Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 8)

TTT start
Four men against the clock. We did this dozens of times during the season, and more during training. I’m on the right with my coach and Titan director, Yuri Elizarov.

By the end of the season I settled into the team, roomed with a guy who loved AC/DC as much as I did and learned what an enigmatic person Yuri Elizarov was. Tall, stout, with bulky face features and bushy eyebrows, he read people like a newspaper. I burned myself more than once trying to play him as our jagged relationship grew. I thought I better stop fooling around and test his patience for he had little of it when it came to team discipline. Being late for a ride or breakfast could see you flying home from a training camp or fired from the team if he were in a bad mood. No offense was too small — you either do what you were supposed to do or you were out. Second chances were not part of Elizarov’s universe (although, years later, he gave me one when no one would).

A mountain climber in his younger years, he pioneered systematic high altitude training in Soviet cycling. Obsessed with every little detail, however insignificant it may seem, he believed an aggregation of small-scale advantages, or marginal gains as they’re known today, is key to successful race results. He ruled Titan with an iron fist in a dictatorial, Stalinesque style and had no regard for any authority in the sport. With no friends in cycling, he set out to defeat the establishment with what he believed was a revolutionary training methodology with its emphasis on riders’ strength, health and mental grit. By the time the team was disbanded in 1992 as the Soviet Union collapsed, no less than five rainbow jerseys were won by Titan riders in its ten year history, a testament to Elizarov’s vision and training methods. It is symbolic that the last Soviet road race world champion, Viktor Rzhaksynskyi, was from Titan. Wearing the red CCCP jersey for the final time in 1991 world championship, he drew a curtain on a forty-year-long era of Soviet cycling with a brilliant, dominating ride.

In late autumn of 1983 though, in its second year running, no one apart from Elizarov’s close supporters took Titan seriously. Some thought he was an eccentric dreamer, others that he was mad. When he told me I will be ready for my first 100km team time trial by the end of the season, I thought he was mad.

The 100km 4-men TTT was, and I believe still is, the golden standard of road racing. It’s a complex, technical race demanding the highest performance of all four riders on the same day that sets it apart from every other road event. People often make the mistake of likening team time trial to an individual one. The only thing the two have in common is that both are races against the clock. The dynamics, and even the type of riders suited for these races are not the same. The race is a two-hour gig in an uneven rhythm with the throttle going to almost full open every 90 seconds when it’s your turn to pull. Mistakes, even the small ones, are costly. Take longer than you should to get on the wheel after the pull and your recovery time is cut by precious seconds. Missed the last wheel and had to chase to get back? You’ll pay for it. Keep these bloopers going, and you’ll blow up. Riders who could gently take the pace up if it fell by a fraction without hurting the team-mates were rare. It took an incredible engine and a sharp sense of speed to do that, so when these kind of riders were discovered, they were branded as TTT golden nuggets. A world-class team would stand or fall if it did or didn’t have a guy like that, and if it did, he would have to be good on the race day if the team aimed for the best possible result. And that, having all four riders good on the same day, was the TTT’s peculiar feature that worried every coach. It was so common for at least one guy to pop in a 100km race, experienced coaches believed it was inevitable in the last quarter of the race. They prayed for the crack to come as far into the race as possible. Ninety-k mark was considered a safe distance not to lose ground and save the race if it came down to finish it with the three remaining riders.

Before Titan, I never thought of myself as a TTT specialist. I liked the race, its tough, ferocious character, but my heart was in road races. I had a decent kick, could survive hills as long as they were hills and not long climbs, and with an engine of a time trial machine, I thought one-day classics would suit me better. But with the escape plan now at the stage of doing it rather than thinking about it, I decided to base its success on a team time trial.

Piotr Trumheller, my first coach, floated the idea to me. Team time trial, by its nature, is a more sure bet for success than a road race: It’s you and your team-mates against the clock; there are no tactics or breakaways to deal with; crashes and punctures are so rare, they’re not considered as race variables; the team’s result isn’t affected by other teams or anybody else; the race is about pure performance and precise execution of TTT skills.

Soviet cyclists excelled in team time trials on the world stage to such a degree that qualifying to race in USSR colors at world championships or Olympic Games was a ticket to a medal, often a gold one. The outcome of a team time trial was in riders’ and coaches’ hands more than an outcome of a road race. You put four world-class TTT specialists on the road and as long as everything goes well, they will deliver the result you expect. Soviet Union produced TTT world champions on a regular basis and, at the time, was undefeated in the Olympic Games since 1972. If you wanted the benefits that came with these titles, team time trial was a path to take.

Although I understood the theory and saw its advantages, getting it done was a different matter — I had no adequate TTT skills and didn’t believe I could race against the best teams in the country.

When Elizarov mentioned two-hour-four in my first 100km TTT by the end of the season, a result that would place us on the map among the best in the country, I thought he was mad. As the weeks ticked, and the months went by, after thousands of kilometers polishing the art of a team time trial and a lot of racing, we clocked two-hour-four as he said we would. A madman turned out to be an insightful coach, a professional who, unlike so many others in the sport, knew what he was doing. I don’t think there was another 17-year-old in the country who did anything close to this kind of speed. I’m not even sure, under the UCI rules, I was even allowed to race 100km team time trials. But as with a lot of other things in the USSR, we ran our own show behind the wall and no one was allowed anywhere near it.

That autumn of 1983, we reassembled in Gagra, a cute resort town on the Black Sea coast. The training camp kicked off with a team meeting. Everyone, including all staff members, was present. The air in the room was charged with importance, intensified by a mask of seriousness on Elizarov’s face. He didn’t waste time on an introduction and announced the meeting’s purpose in the first sentence he spoke: “You’re here to learn your individual targets for next season. We’ll provide you with the means to achieve your targets. It is your responsibility and duty to make every effort at your disposal to meet them. We’re not here to have good time and tell each other fairy tales. We’re here to breed world and Olympic champions. We’ll assess and reassess your progress as we go along during the season. Those who underperform and show lack of commitment will be ditched.”

He gave us a moment of silence to digest his words, then opened a thick, leather-bound notebook and for the next two hours went on to discuss each rider’s goals for the upcoming season. He spoke of precise results, said nothing like ‘you should do well in this race’ or ‘you should try your best in that race,’ no mention of top tens or top anything. He spoke in numbers and concrete actions. First place in that race or qualifying for this or that. If no wins or qualifications applied — for not everyone was meant to — the rider’s targets were spelled out in domestique duties, where and how he was expected to ride in top form to provide support for someone else.

As I listened, I realized what he was doing by laying out everyone’s goals in the open in front of us — without saying so, he established the team’s hierarchy by marking everyone’s measuring stick with results he expected from each rider. It set Titan’s internal mechanism in order, everyone knew each other’s goals and what each rider’s responsibilities were.

My heart rate surged when I heard my name came up. “Nikolka,” he used a nickname he gave me. “Gold medal in a team time trial world championship in August,” I heard the verdict. This, he explained, was the ultimate target. To get there, few other steps were required. First, he said, the Samarkand stage race in April is an unofficial qualifier race for the national team. A win of any stage almost certainly gets you in. “For you, the team time trial will be the most important stage because that’s the race you’re going for. The national team’s head coach will be on the road watching the leading teams. If we win — and we must — at least two best riders from the winning team will be called in for the first national team’s training camp in May. You must be one of those riders. For the next three months after that is the selection period. Every race, every training ride, every hour of your life will be scrutinized. They’ll be asking themselves why you should be riding in the world championship and not someone else, so your job will be to make them think that you’re the best option they’ve got. There are only four spots, as you know, and they’ll start with at least 10 TTT specialists in May. It will be a cut-throat environment which will get worse as the weeks go by. You’ll get selected and you’ll win that championship if you set your mind on it.”

I had no reason not to believe him. He spoke as a man who thought through every step. No detail escaped his watchful mind. The confidence in his speech blew away my every doubt. Bring it on, I thought, let’s do it.

2 thoughts on “Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 8)

  1. I think I read this three or four times now and it gets better each time. I can just imagine that team meeting and discussion of outcomes……part of you must have been ” geez, I’m going to win a gold medal and part of you must have been WTF is going on here?!!” Compelling reading-thank you!

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