The Russian Mystery

Posted on April 19, 2021

There is no question, Russian sportsmen in the 1960s, 70s and 80s were very much thought of as some of the most feared athletes in World. Under the Soviet Union flag, be it the Olympics or on a motocross track, the Russians were seen differently than any other nation.

The Soviet Union was known for many things, one of which was elite athletics. While the Cold War raged, the Soviets and Americans did actual battle in the world of sports, mainly the Olympic Games where defeating capitalists was a show of communist power and success.

State sponsored athletic training in communist states was intense and created some of the world’s greatest athletes.  And this push for athletic excellence started with Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.

Former British champion Roger Harvey, who raced the World 125 championship in the 1970s remembers well the way the Russian competitors were and despite always having a friendly contact, no words were ever spoken.

“The Russian riders had a KGB agent with them at all times,” Harvey said. “The agent would organize the hotels, the meals, everything. He would take the prizemoney and the government would pay for everything. You would see the Russian riders all stopped on the side of the road training together, always sitting away from the other riders in restaurants. The Russian riders were told not to communicate with the western European riders. There was always a mystery about the Russian riders, even more so than the Czech or Polish riders.”

While it is multiple Motocross World Champion Guennady Moisseev of Russia, who is best remembered by the motocross historians, it was Victor Arbekov who made history for his country by winning the very first 250 motocross world championship in 1965 for his homeland.

Interest in the sport in Russia was big throughout the 1970s, with thousands and thousands of fans attending the Grand Prix rounds and a handful of very good Russian riders competing.

Not surprisingly, the 250 class, of which the Russian riders mainly competed, held 18 Grand Prix from 1962 until 1985, and while Torsten Hallman picked up wins in 62, 67 and 68, it was often a home rider who would steal victory in those early years. Four Russian riders won at home in the 250 class, Viktor Arbekov in 1966, Vladimir Kavinov in 1969, Anatoly Ovchinikov in 1976, Guennady Moisseev in 1977 and Kavinov again in 1980.

Ove Lundell won the first 500cc GP in Russia in 1963, and names like Jeff Smith, Paul Friedrichs, and Roger De Coster had multiple success there. Smith won in 1964 and 1967, Friedrichs in 1966 and 1970 and De Coster in 1972 and 1975.

Only one 125cc Grand Prix was ever held in Russia, and that was in 1983, with Italian legend, Michele Rinaldi winning at the Leningrad circuit.

With three Motocross World Championships, and 14 Grand Prix victories, Guennady Moisseev is without question the greatest rider to come out of Russia. When you think of current KTM heroes such as Antonio Cairoli, and Jeffrey Herlings, then you can imagine that Moisseev fits right in with those two legends.

Moisseev won the 1974, 1977 and 1978 World 250cc championship riding for KTM, and in 1976, he narrowly lost the 250-world championship by one point to Finnish legend, and three times world motocross champion, Heikki Mikkola.

In 1978, Moisseev was a member of the winning Russian team in the Motocross des Nations. Moisseev won a race for the last time in 1979 when friction developed between the Russian Motorcycling Federation and the KTM factory.

Moisseev, like many Russian sports stars of his era, was enlisted in the Russian Army, rising to the ranks of Major during his racing career. His extreme fitness combined with team tactics made him a fearsome competitor. After retiring from competition, Moisseev became a motocross coach. In 1977, Moisseev was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour and, in 1978 he was given the honorary title of “Honoured Master of Sports.” In December 2000, he was elected president of the Russian Motorcycle Federation. He died in 2017.

Russia also won the Motocross of Nations on two occasions, the first time in Kishinev, Russia in 1968 and again in 1978.

Russian riders disappeared from the motocross world championships for many years, and in recent times riders likeEvgeny Bobryshev, Alexandr Tonkov and Vsevolod Brylyakov are having some success. Of course, Bobryshev finished third in the world in 2015, the best result for a Russian rider in decades.

Russia has held just four Grand Prix’s since that golden era of Russian motocross, one in 2002 on the outskirts of Moscow, one in 2012 and then 2017 and 2018 at the Orlyonok circuit.

Russian GP winners

Guennady Moisseev 14

Victor Arbekov 10

Vladimir Kavinov 8

Anatoly Ovchinnikov 2

Igor Grigoriev 1

Pavel Rulev 1

Eugenij Rybalchenko 1

Evgeny Bobryshev 1