The road to the top of the cycling pyramid turned out to be more rutted than I thought it would be. At first, nothing seemed too complicated about it: win or finish on a podium at the Russian state championships, get selected into the Kuybyshev super-team and you’re one step away from the top — the national team. At the time, Russia was one of the states — or Republics as they were called — in the Soviet Union along with Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia and ten others.
Kuybyshev was the biggest, the most powerful cycling stable in the USSR. Funded and tied to the Soviet Army, Kuybyshev’s chiefs ruled the Soviet road cycling landscape with little restriction. They could pick and choose any talent from anywhere in the country — it didn’t matter if you were from Russia or Estonia — they’d sign you up to a five-year military-backed contract, bottle you up inside their brutal selection system, and watch if you came out alive or not. If you did, you could make it to the national team because if you survived Kuybyshev’s meat grinder, you were probably good enough to race in the red CCCP jersey.
Under Viktor Kapitonov, himself a Kuybyshev’s graduate, an Olympic road race champion and Soviet Army colonel, 60-70 percent of the national team came through Kuybyshev live-or-die machine. Their training methodology was simple: snatch as many talented riders as you can from all over the country, throw them to the wolves, keep the ones that survived and dump those that didn’t. With access and ability to take almost anybody they wanted from a large, nation-wide talent pool, Kuybyshev was the epitome of the Soviet road cycling system — a ruthless, cut-throat and cold-blooded environment where winning by any means was the law everyone lived by.
I knew what Kuybyshev was like from Piotr Trumheller and one of my older team-mates. They took the guy in as a state silver road race medalist and he came back nine months later refusing to ride more than couple of times a week. He quit cycling soon after. He told me bikes are stupid, that he’d rather rot in a factory than cripple himself racing. His fall from the top of a talent ladder daunted me but there were no other routes I knew about. To climb the pyramid — if you’re from Russia — you go up either via Kuybyshev or you don’t go anywhere at all. An intimidating road but what other choices did I have? At least, at the time, that’s what I thought.
I blew two chances I had to show Kuybyshev my worth at the state championships. I didn’t just miss something or make a mistake, I fizzled out like a faulty firecracker. Dude, we used to say when we wanted to mock someone, you’re so full of crap you didn’t even make it onto the first sheet. Race results used to be printed on A4 sheets in those days with about 30 places on the first page. You were a nobody if you didn’t make the first sheet. I failed to appear on the first sheet of the only races that mattered in the entire season every time. Trumheller’s scolding after each failure drove me to doubt if I was good enough to do what I set out to do.
“You know what’s wrong with you?” he said after I flopped the second time. “You just can’t be bothered pushing yourself as hard as the other guys. You think you can win anything you want if you go hard, but you never do when it really counts.”
“What are you talking about? I gave it everything I had…”
“And went two minutes slower than a week before?”
“That was on a faster road…”
“Not by two minutes. You know why you can’t be bothered? It’s all too easy for you. You don’t want to suffer like the other guys to get a win and when you come to a serious race like this one, you don’t want it bad enough. You think it will all fall into your hands by itself because you’re so special. But you know what? You’re wrong. You won’t get anywhere until you fight for what you want like you’re in a dog fight. These other guys out there who did well — they know what they want and how to get it. They’ll cut your throat if you get on the way. Stop acting like you’re Eddy Merckx at a local criterium. You’re not Merckx. If you want to be him, race like there’s no tomorrow. All I see is a prima donna on two wheels.”
My last chance to step up the ladder came in May 1983 in Kaliningrad, a city known for seven centuries before as Königsberg until 1946 when Stalin decided to keep it to himself after the WWII. A 25km time trial and a road race was all I had left to play with if I wanted a future in cycling. The road race was flat as a pancake with a guaranteed bunch sprint. I didn’t rate my chances and focused only on the time trial. Two days before we flew to Kaliningrad, Trumheller told me he had built a pair of time trial wheels for me from a stash of gear he kept since his trip to Italy. He bought a pair of 28-hole Campagnolo Record hubs, Nisi rims and super light Clement silks for a special time trial that never came about for him. A frugal German, I knew how important my last test was in his eyes if he pulled out this prized kit for me.
“This is it,” he said when I pulled up to a taxi we hired as a team car after I finished the warm-up. “Blow this one again, and you’re done, in the boots by next spring. Goodbye cycling, arrivederce Roma.” He swapped the wheels while I changed into a dry jersey, wiped the silks clean with a bare hand and stood on the road with my bike, waiting until I was ready to get out of the car.
“Four minutes to go,” he said, placing his hand on my shoulder when I came up to take the bike. “How bad you want it?” he asked, drilling through me with his dark, penetrating eyes.
“I’m not going to the army,” I said. “Not with these wheels,” I smiled.
I plunged into the race from the gun and scorched through the distance like it was a five-kilometer interval. With legs lighter than feathers, nothing was on my mind but a will to push on the pedals with a clockwork rhythm. I hovered over the red line until the weight of the race crashed down on me toward the end. I knew it was coming. I took it head-on and kept going without slowing down because I knew — I just knew it! — the race was in the bag, I’ve crushed them all and no amount of pain could stop me.
I lost by six seconds to a guy who was already in a national team and held a national time trial title. For someone who couldn’t make it onto the first sheet, a second place was a triumph. I still worried if this was enough.
That same afternoon in my hotel room, I’d been lying on a bed, legs up against a wall, watching tea leaves floating up and down a two-liter glass jar of boiled water on a bedside table, waiting for it to brew. Razor in hand, I went over my legs several times to cut down every last string of hair I could find. If the time trial didn’t get Kuybyshev’s attention, I thought, I had to win the road race tomorrow. I knew there was a little hill, a rise really, with less than two kilometers to go. I thought if I had positioned myself right coming into it, picked up some speed right before we hit it, I could attack and try to get away. If the peloton hesitated for ten seconds and did nothing, I could gain enough of a gap to hold it to the line. Ten seconds, all I need is for the peloton to freeze for ten seconds.
I heard a loud knock on the door and before I realised what was going on, I saw a man in a navy blue Adidas tracksuit standing in front of me. A USSR state emblem on the chest placed him somewhere high in cycling’s official hierarchy, but even without the famed chest tag I knew who he was: Pavel Grigoriev, a man in charge of Kuybyshev’s development program.
“How you doing?” he asked, grabbing a chair and sitting next to my bed with his legs crossed. I wasn’t sure if I should look for something to put on — which meant walking around in my underwear — or try to pretend I wasn’t embarrassed.
“Fine,” I said and sat up on my bed.
“Do you know who I am?”
“No,” I lied, trying to make him think less of himself.
“You did well in the time trial this morning,” he said, ignoring my answer. “How did you manage to come out of nowhere and finish second?”
“It was my last chance to get on Kuybyshev’s roster,” I said, unsure if that was the answer he wanted.
“Well, you did. Look, I don’t have much time this afternoon. This tea, by the way, looks good and I wish I could have some with you. I’ll make it quick and simple: if you’re interested to come to Kuybyshev, we would like to give you an opportunity to show us what you can do.”
I felt a rush of adrenaline surging through my veins, heartbeat rising, chaotic thoughts bouncing in my head. After I mumbled a “Yes, I would love to,” he told me I had to travel to Ivano-Frankovsk in Western Ukraine next month where they held a training camp to prepare for Yunost stage race — the most important juniors’ stage race in the country.
“If you make the team,” he said, “and do well in the race, I’ll keep you at least until the end of next season. If you don’t, you might have another chance or two to stay with us, but don’t count on it. Make the team and we’ll see what kind of a rider we can make out of you.”
He stood up and said that he’ll talk to my coach tomorrow after the road race and give him more details, then stuck out his hand to me, I shook it. He wished me good luck tomorrow and walked out as swiftly as he walked in.
I stood in the middle of the room, processing what had just happened. I poured some tea into a glass, added a teaspoon of mum’s blackberry jam I brought with me from home, sat down at the table and said out loud, savoring each word: “You are in Kuybyshev now.”
What I thought was by far the best day of my life was about to get better. Not even ten minutes had passed since Grigoriev left when the door opened again — without knocking this time — and Trumheller walked in with a man I’d never met before. He had dark, short hair with elephant ears sticking out like two satellite dishes. Closely seated, brown eyes sat on top of a large nose which gave his face a prankster look. He wore khaki chinos with a chequered short sleeve shirt, unmatched by a plaid patterned white and yellow neck tie. A pair of white sneakers completed the outfit’s hodgepodge.
“This is Nikolai Mikhailovich Rogozyan from the Center of Olympic Development Titan in Kiev,” Trumheller said. “He wants to talk to you.” I plopped onto my bed again, still in my underwear, and they took the chairs.
Like Grigoriev before him, Rogozyan didn’t waste time on pleasantries and got down to business as soon as he sat down.
“I came here from Kiev to scout riders for Titan,” he opened the conversation. “You did well this morning, so Peter and I had a chat after the race, you know, your background, training, what you’re good at and so on. We think you should fly to Kiev and get evaluated by us to see if you can fit in into Titan’s program. What do you think?”
I looked at my coach, wondering how I could bring up Grigoriev’s visit without wrecking this new development in my ten-minute-old professional cycling career. The ‘we’ in Rogozyan’s talk flagged Trumheller’s blessing of a trip to Kiev so I decided to dump the news on them early: “Grigoriev stopped by to talk to me. Says he wants me to fly to Ivano-Frankovsk next month to join Kuybyshev’s training camp.”
Neither of them appeared too bothered by what seemed to me a complicated situation now.
“Look,” Trumheller said. “I know you see Kuybyshev as a major stepping stone in your career, but it’s not the only one. If you didn’t have any other options, then Kuybyshev would’ve been the path to take, but now you do. Forget about them and go to Kiev.”
“Why would I go to Ukraine when I can stay in Russia and race for the best team in the country?” I tried to protest.
“Kuybyshev is not a team,” Rogozyan butted in. “It’s a machine. Sweet if you survive it, sour if you don’t.”
He went on to tell me about how Titan was set up a year ago by Ukrainian agro-industrial complex with tight links to Kiev’s Sports University. A group of scientists, masseurs, a doctor and two mechanics were on Titan’s payroll. They had people high up in the army to take care of the military conscription. “You won’t see a day in the boots,” Rogozyan informed me. Riders on Titan’s roster were paid a salary. “We’ll employ you at one of Kiev’s factories and you’ll be paid every month without even knowing where the factory is and what it does.” They had access to all top-tier races in the USSR, a privilege afforded only to a handful of teams. Unlike old-guard stables like Kuybyshev, they hand-picked their riders and treated them as assets rather than human stock. They took them in at a young age and built them up using a training methodology not many people knew much about. Because of Titan’s links with the Sports University, each rider was guaranteed a place in it if they raced for the team. This was important, something to fall back on to should an unfortunate crash end a racing career before its time.
“As our name implies,” Rogozyan concluded the pitch, “we’re in a business of developing Olympic champions. We’re backed by people in the government who want to see more Olympic medals go to Ukraine to challenge Russian hegemony in all spheres of life. Sport is one such sphere. It’s a serious project with serious goals and serious backers. You would be stupid to turn this offer down.”