“Life, if you looked about you, bore no resemblance not only to the lies that streamed out of the telescreens, but even to the ideals that the Party was trying to achieve. Great areas of it, even for a Party member, were neutral and non-political, a matter of slogging through dreary jobs, fighting for a place on the Tube, darning a worn-out sock, cadging a saccharine tablet, saving a cigarette end. The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering—a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons—a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting—three hundred million people all with the same face. The reality was decaying, dingy cities where underfed people shuffled to and fro in leaky shoes, in patched-up nineteenth-century houses that smelt always of cabbage and bad lavatories.” —George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
How could Orwell describe Soviet Union of the 1980s in 1947 is hard to explain, but he did. The triumphant march we started on in 1917 to rid the world of capitalism was near its end if the ‘telescreens’ told the truth. The adversary, the United States and its lackeys, is weak and about to crumble. “We Will Prevail!” shouted the slogans on the billboards, “The Victory is Ours!”
I don’t remember the day or even the year I discovered the world I believed in was fake. Perhaps there was no such day. Perhaps it was a process, an evolution of sorts. Perhaps it even started one afternoon when I came over to a friend’s place to borrow a couple of books. His dad was a librarian and the apartment he lived in looked like a library too — almost every wall was turned into a bookshelf filled with volumes of literature of all kinds. It is here he passed on to me a hand-typed copy of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. At the time, a mere possession of this work, never mind ‘distributing’ it to friends, was a criminal offense with a long jail term.
Before The Archipelago though, there was Amerika — a Russian-language lush magazine published by the US Department of State (in exchange for allowing distribution of The USSR magazine in the US). To this day I’m not sure how this slight of hand by US government was overlooked by the Soviet thought police. No matter now. On the magazine’s otherworldly — in a true sense of the word — glossy pages, with rich, striking photography, a story about some American car collector caught my attention.
The guy in the story loved muscle cars from the late 1960s and was buying them left and right from all over the States. For a Soviet kid who grew up in a country where 99 per cent of the population didn’t own a car, collecting cars — by a plumber of all people — was an unusual hobby. Aren’t the American workers enslaved by the greedy capitalists, robbed of their earnings and live in constant fear of losing their poorly paid jobs? How can a plumber afford not only a car, but also his own private museum of awesome cars if he — supposedly — struggles to get by in a capitalist society?
What struck me even more was the numbers the author of the story had been throwing around as he went on. The plumber car collector paid between $500 and $3000 for his cars depending on a model and condition. The official exchange rate, published daily in Izvestia newspaper, was around 0.7 rouble for 1 US dollar. It didn’t take me long to calculate the value of $500 in Soviet currency: 350 roubles. You can by a car for 350 roubles in America? What the hell? A beat up, half-dead clunker in USSR will cost you several thousand and a new Lada more than ten. With an average salary of 100-150 roubles per month, it would take a dozen of lifetimes to save for a car in Soviet Union while an American plumber, with an income of $3000 per month — according to the story — could buy more than one car with every paycheck if he wanted to. Either the story was too good to be true, I thought, or there was something wrong with the foreign exchange rate.
By the time I made it to Titan’s training camp, I knew what was wrong with the official exchange rate and how to profit from the surreal world of fixed, artificial prices on goods in Soviet Union. If I could only make the selection and start going to European races, the money will flow in. Then I can slip out of the country with a modest cache of dough to ease the transition into the new world. That was the plan.
In the meantime, I woke up in a wooden cottage of the Lesnoye resort feeling someone was touching me. When I opened my eyes, I saw a guy next to my bed, down on his haunches, holding my wrist in his hand. Dressed in an orange shirt and a cardigan only someone’s grandma would wear, he looked like he lived in a science lab most of his life. Military-style haircut with a straight fringe told me mirrors didn’t exist in his world.
“Good morning,” he whispered in Ukrainian with a wide smile on his face. “Checking your resting heart rate. Sorry to wake you up. You can go back to sleep if you want.”
A little dazzled, I realized that not a single word he said I had ever heard before, yet understood everything. His polite tone and friendliness were unusual. I had never heard a ‘sorry to wake you up,’ not in Russian, not in Ukrainian. A PhD student from Lviv in Western Ukraine, an area annexed by Soviet Union only forty years ago, Vasily was a relic of the pre-Soviet era, a type of person — extinct everywhere else in the country — who used ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ a lot, always smiled and was keen to help everybody.
“So how’s my pulse?” I said.
“If I didn’t know you were a well-trained road cyclist, I would be calling an ambulance right now — it’s below forty.”
“Is ‘below forty’ good?”
“Let me put it this way: your heart pumps the same amount of blood in one stroke as mine pumps in two.”
“Is that good?”
He smiled again, let go of my wrist and said: “We’ll know after the tests. Go back to sleep.”
The tests — everyone was talking about the tests and how much faith Titan’s head coach, Yuri Elizarov, had in science. I heard a story about three guys from last year’s intake who didn’t make the cut because their test data was inadequate. It worried me. It worried me that I was up against an unknown threshold I knew nothing about, or a number, and not another rider or a watch.
They drew the first blood on the first morning before the main ride. As I rolled to the Lesnoye’s restaurant — the training rides’ departure spot — I saw two young women in white coats sitting behind a table. One was busy with test tubes, marking and sorting them in a microwell plate. The other showed me to a folding chair next to her with an index finger pointing down. She looked pretty and I considered for a moment to stop the bike with a rear wheel in the air to frighten the girls but thought better of it — if the stunt went wrong and I ended up on the table with all those glass tubes, I knew I would be on a plane this afternoon.
“I need your blood,” said the girl with the finger still pointing down when I stopped.
“It’s expensive” I tried to flirt. “I’ll give you a drop if you say please,” I said and stuck out my hand without getting off the bike.
She chuckled and said: “Sit down, cowboy, or you might faint when you see my tools.”
They took blood two, sometimes three times a day: before and after the main ride, and later at night. In three days I learned that the tip of a finger swells after four pricks and is too painful to draw the blood from after that. The vampires — as the girls became known among us — only pricked middle and ring finger, said the other three were too hard to squeeze the blood from. After a week I ran out of pain-free fingers and, hoping to get a break, grumbled one morning about how painful it was to drink from a water bottle with four fingers full of holes.
“No problem,” said a pretty vampire. “We’ll use your ears until your fingers heal.”
Then came the heart rate monitors. These were not your twenty-first century wrist devices. The receiver was housed in a box the size of a portable fridge and traveled in the team car. The transmitters with electrodes had to be attached on the chest directly to the skin — the straps were not invented yet. I don’t know how these things were used in Finland — they were Finnish made, early Polars I guess — but Titan didn’t look for elegant solutions to logistical problems, they glued the transmitters to our chests with rim glue. The first time they smacked the electrode onto my chest with rim glue I thought of it as a brilliant idea — it was the vampires’ job to glue them on. Taking your jersey off — totally justified at that — in front of two young ladies was the morning’s highlight and a bottomless pit of opportunities for saucy jokes. The payback came after the ride when the transmitters had to be taken off along with the chest hair. The soft ones among us shaved a spot on the chest to avoid the torture the next day.
The lab test came without warning. It was a rest day and we were at the end of a 50km ride when Nikolai Rogozyan drove up to me and said I need to pack a pair of shorts, shoes and socks for a trip to Kiev after the ride. “Our science brigade can’t wait to see you,” he smirked. “You’ll enjoy your time in the lab,” he added. “And please, no vomiting — bad manners.”
What I thought would be some hard time in the saddle turned out to be the most awful experience I have ever had on a bike. The test was in a large room full of strange medical equipment. A Monark stationary bike with a belt drive stood in the middle of the room with a sea of sweat under it. The air in the room was heavy with body perspiration and cigarette stench. A man and a woman buzzed around the room, navigating their way with ease between machinery with German names on them. I was told to get the shoes on and mount the bike to warm up. Then the man, tall and slim with an evil look on his face, told me what the test procedure will be. Pointing at a metronome near the bike, he said I had to match my cadence to the metronome’s ticks. “Until you collapse,” he finished the instructions.
“How long should I go for?” I asked.
“Well,” he said with a grin. “That’s what we’re here for to find out.”
When I reached a point where I thought I was going to die if I didn’t stop pedaling, Dr Evil left his command and control station, put an arm on my shoulder, and, with a firm insistence in his voice, said into my ear: “Keep going. Thirty more seconds.” He then pulled out a stopwatch from his white coat, pressed the start button and, after what felt like an eternity, said: “Five seconds.” Another eternity, “Ten seconds.”
I don’t know what it is about these lab tests but over the years, every time I did one and hit the wall at the end, I always thought about death. It felt like I was pushing myself beyond all the stops, heading for a cliff. I believe humans have a built-in warning system that triggers alarm after alarm when we go full retard on ourselves and dodge the warning signs. Pain is the first line of defense. When we ignore it and push further, the intellect steps in and deliberations begin: to slow down or not to; to quit or not to quit. That day, I dodged so many stop signs the state of mind I was in frightened me — I never felt mortal before, I felt I was near the cliff.
With another five seconds gone, I decided to quit. The lights were going out and the noise from my own heartbeat was so loud in my head I couldn’t hear the metronome anymore. Who the hell cares if I do another fifteen seconds or not? was the clinching argument… And then I realized — how was I so stupid not to see it? — this is the test, the thirty seconds on the other side of the wall is the test. This whole torture festival was nothing but a prelude, a twisted warm-up for the thirty seconds that really mattered. Will I walk to the edge or not? How far can I push myself with a straightforward, quiet command: “Keep going.”
By now, after several weeks with Titan, I knew that behind the science, testing, data collection, analyses, and nurturing of riders stood one simple idea: build road racing animals one ride at a time and then unleash them to the world when they’re ready to kill. The data they were collecting on me now, yeah sure, Dr Evil will smoke a pack of cigarettes analyzing 57 blood samples they took out of me and meditate over my metabolism, but Yuri Elizarov, Titan’s ringmaster, will ask him only one question: Did he crack beyond the wall or not?
I didn’t crack. My cadence was out of sync with the metronome — I was doing 40, maybe 50 revolutions by then instead of 90 — but I turned the pedals until I heard “Stop.”