When an Air France flight carrying four newly minted Junior World Champions from Paris touched down in Sheremetyevo International Airport at the dawn of mid-August morning, Anton Morgatchev was on a commuter train from Sergiev Posad to Moscow. Bewildered after three days of parties, he was regaining a grip on reality again. He thought of the drugs and the parties as nothing but the means to escape the clutches of depressukha, that all-pervasive despair many in Soviet Union lived in from the moment they saw the hole they were stuck in from birth was not only too deep to climb out of, it was covered with metal bars. His rational part, that sober, intelligent, clear thinking ego was screaming in panic for some time now. The opium ship Anton had been sailing on was heading for a fatal wreck. The proverbial point of no return was too close to pretend everything was fine. He tried to convince himself he could get off any time, it wasn’t that difficult, he was strong.
The endless, cloned-like housing estates, built from grey, concrete blocks, rushed in the opposite direction outside the train window. He turned his head away from the moving buildings and gazed inside the packed coach. Most people were reading. The intelligentsiya — books and literary journals. The rest, the gapota (the plebs) — newspapers and illustrated magazines. What the hell could you be reading on these pages, cooked up by the spin doctors of the propaganda machine? It’s mind-numbing to even look at the headlines: New Era in the History of Humanity, Great Heroism of a Great People, Mighty Wings of Our Motherland, Everlasting Principles of Marxism-Leninism… Who writes this gibberish anyway? They must be insane, those writers. How can one write this stuff and not go mad? Maybe they’re laughing their heads off, spewing this senseless verbiage out of their rotten souls.
He cradled his face with both hands, rested the elbows on the knees and looked at the floor through the holes between his fingers. He saw a rolled up newspaper under the seat, jiggling in unison with the train. From what he could make out of the masthead, it wasn’t a Pravda or Izvestiya — the two most asinine publications in the country. He picked it up, hoping to entertain himself with the imbecility of newspapers’ doublespeak, and spread it open in his hands. It was a fresh issue of Sovetskiy Sport, probably the least poisoned newspaper out of Moscow. Still full of socialism’s drivel, the Party’s minions didn’t figure out yet how to distort sports’ results. A score is a score, and seconds and minutes are the same everywhere, you can’t bend reality too much in sport.
The first few pages were filled with the analysis of FC Spartak Moscow’s chances in the upcoming first round of UEFA Cup. They were up against a Finnish team and all experts predicted Spartak will walk all over the Finns into the second round. Not a huge football fan, he flipped through the paper without much hope of finding anything interesting to read. Almost at the end, something he recognised in the text caught him in the eye. He flipped back a page, scanned it and saw what it was — a name, Nikolai Razouvaev, was printed on the page in a short report about four Soviet cyclists “crushing American quartet in humiliating defeat” at junior world’s. In disbelief, he read the story again, jumped out of his seat with arms in the air and screamed into the car crammed with passengers: “My brother is a world champion!”
He turned to his friend and sojourner who was sleeping in the next seat since they got on the train in Sergiev Posad, and started shaking him, trying to wake him up: “Liosha! Wake up, Kolya is a world champion!”
“What?” Liosha said when he opened his eyes.
“Kolya is a world champion!”
“Kolya, my bro.”
“What are you talking about? You don’t have a brother…”
“I do, you silly, I do.”
If not for cycling, someone like Anton and I could have never become friends. He — the only son of a school principal, raised alone by his mother on Chekhov and Dostoevsky. My mother was from a small village on Volga river who quit school at the age of 14 after the end of WWII and went to work to help raise the family. She was an accountant when I was growing up and my father was a plumber. I drank Georgian tea from a half-litre mug and there was always Ceylon tea at Anton’s place, properly brewed and served in splendid, imported china. He wore Levi’s jeans and Yugoslavian shoes to school and I wouldn’t even dare to ask my mum to buy me a pair of jeans — a luxury available only on a black market for unreal amount of money — she’d laugh in my face. He was also two years older than me — a big gap when you’re 13.
I had an older brother who disappeared from my life when I was six. Eleven years older than me, I can’t say we spent a lot of time together, but every time we did, I’d rate the experience of playing with him as the best day of my life. He was a rebel and hanged around with the wrong crowd. One day he didn’t come home. After days of waiting and looking for him in vain, we thought he was dead, knifed and damped somewhere to die.
My mother’s anguish echoed in my bones every time I heard her cry. She heard a rumour he’d been living on a horse farm — he loved horses — in the mountains. My mother and I got on a bus and went to a remote village where he’d been seen to look for him. She found him but he refused to come home — something to do with the police, I was too little to understand. Then one morning the door opened and he walked in. My dad was standing not far from the door, ready to go to work. When Sergey, my brother, walked in, they looked at each other for a second, and then my dad, a powerful man, sculpted by a well-trained mass of muscles, swung his torso around a little, uncoiled and landed a blow on my brother’s face with his right fist. Sergey flew down to the floor as if someone pulled a carpet from under him, blood pouring from his nose all over the face. My dad’s punch knocked him out and he lay on the floor, unconscious, with our shoes, jackets and coats scattered around him as he crashed into a wardrobe on the way down. This was the only time my dad raised a hand on one of his own — he never hurt his wife and later he bitterly regretted hitting my brother that day.
I sat on the floor and cried while my mum nursed Sergey back into cognition. At that moment, I adored my bloodied, rebellious brother. I grew up dreaming to be gutsy and unruly like him. And I knew I’d run away one day too. I didn’t know where to or why, but I determined not to ever comply with force, not to yield to authority in whatever form it came. The seed was sown.
When he announced that he was getting married even though he wasn’t 18 yet, my parents didn’t protest. Marriage, they reasoned, would settle him down and keep him away from trouble. It didn’t. He got into a fight with a wrong guy and they locked him up for three years 9000km away from home. When the news of the verdict reached our household, my mum collapsed on the floor and wept, groaning “They’re gonna kill my boy” over and over.
Months later, I woke up one night to go to the toilet and when I walked into the living room, I saw my mother, sitting alone at the dinner table with a 6×4 portrait of Sergey in her hands, tears running down, praying “Lord God, punish, punish me but I pray you, please spare my boy.”
The hole my brother left in me when he was gone to jail was covered — if only in part — by my friendship with Anton when we became close. What bound us at first was a close proximity of the buildings we lived in, hardly 500 metres between them. I’d come to his place to ride to the Baza together — Baza (The Base) was our cycling school and service course, located in a basement of an ordinary school building — and then, after training, we’d ride home together again. We’d start riding home with a few other boys and they’d split as we went along through the city — we lived the farthest from the Baza. It is on these rides we polished our bike handling skills — the wheelies, braking with the front brake and lifting the rear wheel as high as possible (everyone went over the bars at least half a dozen times before this important skill was learned), undoing each others’ quick releases while riding or — the mother of all skills — riding with your feet on the handlebar.
We sprinted to street signs or light poles on these home rides. No one seemed to care for these sprints except Anton and me. Maybe no one was interested because Anton never lost a sprint and I couldn’t rest until I’d beat him. I don’t know how many hundreds of these sprints we have had, but I never won once. I tried to trick him in different ways. These were always low speed, short, small ring sprints. We lived at the top of the city near the mountains, and tired after training, the ride home was uphill and slow. When I realised this guy can’t be outsprinted head on, I’d mark a light pole 50-70 metres away, pick up some speed from behind and yell “Finish at the pole!” as I was passing him. He’d detonate his ridiculous power explosion and beat me to the imaginary line with his arms in the air.
Other times I tried hitting his rear shifter with my hand to overgear him and then sprint, and it still didn’t work — he’d beat me anyway, overgeared or not.
Years later, when he stopped racing, we went for a short ride around Nalchik on one of my visits home from Titan. He rode my old winter bike in slide sandals and had a cigarette in his mouth. I was in good shape after a block of racing, lean as a lone pine tree in a field and thought that this could be my only chance to beat him in a sprint. I checked what gear he was on — 42×15, a little overgeared for the speed we were rolling at. I clicked into 42×17, waited to be about 50 metres from a light pole, tightened the straps, grabbed the drops and yelled “Sprint!” He caught me with five metres to go and threw the bike to the ‘line’, undercutting me by half a wheel. “Dude,” he said after he got his breathing back. “You made me lose my cigarette.”
Although I never called myself a sprinter (unless I was pulling someone’s leg before a race), I won a few bunch kicks in my career and even some more from small breakaways. Because I’m not a sprinter, I’d have never won the sprints I won if not for those duels with Anton. It’s not that I became faster because of those sprints or anything stupid like that. But they did loosened me up to what I know a lot of racers are afraid of — the prospect of butting heads against others in an all out gallop to the line. It started with light poles and street signs and then I was grabbing his wheel at the end of training rides when we had a bunch sprint, with Piotr Trumheller riding into the distance on his Ural sidecar motorbike to mark the finish line. Everyone wanted Anton’s wheel and this is where I learned that everything goes before a sprint. When a bunch of testosterone-charged men reach the final stretch of a race, the rules are ditched. Your head, elbows and knees become the tools to get the wheel you want. Even the hands, a no-no in the rule book, they too are useful when you’re boxed in and have nowhere to go. Doing this dozens of times, ride after ride, with good legs and shot legs, I understood that I can beat almost anyone in a sprint as long as I’m aggressive beyond stupid and on a right wheel when the manure hits the fan.
When Anton called me bratka (little brother) for the first time, a word only a close, blood brother would use, I thought I’d do anything for this guy if he needs me. He moved to Moscow to do a university degree and I was picked up by Titan, went to Kiev and haven’t heard from him for over a year. With cycling overtaking everything in my life, I forgot about my friend like I forgot everything else that wasn’t relevant to the goals I set out to achieve. He too wasn’t the same kid from a small, provincial city in North Caucasus. He was a Moskvitch (Muscovite), swimming in bohemian waters of Moscow’s eccentric hangouts. He even picked up Moscow’s accent, an annoying idiosyncrasy I couldn’t stop myself laughing at when we met again in Nalchik.
Titan sent me home to wind down after the championship and Anton came to Nalchik for a couple of weeks before the new semester kicked in again. I was supposed to keep myself in shape and ride for at least two hours a day but I couldn’t even bother to unpack the bike and hid it under my bed away from my eyes — I was ready for some downtime.