An interview with Zoulfia Zabirova

Life, love and a little on women's cycling

By Sergey Kurdukov, Russian Eurosport commentator

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Photo: © Nicolas Leroy

Zoulfia Zabirova

Born: December 19, 1973 in Tashkent, USSR (at the time)
Lives: Lugano, Switzerland, and in Moscow
Height: 176 cm
Weight: 59 kg
Resting HR: 40
Maximum HR: 210
Power output in standard test: 420 watts
Marital status: Really serious about relationship with Felice Puttini
Colour: black, white
Flowers: tulips and gladioli. "When I first saw Flemish scenery, I was absolutely enchanted. No wonder, as I was raised in Tashkent, the City of Tulips."
Hobby: cooking "perhaps, it even gets beyond a hobby", cars

Selected palmares


1st overall & 1 stage Tour de Suisse Feminin
1st Russian National Championships Time Trial
3rd stage Tour de l'Aude
5th overall & 2 stages La Grande Boucle
7th Olympic Games Road Race


1st overall & 1 stage Tour de Suisse Feminin
3rd stage Giro della Toscana
3rd overall & 1 stage Hewlett Packard Women's Challenge
5th overall & 3 stages Giro d'Italia
4th World Championships Time Trial
6th World Championships Road Race


1st World Cup #6 (Switzerland)
1st Josef Voegeli Memorial
1st and 2nd stage Tour Cycliste Feminin
1st GP des Nations Time Trial
2nd World Championships Time Trial
2nd stage Holland Ladies' Tour
4th overall Thuringen Rundfahrt
13th overall Tour de Suisse
14th overall International Women's Challenge


1st 2 stages, Tour Cycliste Feminin
1st Russian Championship
1st 2 stages & 3rd overall International Women's Challenge
1st stage Tour de Finistere
1st overall & 1 stage Etoile Vosgienne
1st Chrono der Herbiers
1st overall & 1 stage Trois Jours de Vendee
2nd World Championships Time Trial
2nd Chrono Champenois
2nd GP des Nations Time Trial
2nd Thrift Drug Classic
3rd Grazia Tour
7th Liberty Classic


1st Olympic Games Time Trial
1st Russian Road Championships Time Trial
1st GP Kanton Zurich
1st 2 stages Tour Cycliste Feminin
2nd Russian Road Championships Road Race
3rd Tour du Finistere

Courtesy of

It was a bit more than a year ago, just after Sydney Olympic Games flame had died away. Rumour was circulating that Zoulfia Zabirova, who had failed to defend her Olympic time trial title, was going to call it a day. For an outsider it looked like quite a plausible outcome. For those who know what a character lurks inside this deceptively fragile body it definitely seemed no more than a passing burst of negative emotion. Yet even they had doubts as in April 2001, Zoulfia cut her season short (not the most inspiring of all her seasons, as a matter of fact) and took time out.

Days and weeks added up, yet Zabirova, one of the brightest stars of Acca Due O-Lorena Camicie (aka The Dream Team) was nowhere to be seen. But here she is, in Krylatskoye velodrome in Moscow, riding round the arena that saw so much of her incredible winning speed! It doesn't see speeds like that at the moment as it's just the beginning of December - the Russian capital is drowned in sparkling snowbanks, it's quite a way to go to the hot battles of the next season.

Zulia (as almost everybody calls her here in Russia) just spins her legs on a borrowed Pinarello. This time she is in Moscow on a "flying visit", to officially register as a Muscovite in her newly bought flat (to make this part of the story short, let's keep from going into detail of the meaning of the Russian word "propiska") . But blessed peace and calm will soon be gone.

Zoulfia Zabirova: This coming January, to put it more exactly. The start in a six-day will be my first this year. Not so much for points or finding super-legs as to remind myself of what it is about to ride in a bunch. I haven't had a chance to do it for months on end.

Cyclingnews: You've had a chance to lift your head and see light, on the other hand.

ZZ: Yes, it was pleasure itself. For a span. But after a period of time I caught myself watching every race on TV. And it got home to me that if I give up now, I'll never forgive myself. I've got so much in store as a rider, so how shall I live on following the moments of glory of my erstwhile rivals? As time passed, this sensation grew. So, by and by, I started to workout seriously. Perhaps even too hard too soon as I caught bronchitis. Now everything seems to be OK. New hopes, new season, new team.

CN: What went wrong with the old one?

ZZ: Nothing special. Not only Acca Due O, but a lot of other top teams in the women's peloton face more or less serious sponsorship problems. A lot of stars in the line-up sometimes just make the matter worse. My former team won the World's, so it naturally lives on, yet it has to let some of the girls go. For the GAS team, the situation is worse. By the way, Zina [CN: Zinaida Stahurskaia, ex-world champion and the winner of Giro d'Italia Femminile], one of the top names from GAS will ride with me for Chirio Gelatti's squad.

CN: Thus they'll have a very powerful duo of ex-Soviets. The racing program is going to be tough, I believe.

ZZ: It might be far harder if there was more money around in women's cycling. It's almost certain that our team won't be able to afford going overseas to take part, say, in races in Australia and New Zealand. Luckily, this coming season we'll be allowed to ride with other teams on a temporary basis, keeping the basic contract untouched, so it's very likely I won't let this opportunity pass.

CN: So what's going to be the focus of the season for you?

ZZ: The reality is that there is only one women's race next season that stands apart in the eyes of most of sponsors. That is, the World's. Perhaps the World Cup in a way. Even our Grand Tours are rated far lower than their male counterparts. I'll take up stage races, of course, but will ride them as an opportunist, thinking chiefly about the World's.
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In TT mode in the '99 Giro
Photo: © Raisport

CN: There is enough time left not to torture yourself with thoughts of Olympics. Either Sydney or Athens. How chequered your fortune turned out to be in 2000! To my eyes in mid-summer you were utterly flying.

ZZ: I was. I had a wonderful feeling in pre-Olympic summer, everything went as planned. I came to Noginsk in the Moscow region to participate in a men's amateur stage race, to make some final touches to the form. I was riding in front, where it's usually safer. The tempo was brisk - I can't remember that fall at all. And didn't want to - for a long while.

Only a week ago, believe me or not, I made myself ask my coach to tell me what the crash looked like. The helmet went to pieces. I came to myself when they stretched me up into the ambulance. 'The collar-bone or something,' I thought, and the very next moment heard them saying: 'Her head' - And the chilling thought came right away: 'That's the end. All is ruined - Olympics, plans, dreams - everything! So unjust and horrible'.

But her tameless spirit refused to give up. When Russian doctors categorically advised her even from working out until all the traces of her concussion had gone, she followed an Italian doctor's advice to be back as soon as possible. She clung to this idea, she won the Russian time trial championships on a very hilly course less than a month later, then she was quite prominent in the GC of Le Grand Boucle (women's Tour de France), winning stages at that!

"You have to pay for everything," she sighs in a kind of refrain. "By the start in Sydney I was totally empty."

It's so important for sports journalists to be constantly updated about what is going on with great champions. Perhaps that would keep us from, for instance, yelling dramatically: "Zabirova's era is over!" We'll soon see about that.

Zulia is definitely back in business.

"More than 30,000 kilometres per year, sometimes 5,000 a month. They work as much as the men's elite national team members did slightly more than 10 years ago," says Vladimir Reva, her coach who led her up to Olympic gold of 1996 and still works with her. "But how are they paid for this hard labour? The only way for a girl to make a decent sum of money by riding a bike is to win the Olympics. Even in the World's title there is much more of a purely sporting aspect then of a financial reward. A comparatively lucrative individual sponsorship contract is the best you can hope for."

CN: What about a coaches reward?

Vladimir Reva: To be a girls' coach is to share their destiny.

ZZ: Our managers, directeurs sportifs and team owners are absolute enthusiasts who love the sport and their girls, and ready to pay their own money down to the last penny. Let's take the chief of my new team for example. His daughter was on the podium of Italian junior champs, quite a talented girl. 'She resembles you, he told me, I hope you'll share your experience with her.'

So there is personal interest involved, of course, but in all other ways for him it stands for shouldering quite a burden, taking on serious responsibility.

CN: And what is the branch of industry in which your team's main sponsor specializes?

ZZ: Funnily enough, it produces ice cream, sweets, cakes - That is, the very things you are not supposed to eat if you are going to go uphill at all. When I looked through their advertisement booklet...I tell you, it'll be hard to keep from tasting this and that.

CN: You've got something more than a sweet tooth - a true passion for good cuisine - although it's impossible to read it in your figure.

ZZ: Thanks for that. The rest is true, yes. And the top passion is not eating delicious dishes but cooking them. My coach says every woman is the chief cook at home, whether she likes it or not, but that is not what I mean. Sometimes I even played with the idea of mastering the trade of cooking professionally.

When she dreamingly tells you about the dishes of her favour, your mouth can't help watering. Apple pie, pasta served with marine fauna, coffee - not the instant stuff you buy on every corner but genuine Italian coffee. A couple of years spent in Apennine peninsula have definitely influenced her taste. Yet they haven't made her forget her roots.
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With Viola Paulitz-Miller
Photo: © Dale Chenaut

ZZ: I see the point of those Russians who try to emigrate to Europe at all cost. They look for safety, stability and they find it out there. But some of them can hardly see my point as they wonder why should I buy a flat in Moscow and always look at coming back to my home country. You see Europe is well and good, of course (I thought about it once more this morning as my coach's car was struggling through never-ending Moscow stream of vehicles driven by crazy ones who probably believe they are in an F-1 race, not in a street of a city). I quickly adapt to the calm of Europe and grow to like it, yet as soon as I am here, I feel crisp, fresh and alert. Altogether a different atmosphere, but it suits me all right.

CN: A girl from Uzbekistan, who found her second home in a small city of Novotcherkassk in the Southern Russia, then in Italy, then another one in the quiet of Lugano, then in a noisy hell of Moscow, a girl who rides for Italian squads and always ready to represent the Russian national team. What is the best place on Earth for the citizen of the world?

ZZ: Well, at the moment it's Lugano. Such a green, quiet paradise of a place where we live with my boyfriend Felice Puttini.

CN: ...who is the major factor behind the choice, I believe.

It's a truly romantic love story. Felice Puttini, a well known pro from Switzerland, rode with Russian guys throughout his career. Naturally he heard a lot about the enigmatic souls of Russian girls from them. It pricked his imagination, but on a "purely scientific" level. Until the day he saw Zulia's photo in a magazine. All of a sudden, the cognitive aspect changed for something more serious. That year he rode for Amica Chips side-by-side with Viatcheslav Ekimov, so it was no problem to make the necessary inquires. Then an epistolary novel began. This genre has a lot of twists and turns when the heroes finally saw each other in person.

ZZ: Having seen Felice for the first time, I was quite surprised, but not unpleasantly. We are all full of stereotypes. What a Swiss-Italian should look like? A lanky dark-haired ever-chattering fellow, right? Wrong! Felice turned out not so tall, blonde, and rather taciturn. So much so that even now when I say sometimes: "Let's talk more, or I'll never speak good Italian." he says: "Let's go to the cinema. It's very useful to watch films in good Italian."

It's no problem, I like cinema, especially romantic melodramas. And I know now how open-hearted he really is. So Russian in many ways, strange as it might be. I've already taken him to Russia, and he liked this country at first sight. But not Russian vodka. Felice is very selective about what to eat and drink. A real sportsman, a pro, to put it in a word.

CN: He mast be an ideal training partner for you, on top of all that.

ZZ: Indeed. We're going to Spain in a couple of weeks' time, by the way, to accumulate kilometres for the coming season.

CN: I wouldn't call a trip like that a boot camp.

ZZ: Neither should I. Well, I like traveling. As to Felice, it depends. He gets so fed up with changing places during the season, that right after the finish of it he turns into an absolute stay-at-home. Then, little by little, he gets melted; sometimes we go to a disco or take a car.

CN: You like cars, I know.

ZZ: Immensely!! Unfortunately my driving license is not quite valid in Switzerland, but the police normally smile and wish me a good journey...

CN: ...for they recognize you!

ZZ: I wish they did. That's again the same old story of women's cycling on TV, or rather, the all but total absence of it. TV is the money of sports today. As to policemen, they honour me as the girlfriend of Felice Puttini.

They are so different, but happily go with each other. Sometimes the bigger is the difference in character, the more powerful magnetism it generates. It's an open secret, yet so enjoyable when seen in real life.

CN: Back to the coming season - what goals are you setting yourself? Going to do anything on the track?

ZZ: Yes, I am. The goal is to perform both in the road and track World's. As a more distant prospect - to follow the same programme in the 2004 Olympics. No points race, only pursuit. Although my favourite kind of race is a road race, not an ITT, though I took it in Atlanta. The profile? Neither mountain passes nor dead flat. Variable terrain, like in Belgian classics.
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With Acca Due O
Photo: © Nicolas Leroy

Vladimir Reva: Road racing is a lottery. When a rider has an individual go, she's lucky as she can really prove herself, no game of chance involved.

Judging from Zulia's look, she again is not of the same mind as her personal coach. So many heated debates are behind, a lot more to come. As a sporting personality, she's not a purring kitty at all. But the coach knows where is the key to her nature lies. At least, in most conflict situations. Vladimir is like a father whose daughter rocketed to stardom, but still needs his advice.

To be a champion you have to be as hard as nails in both senses. But not all day long, thank God.

ZZ: Felice is now riding in the Zurich six-day. When I was leaving for Moscow, there was good news from the track for me. Felice was among the leaders in motor-paced part of the event.

CN: He is THE leader. He actually won last night!

ZZ: Did he? Oh, great! Are you sure? But he phoned me up a couple of hours ago. I gathered he was tired but happy. But not a word of his victory.

CN: I'm afraid, I've just spoiled the whole pleasant surprise he was holding back for you...

ZZ: Oh, that's OK, the most important part of it holds good. He'll meet me with a bouquet of my favourite flowers.

CN: You are a passionate fan of his. Are you often with him as he rides winter season races?

ZZ: I was invited to see these horrible six-days a couple of times. Oh, goodness, sitting on a chair in VIP zone was like sitting on thorns to me. So much smoke and everybody was eating and drinking beer while the riders were speeding down the semi-lit banking. Perhaps the mentality is the key once again, but I just cannot watch THIS and munch something simultaneously. Especially when Felice is in action doing a stayer's business on his father's motorbike wheel. The speed is just chilling, the gear is huge, he aches all over, poor boy.

To remain a woman while riding a bike professionally is not an easy task at all. Sometimes the former is sacrificed for the sake of the latter. For Zoulfia Zabirova there is no problem here. Feminine emotions are not a bit foreign to her, as you see, but what has always come natural is to be an elegant young lady both in and out of the saddle. Officially and unofficially hailed Miss Russian cycling, she is rather particular about fashionable clothes - but also about her bearing.

ZZ: I like Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel. I saw her photos as a junior girl - well, yes she changed a couple of years ago, did put on some weight, but I won't say she changed for the worse. Perhaps even the opposite is true. She is a real woman with power to attract, from makeup to manners. On the other hand she is THE pro one hundred per cent. The team created around her is arguably the most professional team in women's ranks (well, throw in Saturn). An example to follow.

CN: So perhaps you are going to follow this example of creating a good team for women's peloton?
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The world famous aero tuck
Photo: © AP

ZZ: Frankly speaking, I'd dearly like to. Not tomorrow, no. You see, sometimes you journalists who remain rather active in the saddle do amaze me. At moments like that I tell myself that as soon as I'm through with this top competition business, I'll steer clear of biking. But the very next instant I think: if one day a chance presents itself, I'd be happy to make a team for talented girls. To help them with management, to share experience. My coach, Vladimir Reva, tries to sober me up and talk me out of it in advance, saying it's a 24 hour a day ordeal. Well I hardly imagine myself in a team car, at least today, but as a's a dream. Or ambition, if you like.

CN: A bit more on ambitions. Twice you narrowly missed the top of the worlds' ITT podium. One wouldn't envy your Russian commentator if one were in his shoes at that moment. Bad luck? Do we have to put up with that?

ZZ: Absolutely not!!! Or why am I coming back? I really dream of this title. And won't mind winning other ones.

The pair of brown eyes is burning. The whole of her ambitious and untamable self is here. Please, just don't fall so hard as on that hot summer day anymore. OK?

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