Note: Erik Raschke is an American writer living in Amsterdam. A native of Denver, he has written on various topics for different national and international publications such as the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Denver Post. He has also written about cycling for CyclingTips, Soigneur, and RIDE Media.
In a recent and extensive piece for New York Magazine about President Donald Trump’s long history with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the writer Jonathan Chait investigated what he called a plausible theory of mind-boggling collusion, and asked a speculative question. “How do you even think about the small but real chance … that the president of the United States has been covertly influenced or personally compromised by a hostile foreign power for decades?” At around the same time, Raschke was independently investigating one narrow but possible aspect of the same story – the history of the late 1980s Tour de Trump bike race, and the possible connections forged at that time between Trump and various Russian sports business and political figures. This article, which we edited significantly and excerpted from a much longer story, recounts this interesting series of events beginning in the late 1980s. – Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris.
In 1983, Vladimir Putin and Sergey Chemezov were living in the same flat in Dresden and working for the KGB. Putin and Chemezov drank together and complained about how Gorbachev was a weak leader. The Iron Curtain was on the brink of collapse and everyone knew it. Both men loved cycling and were proud of the Russian squad which had led the 1980 Summer Olympics in medals, but, because of a boycott, wouldn’t be able to race in Los Angeles in 1984 (Russian cyclists returned to dominate in 1988).
According to Karen Dawisha’s book, “Putin’s Kleptocracy,” Chemezov, Putin, and the other KGB agents in Dresden, largely controlled who came and went from Russia, giving the final stamp on visas, and ultimately deciding who went where and for how long. Why not “lease out” some of these top athletes to western countries, they thought, for a specific amount of time, and take a cut of the profits — soccer players to England, boxers to America, cyclists to Europe? If sports clubs wanted to sign contracts with the athletes, Putin and Chemezov could take a portion of their earnings.
Putin and Chemezov decided to call their operation Sovintersport, playing off Soviet, International, Export, and Sport (Chemezov still today lists Sovintersport on his resume as a major achievement). The numbers on how much Sovintersport profited are murky, but there are some clues. Lou Falcigno, a New York promoter, said that in 1989, he was still paying $200,000 to Sovintersport per Russian boxer, while the boxer himself was only getting a mere $900 per month. Hockey players, some who early on became the best in the NHL, were sending 95 percent of their earnings back to Chemezov. Russian sports Agent, Vladimir Abramov, has written extensively and critically of how Sovintersport siphoned money from top soccer players, many getting paid huge salaries while being simultaneously too poor to pay the rent in the European country where they were playing.
Viatcheslav Ekimov, grand tour racer of 13 years, teammate to Lance Armstrong, former manager of the cycling teams Astana and Katusha, and now head of the Russian Cycling Federation, once admitted that he had made very little money during his years as a professional cyclist, sending most of his millions back home. ”I give almost all of my money to my old club,” he said. ’’If I didn’t, I would have to pay a Soviet tax of 25 percent, but it is more than that. You either give it back to the club or the Government. To give it to the Government is like pouring it into the ocean. At least this way I can help my club develop its program. I look at it as if I was planted and nurtured by my club. I was subsidized by the club, so I feel I have to give it back.”
To make more money out of his bike racers, Chemezov needed more exposure. In the late 1980s, European professional cycling was nearly impossible to join from the outside. Entry into the Tour de France and the other grand tours required a license from cycling’s governing body, the UCI, a prize that often took smaller European teams years to earn.
American cycling, however, was just beginning to take wings. Greg LeMond had won the Tour de France and, soon after, Andy Hampsten became the first and only American to win the Giro. In America, Chemezov’s young Soviet squad would not need a license, but could still compete with lower-tier professional outfits like Team 7-Eleven. The problem was that races in America were still small-time affairs. The Soviet racers might get exposure, but not the kind required to pull in the big contracts offered in Europe. What America needed was a big cycling race, with real European riders, one that would get the Soviet riders noticed not just in America, but also abroad. And there was one person in America known for putting on extravagant, flashy events.
In 1987 Donald Trump had visited Moscow. The Soviet Union was collapsing and there was a fire sale going on, for everything from oil companies to mining to models to athletes. The situation drew businessmen from around the world, including Donald Trump. In a Playboy interview, Trump bragged about his trip to Moscow and Leningrad and how he had laughed at the Russians when they proposed he build a hotel near Red Square. Instead of opening a hotel, Trump left Moscow and went to St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin’s birthplace and home to some of Russia’s biggest sports training centers.
At the time, HBO and Trump were regularly signing lucrative boxing deals. Trump would host the fights, HBO would televise, and Don King would supply the fighters. In the late 1980s, Don King became one of the first boxing promoters to begin looking internationally for talent. In a 1988 New York Times article, King spoke of his forthcoming trip and his desire to bring back Russian boxers for Rocky IV-style fights, Balboa versus Ivan Drago, and so on. Promoter and heavyweight boxing businessman Shelley Finkel told the Toronto Star in 1989 that Donald Trump was willing to make a substantial offer for exclusive rights to the Russian boxers to stage the fights in his Atlantic City casino. If there were a time that Trump met with representatives with Sovintersport, it would have been 1987. Trump needed boxers and Chemezov had the best of Russian athletes had to offer.
Trump’s decision, just after his return from Russia in 1987, to create the Tour de Trump, is interesting for a variety of reasons. Why would a man, who admittedly was not interested in cycling, had never seen a bike race, and who was building a huge casino to promote the biggest boxing fights in the world, suddenly out of nowhere, decide to create the biggest bike race in American history — in one of the most congested, populated corridors of America, in a country that did not seem to care much about professional road racing? One theory is that basketball commentator Billy Packer and cycling organizer Mike Plant approached Trump with the idea. It is conceivable that those two parties stumbled along, encouraging each other to put on a major bike race. However, there are also other possible reasons.
Professional cycling races in the United States are notoriously money-losing operations. For example, the recent USA Pro Challenge — one the biggest and most modern American cycling races — lost $10 million in its first year. Overall, the sponsors — and former owners of Quiznos, the Schaden family — dropped over $20 million of their own money just to keep the race going.
Back in 1988, cycling races in America were even less popular. After its run of popularity, Celestial Seasonings sold the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic to Michael Aisner for a dollar. Later renamed the Coors Classic, this race became the only cycling event where Americans could see the best American cyclists racing against one another (as well as the occasional European; Tour de France champion Bernard Hinault won in 1986). The Coors Classic worked, at least in part, because the western half of the United States offered plenty of space with minimal traffic, and most small towns were happy to provide volunteer organizers. The eastern seaboard, on the other hand, was densely populated and required considerably greater traffic management. A race of this scale on the East Coast had never happened before and was likely to be a financial debacle.
The Tour de Trump was acknowledged to be a mess from the beginning. In the press conferences leading up to the race, stage lengths were miscalculated, and starting times mixed-up among other snafus. Stage 3 was to begin in New York City even though there was no permit, this being in one of the most difficult places in the world to get a permit. In addition, then mayor Ed Koch downright hated Trump. There were, for the first time in American cycling history, some of the top European cycling teams (including PDM and Panasonic) coming to America to race, but there seemed to be little preparation and no understanding of the gravity of having these high caliber teams racing in a country that knew nothing about professional cycling.
In a September 1989 issue of SPY magazine, illustrators drew a child-like cartoon atlas of the proposed race stages illustrating the chaos. However, what the magazine also mentioned briefly, and which was even stranger than the usual Trump promotional chaos, was that not only would there would be a number of European professional teams chasing the $250,000 prize, the race would also “host the first professional Soviet team … a thrilling breakthrough in international sports history.”
Trump’s race unquestionably benefitted Chemezov and his goals for Russian cycling. Was this by design? Neither party has ever commented on the matter. It is more likely that our current president saw a three-pronged opportunity; a major tax-write off, huge brand promotion, and a chance to accommodate Chemezov, who with a gift like the Tour de Trump, might send some more top boxing talent his way. According to SPY magazine, Trump only forked out $750,000 for the Tour de Trump, while getting an estimated $4.5 million in free promotion and uncritical “advertising.” In 1989, Trump was already heavily in debt from his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City and was desperate to shift some of his losses around. The Tour de Trump in all its messy glory could be a place to write off some of that debt. It is also conceivable, although difficult to prove, that while American bankers were pulling away from Trump and his Taj Mahal debacle, the Russians were beginning to step in as investors.
Around Christmas of 1988, an Italian team with an actual UCI license, Alfa Lum, lost its top rider, Maurizio Fondriest as well as many of its domestiques. Chemezov seized the opportunity by purchasing Alfa Lum, along with its UCI license, and filling it with his top Russian amateur riders. After 1990, the Russian riders from Alfa Lum continued to ride for almost a decade in the grand tours with major teams like Deutsche Telekom, Carrera, and Lotto, simultaneously churning out significant profits for Chemezov, but also putting Russian cycling on the map. Chemezov, never one to give interviews, once boasted to a newspaper, “I was involved in creation of Alfa Lum, the first Soviet professional team in 1989.”
In 1989, the year that the first Tour de Trump took place, Chemezov sent Viatcheslav Ekimov to race the event. Already an Olympic-gold winning track cyclist, Ekimov won the very first stage of the Tour de Trump, surprising pretty much everyone and embarrassing the top European riders who were racing for the first time in America. The next day, it was rumored that a few of the pros on 7-11 and PDM shoved a feedbag in Ekimov’s spokes, knocking him off the podium for good. After finishing 13th in the Tour de Trump general classification, Ekimov signed with the mega-team Panasonic for a half million dollars.
In the years to come, Ekimov went on to have a glorious career in professional cycling, riding 15 Tours de France in total. Afterward, he became an assistant to Johan Bruyneel, Lance Armstrong’s long-time director. Armstrong gushed about Ekimov, calling him his “warm blanket” on the rougher rides. Ducking out of the cycling drug apocalypse post-Armstrong, defending Lance until even Lance was no longer defending himself, Ekimov went on to replace Igor Makarov as head of the Russian Cycling Federation. Makarov is another oligarch billionaire cycling enthusiast and currently one of the heads of the UCI, professional cycling’s governing body.
The following year, during the second and last Tour de Trump, an 18-year-old Russian cycling amateur, Vladislav Bobrik, surprised everyone in a breakaway and stayed in the Tour de Trump pink leader’s jersey for more than half the race. Bobrik also signed big the following year and, like Ekimov, it is very probable that most of his earnings went to Chemezov. The irony of the second and last Tour de Trump was that, on the last day, Bobrik was shut-down by the multi-million dollar PDM and team-leader Raul Alcala, a superstar Mexican cyclist, who walked away with Trump’s half-million prize money.
For the next 30 years following the Tour de Trump, Chemezov would not only create the Russian Cycling Federation and the Russian Global Cycling Project but his own professional team, Katusha. As of 2015, the pro cycling team, Katusha (the name is derived from a World-War II Marxist battle song), had a budget of the $32-million a year, the second largest budget in professional cycling after Rupert Murdoch’s multiple Tour de France-winning squad, Team Sky. Chemezov’s team would be stocked with not only the best European riders but up and coming Russian riders as well. (Today, Katusha has few stars, and it is believed to have a smaller budget.)
Putin also still plays a role. In a 2009 interview with VeloNews, ex-Katusha general manager Stefano Feltrin, said, “That’s Putin’s message to the management team. The ultimate goal is to have a Russian winner of the Tour and the spring classics from a Russian team.” Later when asked whether Putin micromanages, Feltrin responded coyly, “He stays informed on what’s happening with the team.”
While Sergey Chemezov stays away from the press, a few years ago the popular Russian online newspaper and aggregator, Meduza, did a profile piece on the Rostec CEO, calling him one of Russia’s most influential people. The article delves into the tight companionship between Putin and Chemezov, how Putin’s ex-wife was friends with Chemezov’s first wife, how Chemezov forced an Aeroflot jet to circle Moscow several times so that he could finish his karaoke song in the plane’s bar. According to an article by Vladimir Voronov, Chemezov has firm control over almost all of Russian’s manufacturing while his second wife is owner of Itera (he claims he didn’t know of her connection to one of Russia’s largest business conglomerations until after they were married). Itera is now run by Igor Makarov, who was Ekimov’s predecessor on the Russian Cycling Federation and has since moved on to the UCI Management Committee.
What relationship, if any, did Chemezov have with Trump during the creation of America’s first major stage race? We may never know, though it is interesting in this regard to note that the Washington Post recently linked the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya — who met with Donald Trump Jr. to get dirt on Hillary Clinton — to Chemezov’s company, Rostec. While Katusha didn’t return our request for an interview, Mike Plant — who until recently was on the UCI management committee — did respond.
Plant, who was clearly the prime driver in making the Tour de Trump a reality, says that Donald Trump had “zero” influence on what teams were picked. Plant says that he met the famous Russian coach and trainer Alexander Kuznetsov shortly after the Los Angeles games and that they hit it off. Plant approached Kuznetsov about getting some Russian riders for the Tour de Trump, saying he wanted riders who “wouldn’t fall off the back.” Kuznetsov gave him Ekimov, a renowned track rider.
Plant says he has no knowledge of Chemezov, but knows Makarov, who served with him on the UCI management committee, “well.” Makarov is generally considered, along with Chemezov, to be a member in good standing of the “sanctioned Russian oligarchs” list. Chemezov founded the Russian Cycling Federation but Makarov ran it for years before handing it over to Ekimov. Not only have Chemezov and Makarov served together on Katusha’s supervisory board, but Chemezov’s wife is a 5% shareholder of Makarov’s Itera.
We do know for sure that Chemezov had everything to do with deciding which Russian cyclists received visas to travel to the Tour de Trump. Chemezov is today the unseen Godfather behind Russian cycling, and it is clear that Russian cycling’s original break-out moment was delivered by none other than Donald Trump. It is possible that Trump was only interested in doing the Tour de Trump for his personal and financial reasons, and the general grandiosity of the event. But it’s also possible that Chemezov, and by extension Putin, identified Trump early on as a showman who could help them achieve their own objectives.