In its day, Soviet Union had done away with the free market and private property. The land, everything built on it and everything produced on it was owned by the State. You, as a citizen, owned absolutely nothing. To deal with the issues of personal belongings, such as clothes, furniture, or cars, the Party erased private property and gave the citizens individual property instead. The peculiar differences between the two is an interesting subject to talk about but not on a cycling blog.
With the free market gone, only one factory made racing bikes. That’s right, only one. We’re talking 250,000,000 country here, not Liechtenstein. Cycling shoes were produced by one factory and jerseys by two or three. Whether you were a 12-year-old beginner or an accomplished member of the national team, you and the majority of riders you competed against at the same level rode on the same equipment, wore the same or similar jersey, helmet, and shoes.
Three-Tier Equipment System
Level One: Старт-Шоссе
When you started cycling, usually between the ages of 12 to 14, the State provided you with a second-hand beginner’s racing bike — Старт-Шоссе (pronounced start shosseh). Made of water pipe tubes and steel components and weighing over 12kg, Старт-Шоссе was not a bike you would be excited about unless you’re 12 years old and your family can’t ever afford to buy this kind of a bike for you because it costs about an average monthly salary.
At any given time, there was always something wrong with Старт-Шоссе. If it’s not a headset (constant problem), it’s a bottom bracket, rear or front derailleur or a broken spoke. Look at the photo, it’s an almost exact replica of what I started on in 1978: 51/40 chainset with 13-21T 5-speed thread-on freewheel at the rear. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the state-of-the-art saddle. No, it’s not Brooks even though it was made from leather.
Старт-Шоссе came in four colors: blue, green, red, and mustard-yellow.
Level Two: Чемпион-Шоссе
After two-three years of consistent training and some promising race results, you can step up to the next level and upgrade to a serious race machine — the Чемпион-Шоссе (champion shosseh). Depending on where you live, how “rich” your cycling club is or what kind of connections your coach has, Чемпион-Шоссе may or may not be free. If it’s not free, the street price for these bikes was four times the price of a Старт-Шоссе or an equivalent of four average monthly salaries.
Unlike Старт-Шоссе, Чемпион-Шоссе were not available to the public, they were made to order and were nicknamed спецзаказ (spetszakaz or “special order”) because of it. I lived in a small city and my club was underfunded. My parents had to pay for two Чемпион-Шоссе and a Cinelli Super Corsa.
Чемпион-Шоссе, known as чемпик (chempik) among racers, was a decent racing rig built from German Witberg tubes and equipped with mostly aluminum components. It weighted around 10kg. With Campagnolo components, Чемпион-Шоссе was good enough for serious racing. As a matter of fact, plenty of Soviet stars made their break through at the national level on a Чемпион-Шоссе.
Level Three: Colnago
If you continue to perform, you’d be selected to race for the national, state or various top level teams run by government organizations such as the Soviet Army, the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Central Trade Union.
Early 1980s saw the birth of a new breed of cycling teams in the USSR which closely resembled European pro teams — the Centers of Olympic Development. You end up in any of these and you’ll be riding a Campagnolo-equipped Colnago provided to you for free by the State. In a national team, you’ll also be supplied with a cycling clothes from Castelli, Santini and Adidas.
This three-tier equipment system was common for the majority of racers in the USSR. Of course, there were some exceptions. Some bikes, equipment and other cycling gear was brought in from Europe and sold privately by riders, mechanics or team staff. This is how I was able to buy a Cinelli, Santini knicks or Concor saddle when I needed it (except, I didn’t really need a Cinelli).
If you turned up at a state level road race in the 1980s in any of the cycling-mad soviet republics such as Russia, Ukraine or any of the Baltic republics, you would see most riders on almost identical Чемпион-Шоссе, a few beat up Colnagos and an odd Cinelli, De Rosa or something of this sort. Step up to the national level, and the peloton is filled with Colnagos, few Campagnolo-equipped Чемпион-Шоссе and again some odd Italian frames in between.
The Legs, Not the Bike
This equipment hierarchy grew out of the socialism’s deficiencies and shortages, it wasn’t designed with any purpose in mind but it created a road racer least of all concerned about equipment, a road racer focused on making sure he’s got good legs on the race day. He would be making sure he trains right and rests plenty, eats the best diet he can afford, knows everything there’s to know about the race he is going to go to, analyses his previous mistakes as well as good moves, has a race plan and can guess what his rivals can and cannot do. If possible, he will go and ride the race course to see where he can possibly attack or where his rivals can attack him.
In other words, his thoughts are about what he can do to have a good race result rather than what equipment to get to have a good race result. The former is a road racer, the latter is a bike equipment consumer. The former will look after his equipment with care and attention and be always content with it, the latter will neglect it and throw it away as soon as something “better” is on the market.