Oleg Tinkov I’m Just Like Anyone Else

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Chapter 4

How Cycling Saved Me

For a long time I had been asking my parents to buy me a Voskhod moped. It was essentially a bicycle with a small motor attached and cost 105 rubles at the local store. Our family budget would not allow it, supposedly—although I think it came down to my mother’s fear that I would get hurt, that I would become one of the many people in our town that ended up crashing these mopeds (some of whom did not survive).

When I turned 12, my mother bought me a bicycle. Mid-sized bikes cost 30 rubles, but I was given an adult-sized Ural. It cost us 50, but it would last longer. The bicycle was huge and I rode it seated sideways, with one leg stuck through the frame. Regardless of the discomfort this caused, cycling took possession of me. Once—I was 14 at the time—my classmate Volodya Fomin told me he had joined the school’s cycling team. If you joined, they would give you a big sports bike. It was not new, but it was free. The coach even let you take it home. I was sold on the idea and decided to join the team too. I signed up in 1982, the year chairman Brezhnev died. (I can still picture the day: I was walking home, dodging the puddles, which were glazed over with a thin layer of ice, and I heard Mother calling me to come quickly. We all sat and watched the news on TV.)

That same Fall we had our first cross-country racing try-outs. I very nearly came in last, which bothered me a great deal.

It made me angry, so I started hard-core training and continued through the winter and spring. On May 9, 1983, I won the Victory Day city bike race. Our coach, Ivan Stepanovich Rasskazov, was really surprised. After all, I had trained less than the others. In October he lined up the whole team and said, “Tinkov, step forward!” I took two steps forward. Apart from the bicycle I was holding onto, the scene resembled something you might see in the army. “Comrade athletes!” the coach said, “I just want to say, Tinkov is a person that didn’t miss one training session. Follow his lead.”

There was nowhere to go but up. I started winning at the municipal and then at the regional level. I took part in races beyond the Kuznetsk Basin. It was then that I caught my travel bug. I flew everywhere: Sochi, Alushta, Anapa, Dushanbe, Alma-Ata, Tashkent, Fergana, Novorossiysk, Kaliningrad…

My first business was connected to cycling too. Before leaving for training in Leninabad, the second largest city (after Dushanbe) in Tajikistan, my old friend, Master of Sport Alexei Stepchenko, came up to me and said, “Bring as much money with you as you can. They have a lot of good products.” Regional airlines were common then and we flew on An-24 prop planes. Two hours to Tashkent, then two more to Leninabad. The first training session was in the mountains, followed by another 30-kilometer run-in. We rode into Druzhba village, went into the store, and saw that they had mohair scarves and Montana jeans on the counter. The price tags read 35 rubles.

“Hello,” I said to the Tajik salesman. “We’ll take these jeans.”

“Fifty rubles!” he replied.

“Fifty, what? It says thirty-five!”

“We don’t have jeans,” said the Tajik, and hid them under the counter.

There was no use arguing. The Tajiks needed to make an extra buck too. In the end, I spent all the money I had brought on four pairs—for 50 rubles each. Back home I sold them for 200 rubles apiece. Four times as much! So too, mohair scarves, which cost 35 rubles in Leninabad, sold for 120-150 at home. Leninsk-Kuznetsky was, after all, a mining town and by the country’s standards people made good money there.

That is how it went: I would take money, go to training camp, and bring stuff back. That went on for two years. Later, we stopped going to the retail stores and went directly to the warehouse instead, where we got boxfuls of jeans. At that time the Social Property Theft Control Department (SPTCD) was cracking down on profiteers, but athletes, as a rule, were left alone. There was nothing strange about our having lots of luggage. After all, we were traveling with our uniforms and bikes. As a consequence we had no problem moving stuff around. Or we did, but just once—when Lyokha sent some product by mail and, upon coming to pick it up, found that it had been “confiscated” by the SPTCD. He was sentenced to two years probation.

In fact, though, athletes were simply able to get away with more than the carefully managed Soviet system allowed others to do. Why would a hot, Muslim republic like Tajikistan need mohair scarves and jeans and sneakers? None of the locals bought them. In Siberia, however, we needed such things. I brought hockey sticks back from Tajikistan as well: there was a deficit in Siberia! The wooden ones sold well, but the plastic Czech ones did not. If you walked into a department store in Tashkent, the place would be full of them. What Uzbek needs a hockey stick, though? That is how the ridiculous Soviet distribution system operated. Certain quotas were given to each region. While Gorbachev was trying to figure out how to change things and preparing to initiate Perestroika, we athletes were creating the market with our own hands.

Professional athletes in the Soviet Union did a lot of traveling and were businessmen a priori. It was a given that we were profiteers, especially those of us that traveled abroad. Cyclists would bring back water bottles from France and Italy and runners would bring back running shoes. Some of us were caught on occasion, as happened with Lyokha Stepchenko, but they could not eliminate the phenomenon.

Mom was worried about my speculation:

“Where did you get that?” she asked, referring to goods that I had brought home from Tajikistan.

“I bought it, Mom,” I told her.

“Where did you get that? It isn’t stolen, is it?”

“No, no. I got it at a store in Leninabad.”

“Won’t the SPTCD catch you for speculating?”

“Don’t worry, Mom. I was careful.”

“That redhead will be your ruin!” she said, referring to Lyokha—who she took to be the instigator of my business activities. In true Soviet fashion, she was against them and was afraid for me, but she eventually got used to the fact that her son was a speculator.

We rode Start-Shossé bicycles, which were manufactured in the Kharkovsk bike factory, but we longed to get bikes with the Champion-Shossé label, which were available only by special order. Their advantages included aluminum pedals. I dreamt of getting into the Army Sports Club, instead of normal military service. I bought an old Italian Colnago bike, which was about thirty years old. I hoped to use it to win entry into the ASC. It was a heavy, blue bicycle. It looked like it had seen about ten coats of paint and cost 1100 rubles, which was five times more than my dad made in a month. I could have got a new Czech Yawa or Chezet motorbike in the store, for the same price. But I bought a pushbike! My parents thought I was crazy, “Look at Tinkov go! His bike costs as much as a new Yawa!” They really thought I was an idiot.

When I started my tour of duty in the Border Troops, Mom asked me in a letter if she could sell the bike. She ended up getting a thousand rubles for it, which she put into a savings account. When I came back from the army, I withdrew the money and was able to buy new clothes. Basically, the bike was used to launder the money I had earned through my speculation.

Many years later, in the year 2000, I was walking down the street in San Francisco and saw a Colnago bicycle in a store window. I felt a pang in my heart. I asked the clerk,

“How much is this bicycle?”

“Well, this is a very souped-up model. It costs $3500.”

“Wow! I’ll take it!”

I bought the bike, along with 1500 dollars worth of accessories. Later I met Ernesto Colnago, the man who founded the manufacturing company. He founded his bike-manufacturing business in 1954 when he was 22 years old. He must have run his business well because thirty years later all the cyclists in far-off Siberia would fall asleep wanting a Colnago! Ernesto thought the story about my first Colnago was hilarious and gave me a Colnago Ferrari as a present. This is a limited edition red model, only 200 of which were made to celebrate Ferrari’s sixtieth anniversary. Today, the bike is in my Moscow office. I started with a vintage Colnago, worth 1100 rubles, and ended up with a Colnago Ferrari, which sells for 10,000 pounds sterling at Harrods.

* * *

Cycling was the source, not only of my first business experiences, but also of my first sexual ones. One time, when we were in Leninabad, our Kemerovo Province team had accommodations on the second flour of the airport hostel. They put the Kazakhstan National Women’s Team on the third floor. Ethnic Kazakh girls were not valued very highly as cyclists; hence the team included only ethnic Russians. On a side note, they had better food and supplies than us, because their team was national, while ours was only regional.

We trained on the same mountains. In the evening the coach would come, close the door, and say, “All right boys, time for bed!” But the girls would lower a sheet down to us from the third floor and everyone in our room would climb up, bringing champagne along. Quite the athletes! That is when I had my first sexual experience—with Ira from Alma-Ata. She was 16, and taught me how to kiss and introduced me to a number of sexual techniques. Athletes love debauchery.

Ira, hi! You were the best—my first sexual partner.

Later she moved to Moscow and took up track racing. One day I opened the paper and there she was! Ira had become the Junior Cycling Champion of the USSR!

* * *

Basically, because of the training camps, I did not attend school between the eighth and tenth grades. My high school diploma is filed away someplace at the Mining Institute. I got straight C’s. My report cards were filled out behind my back; I didn’t even take my final exams. Strangely enough, I got a C in Physical Education as well, even though I was a candidate for master of sport.

Every year, bicycle racers from all over the USSR would meet in Alma-Ata to take the tests required to become Candidate Masters of Sport and Masters of Sport. In order to pass, we had to complete a two-man timed relay, where we’d take turns racing 300-500 meters. The goal was to run 25 km in 33 minutes. There was a team race where the whole group had to beat a certain time and where you had to be one of the front-runners; the start was staggered. I was awarded the rank of CMS in 1984. In the autumn of 1985, I passed the tests to become a Master of Sport. But because I later changed my coach and team, the documents were lost in a bureaucratic mess.

As both an athlete and a businessman I developed a compulsion to succeed: I needed to win, to conquer. Because I am tall and heavy, I am best qualified as a sprinter. Sprinters are often more likely to win than the normal mountain racers or those competing in individual races. The whole pack closes in on the finish line and then the sprint starts. If you want to accelerate quickly, your muscles have to have a particular structure. The race is decided in the final 500-meter stretch. You need to end up in front and you must not be afraid to squeeze your way into the spaces between the other racers. It is scary: 20-30 people moving at these immense speeds, knocking into each other with their handle bars and bodies. Some fall. If you do not fight your fear, you will lose. Sometimes I would get scared too—you would have to be an idiot not to—and when I did not win it was because I was afraid.

If you watch the Tour De France on TV, where more than half the stages are sprints, you can see the chaos. The racers cross the finish line at 70 km per hour. It is craziness. And of course there are the falls and crashes.
Winning changed my character. The races were for juniors, around 120 km long, but sometimes as short as 80. Among juniors, as opposed to the pros, your overall strength has a lot of bearing on the result: if a person is physically stronger than most, then he is likely to win. I started in a total of over one hundred races and won more than thirty of them—which is quite a lot. The best was when you were among five or so cyclists that broke away from the main pack: if you beat all those dozens of racers, then the last five were not a problem.

After tenth grade I had to get some kind of job. While I was still going to school at the Work Training Centre, I more or less learned the ropes of being a lathe operator. And so I was hired to work at the Kuznetsk Basin Element Factory. There was a bicycle section at the factory, and I was transferred there in the summer of 1985. I manned the lathe for three or four hours a day, with training taking place after work. My pay was 60-70 rubles. Officially, I was a lathe operator, but in reality I was a professional athlete!

Towards the end of 1985, I returned to the cycling team at Kirov Mine under coach Ivan Stepanovich Rasskazov. He got me a job at the mine as an electrician’s helper in the electrical equipment repair shop. This was a real job. Until you were 18, you were not allowed to work in the mine itself; you could only work at the surface, near the entrance. We would get starting boxes and other broken electrical devices from the cage (a kind of open elevator which delivered the miners and other loads underground) and we would take them in carts to the shop for repairs. I would work a full shift, from seven in the morning till three in the afternoon, then shower and head to practice.

Beginning in January 1986, I was allowed to go down into the mine. I was not allowed to go to the backwall, however. Instead, I remained near the cage, collecting broken equipment that needed to be fixed. More often than not, though, I slept in the starting boxes. Even so, I did not get into too much trouble because everyone knew that I had three or four hours of training after my shift. In any case, I earned 90-120 rubles in the mine, depending on how much the boss, Auntie Nina, would sign for.

I remember buying Adidas Moscow sneakers with my earnings. These were the product of one of a few joint ventures with foreign companies. In the 1980s the USSR bought a license from Adidas for the manufacture of one—and only one—type of footwear. These blue shoes were made at an experimental sport shoe factory in Moscow, called “Sport”. Here was yet another testimony to the failure of the Soviet system. The bureaucrats signed a document stating, basically, that quality footwear could not be made under the project. Friends who worked the black market used to bring used shoes in from Leningrad. They cost 90 rubles, which was 30 rubles cheaper than new ones. Can you imagine? There I was, working an entire month in the mines to get a pair of sneakers that were not even new! But I bought some anyway because I was making a great deal of profit on the contraband I brought to the Kuznetsk Basin from Central Asia. At that point I was worth a couple thousand rubles.

During my last summer before joining the army, my hormones kicked in and I bought a parka, like Roman Abramovich’s, and started looking for a girlfriend. They say that Ivanovo is the town for finding a bride, but for us that town was Leninsk-Kuznetsky. There were two women’s boarding houses next to the famous yarn factory. In one of them I met a weaver named Sveta. She was the second girl with whom I had a sexual experience.

I would come into her dorm through the front door. We would have sex, then in the morning I would climb out through the third-storey window. It was a five-kilometer walk from the dormitory to our cabin on Kooperativnaya Street and I had to walk fast.

For what it is was worth, the USSR succeeded in creating a good sports infrastructure. Near the outskirts of Leninsk-Kuznetsky there is a massive Olympic Reserve School for artistic gymnastics. Incidentally, when our Russian athletes were training for the Beijing Olympics, the tryouts were held there since Leninsk is in the same time zone as Beijing.

Our athletic gymnasts were some of the best. Two-time Olympic champion Maria Filatova came from Leninsk-Kuznetsky. So too did European gymnastics champion Maxim Devyatovsky. Others excelled in cycling, skiing, ice racing with motorcycles, and weightlifting. Both Konstantin Pavlov, who was power-lifting world champion more than once, and Valery Korobkov, who took first place a few times at the Russia Motorcycle Ice-Racing Championships in the under 125-cc class, were from Leninsk-Kuznetsky.

And it was thanks to the same infrastructure that I was able to take up cycling. The sport still plays a significant role in my life. My deepest gratitude goes out to coach Ivan Stepanovich Rasskazov. He imparted a great deal to me and I still remember him well. If it was not for cycling, who knows who I might have become? When my friends were fighting, getting drunk, and chasing girls, I chose sports. As a direct result, I learned what business is all about. No matter how you look at it, cycling was where everything started for me.

New members of the team would get a Start-Shossé bicycle, made in the Kharkovsk bike factory. We all dreamt of getting a custom Champion-Shossé, however.

In May 1985, I made it to the finals in the first All-Russia Youth Games, held in Novorossiysk.

Ivan Rasskazov, cycling coach:

Sixty applicants tried out, but in the end 10-15 would remain. Oleg was determined. He wanted to win and he wanted to improve his results. He didn’t miss a practice, unlike the other guys. He was good at the finish, which is why he won races in both Leninsk-Kuznetsky and at the regional level.

He was always smiling and upbeat. He liked pulling pranks, too: he might loosen someone’s brakes or let the air out of their tires. No one’s feelings were hurt though. I’m happy that he grew up to be a normal man. He doesn’t shoot up or mooch, like the others.
Andrei Maximets, cyclist:

I first met Oleg in 1985. I was already a Master of Sport and a respected champion—a leader in the field. We both came to the Regional Championship. It was the 100-kilometer race on an extensive alpine course. We pulled and pushed and that gangling kid, Oleg, eight years younger than me, broke into the lead. We were furious that this young guy was neck and neck with us pacemakers.

The following spring we met Oleg again at training camp. He was with his local team and I was with the national team. We had already developed business qualities, working the black market. We spent two or three months in Central Asia where, in those Soviet times, there was a surplus of jeans and sneakers. We managed to get into shape and stock up on goods. Then, when we got back to the Kuznetsk Basin, we resold them. Our mining region was relatively wealthy; the locals had money to burn. We made gains where there were deficits. It was a completely healthy lifestyle though: just sport and commerce, even if it was a little risky back then.
Eduard Sozinov, Oleg Tinkov’s school friend:

Oleg’s parents lived modestly in a one room cabin with no amenities. They did not get their apartment in Polysayevo until just before he went off to the army. Prior to that he lived under Spartan conditions. Oleg slept in the kitchen on a couch, while his parents slept in the living room. He always wanted bigger and better things. He dreamt of an Italian Colnago bicycle, which cost an arm and a leg. Thanks to his sheer determination, though, he managed to save up for one. The newspaper declared him the Kuznetsk Basin’s “first wheel.” Even though he was a junior, he overtook even the grown-ups. He was very strong physically, never smoked, and hardly ever drank.

It was sport that developed his business acumen. He often traveled around the USSR and had the opportunity to bring something home. For instance, he would buy mohair scarves in Central Asia, where they were completely useless, and then sell them in Leninsk. Once, he brought back some blue oil-silk coats, which were completely unheard of in town. Another time he brought me some fantastic boots! He was always respectable; he never tried to make money off his friends.

His head always worked in the right direction. When a neighbor brought some winter sneakers back from Leningrad, he discovered that they had different colored soles—one black and one white. He hadn’t noticed because it had been dark in the station. Oleg bartered with him, bought them for around 100 rubles, painted the soles, and sold them for 250.

Lidia Irincheyevna Baturova, Oleg Tinkov’s homeroom teacher:

Our class had its own hockey and soccer teams. The kids who took part learned all about team spirit. Later they would go on to work in the mines. They grew up as a group and many of them are still friends. Oleg was the only one in the class that chose cycling. There’s a lot he can’t remember about the classroom drama because he spent all his time training. He would often travel to compete and, when he came back, he’d tell the other kids where he’d been, what he’d seen, and what he’d done. Bicycle racing gave Oleg his leadership qualities and gave him his sense of responsibility for himself and for his actions. For the most part, the kids stuck together, whether in soccer, hockey or dancing. Oleg, however, was an individual. There was only one group “sport” in which he would participate: he would join the other boys in trying to impress, kiss, and pinch the girls.

If he had fallen in with the others, playing on the soccer or hockey team, odds are he would not have amounted to anything. Sports helped him to get started. I remember how, one February 231, the girls wrote a poem for Oleg that went something like this: “Oleg rode far away from us on his bicycle.”

He really did hit the ground running. I worked for 48 years at the school and saw many interesting students graduate. Among them were some that went on to become scientists and arctic explorers. None of them ended up as a successful as Oleg, however.

By eighth grade, some of the kids were trying vodka. Oleg was doing business. My students told me about how Oleg had brought cosmetics back from the Baltics to sell. Oleg traded, exported and imported. At the time, neither his fellow students nor we teachers took these activities seriously.

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