Back in the USSR: The series continues…
Recent issues of RIDE Cycling Review includes stories from a rider who got to experience success as part of the Soviet system. Winning was only a small part of it; this is life in the USSR as an aspirational cyclist. Nikolai Razouvaev introduced himself to us a year ago and said he used to race. Here is the second instalment of only part of his story, a feature series which continues to evolve.
(…continued from part one.)
Soviet cycling in perspective
– By Nikolai Razouvaev
“Escape?” I said. “What do you mean?”
He was quiet for 10 seconds, probably considering if he was prepared to risk everything by telling me what he meant by “escape”.
“I love my wife,” he said, “and my kids. I live a good life here in the Soviet Union and don’t need anything. One thing I truly regret though is not staying in Italy when I had a chance. I thought I would have many more opportunities to leave this rotten hole of a country behind when I wanted to, but that trip to Italy was the only one I ever had. I’m an ethnic German, as you know, and perhaps KGB smelled something, perhaps someone ratted me in, who knows. KGB snitches are everywhere; riders, coaches, mechanics, you just don’t know who is telling on you. They probably figured out I was a ‘runner’, and I was.
“Anyway, my passport was revoked and I never went anywhere abroad anymore. I got stuck here, hating every fabric of this society, never forgiving myself for my cowardliness. I don’t want you to make the same mistake I made. If you stay in this sport, and you’ll be stupid not to, you’ll go all the way to the top. I know that, I can see it in you. And when you do, do not hesitate, do not wait. The first Western country you go to, whatever it might be – run, and don’t look back.”
We drove in silence for several minutes. What he just told me, if anybody found out about it, he would be locked up in jail for a long time. Teaching a 15-year-old kid to make a career in sport only to commit an act of treason was a serious crime. What was he thinking?
“I’ll do everything I can to mould you into a good racer.” He broke the silence. “When you’re ready for the big league, I’ll talk to the right people, I’ll find you the right team. I’ll teach you how the system works so that you’ll be able to survive it and make it work for you. But you need to tell me now if you’re prepared to go all the way. I don’t want to waste my time on you if you’ll be thinking of quitting every time you get hurt.”
I knew the life Trumheller was talking about was what I wanted. Big races, riding Colnagos, Castelli kit, buckets of cash. And now, something I never thought about – running away from the Soviet Union, maybe even doing the Tour de France. My mind was racing, playing one crazy scenario after another. Is it real? Can this be done? Am I a guy who can do it? Will I live somewhere in France, or Italy? Yeah, Italy, I like Italy.
“I won’t let you down,” I said. “I’ll do whatever it takes. Anything. Anything at all.”
He went quiet again and I began to wonder if he believed me. Then, without looking at me, he said: “You have to decide how you’re going to play this. Option one is to climb to the top and then run at the earliest opportunity you get.
“Option two is, once at the top, you stick around for a little longer, try winning something big – a Peace Race or an Olympic medal – and then run. This way you’ll be hot property and can ask for more money from a Western pro team. But this is too risky – you might not win anything and get stuck here like I did. If I were you, I would choose the safest bet and run the minute you step on Western soil.”
“If you’re going to do this,” he continued, “if cycling is going to be your job for the next 15 years, you have to start living like a pro. Get used to the idea that your body is the tool you make a living with. Like a hammer or a shovel, only much more sophisticated. Because it’s a tool, you’ll have to learn how to look after it. You’ll have to learn how to read it; to know when you’re in form and when you’re tired and need rest.
“You’ll have to understand that everything you do – and I mean everything – is going to affect your riding; it’s going to make you either faster or slower. Your life will be reduced to training and recovery. You’ll eat because you need to ride and you’ll sleep because you need rest. Anything else that’s not about riding or resting should be erased from your life.
“Not everyone can live like this. I’ve seen a lot of guys who have wasted their talent because they couldn’t live the life of a pro. They had the legs, the engine, everything. But even the best engine in the world will fail if it’s neglected. You might last a year or two if you try to be a pro and someone else at the same time, but cutting corners can’t go for long, you’ll eventually run out of gas or get fired if they see you don’t live like a pro.”
* * * * *
“One other thing,” he said after another silence, “you can be the next Merckx, live like a pro and still fail. So take this as the most serious rule of all: keep your mouth shut.
“I already told you about KGB snitches. You’ll never know who they are. Trust no one. The guy you think is your best friend can rat you out. Do not share what we talk about with anybody. They won’t lock you up if you haven’t done anything, but if they even suspect you’re a ‘runner’, they’ll never give you a passport and you’ll never leave this country. Not now, not in 20 years. Once you’re blacklisted, that’s it, you’re done, it’s a life sentence.”
“What about my parents?” I said. “What will happen to them if I don’t come back from abroad?”
“Where do they work?”
“My mum is an accountant and my dad is a builder.”
“They’re not in the Party, are they?”
“Nothing bad will happen to them. Some harassment from the KGB, that’s all. But you’ll never see them again unless this whole circus goes down the toilet one day. Which I doubt it will.”
Thus began our partnership to carry out my escape from the prison we both called home.
* * * * *
Success in Soviet cycling was judged on the efforts of the team. Individual success, the GC, was not even a side project – it simply didn’t matter. “It sounds stupid,” said Razouvaev. “And more difficult than it should be.”
“And it is,” Trumheller replied. “But that’s what sports bureaucrats want. Team classification elevates collective effort over individual. It conforms with our ideology and opposes Western individualism at the same time.”
I started to daydream. I imagined myself in a Sanson jersey, riding solo on a Benotto bike, winning Milan-San Remo. I drove home to Monaco in an Alfa Romeo with Toto Cutugno’s Solo Noi blasting from the car stereo. “Tell me about Italy,” I asked Trumheller. “What’s it like?”
“What do you want to know?”
“I don’t know. Did you feel… it was different? Like it’s a different world?”
“The first thing I noticed: everyone was smiling the entire time we were there. Grazie this, grazie that – always with a smile. I thought they were trying to be nice to us, and they were – dancing around us like we were the most important people on the planet – but then I saw they smile at each other all the time too. Everyone seemed to be content. It felt peaceful and… I don’t know, they don’t look over their shoulders like we do. They’re not afraid, that’s what I’m trying to say I guess.”
I was too young to completely understand what he was talking about. I wasn’t afraid of anything, not yet anyway. My first encounter with the KGB was still years away. I switched the subject: “How was the race? Did you guys walk all over them?”
“No, we didn’t. They made us fight hard for our money. Some tough nuts, those Italians. We had to collude with a Polish team after the first couple of stages to keep the race under control because they were all over the shop, attacking all the time. They don’t race like we do.”
“How do they race?”
“Here in the USSR, it’s all about team classification. If you can win an individual one as well, it’s icing on the cake, but winning team classification is the first priority. Our race tactics are based on team classification and when we go abroad, sometimes nobody understands what we’re doing because everyone assumes our priorities are the same as everyone else’s. But they’re not.
“On one stage we shut down a breakaway that would have had our guy in the yellow jersey had the break stayed away. We couldn’t let it go because it would have cost us the lead in team standings. Everyone was puzzled why we chased our own guy who, by the way, was sitting pretty in the break, smoking cigars all day. So we shut it down and the same guy attacked again, now without hurting our team’s position in the standings. He won the stage and pulled on the yellow and everybody thought we executed some genius race plan while we were simply racing for team classification and got lucky.
“The Westerners, they don’t do that. They don’t care about team classification. Some of them probably don’t even know it exists. They race for themselves; each one of them. I mean, team-mates work together and help each other, but their goal is to win a stage or the individual classification. Their race tactics are not driven by ideologies. They’re not racing to prove to the world their country’s superiority. They’re not afraid to lose; they throw at you everything they’ve got without worrying about how many team-mates they still have left.
“If you don’t care about team classification, it doesn’t matter where your team-mates finish. They do their job and then vanish out of sight while we sweat our guts out making sure we have a numerical advantage to gain time in team classification… We race by our rules and they race by theirs – all in the same race. Look at the Peace Race – it’s the only stage race in the world with distinctive jerseys for team classification. And who is wearing blue most of the time? It’s us, the Soviets, because no one else cares about those jerseys. We won them twice as many times as any other team.”
“Maybe no one else can win it?” I said, trying to defend my faith in the Soviet national team’s invincibility. “We won both classifications the last four years, didn’t we? You said it’s hard to do both so maybe our team is the only team that can do it. Because it’s a super team.”
He looked at me, grinned, and said: “Yes, we’ve been smashing the Peace Race the last four years but can you explain to me why we never won the worlds road race?” [Andrei Vedernikov won the worlds later that year.]
“I don’t know,” I said. “Sukhoruchenkov won the Olympic road race last year though and Kapitonov in 1960.”
“Yes, they did. But if you combine the worlds with the Olympic road races from 1952 when we first participated in it, you get 30-plus races and only two gold medals – both from the Olympic Games. If our national team is made up of supermen, as you seem to think, why is it that the gold in a world championship road race usually goes to Italy or Belgium? Or France? Or Netherlands? What happens to our supermen when they line up for the worlds road race? What happens to their so-called superiority?”
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “Maybe stage races are different to one-day races. Maybe we’re not good at one-day road races.”
“Of course they’re different. But if we’re superior to everyone else, then we should be winning all kinds of races, don’t you think? Szurkowski won both the Peace Race and the worlds. And so did Schur. Why can none of our guys win the worlds road race?”
He was right, I thought, something didn’t add up. The absence of road race wins couldn’t be explained by bad luck. Our guys were either doing something wrong or…
“It’s a myth,” said Trumheller, interrupting my thoughts.
“What’s a myth?” I said, surprised by his seeming ability to read my mind.
“Our superiority. It’s a lie just like everything else in this country is a lie. We’re not superior to anybody. Not in sport, not in anything else. The sports we dominate are rigged in our favour.”
“Rigged? What do you mean rigged?” I said.
“Why do you think you’ve been flogged in Maykop?”
“Because I’m too young?”
“That’s right. There’s an unfair advantage between an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old. Even an average 18-year-old will usually thrash a top 15-year-old in a cycling race. The physiological gap’s too big. It will disappear with time but for now it’s too much of a difference.” He paused, probably waiting for me to process the information and make a conclusion. And I tried but couldn’t figure out what he was getting at; something was still missing.
“Cycling,” Trumheller said, “like all sports, is separated into amateur and professional branches. Good idea except Soviet cyclists aren’t amateurs. We pretend to be, we tell the world we’re amateurs, but we’re not. It’s all fake.”
“What’s fake?” I said, still not sure what he was telling me.
“The distinction between us and professional cyclists. It’s not real, it doesn’t exist.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about a puppet show called amateur cycling. The puppet masters, whoever they are, have divided the puppets into two groups: the real amateurs and the fakes. The real amateurs live under capitalism in western Europe. They have full-time jobs and can only train outside of their work hours. Often, it means getting up at four in the morning for a two-hour ride. Because they know how much more professionals train, they try to compensate for what they see as inadequate training by riding harder than they should, and then add more over the weekend.
“Most of them don’t know what they’re doing because there’s no one to guide them – coaches are expensive. If they’re not disciplined, the early rises eat slowly into their recovery and they begin to fatigue. They’ve got no one to talk to about what’s going on and instead of resting, they go harder, thinking they’re not training hard enough.
“Soon, they notice their performance is getting worse. They read somewhere or a friend suggests that to get faster, one needs to race more. Or do some motor-pacing. Or climb more hills. Or whatever. The thinking is: you’re not training hard enough – toughen up. And they do. But they’re not getting any better.
“The best of them persevere, refusing to give up. They even get sent to international races sometimes where they meet the other group of puppets – the fake amateurs. It’s us, the East Germans and the Poles.
“These guys have no jobs to go to. Unlike professionals, whose future isn’t certain beyond their contract, fake amateurs – at least here in the Soviet Union – are paid by the State. Once you’re on the payroll, you can stay on it until you retire without too much trouble. You don’t need to be a star, just do what you’re told and they’ll look after you. And look after you they do if you’re top-level material: coaches, mechanics, masseurs, doctors, equipment, anything you need to perform. You spend winters in warm climates; they feed you as if you’re the king of Norway and pay you good money while you don’t have to spend a dime – the State takes care of everything you need.
“You train hard but you rest even harder. As I said before, guys at this level do only three things in life – eat, ride and sleep. They’ll fire you if they catch you doing anything else. You don’t want to slave away digging up potatoes or building railways? Ride your bike and do as we tell you to.
“If you deliver the serious goods, and you’re not stupid, you can retire at the age of 30 and sail with a tailwind for the rest of your life. In fact, if you do it right, you can retire with comfort without delivering the serious goods. Like I did.”
I began to see what Peter Trumheller meant by comparing my performance in Maykop with what he called ‘real amateurs’ racing against the fake ones. My only goal in that race was to finish in the first bunch at least on one stage. I was close to achieving that on a couple of occasions but couldn’t make the cut when the heavy-hitters got down to business. These guys were aliens, I thought. They were so above and beyond my abilities that I refused to accept they weren’t so much better than me. I ignored and suppressed the only reason for the advantage they had – their age – and looked for a better explanation to console my injured ego.
Something isn’t right about them, I thought, something artificial. Looking through the result sheets, I noticed the same dozen names appeared in the top 20 or 30 places on every stage. How can they belt the peloton day after day? Don’t they get tired? Or make mistakes?
I blamed my inexperience, bad luck and fragility for my failure to finish with the best in the same group. When I realised how lame the excuses were, I thought I found the real one – the aliens must be on the pills. What pills I didn’t know because I knew nothing about pills but they must be on the pills, I thought.
Deep down I knew how stupid this was but I wanted to believe that. And I did.
Sitting in the car now, with my legs up on the dashboard, digesting Trumheller’s words, I started to analyse it all.
No one’s on the pills, I concluded at first. I was up against guys from a higher league; I was out of my depth. I knew now that I did well by finishing the race. It’s one of cycling’s beauties; sometimes, crossing the line – just crossing it – could be your biggest win.
I thought about amateurs racing against camouflaged pros from the Eastern Bloc. Do they struggle the same way I did in Maykop to stay in the race when the Soviets and their comrades come around? Maybe the gap isn’t as big but their function in the race doesn’t go much farther than making up the numbers and warming up the big cats.
I wonder, I thought, if they too think about pills and try to connect our supremacy on the road with pharmaceutical wares. It’s an easy explanation, the one that comes naturally to a wounded pride, with logical force too tempting to reject. Those Russians, they probably think, they have the same two legs, two lungs and a heart. They’re not aliens (are they?), so they must be on the gear; no other way to explain the speed they can ride at.
Then I thought about those who put up an honest fight against the pseudo-amateurs. How could these guys with full-time jobs, riding on bare enthusiasm and love of racing, push the men in red to the limits? Who is an alien now? And what about the world championships? Who are these Italians, Belgians, Dutch and Danish riders who walk away in rainbow jerseys when the odds are stacked against them?
Years later, living abroad, I understood how they did it. There were no pills, no voodoo science. They took the time off or quit their jobs, or found sponsors, or convinced a wealthy aunt to finance an attempt to turn their hobby into paid employment. With income sorted, in one way or another, they lived a pro life: eat, ride, sleep; repeat. Day after day, month after month, with one or two goals in mind. They found a coach and worked with him to design a sensible program, to guide them through good and bad times, to give them objective advice and keep them on course. They levelled the playing field.
They targeted a worlds road race – a sure ticket to a pro contract if they collected a rainbow jersey, which is what Eddy Merckx did – Tour de l’Avenir or the Baby Giro. They even went to the Peace Race to see what they were up against. Peter Winnen did that in 1980 and finished second behind Yuri Barinov but ahead of young Olaf Ludwig.
Those who were good, those who believed in themselves, had family support and found a way to finance their dream of racing for a living, took on the Russians, the East Germans and the Poles head on without any reservations. They fixed the odds and discovered, probably to their “vast discomfiture”, as James Joyce put it, that the giants they were afraid of stood on feet of clay and could be brought down if you hit them hard enough in the right places.
Meanwhile, the myth of the mighty Big Red Sports Machine, cooked up by the Kremlin propaganda wizards, lived on, spread in the West by the sympathising Marxists in the media and political circles.
Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s time to have a peek behind the Iron Curtain in a series of stories about what it was like to earn a living racing a bike in a country ruled by a dictatorial ideology in its final war against the degenerate forces of capitalism. n Nikolai Razouvaev
(This is part of what will be an ongoing series by Razouvaev in RIDE.)