We clocked nine thousand kilometers in eight weeks in Tajikistan. Terskol’s fat had melted away, the legs returned. Gusyatnikov, CSKA’s head coach, has been patting me on the back after rides every couple of days. “Good season ahead,” he kept saying.
In February, I went with the Ukrainian state team to Crimea for a climbing camp. We stayed in Gurzuf in a hotel two hundred meters from a short wall we climbed every time to get on the main road.
It didn’t matter which way you rode. East or west, you’d either climb or descend until you’re back in the hotel. The wind gusts from the Black Sea could knock you off the bike if you relaxed your grip on the bars. Climbing into the wind, small ring, big cog, dancing on the pedals, day after day.
It rained for four weeks with short breaks. The sun would come out for an hour in the afternoon when you’re in bed and hide again as soon as you’d swing the leg over the bike before the next ride. I gave up on washing my white socks and chucked them away at the end of the camp.
I flew to Sochi in early March to join the peloton for spring classics and the Sochinskaya stage race in April. The aura of a young, talented rider had faded. I read the looks, the polite head nods, and the mumbled greetings.
The first serious road race, I bridged to Piotr Ugrumov who’d been soloing for half an hour at the front. We went full gas all the way to the finish ripping legs off with long pulls. I’ve never seen him sprint, he was too light for that. Out of respect and sure a skinny climber won’t bother sprinting, I led from the last five hundred meters. Should I kick it or we’ll roll to the line? I got out of the saddle to have a look at where the peloton was. Piotr rode three meters behind me. He was picking up speed dancing on the pedals with his mouth open to swallow me. The sprint was on.
I leveled wheels with him five pedal strokes from the line and won with a bike throw. He was laughing when I turned around and rode toward him to shake hands.
“You thought I’d give it to you?” he said.
Weeks later, he was my minute man in the opening time trial stage in Tashkent. We circled around next to each other in the warm-up. He was one of those climbers who could also smash a time trial. He told me he felt rotten in the morning.
“Hope you won’t catch me today,” he said.
I said, “When was the last time someone caught you in a time trial?”
He shrugged and didn’t say anything.
Like most time trials in the country, this one was an out and back one. I’ve done dozens of them and could gauge if I’m catching the guy in front of me when I saw how far he rode from the U-turn. Give or take five seconds.
I had about forty seconds on Ugrumov when he zoomed by me on the way back. I caught him two kilometers from the finish. The cherry on the cake came in the form of the yellow jersey.
I’d done this race before with Titan as a junior. We went to Tashkent to eat our share of cement in a real stage race. Throwing juniors to the wolves was the standard practice Soviet coaches loved.
The race suited me. Six windy road stages sandwiched between a time trial and a city points race. Aggressive, sharp riders who smelled a split before it happened did okay in this race. A thirty-second buffer I had was enough to keep the yellow jersey to the end if not for one stage with a steep climb on it.
We tossed back and forth a question at the dinner table after the time trial no one knew how to answer. Do we defend the jersey or ride for team classification? Two different jobs.
How much time I could lose on the climb, someone said. Thirty or forty seconds I said. A minute max.
We’ll go for time bonuses, they said. The climbers, they won’t sprint. We’ll stick you in and lead you out for a win on every stage. With sprint bonuses, we can build a minute or more before you come to the climb. Even if you get dropped, the finish is twenty kilometers away, you should be fine.
They placed me on the podium twice and we snapped bonus seconds on intermediate sprints. We came to the climb with a minute on general classification.
Everyone knew their job. At the foot of the hill, the pacemakers peeled off out of the way and the climbers took over. Out of the saddle, big chain rings on, they charged at the climb as feral cats run up a tree.
The first minute on a climb crushes both your mind and the legs. If you’re not a climber, this is where you either run into the fray or capitulate.
I stayed on, made my way up and stuck to Oleg Yaroshenko’s wheel as he told me to.
Any other day, I’d let the mountain goats slit each other’s throats and have fun with it. With the yellow jersey on and Yaroshenko’s back rocking from side to side in front of me, I kept on turning the cranks. Stroke for stroke with the climbers.
The end, you see the end every time. It falls on you as night falls on the day and nothing you can do about it. You pray for the summit to come before the night sets in. Don’t fight it, don’t be stupid. You never win. Evacuate. Ease off and let them go. Find the pace you can handle and stick to it. Don’t hit the wall. The wall is the end. You may or may not come back. Nine times out of ten, you won’t.
I didn’t evacuate. The end came with five hundred meters still to climb. The legs ceased. The upper body hung off my arms, a boulder about to slide down on the road. Air burned my lungs and guts rose up to my throat. Vomit them out. Stop and vomit your rage on the asphalt. The game’s over.
I swung left to the other side of the road to stay upright. Back to the right side. Another zigzag, up on the pedals, dance, dance, keep it going.
“Twenty-five seconds,” someone shouted from the roadside when I crested the climb.
Down in the valley, I looked back to check how far behind the next group was. No man’s land they call it. You can’t bridge to the group in front because they drive it flat out to snatch the yellow from you. And you don’t want to wait for the gun dogs behind because waiting contradicts racing.
I bent low and chased. Two kilometers, three. The gap grew. I looked back again. An eight-man locomotive was about to scoop me up. I waited and slotted in.
We worked in a paceline. Vertushka, a spinning thing. Nine men were good for that. The gap stopped growing, we had the race under control.
A race marshal popped next to us on a red Jawa with a chalkboard tied to the passenger’s back. Forty-five seconds to the breakaway, ten kilometers to go it said. If we lose a second on every kilometer, I’d still keep the jersey.
We finished fifty seconds down and no one I cared about got any time bonuses. My first stage race victory in the elite peloton was one road race away, not counting the crit.
That second to the last stage started in a relaxed mood. Tailwind the first fifteen kilometers, jokes and anecdotes. Then the road curved east. A long curve, one kilometer-long curve with a high overpass at the end.
The chatter stopped. The two teams whose leaders still had a shot at winning the GC had lined up at the head of the peloton. Everyone who could put two and two together was on the move, a run of salmon heading upstream for spawning.
I was still moving up when the front guys dropped the bomb and blew a hole behind themselves. No time for tactics. You don’t have twenty minutes to find your rhythm and count how many team-mates you still have with you. One or two seconds is all you have to find a crack to stick your wheel in. To squeeze through. Push if you have to. Use a hand or an elbow. Your head. Your knee. You have to get on the conductor’s wheel. When you get there, count yourself lucky if the wind’s angle gives you some slipstream still. If not, you can’t stay too long behind him. Without slipstream, you’ll get blown away.
They flew full sail at the speed of a leadout train because they knew they’ve caught me out in the crosswind. They wanted me dead. They wanted my jersey.
The hole was ten meters deep when I got to the front. The wind punched me in the face from the right, pushing the bike off the road. Twenty guys swapping all out at the front against a race leader caught with his pants down.
I shot to the middle of the road to form a second echelon. Never panic. We’re all human. Two legs, two arms, and an engine inside. They’re not motorbikes. With the second echelon, we can ride next to them. Give me two, three guys. Give me ten seconds to put this together. Let me reach the top of this stupid overpass. Let me have a break. One break is all I want. Is all I need. And if it’s still ten meters, one jump will close the gap.
I looked back and saw Oleg Yaroshenko and no one else on my wheel. They blew this up good. He took over and I got my break. At the top, when the road flattens, this is where I’ll jump.
We reached the top without losing a meter. I was good to go.
“Your hand,” Oleg yelled and stuck his hand out. A slingshot. He wanted to launch me with a slingshot.
I got behind conductor’s back with speed to spare and barged into him from the right. He leaned against me trying not to yield. I pushed him away off the road with my hand and joined the paceline. Look who’s here, suckers.
A minute later Yarosh clawed his way to the break. Our rivals had three riders each. We were losing our second spot in team classification but still had the yellow jersey. No work then, we’ll sit at the back and smoke cigars.
This is how you lose a stage race.
You get bored. You suck wheels for an hour and get bored and daydream about a stage win. You can’t not win a stage sucking wheels all day. Not with a teammate who knows how to set you up. You can’t not win it with fresh legs. Two podiums, a time trial, a road race, and a yellow jersey. Who’s overrated now?
I had both hands in the rear pockets fishing for pieces of oatmeal cookies. This is how you lose a stage race. One pocket at a time, brother. This is not a circus. Not when you’re in a yellow jersey.
Maybe they saw me with my hands stuck in the pockets. Maybe. They scattered in front of me all over the road as if someone spilled a bag of marble balls. They hit the brakes and dropped the chains to the small rings.
Melon-sized rocks mixed with sand laid ahead instead of asphalt. Road works, Soviet-style. Rip the old surface off, dump tonnes of rocks and sand on the road, and leave it there for weeks. Let the traffic flatten it for you. This was a fresh dump. You can’t ride a bike through this.
Everyone else had time to jump to the shoulder on either side of the road. I didn’t. I had to have an oatmeal cookie. I had a stage to win. I had to make a statement to prove I can do this. I needed my legs fresh. I wasn’t looking ahead.
I grabbed the handlebar and squeezed the brakes but had no time to change gears. I hit the slag on 53×14 and got bogged down five meters in, changed to a small ring, and dropped the chain.
Got off the bike, ankle-deep in sand, put the chain back on and remounted. You can’t get the wheels rolling in the sand and rocks. Not on 42×14, you idiot. It doesn’t work. Not enough momentum to get going.
Off the bike again, lifted it and ran to the shoulder. Remounted. Gear’s still too big.
Off the bike. Changed to 42×19 with the rear wheel in the air. Remounted.
This is how you lose a stage race.
Yarosh told me later someone saw me stuck in the sand. They got on the gas as soon as they reached the asphalt. Fifty-five kilometers an hour against ten. For every meter I rode, they rode five.
I had a week to enjoy Kiev’s spring before the next round of races and camps in the Baltic region and Armenia. Coaches too busy with families, no control over our lives. Seven days to call and organize a meeting with Olga’s friend.
I found a lonely phone booth near the Republican Stadium and dialed the number Olga gave me in Tallinn. After a single beep, a man with a Georgian accent said, “Hello, who’s speaking?”
You. You’re speaking. I didn’t say that. I said, “Can I talk to Lena?”
“Lena? What Lena?” he said.
“Wrong number, sorry.”
I hung up and looked at the number again. Who the hell is this Georgian dude? Olga’s friend supposed to be a she, not a Vakhtang or a Zurab.
I walked around the stadium and found another booth. Olga never told me her friend’s name. What do I tell Zurab? Or Vakhtang? I want to talk to your wife? Daughter? Mother? Sister? I’m from Olga. From Tallinn. Send your wife to pick up cash for the off the books passport which I’m going to use to duck out from the workers’ paradise.
I dialed again and heard the same greeting. I said, “Sorry about Lena. I was looking at the wrong page in my notebook.”
I waited for Zurab’s comment, listening to a breathing into the receiver an overweight man would make.
I said, “Olga gave me this phone number. Said if I need a tour guide in Kiev, I can call her friend and she’ll help.”
“What’s your name?” he said.
“Are you in Kiev?”
“Somewhere on Kreshchatyk.”
“You know where the Central Post Office is on Kreshchatyk?”
“I can find it.”
“Go there and wait for me. Olga’s friends are my friends. I’ll see you in ten.”
I crossed the Krasnoarmeyskaya street and headed to Snegurochka bar. On the way, I stopped by the Havana cigar shop and bought a pair of Partagas to go with the brandy I was going to drink. If I get drunk tonight and Elizarov comes to check up on us at the dormitory after dinner, this will be the end.
I downed three brandies in Snegurochka, smoked my Partagas outside, and went to Dom Kino for dinner.
Elizarov walked in at the same time desserts have arrived. Like my father, he never smoked and could smell a cigarette as a bloodhound could smell a wild boar. I poured another coffee into my cup, sipped, and focused on the ice cream. Black coffee will wash down the cigar’s and the brandy’s smell. A scientific fact I invented and chose to believe when Elizarov walked in, all at once.
He smelled it. Because when he sat down next to me, he put his arm around my shoulder, leaned in, and stared into my ice cream. We both stared.
Different ice creams melt at different rates. Depends on how much water and fat you have in it, what color it is, and how hot the room temperature is. My vanilla ice cream with a blob of cranberry jam in the middle had little lakes and lagoons where it met the stainless steel bowl. I liked it half melted. It was perfect.
He said, “Tour of Bulgaria’s organizers have invited the Ukrainian state team to the tour. I spoke with the head coach and he wants you in. He needs a green light from me though.”
I picked up a teaspoon and stirred the lakes and lagoons with the cranberry jam into a pink whirlpool.
He said, “I don’t know why you’ve been missing races like this before. The passports have been already stamped and returned to the Sports Committee. You’re good to go.”