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Tribute to Viatcheslav Ekimov, the Professional Years
 
By Cathy Mehl
Date: 11/22/2006
Tribute to Viatcheslav Ekimov, the Professional Years
 

Eki on Eki, Part II

After taking the amateur cycling world by storm, Viatcheslav Ekimov looked for new challenges in 1990 as he decided to turn professional in the sport of road cycling. Opting to not join the Russian professional team in its first year of existence, Eki looked for a strong, well-established squad where he could learn and grow in his early years riding as a professional. Thank you to The Paceline for allowing us to reprint these interviews from summer 2006.


Cathy Mehl: You were ready to leave behind the national competitions and join the professional peloton. Who were your first offers from?

Ekimov: I heard from Motorola and Panasonic. I had two deals on the table and decided to go with Panasonic. My dream was to sign with any big team and try myself on that level. When I did my first year with Panasonic, I figured out being a professional was something different (from amateur status). This was the real deal. I would live on my own, train on my own, I could bring my family, my girlfriend; I would have all kinds of freedoms. I knew I had to be settled and concentrate on the sport.

But with all of this new freedom problems could develop. I knew I would have to do everything for myself now: buy my food, buy my car, take care of my house. Being in the school prior to this, every thing had been taken care of for me, including taking care of my bike and other things. So now I was on my own. I was in my own home with no more whistles at eight in the morning to get me up and get me started. I could do whatever I wanted. Many guys from the school were lost; they didn’t know how to handle the freedom. After a couple of years they disappeared from the sport altogether. I grew up on that basis, taking care of myself and my things, so I knew if I stayed true to what I had learned, I would be ok.

Cathy: Were you ever afraid you would be one of the ones who couldn’t handle the freedom?

Eki: No. I knew to use the freedom during my rest time. I had a job to do and it had to be done in the manner I had learned. I wasn’t going to experiment with new methods. I stuck with what I knew. It is super hard to train 365 days a year but it works best to do it that way. It meant that any time of the year I was ready to race. And the team management knew that I would be ready, so I was always given the chance to do good races. I had chances to always be selected.

So I got married in 1991 and then I had a son in 1992. All of these small things became like a big snowball building up as it rolled down a hill. I told my coach I had met a girl, fell in love and I wanted to get married. He said, “Alright, you’re a professional now, you can do what you like. You can buy a house, you can get married. Right now you race like a sports car. But once you put a side car on to that sports car it’s going to slow you down and you won’t be going so fast around the corner!” He was meaning my wife and my kid!

So has that been true?

Eki: Well, there are two sides to that. On one side you have your nice family to come back home to, but the other side of the coin is all the extra work that comes with having a family. Especially when my wife didn’t drive a car, and couldn’t learn to drive a car because our kid was small so she had no time to learn to do that. So I had to go to the supermarket and the doctor and everywhere else. Sometimes I felt like I trained in between all the other things I had to do! It took me a couple of years to get used to these things. But those were probably some of the best years I had in racing.

Right now I am looking back at those years and thinking I probably should have done things in a different way. I should have waited to be married and have a kid, maybe until I was in my thirties, to avoid all the extra responsibilities. There was no reason to rush into those things. When you are 25 you are one person. When you are 30 you are a different person. Then at 35 someone else. And when you are 40 you are a completely different person again. Ah, but what happens, happens! That’s the way I did it.

When I was a kid, we watched the Olympic Games every four years. It was always this huge competition for medals between the United States, the USSR and the Germans. Every news cast would start out with the medal count. When you were being trained as an athlete, how much emphasis was being placed on the Olympics for you?

Eki: It was big. A huge pressure - always. The Soviet Union was a huge country so the numbers of cyclists were more than 1000. So from 1000 (potential cyclists) 20 are selected. Then down to eight. Then the four that are going to start. It was amateur sport but we were always away from home and we got paid; it was like being a professional for the country. It was a tough time. Getting the gold medal was expected.

The Soviet Union had been winning World Championships and gold medals all the time. So for us it was big pressure; they expected gold from us. We did win that year, but we won by a few hundredths of a second. We were so close to the Germans. In the Soviet Union if you did not win the gold medal you were nothing because there were more guys waiting out the door to win it the next time. The mentality of the sports management was that by 23 years old you should be done with the sport. But in professional sport that is just the age that you get started.

You still have a great fondness for the Olympics now?

Eki: The second chance to go was to Sydney in 2000. I missed in 1992 because I was a professional and at that time professionals could not go. Then in 1996 in Atlanta I got flicked by the federation. So Sydney was the next time I could go.

Wait a minute. You went in 1988 and then again twelve years later?

Eki: Yes, and then again in 2004, so I went three times over sixteen years. The second time I went I just told myself to go and do the best I could. It was important to me to just be at the Olympic Games, to feel the atmosphere and be independent. In 1988 when I was there it was like we were guys in a cage. The door of the cage would be opened and we would go track riding, then, boom, back in the cage. We didn’t really get to experience much at all. The coach was giving us a tough time all the time. “Go to bed. Relax. You have to win the gold medal…”

Relax?! “You have to win! Relax!”

Eki: Exactly. So my ambition for Sydney was to go and experience all of the Olympic atmosphere. I wanted to see everything. So by the time I got there, I thought, “Hmmm, my legs are pretty good.” And when I won the gold medal I was very surprised. Surprised, surprised....

Think about the people who were there in 1988 when you won on the track and believed your time as an Olympian was over. Then to see you again twelve years later, when they would have said you shouldn’t be there. You showed them.

Eki: I just now realized that the reason I won the gold medal was I was just there enjoying everything; I was just chilling out. (Laughs)

You’d been there before with the pressure, but this time it was for you.

Eki: Exactly. Going to the next Olympics (in 2004) I felt pressure again, as I was going as the Olympic champ and was going to defend my medal.

Pressure from yourself?

Eki: Yeah, from myself. But in Sydney it was good. I didn’t think I could beat Lance and Ullrich, but I beat all of them. It was fun!

Can you remember your very first professional victory?

Eki: I think it was when I won a Time Trial in the Tour du Vaucluse, a French race. It was an early race in my race program with Panasonic. The last day was a time trial and I won that. After that, pretty much every year after that I had between five and seven victories.

How do you feel you handle losing?

Eki: Well, it was something new for me when I became a professional to see that most people don’t think second or third places count as wins. Only the first place counts in people’s minds. Back in the Soviet Union everything was counted. It’s nice to win, but to be on the podium was still good. People would still say, “Congratulations, good job.” But in professional sport it would be better to be fourth or fifth instead of second. At second you lose the race. This is something that is still difficult for me. An example is this year we got second and third at Tour of Flanders. The team was disappointed because we didn’t win. But we have two out of three places on the podium. In my head I think this is success. I don’t think I can ever change the way I think about this in my head.

But if I was coaching young guys I would teach them that only the victory counts. Second and third are good but won’t count for much. I would teach them this way so they would have higher goals, and better concentration. I think it helps in race situations. If you go in the break and you are thinking you have a chance to be in the top three, you might just focus on the chance for part of a victory; you agree to be second or third. But if you cannot agree to be second or third and you completely focus on first place, then you fight until you cross the line. If you are ready to be second or third, then the fight is not 100%.

So you still go out to win?

Eki: Well, it’s different for me now. I’m older. But yeah, I still like to win. (Laughs) Yeah, I like to win! That’s never going to go away…


Part Three of our Eki Interviews continue tomorrow when Eki shares some of his Tour memories prior to riding his fifteenth Tour de France.
 
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