Not going to Coors Classic knocked the will to race out of me. This cycling thing, cut the crap and hit the slide. First, driving with Bogdan around Kiev and now this.
Total lockup. Caged.
You want out, keep banging on the walls. You might find a hollow to scram through.
In April, after the Sochi stage race, we flew to Moscow for the Peace Race rehearsal. The authorities had shut down parts of the city as if it were the real Peace Race and we raced its every stage.
Viktor Kapitonov had already picked the team in Sochi but kept his options open. One or two candidates who still hoped to make it had one last shot to show they deserved a place on the Peace Race team.
Except for the selected riders, everyone from the national team had to race for their home teams. For me, it was Titan. One of our guys, Sergei Gavrilko, a perpetual Peace Race hopeful, had a shot at making the last minute cut.
One of the best stage racers in the country, he tanked year after year to make the Peace Race team. He liked racing his own race and paid no mind to team orders. His solo breakaways and never-die attitude earned him respect but respect alone couldn’t buy him a ticket to a Peace Race. He’d give everyone the slip and snub the blame if anyone complained about his tomfooleries. His racing game made it hard for Kapitonov to trust a wallflower like him to win the queen of all stage races. A good rider with close to zero chance to ever make the cut.
Not that he was an egoist or greedy. Sometimes the will to do his own thing was stronger than someone else’s race plan. No one knew when he’d have one of these days.
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 exercise science degree, he was in town. Time to catch up after our trip to Sochi eight months ago.
The phone rang a train of beeps before the familiar ‘hello’ muttered on the other end of the line. I pictured Leonid Brezhnev, the dead Soviet dictator we both grew up under, and said: “Is this a torpedo boats fleet?”
“Maybe,” he played along. No clue.
“I want to speak with Marshal Ustinov,” I said. Ustinov, the Minister of Defense and Brezhnev’s buddy was dead too. We laughed. We always laughed at our stupid pranks.
“You’re not in Moscow, are you?” he said.
I said sure I was and will be on my way to see him this afternoon once I roll around the Krylatskoye race circuit a few times.
As sixteen- and fourteen-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 color TV. She let us watch the live broadcast if we promised not to wake up her newborn son.
What happened that day on the road is now part of the Soviet-era road cycling folklore. Sergei Soukhoruchenkov nuked the peloton and soloed to an epic victory.
I heard people talking about how crazy the circuit was. Built by a feminist engineer, its purpose was to hurt men as much as possible. 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 on and went for a stroll. They kept the circuit free of traffic for years. A thin layer of dust and sand covered its surface. I slid on one of the corners but stayed up. I stopped and let some air out from the tires and rode more.
They built this road for a flat-out tussle. You against everyone else. You against the road. If it rained, and it did, this place would be a skating rink. It’d be a good day if I made it to the finish line in one piece.
After 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 step-brother’s family. They’re never home, he said. The step-brother is in the movie industry. Spends 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, “Armenian cognac.”
He didn’t take me anywhere to buy the beverage. He opened the glove box and pulled out a bottle decorated with 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.”
Entrepreneurial taxi drivers sold vodka from their cabs all over the country. The liqueur stores shut at seven p.m. sharp no matter where you lived. Yet, in a country with a prison sentence for ‘speculation in alcohol,’ you could buy booze any time if you knew where. Taxis were one of many sources of after-hours hooch. You could hail one at two 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 three times the retail price for the bottle and hid it inside my leather jacket to warm it up.
I got off in front of a twenty-something-story building made from concrete blocks. The entrance I needed had a metal door painted decades ago with what had been a shade of blue once.
I opened the door and walked into an unlit vestibule. A dash of daylight came in through a window on the wall opposite the entrance. It stunk of urine, beer, and French perfume.
The elevator’s door was open as if someone sent it for me. The chances of a Soviet-made machinery going kaput two floors from the destination are always good. I glanced at the stairs. For cyclists, walking was bad enough, climbing up the stairs was verboten.
I stepped into the elevator and looked at the display board to find the button I wanted. Each one had a hole in the middle burned with a cigarette to hide the level numbers. They spared level thirteen button.
I counted six more buttons from thirteen with my finger. The pranksters, who said they hadn’t rewired the lift to send strangers to the wrong floor.
I reached Anton’s floor and pushed the bell button on his door. Ten seconds later he opened the door. Smile, jeans, and a t-shirt.
“Come in, come in,” he said, waving his hand.
I stepped into a dark apartment sunk in cigarette fog and the smell of weed. He led me to the sacred place in a Soviet apartment, the kitchen, where we meet for small parties and tea drinking.
A curtain covered three-quarters of the window leaving a way for the smoke to escape and a ray of daylight to sneak in through an open sash. Led Zeppelin’s Tangerine was blasting from inside the apartment. I saw a large reel-to-reel recorder standing inside a bookshelf in a living room with a pair of three-way speakers in the corners.
A guy and a girl sat at a wooden dining table in the kitchen. The guy had a long, wavy blond hair. It fell on his thin face from both sides like a hood. He wore a ducktail beard that stretched his face into rice grain shape.
In dimmed light, wrapped in cigarette smoke, he could pass as a saint from an Eastern Orthodox icon.
His right arm was up, resting on its elbow and holding an unlit joint between the thumb and the index fingers. His blue eyes glared at me with warmth and goodwill I’ve never seen in anyone else’s eyes before.
“You wanna fire it?” he said.
“Yeah, sure,” I said and took a chair at the table.
The girl, I assumed his girl, was smiling as if I brought her the best news she was about to hear today.
“Privet,” she said, “I’m Lena.”
Lena was beautiful the same way a sunset is beautiful. Her beauty wasn’t sexual. A round, classic Slavic face sculpted by silhouette lines and trimmed with a cascade of blond hair falling behind her back. Her blue eyes the size of a lake glowed in the dark.
“I know who you are, Kolya,” she said. “Liosha and I were on the train with Anton when he found that newspaper article about you and the Olympic Games you won.”
“World championship,” I mumbled.
She ignored that and I cursed myself for thinking she cares about or knows the difference.
She spoke with a silky voice and each word came from her lips as a music note you had to take in to enjoy it. She had a cute Muscovite accent and a smile never left her face when she spoke.
In less than two years, Liosha would overdose on opium. Lena followed him not long after doing the same thing. But that was still in the future. Right now, it’s getting baked time.
We smoked and talked about philosophy, Christianity, existentialism, Buddhism, and rock’n’roll. They talked. Names of Sartre, Hermann Hesse, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, and Max Frisch bounced around the smoked kitchen.
I couldn’t chime in and it bothered me. It bothered me I haven’t read a book for years even though I used to read non-stop in school. It bothered me I knew who Robert Plant or Eddy Merckx was but not Borges or Cortazar. It bothered me I wasn’t sure who Jesus Christ was. The Eastern Orthodox superstitions and atheism had polluted my mind stale. I carried a Bible in my bag everywhere I went, but it wasn’t the source of knowledge about God, it was a good-luck fetish. I read ten or twenty pages of it ever since Anton gave it to me as a gift a couple of years ago.
Liosha kept rolling his little rockets one after another. The Armenian cognac I brought was gone sooner than I thought it could. By midnight, we faced the Soviets’ perpetual problem: where do we get more alcohol?
Anton said he knows a bar where we can buy booze from a waiter but it’ll cost a coin. They’ve been broke the last two days. Ate a bag of apples since morning and nothing else. The last ten rubles they had, they spent it on three bottles of chardonnay they drunk before I came.
Money’s not a problem I said, take me to the bar.
This is when Lena said the phrase that stuck with us for years. She said: “Kolya had everything, but he had no equals.”
We laughed. In that moment, right then, I had no equals, she was right.
Anton and I caught a taxi and five minutes later got out in front of a century-old building with a bar in its basement. I gave the bouncer ten rubles to shut him up and we walked in.
The place brimmed with the blare coming from dozens of drunk people talking. Everyone, including a fat bartender, smoked. You could throw an ax in the air and it would float in the cigarette smoke.
Anton and I argued about who was going to ask a waiter for alcohol. I pay and you do the talking I said and he pointed out the leather jacket I wore that made me look like a gangster.
“Grab a waiter and tell him what you want,” he said. “Speak like we speak in North Caucasus. We have a reputation here.”
Corrupt from top to bottom, North Caucasus was famous for drug trade and criminal gangs. People on the street, if you’re from the North Caucasus they thought, you’re an outlaw, you don’t negotiate, don’t reason, and probably armed. Avoid, don’t mess with.
“Keep one hand in the jacket,” he said. “The butthead will piss his pants thinking you have a gun in your pocket.”
I looked at him to see if he was serious and we laughed again. Kids never grow up.
I didn’t have to chase a waiter around the bar, one came up to us and asked what we wanted. I pulled out a fifty-ruble note, shoved it in his breast pocket and asked if he had a couple of decent cognac bottles lying somewhere doing nothing. We walked out with two bottles of Napoléon brandy and headed back to Anton’s place on foot to clear our heads and talk.
We stopped at playgrounds and random park benches on the way back and drank from the bottle taking turns and talked. I heard about movie festivals and the screening of banned films Anton went to through his brother’s connections in the industry. He talked about Tarkovsky, Fellini, and Buñuel as if he dined with them last night. Agitated, he’d ask me if I saw this film or that. The answer was always the same: no, never heard of it. Oh man, he’d sigh, you should see this or that.
I asked him if he missed cycling and he said he did miss the fun and the mucking around but not the training and not the racing.
“Those crashes man, no thanks,” he said.
Three years ago he slammed into a parked car head down in front of me on a downhill sprint. The bike flew over my head and when he landed on the asphalt, it didn’t look like he’d get up.
We were near his apartment building when he said, “Why don’t you move to Moscow?”
“Man, you have no idea how cool this place is.”
“Yeah,” I said. “A Russian Paris.”
“Don’t know about Paris. Moscow is a bomb man.”
“They’ll kick me out from Titan if I leave Kiev.”
“Titan shmitan. Forget your monkey ass Titan. Remember what Trumheller told us?”
“Prepare your Plan B. You crash tomorrow and your cycling goes out the window. What’s your Plan B?”
“Dude, I’m not sure I have a Plan A, never mind B.”
“Exactly. That’s because you’re stupid. You think you’ll race forever and those Titan nitwits will look after you all your life. Wrong. They look at you and see a brainless machine with two legs to push the pedals. Are you a brainless machine, bro?”
“I’d like to think I’m not but you’re the seer, you know better.”
“I’m not a seer. Ten years from now you’ll look back and say, crap, I should’ve stopped in 1985 while I was young.”
“And why would I say that?”
“Because what if, God forbid, you crash tomorrow and can’t race anymore? What are you going to do?”
“I don’t crash like that.”
“Of course you don’t. You’re made from steel, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Listen, there’s this postgrad sports medicine school in Tallinn. Two-year course. Transfer from Kiev to Moscow, finish the Uni here and then go to Tallinn. You can stay there after you graduate if you want or come back to Moscow. Leave your stinky Kiev for the stinky Ukrainians to live in. How’s that for Plan B?”
“Awesome. Love the medicine part. I can’t tell chemistry from physics and you want me to study medicine?”
“Sports medicine. You’ll work with athletes and other twonks. Give them vitamin C, tell them it’ll make them stronger and, voila, they’re stronger. It’s not like you’ll be treating cancer patients. Athletes man, the shmos.”
He did that, making plans for both of us was his thing. He made plans I never followed.
Liosha was alone in the kitchen when we came back with the last bottle of brandy. On the table laid two fifty-cubic interchangeable syringes half-filled with brown liquid. Home-cooked opium.
“Cooked this for you boys,” he said. “Lena’s gone to bed, I feel like going too. Have fun.”
With a fifty-kilometer team time trial to race in the morning, I said I better head back to Krylatskoye.
The first sun rays broke out from behind the clouds when I stepped into the street air outside filled with cold droplets of a morning drizzle. Anton walked me to the main road to catch a taxi. A warm bed right now would be heaven. We walked in silence and looked at the wet asphalt and concrete buildings and empty streets and crows who walked on the grass and cawed messages to each other.
“C’mon, let’s go back, sleep on the coach,” Anton said. “Tell them you’re sick. You walk like someone shot you.”
We waited half an hour for a taxi and gave up. A bus to the subway and another bus would work too.
I sneaked into my room without tripping the wire. My roommate was already up, brushing teeth in a toilet, naked.
“You look like death,” he said, staring at me from the mirror on the wall in front of him. “Rogozyan was here five minutes ago. Told him you went for a walk.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. Your bed looks like no one slept in it. He saw that.”
“Get the hell out of the bathroom,” I said. “I need a shower.”
“You stink like you spent the night in a tobacco factory,” he said and walked out.
Nikolai Rogozyan, Titan’s second-in-command, showed no sign he suspected me of any sin when I saw him outside loading the team car with food and spares. With Yuri Elizarov in Kiev on some business, he had the power to send me away from this race and finish my career if he caught me doing anything wrong.
He played like his only goal in life was to catch us in the act of breaching Titan’s discipline. Leave your door unlocked at night for Rogozyan to check if you’re in or out. He’d chain us to our bikes if he could, fence off the outside world and make us think of nothing but racing. To watch you suffer, he’d pull next to you in a car, look you in the eye and smile. Rogozyan was a Pinochet who made you believe he’s your buddy and then strangle you the moment you mess up.
“Had a good sleep last night?” he said when I passed him my bike to mount on the roof of our team car.
“Came by this morning and haven’t seen you in your room.”
“Went for a walk.”
The talking head on the car radio said it was currently nine degrees Celsius in Moscow with icy drizzle expected to continue for the rest of the day. With that, we got moving toward the Moscow State University where the team time trial was.
Currently? What’s that supposed to mean? The sun’s going to shine by the time we get out of the car?
My chest tipped to the brim with loathing of cycling, the drizzle, the wet Moscow outside the car window, and Nikolai Rogozyan.
The radio was now spinning Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision of the new Soviet Union the Politburo appointed him to build. He was the fourth General Secretary of the Party I lived under with the three previous ones dying one after another. We’d stepped off the path, he was saying, the path our Great Lenin had mapped out sixty-five years ago. The path paved with the bones of our forefathers who’d gone before us. We’d marched far on this path, we got distracted, and now the time has come to get back on it before we lose what we’d built.
Lose what? What is it that we’d built? A 300-million-strong prison? Collective farms and empty grocery stores? Cars that broke down before leaving the factory floor, cars you couldn’t buy anywhere but the black market? Oh yeah, that’s right, we built space stations and nuclear weapons, the jet fighters, the AK-47, the submarines. Come and get us.
An old pitch. Tell us what a great nation we are. Call us to arms again, we want that. If America wants our blood, come and get it. Nuke the bastards, what are we waiting for? They want war? We’ll give them war. They never had one, not a real one anyway, don’t know what it’s like to lose a million or two in a battle. We’ll wipe them out before they have time to dig their own graves. Dying in wars, that’s we do, we love that. Come, you dogs, come and taste it.
When you smell a fight, my brother told me the night before I went to school, don’t wait for it to come to you. Hit first. Hit, don’t stop hitting. Fear, people understand fear.
I finished school with knuckles scarred from breaking other boys’ teeth. Dogs eat dogs.
I should’ve listened to my dad and stayed in a chess school. He taught me how to play when I was six. I’d rush into my parents’ bedroom on a Sunday morning with a chess set, jump on dad’s bed and ask for a game. He never refused. He’d put aside his Trud newspaper and give me two games, one for each side. He talked to a pro player he knew and I started going to chess classes this guy ran in a basement of a local school.
My dad never showed he cared about what I liked except when I got hooked on chess.
“Chess is in your blood,” he told me as we sat on his bed one morning to play. “It’s a loners’ game. You’ll be good at it.”
We came to a start area fenced off by steel barriers and militiamen in soaked raincoats. Team cars scattered around a large square allotted by the authorities for the peloton’s use. Riders, mechanics, and coaches bustled back and forth between cars in their navy-blue or black windbreakers and white caps turned back to front or with the beak up.
A lot of guys were warming up on the rollers. I closed my eyes to picture how the race might go today, its possible plots and its possible ends.
You look at a large Omega chronometer near the start line sitting upright in the saddle, arms hanging. Ten seconds to go, drop down and grab the bars, squeeze them hard to flex the muscles and hear the ‘roger that’ feedback from inside you. The heart starts to pump with a loud thump, thump, thump in the ears and you hear the first beep — six seconds to go. Why six I never knew but when it starts to beep, other sounds shut off and all you hear is that Omega beep. Five, four, three, two, one. Go.
We went full throttle from the gun. A gap grew in front of me right out of the gate because I ducked the warm up. In this freezer, my legs were as good as concrete beams.
This was a stage race rehearsal and the teams had six riders instead of four. I could have pulled out right there before reaching the first kilometer. The clock stopped with the fourth rider over the line, we still had one guy to spare if I was out.
I pictured Rogozyan’s sly grin he’d put on his face passing me in the car. Getting soft, party boy? He’d be on a phone with Elizarov tonight telling him how I blew up in the first thirty seconds of the race. Oh and by the way, he spent the night nobody knows where. Thirty seconds, even a corpse would last longer than that.
I lowered the elbows, pushed on and tried not to lose any more ground. In a few seconds, the first wheel should peel off and close the gap in front of me. I’d sit out a turn or two, warm up, get into the race and work as normal. Not a biggie. Rogozyan won’t get rid of me today.
With two kilometers to go, I pulled to the bottom of the last hill and shot off to the left away from the team. I’m out guys, arrivederci.
I was dropping the chain to the small ring when Rogozyan leveled his car with me. Our eyes met.
“Whatta hell are you looking at?” was on my face.
“I’ll get you one day, bitch,” I read on his.
The Moscow’s time trial set the tone for the rest of the season. I crashed out of the road race in Krylatskoye and ended up in a hospital with the measles virus the day I returned to Kiev. I got going again by mid-season. It looked like I’d turned the tables when I trailed the third place by four seconds in the national individual time trial. The table-turning operation stalled when I punctured with fifteen kilometers to race.
The misfortune streak ended when I found out I was going to the Coors Classic. If the rumors were true, the entire pro peloton with Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond was set to line up for the race.
I kept a training diary the first five years after starting cycling. It had Hinault’s pictures in it. One was with him and Joop Zoeltemelk riding in a breakaway to Champs-Élysées in 1979 Tour de France. Racing against this guy would pep me up for life. And not coming back would trump seeing Bernard Hinault in the flesh.
Go west in America. Forget Italy, forget France. This is the door you thought they had shut in front of your nose. Bone out. Say goodbye.
I was packing my bike the night before flying to the US when Titan’s team administrator walked into my room and said not to pack my stuff.
“Someone else is going instead of you,” he said. “Don’t know why.”
I went outside to a public phone and called Zyama, a Soviet Army major and a liaison between Titan and the army.
After I came from France, we drove with him to a military base in Kiev where I read an oath of allegiance to the Soviet Union, signed a paper and joined the army. Compulsory conscription for all males eighteen and over, world champion or not. If you are, you sign the oath at the beginning of your service and come back two years later to discharge from duty. No point wasting talent in Afghanistan.
“I’m not going to the States. Do you know why?” I said when he picked up.
“No, I don’t. Ask Elizarov.”
“He’s not in Kiev. It’s not normal. They tell me to pack up in the morning and then ditch me in the evening. Not normal. Can you find out what’s going on? Something’s going on.”
“What do you mean?” he said.
“No idea,” I said. “That’s why I called you. Can you find out what’s going on or not?”
“Call me tomorrow.”
I called him the next day. He said he asked around and no one knew anything specific.
“One guy I spoke to said your passport might be on hold,” he said.
“Why?” I said.
“Something to do with the Kontora. Someone there not happy with you. Have you talked to anybody?”
“You know who.”
“Yes. They picked me up on the street a few months ago. We drove around Kiev for I don’t know how long and then they let me go after that.”
“What have you done?”
“They wouldn’t be talking to you if you’ve done nothing.”
“I’ve done nothing.”
“Do you remember the agent’s name?”
“Look, if you want my help, you need to tell me what you’ve done and who you talked with. It could be something stupid like your grandma is Jewish or something. I can fix that. Are you Jewish?”
“You must’ve done something if your passport is on hold.”
“Tell me what you’ve done and I’ll see what I can do.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“They’ve got something on you. You’re screwed.”
I hung up, went back to my room and started packing up. This is it, I’m done racing. Go back to Nalchik and figure out what to do with my life. Go to Tallinn and become a doctor. They can go to hell with their cycling. Tallinn is next to Finland, I’ll find the way out of here somehow.