Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 3)

road race start line
Ukrainian Road Race Championship. Late 1980s.

I now began to see what he meant by comparing my performance in Maykop to racing between real and fake amateurs. My only goal in that race was to finish in the first bunch at least on one stage. I wasn’t far off from achieving that on some stages but couldn’t make a cut when the heavy-hitters got down to business.

These guys were aliens. They were so above and beyond my abilities that, against common sense, I refused to believe they were so much better than me. I tried to ignore the age difference and looked for a better explanation to soothe my injured ego.

Something was wrong, I thought, there must be something else, not just age advantage that made them so much better than me. Looking through the result sheets, I noticed the same dozen of names appeared in the top 20-30 places on every stage. How can they belt the peloton day after day? Don’t they get tired? Or make mistakes?

Then I thought I found the explanation — the aliens must be on the pills. What pills I didn’t know because I knew nothing about pills but they must be on something. Deep down I knew how stupid this was but I wanted to believe that. And I did.

Sitting in the car now, with my legs up on the dashboard, digesting Trumheller’s words, I began to analyse what I heard.

First conclusion – no one’s on the pills. I was up against guys from a higher league, I was out of my depth. I knew now that I did well by finishing the race. It’s one of cycling’s oddities – crossing the line, just crossing it, could be a victory.

I thought about European amateurs racing against disguised pros from the Eastern Bloc. Do they struggle the same way I did in Maykop just to stay in the race when the Soviets come around? Maybe the gap isn’t as big but their role in the race, from what I heard, wasn’t more than make up the numbers and warm up the big cats.

I wondered if Western amateurs thought about pills too and tried to connect our dominance on the road with pharmaceuticals. It’s an easy explanation – if you’re too good, you must be on the pills. Those Russians, they have the same two legs, two lungs and a heart. They’re human, so they must be on the gear, no other way to explain the speed they can ride at.

Then I thought about those who put up an honest fight against the pseudo-amateurs. How could these guys with full time jobs, riding on bare enthusiasm and love of racing, push the men in red to the limits? Who is an alien now? And what about the world championships? Who are these Italians and Belgians, Dutch and Danish riders who walk away in rainbow jerseys when the odds are stuck up against them?

Years later, living abroad, I understood how they did it. They took the time off or quit their jobs. They found sponsors, or convinced a wealthy aunt to finance their crazy hobby, lying to themselves and aunty Femke that they can make a lot of money from cycling one day. With income sorted, in one way or another, they lived a pro life: eat, ride, sleep. Repeat. Day after day, month after month, with one or two goals in mind. They found a coach and worked with him to design a sensible program to guide them through good times and bad, to give them an objective advice and keep them on course. By doing this, they levelled the playing field.

They’d focus on a world road race – a ticket to a pro contract if they won a rainbow jersey, which is what Eddy Merckx did – or Tour de l’Avenir, or GiroBio (Francesco Moser, Gilberto Simoni, Marco Pantani, Carlos Betancur, Dario Cataldo, Joe Dombrowski are some of the former GiroBio winners). They’d even go to the Peace Race to measure up against the best. Peter Winnen did that in 1980 and finished second behind Yuri Barinov but ahead of young Olaf Ludwig.

Those who were good, those who believed in themselves, had family support and found a way to finance the dream of pro racing took on the Russians, the East Germans and the Poles head on. They evened the odds and saw that the giants they were afraid of stood on the feet of clay. The giants can be crushed if you hit them hard enough in the right places.

Meantime, the myth of the mighty Big Red Sports Machine, cooked up by the Kremlin spin doctors, lived on. Twenty five years after the fall of socialism in USSR, the time has come to have a peek behind the Iron Curtain and hear the story of what it was like to earn a living racing a road bike in a country ruled by a dictatorial ideology in its final war against the degenerate forces of capitalism.

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