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!

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