Monday, May 26, 2014

Tour d'Azerbaidjan

At the start of the Month, I headed to Azerbaijan for a race before returning to Australia for a short break. When I told people I was going to Azerbaijan, pretty much everyone had never heard of it or knew where it was. To be honest, I had to look it up too. Turns out, Azerbaijan is in the Middle East, surrounded by Iran, Georgia, Armenia and Russia. The race was based out of the capital city, Baku in the East, on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
When I looked at the stages for the Tour, I assumed that the race was going to be very similar to other races that I had done in Asia... big open highways, large peloton and lots of crazy breakaway attempts. I was keen to be on the attack early in the race and see what happens.
Stage 1 started on the highways heading out of Baku. We had a massive tailwind so the race started very fast. I managed to get off the front of the bunch with a couple of others, holding a gap of only a couple of hundred meters before being reeled in. I rolled back through the peloton to catch my breath, just before we turned a corner. Then the wind came.

We turned into 70kph crosswinds that tore the peloton into pieces. Everyone was riding at a 30 degree angle to the right as we leaned into the wind to stay upright. If you looked at the race, it seemed as though we were riding sideways across a steep hill. We were basically riding through a sand storm! I have never ridden in such strong winds before. Back home, if it is that windy it means that there is a cyclone coming and you probably lock yourself inside and secure any loose objects! Eventually, I found myself in grupetto and we had to ride 130km into the crazy winds to finish the stage. It was a long, tough day in the office.

That night after the stage, I discovered something. It turns out that Azerbaijan is one of the windiest countries on the planet with strong winds for more than 250 days of the year. On top of that, the city name of 'Baku' is actually derived form the old Persian name, Bād-kube, meaning "Wind-pounded city" and the nickname for Baku is the 'City of Winds'! As expected then, the weather prediction for Stage 2 was much the same.
Stage 2 began in a much more calmly manner, with a small break going off the front and the peloton cruising along at 30kph. I was in need of a nature break but wary of the wind, I was somewhat reluctant to pull over. For about 10km, I ummed and ahhed over whether I should pull over to stop before finally deciding that I couldn't hold it anymore and the bunch was going slow enough for it to not be a problem. I rolled to the back of the race and the moment I unclipped my shoe, someone attacked at the front of the race.
At the exact moment I decided to pull over, the race was on. The wind split the field into pieces again and for the second day in a row, I was stuck in grupetto, chasing hard for 150km to finish the stage. It was an even longer and tougher day than Stage 1.

For the next two stages, the leading team took control of the race and everything seemed a bit more organized. I stayed near the front of the race the entire time as I did not want to get caught out by the wind again and recovered the best I could from the first 2 days' efforts.
The final stage was another long day with 200km of racing, finishing with 5 circuits in Baku city. Each circuit contained a climb through the city on narrow cobblestone streets and the field would almost be single file as it went through. The commisaires were quick to pull dropped riders out of the race due to the traffic so it was important to hang on to the front group for as long as possible. Fortunately, I managed to stay with them until the 4th trip up the climb and was relieved to finish the Tour.
With all of the carnage from the wind, at the end of the race, only 91 riders out of 150 starters managed to finish the race! I now know why the Tour d'Azerbaidjan has a reputation for being a difficult race... its like riding through a cyclone in the middle of a desert!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Why a metre does NOT matter...

Before I start, let me just say that this is only my opinion. It’s probably not right but everyone is entitled to an opinion. Just like you…

So Queensland has just implemented a law that requires cars to give at least 1m of space when overtaking a cyclist. Despite this, I’m still getting bombarded with stories on Facebook of cyclists being hit by cars and equally bombarded by the rage of drivers in the comments section. Everyone (well, cyclists mainly) are celebrating the new law but I’m willing to bet money that it has no affect at all. Why???? Because implementing a law that requires a car to give cyclists 1m of space is like making a law that requires you to give up your seat on the bus to heavily pregnant women or the elderly. If you are not already doing it, then there is probably something fundamentally wrong with you as a human being.
Think about it. 1m is not much room. If I get within 1m of another car when I’m trying to park, I start to panic and I will probably back up. If you are driving within 1m of another moving object that you cannot predict the movement of, then you really should question your driving abilities. Actually, you really should question your basic manners and scruples because giving 1m is a simple courtesy given out of the respect for another human being. If you ever think ‘how can I possibly give 1m of room’, (which I have seen in many of the comments from irate drivers), then you are a straight out (insert rude word here).

In a few days, I will be heading back to Brisbane for a couple of weeks of no racing and I’m not looking forward to riding on QLD roads again. Since leaving in January, I have had a total of 1 car beep their horn at me and about 3 cars that have passed close enough to me for me to think, ‘hmmmm, that was a bit close’.

So why are the attitudes of drivers so different here in Spain?  Well, for starters, it seems like absolutely no one in Spain is in a hurry to get anywhere. Cars will sit behind you for as long as it takes before they pass safely and even give you a wave as they go by. In fact, they are so patient that it can actually be annoying to me as a cyclist. If a car is behind me for an extended period of time, I start to panic and think that they are just going to be getting more and more angry so I should make room for them to pass. But they never do. At traffic lights, cars will sit in line without making a noise if the light turns green and no one notices. Then they will take off at a snail’s pace.

It’s as if the default state of mind here in Spain is relaxed and calm. Everyone just wants to chill out with family and friends and see that others get to do the same. I mean, heck, everything closes for 4hrs a day so that people can eat with the family and have a nap! The traffic lights favor the pedestrian crossings and if you actually are in a hurry, then you take the freeways. As a result, if you are driving on small back roads, there is an unwritten agreement that the right of way goes to the cyclist because if you want to go fast, take a better road!

Back home in Brisbane seems like the exact opposite. The default state of mind seems to be stressed and rushed. Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere, looking for any shortcut possible to get there quicker and they assume that everyone else is the same. So if a bike is on the road, there is the impression that they are just slowing everyone down and should get out of the way. Shouldn’t we revel in the fact that someone is out enjoying life instead of accusing them of wasting your precious time?

As a cyclist, I can appreciate that people are trying to get from A to B and I do my best to not impede them. I stick the left, I indicate and I wave cars through when I can. It’s simple civility. Giving a cyclist 1m meter of room isn’t a matter of law. It’s a matter of the frame of mind of drivers. Don’t give a metre because it’s a rule. Give a metre because it’s courteous and common decency.