Road Cycling in the USSR (Part 1)
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  Posted January 18th, 2018 by Zdenko  in Cycling | No comments yet.

Retrospective

By: Nikolai Razouvaev

Soviet cycling in perspective: Can’t Forget the Past
Thirty years ago, Nikolai Razouvaev was a junior world champion. He experienced the Soviet cycling system in its prime. It was more than a sport; it was a way of life.

In this great future, Bob Marley once sang, you can’t forget your past. A good deal of my past is buried in a country you can’t find on a map anymore. Once a mighty, all-conquering powerhouse, it crashed to the ground like a falling star seven decades after it rose to the global stage in 1917, waving a red flag in one hand and shaking a fist at the rest of the world with another.

CCCP-National-Team-JerseyUSSR national team jersey from the 1980s era

We stood alone, our teachers taught us. In the sea of capitalism, an inhumane system of exploitation and greed, we were the first nation on earth to stand up from our proletarian knees to start a new era in human history, a new social order of equality, peace and prosperity.

In less than 20 years, we turned an agrarian, feudal empire into a leading industrial nation. We laid down 30 million of our fellow men to rid the world of Nazism. We rose from rubble and ashes of the WWII and launched the first spacecraft in the history of humankind. To safeguard our way of life, we built a nuclear arsenal deadly enough to destroy the planet more than once. Firmly on our feet and with the world rotting away in its immoral pursuit of riches, by the 1950s we were ready to show socialism’s power on the international sports arena.

We sent an ice hockey team on the tour of Canada and the USA in the 1970s to humiliate the NHL and demonstrate our supremacy. The amount of Olympic medals we harvested every four years was so large we thought that by 21st century there will be nothing for us to win. We marched to world dominance on all fronts in steady, unstoppable stride.

soviet+cyclingSoviet cycling in the 70s

This, in essence, was the mindset I had when I started cycling at the age of twelve. The Peace Race and the Olympic Games, both closed for depraved professionals, were the two most important events in the sport. Yes, there are the ‘pros’ and the Tour de France but they play on their own playground, fuelled by drugs and money. Without the dope and the pay cheques we’d own them just like we own everyone else, save the East Germans and maybe the Poles.

I was fifteen and on my way back from my first fair dinkum stage race. My coach, Peter Trumheller, drove his shiny red Lada in an awkward silence. I was sure he wanted to talk to me about something but didn’t know where to start. I wasn’t going to help him. I didn’t want to talk at all. I knew something changed, something was different.

As we drove, and I kept thinking back about the race, I began to realise I wasn’t the same kid I was before the first stage. The cycling I knew a week ago was a Mickey Mouse version of it, a comic strip.

That first stage, an 80km criterium on the frozen streets of Maykop, was the divide between play-doh cycling I knew and the real thing. At the time, what looked like the most cruel, merciless two hours on a bike I have ever had, was nothing but a prelude to seven more road races still to come.

Welcome-to-Hell-620x329The graffiti says: ‘Welcome to hell.’ I must’ve seen this when I came to Maykop for my first stage race. Or at least that’s what I think now.

We raced through slit, rain and mud in temperatures only a single digit degree above zero. By stage three I ran out of dry, clean cycling kit because I only had two sets. The place we stayed in had no hot water, no heating and no showers. Before the start, I pulled on my half-wet wool shorts. Without chamois, my skin rubbed against sand – the shorts were full of it from previous stages because I couldn’t wash them properly in a toilet sink in cold water. This didn’t bother me in the race because I was busy trying to stay in the bunch. The peloton was full of guys much older than I was, most of them over 20, some even older. They raced at speeds I’ve never raced at before.

When I got off the bike after the finish, my thighs burned as if someone spent the last three hours rubbing my perineum with sandpaper. I was bleeding between my legs by the end of stage four. By stage five the wounds got infected and I had trouble walking, never mind riding a bike. I finished the sixth stage with a tiny creek of blood going all the way down to the white sock on my left leg.

I went to bed every night hoping I would discover a crack in my frame next morning to have an excuse to quit the race (we didn’t have a spare bike). I imagined myself crashing and breaking a collarbone, or an arm, or whatever, anything to escape another day in the saddle in cold, wet weather with gusting cross winds.

I wish I could say I cried at night but I didn’t. I wish I could say I soldiered on, full of perseverance, tenaciously reaching out to the depths of my soul to stay in the race, or some nonsense like that, but I didn’t. Those last four stages, more than anything, I wanted to quit. I kept thinking about my schoolmates sitting in a warm classroom back in my hometown while I was standing on a start line, cold to the bone, shaking, scared of all these mean twenty-year-old assholes who made my life miserable. How stupid all of this is, I thought. Why are you doing this? Why don’t you quit?

nikolaiposterThe USSR junior team – they already have the look of grown man

I finally crashed on stage seven and ripped a hole in the palm of my right hand. I sat on the tarmac, nursing my wrist, pretending it was broken. ‘Get up!’ I heard Trumheller shrieking, running toward me after he pulled to a stop in his car. He grabbed my bike, spun each wheel to check if they were rideable and yelled again: ‘C’mon! Get up!’

Twenty kilometres later when I lost all hope of rejoining the bunch I was in before the crash, he pulled up alongside me and asked if I needed anything. I showed him my hand and said I didn’t know how much longer I could ride with this pain. The roads were rough, I had trouble holding on to the handlebar.

He slammed on the brakes and then reappeared a minute later. He stuck his hand out the car’s window, holding a pair of fine, Italian-made cycling gloves. He kept them in his car, a habit from the racing days. ‘Put them on,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you at the finish.’

I didn’t quit. The system I was already a part of didn’t allow it. You’re either in, or you’re out. No middle ground, nothing in between. You either commit your entire self 100%, or you don’t. It’s OK if you don’t, but then we don’t want you and we don’t need you. Don’t waste our time. Go do something else. Play soccer. Study. Get a job. Build communism. Serve the country. The minute you quit, without a good enough reason for it, you’re written off, you’re no longer a building material to make a champion from. And making champions was the system’s sole purpose.

***

About the author – N.R. Writer
This is the page where I’m supposed to impress you with what an extraordinary person I am and how incomplete your life will be if you don’t spend some of it reading my blog.

Nikolai-Razouvaev-280x180Nikolai Razouvaev

Truth is — I’m not extraordinary. Motivational writers tell me that I am, but I know they’re lying. I know they’re lying because they tell this to everyone. Everyone is extraordinary they say. What they don’t realize I guess, or pretend they don’t, is that if everyone is extraordinary then no-one is.

Another truth — I’m not going to pretend I don’t care if you read my blog or not. I do care and I do want you to read it. Not because I’m extraordinary, or special. I want you to read it because I have a story to tell. Some of this story has to do with what I’ve seen. Other, with what I think about what I’ve seen. Or even with what I think I’ve seen.

I was born and lived the first 25 years of my life in Soviet Union. People who don’t know history well think Soviet Union was like North Korea, only bigger with more tanks and missiles. It wasn’t. Others think George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was inspired, if that’s the right word for it, by the Soviet regime. Perhaps it was but as I write this in 2016 from Australia, I can’t help but grin with irony at the demise of the USSR while the West picked up the socialism’s baton where it was dropped and went on to transform itself into an article Joseph Stalin himself could have never imagined. The Soviet propaganda machine was a joke compared to what the Western mass media achieved in the last 20 years using the Internet. Which is why I’m stupefied watching the world I imagined was free descend into a groupthink with its citizens now fluent in duckspeak, chasing thoughtcrime offenders and unpersons. As I observe this unfold in front of me, I can’t help but write.

I wasn’t always a writer. I loved reading when I was a kid but not writing. I suppose since speaking one’s mind wasn’t allowed, writing held no interest for me. My dad taught me chess when I was six. I used to rush into my parents’ bedroom on Sunday mornings and beg him to play with me. He’d lay aside his Izvestiya newspaper and give me two games — one for each side. He told me one day I should  join a chess club if I wanted to play the game well. I did but couldn’t stand losing to kids younger than me, so after going for two months, I quit. Then, over the next few years, I tried football, boxing and sambo with same results — no patience to learn the skills. When I joined a cycling club, my mom said I wouldn’t last more than a month. She didn’t know about seasons in road cycling though. I started at the end of a season which meant I had five months to train before the first race.

Wladimir_Osokin_Tadeusz_Mytnik_Aavo_Pikkuus2Best of the best: Wladimir Osokin (USSR), Tadeusz Mytnik (Poland) and Aavo Pikkuus (USSR)

I finished second in my first race. It sounds trite, I know, like coming from one of those superstars who always win their first race or game and then keep on winning as if they can’t help themselves. For me, it wasn’t like that. But I knew I could win one day, and that’s what kept me going.

By 18, I started winning on a national level a lot, qualified for the UCI World Junior Championship and in August 1984 won gold in a 75km team time trial. I kept racing until 1996 when I thought there must be a better way to earn my bread. My wife and I lived in Montreal when I quit racing. I bought my first car and got a job, my first real-world job, as a pizza delivery boy (a 30-year-old boy). I made $7 an hour and kept the tips. Living was cheap and, looking back 20 years later now, worry-free.

nikolaiaddidasNikolai in the Addidas skinsuit about to ride back home after a Team Time Trial race.

With cycling out of my mind, I turned to books again. I went to Westmount Public Library but couldn’t find anything good in Russian language, so I picked up a book in English — Robert X. Cringely’s Accidental Empires. My English vocabulary was no more than a hundred word-strong so I read with a dictionary in hand. When I turned the last page, I ran to a book shop and bought a self-help book to learn programming in C — I thought I found a way to become a millionaire. I never stopped reading English literature after that and I don’t think I ever read another Russian book since then.

Suhoruchenkov_Sergey2Olympic champion from 1980 in Moscow: Sergey Suhoruchenkov (USSR)

In 1997 we moved to Australia with our then eight-months-old daughter. I knew how to code and design websites and had no trouble finding a job. This was the time when nine out of ten people had no idea what Internet was, at least here in Australia, and some thought that as a web designer my job had something to do with spiders.

Hanging around the web all the time I discovered online forums — that’s how I started writing. By now, I was a Christian. Converted only months ago, I thought if I could only explain to people what Christianity is, they’ll see why making peace with God is more important than having a dinner every day. It took years for me to understand that, with some exceptions, rational arguments are as good as a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal — it makes a sound, the eardrums vibrate (or the eyes read the marks we call letters) but nothing gets through, nothing stays in the mind. It wasn’t all in vain though ­— I learned English.

So here I am now, writing. Thank you for reading.

Nikolai

Hope you all have a good season and see you somewhere on the road.

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