By Graham Healy

The road race at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow would see one of the most dominant displays ever in a bike race at the games when the Soviet rider Sergei Sukhoruchenkov crushed the opposition. It was one of many highlights of one of the best amateur careers in the sport.

The 1980 Olympics were the subject of a boycott by over sixty countries with the U.S.A. leading the boycott, citing the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year as the reason why they would not be competing. It resulted in the lowest number of participating countries at the games since 1956.

Although cycling wasn’t as badly affected as other sports were, it still meant that there would be no West German team lining up or a team from the U.S. which would have undoubtedly included Greg LeMond.

The clear favourite going into the race was Sukhoruchenkov. The rider from Bryansk came to prominence in 1978 when he won the Soviet Championships, in addition to winning the Tour of Cuba and the Tour de l’Avenir where he beat the likes of Gilbert Glaus and Claude Criquielion.

The following year, Sukhoruchenkov won the Peace Race, the Giro delle Regioni and the Tour de l’Avenir for a second time. When he raced at the Milk Race in Britain (where he won stages in 1978 and 1980), race announcer David Saunders struggled to pronounce his surname and called him “Super whooping cough” instead.

The Soviet Union teams of the 70s and 80s and other Eastern Bloc nations such as East Germany and Poland were dominant on the amateur scene and would often destroy their Western opposition. Racing on their home soil, anything other than a victory would not be accepted.

Other riders who would have been considered medal chances would have been the East German rider Olaf Ludwig who had won four stages of the Peace Race earlier that summer. Czeslaw Lang of Poland had not only won his home tour that year, but had also medalled twice before at the World Championships.

Peter Winnen of the Netherlands had finished in second place in that year’s Peace Race, behind Sukhoruchenkov’s team-mate Yuri Barinov and both would have been considered contenders.

French rider Marc Madiot had won the previous year’s Paris-Roubaix for amateurs and another rider being mentioned as a medal contender was Stephen Roche who in 1980 had won the Grand Prix de France time trial and the amateur Paris-Roubaix.

The race consisted of 14 laps of a purpose-built circuit at the Trade Unions Olympic Centre which was 189 kilometres in total.

Sukhoruchenkov didn’t seem to be affected by the tag of race favourite and as early as the third lap, he went clear along with team-mate Barinov and Lang.

It was a strong chase group which also included Glaus and Adri van der Poel. The young Dutch rider wasn’t one of the big favourites but he was putting in a great ride. Also there was another of Sukhoruchenkov’s team-mates Anatoly Yarkin. One notable absentee though was Roche. The Irishman was having a particularly bad day.

Stephen Roche had a bad day in Moscow
Stephen Roche had a bad day in Moscow

Despite being on the attack all day, Sukhoruchenkov still had plenty in the tank later in the race and attacked with 32 kilometres remaining. Even with all of the big names in the chasing group behind, the Soviet rider pulled clear and built up a commanding lead.

Barinov and Lang stayed clear of the diminished peloton behind but it was left to the Polish rider to do most of the chasing. He couldn’t get near Sukhoruchenkov though and the Soviet rider won by over three minutes. It was the biggest margin of victory in the Olympic road race since it was first organised back in 1936.

Czeslaw Lang leading the chase
Czeslaw Lang leading the chase

Sukhoruchenkov’s dominance that day prompted the Irish team manager Peter Crinnion to say “In 22 years in cycling, I have never seen anything to match the display of power produced by Sukhoruchenkov yesterday and I honestly believe that even the great Eddy Merckx in his heyday might have been pushed to match it.”

Lang did just about manage to outsprint Barinov for silver but it needed a review of the photo finish to separate them. Fourth-placed rider Thomas Barth from East Germany finished over seven minutes down.

1980 Podium

Roche finished over 20 minutes down, just a few seconds ahead of a group which included Neil Martin of Great Britain.

In his biography “Born to Ride”, Roche explained how he knew he would struggle prior to the race. “Leading up to the Olympic road race, I felt I was doing really well and that it was going to be my day.”

“But when we got there and went to look at the circuit, I started to have some doubts. It was man-made, quite artificial with banked corners – not my kind of circuit at all. But the worst thing for me was that it was very hot and humid.”

Roche was distraught after the race. “I remember being with Barry McGuigan and crying because I didn’t know what to do,” the Dubliner later recounted. “I had no job and no medals. I was totally disillusioned”

However, Roche was offered a contract for the following season with the Peugeot team and would have an outstanding debut season in the paid ranks.

Sukhoruchenkov meanwhile would continue to race as an amateur due to not being allowed to move abroad to pursue a professional career. He continued to win some of the biggest amateur races including the Giro delle Regioni and Peace Race again.

He would cross paths with Roche again at the 1981 Tour de l’Avenir where he finished 2nd overall as Roche finished in 7th place.

Soukhoroutchenkov and Roche met again at the Tour de l'Avenir (Photo: Piet Kessels)
Soukhoroutchenkov and Roche met again at the Tour de l’Avenir (Photo: Piet Kessels)

The Olympic champion finally got his chance to turn professional in 1989 as the Soviet Union had decided to lift its ban on riders turning professional. Sukhoruchenkov signed for the Italian Alfa Lum team alongside the likes of Andrei Tchmil, Dmitri Konychev and Piotr Ugrumov.

He made the team for both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. At this stage though, Sukhoruchenkov was 32 years-old and his best years were behind him.

Soukhoroutchenko turned pro for Alfa Lum in 1989 (Photo: Patricio Saldivia Saldivia Noack)
Soukhoroutchenko turned pro for Alfa Lum in 1989 (Photo: Patricio Saldivia Saldivia Noack)

He retired the following year. Thirty two years after his Olympic triumph, Sukhoruchenkov’s daughter would also get on the podium at the Olympics as Olga Zabelinskaya won bronze in both the road race and the time trial at the London games.


  1. “Incredible” is definitely the word for that performance. There was no way the Soviets were going to lose that one, whatever it took. And now his daughter’s been busted.

  2. Raced against him on the masters circuit in Russia. Nice unassuming guy, rode a beat up Colnago and was treated like royalty. Red carpet reception in every little town we raced in. Nice and pleasant. Heard he had a battle with drink for quite a few years. Was a class rider.

  3. THis is great. Thanks for this write-up. I was just looking for video footage from the olympic rr w/ Sergei Sukhoruchenkov, and w/in a couple of clicks, here it is. Bravo


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