By the end of the season, I settled into the team and roomed with a guy who loved AC/DC as much as I did.
Titan’s boss, Yuri Elizarov, was a tall, stout man with a bulky face features and bushy eyebrows. You wouldn’t want to punk the guy. I burned myself more than once trying to play him as our jagged relationship grew. Testing his patience never worked because he had little of it. Late for a ride or breakfast, he’d fire you if he woke up in a bad mood that day. No offense was too small. Do what I tell you or butt out.
Yuri Elizarov had no room for second chances.
A former mountain climber, he pioneered high altitude training for Soviet cyclists. He believed the sum of small-scale advantages in minute details is key to race results.
He ruled Titan with an iron fist in a dictatorial style and had no fear of authority. With no friends in cycling, he set out to rile up the establishment with his training methods.
Titan won five rainbow jerseys and an Olympic gold medal in ten years before it folded in 1992. Elizarov’s project reached its peak with Viktor Rzhaksynskyi’s gold medal in 1991 world road race. He won the last amateur rainbow jersey and, symbolically, it went to Titan.
For some, Yuri Elizarov was an eccentric dreamer, others thought he was mad. When he told me I will be ready for my first 100-kilometer team time trial by the end of the season, I thought he was mad.
The classic four-men team time trial was the road cycling’s golden standard. At least in the USSR. It’s a complex, technical race. To do well in it, you need all four riders perform without a glitch on the same day. It’s what makes it different from other races.
Some people liken a team time trial to an individual one but the only thing the two have in common is that you race against the clock. The dynamics and the type of riders suited for these races are not the same.
The race is a two-hour job in an uneven rhythm. You open the throttle near full gas at the front for half a minute, swing off, get on the wheel and rest for ninety seconds. Repeat. For two hours.
Mistakes, even small ones, will cost you. Take longer than you should to get on the wheel after the pull and you shrink your recovery time. Missed the last wheel and had to close the gap to get back? Pay up. Flop too many times and you’ll crack.
Riders who could lift the pace if it fell by a fraction without hurting the team-mates were rare. It took an incredible engine and a sharp sense of speed to do that. You find this kind of a rider, you treasure him as a gem.
A world-class team would stand or fall if it did or didn’t have a guy like that. If it did, he would have to be good on the race day for the team to nail the result. Having four riders in top form on the same day was the team time trial’s enigma every coach worried about.
It was common for at least one guy to pop. Coaches who worked with TTT specialists knew the pop was on the cards in the last quarter of the race. They hoped it would come as far into the race as possible. Ninety-kilometer mark was a safe distance not to lose ground and save the race.
Before Titan, I never thought of myself as a team time trial specialist. I liked the race and its tough character but my heart was in the road races. I had a decent kick and could survive hills as long as they were hills and not long climbs. With an engine of a time trial machine, I liked one-day classics.
In Titan, it didn’t matter what I liked. Getting out of the Soviet Union was the goal now and team time trial would be the ticket.
It’s a simple strategy. On paper, you might have a good chance of winning a road race in a world championship. On the road, it’s a different story. Miss the winning break and it’s game over. Puncture at the wrong time and say goodbye to your race. Even if all goes well and you’re in the run with 500 meters to go, one mistake, a wrong wheel or a foul play by a jerk in front of you will ruin everything.
When you roll to the TTT start line in red skinsuits, you’ve come to win the bloody thing. In your head, you know that if everything goes to plan and no one cracks too early, you’re going to nail the race. No problem. And if shit happens, you hit the podium anyway. Not a bad outcome for a stuffed up race.
The coaches make you believe this. They know what they’re doing they say. It worked before and it will work again. It always does and always will.
Do what we tell you.
I placed my bet on a team time trial to get into the national team as a TTT specialist. If it worked, I could defect in the first Western country they send me.
When Elizarov said we’re aiming for two hours four in my first hundred-k team time trial, I thought he was mad. The time would place us on the level with the best in the country. He wanted me to go from a nobody to a team time trial ace in three months.
Thousands of kilometers later and a lot of racing we clocked two hours four at the end of the season as he said we would. Not a madman. A pro who knew how to hit the target he set out to hit.
I don’t think there was another seventeen-year-old in the country who did anything close to this kind of time. Under the UCI rules, I wasn’t even allowed to race a hundred-k TTT. As with a lot of other things in the USSR, we ran our own show behind the wall.
That autumn in 1983 Titan started the season in Gagra, a cute resort town on the Black Sea coast. The training camp kicked off with a team meeting in a room dwarfed by Elizarov’s towering silhouette. He sat on a wooden chair in front of a large window at the end of the room.
“You’re here to learn your individual goals for the next season,” he said. “You’re not here for fun and waste time fooling around. We’re here to breed world and Olympic champions. We’ll assess and reassess your progress as we go. If you don’t perform and show commitment, we’ll kick you out.”
He gave us time to digest his words and opened a thick, leather-bound notebook. For the next two hours, he talked about each rider’s targets for the upcoming season.
He spoke results. No phrases like ‘you should do well in this race’ or ‘you should try your best in that race.’ He spoke in numbers and actions. First place in that race or qualifying for this or that.
He laid out everyone’s goals in the open. He set team’s hierarchy without spelling it out and marked everyone’s rank with results. It set Titan’s internal mechanism in order. Everyone knew each other’s goals and each rider’s responsibilities.
My heart sunk when I heard my name. “Nikolka,” he used a nickname he gave me. “Gold medal in a team time trial world championship in August.” This, he explained, was the main target. And the steps to get there, he’d mapped it all out for me.
First, he said, the Samarkand stage race in April. It’s a qualifier race for the national team. A stage win gets you in. Team time trial is the stage you want because that’s the race you’re going for. If we win, and we should, at least two riders will join the first national team’s training camp in May.
Next three months is the selection period. They’ll scrutinize every race, every training ride, every hour of your life. They’ll start with at least ten team time trial specialists in May and select the final four by the end of July. It will be a cut-throat time which will get worse as the weeks go by. We want that gold medal.
He spoke as a man who thought through every step and I had no reason not to believe him. No detail escaped his mind. The confidence in his speech blew away all doubt out of my mind.
I won the first time trial stage in Samarkand and we followed it with a team time trial win. Next day I topped it up with another first place in a road race. If one stage was enough to qualify, how about three in a row? The national head coach came to our team car after the third stage to shake my hand and welcome me to the national team.
I was in.
Qualifying meant going to races in Western Europe and, if I had the nerve to bail out, never going back to the USSR.
The first trip came in June, the Schleswig-Holstein Rundfahrt stage race in West Germany. I had two days to kill before flying to Hamburg. I jumped on a plane and went to see Piotr Trumheller in Nalchik, my hometown.
He poured me a vodka shot when we sat down to dine at his apartment, a man sharing a meal with another man. I told him the East German national team was on the start list with Olaf Ludwig, road world champion Uwe Raab, and Uwe Ampler.
“Are you worried?” he said.
“Yes. Sukhorouchenkov smashed them in the Peace Race couple of weeks ago. They’ll want a payback and here we come, in our red jerseys. These mad dogs will go after us.”
“They’ll give you hell, for sure,” he said. “But that’s the kind of guys you’ll be racing against next year. The earlier you learn what it’s like, the better prepared you’ll be. It’s the same thing we did in Maykop. You went against guys a level above you to harden up. It did work, didn’t it?”
He said it’s funny I’ll see Germany before him, an ethnic German. I said he should travel to Berlin and jump the wall.
“Who is going to look after my wife and kids if I do that?” he said.
We stopped talking for a moment and had another round of vodka.
“Are you coming back?” he said and poured us another shot.
“Don’t know. I want the rainbow jersey. Then I’m gone. What if I don’t qualify for the worlds? Then what? Should I defect in Germany?”
He left the room for a minute and came back with a pile of tubulars bound in industrial wrapping paper.
“One hundred,” he said, nodding at the pile with his head. “A stash I prepared for you when I heard you made the national team. Take it to Germany, make some money before you go to France, and then run. You need that gold medal.”
Ruble a worthless paper outside the USSR, Soviet tubulars were the currency we traded in. The math behind this socialism-induced business was simple. The street price of our tubulars in the Soviet Union was four rubles. The US dollar fetched about the same on the black market. One tubular, one US dollar. You spend two hundred rubles on fifty tubulars and sell them to Italians or Germans for ten bucks each. Same quality stuff in Western Europe costs twice as much.
Once you’ve got your foreign cash, you bring it home and sell it on the black market for under four rubles per dollar. The five hundred bucks you brought back from a race is close to two thousand rubles now. My parents made four hundred rubles a month together. I could make two grand from a single race in Europe if I brought fifty tubulars across the border and sold them.
Flying out of the country didn’t worry me as much as coming back did. Losing two hundred rubles’ worth of tubulars if customs confiscated them was business. Bringing the dollars in was not. Owning, buying, selling, or smuggling foreign currency in or out of the USSR was a criminal offense with a jail term longer than I cared to know. What you do, you learn from a been-there teammate about the seat tube.
I learned about the seat tube’s smuggling properties when I wondered aloud what’s the safest way to get a wad of cash through customs.
“Roll it, rubber-band it, and drop it into a seat tube. They never check the bikes. Luggage, yes. They’ll search you if you look worried. Bikes — never.”
I qualified for the world championship and we flew to France. The Los Angeles Games the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc boycotted had ended days before. Our championship was the first event after the Games where Soviet and American athletes met. The country’s leadership, the national team’s boss told us, doesn’t want to see Americans win. At least not a team time trial.
The organizers put us in the same hotel with the Yanks. We come from a training ride one morning and see them in stars and stripes track suits unpacking bikes from a bus.
The time trial equipment they pull out of their bike bags looked like aliens built it. Frames with aero-shaped tubes. Small front wheels with tall rims and rear disc wheels. Aero helmets the size of a bomb. What was even more strange is our coach chatting to the American one. We pass them by on our bikes and they speak Russian.
“Eddie Borysewicz, an old friend,” our coach said at the lunch table. “Defected to the United States from Poland years ago. Used to coach the Polish national junior team, works with the Americans now. Says his boys are on fire and you’ll be lucky if they won’t catch you. They’re last to start, remember? You go two minutes before them.”
We chuckled at the idea of another team catching us. Dreamers.
We put twenty seconds into Americans in the first ten kilometers. The gap grew after that at every time check. Working as a Swiss clockwork, pulling thirty-second turns without a glitch, we sailed from start to finish in one breath.
With one kilometer to go, we started smiling and shaking each other’s hands. We were more than a minute ahead of the second-placed team USA.
We won the gold. And it didn’t hurt.
We took six riders to France and two spots were available to do the road race. Its lumpy course with a long finishing straight suited me well and the coach asked if I wanted to do it. Spent from going through the selection process, the training, I said no.
With the rainbow jersey in my bag now, I had nothing to race for and wanted a break. And, while everyone would be at the road race, I was going to make the run.
On my trips around Caen where we stayed during the championship, I scouted a police station. I could ride to it from our hotel in fifteen minutes. From the stories I heard on Radio Free Europe about other defections, going to the police was my best option. If I told them my life was in danger and I didn’t want to go back to the USSR, they would have to let me stay.
Once everyone had gone to the road race, I packed my rainbow jersey, the medal, and the cash into a rucksack I bought for the run. Went outside, hopped on the Colnago and rode toward the police station in the city center.
My heart pumped blood through my veins in steady blows and something tickled me in the guts. The legs felt as overcooked macaroni even though I was on a low gear. Two hundred meters on, I turned my head to check if the KGB officer assigned to mind us was following me.
This is it, ten minutes and I can kiss the Soviet hellhole au revoir. Will they forget about the bike I’m riding now in this defection mess I’m about to make? A Saronni red Colnago Nuovo Mexico was only two weeks old and I wanted to keep it.
Nah, they won’t. Will this be on the news? Here in France, for sure.
“A Soviet World Champion Defects Days After the End of LA Games.”
What about back home, will they even mention it in the newspapers?
My dad, he was silent on the phone when I told him I was going to France to race the worlds. He was silent because he cried. Yuri Elizarov, this guy, I’d want to look into his eyes, shake his hand and thank him. My mom, she said I’ll quit cycling in two weeks when I got into it and now I wanted to show her my medal.
“See? I didn’t quit.”
I stopped in front of the police station and stared at the door. Three steps and I’m in, never to return, never to wear the red CCCP jersey again. I looked across the street and saw a bistro a hundred meters away. Sit down, have a beer and think it through one more time.
I didn’t make it to the bistro. I couldn’t leave, not like this. Turn around to go back to the pigpen you came from because you’re one of them. A pig in a pigpen and you want to rub shoulders with other pigs and suck in the due homage.
Have a rainbow jersey now, give me high five, oh and let’s see what else I can do.
The run, it can wait. Can leave any time I want.