Azerbaijan On Two Wheels: The Distance Between Here And There
Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson


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Azerbaijan On Two Wheels: The Distance Between Here And There

The Tour of Azerbaijan is a long way from the Tour de France, and Airgas-Safeway's riders know it. But it means a lot to know it's possible to get from here to there.

This is the final installment in the five-part series detailing Patrick Redford's adventures with the Airgas-Safeway cycling team at the Tour of Azerbaijan. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, and part four here.

The last day of the Tour of Azerbaijan falls on Heydar Aliyev's 92nd birthday and nothing is bigger in Azerbaijan than Heydar Aliyev. This is a literal truth—in any part of any city in Azerbaijan, you are never more than a few kilometers away from a billboard or statue of the late ruler. Some of them have grandiose quotes about his messianic qualities, some also feature his son, the current president Ilham. All of them are massive.


Reinforcing the cult of personality surrounding Aliyev has been a priority of his son's government. The airport is named after him, as are most significant public monuments; the National Academy of Sciences in Baku even has a department of Aliyev Studies. Statues have gone up across the former Soviet world, and there are monuments to Aliyev as far away as Jordan, Egypt, and Mexico. (The Mexico City statue came with a free park, but on the condition that Mexico recognize certain massacres as genocides and trivialize the Armenian genocide.) Money can buy statues and repression can buy unlimited, unchallenged domestic propaganda, but buying the rights to history is a more complex transaction.

About that history: Heydar Aliyev led Soviet Azerbaijan for over 20 years, sat on the Soviet politburo, and was the president of independent Azerbaijan until his death in 2003. During his rule, he crushed all opposition, often with the help of his Mafia connections—a 2009 United States state department cable obtained by Wikileaks compared the Aliyev family to the Corleones—got into a war with Armenia that is ongoing, studded the government with his family and cronies, and made the country incredibly rich. That last part is crucial to the family's ongoing airtight grip on the country; they can afford to be the first and only family in Azeri politics because they control the economy. Azerbaijan had the world's fastest growing economy for a large part of the mid-2000's, and in under 25 years went from a war-torn fledgling former Soviet republic to an absurdly wealthy state building residential islands for the international elite and inaugurating sporting competitions. The Tour of Azerbaijan is one of those.


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A somber line of men and women in formal dress issues from the cemetery across the street from the Flame Towers. Everyone is holding a rose, as Aliyev's birthday is known as the Flower Festival. They barely look up as we zoom by. Every surface of a park near the start of the race is covered in flowers, and the Boulevard next to the Caspian Sea is crisscrossed by red and white strands of flowers, punctuated by balloons bearing Aliyev's image.

The city looks immaculate. Returning to the grandiosity of Baku after spending a few days in Gabala takes some acclimating to. Both smack of central planning, but Baku's excesses are of an experimental future where Gabala's are almost quaint in comparison.

Hordes of spectators lining the barriers wave Azeri flags at us. Most of the country is Muslim, but the state is Israel's biggest oil supplier and they have let Israel use air bases near the Iranian border. Recent polls show a population that is not particularly religious. The only evident religious fervor in the country is its belief in itself, and its relentless celebration of Azerbaijan. It's impossible to suss out how much of this is propaganda and how much is genuine, but many Azeris I talked to were quick to mention how proud they were of their nation and they saw the Baku Games as a symbol of the country's rise. The media translator made a point of stressing the country's fantastic record with diversity.


None of this casual conversation implies any kind of widespread support or condemnation for the Aliyev's at all, of course. But given how long a struggle the country has had for self-determination and the establishment of an independent Azeri identity, the acute patriotism and palpable national ambition make sense. Anyway, patriotism is rarely an easy or unilateral thing.


Stage 5 is a circuit race threading through the highlights of downtown Baku. There will be eight laps around the Flame Towers, onto the Boulevard and back again, and then the last three laps tack on a whirlwind pass through the Old City. In the course of minutes, riders will weave between Azerbaijan's contested ancient history and its expansionary present, which is fascinating, but not a thing we can really afford to think much about right now. There is a bike race we're trying to win today. Chris Horner is tied on GC with two other racers and if he can pick up just a second on either, he will make it onto the final podium. He sits in fourth now because of a technicality, and he wants to rectify that.

Horner has black electrical tape on his wrists to deal with the Old City's cobbles, the same tape he rocked during his Vuelta win. Dude can be right on the cutting edge in some ways—he intimately knows how much power he's losing due to his bronchitis infection—and so old school in others, from his refusal to set up an Instagram to insisting on tape instead of gloves. This is, I suppose, the territory that comes with continuing to race bikes as a 43-year-old; you know what works.


Connor McCutcheon and Luis Lemus are rocking skinsuits today for the first time. Despite the high risk of crashing on the winding and highly technical circuit, both are very important cards Airgas-Safeway can play today. Each will need to protect Horner and chart a course through any kind of danger, and depending how the race shakes out, they could have a chance to go for the win. Connor in particular has been quiet but rock steady all week. While he hasn't gone for anything, he's defended Horner and stuck around the top 25, keeping Airgas near the top of the team competition.

The race rolls out in the shadow of Baku's Government House. All week, Chris Johnson, Mark Purdy, and I have been playing 'Guess the Palace?', which is exactly what it sounds like. We never drive by the actual palace, but as we are in an autocracy most of our guesses are right to some degree. The Government House is a beautiful, baroque building that looms over most of the last kilometer of racing. Security personnel glare at us. Nobody will let me take their picture.

Bear all on my Benz. — Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson

Just like yesterday, Griffin finds himself in the early break, a three-man bunch featuring riders from RusVelo and the Cycling Academy Team. Today is an excellent day to be in the break because Eurosport is once again covering the stage. Also, the technical course suits a small group, and Adria Mobil is tired out from chasing breakaways all week.


The circuit whips down Neftchilar Avenue, past the Gucci, Armani, and Dior stores. This is the most extravagant shopping area in the city, but its storefronts are only about 40 percent occupied. Like most of Baku, the neighborhood is under construction. Saleswomen in fancy dresses idly watch the race while impossibly slick businessmen walk by. After turning off Neftchilar, the race winds towards the Flame Towers. There is a category three hill that peaks just past the Towers, and this time it actually looks selective.

As we crest it the first time, Johnson grins, "Oh man, Horner is gonna love this. It's gonna be fucking hard out there today." Even on the first pass, we get a sense of the difficulty from the number of riders coming backwards. Each time up the climb brings a fresh round of abandons. We gleefully squeak around the tortuous corners in our standard issue Benz, meeting every indicator of difficulty with hoots and hollers.

Griffin and his breakmates have been working well all day and when their advantage peaks at six minutes, we decide that we should fuel him up. He has been winning all the intermediate sprints, so maybe he is Airgas' best chance at a win. Dude might stay away all the way until the finish today. The rest of the team won't have to lift a finger to chase, so we are set up well either way.

I get out of the car in the feed zone and wait for him to pass by. The Drapac staffers think the break is staying all the way until the finish. They are comically grouchy and complain about how the whole race has gone for them.


Their bad luck extends to their race forecasting. Griffin's advantage quickly starts to melt away as we approach the start of the Old City circuits. The catch happens soon after, and with three laps left, we fly into the Old City with the race ahead of us finally unified. There are cobbles on part of the Flame Towers climb, but they're nothing like these. They are shining and slippery, and we see a rider from Torku Sekerspor slide out at low speed right in front of us. Some of the little hairpins are hardly big enough for the car to fit through; the whole procession becomes a matter of waiting for someone to take a tight corner, then zipping up to catch them to try and keep the caravan together. It feels like we're auditioning for a role in a low-speed Fast & Furious sequel. Racers that fall back into the caravan push off cars and the race quickly devolves into chaotic churn of spectators, policemen, cars, and riders.

A race can't be won through positioning amid the cobbles, but it can be lost there; riders at the back of the peloton are already losing it, swallowed up waiting behind crashes. Connor, a positioning expert, leads out Horner and sprints for first wheel every time they head back onto the cobbles. He tells me that he has to go full gas to make it first into the corner, which he does every time.

After we exit the Old City, we see a Kazakh rider whose entire seat got shaken off on the cobbles. Road bicycles are featherlight and the gnarled cobbles are a force of entropy, thrown into the race to shake things up and gnash those bikes to bits if necessary. Organizers gleefully include them in races because they're wild, and also to enhance the sense of a lived history. Azerbaijan doesn't have the cycling history that places like Belgium and Italy do, but they do at least have the terrain.


Excuse me, sir, but your bike's butt fell off. — Photo by Patrick Redford

Heydar Aliyev's birthday is a national festival in Azerbaijan in part because Azerbaijan is too young an independent nation to have very many holidays. America celebrates the birthdays of two presidents because of what, fairly or unfairly, they represent about the values the country wants to align itself with, at least publicly. Azerbaijan celebrates Heydar Aliyev's birthday because he is considered the architect of the country, the one who steered it to safety during the early 1990's. There is no other president's birthday to celebrate.

As Ilham Aliyev continues to push his father as the nation's founding saint, maybe the Flower Festival becomes a bigger deal. Analogously, maybe the Tour of Azerbaijan is deemed successful and expands to become a more important race. A bike race is a strange choice of luxury project, but it provides an invisible tether back to the European core, which fits Azerbaijan's aspirations.

As dedicated as cycling is to its traditions, it is and always has been about money. The history of the Tour De France is the story of a newspaper magnate trying to get rich and famous, not that of a peasant sport that grew organically. And who's to say the Tour of Azerbaijan is inherently any more or less worthy than any race? If the gulf races overtake the Tour De France, they will not erase tradition so much as update it. The story changes as needed, always.


The race is almost over and Chris, Mark, and I are tracking who is falling off the back. Ideally, Horner attacks on the final climb and drops at least one of the two guys tied with him on GC. The peloton is shredded to ribbons behind him, but he doesn't attack. Narrow groups of riders clump together to fight their way back up. Looks like Horner is confident in his sprint.


Now just six kilometers from the finish, it's every man for himself. The wind has kicked up and frantic attacks are coming from everywhere. Echelons keep forming and absorbing each other and the trailing grupetto swells. One of our two target men drops, but a teammate helps him claw his way back into contact.

Sergey Firsanov and Alexandr Shushemoin jump on a descent and there's only a small group left to chase them down. The two riders work together and Firsanov wins the two-up. Behind him, Horner sprints as hard as he can. He outkicks most every sprinter but can't snap the elastic and get a time gap. He's fourth.

"Cycling is a weird sport," Chris Johnson laments during the post-race shuffle. "We did everything well, all race, but we have nothing to show for it." Bravery and grit matter in some intangible sense, but Johnson is right. The Tour of California is going to start in nine hours and there will be no defiant revenge. That Airgas-Safeway shaped the race as much as anyone will be remembered by the people who were there feeling the texture of the race as it slipped by, but the rest of the world has no room for such subtlety and nuance. The riders know how they've raced and they roll back to the team car with their heads up.

I greet Horner with a sandwich. Every third sentence he says starts with, "Fuck, man…" but he isn't too broken up about missing the podium. He shows me his front wheel, which has six broken spokes. The cobbles of the Old City took their toll but he couldn't afford to stop just as the race was heating up. It would have been logistically impossible for us to get to him, anyway, much less for him to catch the leading group. So Horner put his head down and rode, broken wheel and all. You don't last two decades in a sport this cruel without learning how to let your troubles go or knowing when to let go of reason and race without fear.


In 1997, Horner signed with the French FDJ squad, then in its first year. He lived in a small apartment outside Paris, trained every day in the cold rain; he told me that he hated it. The level of detail I got from him was granular—what the rain looked like every day, what it was like to not be able to communicate. Eventually, he got so sick of living in France that he threatened to quit. "Actually, I did quit once, after I got in a fight," he laughs. He headed back to San Diego to train, sure he would never return to FDJ. When he rediscovered his form after a month of training, Horner figured he may as well try Europe one last time. He finished on the podium at the 1997 GP Ouest France, and ended up staying until 1999.

Then, after five years spent dominating the United States circuit, Horner returned to Europe with Saunier Duval. He nearly won a stage at his debut Tour De France, when he was 33. In 2006, he signed with Lotto and they sent him to do the Tour of Qatar because they thought he was a sprinter. The times he's been best suited to go after the Tour De France, he's either been forced to work for others—once, comically, for Lance in 2010—or he crashed out. All of which is to say that Chris Horner wanted better, but is fine with a fourth at the Tour of Azerbaijan. He's known worse.

Horner showing that championship decolletage in the 2007 Tour de France. — Photo by Icon Sport via USA TODAY Sports

Another thing about Chris Horner: dude loves McDonalds. After the race, we jump into honking, halting Baku traffic in search of Big Macs. Horner eats two. We take pictures of the menu and the cashiers immediately start yelling at us that no photos are allowed. After five wearying days of racing—or in the staff's case, frantically putting out various logistical fires—the fast food is a welcome and unhealthy tonic. In the back of the van, Johnson plans out everyone's next races on a piece of cardboard. Horner is occasionally called back to help decide who should race where. Johnson buys plane tickets on his phone while mentally juggling the overlapping schedules of his 15 riders.


On the way back we pass the Heydar Aliyev Center, a swooping, spheroid, liquid eggshell of a building. The monument won the 2014 Design of the Year and it houses art shows, concerts, and public events. Its construction was powered by a massive human trafficking campaign that smuggled in migrant workers from the Balkans, whose Azeri employers/masters forced to work without rest or water. Qatar's similar but larger international slave labor operation was uncovered shortly after and took all the headlines. And now the Aliyevs have a monument with a horrific backstory that's already fading from view.

When we get to the Old City, Luis and I hope out to check it out. It strikes me that this free hour is the closest thing to downtime I've seen all week. This is the only chance for the riders to see any of Azerbaijan beyond its roads and hotels, but everyone besides Luis chooses recovery time. Now that we are not in a tense, dangerous racing scenario, the Old City seems lovely. Cats lounge in the sun, groups of children play soccer next to the centuries-old walls, and everyone wants to sell us a rug. I ask Luis how he thought his race went.

"I was about to go for it, right at the end there. I let a little gap open up and was just about to attack when Horner told me to go chase [an attack] down." Horner is a great teammate, he adds, unlike a few older riders he's raced next to, but the opportunity to learn from Horner does come at the cost of some opportunities to go for a win. Later Chris Johnson will tell me that he wants to focus on making Luis the team leader at some races.


Luis mentions that some people on Twitter, surprise, have expressed outrage that he would travel to Azerbaijan. He understands the problems with the Azeri regime—Lemus has a remarkably vast knowledge of the cycling world—but he is also a professional athlete with a job to do. As a rider on a fringe cycling team, you have to race as much as you can and chase exposure and wins wherever they are to be had. Racing in Azerbaijan isn't an explicit endorsement of arbitrary imprisonment, just as racing in the United States isn't an explicit endorsement of, say, racist policing. The job's demands are simple, but they do not exist along a good-and-evil binary. Of course they don't.

Ain't no party like a professional cycling party, except maybe weird Bar Mitzvahs are somewhat similar. — Photo by Patrick Redford

Back at the hotel, the Giro D'Italia is on at the bar. It's the second-biggest stage race in the world behind the Tour De France; from the hotel bar, it appears to be unfolding in a different universe than the Tour of Azerbaijan. As its sprint finish approaches, a crowd of riders, coaches, and officials gather to watch. Most of these people will never get to the Giro; all of them aspire to it. It has been done before; Ilnur Zakarin won the Tour of Azerbaijan last year and he will go on to win a stage at the 2015 Giro. The next Zakarin could be in the bar tonight, hungrily watching the Giro.

The bartender gives me a Xirdalan on the house before the team shows up. It is one of those faintly Bud-esque national lagers, like Kingfisher in India or Quilmes in Argentina, that is as ubiquitous as it is flavorless. The team gathers for a debrief before the final banquet. Chris has just given everyone surprise bonuses, which are small by cycling standards, but are still a welcome surprise for the hustling cyclists. He buys a daiquiri for Kevin, who apparently fell in love with the drink when the team raced in South Africa last season. Tomorrow morning, when we all leave, Kevin, Griffin Easter, and Alex Darville will head to the east coast to prepare for a string of races. Connor and Horner will both go back to Oregon and Luis will head to Aguascalientes to train.

Tonight, we have a banquet to get to. The packed hall is dark save one man furiously karaokeing in the center of an empty dance floor. He goes through a four-song routine, singing some other culture's hits; the Azeri team seated next to us gets so into it that they join him for the last song. A trio of silent waiters serves dinner.

Quickly and decisively, the banquet turns into a party. It smells like weed in the bathroom, the DJ starts playing Russian EDM, and riders flood the floor. Primož Roglič pops a bottle of victory champagne and sprays his team. Chris Johnson and I share a small bottle of vodka before he excuses himself to write blog and Facebook posts until the plane leaves. Connor McCutcheon turns to me and repeats something I heard from Chris earlier.

"Cycling," he says, "is a weird sport. It's funny how we race and fight for wheels and now everyone's here dancing." He points out a rider jumping up-and-down on the dance floor. "I'm pretty sure I've pushed that dude into the curb. And now we're all here together." Everyone goes to bed, but Connor and I figure we may as well stay up, since we are getting kicked out of the hotel at three.

Connor lives in Bend, Oregon, where he rides, hunts, and attends community college. He hates cities and is quiet, but he opens up as the week goes on. Connor is a domestique, and a good one. He knows he's good at positioning and understands that the way he can help the team most is through working for others. But the guys who end up as domestiques on top teams, he says, "all killed it at this level."

When he's in Bend, Connor works construction to pay for school and trains as much as he can. He tells me that Horner, who also lives in Bend, pays him a small stipend so he can train with him instead of working. Later, Connor will be one of only 20 riders to finish the USPRO National Championships, where he'll help Horner to a top five finish. After that, Connor delivers a top ten performance at the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic. He's getting there.


The next morning—or, anyway, two hours later—the Cycling Federation requests that we leave, immediately. And we do, blearily. Horner wisely slept through the party and is the most rested one here. At the airport, I ask him about the things he saw and what he thought about the country. He shrugs and says from what he saw it's a nice country but you can't get a sense of things from just riding it. But this is the dude who also told me, "I had a place in Spain, I didn't see shit. I walked around the town once, one day. Only time I saw the beach was when I broke the bike and couldn't ride."

He is 43 and he'll keep riding. I can't see him doing anything else. He complains sometimes, but when Johnson mentions a new race, his eyes light up. The younger guys want to make it to the World Tour and legendary races like the Tour De France and Paris Roubaix. That is a long way from here, but knowing that it's possible—and it has been done—is enough to keep the pedals turning.

The most consecutive hours of sleep I see Chris Johnson get are on the flight from Baku to JFK, and he still bangs out a press release. I borrow a NyQuil from Horner and conk out. The flight is maybe one-third full. When we go through immigration at JFK, I tell the passport control attendant that we are a cycling team. "Oh, that's funny," she says. "I just saw that there was a race in California yesterday. Do you know anything about that?" I just say no.