Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 13)

Viktor Demidenko was one of the beasts I met in the Soviet national team in 1984
Viktor Demidenko was one of the beasts I met in the Soviet national team in 1984

A gust of crisp, icy wind hit me on the chest when I stepped outside. I was covered in sweat, the shirt on my back stuck to my skin under a leather jacket. Of all Russian words, one I didn’t want to hear right now was the dreaded poshli (let’s go), a word thousands of men and women of my country heard coming out of KGB agents’ rotten mouths — a one-word condemnation to a living hell of the merciless gulag.

The Volga hadn’t driven away, it’d been idling next to us on the street. The driver, gazing at the traffic passing by, lit a cigarette and rolled the window down. What is he waiting for? We’re going in, aren’t we? Shouldn’t he go?

“Come here,” Bogdan said. Like a fourth-grade pupil caught by the principal in the act of smashing a school window, I stepped closer, drenched in fear of the verdict I was about to receive. “Right now,” he said, putting both hands in his pants’ pockets, towering next to me like a statue, “I’m inclined to let this rest for a while. Not that I believed much of what you told me, but I’ll allow this to float around for a bit and decide what to do later. We’ll be in touch.” He turned around, opened the front door of the waiting car and sat in. Before he shut the door, he looked at me from inside the car and said with quiet, affirmative voice: “You do not mention this conversation to anyone.”

I stood still, in disbelief, on a sidewalk for half a minute until the black Volga sped away out of view. It started raining. The microscopic rain drops filled the air, dimming the daylight in dull, grey hues. With the Komitet’s headquarters behind my back, I crossed the street without once looking at the dreadful building. Like a bad Blackjack player who was dealt a King on a 17-point hand, I cursed myself for not staying in France, for assuming I could get out of this pigpen any time now that I ‘made it’, for wishing to see the doubters’ eyes, for craving the pats on the back, the welldones and the goodboys. What a moron.

I turned the corner into Reitarskaya street and saw a taxi moving toward me with its green light on. I stepped onto the road with one foot and hailed it. The car swerved and came to a stop next to me. “Lesnoye resort,” I said to the cabbie when I opened the front door.

“That’s out of town,” he said.

“Yeah I know.”

“How much?” he said, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel.

“Twenty-five,” I said, a price I knew he wouldn’t refuse.

“Done.”

***

While in Crimea, basking in the sun and clicking slow, easy miles, I heard that I was drafted into the elite national team, the only junior out of the entire country. Igor Soumnikov, my TTT gold medal team-mate, would be called in a couple of months later, but the day I heard that in three weeks’ time I’ll be riding and living with the giants of Soviet cycling, I thought I stepped over the edge into a different world. This was the highest step on the ladder, there was nowhere else to climb after that, this was it.

The team was made up of 22 riders, hand-picked out of an army of the wannabes. The national champions had an automatic entry and that was almost the only way to qualify. Because these guys were the best out of the lot, little fresh blood was coming in each year since they were racking up those national gold medals left and right in all disciplines. Junior world champions were considered too but no one was guaranteed a place. At the time, someone had said that it was damn luck I was picked, but I figured, luck had nothing to do with it — nobody was getting into this kind of a team because of luck with the choice of riders they had in the country.

***

When I walked into the foyer of the Primorskaya hotel in Sochi, a jewel of Soviet 1930s Art Deco architecture, I remembered that it was almost to a day a year ago that I sat at the Titan team meeting and heard Yuri Elizarov’s plan of a gold medal for me at the junior world’s, a door that was meant to open the way to the elite national team and the 1988 Olympic Games. And here I was, talking to a receptionist and telling her who I was and why I was here in Sochi. “Oh,” she said, smiling, “you must be one of the Viktor Arsentyevich’s boys. Let’s see what room you’re in…” She gave me keys to my room and added: “You better hurry up to the restaurant, the breakfast had already started. Viktor Arsentyevich likes everyone to be punctual.”

Viktor Kapitonov, or Viktor Arsentyevich for anybody not on the first-name basis with him, was a legend of not only Soviet cycling, but also one of the greats of Soviet sport. The drama and the triumph of the 1960 Olympic road race in Rome marked the beginning of a long-lasting dominance of Soviet Union in amateur cycling. People talked about pre- and post-Kapitonov era, what we did and how we did things before and after Rome. The first book I read about cycling was authored by Kapitonov and a good portion of it described his audacious Olympic victory. On many occasions, riding in scorching heat on mountain slopes of North Caucasus where I grew up, I would teleport myself to Rome, to the 1960 Olympic road race. I would slip into Kapitonov’s skin and daydream going head to head against Livio Trapè. Submerged in deafening noise of Italian tifosi, I would shut off the pain and think of ways to overcome the enemy. I knew every detail of that race, what the plan was, how it all went wrong more than once, how everyone who was anyone was destroyed by the well-drilled, motivated Italians, how Kapitonov dragged Trapè to the line, miscalculated the remaining laps and sprinted to victory a lap too early, how Trapè attacked right away once he saw what an idiot Kapitonov was, the chase, the catch and another sprint, the real one, the one that counted, and then The Win, the monument and the pride of my sport, my country, and our system.

I knew all of that and after playing that race back in my mind dozens of times, it stopped being real, became a movie I had seen in a drab, provincial cinema. The hero, I knew he was real, was around somewhere but the chances of meeting him, I always thought, never mind working with him, were close to nil.

In the ‘70s, Kapitonov was appointed the head coach of the national team with a mission to establish the Soviet Union as a dominant player in amateur cycling. He delivered the goods: three back to back Olympic gold medals in TTT from 1972 to 1980. With several world titles between the Games, the team time trial became the Soviets’ hallmark race, an event every other team hoped to win only when the Russians had a bad day in the office.

From mid 1970s and into the 1980s, the Peace Race too was owned by men in red jerseys. In 1984, during Soukhorouchenkov’s second victory, four Soviets broke away from the peloton on one of the mountain stages and rode a team time trial to end everyone’s hope of saving themselves a face that year. The dominance was so ludicrous, I worried other countries would lose interest competing against us.

When I walked into Primorskaya restaurant on that November morning in 1984, I walked into a room filled with the world-class choice riders of the era. Two Olympic and five world champions were in the room, guys I watched on TV winning Peace Race stages, wearing yellow jerseys, established old guard and the rising stars I heard about — Abdoujaparov, Ugrumov, Saitov.

I opened a heavy, wooden door into a large room with high ceiling, filled with a lot of sunlight from tall windows and white walls. The tables were dressed in white, heavy tablecloth, reaching all the way to the floor. The riders sat two or three per table on the opposite side of the room, chatting away and working on their food. No one else was in the restaurant (I learned later it was closed for public when the national team ate). I froze for a second. Where do I sit? What do I do? I scanned the tables, looking for an unoccupied one I could land at, and started walking, hoping I wouldn’t have to ask where to sit. Some guys glanced at me and kept talking and chewing, while two or three stared with a who-the-hell-is-this-clown look on the their faces. The stares burned through my skin like laser beams. I glanced at one face after another, at the end of the room, at the floor and the windows not knowing where to hide my eyes. Each step brought me closer to what I thought would be the most awkward moment of my life: Hey guys, if you don’t mind me asking, where do I sit..? And you are..?

I saw a pair of blue eyes looking at me with what I thought was a dash of curiosity. I recognised the face from Peace Race TV broadcasts — Yuri Kashirin, an Olympic and world champion, the long-standing team captain. He nodded with his chin, pointing at the table he and a guy I didn’t know was sitting at. I didn’t wait for another invitation, steered toward his table and took a chair as soon as I could grab it.

“Yura,” he said and stuck his hand out.

“Kolya,” I said, shook his hand and looked at the second guy, expecting to hear his name. Instead, I heard: “How old are you, son?”

“Eighteen,” I said. He turned to Kashirin and said: “Is this even legal?”

“Legal what?” Kashirin said.

“Taking eighteen-year-olds into the national team.”

“I’m sure he’ll turn nineteen next year, won’t you?” Kashirin said, looking at me.

“That’s the plan,” I said.

“What team are you from?” the second guy said.

“Titan,” I said.

“They cook you by the dozens in Ukraine, don’t they?” he said. I sensed a doze of venom in his voice.

“I’m not Ukrainian. I’m from North Caucasus,” I said.

“North Caucasus? Where exactly in North Caucasus?”

“Nalchik.”

“Naaalchik? Do you know Peter Trumheller?”

“He is my coach. Well, was… He was my first coach.”

“How did you end up in Ukraine?”

“Titan offered me a ride.”

“I thought all Russian kids go to Kuybyshev nowadays.”

“I didn’t.”

“Why?”

“Trumheller said go to Titan, I went.”

He poured himself a cup of black coffee from a stainless steel pot and reclined in the chair, staring out the window at the Black Sea outside. Kashirin waved to a waiter. “This young man has just arrived,” he pointed at me when the waiter came. Without needing to know anything else, the waiter turned around and hurried away to fetch me breakfast.

“Malakhov and I are from Rostov,” Kashirin said. “Almost neighbours,” he added. Although more than 300km from Nalchik, and far from the mountains, Rostov was geographically in North Caucasus, the largest city in the region. Neighbours, yeah, I’ve been to Rostov only in transit and from what I saw of it, I wouldn’t want to spend an hour in that dirty, industrial place.

So, this is Vladimir Malakhov, I thought, one of the sharpest sprinters in the country and a national road champion.

“A few Ukrainians joined the national team in the last couple of years,” Kashirin said, “and Volodya isn’t too keen on the idea.” He looked at Malakhov, grinned and said: “Why don’t you like Ukrainians, you Nazi?”

“You’re calling me a Nazi? I’m not the one swallowing anabolics all day long.”

“Swallowing what?” I said. I knew, sort of, what anabolics were. By this time, the genie was out of the bottle and anyone willing to put two and two together knew what the East German women swimmers were on. Looking more like seals than human, they lost the last traces of femininity even on their faces. They were a joke and everyone knew that. But cycling? The word on the street was: ‘bolics shrink dicks and make men impotent. That’s all I knew about anabolics and now it seemed like there was more to it than I thought I knew.

“What do you mean swallowing anabolics all day?” I asked him after he ignored my question.

“I heard you gobble ‘bolics by the shovels in Ukraine,” he said. The ‘you’ he used was in a plural form that didn’t refer to anybody, but I dropped the diplomacy and asked, using a form of ‘we’ that included me personally: “And why would we be taking ‘bolics?”

“Well,” Malakhov said, “to squeeze a little bit of performance out of your legs? Maybe?”

“I thought the last thing a cyclist needs is more weight to carry up the hills,” I said with I-know-what-I’m-talking-about confidence.

“If you stay around and behave yourself, one day when I’m in a good mood, I’ll explain to you what an extra kilo or two of lean muscle can do to your performance, even on the hills. For now though, eat your breakfast, shut up and make sure you’re on your best day every day if you want to survive here.”

I took his advice to heart and tried to avoid any potential disagreement with gospodin Malakhov, as I nicknamed him in my mind. He always had a life lesson for me or a smart insight to offer. Why at a winter training camp I was riding on 24s and not on 27s? Well, I would reply in my head, because I don’t give a shit. I glue on whatever I grab from the pile without looking what size the stupid single is, gospodin Malakhov. It’s not like we’re racing tomorrow and I should worry about the rubber. “You put too much sugar in your coffee,” he told me one morning over breakfast. “It ruins your teeth and makes your ass heavy like a truck.”

It amazed me how immaculate his cycling kit was — always — even after several rainy days on a bike. We didn’t have washing machines in the hotels we lived in and had to wash our kits by hand in a bath tab or in a sink. During rainy periods, I couldn’t be bothered washing every day. A master of shortcuts, I would dry the top layer stuff in the sun, shake the sand off and ride in it again. Malakhov, he’d turn up in a clean, spotless kit every time no matter how foul the weather was the day before — a class act. I’d start a race in a rain jacket if Malakhov wore one. A cap over the helmet or under? Look at Malakhov. Arm warmers on or off? Look at Malakhov. He told me to always wear gloves in races and when I forgot to put them on one day, he made me ride back to the team bus to get them. I missed the start and chased the peloton the first few kilometers of the race.

He annoyed the living light out of me with his preaching but I learned one day he meant good. Approaching the last climb in one of the early spring races, I was getting food out of my back pocket — both hands in — when someone in front of me dropped a bottle. It rolled under my front wheel, I lost it and hit the floor. Malakhov was behind me. When I saw him going down, I thought he’d kill me right there on the road but the first thing that came out of his mouth when we came to a stop was: “Are you OK, kid?”

He was that rare breed of a cyclist who’d swap a 53 chainring for a 52 one because he knew the sprint was slightly uphill. He never attacked, yet, a winning breakaway would almost never go without him. He hardly ever talked about races but every time he did, I was listening, gaining knowledge unavailable anywhere else. No matter how much I thought I was ready for the top league, I wasn’t. Sitting with Malakhov and Kashirin at a dinner table three times a day changed that.

The junior racing at the national level was hard and aggressive. It would start with fireworks and a flurry of attacks, go on stupid for a while and then sort itself out into a select group of favourites who would settle down and puzzle over about what to do next. You could win a race by doing a sneaky move while everyone else was looking at each other. The elite guys, they’d start easy and give themselves time to warm up. On a cold day, the word would spread to go piano for the first 10-15 kilometers. Then the pace would pick up and if you didn’t get your ass to the front in time, the pooh would hit the fan so quick you’d be covered in it from head to toe before you knew what’s going on.

When the hammer went down, it went down with a bang. No testing the water, no let’s-rattle-the-cage-and-see-what-happens approach. You turn into a crosswind and if you’re not in the top 20, you’ll have hard time staying on, strung out in a line of suckers trying not to lose the wheel in front of them, tortured by the speed they could only handle for so long. Yet, it amazed me to never see the peloton break up after it was gunned by the crosswinds for several kilometers at a time. It seemed nobody was willing to give up no matter how painful the speed was. These guys stayed together till the firing eased off and as soon as the pace dropped, hordes of them would try to get to the front to avoid the next blast. Without time to relax, I had to stay wired and watch where I was at every pedal’s turn.

The national team’s red jersey was another burden I could never ignore. Viktor Arsentyevich’s creed was: You put that CCCP jersey on, you honor it with proper performance — every time, no exceptions. National team’s climbers were expected to climb better than other climbers, sprinters to nail the sprints every time and the classics’ specialists were supposed to own the road at all other times. Excuses, even the valid ones, were unacceptable. Kapitonov would cut you some slack once or twice but if you keep on screwing up, you’ll be out the door without a warning. I could deal with the racing — most of the time anyway — or at least I thought I could, but the nuances that made up the life of a road racer paid by the State and expected to be at the top of his game when told to be at the top of his game was an unfamiliar situation for me. Malakhov’s sermonizing helped me to see I wasn’t ready for the game I got myself into. As I realized later, I wasn’t even willing to play it.

Perhaps the timing was wrong. Perhaps I was too young to take on the best in the world. Or at least that’s what I used to comfort myself with for years after when I’d look back at that time. Thirty years later, old enough to be honest with myself and having no stake in the deal, I now know I wasn’t cut for it.

***

The year was 1985, the fortieth anniversary of Word War II victory over the Nazi Germany. For the first and the only time the Peace Race came to Moscow. Symbolically, and I’m sure on purpose, it was scheduled to finish in Berlin. The script would have the Soviet team annihilating everyone, and most of all the East Germans.

On paper, the Germans and us were friends, Warsaw Pact allies and faithful communists. On the road, no enemy was more hated by us than the Fascists. The hatred of Germans was, and still is, deep in Russian psyche. What they’ve done to us in the Second World War will never be forgotten. We’ve been taught from birth of the vicious, monstrous people to the west of our border who attacked us without warning in 1941 and wiped out 40 million of our men and women. We can smile and pat each other’s backs now, pretend we hold no hard feelings anymore until a door opens and we hear an order: Go get them, teach them another lesson, make them remember to never come here but with peace.

Kapitonov was tasked with building an unstoppable, all-conquering team that year. They even introduced a never before ran team time trial on Moscow streets to ensure the Soviets would take over team classification. Early in the season I was told to stay out of the Peace Race dog fight. Too young and with no experience, I had no chance of qualifying. Instead, I focused on the TTT again.

As the custom was, those not in the run for the Peace Race would go to a series of stage races in Germany and Holland to build up speed endurance. I saw my name on the list of six going to Germany and was issued the customary cherry-red Colnago — the signs I was short-listed to compete for a place in a world championship TTT quartet later in the season. Three days before departure when the actual team heading to Germany was announced, I wasn’t on it. Another six were sent to Austria and I wasn’t among them either. Then those who came from Germany went to England to do the Milk Race and they went without me. After the first two misses, I thought well, maybe I wasn’t at the top of my game — and I wasn’t — but I also knew the standard protocol was to roll the young ones through a solid stage racing program to attune them to a new racing environment and I was left out of it. Then I was told not to worry about the world championship this year and take it easy, it’s only my first season in the top league.

By mid summer an invite came from the Coors Classic stage race in the US. The top guns were busy getting ready for the world’s and I was told to pack up and get ready to race against Bernard Hinault, Greg Lemond and their friends. Before leaving for the airport, I was informed someone else was placed on the team instead of me at the last minute. By now, I knew something not normal was going on and asked someone who I was sure knew what was happening, a military liaison between Titan and the army, what was wrong. “Your passport is on hold,” he told me. “You didn’t hear this from me — you understand? — but I probed around, asked some contacts in the intelligence department and I heard, well… You’re screwed. They’ve got something on you, I don’t know what, but you’re screwed.”

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