In the USSR: the Razouvaev series continues
“For someone who couldn’t make it onto the first sheet, a second place was a triumph. But still I worried and wondered if this was enough.” This is how the previous instalment of the online telling of Nikolai Razouvaev’s story concluded. He is writing a series of features about cycling in the USSR. His work appears RIDE Cycling Review issues 66, 67 and 68 – with more to come in subsequent magazines. It is great insight from someone who was part of the Soviet system and we want to share it with as many readers as possible. Of course we encourage you to buy our magazine and collect the series… but we have also opted to publish it on our website.
Kuybyshev or Titan of Kiev (continued)
That afternoon in my hotel room I was on a bed, legs up against a wall, watching tea leaves in a two-litre glass jar of boiled water on a bedside table, waiting for it to brew. Razor in hand, I went over my legs several times to cut every last string of hair that remained. If the time trial didn’t get Kuybyshev’s attention, I thought, I had to win the road race tomorrow. I knew there was a little hill, a rise really, with less than two kilometres to go. I thought if I had positioned myself well coming into it, picked up some speed right before we hit it, I could attack and try to get away. If the peloton hesitates for 10 seconds and does nothing, I can gain enough of a gap to hold it to the line. Ten seconds; all I need is for the peloton to freeze for 10 seconds.
I heard a knock on the door and before I realised what was going on, I saw a man in a navy blue Adidas tracksuit standing in front of me. A USSR state emblem on the chest placed him somewhere high in cycling’s official hierarchy, but even without the famed chest tag I knew who he was: Pavel Grigoriev, a man in charge of Kuybyshev’s development program. “How you doing?” he asked, grabbing a chair and sitting next to my bed with his legs crossed.
I wasn’t sure if I should look for something to put on – which meant walking around in my underwear – or try to pretend I wasn’t embarrassed.
“Fine,” I said and sat up on my bed.
“Do you know who I am?”
“No,” I lied, trying to make him think less of himself.
“You did well in the time trial this morning,” he said, ignoring my answer. “How did you manage to come out of nowhere and finish second?”
“It was my last chance to get on Kuybyshev’s roster,” I said, unsure if that was the answer he wanted.
“Well, you did. Look, I don’t have much time this afternoon. This tea, by the way, looks good and I wish I could have some with you, But I’ll make it quick and simple: if you’re interested to join Kuybyshev, we would like to give you an opportunity to show us what you can do.”
I felt a rush of adrenaline surging through my veins, heartbeat rising, chaotic thoughts bouncing in my head. After I mumbled a “Yes – I’d love to”, he told me I had to travel to Ivano-Frankovsk in Western Ukraine next month where they held a training camp to prepare for Yunost stage race, the most important juniors’ stage race in the country.
“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. If you don’t, you might have another chance or two to stay with us, but don’t count on it. Make the team and we’ll see what kind of a rider we can make out of you.”
He stood up and said that he’ll talk to my coach tomorrow after the race and give him more details, then stuck out his hand to me; I shook it. He wished me good luck in the road race and walked out as swiftly as he walked in.
I stood in the middle of the room, processing what had just happened. I poured some tea into a glass, added a teaspoon of mum’s blackberry jam I brought with me from home, sat down at the table and said out loud to myself, savouring each word: “You are in Kuybyshev now.”
What I thought was by far the best day of my life was about to get better. Not even 10 minutes had passed since Grigoriev left when the door opened again – without knocking this time – and Trumheller walked in with a man I’d never met before. He had dark, short hair with elephant ears sticking out of it like two satellite dishes. Closely 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 neck tie. A pair of white sneakers completed the garb’s hodgepodge.
“This is Nikolai Mikhailovich Rogozyan from the Centre 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 on pleasantries and got down to business as soon as he sat down. “I came here from Kiev to scout riders for Titan,” he opened the conversation. “You did well this morning, so Peter and I had a chat after the race – you know, your background, training, what you’re good at and so on. We think you should fly to Kiev and get evaluated by us to see if you can fit into Titan’s program. What do you think?”
I looked at my coach, wondering how I could bring up Grigoriev’s visit without wrecking this new development in my 10-minute-old cycling career. The ‘we’ in Rogozyan’s talk flagged Trumheller’s blessing of a trip to Kiev so I decided to dump the news on them early.
“Grigoriev stopped by to talk to me. Says he wants me to fly to Ivano-Frankovsk next month to join Kuybyshev’s training camp.”
Neither of them appeared too bothered by what seemed to me a complicated situation now.
“Look,” Trumheller said. “I know you see Kuybyshev as a major stepping stone in your career, but it’s not the only one. If you didn’t have any other options, then Kuybyshev would’ve been the path to take, but now you do. Forget about them and go to Kiev.”
“Why would I go to Ukraine when I can stay in Russia and race for the best team in the country?” I tried to protest.
“Kuybyshev is not a team,” Rogozyan butted in. “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. A group of scientists, masseurs, a doctor and two mechanics were on Titan’s 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,” Rogozyan informed me. Riders on Titan’s roster were paid a salary. “We’ll employ you at one of Kiev’s factories and you’ll be paid every month without even knowing where the factory is and what it does.”
They had access to all top-tier races in the USSR, a privilege afforded only to a handful of teams. Unlike old-guard stables like Kuybyshev, they hand-picked their riders and viewed them as assets rather than human stock. They took them in at a young age and built them up using a recently developed training methodology not many people knew anything about. Because of Titan’s links with the Sports University, each rider was guaranteed a place in it if they raced for Titan. This was important, something to fall back on should an unfortunate crash end a racing career before its time.
“As our name implies,” Rogozyan concluded the pitch, “we’re in a business of developing Olympic champions. We’re backed by people in the government who want to see more Olympic medals go to Ukraine to challenge Russian hegemony in all spheres of life. Sport is one such sphere. It’s a serious project with serious goals and serious backers. You would be stupid to turn this offer down.”
* * * * *
Two weeks after that meeting I landed in Kiev’s Borispol airport, slightly confused by unfamiliar Ukrainian language coming at me from the PA system, people around me and signage displays. Nikolai Rogozyan was waiting for me outside in a military-issue UAZ-452, an off-road van built to eat Siberian dirt roads for lunch. “Chuck your stuff in,” he said and opened the van’s rear door. An ordinary-looking vehicle on the outside, there was no mistake what purpose it served in life once I saw its inside: Half-a-dozen yellow sidewall tubular tyres lying on the bare steel floor; spare wheels; a plastic glue bottle with a nozzle made from a brake pad for quick, clean glue jobs on the rims; water bottles; a couple of leather hairnet helmets and even a set of wooden cylinder rollers 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, packed in a custom-made canvas sack, next to the rollers, threw my bag into the van and sat on the passenger’s seat.
“Where are we going?” I asked Nikolai Rogozyan when we got moving.
“Training base in Lesnoye resort. One hour drive from here, west of Kiev.”
On the way, I learned how different my life would be when I woke up the following morning in Lesnoye.
Unless rocks were falling from the sky, Rogozyan told me, Titan training rides are never cancelled. The guys ride three times per day: 40km before breakfast, up to 200km later in the morning, and another 40km in late afternoon; 4,500km per month was normal for most of the season. Titan redefined the meaning of a professional cyclist’s rest day: a single, post-breakfast 50km ride after a sleep-in with a sauna session in the afternoon. Rest days came at the end of 10-12 day-long training cycles.
Cruising two abreast was minimal. During the main ride, the bulk of riding time was spent in a single file small groups of 8-10 riders doing long intervals of various intensities. One of the underlying theories of Titan’s methodology required riding at speeds somewhere near 40km/h. The speed wasn’t the point, the intensity was – over a decade of experiments, information from several sources pointed to the most effective physiological adaptations taking place after prolonged training at a window of intensity achieved at about 40km/h, so they aimed riding at that speed as much as was thought necessary.
This kind of workload was impossible to sustain without sufficient rest and nutrition. When not riding or eating, Titan riders were either sleeping or lying in bed talking trash or cracking jokes at each other. Training camps were deliberately held away from civilisation to create an environment where sleeping was the only option during riders’ free time. Nobody was allowed to leave the training base without permission.
Girlfriends were banned. “You’ll see a lot of female gymnasts at the Lesnoye resort from the Ukrainian state team,” Rogozyan said as we crossed Paton Bridge over Dnieper River. “If we see you within five metres of any one of them, you’ll be sent home. And trust me, I know every excuse in the world about why you think you should be near a girl, so don’t even try. If you have a girlfriend at home – and as far as I know you don’t, but in case you do – write a letter tomorrow and tell her you’re through with her. She’ll be married by the time you see her again so you might as well end it now.”
Riders were allowed four-day leave to visit home two or three times per year which meant more than 350 days of living and co-existing with the same group of people, travelling all over the country from race to race, or from camp to camp. In the van, listening to Rogozyan, it seemed like it would be a blast of a lifestyle – going places and racing everywhere – but how little did I know at the time about what a mental burden it could be sharing a room with the same guy for three months in a row.
Although Titan’s support crew did their best to ensure riders’ nutritional needs were met, no one could guarantee they’d be fed quality food at all times, especially away from the home base in Kiev. To alleviate socialism’s deficiency at producing adequate amounts of nutritious food, Titan, through its military connections, found access to the Soviet space program’s cosmonaut food supplies. Boxes of this food travelled with the team everywhere it went. Before energy gels were even close to being marketed in the west, Titan riders used gel-like, carbohydrate rich products made from natural ingredients and packaged in easy-to-squeeze 100ml tubes. It was designed for weightless space but was just as useful in road racing.
As much as I loved listening to Nikolai Rogozyan’s pro lifestyle talk, none of it would be relevant to me if I failed to make the cut. He sounded as if I had already made the team but I remembered what he said in Kaliningrad about “evaluation” and “fitting into Titan’s program”.
I waited for an appropriate pause in the conversation, and as casually as I could phrase it, said: “Now that I’m here, does it mean I’m part of the Titan team or you’ve got some selection process I’ll have to go through first?”
“Of course there’s a selection process; I was just about to tell you about it.”
He told me they intended to take in eight, maximum 10, new riders from 16 candidates they invited to the training camp. More than 20 guys would be there but some of them were already in the team.
The first round is the ramp test at the Sports University’s lab. “It’s a bit of a torture but we have to ensure we’re not wasting our time with someone who’s got no physiological potential to race at the highest level,” Rogozyan said. Those who passsed the lab tests would stay and race in an exclusive Titan candidates-only stage race.
“We booked the Chaika car racing circuit for a week,” he explained about the next phase. “You guys are going to do five, maybe six stages on the circuit, 100-120km each. What’s good about it is that, with only 15-20 people in the race, you’ll have nowhere to hide. The circuit is flat as a pancake so you’ll have to race like mad pit bulls to make a mark. Best of all, we’ll see the action up close from the car because the bunch is small and there’ll be no commissaires – it’s our own, private race so to speak. It won’t be an easy race, I can tell you that, so get ready to stand your ground because you’ll be pushed to the limit.”
With that good news in the air, we turned off the Brest-Litovsk Highway into a narrow side road and two minutes later, after driving through a thick forest, the UAZ-452 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, breathed in a lungful of sweet, crisp forest air and for the first time since I left home several hours ago, felt like I was standing at the entrance to adulthood. My parents, teachers, my first coach and my friends, have all been left behind in another world where too many people looked after me. In this new world I was about to step into, I was on my own, not knowing how to manoeuvre in it by myself. “It’s a pack of wolves out there,” I recalled Peter Trumheller’s saying. “Don’t let them maul you.”
The story continues: find out about the 1984 world championships in RIDE #68 (on sale now).