The road to the top of the Soviet cycling pyramid turned out to be littered with potholes. At first, nothing seemed too complicated about it. Win or finish on a podium at the Russian state championships to get selected into the Kuybyshev team. Do that and you’re one step away from the top, the national team.
Kuybyshev was the biggest, the most powerful cycling team in the country. Funded and tied to the Soviet Army, its chiefs ruled Soviet road cycling landscape. They could pick and choose any talent from anywhere in the country. It didn’t matter if you were from Russia or Estonia. They’d sign you for a five-year military-backed contract, bottle you inside their system and watch if you come out alive or not. Survive and you can make it to the national team. If Kuybyshev’s meat grinder didn’t ravage you, you were the right kind to race in the red CCCP jersey.
A lot of national team riders came through the Kuybyshev machine. Snatch any talent you find anywhere in the country and throw him to the wolves. Keep the ones that survived and dump those that didn’t. Kuybyshev was the epitome of the Soviet road cycling system. A cut-throat world where winning by all means was the law.
I knew what Kuybyshev was like from Piotr Trumheller and one of my older team-mates. They took the guy in as a state silver road race medalist. He came back nine months later and refused to ride more than a couple of times a week before he quit cycling for good.
He said he hated cycling. He said he’d rather rot in a factory than cripple himself racing. His fall from the top of a talent ladder daunted me but there were no other routes. If you’re from Russia and want to climb the pyramid, you go up either via Kuybyshev or you don’t go anywhere at all.
I blew two chances I had at the state championships to show Kuybyshev my worth. Dude, we used to say when we wanted to mock someone, you’re so full of crap, you didn’t even make it onto the first sheet. They used to print race results on paper sheets in those days with about thirty places on the first page. You were a loser if you didn’t make the first sheet.
I failed to appear on the first sheet in every race that mattered. Trumheller scolded me after each flop. Doubts if I was good enough sapped my drive to keep going.
“You know what’s wrong with you?” he said after I bombed again. “You don’t push yourself as hard as the other guys. You think you can win anything you want if you go hard, but you never do when it counts.”
“I gave it everything I had.”
“And went two minutes slower than a week before?”
“That was on a faster road.”
“Not by two minutes. You know why you don’t push? It’s all too easy for you. You don’t want to suffer like the other guys to get a win. When you come to a serious race, you don’t want it bad enough. You think the race will fall into your hands by itself because you’re so special. You know what? You’re wrong. You won’t get anywhere until you fight like a dog. These other guys out there who did well, they know what they want. They’ll cut your throat if you get on their way. Stop acting like you’re Eddy Merckx. You’re not Merckx. If you want to be him, race like him. All I see is a princess on two wheels.”
My last chance to step up the ladder came in May 1983 in Kaliningrad. A twenty-five-kilometer time trial and a road race were all I had left to play with if I wanted a future in cycling.
The road race was pancake flat with a guaranteed bunch sprint. I didn’t rate my chances and focused only on the time trial. Two days before we flew to Kaliningrad, Trumheller told me he had built a pair of time trial wheels for me. He kept a stash of gear since his trip to Italy. A pair of twenty-eight-hole Campagnolo Record hubs, Nisi rims, and Clement silks. A frugal German, I knew how important my last test was in his eyes if he pulled out this prized kit for me.
“This is it,” he said when I pulled up to a taxi we hired as a team car after I finished the warm-up. “Blow this one again, and you’re done, in the boots by next spring. Goodbye cycling, arrivederci Roma.”
He swapped wheels while I changed into a dry jersey and wiped the silks clean with a hand. On the road with my bike, he waited for me until I got out of the car.
“Four minutes to go,” he said and placed his hand on my shoulder when I came up to take the bike. “How bad you want it?”
“I’m not going to the army,” I said. “Not with these wheels.”
I plunged into the race from the gun and scorched it like a five-kilometer interval. Pushing, hovering over the red line until the race’s weight crashed down on me toward the end. I took it head-on and kept going. Didn’t slow down because you always know when the race is in the bag and no amount of pain can stop you.
I lost by six seconds to a national team member. For someone who couldn’t make it onto the first sheet when it mattered, a second place was a triumph. I still worried if this was enough for a place in the Kuybyshev team.
That same afternoon I lay on a bed in my hotel room. Legs up against the wall, watching tea leaves floating up and down in a two-liter glass jar of boiled water, I waited for tea to brew.
Razor in hand, I went over my legs to cut down strings of hair still sticking out after the last shave. If the time trial didn’t get Kuybyshev’s attention, I had to win the road race tomorrow.
The finish straight had a little hill with less than two kilometers to go. If I could position myself right coming into it and pick up some speed before we hit it, I could attack in that spot. If the peloton hesitated for ten seconds and did nothing, I could get a gap and hold it to the line. Ten seconds, all I need is for the peloton to freeze for ten seconds.
I heard a knock on the door, it squeaked and a man in a navy blue Adidas tracksuit entered the room. He stopped near the table with the jar of tea and stood there looking at me. The USSR state emblem on his chest placed him somewhere high in cycling’s hierarchy. Even without the chest tag, I knew who he was. Pavel Grigoriev, a man in charge of Kuybyshev’s development program.
“Kak dela?” he said, grabbed a chair and sat next to my bed with his legs crossed. In my underwear, I couldn’t figure out what was less embarrassing — pretend I wasn’t embarrassed or stand up, walk across the room to get clothes and put them on.
“Good,” I said and sat up on my bed.
“Do you know who I am?”
“No,” I said.
“You did well in the time trial this morning,” he said. “Came out of nowhere to finish second.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Wanted to get on Kuybyshev’s radar.”
“Look, I don’t have much time right now. Will make it quick and simple. If you want to race for Kuybyshev, show us what you can do.”
I told him I would love to and he said I’d have to travel to Ivano-Frankovsk in Western Ukraine next month. “Training camp to prepare for the Yunost stage race,” he said.
“If you make the team,” he said, “and do well in the race, I’ll keep you at least until the end of next season. Make the team and we’ll see what kind of a rider we can make from you.”
He stood up and said that he’ll talk to Piotr Trumheller tomorrow after the road race. He stuck out his hand for me to shake it and after I shook it, he walked out.
I sat and poured some tea into a glass and added a teaspoon of mom’s blackberry jam I brought from home. “Made it,” I said out loud.
The best day of my life was about to get better. Ten minutes later, the door opened again and Trumheller walked in with a man I’d never met before.
He had dark, short hair with elephant ears sticking out like satellite dishes on each side of his head. Close-seated, brown eyes sat on top of a large nose which gave his face a prankster look. He wore khaki chinos with a chequered short sleeve shirt unmatched by a plaid patterned white and yellow necktie. A pair of white sneakers completed the outfit’s hodgepodge.
“This is Nikolai Rogozyan. He’s from the Center of Olympic Development Titan in Kiev,” Trumheller said. “He wants to talk to you.”
I plopped onto my bed again, still in my underwear, and they took the chairs.
Like Grigoriev before him, Rogozyan didn’t waste time and went straight to business.
“I came here from Kiev to scout riders for Titan,” he said. “You did well this morning, so Piotr and I had a chat after the race. We think you should fly to Kiev. We want to test you. Piotr Ivanovich and I think you’ll fit in into our program.”
I looked at my coach. Tell them about Grigoriev’s visit and wreck my fresh professional cycling career. The ‘we’ in Rogozyan’s talk flagged Trumheller’s blessing of my trip to Kiev. No choice, let’s dump the news on them anyway.
“Grigoriev stopped by to talk to me. Says he wants me to fly to Ivano-Frankovsk with them next month.”
Neither of them looked too bothered by what seemed to me a complicated situation now.
“Look,” Trumheller said. “I know you see Kuybyshev as the next step but it’s not the only one. With no other options, sure, Kuybyshev is the thing. Forget about them and go to Kiev.”
“Why Ukraine if I can stay in Russia and race for the best team in the country?” I said.
“Kuybyshev is not a team,” Rogozyan said. “It’s a machine. Sweet if you survive it, sour if you don’t.”
He went on to tell me about how Titan was set up a year ago by Ukrainian agro-industrial complex with tight links to Kiev’s Sports University. The team had scientists, masseurs, a doctor, and two mechanics on the payroll. They had people high up in the army to take care of the military conscription. “You won’t see a day in the boots,” he said. They paid Titan riders a salary. “A factory will hire you and you’ll earn a wage every month. You won’t know where that factory is and what it does.”
They raced all top races in the country. Titan hand-picked their riders and treated them as assets, not as stock. They took them in at a young age and built them up using training methods few people knew much about. Titan had links with Kiev’s Sports University and riders could study if they raced for the team. Something to fall back on if a crash ends your racing career before its time.
“As our name implies,” Rogozyan said, “we work to develop Olympic champions. We’re backed by people in the government who want to see more Olympic medals go to Ukraine. It’s a project with serious goals and serious backers.”
I landed in Kiev Borispol airport two weeks later. The Ukrainian language I never heard before fell on me from the PA system and the signage displays. Nikolai Rogozyan waited for me outside in UAZ-452 off-road van built to eat Siberian dirt roads for lunch.
“Chuck your stuff in,” he said and opened the van’s rear door. Plain on the outside, there was no mistake what purpose this van served in life once I saw its inside. Half a dozen yellow sidewall tubular tires lay on the bare steel floor. Spare wheels, a plastic glue bottle with a nozzle made from a brake pad for clean glue jobs on the rims. Water bottles, leather hairnet helmets, and a set of rollers with wooden cylinders placed on its side between the seats. A faint smell of Finalgon, an embrocation of choice among Soviet pros, permeated the van’s interior. I slotted my bike next to the rollers, threw my bag inside the van and sat in the passenger’s seat.
“Where are we going?” I said.
“Training base in Lesnoye resort. An hour drive from here, west of Kiev.”
On the way, I learned how different my life would be from now on.
Unless you see rocks falling from the sky, Rogozyan said, we ride. Three times a day. Forty kilometers before breakfast, up to two hundred later in the morning, and another forty in the late afternoon. It’s normal to clock four thousand a month or more.
Titan redefined the meaning of a professional cyclist’s rest day. Fifty kilometers in the morning after a sleep-in and sauna in the afternoon. That’s how they thought a pro should rest at the end of a training cycle.
Cruising two abreast was minimal. They spent a lot of time in a single file groups of eight riders doing long intervals at different intensities.
They rode at speeds somewhere near forty. The speed wasn’t the point, the intensity was. Two decades of tests showed better adaptations riding near that speed’s intensity.
This workload was hard to handle without rest and nutrition. When not riding or eating, Titan riders were either sleeping or lying in bed talking trash and cracking jokes.
The team had its training camps away from civilization. Sleeping was the only option during riders’ free time. No one could leave the training base without permission.
They banned girlfriends. “You’ll see a lot of gymnasts at the Lesnoye resort. The Ukrainian female state team is there right now,” Rogozyan said as we crossed Paton Bridge over Dnieper River. “If I see you within five meters from any one of them, I’ll send you home. Trust me, I know every excuse in the world about why you think you should be near a girl. Don’t even try. If you have a girlfriend at home, write a letter and tell her you’re through with her. End it now.”
Two or three times a year, riders could go home for four days. Rest of the time, you live with the same people and travel all over the country from race to race and from camp to camp. Driving in the van and listening to Rogozyan, this life-style was a bedtime story. Except I didn’t know yet what it’s like to share a room with the same guy for several months.
Titan’s crew did its best to take care of riders’ nutrition but no one could guarantee quality food at all times. Through its military connections, Titan found a way to the cosmonauts’ food supplies. Boxes of space food traveled with the team everywhere it went. They used carbohydrate gels packaged in hundred-milliliter aluminum tubes before gels became common. Road race or a space station, didn’t matter as long as it worked.
None of this talk would mean anything if I failed to make the cut. I waited for a break and said, “Am I in Titan already?”
“No, we still have to go through the selection process.” He told me they want eight new riders from sixteen candidates they’d invited to the training camp. More than twenty guys would be there but some of them are already on the team.
The first round is the ramp test at the Kiev Sports University’s lab. “It’s a bit of a torture. We have to ensure we’re not wasting our time with someone who’s got no physiology to race at the top level,” Rogozyan said.
Those who pass the lab test will stay and race a stage race for the candidates. “We booked the Chaika race circuit for a week. You’ll do six stages, about hundred each. Twenty guys in the race, nowhere to hide. The circuit is flat. You’ll have to race like mad pit bulls to show us who you are. Hard going, it’ll push you to the limit. Which is what we want.”
We turned off the Brest-Litovsk Highway into a narrow side road. After driving through a thick forest, the UAZ stopped near a group of timber cottages.
“Lunch is in two hours,” Rogozyan said and pointed at one of the cottages. “Get your stuff and the bike in there and start unpacking. You should be good to go for the afternoon ride.”
I got out of the van and breathed in a lungful of sweet, crisp forest air. This was adulthood. My parents, teachers, my first coach, and my friends have all stayed back on a planet I left for good. Was on my own now with no idea how to maneuver in this new life by myself.
I woke up in a wooden cottage in the Lesnoye resort next morning feeling someone’s hand on my skin. Opened my eyes and saw a guy next to my bed down on his haunches. He held my wrist in his hand. He wore an orange shirt and a cardigan only someone’s grandma would wear. Military-style haircut with a straight fringe made him look as if he lived in a science lab.
“Good morning,” he said in Ukrainian and smiled. “Checking your resting heart rate. Sorry to wake you up. You can go back to sleep if you want.”
Ukrainian words sifted through my mind in one sweep but I understood what he’d said. He spoke in a polite tone. Before that morning, I’ve heard two or three people speak like that. In workers’ paradise, we bark. No room for ‘please’ and ‘excuse me,’ never ‘sorry.’ Here, no one’s ever sorry for anything.
A PhD student from Lvov, Yaroslav was a relic of an era untouched by communism. He spoke with ‘thank you’ and ‘please,’ smiled and cared about you.
“So how’s my pulse?” I said.
“If I didn’t know you were a road cyclist, I would be calling an ambulance right now. It’s below forty.”
“Is below forty good?”
“Let me put it this way. Your heart pumps the same amount of blood in one stroke as mine pumps in two.”
“Is that good?”
He smiled again, let go of my wrist and said, “We’ll know after the tests. Go back to sleep.”
The tests, everyone talked about the tests. Titan’s head coach, Yuri Elizarov, believed in science and the tests. It bothered me I was up against an unknown threshold or a number I knew nothing about. Give me a guy or a clock to race against, not a threshold.
They drew the first blood on the first morning before the main ride. I rolled to the Lesnoye’s restaurant on my bike and saw two young women in white coats sitting behind a table. One was busy with test tubes marking and sorting them in a microwell plate. The other was pointing down her index finger to a folding chair next to her. She looked pretty and it itched me to stop the bike with a rear wheel in the air to frighten the girls. If the stunt went wrong, I’d land on that table with all those glass tubes and would be on a plane going home this afternoon.
“I need your blood,” said the girl with the finger still pointing down when I stopped.
“Say please,” I said and stuck out my hand without getting off the bike.
She chuckled and said: “Sit down, cowboy, or you might faint when you see my tools.”
They took blood two, sometimes three times a day before and after the main ride and later at night. In three days the finger’s tip swells and it’s a torture to draw blood after that. The vampires only pricked middle and ring finger. The other three, they said, were too hard to squeeze the blood from. After a week, I ran out of pain-free fingers. Grumbled one morning about how painful it was to squeeze a water bottle and the vampire goes, “No problem, we’ll use your ears until your fingers heal.”
Then came the heart rate monitors. These were not your twenty-first-century wrist devices. The receiver traveled in the team car housed in a box the size of a portable fridge. We glued transmitters with rim glue to the skin on our chests because no one thought of straps when they made them. Titan didn’t have time for elegant solutions to logistical problems. If rim glue works, we use rim glue.
It was the vampires’ job to glue the transmitters. Take your jersey off in front of two young women and let them smudge your chest with rim glue. Brilliant. A bottomless pit of saucy jokes. The payback came after the ride when they ripped the transmitters off along with the chest hair. The wimps shaved a spot on their chests to skip the torture. The rest, we basked in the pain.
The lab test came without a warning. It was a rest day and we were at the end of a short ride. Nikolai Rogozyan drove up to me and said I need to pack a pair of shorts, shoes, and socks for a trip to Kiev after the ride.
“Our science brigade can’t wait to see you,” he said smirking. “You’ll enjoy your time in the lab. Try not to vomit.”
The test was in a large room full of strange medical equipment. A Monark stationary bike with a belt drive stood in the middle of the room with a pool of sweat under it. The air in the room was heavy with body odor and cigarette stench.
A man and a woman buzzed around the room navigating between German-made machinery. They told me to get the shoes on and mount the bike to warm up.
A tall, slim man with an evil look on his face said what the test procedure will be. He pointed at a metronome near the bike and said I had to match my cadence to the metronome’s ticks. “Until you collapse,” he finished the instructions.
“How long should I go for?” I said.
He grinned and said, “That’s what we’re here for to find out.”
I was set to peg out when Dr Evil left his command and control station. He came over and stood in the sweat puddle next to me, put an arm on my shoulder and said into my ear, “Keep going. Thirty seconds more.”
He pulled out a stopwatch from his white coat and pressed the start button. After at least an hour had passed, he said: “Five seconds.”
Another hour, “Ten seconds.”
With another five seconds gone, I wanted to stop. The lights went out and the noise from my own heartbeat was so loud in my head I couldn’t hear the metronome.
Who cares if I do another fifteen seconds or not? Unless the thirty seconds after you’ve emptied your legs is the test. This torture festival is a preface, a twisted warm-up for the last thirty seconds. They want to know how far they can push you with a quiet ‘keep going’ order.
They didn’t crack me. My cadence was out of sync with the metronome but I turned the pedals until Dr Evil told me to stop.