Putting On a Racing Kit

It's a ritual

Hi! This is Nikolai and my The Russian Crank newsletter. If you enjoy reading it, please forward it to your friends. If you want to ask me a question, or just talk, please reply. I never ignore emails from my readers.

Putting on a cycling kit before a race is a ritual. 

If you want to do well, or hope you will, you pile up your kit next to your bed the night before. On a nightstand if the room has one or on top of your travel bag next to bed. 

Pin the numbers. Fold a centimeter on each side and crease the race number against a table’s edge to make a cut rectangular. Then pin it. Four in the corners, another 4 in between. Eight pins all up, 16 for 2 numbers. You want them to stick to the jersey. You don’t want them to flap. Not a fred. 

Check if you didn’t pierce the pockets with the pins. Freds and idiots do that.

If it’s a new jersey you had never worn before, lay it on the floor and walk over it. Once or twice. Appease the cycling gods, see not new now, don’t crash me tomorrow. Please.

Lie down in bed and stare at your bike. Tomorrow, we race. Tomorrow, we show them what we can do. Tomorrow.

You wake in the morning from an alarm clock, wash up, brush teeth and go for breakfast. Could be an oatmeal or rice pudding, mashed potatoes or macaroni with meat patties. Barley meal. Follow up with cottage cheese and 2 tablespoons of sour cream, sugar or jam. Cup of black tea and bread with a chunk of butter covered by a slice of cheese.

Back in your room, boil a jar of water, add 4 teaspoons of tea and brew it. Watch the tea leaves saturate with water, watch them drown. A teafall in a jar. Watch the water darken from the tea leaves losing the tannin.

Check the time.

An hour or two left before you have to leave, you go back to bed and rest. You don’t want to walk or do anything. Lie in bed and rest. Don’t move your muscles. Digest the food and rest. It’s a magic time. It’s not a war you’re going to, but it’s kind of a war.

This hour before you start putting your kit on, suck it in. In peace. Because 2 hours from now, everyone minus the 5 teammates will hunt for your head if you dare to get in their way.

Stare at your bike from the pillow pressed against the wall. 

The guy 2 meters away from you, your roommate, he’s sleeping. He sleeps anywhere, anytime. A python.

Check the time.

Fifteen minutes to go. Get up, take the clothes off, wake up your teammate. Gotta go bud, we gotta go.

Undershirt first then the knicks. Pick up the jersey, arms up, slide it on. A tint of rubber smell inside from the lycra fabric. This is when you know it’s a race day, that smell of rubber inside the jersey. It’s when the first dose of adrenaline kicks in. You feel it in your blood and the heart starts to knock but only for 2 or 3 seconds.

Pull out a 3-kilo sac with raisins from your bag. Grab a handful, put them in your jersey’s right pocket. Another one.

If it’s a long race, grab 3 oatmeal cookies. Maybe 4 just in case. Put them in the left pocket. Food sorted.

Now the socks. Snow white for when you know it won’t rain or something shitty, a pair that had seen dirt before when you suspect it might.

Tight the shoe laces and tuck the knot inside the shoe, a trick you learned from your first coach. It looks neat and the laces will never loosen.

Fill the bottle with the black tea and add 4 teaspoons of sugar. Drop in a tablet of ascorbic acid for flavor. Pause and think if you need a second bottle. Probably not.

Pick up your Cinelli helmet and shove it in the middle pocket on the jersey.

Gloves. These leather gloves, you hate them. You don’t want leather between your skin and the handlebar. Getting those raisins from the pocket with gloves on, pain in the ass. And you can’t wash them because you know if you do, they stiffen after you dry them these bustards and rub against your skin for at least 5 rides. You don’t wash them and now they stink from the sweat they sucked in.

Put them on in case you crash and land on your hand. New jersey or not, you never know.

Grab the bike by the stem, cock it on its rear wheel and walk to the door and listen to the freewheel’s tik tik tik song.

Tik tik tik. It sings for you.

You’re on.

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall

Sergei Soukhoruchenkov or Bernard Hinault? Who was better?

Hi! This is Nikolai and my The Russian Crank newsletter. If you enjoy reading it, please forward this piece to your friends. If you want to ask me a question, or just talk, please reply. I never ignore emails from my readers.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greatest of them all?

People love to compare great athletes from different eras. What if Bernard Hinault raced against Eddy Merckx? How would that go? Or how would Wayne Gretzky and Valeri Kharlamov go against each other if both played in the NHL? Bobby Fisher vs Garry Kasparov?

At any rate, this is not a what if post. I’m not going to bore you with speculations about what could have happened if

I have an opposite goal in mind – I’ll try to argue why comparing contemporary athletes separated by political barriers is a fruitless exercise.

This post was “inspired” by Lucio, a Facebook friend from Lombardia who asked me some time ago if, in my opinion, Sergei Soukhoruchenkov would have won Tour de France or Giro d’Italia had he turned pro at 23 instead of 33.

Some Background

I realize there’s not a great deal of information available about Soukhoruchenkov (known as Soukho in the West), so I’ll sketch something for you with one hand.

I watched my first Course de la Paix (Peace Race) in 1979, the year he won it the first time. I was 13, he was 23. If there was a sports hero for me at the time, he was it.

I don’t remember how exactly he won it. All I remember was one long, crazy solo attack he did some time during the race, got the yellow jersey and never let go of it until the end.

Next year we had the Olympic Games in Moscow and as you probably know, it was boycotted by the United States. The rest of the Western world boycotted it too but allowed their athletes to go to Moscow on their own.

I don’t know how the boycott affected other sports. In my opinion, it had little impact on road cycling.

The main players were all there including some from Western countries such as the then current world road champion Gianni Giacomini, the 1978 world road champion Gilbert Glaus, Steven Roche, Adri van der Poel, Marc Madiot and of course all the heavy hitters from the GDR, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

My friend and I watched the live broadcast at my sister’s because she owned a color TV (we didn’t).

I remember that race pretty well. The tough Krylatskoye circuit was purpose-built for the Moscow Games. I raced on it 5 years later and left some skin and sweat on those roads. It’s a crazy loop with banked corners and walls to climb.

Anyway, the break went early with Barinov, Lang and an Italian guy who crashed soon after.

Soukhoruchenkov bridged to the break and the trio rode away from the peloton. Two Russians and a Pole. With about 50 km to go, Soukhoruchenkov attacked and soloed to the line. A textbook win.

Everyone expected him to win Course de la Paix again in 1981 after the Games but he didn’t – he finished second while Shakhid Zagretdinov, his team-mate, won.

This is when things went south for Soukho – he didn’t make the team for 1982 Course de la Paix, went off the radar in 1983 and then somewhat miraculously re-emerged in 1984 to win Course de la Paix again.

These are just some highlights of his career.

The UCI recognised him as the best cyclist in the world in 1979, 1980 and 1981 (at the time, UCI governed amateur cycling and a different body governed professionals).

He was often compared to Bernard Hinault – tough, stubborn, not a pure climber but impossible to get rid of even on steep climbs if he refused to get dropped. And because of that, a lot of people wondered: what if ..?

No Ifs, No Buts

Now, even though it’s clear Sergey Soukhoruchenkov was made from the same kind of dough as Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault have been made from, there’s really no way of knowing how things would have unfolded for him in professional cycling because:

(1) Amateur cycling, as tough as it was, never had anything even close to a professional racing calendar.

For example, Course de la Paix aside, there was nothing even resembling a Grand Tour. Course de la Paix itself, without taking anything from it as the mother of all amateur stage racing, lacked the Alps, the Pyrenees and hors catégorie climbs.

There are some hard climbs in Tatra Mountains but there wouldn’t be 5-6 high mountain stages in a single edition. It was a hard race, but you can’t really compare the Tour or the Giro with Course de la Paix.

There were no Classics either. This is because about 90% of amateur racing was domestic. Each country had its own domestic calendar and this is where most of the racing happened.

This, in turn, meant that international amateur calendar was pretty thin and it was thin because only national teams and well funded clubs could afford travel to international races.

A thin international calendar leads me to the next point:

(2) With world championships, Olympic Games every 4 years and Course de la Paix as the only major battleground between amateurs, it was hard to know where the best riders stood on the international arena.

Apart from these three and a couple of other bigger races (Tour de l’Avenir, Milk Race or Giro delle Regioni), the peloton’s makeup at other international races was a hodgepodge – a mixture of 2-3 top national teams racing against local teams in whatever country the race was in.

Had these meetings been ongoing against more or less the same rivals as in professional cycling, the fans and the racers would know where everyone stood in the pecking order. Everyone knew the stars, outside of that, the peloton’s makeup was different at every international race.

Speaking of racing against inferior opposition, here is my next point of why comparing amateur stars with professional stars is nonsensical:

(3) Eastern Bloc amateurs were not amateurs in any meaningful sense of the word – they were professionals.

Not only they were paid to race, they also had all the time in the world to train and prepare for racing while most European amateurs had no such luxury. These guys had real jobs to do at home.

It doesn’t mean winning the Tour de l’Avenir was easy, it wasn’t, but it does place Eastern Bloc domination of amateur cycling in a proper perspective when these things are considered.

And finally, the race dynamics:

(4) The Soviets were the only riders in the world who valued team classification more than an individual in a stage race.

The socialist ideology, enforced by the State, elevated collective effort over individual.

Applied to road cycling, it meant that the Kremlin expected the Soviet national team to chase team classification first with individual one being an icing on the cake if or when it happens. If you can do both, great, but don’t you dare to lose team classification to the GDR.

If you look at the statistics, you’ll see the Soviets won the Course de la Paix in team classification 20 times while the 2nd best team, GDR, “only” 10.

The individual classification is 12-10 in GDR’s favor.

This approach led to some awkward tactics on the road with everyone puzzled about what the Russians were up to.

For example, a typical situation might have been where the Soviets would shut down a break because it was hurting their team classification even though the break favored their individual standing. Except the Russians, no one else knew what was going on.

This partially explains why the Soviets were hopeless in major one day races like world championships (only 2 gold medals in the history of the USSR). Most of the time, they lacked the intuition and skill to throw all resources at one guy and drive him to a win.

This flaw showed later when Soviet Union collapsed and its elite riders started signing professional contracts in 1988. Only a handful of them, naturally more aggressive than others and hungry for individual success, such as Tchmil or Adbujaparov, made it to the top of professional cycling.

As for Sergei Soukhoruchenkov, when he signed with Alfa Lum as part of the first wave of Soviet riders to go pro, he was 33, way past his best years and nowhere near the level he needed to be at to race against the likes of Lemond or Indurain.

A Mamil and a Fred Went Out to Climb a Mountain

A feature-length film, The Climb, is due to be released on 20 March

Michael Hutchinson, an author of 3 books, gave a 5-star review of the UAE Tour on Twitter yesterday:

He had been heard and promptly echoed:

I suspect no one, except the inner circle of the UCI, knows why UAE Tour exists.

Pat Lefevere, being Pat Lefevere, came out and spared no punches calling the UCI a dictatorship.

Not in relation to the UAE Tour, more like: by the way, UCI is a dictatorship taking money from an emergency fund, bankrolled by teams, to pay Euro lawyers to shut up teams who gave this money to be spent on good causes and not against teams who gave UCI the money in the first place.

The Climb

If you have never heard of The Climb, Michael Covino’s 2019 feature film, don’t worry — me neither.

The film appeared first in 2018 at Sundance Festival as an 8-minute short. People with cash (Sony Pictures) and taste (Trafalgar Releasing) liked it so much, they bought it and paid Michael to make a feature-length film.

It’s a story of two friends, a kitted-up Mamil on a $15,000 bike and a dude in sleeveless t-shirt, rock climbing helmet and clown socks riding in keds, overgeared, up what looks like some Euro col.

The rock climbing helmet opens up and tells the Mamil his undying affection for his ex-girlfriend at which point the Mamil, no doubt in a sharing mood too, confesses — he slept with the keds’ ex.

Typical cycling story.

The Climb will hit the big screens on 20 March.

The Next Eddy Merckx

Remco Evenepoel has been touted the next Eddy Merckx. Is he?

The first film is a cycling film

December 28, 1895 is the official birth date of cinema.

On that day, Auguste and Louis Lumière screened the first projected film in the Salon Indien of the Grand Café in Paris. The 3 50-second films show workers leaving a photographic factory.

Nothing remarkable (apart from historical value of the footage).

What caught my eye were some workers with bicycles. That’s right, the first ever cinema screening and we have bikes in it.

Bikes and people. Not cars and people but bikes.

There’s also a dog.

Bruce Bennett, the author of Cycling and Cinema, writes:

In pushing their way past their co-workers and riding out of a photographic factory, the cyclists introduced 19th-century viewers to three-dimensional cinematic space, showing them the new ways of seeing the world offered by the cinema. Cycling is not an incidental element here; rather, the presence of moving bicycles in this film demonstrated the unique formal properties of this revolutionary medium: it is cycling that makes this film a film. In short, the first film is a cycling film.

Let me repeat this again: the first film is a cycling film.

Leave it with you for this thought to sink in.

The next next Eddy Merckx

As historians say, here we go again.

Remco Evenepoel asked the media 2 years ago to stop calling him the next Eddy Merckx.

Or is it the next next Eddy Merckx?

One advantage of being old is you remember things (and then you don’t). I remember a bunch of gifted riders, some Belgian and others not so much, being labeled the next Eddy Merckx.

Here is the list:

  • Tom Boonen

  • Peter Sagan

  • Wilco Kelderman

  • Edvald Boasson Hagen (c’mon)

  • Damiano Cunego (yes, Cunego)

  • Johan Museeuw

  • Claude Criquielion

  • Frank Vandenbroucke

  • Eric Vanderaerden

  • Freddy Maertens

I get it. As a cycling journalist, you want to spice your copy. And in this digital marketing age, there’s click bait to take into account. But, Cunego the next Merckx?

What did John McEnroe say about this?

Let’s recall: Eddy Merckx won everything under the sun and then some. He was the next Eddy Merckx before he became Eddy Merckx.

He started with Milan-San Remo in his first year as a pro and never stopped winning.

Remco Evenepoel?

Last year, after he won the Clásica San Sebastián, Merckx said:

He is ready for the big job. Can he follow in my footsteps? Maybe he will even get better. Remco has all the qualities to make it happen.

He does have the qualities, no doubt. But so did Tom Boonen at about the same age.

What does the next Eddy Merckx mean anyway?

For me, the next Eddy Merckx would have to win:

  • all Monuments

  • all Grand Tours plus at least one double

  • at least 5 Tour de Frances

  • at least one road world championship

  • more than 3 Northern Classics

  • a bunch of lesser Classics

  • cherry on a cake — Hour Record

This would be somewhat close, not exactly the Eddy Merckx, but good enough.

Right now, we’re talking about a 20-year-old kid. Massively talented but a 20-year-old still.

Let’s come back to it and discuss after he bags a couple of Tours, a Giro and the Ronde.

How about 7 Milan-San Remos? Or even 5?

Let's Talk Cycling

The way we used to

Let’s talk cycling. Without clickbait, search engine optimization and like buttons. The way we used to. One on one.

Let’s talk old times and new times. Heroes and underdogs. Roads, dust and the smell of wool jersey soaked in the rain.

It’s a beautiful sport. Let’s talk about it.

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