Razouvaev’s story so far: Cycling in the USSR
In RIDE #66 we introduced Nikolai Razouvaev to our readers with a story about his life as a cyclist in the Soviet Union. He was part of the quartet that won the junior world title in the team time trial in 1984. The series offers an insight from a time when the USSR was a dominant force in cycling. Many assumptions have been made about this era but often without any first-hand experience and that’s what makes Razouvaev’s tale so compelling: he was part of the famous Soviet machine at a time when sport became part of the political realm.
If you missed the opening feature of the Razouvaev’s series, you can find it online in two instalments – part one and part two. Now it’s time to present the second feature (from RIDE #67) to our online audience. Due to the length of the feature, we’ll again publish it in two parts…
Kuybyshev or Titan of Kiev
This is not a John Le Carré thriller, it’s the story of a rider from the USSR. In part two of our series on Soviet cycling, Nikolai Razouvaev becomes part of ‘The System’ – graduating from having no hope to two distinct choices…
– By Nikolai Razouvaev
Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory was a perfect match for the Soviet road cycling machine. A state religion married to a rigorous selection process designed to sort the wheat from the tares.
We’re animals, I was taught in school, highly evolved and sophisticated, but animals nevertheless. We may play chess and write poetry, but we also build nuclear weapons and scorch each other with them.
Examine the human history, I was told, and notice how bloody it is. Look as far back as you can and what do you see? War after war after war. We never stop, do we? You either kill or someone else kills you.
Darwinism’s grim implications have been camouflaged by communist rhetoric and brainwashing propaganda about how bright and glorious the future will be once the ignorant idiots in the West see the light of Marxism. Believe in it and hang everyone who doesn’t agree – which is what we did – and join us in our man-made heaven on earth. In the meantime, toughen the hell up and prepare for the worst because the sport you have been stupid enough to pick will bring that primeval animal out of you real quick and you’ll either give in and join the pack or it will spit you out like lukewarm waste.
I gave in and joined the pack when I walked into a boiler room of a century-old, brown brick building with a three metre tall mountain of coal next to its entrance. Inside, I saw four dozen naked men, waiting for a turn under two shower heads that stuck out from somewhere above their heads. The grimy cement floor was covered with a thin layer of wet sand. Jerseys, shorts, socks, cycling caps, all covered in mud, laid on the floor in separate mounds. I stared at the mass of naked bodies, slowly sinking into a dread hole. I turned my head and looked at my coach who stood behind me: “I’m not going in there,” I said.
Less than an hour ago, I finished a race I didn’t know I was capable of finishing. It wasn’t the speed that wrecked me – although it was well above anything I have ever raced at, I handled it okay – it was the cold. I was fine the first hour, stayed upright and didn’t hit too many potholes until my wool jersey and shorts couldn’t soak up icy cold water any more. Hypothermia was on the way.
My feet went first. It’s a major pain in the arse not feeling your own feet when they’re the only interface between you and the pedals. I didn’t care; I was used to it. We trained in winter on wet roads and because I was “too pro” to use fenders, my feet had often been wet and numb. Annoying, but I could handle it.
Then my body began to shiver. Nothing serious at first; it was getting more violent toward the end of the race. Reaction times went from a split second to seconds. I was missing brake points on the corners and then locking the rear wheel in panic to avoid smashing into others. It was a mess but not yet a defeat.
The real blow came when my fingers went rusty (more like frosty). Braking and gear shifting kept my hands busy all this time: four 90-degree corners per lap, a down tube double gear shift before and two shifts after each corner forced the blood to flow into my fingers for most of the race until the body gave up and unlocked its self-defence mechanism: I’m shutting you down buddy, game over.
The first time I couldn’t squeeze the brakes before a corner because my fingers refused to obey, I torpedoed into some guy’s rear wheel and took him down, somehow without hitting the floor myself. When I came out from the corner, someone whacked me across my back, screaming incomprehensible obscenities. Maybe I crashed his team-mate or got him frightened – I didn’t give a damn – but I took note of his mud-spattered number and swore to myself to him pay back when I could. No one goes unpunished, Peter Trumheller told me – they bite you once, you bite back twice if you want to survive in this sport; “it’s a pack of wolves out there”, he used to say, “don’t let them maul you down”.
Two more laps and I couldn’t shift any more. When I took the hand off the handlebar to shift, the fingers remained closed as if I were still holding onto the bar. Shifting with a closed hand, using the edge of my palm instead of fingers, I kept missing the cogs I wanted, going too far down the block on the up-shift or too far up on the down-shift. I gave up, stuck it into 53×14 and prayed I wouldn’t get dropped. Coming out of corners at slow speed and then getting on the gas over-geared meant I was gapped after each corner and had to chase until the next one where I would mess with the brakes, come close to crashing and repeat the mad routine all over again.
I rolled to Trumheller’s car as soon as I crossed the finish line for the last time, thinking about a stash of dry clothes I had in it. I saw him running toward me, gesticulating something with his hands. “Don’t stop,” I heard him yell when he got close, “ride to the hotel, you need to keep yourself warm.” I tried to tell him that I’m past the point of needing to keep myself warm, but I felt like it wasn’t worth the energy of moving my tongue to talk. I had no idea where to go to because we hadn’t been to the hotel yet since we came to the race in the morning. I saw my team-mates pedalling away somewhere and I followed. Soon, Trumheller’s car was in front of us, shielding the six frozen chicken-men from wind and sleet, guiding us home like a mamma-duck to warmth and safety. Except there was no warmth where we were going.
Trumheller was waiting for us outside the foyer of the hotel we stayed in when we arrived. “There’s no hot water and no heating in the hotel,” he said when we stopped and circled around him. “See that brown brick building over there with a tall chimney? It’s a boiler room and it’s got two shower heads and hot water. Grab your stuff and dash in there as quick as you can because more people are coming down from the race and it’s going to be full.”
I took the aluminium cleated shoes off, the dirty socks that were snow-white three hours earlier, grabbed my bag with dry clothes from the car and hobbled toward the brown brick edifice that looked like a gas chamber from a concentration camp in WWII. When I opened the door, Hieronymus Bosch’s images popped up in my head. Although nobody was cutting anyone’s arms or legs like they do in Bosch’s paintings, there were enough bloodied, naked bodies floating around the grim room to rouse a sense of vomiting in my guts.
“I’m not going in there, “ I said to Trumheller.
“What did you say?”
“I’ll wait until they’re all finished and come back later.”
“No you won’t,” he said. “You need a hot shower now, not later. Take your clothes off and get in the queue. They won’t bite you.”
I spat on the floor. I couldn’t resist my home town’s street code to show antipathy and dissent to what I was about to do. I looked at my coach with outright contempt and began to undress. We’re all animals, I thought to myself, so act like one; muffle your inapt idea of North Caucasus’ male dignity, join the pack of wolves and see if you can coexist with the beasts. Better still, become one yourself.
* * * * *
The road to the top of the cycling pyramid turned out to be more rutted than I thought it would be. At first, nothing seemed too complicated about it: win or finish on a podium at the Russian state championships, get selected into the Kuybyshev super-team and you’re one step away from the top: the national team. (At the time, Russia was one of the 15 states – or ‘Republics’ as they were called in the Soviet Union – along with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia and nine others.)
Kuybyshev was the biggest, the most powerful cycling stable in the USSR. Funded and tied to the Soviet Army, Kuybyshev’s chiefs ruled the Soviet cycling landscape with little restriction. 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 up to a five-year long military-backed contract, bottle you up inside their brutal selection system, and watch if you came out alive or not. If you do, you might make it to the national team because if you survived Kuybyshev’s meat grinder, you’re probably good enough to race in the red CCCP jersey.
Under Viktor Kapitonov, himself a Kuybyshev graduate, an Olympic road race champion and Soviet Army colonel, 60-70 percent of the national team came through Kuybyshev’s live-or-die machine. Their training methodology was simple: snatch as many talented riders as you can from all over the country, throw them to the wolves, keep the ones who survived and discard those who didn’t. With access and ability to take almost anybody they wanted from a large, nationwide talent pool, Kuybyshev was the epitome of the Soviet road cycling system: a ruthless, cut-throat and cold-blooded environment where winning by any means was the law to live by if cycling is how you earn a living.
I knew what Kuybyshev was like from Peter Trumheller and one of my older team-mates. They took the guy in as a state silver road race medallist and he came back nine months later refusing to ride more than a couple of times a week. He quit cycling soon after; he told me bikes are stupid, that he’d rather rot in a factory than cripple himself racing. His fall from the top of a talent ladder to the ground daunted me but there were no other routes I knew about. To climb the pyramid – if you’re from Russia – you go up either via Kuybyshev or you don’t go anywhere at all. An intimidating road but what other choices did I have? At least, at the time, that’s what I thought.
I blew two chances I had to show Kuybyshev my worth at the state championships. I didn’t just miss something or make a mistake, I fizzled out like a faulty firecracker. “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.” Race results used to be printed on A4 sheets in those days with about 30 places on the first page; you were an irrelevant entity if you didn’t make the first sheet.
I failed to appear on the first sheet of the only races that mattered in the entire season every time. Trumheller’s scolding after each failure drove me to doubt if I was good enough to do what I set out to do.
“You know what’s wrong with you?” he said after I flopped the second time. “You just can’t be bothered pushing 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 really counts.”
“What are you talking about? 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 can’t be bothered? It’s all too easy for you. You don’t suffer like the other guys to get a win and when you come to a serious race like this one, you don’t want it bad enough. You think it will all fall into your hands by itself because you’re so special. But you know what? You’re wrong. You won’t get anywhere until you fight for what you want. You won’t fight like a dog. These other guys out there who did well – they know what they want and how to get it. They’ll cut your throat if you get in the way. Stop acting like you’re Eddy Merckx at a local criterium; you’re not Merckx. If you want to be him, race like a killer, not like a prima donna.”
* * * * *
My last chance to step up the ladder came in May 1983 in Kaliningrad, a city known for seven centuries before as Königsberg until 1946 when Stalin decided to keep it to himself after WWII. A 25km time trial and a road race was all I had left to play with if I wanted a future in cycling. The road race was flat as a pancake 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 built a pair of time trial wheels for me from a gear stash he kept since his trip to Italy. He bought a pair of 28-hole Campagnolo Record hubs, Nisi rims and super-light Clément silks for a special time trial that never came about for him. A frugal German, I knew how important my last test was in his eyes if he pulled out the prized gear 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 the wheels while I changed into a dry jersey, wiped the silks clean with a bare hand and stood on the road with my bike, waiting until I was ready to get out of the car.
“Four minutes to go,” he said, placing his hand on my shoulder when I came up to take the bike. “How bad you want it?” he asked, drilling through me with his dark, penetrating eyes.
“I’m not going to the army,” I said. “Not with these wheels,” I smiled.
I plunged into the race from the gun and scorched through the distance like it was a five kilometre interval. You don’t get to race like this too many times in a racing career: there’s no pain – or at least nothing registers with you for a while – only a raw will to push on the pedals, hovering over the red line until the weight of the race crashes down on you toward the end. And you know it’s coming, you take it head-on and keep going without slowing down because you know – you just know it! Your guts tell you it’s yours – you’re crushing everyone and no amount of pain can stop you.
I lost by six seconds to a guy who was already in a national team and held a national time trial title. 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.
* * * * *
The series continues… more will be published online soon.
(The series on Soviet cycling continues with part three in the current issue of RIDE – #68, volume o2 of 2015 – which you can find in newsagents now, featuring Michael Matthews on the cover.)