Eight years ago I sent an email to Rob Arnold. Rob owned and published a cycling magazine here in Australia called RIDE Cycling Review. I’ve been reading the magazine since about 2000.
Ride was the only Australian cycling magazine I wanted to buy when I saw it on the newsstand. It was a great magazine with cool photography and always something interesting to read.
One night I’d been tossing back and forth an idea with my wife. An idea about writing.
I said, I want to write. I said, I want to earn a living writing stories.
So we talked about it and then I mentioned Ride. I said, hey I know this cool cycling magazine I’d like to publish something in, but they’d never publish me.
She said, why not?
And I said, well, they’re posh. They ride $15,000 bikes in Rapha kits and publish stories about Classics, Tour de France, and Simon Gerrans.
I don’t write about Simon Gerrans. I want to write about what life was like for guys like Simon Gerrans in the USSR. Nobody wants that.
This is how I find excuses not to write.
My wife said, you’ll never know if you never ask.
I sent an email to Rob and said, this is who I am and this is what I want to write.
This was in July and you know what cycling journalists do in July. They’re in France.
Two hours later, or six, I can’t remember, Rob replied with: I’m interested, send me a 3,500-word piece.
I sent him a piece and 20 minutes later he replied: reading, love it. Ten minutes later he sent another email: can you make it a 5,000-word story?
I sent more.
This is how the Soviet series in Ride started.
When Rob returned from the Tour de France, we met in Brisbane to talk about the series. It looked like it was going to be a long-term relationship so both of us needed to know where we were going with my stories.
No conversation about professional cycling can go on for too long without touching doping. Rob asked — I guess he had to — have you ever doped?
I heard and understood the words, but for me, the question was not, have you ever doped? The question was, do you have a story to tell?
That’s not what Rob meant, that’s how I interpreted the question. That’s how bizarre this world is. The cycling and everything else. No dirt, no story.
I never doped. That’s what I told Rob. Not that I know of anyway, I added.
Boring. As we say in Russia, no strawberry in the story.
Rob didn’t care. No doping, fine.
How do you explain then, he said, Soviet domination of amateur cycling? Everyone and their dog believes you guys doped.
How do you explain the Soviet cycling machine?
This is what we set out to do — to dispel the myth of doping in Soviet Union.
I know how this sounds. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Racing on bread and water with your mouth shut. We all know what you were on. The East Germans told us.
Do you? Do you really?
This is how people make up their minds. This is the argument: we all know the East Germans doped, therefore everyone else in the Eastern Bloc doped because they’re all the same.
I set boundaries in the series I wrote. I can only write about what I know, what I saw with my eyes. I can’t write about how Soukhoruchenkov won two Peace Races and the Olympic road race — I wasn’t there.
But I was there with Abdujaparov, Konyshev, Tchmil, Ugrumov, Poulnikov and many others. Trained, ate at the same table, and raced.
You learn a lot about people you train and race with. You know what’s going on in your own team and the peloton. You know what everyone is on just like everyone knew what Lance Armstrong was on from day one.
Everyone who could put two and two together that is, as Jan Ullrich said.
My explanation for why the Soviets were so good on the road and track wasn’t new but it’s the only one made sense to me.
The amateur cycling was rigged in favor of the Eastern Bloc. We were not amateurs. We were professionals racing against Western amateurs. This is what I wrote and this is how I hoped the doping question could have been solved.
We didn’t need doping because we could win without it.
I don’t believe this anymore.
I don’t believe this anymore because the dominance people talk about is fake. It’s a myth. The dominance is a myth.
The Soviet Union did not dominate amateur road cycling. Everyone who ever believed this bullshit had been fooled.
Look at the list of road world champions. How many Soviets do you see? I can tell you without searching the Internet. Two road world champions. Andrei Vedernikov in 1981 and Viktor Rjaksinsky, my former teammate, in 1991. That’s it.
You can add Viktor Kapitonov’s and Sergei Soukhoruchenkov’s gold Olympic medals in 1960 and 1980 and that’s all you have for dominance.
How many Italian world champions are there? Belgian, French, East German, and on and on.
Yes, we didn’t race internationally until 1952, but out of 30 something world championships and nine Olympics we won four gold medals.
We did well at the Peace Race with some streaks of multiple wins but so did the East Germans and the Poles.
The Soviet Union was a major player, but there was no dominance.
If we were so good, what happened to our dominance when the flood gates opened and a bunch of Soviet riders went West? The best Soviet riders.
Some did well. Konyshev, Abdujaparov, Tchmil who won three Monuments. But there was no dominance. No superhumans. Two legs, an engine and a pair of lungs like everyone had. Nothing special. Different, yes. Tough as nails, yes. Still human.
One story I wrote for Ride, I wrote about my first experience with doping. Writing it made me think about doping, a lot.
That myth I mentioned above Rob and I set out to dispel about doping in Soviet cycling, I know the answer now. I didn’t know the answer eight years ago but I do now.
I never doped because I couldn’t get my hands on doping anywhere in the Soviet Union. Not only that, I didn’t even know what to look for.
Doping had never been a moral issue. Not for me, and I would imagine, nor for anyone else. Then and now.
I used to always have something special for races. A pair of gloves I would only use to race in, or a jersey, socks, bibs, whatever. It changed from time to time. Or a racing chain and a six-speed freewheel. Something, whatever. I’d put my special gloves on in the team car and a lock in my mind would click: you’re on.
Doping would fit right in, I have no doubt about it, just another kind of gloves.
That’s how it is. Nothing to confess.
If you haven’t read the stories I wrote for Ride, shoot me an email and I’ll send you an e-book you can read on your phone. I’ve added more material to what I wrote for Ride. It became part one of a book I hope to finish one day and you’ll have a chance to have a taste of it.