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Tales from the peloton, June 28, 2008

In search of Abdou

Djamolidine Abdoujaparov was one of the most feared sprinters in the peloton during the early to mid-90s, not least for his erratic style in sight of the line. Procycling's Daniel Friebe tries to find out what "The Tashkent Terror" is doing now, but discovers it's not that easy.

Abdou's win on the Champs Elysées in 1995
Photo ©: AFP
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Georges Matthys, race founder, organiser – Mr. Gent-Wevelgem himself – once said much the same thing about the young Bernard Hinault. Now, though, there was more disbelief, more outrage in the way he spat those five syllables like bitter pills he didn't want to swallow. "Ab-dou-ja-pa-rov?! Ab-dou-ja-par-ov?! He's not a worthy winner of my race. Who's ever heard of Ab-dou-ja-pa-rov?"

Had Matthys been paying attention, he'd have known that plenty of people were familiar with the short, unfeasibly muscular and murderous-looking sprinter from Tashkent, in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, who had just ennobled his race with his first major pro victory.

OK, pronouncing his name was an exploit in itself, but had the aficionados not already had plenty of practice? A quick glance at Abdoujaparov's palmarès in the years before the Berlin Wall fell (and, with it, restrictions on Soviet riders turning pro) revealed they had: there were stages in the Peace Race, the Settimana Bergamasca, the Tour de l'Avenir and the Baby Giro; a Russian road race title; a near-miss in the 1988 World Championships...

Somehow, though, for Georges Matthys, that dark, joyless face still didn't fit.

He shook his head one more time. "Ab-dou-ja-pa-rov?!"

Silence. Nothing. One second, two seconds, three sec...
The intercom crackles into life.
"Who is it?"
"I'm a cycling journalist from an English magazine. I'm looking for Djamolidine, your brother. Is he here?"
Another pause. We check for jerking net curtains and silhouettes in the large ground-floor windows. Nothing.
Then, finally, another crackle.
"He's not here. He's away. I don't know when he'll be back. What do you want...?"
"We want to know if we can speak to your brother. Or even to you. We just want to know what he's doing now..."
"I can't come out. I have a one-year-old child. Anyway, he has his life, I have mine. You'll have to speak to him."
We persist...
"OK, but can you just tell us what he's doing now. For a job, I mean. We've heard all sorts of things – that he breeds pigeons, that he trains juniors back in Uzbekistan or Russia..."
"He breeds pigeons, but that's a hobby. He looks after young riders. But you have to ask him: I told you, he lives next door and he has his own life. I'm sorry. Arrivederci."
Crackle, crackle, clunk. And then silence.

"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."

-Dmitri Konyshev describes his elusive friend..

You know this isn't going to be your average assignment when it begins with a call to Evgeni Berzin and he tells you that he's just come back from a training ride with Frank Vandenbroucke. Berzin was the enfant prodigy turned enfant terrible of the early 90s, a mantle he passed on to VDB in the late 90s, and – wouldn't you just know it – in recent years this terrible twosome have become mates and sometime training partners on the plains south of Milan where Berzin now owns three car dealerships.

"How is Frank, anyway?" we ask, mindful of reports that the Belgian has just had yet another contract rescinded, this time with Pro Continental team Mitsubishi-Jartazi. "Frank needs to learn that not every day's a party," replies Berzin, the world's most unlikely life coach. "Anyway, he's OK... What did you want to know about Abdou? The last time I saw him was at the Russian championships in Moscow last summer. He's put on a bit of weight..."

The search for Abdou's lair
Photo ©: Paul Maulini
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It transpires that – contrary to what an Italian journalist had told us – Berzin doesn't have regular contact with Abdou, and knows only that he's living "somewhere on Lake Garda". The 1994 Giro champion urges us to phone his fellow Russian retiree, Dimitri Konyshev. As a colleague later remarks, all it needs is Vladislav Bobrik and the circle of 90s rogues, scoundrels and playboys would be complete.

Konyshev, now a directeur sportif with Tinkoff, is on his way to Het Volk when we call, but says that he'll give us Abdou's number when he gets back on April 5. That's not ideal, because we're due to head out to Lake Garda on April 1, but he can at least confirm that Abdou spends some of his time in Raffa, on the western shore of the lake. "Anyway, you'll find Abdou in the telephone directory," he assures us. With hindsight, he might as well have told us to look up Bin Laden.

So it is that we arrive in Raffa on April 1, feeling about as foolish as we are clueless. Actually, that's not strictly true, because a few advance phone-calls have led us to the Corsetti brothers and their bike shop in Raffa, just across the street from the café where Abdou apparently takes his morning cappuccino. Giacomo Corsetti is in his mid-30s and has a handshake as robust as his north Italian accent. He knows who and what we've come for. "I haven't seen Abdou for 10 days or so now," he grunts. "Usually he's there at the café in the morning, but I think he must be back in Russia or something..."

Corsetti says that Abdou isn't one of his regular customers. "Does he still ride a bike? Noooooooo. To be honest, if you see him, it's not a pretty sight... He seems a nice fella, but he's a bit of a loner. I'm pretty sure that he worked for a tyre dealer in the next village for five or six years, but that closed down a couple of years ago. I don't know what he's done since then. He had some power on the bike, though, didn't he? I can remember once when he was in the shop, and they were showing him sprinting on the ESPN Classic channel. He was laughing, saying that sprinters today have no idea what it was like to sprint on those old bikes, when you'd feel the spokes flexing underneath you..."

The search leads to a café
Photo ©: Paul Maulini
(Click for larger image)

It's Corsetti who, after a flurry of phone-calls and a few door-to-door enquiries ("Abdoujaparov? What, the fella with the pigeons? I think he's away, in Kiev...") accompanies us to the gates of the double-fronted villa where our doorstep "interview" with Abdou's sister will take place. From there, we head to the bar, La Chicchera, still clinging to the naive and distant hope that we'll find "The Tashkent Terror" perched atop a bar stool, whistling a happy tune through the cappuccino froth glistening on his top lip.

Of course, we're dreaming. He's not there either. However, we discover from the bar's female owner that he was last in town three days ago. "He used to come a bit more, when we had a late licence," she says. "He'd always be alone, and you could tell that he was on the lookout for women, although he wasn't aggressive about it. He seems a lonely type, somehow. Sad eyes. We used to talk about cycling, because he knew that I went out with Acacio Da Silva, who used to ride for Carrera, for a few years. He also knows that I've got a boat, so we talk about fishing from time to time. I know he likes fishing for coregone [a type of salmon]..."

She has no idea where he is, either.

The most famous crash in tour de france history.

The most famous Tour de France crash
Photo ©: AFP
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1991 was Abdou's first Tour de France, he'd already won two stages, and now he was bearing down on a third like a big cat sensing his next kill lay just beyond the Place de la Concorde. It was classic Abdou: head down and front wheel every which way, until – BANG! – he hit the barriers followed by the road. Soon after bikes and bodies lay spewed across the Champs Élysées like a stomach's souvenirs of a big night out.

We all remember Abdou hobbling across the line with bike in hand a few minutes later – some of us even recall the ludicrous theories about the giant inflatable Coke can which caused the fall being "planted" as part of a capitalist conspiracy against the former USSR – but why does no one ever mention who won that day? Come to think of it, was anyone even watching Dimitri Konyshev enjoy maybe his finest hour? Or were we all too busy wondering whether Abdou would have to be surgically scraped off the tarmac?

One French fan, an elderly woman by the name of Madeleine Bailliart, was so alarmed by the pictures of Abdou's crash that she spent months after that Tour trying to trace him. She succeeded and, before long, Madame Bailliart was one of the few people on earth who could legitimately lay claim to a close bond with the sprinter. Abdou called her his "adoptive grandmother". She'd now be over 90, and the last we heard, back in 2001, she hadn't heard from Abdou for some time and was starting to fret about his well being.

Our search team in front of the semi-detached villas
Photo ©: Paul Maulini
(Click for larger image)

As for Konyshev, well, 17 years on, he returns from Belgium and duly supplies us with an Italian mobile number he promises is Abdou's. The pair go way back, to the Soviet amateur team of the 80s. They then spent the 1990 season together at Alfa Lum. From what we can gather, Konyshev is one of the few people still in cycling whose contact with Abdoujaparov didn't end sometime shortly after Friday 11, 1997 – the day Abdou was kicked out of the Tour de France for a positive dope test and effectively left professional cycling.

So far, we've had the nagging sense that, consciously or not, anyone even loosely connected to Abdou is somehow helping to keep his current existence cloaked in mystery.

Konyshev sounds suspicious, but also sincere enough. "The last time [I saw him] was at the Russian championships in June 2007," he says. "As far as I know he's not doing anything, apart from a bit of coaching with the Russian federation cycling school in Samara. Whenever I've spoken to him, I've never managed to get out of him what else he does. I speak to him maybe a few times a year, but he'll never tell me...

"Not every ex-cyclist manages to stay in the sport and, frankly, with his character, I'm not surprised he hasn't," Konyshev, now a directeur sportif with Tinkoff, continues. "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.

"You know, it was pretty hard for all of us [ex-Soviets].When you consider that all I did was cycle from the age of 14, you start to appreciate how tough it is for some of us when we finish our career. We were pretty underpaid at first, too, which didn't help. Also, you have to remember that Abdou was the only Muslim in the bunch. Admittedly, he wasn't exactly devout; as a rule, he didn't eat pork, but if it was a choice between that and going hungry, he wouldn't starve..."

Konyshev chuckles to himself. His guard's dropping. It's time to broach another taboo: Abdou and women.

"Has he ever been married? Let's say no, at least not officially, as far as I know. I know everything that's going on up there, on Lake Garda, and my sources say that he hasn't been married. I really hope he finds someone soon. I guess there will always be someone, but you want a good one, don't you? He's getting on now, and it starts to get difficult for women to have babies when they're nearly 40..." Cue more laughter.

Continue to part two of In search of Abdou...

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