“I am so clever”, Oscar Wilde once said, “that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”
Understanding the meaning of words is important. In road cycling, a “flat” doesn’t mean an “apartment”, or a “dropout” doesn’t mean “a student who withdraws before completing a course.” Misunderstanding words leads to miscommunication, and miscommunication can have dire consequences.
The Start Line
On 12 August 1984 I rolled to the start line of a 75 kilometer team time trial. An ordinary race, I tried to lie to myself. But a forest of international flags, tied to high poles on the roadside, said it wasn’t. And that smell of a new, never worn, scarlet red Castelli skinsuit with white, bold CCCP logo was impossible to ignore. Like the smell of blood to a predator, it made me intoxicated with the race about to begin. I looked at a giant Omega timekeeper—60 seconds left before the world championship begins for me and my 3 teammates.
In the next 90 minutes, there will be no tomorrow. Ordinary thinking will cease. Emotions will be shut down. We have been drilled to a clockwork perfection by thousands of kilometers spent on the road together. Nine months of training went into this one race and all I wanted to do now was to unleash the race demon from somewhere inside of me onto these narrow, twisted roads of Basse-Normandie.
The American team is only meters behind us. We leave the start gate in reverse order from last year’s championship. The defending champions, the Yanks, go last. They will know our time splits. A valuable information in a tight race. How tight it will be? Who are these monkeys in stars and stripes skinsuits anyway?
I hear them talk in their growling language. They even laugh. How did they win last year, I wonder. They don’t even look like cyclists. Italians, Dutch, I get that, I can accept a defeat from them. But Americans?
We haven’t won since 1980. We’re supposed to own team time trials, it’s our race, that’s what we do best. Yet, every year someone cracked too early and the team fell apart. This time, team politics were set aside and coaches prepared the best quartet we have had in years.
“You can’t lose this race,” the head coach said minutes before the race. “You just can’t. The times you’ve been clocking the last few weeks—I haven’t seen anything like it by a junior team. Those guys out there with fancy bikes and disc wheels—they’re nowhere near you. Amateurs. We’ve done our job to make you into who you’re today. It’s now your turn to do your job. We brought you here to win. Nothing else will be accepted. Go and do it.”
The clock hand on the timekeeper went over the first quarter of the dial for the last time—45 seconds to go. I crossed myself in the Orthodox tradition, murmuring “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Forgive me and keep me safe. Amen.”
It was time to tighten the toe straps one more time, grab the handlebars, check what gear I was on, and switch off from the world outside. But something was bothering me.
My teammate, Peter, was looking at me. He was my “wheel” in this race. I sat behind him many times. I knew how he rode, his quirks, his pedaling style. I knew when he was about to swing off and when he was running out of gas. One other thing I knew about him—his eyesight was no better than a blind owl’s. Without contact lenses, he didn’t see much on the road.
“You good?” I said, keeping an eye on the timekeeper.
“Can you do me a favor?” he asked.
Yeah, sure, with 30 seconds to go, I have plenty of time for favors.
“Nothing. I’m not wearing my lenses.”
“I need you to yell ‘right’ or ‘left’ before a corner if I’m at the front pulling a turn. To make sure I won’t miss it.”
“Are you crazy?” I said in disbelief.
“Just yell, will you?!”
“Fine,” I said, thinking that this race might turn into a disaster. “This is nuts. If you take us down, I’ll unscrew your stupid head and bury it right here in France. Understood?”
“Shaddup,” he said and looked straight ahead.
I tightened the grip on the handlebar when I heard a Commissaire’s countdown:
“Six, cinq, quatre, trois, deux, un!” And we were off.
The Team Time Trial
The first time check came after 12 kilometers—we were ahead by 15 seconds. No word on who was in second place; not important. At half distance the gap grew to 45 seconds. Our team car came alongside us. “Give it to them, boys!” I heard the coach yell from an open window. And we did. We started to pull harder, but shorter turns. The speed went up and the real race began.
The first half was a preface. We found the right pace and good rhythm. We managed to gain time on our rivals. But it wasn’t the race yet. The race, the one we trained for, began in the second half when we stepped up the pace and shortened the pulls. Boosting the speed at this point in a race is a gamble. Everyone begins to feel the weight of the race. It was eating you away by small nibbles mile after mile, but now it chops off chunks of energy from each rider with every turn at the front. If someone is on a limit already, pushing the turbo button will pop him fast. Most teams, especially if they’re going well, will play safe and keep a steady pace, hoping no one will crack. But not us.
We’ve gone through the routine many times before: reach half distance in high pace, and then lift it. We knew what to expect, we’ve done it in the past and were ready to do it again.
Last time check came with 10 kilometers to go. “You’re up by a minute plus, you bastards!” we heard from the team car. “Don’t slow down! Trash them! Trash them real good!”
Peter was leading the team when I saw a corner coming up fast ahead. Until now, he was never at the front before a corner. He was charging at it without slowing down. Our pre-race agreement popped up in my head. Oh crap, I thought, which way do we turn? I looked at a race marshal ahead of us to see where he was going. Two seconds later a blinker on his motorbike told me what I wanted to know.
“Right!” I shouted to Peter. A single, simple word with several meanings. What I meant was: slow down, right corner is coming up. What Peter heard was: swing off to the right.
We shout “right” or “left” to adjust team formation when slipstream changes its angle. If the wind blows from the left, we swing off to the left and sit on the right side of a wheel. When wind changes direction, we reshuffle. The call to reshuffle always comes from someone who catches the change in the slipstream first. When the call is made, you swing off to the side you were directed to by your teammate.
We were in a “left” formation when I shouted “right”. I was on Peter’s right side of the wheel and he was supposed to swing off to the left. When he heard “right”, he swung off to the right into my front wheel.
I saw it coming. I recognized the blunder before it left my mouth and, at the same time, something in Peter’s body language told me he was about to swing off to the right. Why wouldn’t he? I just told him to.
I leaned my bike to the right as Peter leaned his and we both shot to the side of the road. Our wheels touched but I knew I was in full control of my bike; I wasn’t going to crash.
The 2 others behind me, I was waiting to hear that nasty thwack, the sound of a body and a bike hitting the asphalt. Unlike me, they didn’t see it coming; they couldn’t. My sharp, unexpected maneuver to save my ass was bound to take them down.
Two seconds passed and there was nothing. I looked under my left elbow and saw Igor and Sergei, my other teammates, riding a meter away from me and Peter. “What the hell are you guys doing?!” Igor yelled at us, gesticulating astonishment with one hand.
We went through the corner in 2 lots—Igor and Sergei first, Peter and I 5 meters behind because we lost speed a moment ago.
When we regrouped, I rode to Igor and said, “We need to ease off.”
“We won. It’s done.”
“Sha!” I yelled, “We walk home, no running!”
We took the foot off the gas and rode the last few kilometers in a breezy pace. We won the race with more than a minute advantage.
Back in the hotel, Igor came to me and said, “What happened on the road with you and Peter?”
“We screwed up.”
I explained how. He was looking at me with his big, black eyes unsure if I were kidding or not.
“This is bullshit, right?”
“No”, I said, “pure truth.”
“Are you crazy? You could’ve floored us.”
“We could’ve, but we didn’t.”
“You’re nuts. Why didn’t you agree on something better than ‘left’ and ‘right’”?
“With half a minute to go, there was no time for something ‘better,’ OK?”
“Man, when I saw you shaving Peter’s rear wheel with your front one, I was sure you were going down.”
“You would’ve, but not me, I don’t crash in time trials.”
“Yeah right, you almost did though.”
“Hey by the way, when we darted with Peter to the wrong side, I was waiting for you to crash but you weren’t on my wheel…”
“Oh yeah, I felt a change in the draft and I swapped to the other side of the wheel to check if the draft was better there. I was just about to call ‘right’ when you two jerks bolted the wrong way. Lucky eh…”
Ever since that episode, I became a guy who often asked stupid questions. “We leave hotel at 11am”, a coach would say before a race, “Any questions?”
“What time are we leaving?” I would ask with a straight face.
“For the idiots and the deaf, I repeat: 11 o’clock.”