under two hour result only increased when I was ditched from the American stage race, and then I’d disappeared for several days. Any coach would be rattled by my antics. Elizarov wasn’t an any coach. His silence and neglect of my presence meant I was in for a checkmate. What kind I didn’t know, but he wasn’t going to let me go unpunished.
My first day on a bike after a long break was a four-hour ride with the dreaded four by 25km TTT intervals. They were the classic measuring stick of a 100km TTT training. Ridden at race intensity, you had to be in good shape to handle all four. The first three were okay. It was the fourth one that cracked the legs. The coaches in a team car only meters away, driving up and down between two or three TTT formations, were watching, measuring and taking notes. They’d reshuffle the teams trying to find the best four guys, vary the pulls’ times, change riders’ order, and watch, watch, watch. For an important race, it would take weeks to come up with the right candidates. That day was the first test in a series and I had no legs for it.
I started to redline five kilometers in on the first interval, tried to sit out a round or two, missed the wheel, got gapped and blew up. Elizarov drove up to me on my right. He wanted to talk. I grabbed the car’s door through an open window, pressed my thigh against it, and lowered my head to hear him in the wind.
“Sick?” he said.
“Get behind the car,” he jerked his head backward.
On any other day, motorpacing for half an hour would get me back online except I was beyond repair that day. Soft legs was only part of the problem, I could handle that, not a big deal. I wasn’t switched on like I used to in the past. The legs hurt but it wasn’t something I had never dealt with before. I budged to it, I refused to go on. This whole circus of riding, racing, training, stopped making any sense to me.
I lasted even less on the second interval and went straight behind the car after two short pulls. Ten minutes later Elizarov took off somewhere to do whatever he was doing and I was left on my own after everyone else sailed past me at high speed. I turned around and rode back. Another cardinal sin in Titan’s codex.
I was in bed after lunch in my room when I heard a knock on the door. “Opened,” I said and shut the book I was reading. It was Titan’s new doctor I’d seen around the team. He never introduced himself to me after I arrived and, in return, I hadn’t bothered myself as much as to say hello to him either. I heard he was a hot shot sports doctor who used to work in athletics or swimming, maybe rowing, I couldn’t remember. I never liked outsiders from other sports who switched to cycling. They always talked as if they knew our sport while nothing but nonsense came out of their mouths.
He held a white towel in his right hand, folded twice over itself, looking like a brick. He sat on my bed and unfolded the towel. Inside, a syringe with a crystal clear glass barrel and chrome-plated plunger glared at me from the pure white fabric.
“Turn over and give me your bum,” he said.
“What is this?” I said.
“C’mon, don’t be stupid,” he said.
“What’s in the syringe?”
“B12 and some other stuff.”
“Tell me what’s in the syringe or get the hell out of my room,” I said.
“Are you out of your mind?” he said.
“Maybe I am. You won’t inject this shit into my body unless you tell me what it is.”
He stared at me, lifted his hand with the syringe and brought it closer to my face.
“This,” he said, “is your life ring. Not your call to decide when you need one or what kind it is. Get your pants down.”
“Go away, doc.”
He stood up and walked out of the room. “A wild dog,” I heard as he slammed the door.
Twenty years later, as I relived that distant afternoon with a close friend over a long distance phone call, he told me what was in the syringe — a lipotropic cocktail of amino acids and B12 vitamin, just like the doctor said it was. Nothing sinister, nothing illegal. Not that I cared.
I had no moral, or any other kind, objection to drugs. I couldn’t think of anything more important in life than to win a bike race, or help someone else win one to get some credit for it. I measured everyone’s worth, and everyone else measured me the same in return, based on performance. Everyone had a market price. It went up with good results and down when you had none. Unlike professional cyclists’ salaries, fixed for a predetermined period of time, I had no price tag attached to my contract. I didn’t even have a contract. My price was not spelled out in Swiss francs or Italian lira, my price was the sum total of confidence the decision-makers had in my ability to perform today and in the future. This ephemeral, undefined value fluctuated during the season. Some riders had figured out how to keep it steady. I wasn’t one of them. My stock shot up from obscurity to a level I never believed I’d ever reach and fell down to almost zero again in less than nine months. I couldn’t pick up Sovetsky Sport that day and check my price in road cycling section to know where I stood in the marketplace. I didn’t have to. The sell out was in full swing, the sound of a violin was in the air and it sang for me. I felt it, smelled it, saw it and was prepared to do anything to reverse the spiral. Drugs? Yes, I’ll take that if that’s what it takes to hang on to this job.
When Titan’s doctor walked into my room with a syringe in his hand, I wouldn’t fuss over it with as much as a pip if he’d told me he carried out Elizarov’s orders. I knew he did, but I wanted to hear it. If he’d sent a doctor to my room to dope me, I wanted him to come along and tell me in my face: “I want you to take this.” I was up for it, but I wanted everyone involved to play an open hand with me, no ‘take your pants down and do what I say’ bullshit.
I made a mistake, miscalculated and overestimated my own price. Two hours later the door opened again — it was Elizarov now. “Come with me,” he said and disappeared into the corridor. I didn’t think much of it, slipped into Adidas slide-on pool shoes and followed him, still in my navy-blue Adidas tracksuit pants, white socks and a red Adidas t-shirt — standard outfit of a Soviet national team member.
I caught up with him outside, near our team car. I saw Zyama on a passenger seat. What is he doing here? Had Elizarov driven all the way to Kiev to bring him? What for? “Get in,” he said, opened the driver’s door and sat behind the wheel. “We’re going for a drive.”
I got onto the back seat and we took off toward Kiev. None of us spoke the entire way. I considered and then dismissed every possible destination of this trip I could think of. Nothing made sense. Half hour after we left Prolisok, we stopped in front of a concrete-grey, steel gate with a large red star welded on its surface in the center. It was the garrison I visited a year ago to take the Soviet Army’s enlistment oath. My guts dropped to the floor the moment it registered with me what we were here for.
“Let’s go,” Elizarov said and opened his door. All three of us got out. My legs weighed a tonne. I heard loud, violent thumps in my chest, pounding against the ribcage, ears burning, dry throat. Game over, this is the end. What I feared the most, the main reason I threw my life into cycling — to avoid the army — I failed to save myself from.
“Why are we here?” I said. Maybe he’ll reconsider his decision at the last moment. Maybe he can give me a warning speech, we’ll drive back and I’ll be a good boy. I need to hang on for a few weeks, just a couple of weeks. Please don’t. Why I always screw up at the wrong time?
“This is where your career ends,” he said. “From cycling shoes straight into army boots.”
“You can’t do that,” I said. “I’m in a national team. They pay my salary, you can’t fire me.”
“You’re mine,” he said. “I can do whatever I want with you. No one can stop me, no one can tell me what to do.” He put both hands into pants’ pockets and stared at me.
“Why? What do you want from me? You send a doctor I had never had a word with to my room with who knows what in a syringe and expect me to roll over? Drop my pants down and high five him?”
“Shut up,” he said in a quiet voice. “I thought I could tame you, I gave you time to adapt but you’re the same punk the day you came to Titan. You can’t function in my team. Maybe the army can change you because I can’t.”
We stood a meter apart, face to face, eyes locked, penetrating each other’s thoughts. I still hoped to dodge the bullet this time again. I couldn’t believe it would come to an end like this only a year after my country’s national anthem played in my honour.
“It hurts,” he said. “I’ve been coaching for more than 20 years. Guys like you don’t come around too often. It hurts me to stop you. What else can I do? I’ve tried. I’m through with you. Take care.” He turned around, opened the door and got into the car.
Zyama, dressed in army uniform, waved me with his head to follow him. I spent the time it took me to walk five meters between our team car and the garrison’s security checkpoint to toss around an idea of walking away from the hole I was about to fall into. A year in the army? I don’t think I can do that. What are they going to do if I walk out of here?
We stopped in front of an aluminium-framed glass door. Behind it, I saw a guard in pale, sun-burnt khakis with AK-47 over the shoulder.
“I’ll take you to the commander upstairs for some paperwork. Nobody expected to see you for another year. You’re a ghost and they don’t want ghosts around here. This is going to be some mess.”
“I won’t go in,” I said. “This is not going to end well. I won’t go in.”
“You will, don’t be stupid, you don’t have any other options. If you run, you’ll be declared a deserter and this will be the end of you. You go in and wait for Titan and Elizarov to leave Kiev. They’ll be gone in two weeks. I’ll take you out of here. Then you go home and you train. We’ll figure out something for you for next season. You need to wise up, Kolya, this is your last break. Let’s go.”