Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 16)

Moscow State University
Moscow State University — the site of the 1985 Peace Race

The first sun rays broke out through the clouds when I stepped into the oxygen-rich air outside. In a typical early spring, frigid morning in Moscow, the tiny droplets of cold water drizzled from above. Anton volunteered to walk me to the main road to catch a taxi. We walked in silence, tired. I thought I’d pay anything to be in a warm bed right now instead of walking who knows where on a miserable morning like this. As if reading my mind — and he did this all the time — Anton said, “I have a couch you can sleep on. Call whoever it is you have to call and tell them you’re sick. I can’t imagine how you can race today. You walk like you’ve been shot.”

We waited half an hour for a taxi, gave up and decided bus and subway will get me back to the hotel before someone from team management discovers my absence in the morning — an unforgivable offence in Titan’s canon.

I sneaked into my room 10 minutes before the official wake-up time. My room-mate was already up, brushing teeth in a toilet, naked. “You look like death,” he said, staring at me from the mirror on the wall in front of him. “Rogozyan was here five minutes ago. I told him you went for a walk. I don’t think he bought it though. He knows you hate walking and your bed looks like no one ever slept in it.”

“Get the hell out of the bathroom,” I said. “I need a shower.”

“Brush your teeth,” he said walking out. “You stink like you spent the night in a tobacco factory.”

Nikolai Rogozyan, Titan’s second-in-command man, showed no sign he suspected me of any lawbreaking when I saw him outside, loading the team car with food and spares. With Yuri Elizarov in Kiev on some business, he had the power to send me away from this race and finish my career if he caught me doing anything wrong.

Often, he behaved like his only goal in life was to catch us in an act of breaching the sacred rules of Titan’s discipline. I was sure he had a list of riders he dreamed about catching breaking the rules. I was either heading the list or at least in its most wanted category. He demanded we leave our doors unlocked at night so he could check on any of us to see if we were in or out. If he could, he would chain us to our bikes, fence off the outside world and make us think of nothing but racing. He was obsessed with road cycling purity and dedication to a godly task of achieving cycling nirvana. He loved watching us suffer. He’d pull alongside you in a car when you’re most miserable, look you in the eye and smile. He was the only coach I knew I could swear at and he’d just laugh me off or swear back at me. He was that kind of an authoritarian shmuck who tried to pretend he was your equal, a buddy even, and then when you open up and trust him, strangle you the moment you showed defiance toward him. I loved playing ‘catch me if you can’ with Rogozyan. Sometimes there was nothing serious to it, other times I was pushing my luck too far. This time I wasn’t going to play at all, and yet came too close to losing everything.

He knew I wasn’t in all night, but he had no proof. I could see he was in a bad mood. “Had a good sleep last night?” he said when I passed him my bike to mount on the roof of our team car. “Yeah. Dreamed about you asking me this question. And here we are…”

He ignored the sarcasm and said, “You weren’t in your room this morning when I came by.”

I looked at him and said, “I went for a walk.”

***

The talking head on the car radio informed us it was ‘currently nine degrees Celsius in Moscow’ with icy drizzle expected to continue for the rest of the day as we got moving toward the Moscow State University where the team time trial was held. Currently? What’s that supposed to mean? The sun’s going to shine by the time we get out of the car?

“Hey, can you turn that stupid radio off?” I asked Rogozyan. “Too much information.”

My chest was just about tipping to the brim with loathing of cycling, the freezing drizzle, the cheerless world outside the car window, and Nikolai Rogozyan.

He didn’t turn the radio off and it was now spinning Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision of the new world order the Politburo appointed him to engineer. He was the fourth General Secretary of the Party I lived under, with three previous ones leaving us to mend for ourselves in quick succession. We’d gone off the Path, he was saying, the path our Great Lenin had mapped out 65 years ago, the path now paved with the bones of our forefathers who’d gone before us. We’d marched far on this path, we got distracted and now was the time to get back on it before we lose what we’d built.

Lose what? I thought. What is it that we’d built? A 300-million-strong prison? Collective farms that had nothing to show for in grocery stores? Cars that broke down before leaving the factory floor, yet you couldn’t buy one anywhere but the black market? Oh yeah, that’s right, we built those bloody space stations and nuclear weapons, the awesome fighters, the AK-47, the submarines. Come and get us.

This was an old, timeless pitch. Tell them what a great nation they are. Remind them of the all-conquering, mighty empire they live in. They’ll believe it, they’ll believe anything. Stir up that ancient Russian spirit, lingering somewhere in the backwoods of their souls. Ignite, inspire and call them to arms once again, they’ll go for it. They want to go for it already. After decades of hearing America wants their blood, they want them come and get it. Nuke the bustards, I’d heard many say, what are we waiting for? They want war? We’ll give them war. They never had one, not a real one anyway, don’t know what it’s like to lose a million or two in a battle. We’ll wipe them out before they have time to dig their own graves. Dying in wars, that’s we do, we love that, we’re good at it.

I thought of my brother’s advice he gave me on the last day before I started school: When you smell a fight, he said, don’t wait for it to come to you, always hit first. Hit and don’t stop hitting until they beg you to stop. Fear — people understand that. I finished school with knuckles scarred from breaking other boys’ teeth.

I should’ve listened to my dad and stayed in a chess school. He taught me how to play when I was six. I’d rush into my parents’ bedroom on a Sunday morning with a set of chess, jump on dad’s bed and ask for a game. He never refused. He’d put aside his Trud newspaper and give me two games — one for each side. He later talked to a pro player he knew and I started going to chess classes this guy ran in a basement of a local school. My dad never showed he cared about what I was interested in, except when I got hooked on chess. He told me about a well-known shakhmatist with the same surname we had and said we could be related. “Chess is in your blood,” he told me as we sat on his bed one morning to play. “It’s a loners’ game. You’ll be good at it.”

We came to a start area fenced off by steel barriers and militiamen in soaked rain coats. Team cars scattered around a large square allotted by the authorities for the peloton’s use. Riders, mechanics, coaches bustled back and forth between cars like preoccupied forest ants in their navy-blue or black windbreakers, white caps turned back to front if it were a rider, or with the beak up if it were a coach (that’s how they wore them in the 1960s and 1970s when they raced). A lot of guys were on the rollers already, warming up. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what I was going to do in the race. I often did that. I liked to picture in my mind different scenarios of how the race might go and what I should do. Maybe it was the hours spent at the chessboard in childhood that made me think ahead of a race I was going to do. Maybe I hated the uncertainty of racing and tried to reassure myself the race’s outcome was in my hands if only I think hard enough ahead of time and figure out every possible race plot.

Today’s race was a time trial and therefore had only one, immutable plot I knew by now like a multiplication table. You look at a large Omega chronometer near the start line, sitting upright in the saddle, hands down, breathing, hips spread in a vulgar blasé, enjoying the last few moments of life as it was meant to be, and wait for the 10-seconds-to-go mark. Then you drop down, grab the bars, squeeze them hard to flex your muscles to hear the ‘roger that’ acknowledgement from inside your soul. The heart starts to pump with a loud thump, thump, thump in your ears. And then you hear the first beep — six seconds to go. Why six, I never knew, but when it starts to beep, all other sounds shut off and you hear only that distinctive Omega beep: five, four, three, two, one — go.

We went full throttle from the gun — as we agreed to before the race — and I was gapped before I knew the race was on. I missed the warm up — couldn’t be bothered — and had inoperable legs now in the cold. This was a stage race rehearsal and the teams had six riders instead of four. I thought of pulling out right there before reaching the first kilometer. The clock stopped with the fourth rider over the line so, I reasoned, the team still had one guy to spare. It’s not my day, gotta go guys, sorry.

I imagined Rogozyan’s sly grin he’d put on his face passing me in the car: Getting soft, party boy? He’d be on a phone with Elizarov tonight telling him how I was blown in the first 30 seconds of the race. Oh and by the way, he spent the night nobody knows where. In his world, even a corpse would last longer than that. A team time trial specialist does not drop dead, not after one kilometre, not after 10 or a 100. We’re supposed to go the distance from start to finish without a glitch, we’re meant to take care of this race as if it were our own mother.

I dropped the elbows lower, pushed on and tried not to lose any more ground. In a few seconds, the first guy should peel off and close the gap in front of me. I’d sit out the first round of pulls, maybe two, warm up, get into the race and function as normal. I knew the routine, knew what I needed to do to stay on and race. Not a biggie. No way I’d give Rogozyan a chance to get rid of me today.

I got dropped with less than two kilometres to go on a steep climb to the finish line. We still had the six guys we started with. It was normal in a race like this for one or both extra guys to get out of the way to avoid a possible stack up at the end. Everyone was on a limit and mistakes happen when the lights go out. Six riders in a team time trial was two guys too many. I did my last pull to the bottom of the climb and shot off to the left away from the team, letting the guys know I was out. I was dropping chain onto the small ring when Rogozyan levelled his car with me. Our eyes met. “Whatta hell are you looking at?” was on my face. “I’ll get you one day, bitch,” I read on his.

***

That time trial set the tone for the rest of the season. I crashed out of the road race in Krylatskoye, then ended up in a hospital with the measles virus the day I returned from Moscow. I got going again by mid-season and thought I’d turned the tables when I trailed the third place by four seconds at the last time check in a national 50km individual time trial only to puncture with 15km to go with a lot of gas still left in the tank. When I was told I was going to America for the Coors Classic, I thought the misfortune streak was over. If the rumours were true, the entire pro peloton, headed by Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon was scheduled to show up. Racing with these guys would be great, but what thrilled me was seeing the door open again to get out of the country. I was determined not to come back from America — the wait was over.

I was packing my bike the night before flying to the US when Titan’s team administrator walked into my room and whispered — as if it were a secret — that I wasn’t going anywhere. I went outside to a public phone and called the only guy I thought might know what was going on.

By now, I was in the Soviet Army, the compulsory conscription no male in the country turning 18 could avoid. Soon after I came from France, Elizarov and a guy everyone called Zyama, drove me to a military base in Kiev where I read an oath of allegiance to the Soviet state, signed a paper I didn’t read and was pronounced a soldier. Zyama was a Soviet Army major who’d been managing Titan’s relationships with the military. If there was anyone I could call and ask what was going on, Zyama was the man. It was late for a phone call like this but I couldn’t wait.

“I’m not going to the States. Do you know why?” I asked him without a prelude when he picked up.

“No, I don’t,” he said.

“This is a fourth international race I got selected for and then dropped from at the last moment. Any idea why?”

“Ask Elizarov,” he said. “He should know.”

“He’s not in Kiev, but he wouldn’t know anyway, or at least I don’t think he would. It’s just not normal. I get selected, and then they drop me. Not once, four times. It’s just not normal. Can you find out on your end what’s going on? Something’s going on.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“I don’t know!” I yelled into the receiver. “I don’t know what it all means. That’s why I’m calling you. Can you find out what’s going on or not?”

“Call me back tomorrow. I’ll see what I can dig up.”

I called him again the next day. He said he spoke to several people with connections to sport in the army and no one knew anything specific.

“One guy I spoke to said your passport is most likely on hold,” he told me.

“Why?” I said.

“Something to do with the Kontora. Someone there not happy with you. Have you been talking to anybody?”

“Anybody who?”

“You know who.”

“Yes. I was picked up on a street by them a few months ago. We drove around Kiev for I don’t know how long and then they let me go after that.”

“What have you done?”

“Nothing.”

“They wouldn’t be talking to you if you’ve done nothing.”

“I’ve done nothing.”

“Do you remember the agent’s name?”

“No.”

“Look, if you want my help, you need to tell me what you’ve done and who you’ve been talking to. It could be something stupid, like your grandma is Jewish or something. I can fix that. Are you Jewish?”

“Piss off, Zyama.”

“You must’ve done something. Your passport is on hold, do you understand what it means?”

“What?”

“You’ll be fired from the national team once they get the word from the Kontora that you’re banned from international travel. How long do you think Titan will keep you after they learn the same thing? Tell me what you’ve done and I’ll see what I can do.”

“I don’t know what to say…”

“You’re screwed. They’ve got something on you, I don’t know what, but you’re screwed.”

I hung up, went back to my room and started packing up. This is it, I thought, I’m done racing. I’ll go back to Nalchik and figure out what to do with my life. Maybe I should go to Tallinn and become a doctor. They can go to hell with their cycling, Tallinn is next to Finland, maybe I’ll find the way out of here somehow.

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