This story happened 30 years ago during my first ever stage race. I was 16. A common strategy used by many Soviet coaches in those days was to throw young, inexperienced juniors into a seniors’ race to toughen them up and teach them the skills they could never learn racing against boys of their age. When you’re 16, two years age difference is significant enough to separate riders into different age groups. Racing against guys 8-10 years older is no easy feat—the speeds are higher and the distances are longer. A typical seniors’ stage race, like this one, was eight stages long—four days on, rest day, and another four days.
I’ll talk about this race in my upcoming book because it was a turning point for me as a cyclist, but I’m not sure if I’ll include this episode.
This was a 5th stage, we just had a rest day and I felt alive again. The previous four stages were pure hell—single digit temperatures (Celsius), rain, snow, wind, crashes, punctures, the whole lot. I developed saddle sores because I couldn’t wash the sand off of my knicks—there was no hot water in the resort we stayed in. It was a workers’ resort, early March, too soon for the workers to have holidays. Because it was empty, the resort’s administration didn’t see the need for hot water and heating in the buildings, it was turned off. There was a boiler building in the middle of the resort, ran on coal and this is where we had our showers, all sixty or seventy of us.
Most of the teams staying at this resort arrived at about the same time after each stage and the riders went straight to the showers. Within minutes, the shower room was filled with sixty or so naked men waiting for their turn to wash off dirt, grime and blood. They would give you about three minutes to do your business, including washing your kit and then you had to move away and wait for another turn if you didn’t finish what you were doing. Wet, naked, with a handful of dirty kit in your hands.
Like most riders in the USSR at the time, I rode in knicks made from wool. Even in a washing machine you couldn’t get rid of the sand in your knicks after a rain, never mind doing it by hand in one minute after racing in mud covered roads every day.
Then I crashed on the 4th stage—nothing serious except I didn’t wear gloves that day, they were wet and I only had one pair. As it happens, I landed on my hand because it was a slow speed crash. I tore off a chunk of skin off my hand. Holding to a handlebar with a hand like this is unpleasant.
When I reached the rest day, I was thinking of packing up and going home. This race was getting worse every day. I wasn’t sure how much more of it I could handle. Staying in bed all day, only coming out to eat, helped; by evening I felt normal again and ready to rock & roll. And rock & roll I did, especially the rock part.
We stood on the start line of the 5th stage and listened to the race commissaire explain what’s in store for us in the next 140 kilometers. Cold rain was pouring down like it did the four previous stages. We all loved it by now. At least it wasn’t snowing.
A lot of road races in Soviet Union were out and back types—you ride half of the race’s distance one way, make a u-turn and finish at the same place you started from. The 5th stage was a loop. Not a circle, only part of the race was a loop and then we had to come back on the same road we already rode on and go on to the finish.
The commissaire explained where the turn off will be and where we’ll come back on the same road again. All good. And then he said, “There’s a road work about 25 kilometers from here. No asphalt, it’s gone. The road is covered with gravel and sand mix. No more than 5 kilometers long. Be careful.”
There were more than hundred guys standing on that start line. All miserable, tired and angry. And here comes this fat clown and tells us we’ll have to ride through mud and rocks for 5 kilometers? I have never heard so much swearing being said at the same time. Russian is rich in swearing vocabulary, it’s practically infinite, and I heard a colourful spectrum of swearing expressions I didn’t know were possible. Guys were yelling insults from the middle of the peloton, calling the commissaire all sorts of names and promising him a painful death after we finish the stage.
The commissaire grinned with an evil smile, walked away from the road, raised his starter pistol, shot in the air, and we were off.
When we hit the dirt section, we knew it was the work of the demons themselves—in the middle of farmlands, the road we raced on was used by tractors and trucks coming off farm fields, carrying a lot of dirt on their wheels. It was already dirty and slippery as it is after so much rain. But the dirt section was special—a swamp with melon size rocks thrown in to help tracks and cars drive through without getting stuck.
I couldn’t believe no one was slowing down when we hit it. It’s only later I learned how you deal with this crap—you have to hit it head on, full speed and keep smashing your pedals until you come out at the other end, if you want to come out that is. Slow down and you’re dead meat—a road like this will eat you alive. First, the bike will start to wobble left and right and you’ll have trouble steering it; you hit one of those rocks the wrong way and you go down. Then you notice the gear’s too big as the speed keeps dropping; you can’t push it and this too wrecks your balance. Without thinking too much, you reach for the shifter on your downtube. Two things might happen when you do this—you hit the rock with only one hand holding the bar, and you go down, or you hit the shifter too hard, because you’re in a panic mode, drop the chain and will have to stop. Remounting the bike and trying to get going again on a road like this is a trick not everyone can pull off without outside help. This is why those in the know, and there were a lot of them in that peloton, fly with their sails up into a disaster zone like this.
I came out at the other end of the swamp shocked but in one piece. The peloton was scattered all over the joint. I was surprised no one attacked. I guess we all felt united in our misery and the big boys decided to hold a ceasefire until everyone catches up.
We rode piano for a few kilometers and then saw something strange ahead of us—the commissaire’s car was parked across the road, blocking the traffic, and the man himself was standing in front of it, about ten meters away, with a red flag in his hand, waving. This was a u-turn, no doubt about it, except there wasn’t supposed to be one—we were briefed before the race that the stage is a loop, not an out and back race.
And then I got it—the guy was on a revenge trip. You complain about a piece of dirt road? Call me names? Here you go, you bunch of schmucks, take that for a gift.
We turned around and headed back to the mud and rocks exhibition. What else could we do? I was thinking of leaving this psycho show, board the broom wagon and never race again. I wasn’t looking forward to another I’ll shake you up real good session, not with the pain festival going on between my legs.
The peloton was silent, no one was talking, no one was joking, we rode faster and faster until we hit the dirt and the torture started all over again, in reverse direction this time.
When we came out at the other end, the peloton was stretched a lot longer than the first time—the exercise was taking its toll. I don’t know what others thought, but I started to wonder where we’re going to go from here; we only did about fourty kilometers and were about twenty five kilometers away from the finish, heading in its direction.
And then I saw the commissaire’s car passing us. You’re joking, I thought, you’re not turning us around again you bloody bustard. Sure he was.
Five k later, we saw him again, blocking the road, him and his stupid flag.
The word got around the peloton in seconds to keep our mouths shut on the u-turn. Nobody wanted to find out how many more laps he was willing to make us ride through the rocks if he heard more abuse from us. Some couldn’t stop themselves from thanking the guy for a great day of racing, but that was as abusive as it got.
The third edition was the best seller. Guys were crashing right and left, losing speed and getting stuck, dropping chains. I saw one guy stop and throw his bike away into a ditch. The show was on.
I rode in auto pilot mode thinking some little guy was sitting between my legs with a steel rod, pricking my sores with it while his brother made his way to the handlebar and was doing the same therapy to my injured hand. I didn’t care about the slippery rocks anymore; I imagined I was a tank heading to Berlin to crash into Reichstag to declare a WWII victory. The Europe’s “It’s a final countdown” song was playing in my head and I promised myself that if I make it to the sealed road without stopping, I’ll start saving for Italian knicks with good chamois and five pairs of gloves to last me a stage race.