Why people give other people nicknames? I guess if your name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Caligula (which means “little boots” in Latin) would be a much handier name to be known by. Especially if you’re a psychopath. But if you’re not a famous psychopath and just race your bike to make a living, why would anybody call you The God of Thunder, The Killer, Spartacus or, wait for it, Cobra? Who gives these nicknames, where do they come from?
I don’t have a proof but I strongly suspect these and other like them cycling nicknames are fake, they are not real. I can’t imagine anyone, except cycling journalists of course, calling Thor Hushovd a God of Thunder. “OK, you and you will look after the God of Thunder, and you’ll cover The Killer while you stay with Spartacus. Don’t worry about Cobra, he won’t go anywhere today.” Can you imagine a team meeting going like this before a race? Me neither.
And this is why I think these nicknames are fake; they’ve been artificially devised to spice up race reports and cycling commentaries by journalists with poor imagination and little taste which is what makes them cheesy as well. Cobra? What is this? A 2nd Grade Cowboys and Indians game? C’mon, you can’t be serious.
There are real nicknames though in cycling, nicknames not forged by typewriter monkeys romanticising about the sport on a quiet Saturday night. I have no problem believing, for example, that Andreas Klöden goes by the nickname of Klodi in the peloton just like Jan Ullrich’s real nickname was Ulle rather than Der Kaiser. Not very romantic, I know, but unless you’re writing for a cycling magazine, you probably know that professional cycling isn’t a very romantic sport.
It’s not all dull and boring though in the world of real nicknames in cycling. Some nicknames come with a bit of a story behind them. Luis Herrera, a famous climber from the 80s and a winner of the King of the Mountains title in all 3 Grand Tours, came from a farming family in Columbia and loved gardening, hence the El Jardinerito (The Little Gardener) nickname.
Other nicknames in cycling, even though real, are not very well known to the public. Ever heard of Juan Pelota? If you didn’t, you’ll never guess whose nickname it is. Lance Armstrong. That’s right, read the story.
Meet Djamolidin Abdoujaparov
Not surprisingly, real nicknames of some Soviet era cycling stars are not as illustrious as some cycling journalists made them to be. Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, for example, was never called Tashkent Terror by anybody in real life. In Soviet peloton he was known as Абдула (Abdullah).
The nickname has its roots in one very popular, Soviet made Western style movie of the 70s, Белое Солнце Пустыни (The White Sun of the Desert). It’s one of those all time classics, still being watched today everywhere in Russia. Abdullah is the movie’s bad guy and he comes from Uzbekistan or maybe Turkmenistan, doesn’t really matter. What matters though is that over the years, the name Abdullah became somewhat of a mocking name for anybody who came from the region known in Russia as Middle Asia which is where Abdoujaparov comes from; he is from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
The story of Abdoujaparov’s nickname doesn’t stop there. You’ll be surprised to learn that he was never, ever called Abdullah in his face. Ever. Except in some circumstances. Because of the mocking nature of this name among mostly Russian speaking peloton in the USSR, no one would ever dare to call Abdoujaparov “Abdullah” in his face. Suicidal. Behind his back, yes that’s what pretty much everyone called him.
Slippages befell upon some of us, less careful, from time to time. My own came one day in a team bus (which had a nickname of its own, Fanta, because of its colour scheme). We were getting ready for a race. It was wet and very cold outside and everybody was putting hot cream on their legs. I couldn’t be bothered looking for mine in the bag so I grabbed someone else’s tub. When I was done, Abdoujaparov grabbed the tub off me and started putting the cream on his legs. At this point the guy whose cream it was walked in from outside and said, looking at me, “Where’s my cream?” I nodded in Abdoujaparov’s direction, who was sitting just a metre away across the isle, and said, “Abdullah’s got it.” Oops. This wasn’t as bad as, for example, calling a dark skinned person a nigger but you just don’t call a Tatar from Tashkent “Abdullah” and hope to walk away from it.
He looked at me with a grin on his face and said, “Djaphir, not Abdullah.”
Djaphir, according to Abdoujaparov himself, was a diminutive of his first name and even though Djamolidin isn’t that difficult to pronounce for a Russian speaking person, it’s still too long for normal use. If you couldn’t be bothered with his full first name, your options were either not to talk to him or call him Djaphir. Unless you were looking for trouble.
The exceptions I mentioned above were reserved for some tight racing situations where in the heat of a moment you spit out whatever comes to your mind first and nobody cares about anything except the race. Since we all called Abdoujaparov “Abdullah” behind his back all the time, “Abdullah” is what would sometimes come from your lips if you needed to get his attention in the race. He didn’t mind.
Paradoxically, the normally scornful meaning of a nickname such as Abdullah was used with great respect with Abdoujaparov in the Soviet peloton.
And a bit of a trivia – Abdoujaparov is probably the only professional cyclist in the history of the sport whose name was used to name a rock band.
I’ll talk about few other famous Soviet era cycling nicknames in the next post.
If you know an interesting nickname story, by all means use the comments box below to share it with the world.