Tour de… Moscow?

Hugh Gatenby

Not content with watching this year’s Tour de France on TV, always up-for-a-challenge Hugh Gatenby signs up for the Moscow stage of ‘Le Tour’. He enjoys traffic-free Moscow by night, and picks up some interesting company on the way. Or rather, they pick him up. Illustrations by the author. (Editor’s Note)

I never learn. Always read the small print, even – or perhaps especially – when it’s in Russian. And so it was that I found myself in with the elite riders of the Moscow stage of the Tour de France – knowing little about  what I’d signed up for.

I should say, at this stage, the Moscow etape was not part of the official Tour de France. True, the TdF takes in other countries, but they are always the adjacent ones – notably the UK in 2014. The mass-cycling event was organised by the charity Liga Geroyev, the ‘League of Heroes’, which promotes sport for the disabled. It enjoyed Tour de France sponsorship, bearing its name and official logo. The charity ride and mass-participation event was to be held at night and to comprise different distances, from a 20 kilometre ‘fun’ variant, to a decent 45 kilometre ‘Sporting’ – and to a whopping ‘elite’ 90 kilometres (my choice) on closed-to-traffic routes along the scenic embankments of the Moscow and Yauza rivers. 

Well, why not?

The small print? Though I’m a bit out-of-practice on the saddle, I’ve got a decent racing-bike. I’ve always enjoyed cycling and I didn’t baulk at the distance. Back in the UK I cycle regularly with a formidable group of ‘senior’ ex-club cyclists, whose expertise belies their self-deprecating name of  ‘the Wrinklies’. It was, after having registered, I finally read, in the very small print, the ‘elite’ riders should only comprise ‘the best of the best’ (eeeeek!) and they should be able the complete the course at an average speed of 45 kilometres per hour.  Seriously? That’s Tour de France stuff. Worse than that, the route would only remain closed to traffic for two and a half hours. That would mean any cyclist caught outside the 2.5 hour cut-off , was risking both Moscow traffic, furious at having been closed-off, as well as being ‘timed out’; declared ‘DNF’ – Did Not Finish . 

To the start line

So it was with a certain resigned give-it-a-go-anyway feeling that I, along with thousands of other cyclists, on bikes of all shapes and sizes, made it to the start line at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium. Thudding rock music and a crazed DJ lent the occasion a carnival atmosphere. Having picked up my race number and timing chip, I edged my way to my start – positioning myself well to the back of the fleet. And… we were off. To cheers and whooping, we were soon scorching down the miraculously traffic-free embankment in the direction gilded cupolas of the Kremlin. To our right was the bitumen-black Moscow river, bearing cruise ships full of  partying passengers, lit up stem-to-stern.

Under way, and traffic-free.

Actually, there was nothing miraculous about the absence of traffic. The route was lined with smiling volunteers, race marshals in their yellow vests and behind them were unsmiling guyishniki; well wrapped-up traffic cops. With the volunteers was the iron behind the velvet, the equally-unsmiling Rosgvardiya , or National Guard, also well wrapped-up in their urban-camouflage military fatigues. The high-profile security, and it was probably heavier than on the real Tour de France, in no sense detracted from the atmosphere. I noticed the National Guardsmen, in a change from their usual duties, helping revellers safely across the road – so that the latter wouldn’t get scythed down by waves of speeding cyclists. Could be new role for the elite enforcement arm of the Russian state – helping babushski across the road.

On past the ancient walls of the floodlit Kremlin, on to the embankment of the canalised river Yauza, and, already flagging, I find myself riding in the slipstream of group of serious Bad Boys on mountain bikes, blasting out rap music from a speaker-column. Wincing at the high-decibel wall of sound, I tuck in behind the boys and pedal in their energy-saving slipstream. I swallow my pride at being barely able, on a racing bike, to keep up with these lads on mountain bikes. The Wrinklies, back home, would haven given me hell for that. ‘Tis best they never know. I consoled myself with the thought that my new rapper companions were younger, bigger and stronger than me.

We stream past the gaudily-lit skyscrapers of Moscow ‘City’, towering, twisting steel-and-glass monoliths ever sprouting on the embankment. Back to Luzhniki Stadium – and the rappers peel off past the finish line. They had wisely opted for the single-lap 45 kilometre event. Medals, and an after-party, awaited them. Me, I was on a my own-ee-oh. A repeat 45 kilometre lap; with only a few solitary remaining ‘elite’ cyclists for company (the real elite had already left us far behind) and this time no bad boy rappers to ‘sit on the wheel’ of.  The possibility of being ‘timed out’, and the streets being flooded with traffic again, was very real. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. The Kremlin loomed, the river Yauza, the return leg, spinning the cranks…  ‘Toilko choot-choot!’, a marshal called out to me. ‘Only a little more…’ And I was over the finish line. 

Sporting my finishers’ medal, and sore legs, I was tempted to seek out the after-party and thank the Rappers for their pace-setting work. As it was, I didn’t even have the strength to seek out the after-party. So a night to remember; an event high on atmosphere, adrenalin, emotion and good cheer. A a salutary reminder to read the small print – in any language.