My plane landed in Kiev late afternoon the next day. No one heard from me for six days. If I’d gone missing for a day between training camps and races, I could get away with it. Six days, not a chance. Not when another training camp was under way at Prolisok resort near Kiev. They’d fired others for smaller offenses.
This camp was set up to sharpen Titan’s riders for its second most important team time trial in the season. They started the project to develop world-class team time trial specialists. The nationals was the season’s pinnacle. What was coming now was the race where all Olympic development centers like Titan raced against one another. It was the national team time trial without the title.
Yuri Elizarov had fixed his sight since the year before to win this race. He wanted to break the two-hour mark, the Holy Grail of team time trials.
At the time, I only heard of two or three teams in the world who went outside of two hours. One verified result was by the Pettersson brothers in one of their hat-trick world titles in the late 1960s.
Elizarov craved the recognition of his work. He couldn’t wait to show what his boys can do on a smooth, fast Brest-Litovsk highway.
I should’ve been in America doing the Coors Classic and this training camp and the time trial wasn’t on my mind. When I flew to Tallinn, I wasn’t certain I’d be back in Kiev any time soon and now I needed Titan more than ever. I had to hang on for a couple of months, pay Olga, and get the hell out of here.
I didn’t want to call Elizarov to tell him I was in Kiev. He radiated so much authority, fear and respect, I couldn’t lie to him about where I was for six days.
I had to lie. I called Rogozyan and told him some bunk about my uncle’s sudden death in a car crash. We don’t have a phone at my parents’ I said. It’s tricky to organize a long distance call from a post office in Nalchik.
He bought none of it but what could he do? He asked me to bring a plane ticket with me to prove my story and of course I didn’t keep it, I said. I remembered the Minvody’s flight number and departure time from six days ago when I was trying to buy a ticket on it. I checked the nearest flight from Minvody on the arrivals display after I landed in Kiev. When Rogozyan, the sly bastard, asked me what flights I flew on to and from Minvody, I had the info ready for him. He told me to wait at the airport and he’d come in an hour to pick me up.
I saw Elizarov at the dinner table later that day. He didn’t say hello, didn’t even send a nod in my direction. Missing out on the Coors Classic made me one of the key men in the upcoming time trial. He’d been getting his boys ready for it the last few months now. Chances of achieving the under two-hour result went up when they ditched me from the American race. And then I’d disappeared for six days.
My antics would rattle any coach. Elizarov wasn’t any coach. His silence and neglect of my presence meant I was in for a checkmate. What kind I didn’t know, but he wasn’t going to let me go unpunished.
My first day on a bike after a long break was a four-hour ride with the dreaded four by twenty-five-kilometer TTT intervals. They were the classic measuring stick for a hundred-kilometer TTT training. Ridden at race intensity, you had to be in good shape to handle all four. The first three were okay. It was the fourth one that cracked the legs. That day was the first test in a series and I had no legs for it.
I started to redline five kilometers in on the first interval. Tried to sit out a round or two, missed the wheel, got gapped and blew up.
Elizarov drove up to me on my right. He wanted to talk. I grabbed the car’s door through an open window, pressed my thigh against it and lowered my head to hear him in the wind.
“Sick?” he said.
“Get behind the car,” he jerked his head backward.
On any other day, motorpacing for half an hour would get me back online except I was beyond repair that day. Soft legs were only part of the problem, I could handle that. I wasn’t switched on like I used to in the past. The legs hurt but it wasn’t something I had never dealt with before. I budged to it, I refused to go on. This whole circus of riding, racing, training, stopped making any sense to me.
I lasted even less on the second interval and went straight behind the car after two short pulls. Ten minutes later Elizarov gassed and took off somewhere. I rode alone after everyone else sailed past me at high speed, turned around and rode back. Another cardinal sin in Titan’s codex.
I was in bed after lunch in my room when I heard a knock on the door.
“Opened,” I said and shut the book I was reading. It was Titan’s new doctor I’d seen around. He never introduced himself to me after I arrived. In return, I hadn’t bothered myself to say hello to him either.
I heard he used to work in athletics or swimming, maybe rowing, I couldn’t remember. I never liked outsiders from other sports who switched to cycling. They always talked as if they knew the sport while nothing but nonsense came out of their mouths.
He held a white towel in his right hand, folded twice over itself, looking like a brick. He sat on my bed and unfolded the towel. Inside, a syringe with a glass barrel and chrome-plated plunger glared at me from the white fabric.
“Turn over and give me your bum,” he said.
“What’s this?” I said.
“C’mon, don’t be stupid,” he said.
“What’s in the syringe?”
“B12 and some other stuff.”
“Tell me what’s in the syringe or get the hell out of my room,” I said.
“Are you out of your mind?” he said.
“You won’t shoot this shit into my body unless you tell me what it is.”
He stared at me, lifted his hand with the syringe and brought it closer to my face.
“This,” he said, “is your life ring. Not your call to decide when you need one or what kind it is. Get your pants down.”
“Go away, doc.”
He stood up and walked out the room.
“A wild dog,” I heard as he slammed the door.
Twenty years later a friend told me what was in the syringe. A lipotropic cocktail of amino acids and B12 vitamin, like the doctor said it was. Nothing sinister, nothing illegal. Not that I cared.
I had no moral objection to drugs. Nothing was more important in my life than winning a bike race or help someone else win one to earn a credit for it. I measured everyone’s worth based on performance. Everyone else measured me the same in return. We all had a market price. It went up with good results and down when you had none.
Western pros had salaries fixed for a period of time and we had no price tag attached to our contracts. We didn’t even have contracts. My price wasn’t spelled out in Swiss francs or Italian lira. My price was the sum total of confidence the coaches had in my ability to perform today and in the future.
This ephemeral value fluctuated during the season. Some riders had figured out how to keep it steady. I wasn’t one of them. My price shot up from zero to a level I never believed I’d ever reach. It fell down to almost zero again in less than nine months. I couldn’t pick up Sovetsky Sport and check my price in road cycling section. I didn’t have to. The sell out was in full swing, the sound of a violin was in the air and it sang for me. I felt it, smelled it, saw it. I’d do anything to reverse the spiral. Drugs? Yes please if that’s what it takes to hang on to this job right now.
When the doc walked into my room with a syringe in his hand, I wouldn’t fuss over it with as much as a pip if he’d told me he carried out Elizarov’s orders. I knew he did, but I wanted to hear it. If he’d sent a doctor to my room to dope me, I wanted him to come along and tell me to my face: “I want you to take this.” I was up for it, but I wanted everyone involved to play an open hand with me, no ‘take your pants down and do what I say’ bullshit.
I made a mistake, miscalculated and overestimated my own price. Two hours later the door opened again — it was Elizarov now.
“Come with me,” he said and disappeared into the corridor.
I didn’t think much of it, slipped into Adidas slide-on pool shoes and followed him. I wore a navy-blue Adidas tracksuit pants, white socks and a red Adidas t-shirt. Standard outfit of a Soviet national team member.
I caught up with him outside, near our team car. I saw Zyama in a passenger seat. What is he doing here? Had Elizarov driven all the way to Kiev to bring him? What for?
“Get in,” Elizarov said, opened the driver’s door and sat behind the wheel. “We’re going for a drive.”
I got onto the back seat and we took off toward Kiev. None of us spoke the entire way. I considered and then dismissed every possible destination of this trip I could think of. Nothing made sense.
A half hour after we left Prolisok, we stopped in front of a steel gate with a large red star welded on its surface in the center. It was the garrison I visited a year ago to take the Soviet Army’s enlistment oath. My guts dropped to the floor the moment it registered with me what we were here for.
“Let’s go,” Elizarov said and opened his door.
All three of us got out. My legs weighed a tonne. I heard violent thumps in my chest, pounding against the rib cage, ears burning, dry throat. Game over, this is the end. What I feared the most, the main reason I threw my life into cycling — to avoid the army — I failed to save myself from.
“Why are we here?” I said.
Give me a warning speech, we’ll drive back and I’ll be a good boy. I need to hang on for a few weeks. Please don’t. Why I always screw up at the wrong time?
“This is where your career ends,” he said. “From cycling shoes straight into army boots.”
“You can’t do that,” I said. “I’m in a national team. They pay my salary, you can’t fire me.”
“You’re mine,” he said. “I can do whatever I want with you. No one can stop me, no one can tell me what to do.”
He put both hands into pants’ pockets and stared at me.
“Why? What do you want from me? You send a doctor I had never had a word with to my room with who knows what in a syringe and expect me to roll over? Drop my pants down and high five him?”
“Shut up,” he said. “I thought I could tame you, I gave you time to adapt but you’re the same punk the day you came to Titan. You can’t function in my team. We’ll let the army change you because I can’t.”
We stood a meter apart, face to face, eyes locked. I still hoped to dodge the bullet this time again. I couldn’t believe it would come to an end like this only a year after my country’s national anthem played in my honor.
“It hurts,” he said. “I’ve been coaching for more than twenty years. Guys like you don’t come around too often. It hurts me to stop you. What else can I do? I’ve tried. I’m through with you. Take care.”
He turned around, opened the door and got into the car.
Zyama, dressed in an army uniform, waved me with his head to follow him. I spent the time it took me to walk five meters between our team car and the garrison’s security checkpoint to toss around an idea of walking away from the hole I was about to fall in. A year in the army? I don’t think I can do that. What are they going to do if I walk out of here?
We stopped in front of an aluminum-framed glass door. Behind it, I saw a guard in pale, sun-burnt khakis with an AK-47 over the shoulder.
“I’ll take you to the commander upstairs for some paperwork. Nobody expected to see you for another year. You’re a ghost and they don’t want ghosts around here. This is going to be some mess.”
“I won’t go in,” I said. “This is not going to end well. I won’t go in.”
“You will, don’t be stupid. Run and you’ll be a deserter and this will be the end of you. Go in, wait for Elizarov to leave Kiev. They’ll be gone in two weeks and then I’ll take you out of here. You’ll go home and you’ll train. We’ll figure out something for you for next season. You need to wise up, Kolya, this is your last break. Let’s go.”