Bicycle Stage Racing - Ciao Bella

 A Soviet peloton

A Soviet peloton

By “The Russian” Nikolai Razouvaev

The first stage race I ever saw scared me almost to death.

“Do you want to go with me watch the last stage of Martovskaya?” my coach asked me after training one day.

“Yes! When?”

“I’m leaving early tomorrow morning. I think it will be good for you to come along and watch a real race. And I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching your best buddy struggle to make a 4th echelon.”

Anton, my best friend, was in the race in a combined team. News from the battleground was -- they were fighting with a Baku team not to be last in team classification. Anton was 16, two years older than me and was allowed to race with the big boys.

My coach, Piotr Trumheller, managed to get us a spot in the race convoy under the guise of a neutral spares car. We were two cars behind the Chief Commissaire -- not a bad seat to watch a road race from behind.

“When the poo hits the fan,” Trumheller said when the race got underway, “we’ll have to follow the 2nd split. If we can that is”

“What do you mean if we can?”

“You’ll see.”

Apart from a puncture or two, not much happened in the first 20 minutes of the race. The peloton was humming along at a steady 40 k an hour or so.

“Look at the trees” my coach said.

“What about them?”

“The wind -- look at where the wind is coming from.”

“Tailwind, more or less.”

“Yes, it is.”

“So?”

“Just watch.”

It was already drizzling for the last 10 minutes or so when the mayhem began. The peloton hit some township where I couldn’t tell a muddy road shoulder from the road itself -- it was just a wide stretch of wet, brown clay with crying baby mouth-like potholes scattered everywhere. The first crash was so huge and violent my heart sunk seeing bikes flown into the air right in front of our car. Trumheller hit the brakes hard and we nearly smashed into a car in front of us.

“Crap!” he yelled and got out, grabbing 2 wheels from the rear seat. Two of our guys were on the ground. I scanned the spill of human bodies and steel looking for number 64, Anton’s number. He should be OK, I thought, he’s cool, can stay upright like a roly-poly doll.

A minute later we were rolling again, trying to catch up with the peloton without destroying Trumheller’s car on the potholes.

“Are they OK?” I asked about my older teammates.

“They’re fine. Some bark is off and Yurik Samboursky’s glasses are broken so he might get lost on the way to the finish.” Yurik was pretty much blind without his glasses on.

The township was behind us when we caught up with the peloton again.

“There’s a T intersection coming up in about 1 k and they’ll make a right turn. Where the wind will be coming from after the turn?” I heard my coach’s question.

“From the right” I said.

“Good.”

“And then what?”

“Watch.”

The road started going downhill a little and I saw the speedometer’s needle touch the 55 k mark.

“This is mad” I said, “it’s a skating rink out there, how are they going to make the righter at this speed?”

“What would you do if you were right there in the bunch?”

“I don’t know.”

“Think. You know the corner is coming up, you know it’s wet and slippery, and you know a crosswind will hit you as soon as you make the corner, if you make it that is. What would you do?”

“Hit the front?”

“That’s right. Now, do you think you’re the smartest cookie in the peloton and no one else thinks the same thoughts?”

“The Baku guys, I’m sure, have no idea what’s going on right now” I joked.

“Probably. But there will be at least 80 or 90 other guys who would want to be at the front when the peloton arrives at that corner -- to pick a good line or the right speed and have some room to maneuver if someone goes down. Now, what do you think happens when 90 guys are trying to get to the front all at once?”

“I don’t know.”

“How would you keep others from getting to the front and pushing you back, deeper into the bunch?”

“Open up some gas?”

“That’s right. And with a bit of downhill and tailwind, they’re going to hit 60 k pretty soon. It’s do or die right now at the front.”

I looked at the dashboard, and yes, the peloton was right on schedule to be officially suicidal.

“Do you think there will be another massive crash?” I asked.

“Hard to tell. Most guys out there should be well skilled but there are always clowns who panic, brake too hard, lock the wheels on a road like this and take down half of the peloton. You should stay away from guys like this.”

“How?”

“You can single them out by the way they ride or other things.”

“What other things?”

“Dirty socks is a sure giveaway, or shoes, or scratched, dirty bottles; dirty bikes or dry chains. They can’t pin their numbers properly and they carry too much food in their jersey. An unkempt looking rider is a chainik -- you must stay away from chainiks. You got that?”

“Yep.”

“And they brake too hard, always brake too hard. Speaking of braking ...”

I looked up and saw the head of the peloton no more than 50 meters from the corner. The first 15-20 guys were strung up in a single line. They were the guys who kept the pressure on for the last several minutes. At the time, I had no idea what they were up to. It’s only later, after going through the motions of learning and a few stuff ups along the way I learned the purpose of this move -- save your skin and then nuke the peloton.

Saving your skin is easy to grasp -- on a muddy, wet asphalt you want to pick your own line going into a sharp corner, and you want to choose your own speed. Which is why you want to be at the front -- you can take any line you want at any speed you want. Nuking the peloton, this took some figuring out but eventually, unless you’re brain dead, you get it.

When you know, either because you know the roads or feel it in your guts, that the change of wind direction is coming, you move up. You move up because you’ll either nuke the peloton with 15 others when the crosswind hits, or you’ll be nuked. Those first 15 guys that were flying into a slippery corner right now in front of me, that’s exactly what they were doing -- setting themselves up to nuke the peloton and I was about to see something I have never seen before or even knew was a key element of road racing.

“Watch what happens when they exit the corner,” my coach said.

I was watching. My eyes were glued to that corner. I was sure someone was going to go down. There was no way, I thought, they slowed down enough in such a short time. I froze in amazement watching them go through the corner one by one without a problem. Every one of them in a single file flew right through the corner like an express train. Not so for the rest of the bunch. Someone somewhere in the middle of it did something stupid and the bikes were flying all over the shop once again. I didn’t care. My eyes were on the first ones that came out of the corner. Like a well drilled team of synchronized swimmers, they stood up on the pedals and hammered down the first blow. The gap was opened immediately.

“This,” Trumheller said, pointing toward the road, “is why I brought you out here -- to see the kill. You saw how they set it up and you saw how they executed it. By the time we get back to them, that 10 meter gap you saw will be a 30 second gap. It will grow quickly to 1 minute, then 2 minutes and after that they’ll be gone for the day -- game over.”

“How do they do that?”

“You’ll learn. If you want to make a living in this sport, you’ll have to master the crosswinds. Climbing, time trials, there’s not much you can do about them -- you either do well or you poo poo. This, the crosswinds, it takes balls and good legs not to be left behind when the kill comes. And there’s nothing you can do to learn it except be right there in the peloton. You need to be blown up a dozen times before you’ll even begin to understand what you need to do.”

“It doesn’t look too complicated,” I tried to pretend to be a pro.

“I know. Trust me, you won’t make the first split the first ten times no matter how hard you try.”

“Why?”

He looked at me as if he wasn’t sure I was kidding him or not.

“Because it’s a war out there. You have to learn how to survive first before you can start fighting.”

“I get it.”

“Do you?”

I had to wait a year to find out.

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