Lappartient backtracks on UCI relationship with dictator

Cycling’s 'highest honour' is actually just 'a medal that we had, worth perhaps 50 euros', UCI President claims. 

Lappartient at the 2023 World Cyclocross Championships. Photo: Cor Vos.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 25.05.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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David Lappartient says that the 2020 ‘UCI Order’ award bestowed on Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov – the now-retired dictator of Turkmenistan – was not cycling’s “highest honour”, despite repeated claims by both his organisation and Turkmen state media at the time. 

In a feature published in French newspaper le Monde yesterday, UCI President David Lappartient appeared to backtrack on three years of established narrative around Berdimuhamedov’s award, claiming that it was not, in fact, the UCI’s ‘highest distinction’.

“I gave him a medal. I told him it was the highest honour, but it wasn’t … it is a medal that we had, that we had engraved on the back, which is worth perhaps 50 euros,” Lappartient told le Monde.

Lappartient is prominent in a series of simultaneously-published stories in the French outlet yesteday, including a lengthy feature scrutinising his links to both Turkmenistan and the Russian businessman, Igor Makarov.

The awarding of the mysterious ‘UCI Order’ to Berdimuhamedov in early June 2020 was first broken by CyclingTips, leading to a flurry of media attention. At the time, Turkmenistan had recently been awarded the Track World Championships, which had in turn provoked scrutiny due to Turkmenistan’s appalling human rights record and its close financial ties with UCI management committee member Makarov, an energy oligarch with extensive financial interests in the country. The 2021 Track World Championships were eventually held in Roubaix instead; COVID was the reason provided for the change of venue, despite Turkmenistan at the time not acknowledging the existence of the virus.

In the immediate aftermath of Berdimuhamedov’s secretive award – which was never promoted in any UCI communications – a UCI spokesperson told multiple outlets that “the UCI Order is the highest distinction awarded by the UCI … It is in principle reserved for political personalities who have shown a particular commitment to cycling. Several leaders have been awarded the UCI Order since its creation.” 

Both Pat McQuaid and Brian Cookson – predecessors of Lappartient as UCI President – spoke at the time of a vague understanding of the existence of such an honour, although did not recall any past recipients. 

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, bicycle enthusiast and musical marvel.

Three years later, Lappartient’s disavowal of Berdimuhamedov’s commendation comes at a time that his organisation’s relationship with Makarov has been repeatedly questioned due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Russian remains a member of the UCI Management Committee, despite being sanctioned in multiple countries. According to le Monde, the Ukrainian National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption has described Makarov as “one of the key supporters of Russian military aggression”.  

In 2022, Makarov was unable to attend the most recent UCI Congress, held in Australia, as he would have been arrested and his assets seized due to his appearance on a sanctions list, according to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Makarov has also been described in a UK government statement as part of Putin’s “cabal of oligarchs” who are sanctioned in that country – future host of the 2023 World Championships and UCI Congress. Canada – which will hold those events in 2026 – has similarly sanctioned Makarov after identifying him as a “close associate of the Russian regime” that was complicit in the “illegal and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine”.

le Monde’s investigation expanded at length on the UCI President’s “tooth and nail” defence of Makarov, who is widely understood to have supported Lappartient’s rise to power in the sport via millions of euros in sponsorship payments. Lappartient denies any impropriety, but admitted to le Monde that payments received by the European Cycling Confederation (UEC) when he was president were “not very healthy in terms of principles”. He maintains that his win at the 2017 election was on the merits of his superior campaign, and downplayed a visit by Makarov in his superyacht on the eve of the election as a social call, rather than a bargaining session.

In relation to the now notorious UCI Order given to Berdimuhamedov – who Escape Collective understands was also jointly visited by Lappartient and Makarov, using the latter’s private jet, in 2019 – Lappartient did not elaborate further on why his organisation A) engraved a “50 euro” medal to give to a famously eccentric dictator, B) misled him about what it represented, and C) begrudgingly told numerous media outlets that the award was UCI’s “highest distinction”, when it apparently wasn’t.

The UCI has been contacted for comment, and this story will be updated with any response.

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