Basking in the sun and clicking easy miles in Crimea, I heard that the elite national team had drafted me in. In three weeks’ time, I would be riding next to the giants of Soviet cycling. This was the top step on the ladder, nowhere else to climb after that, this was it.
To a day a year ago, I sat at the Titan team meeting and listened to Yuri Elizarov’s gold medal plan. The door to the elite national team and the 1988 Olympic Games. And here I’m, in the Primorskaya hotel talking to a receptionist and telling her why I’m here.
“Oh,” she said, smiling, “you must be one of the Viktor Arsentyevich’s boys. Let’s see what room you’re in.” She gave me keys to my room and said: “You better hurry up to the restaurant, the breakfast had already started. Viktor Arsentyevich is very punctual.”
Viktor Kapitonov, or Viktor Arsentyevich for those not on the first-name basis with him, was one of the Soviet sport’s greats and a cycling legend. The drama and the triumph of the 1960 Olympic road race started the Soviet Union’s reign in amateur cycling. People talked about pre- and post-Kapitonov era, what we did and how we did things before and after Rome.
He authored the first book I read about cycling where he described his Olympic victory. Riding hills in the North Caucasus where I grew up, I liked to picture myself racing that road race. Slip into Kapitonov’s skin and daydream going against Livio Trapè through the wall of tifosi’s roar. I would work out how to overcome the enemy because I knew every detail of that race. What the plan was, how it all went wrong more than once. How Italians destroyed everyone who was anyone. How Kapitonov dragged Trapè to the line, made a mistake and sprinted to victory a lap too early. How Trapè attacked once he saw what an idiot Kapitonov was. The chase, the catch, the second sprint, the real one, the one that counted, and then the win. The monument and the pride of my sport, my country, and our system.
Playing that race back in my mind dozens of times, it stopped being real and turned into a movie I’d seen in a cinema. The hero, I knew he was real, was around somewhere but the chance of meeting him, never mind working with him, were nil.
He retired in 1965 and took over the national team to put the Soviet Union on the map as a top cycling nation. He delivered the goods: three back to back Olympic gold medals in team time trials from 1972 to 1980. With world titles between the Games, the team time trial became the Soviets’ hallmark race.
From the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, men in red CCCP jerseys ruled the Peace Race too. Watching on television four of them riding away from the peloton in 1984 to clinch Sergey Soukhorouchenkov’s second win was a thrill you never forget.
When I walked into Primorskaya restaurant that morning, I walked into a room crowded by the grand riders of the era. Two Olympic and five world champions, guys I watched on TV or read about in the newspapers.
The wooden door opened into a high-ceiling hall with white walls, sunlit from the human-height windows. The white embroidered tablecloth reaching all the way to the floor hung from the tables. The riders sat two or three a table on the opposite side of the hall chatting away and working on their food. No one else was in the restaurant. When the national team ate, the public had no business eating at Primorskaya.
I froze and scanned the tables looking for an empty one I could land at. Some guys glanced at me and kept talking and chewing. Two or three stared with a who-the-hell-is-this-clown look on their faces. The stares burned my skin and my eyes hopped from one face to another, to the end of the room, to the floor, and the windows.
Someone was looking at me. The familiar face was from the Peace Race broadcasts — Yuri Kashirin, an Olympic and world champion. He nodded with his chin pointing at the table he sat at with a guy I’ve never seen before. I steered toward his table and took a chair as soon as I could grab it.
“Yura,” he said and stuck his hand out.
“Kolya,” I said, shook his hand and looked at the other guy to hear his name.
“How old are you, son?” he said.
He turned to Kashirin and said, “Is this even legal?”
“Legal what?” Kashirin said.
“Taking eighteen-year-old kids into the national team.”
“I’m sure he’ll turn nineteen next year, right?” Kashirin said, looking at me.
“That’s the plan,” I said.
“What team are you from?” the other guy said.
“They cook you by the dozens in Ukraine, don’t they?” he said.
“I’m not Ukrainian. I’m from the North Caucasus,” I said.
“North Caucasus? Where exactly in the North Caucasus?”
“Naaalchik? Do you know Peter Trumheller?”
“He is my coach. Well, was. He was my first coach.”
“How did you end up in Ukraine?”
“Titan offered me a ride.”
“I thought all Russian kids go to Kuybyshev nowadays.”
“Trumheller said go to Titan, I went.”
He poured himself a cup of black coffee from a stainless steel pot and reclined in the chair staring out the window at the Black Sea outside.
Kashirin waved to a waiter. “This young man,” he said and pointed at me, “needs breakfast. He was late.” Without needing to know anything else, the waiter turned around and hurried away to fetch me breakfast.
“Volodya Malakhov and I are from Rostov,” Kashirin said. “Almost neighbors,” he added.
More than three hundred kilometers from Nalchik, Rostov was geographically in North Caucasus, the largest city in the region. Neighbors yeah, I’ve been to Rostov and from what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t want to spend an hour in that dirty, industrial place.
So, this is Vladimir Malakhov, the A-list sprinter and a national road champion.
“We’ve had some Ukrainians coming in the last couple of years,” Kashirin said. “Volodya’s not too keen on the idea.” He looked at Malakhov, grinned and said, “Why don’t you like Ukrainians, you Nazi?”
“Me Nazi? I’m not the one swallowing anabolics all day long.”
“Swallowing what?” I said.
I knew what anabolics were. By this time, the genie was out of the bottle. Anyone willing to put two and two together knew what the East German women swimmers were on. Looking more like seals than human, they lost the last traces of femininity even on their faces. They were a joke and everyone knew that. But cycling? The word on the street was: ‘bolics shrink dicks and make men impotent. That’s all I knew about anabolics and now it seemed like there was more to it than I thought I knew.
“What do you mean swallowing anabolics all day?” I said after he ignored my question.
“I heard you gobble ‘bolics by the shovels in Ukraine,” he said. The ‘you’ he used was in a plural form that didn’t refer to anybody. I dropped the diplomacy and asked, using a form of ‘we’ that included me personally: “And why would we be taking ‘bolics?”
“To squeeze a little bit of performance out of your legs?”
“Don’t you gain weight with it?” I said.
“If you behave yourself, one day I’ll tell you what an extra kilo or two of lean muscle can do to your performance. Even on the hills. Meantime, eat your breakfast, shut up and make sure you’re on your best day every day if you want to survive here.”
I took the hint and stayed out of the Malakhov’s way.
He always had a life lesson for me or a smart insight to offer. Why at a winter training camp I was riding on 24s and not on 27s? Well, I would reply in my head, because I don’t give a damn. I glue on whatever I grab from the pile. It’s not like we’re racing tomorrow.
“You put too much sugar in your coffee,” he told me one morning at breakfast. “It ruins your teeth and makes your ass heavy as a truck.”
It amazed me how immaculate his cycling kit was even after several rainy days on a bike. We didn’t have washing machines in the hotels we lived in and had to wash our kits by hand in a bath tab or in a sink. During rainy periods I couldn’t be bothered washing every day. A master of shortcuts, I would dry the top layer stuff in the sun, shake the sand off and ride in it again.
Malakhov, he’d turn up in a clean, spotless kit every time no matter how foul the weather was the day before — a class act.
I’d start a race in a rain jacket if Malakhov had been wearing one. A cap over the helmet or under? Look at Malakhov. Arm warmers on or off? Look at Malakhov. He told me to always wear gloves in races and when I forgot to put them on one day, he made me ride back to the team bus to get them. I missed the start and chased the peloton the first few kilometers of the race.
He annoyed the living light out of me with his preaching but I learned one day he meant good. I was getting food out of the jersey pockets with both hands in when someone in front of me dropped a bottle. It rolled under my front wheel, I lost it and hit the floor. Malakhov was on my wheel, tumbled down over my bike and landed next to me. I thought he’d kill me right there on the road. Instead, the first thing that came out of his mouth when we came to a stop was: “Are you OK, kid?”
He was that rare breed of a cyclist who’d swap a fifty-three chainring for a fifty-two one because he knew the sprint was on a false flat. He never attacked, yet, a winning breakaway would almost never go without him. He hardly ever talked about races but every time he did, I listened.
No matter how much I thought I was ready for the top league, I wasn’t. Sitting with Malakhov and Kashirin at a dinner table three times a day changed that.
The junior racing at the national level was hard and aggressive. It would start with fireworks, go on stupid for a while and sort itself out into a tiptop group. They’d settle down and wonder what to do next. You could win a race by doing a sneaky move while everyone else was looking at each other.
The elite guys, they’d start easy and give themselves time to warm up. On a cold day, the word would spread to go piano for the first ten kilometers. Then the pace would pick up. If you didn’t get your ass to the front in time, the pooh would hit the fan and cover you from head to toe before you knew what’s going on.
When the hammer went down, it went down with a bang. You turn into a crosswind and if you’re not in the top twenty, you’ll have a hard time to stay on. The strung-out peloton, everyone fighting to stay on the wheel, tortured by the speed you can only hold for so long.
The peloton never broke up even after the crosswinds had gunned it for kilometers. Nobody gave up no matter how painful the speed was. These guys stayed together until the pressure had ended. As the pace dropped, hordes of them would crawl to the front before the next blast. Without time to relax, you had to stay wired and watch where you were at every pedal’s turn.
The national team’s red jersey was another burden I could never ignore. Kapitonov’s creed was: you put that CCCP jersey on, you honor it with performance every time, no exceptions. He expected his climbers to climb better than other climbers, sprinters to nail the sprints every time, and the diesels to win the time trials. He brushed off all excuses if you had one for your crap performance. Kapitonov would cut you some slack once or twice but if you keep screwing up, you’d be out the door without a warning.
The 1985 was the fortieth anniversary of the Second World War victory over Nazi Germany. For the first and the only time the Peace Race came to Moscow. Symbolically, and on purpose, the race would finish in Berlin. They’d scripted it for the Soviet team to crush the Germans. May 1945, the cycling version.
On paper, we were friends with the East Germans. Warsaw Pact allies, fellow communists, and all that jazz. On the road, no enemy was more hated by us than the Fascists. The hatred of Germans was, and still is, deep in the Russian psyche. What they’ve done to us in the war, no one will ever forget that. You grow up and you learn about the monsters west of our border. The beasts who attacked us without warning in 1941 and slew thirty million of our men and women. We smile and pat each other’s backs now, no hard feelings. Except tell us to go get them. Tell us to teach them another lesson and make them remember to never come here but with peace. Call it the Peace Race. Let them believe that.
Kapitonov had to build a team that year made from steel. They even added a team time trial in Moscow to secure the team classification for the USSR from the start. Early in the season, they told me to stay out of the Peace Race dog fight. Too young and with no experience, I had no chance to qualify. Instead, I focused on the worlds team time trial again.
Those not in the run for the Peace Race would go to a series of stage races in Germany and Holland. I saw my name on the list going to Germany. Three days before leaving they tell me I’m not going. They come from Germany and go to England for the Milk Race without me. The first two miss outs, I thought okay, I’m not at the top of my game. The standard protocol was to roll the young ones through a stage racing program. No one told me why I’m not part of it. Then they tell me not to worry about the world championships. Take it easy, it’s only your first season in the top league they said.
By mid-summer an invite came from the Coors Classic in America. The top guns were busy getting ready for the worlds in Italy and stayed in Lithuania to prepare. Pack up and get ready to race against Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond they told me, you’re going to the States.
The night before leaving, Titan’s admin tells me they’d swapped me for someone else at the last minute. Something was wrong. I called Zyama, our military liaison between Titan and the army, to find out what was going on.
“Your passport is on hold,” he said. “You didn’t hear this from me — you understand? — but I probed around, asked some contacts in the intelligence department and I heard, well. You’re screwed. They’ve got something on you, I don’t know what, but you’re screwed.”