Abdoujaparov was a wrecking ball of a sprinter, his hulking body careering up and across the road. Watching him sprint was like seeing a fight spill out of a pub, all arms and legs and violence. To many he was mad, bad and dangerous to know. In all, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov won 9 Tour de France stages, 7 Vuelta stages, and 2 Giro stages, a sprint jersey from each Grand Tour (three at the Tour de France) then had a punk rock band named after him. The term ‘cult hero’ simply doesn’t do him any justice.
Djamolidine Abdoujaparov often had everyone and everything against him. Cycling writer William Fotheringham named him the “Terror of Tashkent”, a name no one ever actually called him, just as no one ever calls Cancellara “Spartacus”. Abdoujaparov was from the Turkic ethnic people known as Crimean Tartars, Muslims who had been oppressed by the Soviets and forced to call themselves Uzbek. According to former team mate, Australian Robert Cobcroft, Abdoujaparov was often called the derogatory nickname “Abdullah” behind his back, named after a bad guy from a popular Russian cowboy movie. Robert accidentally called him “Abdullah” once, but a smiling Abdoujaparov simply said, “Djaphir, not Abdullah…”
Former teammate Dimitri Konyshev once told Cycling News, “Abdou’s very reserved, a bit of a closed book. He wasn’t helped by his appearance, either; to look at him, you’d be terrified of going to speak to him, yet if you know him, he’s the nicest bloke in the world”.
Off the track, he simply couldn’t win, but on it was a different story. While still behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet sports programme, he had stage wins at the Peace Race, Baby Giro, and Tour de l’Avenir. Turning professional in 1990 with Italian team Alfa Lum, Abdoujaparov may have been overawed alongside riders Piotr Ugrimov and Andrei Tchmil, because he was without a win in his first professional season. In 1991, however, he won Gent-Wevelgem, beating a class field including Mario Cipollini, Olaf Ludwig, Eric Vanderaerden, Eddie Plankaert, Johann Museeuw and John Paul Van Poppel. After the race, a furious Cipollini reportedly said on Italian TV about his sprinting style, “If I find him in the showers, I’ll tear him to pieces!”
In the 1992 Gent Wevelgem (see video here), Abdoujaparov veered from the white line in the middle of the road to the far left, squeezing Cippolini almost into the barriers. Cippo was so confident that Abdoujaparov would be disqualified, he sat up and celebrated despite finishing in second place. “No one wanted to be close to him in a sprint…He was the most dangerous bike rider I’ve ever seen”, said Marcel Wüst to Cycling News years later.
“In the sprints everyone wants to be at the front, so it’s natural to take risks. I don’t put any importance in the criticism of other riders”.
But it was Abdoujaparov’s 1991 Tour de France that he is probably best known, with a massive crash in the final stage on the Champs Elysees. With two stage wins and having had the green jersey on his back all the way from stage 2, Abdoujaparov only needed to finish to secure the green jersey. But all this was irrelevant to the rider from Uzbekistan in third wheel as the bunch screamed across Place de la Concorde. He didn’t win races by biding his time, it was always all or nothing. The crowd roared, his pulse thumped his temples, and the noise in his ears was deafening.
Leading out the sprint early with his front wheel thrashing about wildly, Abdujaparov used his short, muscular body to best effect. He began to veer towards the barriers on the left side. He was now at top speed, the steel framed Colnago almost bending beneath him under the strain. Head facing straight down, Abdoujaparov had now veered all the way across and into a giant promotional Coke can on the barriers. His body whipped into a forward somersault, careering across the asphalt like a crash test dummy. Hardly anyone noticed Konyshev cross the line first.
When the storm subsided, he lay crumpled on the road, his faux-denim Carrera racing nicks and green jersey were shredded. With only a ‘sausage helmet’, Abdoujaparov sat bleeding on the road, Eventually he got to his feet, and holding his mangled bike in one hand, he walked gingerly across the line. He would be disqualified if he didn’t. With a broken collarbone and road rash covering most of his body, Adboujaparov was taken to hospital in an ambulance, missing the chance stand on the podium.
Without the big sprint trains of today, sprinters in the ‘90’s were pitted against one another, mano-a-mano. Aggression, dirty tricks, bluster and bluff were all keys to success. In some instances, Abdoujaparov had the services of a loyal Guido Bontempi as leadout man, but bunch sprints were usually a thundering mass of riders all over the road. Fortune really did favour the brave.
1992 saw Abdoujaparov take 4 stage wins and the sprinter’s jersey at La Vuelta, but only 2nd on stage 10 at the Tour. In 1993 he won 3 stages at the Tour and the sprinter’s jersey, and 3 stages at La Vuelta. In 1994 he won two more stages and the green jersey again at the Tour, and a stage and the sprinter’s jersey at the Giro. The next few years saw him take 2 stage wins at Paris Nice, one at the Tour de France and Tour de Suisse.
In the 1996 Tour de France, won by Bjarne Riis, Abdoujaparov won a hilly stage 14 after dropping his 5 breakaway companions on a climb 2km from the finish. To the astonishment of many, he simply explained, “My team is not strong enough to prepare sprints for me, so I have to look for other ways”.
Zabel, McEwen and Cippolini were by now the new forces in sprinting, and by 1997 Abdoujaparov’s career was over at age 33 when he chalked up multiple positive drug tests. A subsequent appeal against the UCI’s 6 month ban saw his ban increased to a year and he was hit with an extra USD$3,000 fine. He retired just before the Festina affair nearly ruined the sport and when Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France.
He left the sport as enigmatically as he had existed for most of his career, and was virtually unheard of in the sport for fourteen years. A few years ago, Daniel Friebe told of his funny but fruitless search for Abdoujaparov, the man with the thousand yard stare was a thousand miles away it seemed. Then in 2011 Abdoujaparov he ‘reappeared’ in an advisory role with Astana, having been instrumental in opening up career opportunities for young Uzbek riders.
Talking to Cyclingtips this week at the Tour d’Azerbaijan, Abdoujaparov remains very much ‘old school’, interested but dismissive of much of today’s racing. Talking of his more recent forays into coaching he says, “I also tried to be a coach, to have my own team, but you know, I’m an old school cyclist and it doesn’t fit well with the new school”. This rings true, as fellow Uzbek and 2003 Under 23 World Champion Serhiy Lagutin once told Cycling News, “Everyone has to do what he says, even if he’s wrong. He’s had a lot of fights with people…He’s got a strong, strange character…”
For such an enigmatic figure with a fearsome reputation, Abdoujaparov engages easily in a conversation, his face creasing easily to a genuine smile. Not speaking English may have created his mystique as a dark, broody character, but in his interview with Matt DeNeef it is clear he understands English better than might say.
Some things are clearly not lost in translation, he means what he says. He always did.
CyclingNews.com – 2008 feature by “Seeking Abdoujaparov”
Credit also to information provided by Robert Cobcroft, former Australian pro cyclist and once team mate of Abdoujaparov. Curator of website www.veloafficianado.com , Robert is an accomplished portrait and landscape photographer – check out his work here: www.hipshots.com.au