Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 4)

Nalchik Cyclists
Trumheller’s brigade

Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory was a perfect match for the Soviet road cycling machine. A state religion married to a rigorous selection process designed to sort out the wheat from the tares.

We’re animals, I was taught in school, highly evolved and sophisticated, but animals nevertheless. We may play chess and write poetry, but we also build nuclear weapons and scorch each other with them. Examine the human history, I was told, and notice how bloody it is. Look as far back as you can and what do you see? War after war after war. We never stop, do we? You either kill or someone else kills you.

Darwinism’s grim implications have been masked by communist rhetoric and brainwashing about how bright and glorious the future will be once the ignorant idiots in the West see the light of Marxism, believe in it, hang everyone who doesn’t agree with it — which is what we did — and join us in our man-made heaven on earth. In the meantime, toughen the hell up because the sport you chose will reveal that primeval animal from within you. You’ll either give in and join the pack or it will spit you out like a lukewarm waste.

I gave in and joined the pack when I walked into a boiler room of a century-old, brown brick building with a three-meter tall mountain of coal next to its entrance. Inside, I saw four dozen naked men, waiting for a turn under two shower heads that stuck out from somewhere above their heads. The grimy cement floor was covered with a thin layer of wet sand. Jerseys, shorts, socks, cycling caps, all covered in mud, laid on the floor in separate mounds. Drowned in a fog of dread, I stared at the mass of naked bodies. I turned my head and looked at my coach who stood behind me: “I’m not going in there,” I said.

Less than an hour ago, I finished a race I didn’t know I could finish. It wasn’t the speed that wrecked me — although it was well above anything I have ever raced at, I handled it okay — it was the cold. I was fine the first hour, stayed upright and didn’t hit too many potholes until my wool jersey and shorts couldn’t soak icy cold water anymore, causing Hypothermia to set in.

My feet went first. It’s a major pain in the ass not to feel your own feet when they’re the only interface between you and the pedals. I didn’t care, I was used to it. We trained in winter on wet roads and because I was too pro to use fenders, my feet have often been wet and numb. Annoying, but I could handle it.

Then my body began to shiver. Nothing serious at first, it was getting more violent toward the end of the race. Reaction times went from a split second to seconds. I was missing brake points on the corners and then locking the rear wheel in panic to avoid smashing into others. It was a mess but not yet a defeat.

The last blow came when my fingers went rusty (more like frosty). Braking and gear shifting kept my hands busy all this time: Four 90-degree corners per lap, a downtube double gear shift before and two shifts after each corner forced the blood to flow into my fingers for most of the race until the body gave up and unlocked its self-defense mechanism — I’m shutting you down, buddy, game over.

The first time I couldn’t squeeze the brakes before a corner, I torpedoed into some guy’s rear wheel and took him down, somehow without hitting the floor myself. When I came out from the corner, someone whacked me across my back, screaming incomprehensible obscenities. Maybe I crashed his team-mate or got him frightened — by now, I didn’t give a damn — but I took note of his mud spluttered number and swore to myself to pay him back later. No one goes unpunished, Piotr Trumheller told me, they bite you once, you bite back twice if you want to survive in this sport. “It’s a pack of wolves out there,” he used to say, “Don’t let them maul you.”

Two more laps and I couldn’t shift anymore. When I took the hand off the handlebar to shift, the fingers remained closed as if I were still holding to the bar. Shifting with a closed hand, using the edge of my palm instead of fingers, I kept missing the cogs I wanted, going too far down the block on the up-shift or too far up on the down-shift. I gave up, stuck it into 53×14 and prayed I wouldn’t get dropped. Coming out of corners at slow speed and then getting on the gas over-geared meant I was gapped after each corner and had to chase until the next one where I would mess with the brakes, come close to crashing and repeat everything all over again.

I rolled to Trumheller’s car as soon as I crossed the finish line thinking about a stash of dry clothes I had in it. I saw him running toward me, gesticulating something with his hands. “Don’t stop,” I heard him yell when he got close, “Ride to the hotel, you need to keep yourself warm.” I tried to tell him that I’m past the point of needing to keep myself warm, but I felt like it wasn’t worth the energy of moving my tongue to talk. I had no idea where to go to because we hadn’t been to the hotel yet since we came to the race in the morning. I saw my team-mates pedaling away somewhere and I followed. Soon, Trumheller’s car was in front of us, shielding the six frozen chicken-men from wind and sleet, guiding us home like a mamma-duck to warmth and safety. Except there was no warmth where we were going to.

Trumheller was waiting for us outside the foyer of the hotel we stayed in when we arrived. “There’s no hot water and no heating in the hotel,” he said when we stopped and circled around him. “See that brown brick building over there with a tall chimney? It’s a boiler room and it’s got two shower heads and hot water. Grab your stuff and run in there as quick as you can because more people are coming down from the race and it’s going to be full.”

I took the aluminium-cleated shoes off, the dirty socks that were snow-white three hours earlier, grabbed my bag with dry clothes from the car and hobbled toward the brown brick edifice that looked like a Nazi gas chamber. When I opened the door, Hieronymus Bosch’s images popped up in my head. Although nobody was cutting anyone’s arms or legs like they do in Bosch’s paintings, there was enough bloodied, naked bodies floating around the grim room to rouse a sense of vomiting in my guts.

“I’m not going in there, “ I said to Trumheller.

“What did you say?”

“I’ll wait until they’re all finished and come back later,” I said.

“No you won’t,” he said. “You need a hot shower now, not later. Take your clothes off and get in the queue. They won’t bite you.”

I spat on the floor. I couldn’t resist my home town’s street code to show antipathy and dissent to what I was about to do. I looked at my coach with contempt and began to undress. We’re all animals, I thought to myself, so act like one. Muffle your inapt idea of North Caucasus’ male dignity, join the pack of wolves to see if you can coexist with the beasts. Better still, become one yourself.

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