Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 14)

USSR Hummer and Sickle Decay
The decaying Soviet Empire in its last days of existence

Not going to Coors Classic was a blow that sent me into a knock-out. I wanted to quit. Quitting was already on my mind on and off after a car ride with Bogdan in Kiev, but my desire to get out of the country was stronger than a thought of what he might do with my case.

I saw the first two non-selections for European races as a combination of my average performance and young age. Perhaps, I thought, they want to spare me for the second half of the season or even for next year, but then I looked at Igor Soumnikov, the guy I won the gold medal with last year, and he was doing the program from A to Z. By June, he qualified for the world’s team time trial in Italy and won another gold, this time in the elite amateur category. He joined the national team later than me and as soon as he did, he was on the ball. No matter how small a race was early in the season, he was all over it. He even scored a couple of podiums in spring classics (we had our own spring classics season) while I sat in the peloton accumulating race miles. We often talked about how we’re going to adapt to the top echelon and he kept saying there is no time to adapt — you have to grab the bull by its horns, he would say, and show the old farts it’s time to move over, we’re the new kids in town.

In April, after the Sochi stage race, we came to Moscow for a Peace Race rehearsal. The authorities have shut down the entire portions of the city as if it were a real Peace Race and we raced its every stage. The Peace Race team was already selected more or less in Sochi but as always, Viktor Kapitonov kept his options open and two or three candidates who still hoped to make it had one more chance to show their worth on the roads of USSR’s capital.

Except for the top six guys on the list for Peace Race, everyone from the national team had to race for their home teams. For me, it was Titan and one of our guys, Sergei Gavrilko, a perpetual Peace Race hopeful, still had a shot at making the last minute cut.

One of the best stage racers in the country, a spot on a Peace Race team eluded him year after year because of a character flaw many thought was unacceptable in road cycling — he often raced his own race and had a reputation for not following team orders. He usually got away with it because of his audacious solo breakaways and never-die attitude. These traits, as much as they were valuable, were not enough to convince Kapitonov to trust someone like Gavrilko to win the Peace Race or help someone else win it. Not that he was an egoist or greedy — he was none of these things — but there were days when the will to do his own thing was stronger than someone else’s race plan and nobody knew when one of these days could come about. In Moscow, my job was to keep an eye on breakaways and shut down everything that didn’t have Sergei Gavrilko in it.

I called Anton from the Krylatskoye Hotel as soon as I checked in. Two months away from finishing his sports science degree, I knew he was in town. I haven’t seen him since our trip to Sochi eight months ago and wanted to catch up. The phone rang for too long, I almost hung up before I heard the familiar ‘hello’ on the other end of the line.

“Is this a torpedo boats station?” I said with a serious, authoritative voice. “Maybe,” he played along. I was sure he hadn’t recognised me yet. “I want to speak with Marshal Ustinov,” I said, trying to sound like Leonid Brezhnev, the recently deceased Soviet dictator we both grew up under. Ustinov, a long-standing Minister of Defence and Brezhnev’s buddy was dead too so I thought the prank should make us laugh. It did. We laughed. Not at the prank, but at how stupid the prank was. He asked where I was calling from and I said something stupid again, and we laughed more. “You’re not in Moscow, are you?” he said with a note of hope in his voice. I said sure I was and will be on my way to see him this afternoon once I had a look at the Krylatskoye race circuit.

By now, looking at a race course was drilled into my head as something I did without asking why. You want healthy teeth? Brush them. You want to have a good race? Go look at the course if you can, it’s common sense. But it was more than that with Krylatskoye, for me anyway. As 16- and 14-year-old boys, Anton and I watched the Moscow Olympic road race at my sister’s five years ago. She was the only person we knew who owned a colour TV-set and she let us watch the live broadcast under a strict condition of not waking up her newborn son.

What happened that day on the road is now part of Soviet-era road cycling’s folklore. Sergei Soukhoruchenkov nuked the peloton and soloed to a monumental victory. I heard people talking about how crazy-difficult the circuit was, how it was built just for one race and designed by a feminist engineer with one purpose in mind — to hurt men as much as possible, which explained why it was insane as a race circuit. Over the years, it took on a mythical status because no top-level cyclist ever raced on it since the end of the Games. Everyone heard the circuit was nuts but how bad, nobody knew.

I put the racing wheels with silk singles on, 140psi front, 160 rear and went for a stroll. Two kilometres in and I knew I over-pumped the rubber. Regular traffic wasn’t allowed on the circuit. Its surface was covered with thin layer of dust and sand. I slid on one of the corners and almost lost it. I stopped and let some air out. This is what the reconnaissance was for — you don’t want to rock up for a race like this with wrong air pressure in your wheels. By the end of the first lap I knew I was in for a slaughter on a race day. And if it rained — as it did — people were going to crash on this slippery road. I did one more lap and thought I’d seen enough of it to know it’d be a good day if I made it to the line in one piece.

After a shower and a quick lunch, I was in a taxi giving the driver Anton’s address I scribbled on a piece of paper when he gave it to me over the phone. He said he left the uni’s dormitory and was living with his paternal step-brother’s family now who were away most of the time. The step-brother was in the movie industry and spent more time on locations than at the Moscow’s apartment.

I asked the cabbie to stop somewhere along the way to buy a bottle. “What are you after?” he said. I told him I was going to see my best friend and needed something special. “Armyanski Konyak?” he said. “Yeah,” I said, “That would be good.” I thought he knew a place where I could buy the chic beverage (the best brandy in the world) but he went one better — opened the glove box and pulled out a bottle decorated in Armenian letters that made as much sense to me as Chinese hieroglyphs. “Five-year-old liquid gold,” he said, holding the bottle by its neck in front of my face. “From Kremlin’s cellars,” he added with a smirk on his face.

Entrepreneurial taxi drivers sold vodka from their cabs all over the country. The bottle shops shut at 7 p.m. sharp no matter where you lived, yet, despite harsh prison sentences for ‘speculation in alcohol’ imposed by the government, you could buy booze 24/7 if you knew where. Taxis were one of many sources of after-hours drink. You could hail one at 2 a.m., open the door and ask the driver if he had vodka on him. Armenian cognac was too exclusive and posh for this kind of trade though. Then again, this was Moscow where plenty of people rolled it rich. I paid 300% mark-up on the retail price for the bottle, put it inside my leather jacket and zipped it to warm up the brandy a degree or two while I was still in the cab.

5 thoughts on “Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 14)

  1. I just went through all the 14 posts in a row, and it’s a great read. This insight in both Soviet society and “pro” cyclists’ life is really interesting.

    I tried to join the newsletter, by the way, but it doesn’t seem to be working.

  2. Can’t wait for the next installment.

    I was US junior national road champ in 1970, back when nobody knew about the sport. I could never have survived the rigors you went through.

    • Hi Henry. I think if you had different goals, in different circumstances, you’d be able to do it.

      Thank you for reading and leaving a comment.

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