Interview: James Startt
Images: Startt & Yuzuru Sunada
In only seven Tour de France appearances, Abdujaparov won nine stages and four green points jerseys, an impressive feat by any standard. But he also attracted attention for his explosive sprinting style. Small and robust, he oozed with brute power as he threw his bike from left to right. But his physical style also drew criticism and some considered him dangerous. Fiercely independent, Abdujaparov struggled to understand the criticism, and he still does to this day. In 1997, on the heels of a positive drug test, at age 33, he chose to leave the sport. Despite numerous offers to continue, Abdu preferred to walk away.
Today the 52-year-old lives quietly in Desenzano del Garda, overlooking Lake Garda in northern Italy, his adopted home since his first five years as a pro with Italian teams. Although he occasionally enjoys taking a ride on his mountain bike—a steel Colnago given to him by longtime friend Ernesto Colnago—he spends just as much time raising his pigeons, another lifelong passion. And while the steely glare that could at times chill his rivals has mellowed, his warm smile remains.
Djamolidin, cycling fans remember you as one of the best sprinters in the world, but what many people don’t know is that, well before and well after your cycling career, you had another passion, that of carrier pigeons. Where did this passion for come from? Oh, it started from a very young age! My brother was the first to have this passion for pigeons and started raising them when I was only six or seven years old. He was passionate about carrier pigeons and passed it on to me. I always had pigeons, all through school, when I was racing, at university and still here today.
Actually, I lost a lot last year due to sickness and I am slowly building them back up, but I have plenty of other kinds of pigeons today. There are pigeon aficionados all around the world. There is a real community. I can send a message to a friend in Belgium for example and it will get there in two or three days. And we even have competitions. There is a race between Spain and Belgium. A carrier pigeon can always find its way back home. They have a sort of built-in computer chip. It’s fascinating. Sometimes of course they get lost and don’t make it; most of the time that is because they are killed by a falcon. But they are fascinating. Some are smarter than others. Some have better computers! I have names for them, but they are not like dogs. They won’t come to you when you call!
Your own life mirrors in some ways that of your pigeons because you too have traveled the world, albeit as a cyclist. How did you get involved in cycling and what was it like growing up in Uzbekistan? Well, back when I was a kid, Uzbekistan was much more international than it is today. Because it was part of the Soviet Union, there was a lot of exchange between the different Soviet states. That’s not the case today since it has become independent, but back then, yes, there was a lot of exchange and for me that was great and provided me with a lot of opportunities. At a very young age I got involved in the sports school program with cycling, and continued all the way through the university system as a member of the Soviet Union national team, where I received what would be the equivalent of a master’s degree today. Cycling was a small sport in Uzbekistan, you know, but because I was on the Soviet national team I had a lot of opportunities to race, not only in the Soviet Union but also around the world. Without such a program, I would never have made it as a professional cyclist.
As a young person in Uzbekistan, did you ever imagine that one day you would travel the world? Oh no, never! I could never have imagined that I’d ride on a professional cycling team in Europe. Never. Heck, I only heard about the Tour de France when I was 22, 23 or maybe 24 years old! But things happened very quickly with the collapse of communism. I remember the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989 and thinking, “Well, maybe the next generation of riders will be able to turn professional.” But I didn’t think I would. I was already 26. I thought it was too late for me. But the next year, I signed with Alfa Lum, an Italian team built around riders from the Soviet Union.
Do you remember what your salary was that first year? Oh, not much! Basically we raced in exchange for our expenses and we lived in a team hotel near Rimini [in northeast Italy]. We had a room and all of our meals covered and that was pretty much it. If I wanted to buy a coffee, I had to get it at the hotel. I didn’t really have spending money. I signed for two years, and was ready to spend the first two years of my career in a hotel. But with my results, I immediately signed with Carrera, a major team.
I’ll never forget the first time I came to Italy to race. It just blew my mind! Everything was amazing. It was obvious there was so much richness compared to Uzbekistan. Even my hotel was luxurious in my eyes. It wasn’t hard for me to live there. Everything was new. And, at any rate, I didn’t have a choice! I really came to like the life in Italy and have lived here ever since. There is something about the people that I really like; their lightness is just wonderful. It’s just very positive.
Did growing up in the Soviet Union give you anything that helped you in your pro career? Oh, yes. First, as I said, the ability to travel and make it into the professional ranks in Europe. But it helped me in other ways too. It taught me how to work hard, because the training was very, very intense. I remember one day we rode nearly 300 kilometers! And there was no such thing as specific training. The sprinters and climbers all did the same workouts. I couldn’t do less climbing because I was a sprinter. No, I was expected to do the same workouts. But, you know, I think that helped me. It gave me a serious base and forced me to climb at least somewhat, something that really helped me in the Tour de France when I was going for the green points jersey—because if you are going to win the green jersey you have to be able to get over the mountains!
It also taught me to be very autonomous, both on and off the bike. We didn’t have mechanics to take care of every little detail. We had to be able to work on our bikes. And when it came to sprinting, I never had a big train leading me out. As a result, I had to learn to fend for myself in a mass sprint. I remember there were some national-level races in the Soviet Union where there would be 400 riders! That teaches you to read a race like nothing else and I was very good at freelancing in sprints. I never needed a train.
You turned professional late, but in just eight years you had an amazing career. When I talk to people in cycling, everybody seems to remember Abdu. What is the image that you think you have left on the sport? Hmm, I think the image of someone that came from very far away to win in the greatest bike race in the world. I was the first rider from Uzbekistan to win a stage in the Tour de France for sure. But it wasn’t just that, it was more that a rider like myself could come from such a faraway place and achieve so much—nine stages and the green jersey! I came from a different world. I guess you could say I was a pioneer.
Did you have an idea at the time of the historical significance that you had within the sport of cycling as one of the most successful riders from a one-time communist country? No, not really. At the time, like many professionals, I was just totally focused on my career. When I went to my first Tour in 1991, I’m not even sure I was aware just how big it was. I just went into it like any other stage race, thinking that I might be able to win a stage or two. When you are in the middle of your career, it is hard to think of your place historically. Today, yes, but back then, no.
You had the image of a highly explosive sprinter who could come out of nowhere to win. But you also had the reputation of being a bit chaotic, or even dangerous. Was that frustrating? You know, even today, I don’t know why people said that. I never took anyone down on purpose. I just sprinted with all my strength and all my physique.
But you had real enemies. A lot of riders were very critical of your sprinting style… . Ah well, you know, when you are racing, it is like that. We were all professionals. Our job was to win bike races. When you are a sprinter and the finish line is in sight, you can push forward or pull back. Sprinting is all about fighting for position. If you pull back, you lose.
You had the image of being very independent, probably because for most of your career you didn’t have a big lead-out train and won many races alone. Yes, that’s true, but it also fits my character. I like to be my own boss. I don’t want to rely on others.
A lot of the one-time Soviet bloc riders now work with teams like Katusha or Astana, but you were never really involved those projects… . No, because I never really wanted to work for someone else. I have a project to put together a team that is my team, where I am the boss and I put the team together.
Your big rival during your career was Mario Cipollini. You two were polar opposites. He was big and powerful and you were compact and explosive. He put together a big lead-out train, where you simply freelanced. Was it frustrating to go up against the virtual armada that Cipollini put together? Well, his lead-out train was impressive and they carried him to the line perfectly. For sure, when I lost to him, it was frustrating. Often his team did all the work, more than him. But I also beat him. And those days when his train didn’t work perfectly, well, I often beat him.
And then there is the infamous 1991 crash in Paris. Twice you won on the Champs-Élysées, and you would have won a third time if it were not for that spectacular tumble. It marked your career as much as many victories. What do you remember about it? Hmm, well it is true that people really remember that crash. And I remember it well too! I was against the barriers and had just managed to find an opening and was accelerating. I was riding close to the barriers so that no one could slip past me. At one point we passed an exit for VIP cars and there was no barrier. I must have moved over a little more there as I glanced over my shoulder, but when the barriers started again I was caught. That space in the barriers really destabilized me.
Has sprinting changed much since the 1990s? Oh yeah. Today everyone has a train. Back then, only Cipollini had one. He was the first in that regard. But it is a shame too, because there is no longer any tactics when it comes to sprinting. It is just a question of who has the best train.
Your career finished on a low note with a positive drug test in 1997 (for Clenbuterol and bromantane) and you decided to leave cycling. You were only 33, but you just walked away from the sport. Why? You know, I still don’t know what happened with the drug test, but the morning when the news broke, I met with [Tour director] Jean-Marie Leblanc in the start village and he said, “You can continue to race. I can’t order you to leave until the test has been confirmed.” But I just said, “No, I don’t want to ride under all that suspicion, with all those looks.” So I left the Tour and the sport. I could have continued, it is true. I had offers.
I was tired mentally. I had ridden as an amateur in the Soviet system for nearly 15 years before turning professional and then spent eight years as a professional. For many of those years I had been alone. Like I said, I am independent. But sometimes it is not easy. All these years on the road, living in another world, added up. I felt a bit isolated, and in difficult moments like that, it was just very hard mentally.
In addition, I was having trouble with my own federation. You know, when you win a race, the prize money is paid to your federation that then pays the rider. But all of those races I won, I never saw the prize money. I never knew where it went. It just wore on my nerves. And, at 33, I just figured I’d done what I had to do in cycling.
You mentioned how you would be interested in starting your own team. Is that something you are pursuing? It is, but it’s a hard sell. Already, it is not an easy moment to start a new team, and my team is a bit different, because I am not interested in a traditional pro team, but an international cycling team that promotes world peace. I want a team made up of riders from around the world, Americans or Chinese, Muslim and Christian, who race together all around the world to promote world peace. We wouldn’t just do WorldTour races, but races everywhere in the world big and small, in an effort to promote peace, because there are so many problems with humanity today—but we all have the same blood and its red! I don’t know who the sponsor would be, but the name of the team would be “Peace and Love.”
From issue 54. Buy it here.