Titan’s Tales: The Wheels of History

Giro d'Italia 1983

Pure climbers, Voloshin (44) and Demidenko (45) in action at the 1983 amateur Giro.

To fully appreciate the significance of what Yuri Elizarov set himself up to accomplish with the Titan project, a short discourse into some history should be appropriate at this point.

The Way Things Were

The international amateur road cycling scene of the 1950s was unaccustomed to seeing outstanding performances from the Soviet racers of the time. This wasn’t surprising. There weren’t many young men left alive in the USSR after the Second World War, and even though the roads in the European part of the country were still good enough for tanks and trucks, they weren’t any good for competitive cycling. This, however, didn’t stop some from trying to earn respect in Europe.

The breakthrough came in 1960 at the Olympic road race in Rome (I wrote about this race before) won by Viktor Kapitonov. Yuri Melikhov followed this success with a win of the Peace Race in 1961, Saydkhushin in 1962 and Lebedev in 1965. Things were looking good until Ryszard Szurkowski appeared on the scene in 1969. Four Peace Race wins, a Road World Championship title and a truckload of many more wins by the Polish machine made some Kremlin rulers really peeved. Heads started to roll and solutions were sought out.

Reconstruction

The answer came, once again, in the person of Viktor Kapitonov. Almost immediately after retiring from racing, he was called into high places and asked if he could turn the tables around as head of the Soviet national team. He said yes and the face of road cycling was forever changed in the USSR. The “new approach” was born.

By 1972, Kapitonov managed to get things back on track by delivering gold in the München’s Olympic Games team time trial, the only championship race that really mattered for Kremlin. The Soviet team won back to back at the next Games in Montreal in 1976 and again in Moscow in 1980. The Soviets felt so invincible in Moscow that on the eve of the Olympic road race, there was still no consensus among the riders who they should be working for. A classic case of everyone being a chief and no Indians in the team. To solve the problem, Soukhoruchenkov took the gold with a crazy solo attack no one, including his teammates, could match. Apparently, the road cycling connoisseurs talk about this race as one of the finest championship wins ever in the history of the sport. It was definitely a mad move on a mad circuit.

The Peace Race scene was taken care of too. After a few hiccups and near misses, Aavo Pikkuus finally won it in 1977. Then Averin, Soukhoruchenkov, Barinov and Zagretdinov each took a turn to win it every year after Pikkuus. It took someone like Olaf Ludwig to stop the Russians only to see Soukhoruchenkov win it again in 1984 after he decided to come out of self imposed hiatus from cycling.

The Primacy of Peace Race

The importance of Peace Race should not be overlooked. “During the Cold War,” says Wikipedia, “the Peace Race was known as the Tour de France of the East.” Although a flattering comparison, it’s not exactly accurate nor even fair.

Unlike Tour de France, Peace Race was as much a political event as it was a cycling race. This race wasn’t selling ice creams, refrigerators or coffee machines. Peace Race was selling ideology. Private property and free enterprise, the ideology proposed, were not indispensible ingredients of a successful, internationally significant stage race. Not only private capital was unnecessary, the new societal system was loudly claiming to be superior in providing the means and resources needed to develop world class athletes. Musicians and ballet dancers, scientists, aerospace engineers and athletes, these were the poster boys and girls of a New Society. Peace Race was one of the cogs in the Ministry of Truth’s propaganda machine.

To illustrate the might of socialism, Peace Race organizers were always keen to invite the best amateurs from Western countries to demonstrate to the world how impotent these riders were against the riders from the Eastern Bloc. Of course, the poor guys were never told they’ll be racing against full time professionals disguised as amateurs (I wrote about professional amateurs before). Not surprisingly, those Westerners who performed well in the Peace Race went on to have successful careers in professional cycling (Peter Winnen, 2nd in 1980, was one of them; that year, he kept in check the entire Soviet team including Yuri Barinov, the eventual winner).

Prestige and politics aside, the scar left on the Russian psyche by German invasion in the WWII was yet another, in some sense unique, aspect that made Peace Race so special for the Soviets. Every time the Soviet team was victorious, there were a lot of people in the country happy to see the German ass being kicked once again. In the minds of many, the race was about “Us against the Germans” just like all our childhood war games were. “Go and get them” was never meant to refer to anybody but Germans in the Soviet national team regardless of how big or small any race was. In the Peace Race, the stakes were high. Kremlin was watching.

The Plan

Clearly, when Kapitonov was charged with the task of developing the dominant force in amateur road cycling, he not only knew the seriousness of this assignment, he already had a plan how to fulfil it.

The “new approach” I mentioned above was a development system undoubtedly of the Kapitonov’s design – brutal and uncompromising, its one and only goal was to produce race winning riders, use them as much as possible while they’re still capable of good results and then discard them at the first sign of malfunction. Get rid of one, there are three more waiting to replace him, primed and ready to race full gas.

How exactly this new approach worked, I’ll explain in the next post.

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Comments

  1. Thanks Nikolai – enjoy the history – keep it up.

  2. I’m looking forward to the next chapter!

  3. Hi Nikolai,
    I’m an italian cycling journalist.
    I don’t know how I’ve linked this blog, I was readin’ something about Aavo Pikkuus…
    Really good stuff here, very interesting the memories of the old Ussr times.
    For a period of time Soukho was a popular athlete in western Europe too: 1981, Giro delle Regioni, San Marino stage, one of the most stunning performances ever seen…

    Peace,
    Simone Basso

    • Hi Simone. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. Indeed, both Pikkuus and Soukho were major figures in amateur cycling in the 70-80s. Soukho’s win in Moscow in 1980 believed by some to be one of the finest in an event of this sort.

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