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Photo ©: Schaaf

The house with windows looking at the rising sun.

Talking cycling and beyond at Zoulfia Zabirova’s new place in Moscow.

By Sergey Kurdukov, Russian Eurosport commentator.

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Photo: © Sergey Kurdukov

Sometimes a comeback season turns out to be quite an impressive success. Especially when a rider gets over a major injury. But what about the aftermath of a period when a soul was hurt? No, a doping scandal is not a part of this story. This is about a situation when things stop ticking over as they used to, when you don’t live up to expectations of your own, when luck overlooks you a bit too often, when your well-wishers write you off all too hastily.

So it was no wonder that we were so happy for Zoulfia Zabirova when she finally won the Russian ITT championships. She did it in style, and just on time not to start sliding into despair (the victorious double in the Grand Boucle Feminine was still to come at the time of this interview, up to that sunny June evening Zoulia had no victories to her credit, and the number of race participations could almost be counted on the fingers of both hands) . If only she’d known she had been on the brink of knocking out all the rivals in the Championships’s road race as well!

They said it themselves at the dinner table after the race, "She was murderously strong. One more uphill attack, and we would have been done! Thank God she was not so sure of herself to see that."

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Photo: © Sergey Kurdukov

Zoulia didn’t hear those confessions, because she doesn’t go to the café in Krylatskoye anymore. She now has a place in Moscow where she can indulge in cooking and create a wonderful dinner, not just for herself and her long-time coach Vladimir Reva, but for a number of guests she likes to entertain so much. I was privileged to see her new home, to taste her cuisine and to ask some questions about the latest in her career.

CN: To tell the truth, not many Russian sportsmen, even Olympic champions, have got apartments like yours.

We have to make a kind of a detour to the topic of architect and design here. Zabirova’s apartment occupies two topmost floors joined by a stairway which is a real masterpiece of woodcarving. Vladimir Reva told me it was a creation of one of his former pupils, a man with the stature of a royal guard, so it was a problem to make a bike to fit him. So Reva handed him over to his friend coaching a rowing club. The boy grew into quite a decent oarsman, won a couple of national titles and learned the art of woodcarving as a minor part of his rowing career.

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Photo: © Sergey Kurdukov

Actually Zoulia’s coach was in charge of planning and partially, furnishing her Moscow "landing ground" while she was occupied with her pedal work. And, believe me, Reva showed both taste and talent, just as he does in his primary duty of a coach. Two bedrooms are not a rule with Russian sports people, some of them dream of owning just one, still it is the huge drawing-room that amazes you most. It is so spacious that it’s no problem to hold a dance party here, but at the same time you can find a couple of nice nooks to sit yourself down in. And the scene from large windows seems suited for a typical roadie who will definitely prefer vast expanses to a city centre canyon. Nothing curtains the rising sun on a summer morning, it looks in early and stands in for an alarm clock. "Wake up, it’s time to get your bike ready!"

ZZ: These apartments, you will find it strange, but this is my Olympic gold from 1996. Seems to be rather a distant echo, but the reward for that was my only really big scoop of my whole career, and I wasn’t going to waste it without thinking it over. I have already told you what the prize money in women cycling is like, and that is a large part of the reason why we are so focused on the Olympics and the Worlds, a victory there interests the state and cycling federation, so it can be profitable indeed.

CN: Yes, there is quite a measure of pure reason in your career, but mysticism goes side by side with that. We sincerely wished you not to fall hard anymore, but you fell as soon as your conditions started to take shape.

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Photo: © Sergey Kurdukov

ZZ: I did. It was an early spring day, the morning after my team’s presentation; the weather was absolutely wonderful, so much so that it was impossible not to look around while riding along. We were on a slight downhill going through some very nice-looking villages. There were practically no cars, I was on Felice’s (Felice Puttini , a well-known pro rider from Switzerland, Zabirova’s boyfriend) wheel, so I had a feelling of absolute security. I was enjoying the scenery when all of sudden, a granny jumped out on the road, Felice braked hard, my front wheel got glued to his bike, and that sent both of us flying. It was so strange as normally I instinctively feel danger coming, but this time my instincts let me down. In a nearby hospital they studied the x-ray shot of the spine and put me into a special corset with no soothing prospect. For a week or so I kept suffering from this plastic gadget until one fine day Italian specialists from MAPEI center told me after a closer inspection to stop playing the fool and get down to the teams headquaters. Not a trace of previously "discovered" spinal fracture was found. And it was not the price of the corset (800 Swiss franks) that was the most annoying part of the affair. That week I felt pretty desperate and it broke the rhythm of getting myself back into form which had been very promising just before the accident.

My fall cost 2000 francs in hospital. It was compensated by Felice’s insurance company as I suffered because of him and he was to blame. To avoid problems with compensation, you need a kind of a license plate attached to your bike. Cyclotourist always bare them but we racers often don’t. We were questioned by the police and their verdict was to hold Felice responsible, that is, his insurers.

CN: For a Russian ear the whole thing sounds quite a funny story. Just to imagine that a fiancé financially compensates causing his bride an injury.

ZZ: Yes, but it is not only traditional Swiss scrupulousness that plays a role, much depends on a person. Once Felice crossed the border on a gloomy rainy evening when custom people were naturally not too interested in the contents of his car’s trunk, particularly in the carbon-fiber frame bought in Italy for his friend. The frame could easily be passed for a spare part but he never hesitated to pay every Swiss frank of custom fees. Well, as to that accident in March, his lawfulness turned out profitable to us both.

CN: And yet it’s a must for you to be careful. You are no stranger to accidents both inside and outside cycling.

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Photo: © Sergey Kurdukov

ZZ: I am. Sometimes I tell myself "this can happen only to the likes of mine." One more illustration: a girl, my good friend invites me to visit her house in the mountains. We drive our cars along a steep serpentine. The higher we climb, the more the road is scattered with rocks. It suddenly downs on me that I’m behind the wheel of a tuned Ford with a clearance of next to nothing. "I’m coming back!" I shout, but the girl cries back: "You can’t turn around, it’s too narrow. You have to go ahead!" Well, when in a couple of hours I found myself down the valley, I found out that there was very little left out of the car’s bottom and the lower part of doors. Next morning I started the talk with Felice from afar: "Felice, do you like your Ford very-very much?" "Y-e-es," he said, "Is there anything wrong?". When he saw what had become of his Ford the only thing he could whisper out was "Madonna…" Then he opened the car’s boot and saw the inside of it was awash with some stinky red fluid. No, it wasn’t blood, just tomatoes which were mashed on the way down. Now that time has passed the whole affair sets me laughing , but then…

CN: Laughing aside, when you were out of your corset, the comeback problems stayed on.

ZZ: A couple of opportunities were missed when I failed to take part in valuable preparation races in a different team lineup (as you know it is allowed in women cycling). I was in the Primavera’s bunch and until the downhill part of Poggio I was well positioned in the race, but on the descent I lost almost a minute alongside van Moorsel. I just couldn’t throw that crash in March out of my mind. Well, to sum it all up, no wonder I didn’t take this ITT champs victory for granted.

Do you see this pile of greeting cards? All but half of them are from those people in charge of this or that who wrote me off as hopeless just a month ago. Today they are glad for me just in case, what if I really go on like that? We women riders need constant support, as our trade is still harder than one of men pros.

CN: Any examples?

ZZ: How do you like daily transfers in stage races? Or 60 km-long neutral zone after a transfer? Or going to bed at 3 o’clock after 5 hours in the bus to start in the morning? Or a thousand kms there and as much back in a car to ride a one-day in southern Italy because one more booked flight is too expensive for a team. Budgets of races are sizable, but prize money is meager. Powerful sponsors keep waiting when, say Eurosport starts broadcasting women’s races. Now our competitions are very hard and dramatic, and very aesthetic at the same time. There is no contradiction, my coach keeps saying: girls are lighter built, we are slimmer these days as we have to get over the same Alpine passes skinny male climbers scale.

But at the moment we survive each by herself . My strategic plan for the foreseeable future, aside from attacking the World title, is to find a reliable sponsor to keep me afloat until 2004 Olympics.

CN: Let luck be with you on the way up. One more detour from the world cycling. You’ve just come back from a motorpaced training but here we are in front of the table full of delicious dishes. Do you normally overcome time pressing in a similar way?

ZZ: Oh no, unfortunately not, despite my craze for cooking. When season is in full swing my menu is not unique for a cyclist –all kinds of pasta, first of all. Well, one of these days I’m going to invite to my place Goulia (Gulnara) Ivanova, Polkhanova, Bouba… Then again, while we are all still in Moscow, I'll be able to give way to my love of real cuisine.

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