Emomali Rahmon and Rustam Emomali (left); Serdar Berdimuhamedov and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (right). Photos: State Media.

Fathers, sons and cycling: Let’s check in on cycling’s favourite despots

A new Turkmen dictator! New friends in Tajikistan! The mystery of the 2026 Road Worlds! All that and more.

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If you subscribe to the musings of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, change is the only constant in life. If you subscribe to CyclingTips, you’ll be aware that change has been sweeping through Turkmenistan.

The old dictator has retired. The new dictator – his son, Serdar – was (probably not very-)democratically elected in a landslide. The cycling world was left wondering whether that was the end of our fascination with the country. 

Wonder no more. In our latest edition of Dictator-Watch, we have a President of Turkmenistan update, some Road Worlds speculation, and the exciting emergence of another country’s dictator, too.

To begin:

Serdar “I Will Wring Your Neck” Berdimuhamedov, the supple-faced 40-year-old who was just handed the reins of the country, has dispelled any questions about whether he would be a softer touch than his father. In his inaugural security council meeting he fired the interior minister for not doing more to crack down on speeding on the roads. Two days later he received a warm phone call of congratulations on his ‘election’ from the globally-beloved Vladimir Putin. Shortly after, he introduced a series of measures policing women’s bodies, banning beauty services  – including eyelash and nail extensions, botox and hair bleaching – along with “sexy” outfits that erode traditional Turkmen values.

Off to a flyer.

A playful, naturalistic photo of Serdar Berdimuhamedov in his home office. Source: State Media.

Meanwhile, Serdar was appointed head of the Turkmen National Olympic Committee, giving oversight of sport in the country. Despite holding the title of ‘Honoured Coach of Turkmenistan’, Serdar does not appear to have the same enthusiasm for athletic endeavours as his fat-bike-adoring father, Gurbanguly, although pro-cycling initiatives continue to pop up on the Turkmen radar. Serdar has introduced a series of initiatives aimed at improving Turkmenistan’s ecological footprint, including the “wonderful tradition [of] regular bike rides …  one of the most popular socially significant events held in many countries in support of various social, sports and environmental projects and ideas, and in Turkmenistan they unite residents of cities and villages, older and younger generations.”  

What of 2026 Road Worlds?

Hanging over the introduction of these ‘wonderful traditions’ is the lingering question of whether Turkmenistan is on the hook to host the 2026 Road World Championships.

As of 2019, UCI President David Lappartient and Berdimuhamedov Senior met to discuss that event, with Lappartient allegedly noting that “Turkmenistan has all the necessary conditions and infrastructure to organize such competitions.” That had firmed a few months later to a certainty – one Turkmen report at the time bragged that “Turkmenistan is going to hold two World Cycling Championships and open a sports school under the auspices of the UCI.” ​​

Igor Makarov  – the UCI management committee member, powerbroker, and Russian Oligarch who is currently sanctioned by both Australia and Canada for his ties to Putin, not that the UCI is prepared to answer any questions about that – later travelled to Turkmenistan to offer his support. Done deal, it seemed. 

This is your periodic reminder that the UCI’s measures against Russian aggression in Ukraine has resulted in multiple non-Russian riders losing their jobs – including a Ukrainian – while a senior management committee member continues to serve in the organisation despite it literally being illegal for him to visit or do business in the country that is hosting this year’s UCI Congress.

After the 2021 Track World Championships that were slated for Turkmenistan fell apart due to a flurry of human rights concerns, COVID concerns, and ‘harmful dust’ concerns, the 2026 Road Worlds proposal began to look a bit shakier. 

The UCI had originally introduced a September 2019 cut-off for bids, and was supposed to announce the 2026 host at the 2021 Road Worlds, but didn’t, despite a viable bid from Montreal being in play and Portland also putting up its hand. In fact, a 2022 bid guide reveals that the UCI is still inviting proposals – they’re looking for 8,000,000 CHF (approx US$8.4 million) for hosting rights to the 2026 event, with bids to be finalised by this month and announced by Wollongong Worlds in September.

Whether that means that the UCI has a live proposal from Turkmenistan in front of them is, of course, The Big Mystery, but I’m still not ruling it out.

Perhaps they’re just waiting for the dust to clear from the 2021 mess before announcing it. Perhaps they’ve forsaken Turkmenistan for good. Perhaps they will delay the announcement for another year. These are the fun adventures of international cycling competition hosting rights.   

Hello, Tajikistan!

Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding the 2026 World Roads, I’m thrilled to report that there’s another central Asian dictatorship that has entered the good graces of the UCI. In March, the capital city of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, hosted the Asian Road Cycling Championships, receiving some illustrious visitors as part of the festivities.

According to local media, Lappartient and Asian Cycling Federation president Osama Al Shafar stopped by for meetings with both the Prime Minister and the Tajik dictator’s son, the 34-year-old chairman of the National Assembly and mayor of Dushanbe, Rustam Emomali.

Per Tajik state media:

“Lappartient and Al Shafar expressed their gratitude to the President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon and the Chairman of Dushanbe Rustam Emomali for all-round support.

Rustam Emomali proposed to hold an International Mountain Biking Race in the coming years to introduce and develop this sport in Tajikistan.

In this regard, the parties came to an agreement and noted that after the submission of the necessary documents by the Cycling Federation of Tajikistan, this sporting event will be held in the near future.

It was noted that in recent years, with the constant support of President Emomali Rahmon, Dushanbe has the opportunity to hold any international sports competitions.”

Emomali Rahmon – “Founder Of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation” – oversees an authoritarian regime that flirts with being a personality cult.

Tajikistan’s human rights record has been described by Human Rights Watch as ‘dire’, with limited freedom of political, religious or sexual expression. It is ranked 152nd out of 180 countries for freedom of press.

Seems a good spot for a bike race.

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