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Tribute to Viatcheslav Ekimov, the Early Years
 
By Cathy Mehl
Date: 11/21/2006
Tribute to Viatcheslav Ekimov, the Early Years
 

This past summer I did a series of interviews with Viatcheslav Ekimov for the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team fan site, The Paceline. This week as we honor the career of Ekimov we have been given permission to reprint three interviews on the DP. In the first two parts Eki shares how he first got into cycling, as well as what it was like living in the Soviet cycling system, going for his Olympic dream as a young man in his twenties and turning professional. Part three has Eki sharing Tour memories as he prepared to ride his fifteenth Tour. In a final installment we have a new interview conducted with Eki just a few weeks ago from his home in Russia.


The phrases "Tough as nails" and "Iron Man Eki" are commonly found in references to Discovery Channel rider Viatcheslav Ekimov. He's ridden and completed fourteen Tours de France, one Giro, several Vueltas, and has palmares that stretch from here to Russia. When Johan needed strong support for Paolo Savoldelli in the 2006 Giro, he put Eki on the squad, knowing he'll be ready, he'll be strong, and he will leave it all on the road in support for his team. Still riding in the professional peloton at age 40, Eki has become a sort of "Ageless Wonder" as he continues to compete at the highest level in the sport with continued success.

But just like mere mortals, Ekimov had to get his start somewhere, and we wanted to hear his story straight from the source. This is part one of "Eki on Eki."

Cathy Mehl: I wanted to hear about your early life, Eki, and how you originally got into cycling as a young man.

Ekimov: My mom and dad were doing things in sport, but my older brother never did. I was the only kid in the family interested in sports. I originally started because there was nothing else to do. I began in track and field in 1977, and I did that for three years and then I switched to cycling. I was having good results in track and field, but after three years I was tired of it and looking for something else.

The city where I grew up was a small city, about 50,000 people and there weren't many sport options, just cycling, soccer, track and field and skiing in the winter. So I went to another place to do cycling. I was dreaming to have a nice sport bike, instead of my regular heavy bike. But my parents were just regular people, so they didn't have spare money to buy me a new bike. I knew if I went to a cycling school I would get a new bike, new clothes, all of that. Just open this door and boom, you get everything you need. It was so easy, so I said I was going to try it.

Cathy: How old were you at that time?

Eki: I was twelve. So in Spring on 1978 there was the choice to go to the special training camp in Summer 1978, but it would mean giving up my holiday of the summer. And all through the school year I had been training and training for track and field so I wanted some vacation. I was a big fan of fishing and sometimes I went hunting with my father and grandfather.

So I said no, I didn't want to go to the cycling training camp all summer. I didn't want to miss doing (fun) things for a third summer in a row. The coach told me I could stay home, but he said in the next year if I wanted to continue in cycling I would have to go to training camp. I said ok, next year we will see. In summer 1979 I did go to that training camp. It was in the country, a little set up with houses, probably about 50 kids from other areas.

You lived there?

Eki: Yes, I lived there in a small house on the lake, and all season we did training. Just like a regular camp, training and eating and learning things. It wasn't hard at all, it was more like fun. Just a camp. Every third day we'd have a conditioning test. In the middle of August 1979 my coach told me I was selected to go to the school which was more serious and train with a very famous coach in Russia. At that time to be selected for that school was a very big honor. There was nothing bigger than that. It was almost guaranteed that if you went to that school in a few years you would be a serious rider.

I had heard a lot of stories about this school, how it was almost like the army, very strict, like boot camp. So I was thinking to myself, "Oh my god, I don't want to do that." I was only thirteen. I didn't want to go there. My coach said he would give me three days to think about it, and if I said no, I would just leave my bike, take my suitcase and go home. He said I was at the maximum age to start the school, and there were a limited number of bikes and we had to share them.

If you weren't interested in filling a spot at the school, they were going to move on to the next kid.

Eki: Right, exactly. So it was a hard time for me for those three days. My head was hurting thinking about it. It was a hard decision. My mom came and I asked her what I should do. She was never happy that I was thinking of starting cycling. She thought it was too dangerous. By the time she came to see me my arms and legs were already covered with road rash! She was a little panicked! Finally she said, "You can always try and if you don't like it you can walk away. But you have to try and maybe it's something you will like."

So I started the school at the first of September, 1979. Straight after we went to another training camp further south and were training three and four times a day. It was quite serious.

But you lived full time at the school? They educated you, also?

Eki: Yes, all the time. We lived there, we were educated there, we did everything there.

What did you think about being there, away from home at such a young age?

Eki: Well, the first few months it was pretty fun, nice atmosphere, nice kids. The toughest thing for me was to be organized all the time. The coach would give us a bad time about not being organized. If we had a mess in our room, we would get fined with points. So when it was time to go see your family or friends, if you had points that were not worked off, you had to remain at the school and not see your family. That was tough. Like super Soviet method at the time (laughs). I figured out right away that I needed to be organized and not pick up any points, so when it was time to go home, I could go. That school gave me a lot.

It molded the way you conducted the rest of your life.

Eki: Yes. Example, I am always on time. It built up my character and my organizational skills. My results were coming so fast, too. By 1981 I had already won two gold medals in the Juniors in track. Then in 1985 I won my first World Champion gold medal in amateurs. In 1988 I was an Olympic champ and my results were just going like a rocket.

When you started sport at age 13 were you being told you had special talents and needed to be properly trained, or did the drive come from inside yourself to make something bigger of your talent?

Eki: It was pretty easy to see that I was a head above the kids my age. I was already racing against kids older than me because my results were so good. I was always ahead of the level I should have been at for my age group. In Russia we had this kind of sports education and you got a grade. You could move up to earn higher levels of grades, like to become a master of the sport. So when you are young, say third grade, you can earn a sports grade. Then you can become master of the sport, then master of the international sport class and finally master of the sport at the elite level. This grade would only be for someone winning world championships or Olympics. When I was twenty I was already at this top level; there was nothing above me.

In 1989 I had already been World Champion a few times and Olympic Champion, so I decided it was time to turn to professional sport. It was the time of the first Russian team in 1989. I didn't want to go with those guys, I wanted to go with an established team. I got offers from Motorola and Panasonic as my first jobs.

You were ready to go professional because there were no more challenges for you?

Eki: Right, I had already won everything. Knowing that, I realized there was another level I could go to and it was the professional level. I knew I was strong but not the strongest in the world. The professionals were the other side of the coin. My dream was just to sign a deal with any big team and try myself at that level. I needed to see if I could compete with those guys, and if I could, then on a given day I might be able to say I'm the best in the world. I took the job with Panasonic, and right away I realized that everything I'd done before was behind me, and now I was in the real deal of professional sport.


Stay tuned for part two as Eki turns professional and learns what it's like to juggle training, family and other responsibilities, yet still stay on top of his game.

Thank you to Chris Brewer and The Paceline.com for allowing us to reprint this content.

 
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