Anton and I flew to Sochi — a short, 45-minute hop from Nalchik — on a compact 24-seater Yak-40 jet. Ukrainian State Committee of Physical Culture and Sports rewarded my efforts in France with a 2000-rouble payment, enough to live worry-free in USSR for a year. I was keen to burn some of it in Sochi with my friend.
We took a cab from the airport and went straight to Chaika, a swanky restaurant in Sochi’s seaport terminal. Built in neo-classicism Stalinist style with columns and 10-meter-high ceilings, it was the kind of place where you had to bribe maître d’hôtel to get in even if no one was dining inside. In Chaika, they served everything from beluga to pizza and were known for keeping export-quality vodka in a freezer for special guests.
I gave chetvertak (25-rouble note) to the maître when we walked in and asked for a table on the veranda. He took the money, slid it into the vest’s pocket with two fingers and nodded at an effeminate-looking waiter in burgundy bib apron and crisp, white shirt. The waiter was standing still like a sphinx, waiting for the maître’s command. The moment he saw the nod, he took us to a spot with the view of cruise ships anchored a hundred meters away. When we sat down at the table, I pulled out my wallet fat with cash, fished a green poltakha bill (50 roubles), gave it to the waiter and asked for iced Stolichnaya and black caviar. The waiter, assured now that the young men were not going to jump off the veranda at the end of the meal, evaporated. He was back in two minutes with vodka in a crystal decanter, a bowl of caviar and a plate of marinated red pine mushrooms. “From the chef,” he pointed at the mushrooms with a smile, and added: “Call me when you ready to order.”
We started dining when the sun was still out and only noticed the evening when the nearby tables were filled with overweight, arrogant government executives, underworld characters and entertainment luminaries. The hours fled by while we talked and laughed. We always laughed. We made up jokes nobody would understand, laughed at people around us, laughed at ourselves, remembered the stuff ups and awkward situations we witnessed or have been in ourselves. “Hey, do you remember…” was often an opening remark to an anecdote that would end in a laughing outburst again and again.
When we finished dinner, we ordered a bottle of cognac to go, paid the bill with a lavish tip and headed outside to find a cab. A trip to Sochi wouldn’t be a trip to Sochi if we hadn’t had a taste of the Black Sea. A crazy Armenian cabbie, driving like he had only an hour to live, took us to a deserted beach in Dagomys where we swam naked, drank cognac to keep ourselves warm and laughed more.
“Hey, do you realize what you’ve done in France?” Anton said after we got dressed and found a place to sit down on a wave breaker.
“Won the world’s?”
“No… I mean yes, you have, but…” he paused, thinking and looking into the moon lit horizon.
“You’re a world champion now. Do you understand that?”
“You know, I told everyone in Moscow my best friend is a world champion and most people didn’t believe me. They think world champions live in a different universe, in some kind of parallel reality where mere mortals aren’t allowed. They think people like you are bred in the labs and live in secret locations, next to the cosmonauts. But here you are, a bonehead from Nalchik who rode to Baza with me and you now own a rainbow jersey. Mind blowing.”
“Don’t get carried away,” I said. “It was only a junior championship.”
“Who cares, junior-shmunior. A world champion is a world champion. It’s a life-long title. Thirty years from now, you still be a world champion. Do you know what kind of doors this title will open for you?”
“You’re stupid, you know that?”
“No, I’m serious. Tell me what kind of doors it will open for me?”
“I don’t know. All kinds. From now on, you can start introducing yourself as ‘Nikolai Razouvaev, a world champion’ and see what happens.” We laughed again.
“I always thought you’d win something like this, a Peace Race or a world championship, but I wouldn’t have had thought you’d go from Nalchik to Paris, or whatever that place in France was you went to, in a year. It’s crazy.”
“You know, I almost got kicked out from the team a week before we left to France.”
“Yeah. When the final four were announced and I was in, I went out to celebrate, by myself, because everyone was so bloody focused, obsessed with ‘being in form’, you know? Regimen, diet, legs in the air, all that stuff. I mean, sure, it’s important, you need to be on the ball at all times to make it, but… I don’t know, for me, sometimes all this crap just gets to me and I have to uncoil something inside, you know what I mean? All this training, racing, training, racing, eat, sleep, train again, race again, it makes me feel like I want out. Anyway, we were in Vilnius the last few weeks before the world’s. Good bars there, so I went out that night for a drink and then saw these Estonian guys I’ve seen around in races. I thought they didn’t speak Russian but they did some. We ended up going to a couple of other places they wanted to show me and I couldn’t get rid of them until one in the morning. When I got back to the hotel, I ran into one of the coaches who was waiting for me in the lobby. He told me I’ll be sent home tomorrow morning for not going to bed by 10 o’clock.”
“How did he know you weren’t in bed?”
“He went to my room after 10 to check up on me.”
“Because they’re obsessed with discipline, training, racing, diets, rest, recovery and everything in between. It’s like religion — if you’re a devout follower, every waking hour of your life is spent performing rites and rituals. Nothing else matters, the outside world doesn’t exist. Maybe somebody ratted on me, I don’t know. Some guys would do anything to score a point.”
“But you ended up going anyway…”
“I did. I was busted by an assistant coach, he wanted me out, but the head coach probably wasn’t interested. We hadn’t won for three years and he had a good team so I guess he didn’t want to mess with the setup too close to the race. He was under pressure, maybe even in danger of losing his cushy job, who knows. It’s not easy to select the right four guys for a team time trial, I guess he couldn’t be bothered too much about who was and who wasn’t in bed by 10 o’clock days before the race. He let it go.”
“Man, I’m glad I walked away from that puppet show,” Anton said. “It’s what drove me out of it — that total control they want over your life. You go to sleep when we tell you and wake up when we tell you, you eat this and don’t eat that, you stay here and don’t go there, and you perform, perform, perform. Madness, couldn’t stand it.”
“You know they send a KGB snitch with the team when you go to a capitalist country?”
“How do you know that?”
“They don’t even hide it. You always know who is going with you, right? It’s your five team-mates, the coach, mechanic and soigneur. And then boom, the ‘head of the delegation’ pops up out of nowhere in the airport, introduces himself as such and such, and we all know he’s as much the head of the delegation as Fidel Castro is the President of the United States.”
“And what do they do?”
“Some of them try to stay out of the way, you don’t see them much while others will be in your face all the time, going to team meetings, hang around races, listen to what we’re talking about before and after the race, this sort of stuff.”
“Yeah as if you guys are plotting a mass escape or trying to meet your CIA contacts.”
“Speaking of escape, you know I tried to defect in France?”
“You did what?”
“Yeah, was on my way to police and then…”
“And then what?”
I didn’t know what to tell him, I didn’t know myself why I backed out of my plan.
“And then nothing,” I said. “I turned around and went back to the hotel. I couldn’t do it. I guess I wanted to come home and have this.”
“This night, this beach, this cognac. You know what I mean?”
“Maybe, I’m not sure. You know how many people have told me I can’t do what I did? You’ve got the legs, the engine they’d say, but you haven’t got the guts to be a champion, you’re not focused, they’d say, not zealous to make a name for yourself. And you know what? Perhaps they’re right, perhaps I’m not as devout as they’d like me to be, but when I turned around from that police station in Caen, I couldn’t wait to go back and look at them, look at them and see what they’d say now.”
“And what did they say?”
“Nothing. All smiles and congratulations. This one guy, a bureaucrat from the Ukrainian Sports Committee, came up to me early in the season after one stupid road race I quit and said, we have not imported you — that’s the word he used: ‘imported’ — all the way from Russia so that you can quit races when you feel like it. Then he went on about how I lack dedication and show no interest in doing the best I can, all that rubbish. The idiot didn’t know we were instructed by Elizarov to drop out of the peloton, wait until the gap was about a minute, and then chase back in a four-man TTT formation. We were supposed to go like this for two hours and then pull out or ease off because the next two hours of the race had hills and we didn’t need hills — we needed speed. So I pulled out once I saw the hills — not dedicated enough, I guess — and the rest of the team finished the race and this clown comes up to me and gives me a speech.”
“And now you saw him after the world’s?”
“I did. In fact, he handed me the bonus we’re spending now. Anyway, he told me how proud he was of me and how I made Ukraine proud by representing it at the championship. And he spoke Ukrainian to me too, can you imagine that? You know how itchy I was to remind him where I came from and suggest that he can shove his nationalism up his arse right there?”
“But you didn’t, I hope.”
“No. The envelope he held in his hand while he spat nonsense out of his mouth looked fat enough to calm me down.”
“So you sold your soul for a bundle of cash?”
“No, I sold him two minutes of delusion, two minutes in la-la land where he guided and nurtured me to a gold medal. I’m sure if I told him why I quit that race that made him inflated with so much pomposity, he wouldn’t blink and say it was his idea all along for me to get out of the race.”
“That is some weird training you’d been doing. Dropping out and then chasing back?”
“Elizarov’s school. Chasing the peloton, we were hitting speeds we couldn’t hit in training. We’d drop back and then get on the gas to get back on thinking the faster we go, the shorter the chase will be. Sometimes it’d take us five kilometers to catch the bunch, other times 10 or more — you’d never know what was going on at the front. Couple times the word went around that Titan idiots were doing TTT intervals behind the peloton, so they’d get on the gas themselves and make us jump out of our skin to get back on.”
“Sounds kind of stupid to me.”
“It worked. Everything Elizarov did to get me ready for the world’s worked. He was probably the only one who believed in what he was doing because I didn’t, not always anyway. Some days I thought I reached the limit and can’t handle the workload anymore. I wasn’t the only one, others were pushed too, and every time he saw we were just about to crack, he’d give us a break.
“This one day, in Lithuania, he took us to a dairy farm. It was an old-school kind of farm, preserved from the pre-socialism era, with a homestead at the top of a green hill and Holstein cows grazing around. We were told it was supplying meat and dairy to the Lithuanian government. So we come in our team bus and meet these people at the farm who don’t even speak Russian. They take us inside, into this huge guest room with a dining table big enough to sit an army. The table is falling apart, covered with food and it’s tip-top stuff — fresh, juicy steaks, produce, bread baked right there on the farm is still warm, plates with honeycombs and this massive roasted swan in the middle of the table. For half a day we spent there, swimming in the pond, sitting in sauna, eating, I didn’t think once about cycling, I forgot about it. Came back to the hotel as good as new. He did things like that. It’s what keeps you going, or at least it kept me going.”
“Let’s finish the bottle and get out of here,” Anton said. “It’s getting cold.”
By the time I came back to Kiev after the break, the city was deep in the autumn. Frosty mornings, fog everywhere, chestnut trees turning rusty yellow. Titan was gone to Crimea to prepare for the final race of the season, the two-week-long Sotsindustriya stage race. I wasn’t going to race it — the season was over for me — but I couldn’t stay in Kiev and do nothing either. Elizarov told me to fly to Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, to join the team and spend the next few weeks riding in warm weather.
I went to Titan’s service course to pack up my bike so I could pick it up in the morning on the way to the airport. Feeling bummed from the prospect of more weeks of riding, I did an average bike-packing job, spent an hour talking trash with one of the mechanics and decided to get out and catch a cab instead of waiting for a lift to the hotel.
The buildings were casting long shadows over the cobbled Krasnoarmeyskaya Street when I turned on it from Fizkultury Street. The chilled, moist air was pleasant to breath and I thought I’d walk to Kreshchatik to buy the famous Kashtan ice cream and then catch a cab from there.
I saw a black Volga parked 50 meters ahead, facing me with a rear door opened. A man in an unbuttoned taupe trench coat stood next to it, looking at me. I kept walking toward him, wondering if he were staring at me because he had nothing else to do or there was something else to it. When I approached, he stepped away from the car, pulled out red korochka from the coat’s pocket, stuck it in my face and said, smiling as if we were best buddies: “Nikolai?” I looked at the ID, black and white photo on the left, matching the guy in front of me and the dreaded, Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti header on the right with the rank, name, and authorization to carry a weapon below it. I couldn’t read the surname — something long and convoluted — in time before he closed the korochka, but I caught his first name — Bogdan.
Crap, I thought, what’s going on, what did I do? I made a quick mental inventory of my pockets — no dollars, nothing illegal. What do they want?
Bogdan nodded toward the rear seat of the Volga, and said: “Get in, we need to talk.” I climbed into the car, he shut my door, walked around, got onto the seat next to me, and said to the driver: “Poekhali.”