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In his own words: Katusha founder Igor Makarov

Igor Makarov
16 Sep 2020

From growing up in the USSR to owning his own WorldTour team, Makarov has spent his life cycling through the turbulence of geopolitics

Photo (above): USSR Championship, 1979, City of Simferopol

Igor Makarov will be known to modern cycling fans as the founder of Swiss cycling team Katusha, which raced in the WorldTour until the end of the 2019 season.

He was born in 1962 and raised in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan – then part of the Soviet Union. He graduated from Turkmen State University in 1983 and competed as a world class cyclist from 1979 to 1986, during which time he was a member of the USSR National Cycling Team and winner of many national and international championships.

Here he reflects on his life in cycling – from the USSR to owning a WorldTour team – cycling his way through the turbulence of geopolitics.

With international cycling on pause for much of the past few months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, watching the cycling community working overtime to get our athletes safely back on their bikes has given us all time to reflect on where the sport has been and where it’s going.

Even in the face of this unprecedented global pandemic, the cycling community has displayed strength, teamwork and resilience, and pandemic aside, cycling has never been more accessible.

As we make progress toward a Covid-19 vaccine and improved treatments for the disease, now is an ideal time to consider ways to help young people – even those without financial resources – gain access to the many benefits of cycling.

I know firsthand this sport’s capacity to change lives, because it certainly changed mine.

Bikes as spaceships: A Soviet childhood

I learned to ride in the late 1960s, while living with my grandfather in the Soviet republic of Belarus. I couldn’t have been more than six years old, but I remember the creak of his old bike – a heavy thing with thick tyres – as I rode the 5km to the only shop in the region that sold bread.

After I moved back to my birthplace of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, to live with my mother and aunt, I longed for a bike. For me and many others, purchasing a bike was unfortunately out of reach.

A local cycling club was hosting a race for the neighbourhood children, where the winner got to take home a bike. After a week of some spills and a few scrapes, I was practised and ready.

The night before the race, I didn’t sleep a wink, and at the first sign of light, I went to sign up for the race. We had to ride 15km, and they let us start at one minute intervals.

I was 33rd to start, but somehow managed to be first to cross the finish line. I won an ancient Ural bike with huge tyres. To me, it was like a spaceship, an engineering marvel that could take me places I’d never been.

An old Ural bike from the 1970s 

After that first race, the cycling club became my refuge. When I first started winning races regularly, I received food stamps and meal coupons for my efforts.

Sometimes after a race I would be able to use the coupons I earned to take my mother and aunt out to a lunch or dinner at the local cafeteria, which brought me great pride.

Getting serious about racing

As a teenager, I began to win more serious races. I won the Championship of Turkmenistan, then the Championship of Central Asia. Through these victories, I began to earn a real salary from bike racing alone, and also was getting newer and better bikes.

Looking back on those bikes is so funny in hindsight. I remember riding the Start-Shosse and then the Champion (shown below), both manufactured in Kharkov, Ukraine.

In those days, they seemed to us like sleek, modern bikes from space, but compared with what today’s professional cyclists are riding, they were heavy junk!

A Champion, manufactured in Kharkov, Ukraine 

Building a career in cycling was no easy feat, especially for a young teenager. Every morning I would wake up at 6am to train for more than 12 hours every day. As I started to win consistently, I began to travel around the Soviet Union.

During those trips, our team was housed together like sardines in Soviet-era hostels – six to eight people per room with no hot water. We washed our own kits and team uniforms in the sink using cold water and harsh, so-called utility soap.

Those uniforms are also amusing to look back on in light of the performance garments today’s riders are wearing. Our cycling shorts had special 'anti-chafing' suede inserts to combat saddle sores, but they did not hold up after being washed with those laundry soap bars.

After just a single wash, the suede felt like sandpaper. Suffice to say we went through a lot of baby cream.

Igor Makarov in 1977, Ashgabat, USSR 

Going national

When I was 16, I won the Soviet Cup and was accepted into the USSR National Team for the World Championships. It felt like a dream. But the reality of the situation was less idyllic.

At the time, all of the best-known cyclists in the Soviet Union came out of just a handful of cycling schools. The people who got to the top level of cycling all had deep connections and support from those schools, and every athlete a coach could send to the World Championships would bump up their salary by 20 rubles per month for the next four years – a big incentive for the major cycling schools and coaches to back their own.

I was just a boy from Turkmenistan. I hadn’t been trained in one of the fancy schools, and no one could put a word in for me. I had to work twice as hard for the same recognition and often faced setbacks even when I proved my skill.

I won first, second and third place in the qualifying races and should have been on my way to the World Championships. I was scheduled to leave at 5am, but I was packing my things the night before when a national team coach approached me.

'Igor, you can’t go'

He informed me that someone higher up had petitioned to have me replaced by a rider with connections. That guy was indeed a great athlete, but I was objectively better. He was in 11th place at the time, but it didn’t matter: he competed in my stead and lost.

I did everything I was supposed to do, but because I did not belong to a proper cycling school, even my best was not enough. The injustice stung hard. But it was the catalyst for me enrolling at the Samara Cycling Centre in Samara under coach Vladimir Petrov.

It was only in Samara that I learned the value of being on a team. We were a group of 30 to 40 athletes, the best of the best from across the Soviet Union. Though our daily work was exhausting, the experience of being a part of something bigger was exhilarating. We trained, ate, travelled and recovered as a team.

In 1986, I fell ill during the Soviet Union People’s Games in Tula. Instead of taking one of the three top spots like I had expected, my illness put me in eighth place. As a result of this performance, my coach turned on me. He told me I should quit cycling because I showed no potential and would never make it to the 1988 Olympics.

With these words, my cycling career ended. I considered this coach to be like a father to me. Not only that, but my personal success was the reason he was coaching on the Soviet National team. That betrayal stung and I walked away, vowing to never again get on a bicycle.

Life lessons and giving back

I turned instead to business, first building up an apparel and souvenir business and eventually moving into the natural gas industry. While my career had nothing to do with my former life as a professional cyclist, the lessons I learned in my time on the bike were instrumental to my success in business.

I didn’t touch a bike again until the year 2000, when I was approached by representatives of the Russian Cycling Federation, who were asking for sponsorship from my company, ITERA.

I was initially very sceptical. While I knew how much cycling had taught me, I also knew all too well that the system was unjust and unfair. After some thought, I realised that if I didn’t stand up to change things, no one would.

The more involved I got, the more I realised I could actually make a difference.

In the early 2000s, Russia did not have a professional cycling team. There were many talented Russian cyclists, but they had to join other countries’ teams if they wanted to be professionals and as a result, Russian cyclists had to play supporting roles on those teams, ending up as second or third fiddle to the athletes from other countries.

Russia and other post-Soviet states have a long history of excellence in cycling, and it was important to me to keep this legacy alive.

Having built my career on cycling and the discipline it gave me, I wanted to give young kids in the region – from Russia to Turkmenistan and Belarus – something to root for and be inspired by, while putting Russia back on the international cycling stage. That’s where the idea for Katusha came into play.

Katusha is born

In 2009, we began to build a network of nine Russian cycling teams, spanning all levels, genders and age groups. Katusha saw a lot of success during the years it was active, and though it has been put on hold given current global issues, I am proud to know it’s altered the trajectory of modern Russian cycling.

I am also very proud of my involvement in the UCI, where my status as a member of the management committee enables me to help the organisation expand its geographic reach beyond Europe and the United States.

It means a lot that everyone at the UCI is truly dedicated to inspiring young people across Asia, Africa and Australia to participate in this beautiful sport.

Looking back on my life and my cycling career, I feel I have gone full circle. Once a poor boy from Turkmenistan with no connections, the dedication I learned from cycling has put me in a position to help the sport evolve and enable other young kids from Turkmenistan – and other former Soviet republics – to achieve their dreams.

While upcoming races may look a little different to how we expected them to, it’s nice to be able to look back and see how far cycling has come as a sport.

Gone are the days of crowded hostels, heavy bikes, utility soap and sandpaper shorts. Today’s athletes have a litany of people looking after their well-being, from nutritionists and mechanics to massage therapists and doctors. The world we have built for young cyclists is miles beyond the one I walked away from in 1986.

I am so grateful for this sport and all it has done for me. That child who stayed up all night before his first cycling race could never have dreamed his life would turn out this way.

It hasn’t always been easy, but I know if it weren’t for cycling, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. If I could go back in time and give that little kid some advice, it would be to keep following his dreams. I wouldn’t tell him to change a thing.

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