Azerbaijan On Two Wheels: Riding Around The World On A Punctured Tire
Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson


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Azerbaijan On Two Wheels: Riding Around The World On A Punctured Tire

In which a writer goes across the globe to a suddenly wealthy petro-state to cover an upstart professional cycling team, and is quickly put to work fixing bicycles.

This is the first part of a five-part series detailing Patrick Redford's adventures with the Airgas-Safeway cycling team in the Tour of Azerbaijan. You can find the entire series here.

The Kempinski Hotel Badamdar sits on the saddle of a hill that rises off the Caspian Sea, dividing downtown Baku from the suburbs and desert back towards the continent. Look east and you can see the Flame Towers, lumpy monuments to the natural resource that has Azerbaijan expanding at a rate otherwise seen only in Qatar or Dubai. These are gaudy, beautiful glass skyscrapers that appear to be melting; at night, their LED's blast light-shows. Sometimes, it's a person waving an Azeri flag. Sometimes it's a crackling hi-def fire. If you want to buy a Lamborghini, you can visit the dealership in the south tower.


To the west of the hotel are scattered piles of rubble and a muddy saltwater lake. Beyond that lake, past a highway and a mall, is an expanse of dusty settlements and old factories, yawning away onto the plains. The sharp divide between this world and the opulence of central Baku isn't so much between past and future, but rather an invisible border that delineates the Azerbaijan that has evolved linearly over thousands of years—with its shifting constellation of Turkish, Persian, and Russian influences—from the new, aspirational Azerbaijan, which is a place of streamlined, bombastic luxury, and expansive ambition made possible by oil.

Azerbaijan's big reveal starts with the inaugural European Games, a Europe-only Olympics, which concluded on June 28. The country reportedly dropped $10 billion on the Games, despite all the recent press about how that sort of investment is never a sound financial decision. But the point of the Games wasn't about making money, or even recouping an investment. The idea was to advertise the country as a legitimate global player. The Games were, as expected, flashy, slick, and controversial, as the country greeted their arrival with a crackdown on human rights.

The tune-up event for Baku 2015, however, is something much different. Where the Games are a Maybach Music montage special of chromed-out stadia, the experience surrounding the Tour of Azerbaijan is a lot closer to that central meridian between the two Azerbaijans. I went to Baku for this five-stage Tour to see cycling on the fringe, and to observe the intersection between autocracy, money, and diversity in cycling and Azerbaijan. Also I wanted to be close to a sport I love. I had no way of knowing how close I was going to get.


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Halfway around the world and 12 time zones away, the Tour of California was about to start. This is the biggest race in the United States, with a field populated by former world champions and men who've won jerseys at the Tour De France. But America's most accomplished rider isn't there. Chris Horner has won nearly everything there is to win as a cyclist in the United States, and is the only American with a Grand Tour victory this century. He won California in 2011, but instead of preparing for the grand départ in Sacramento, he was there at the Kempinski Hotel Badamdar with me.

Horner is 43 and he currently races for the third-division Airgas-Safeway team, which arrived in Baku directly from New Mexico's arduous Tour of the Gila. After flying all night over continents, plural, everyone is exhausted and they all get horizontal as fast as possible. The race starts tomorrow, and rest is as valuable a commodity as food or water.

Team manager Chris Johnson doesn't get to do this. There isn't enough time for him to sleep, given his responsibilities as owner, sponsor liaison, grocery runner, and boots-on-the-ground coach. While his six riders are bleary, Johnson is pinging around like an electron. We're in the lobby checking in, and they don't have a media pass for me. Johnson explains that I am not media this week, I am with them. In the team car, in the meetings, everywhere. He slaps me on the back and says, "We're putting you to work dude."


Johnson is an ex-pro who raced on the famous and doomed Rock Racing squad. Turns out he and I live a few blocks away from each other back home and train on the same roads. His force of personality is magnetic; if there is such a thing as the type of person who should throw himself into founding a small cycling team, Johnson is him.

Most other teams brought a mechanic or two, staffers in charge of feeding the riders, and a directeur sportif, essentially a coach and logistics ringleader. Airgas gets by with Chris, mechanic Mark Purdy, and, now, me. I head downstairs to the dungeony garage and start preparing the bikes for Stage 1. I will not be getting the prescriptive Tour of Azerbaijan experience.

In which the author is instructed by a professional cyclist that he should've brought more sunblock. — Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson

About those bikes: Airgas rides Marin Stelvios. Marin is a company based near the team's San Francisco HQ, and their machines are as light and sleek as any of the others scattered around the garage but they are among the least ostentatious. We are wedged in between the Kazakh national team and the Cycling Academy Team, both of which ride top-of-the-line Specialized Tarmacs. RusVelo is a couple stalls over and they have limited-edition Ferrari Colnagos, which Purdy appraises at "at least $20,000" apiece.

"They have more money than us," grins Johnson, "and we're gonna beat 'em all." I mention I like the team kits. "I designed those," he tells me.

While we are unpacking boxes and assembling bikes, the Tarmacs and Colnagos sit in uniform rows, each machine the same. In contrast, each Stelvio has little tweaks to it. Because Airgas-Safeway doesn't have an all-inclusive bike parts deal with any one company, they are free to customize their bikes to their liking. The Stelvios sport custom bearings that Johnson personally selected in Italy; their water bottle cages look like any old commuter cage, but they are hyperlight. The saddle on Griffin Easter's bike was a gift from his brother's wedding.


"How much did you pay for four years of college?" Johnson asks me. "Well that's about what our annual budget is. UnitedHealthcare (a second-division team) runs on $8 million a year. I don't have that, so I have to play Moneyball." Johnson is damn good at this game. Airgas-Safeway has the lowest budget of any of the 10 American Continental division teams. Most of the third-tier's better teams—SmartStop, Hincapie, Axeon—went to the Tour of California after Gila. Airgas was not invited.

But Airgas-Safeway smoked all but one in the team General Classification standings at Gila. "We beat UHC and over half the field in the Gila time trial. We don't have time trial bikes." He stressed respect for other teams but Johnson clearly delights in beating them despite having many fewer resources. Gila marked the professional racing debut of Matt Rodrigues, a 31-year-old schoolteacher from Davis, California. Rodrigues finished 16th overall at Gila. These are the type of out-of-nowhere results Airgas are going for, and they get them more often than would seem possible.

At Gila, the team couldn't spring for a hotel. So instead of scattering around the limited AirBnB options in Silver City, NM, they stayed together on the floor of the gym at a local church. They bought mattresses, remote control helicopters, and a large TV at WalMart. Team meals were cooked in the kitchen; family and friends came and went at their leisure. At the end of the week, they returned the helicopters and TV and used the money to scramble together flights to New York.


It's a different story here in the Caucasus. The country's cycling federation flew everyone out on Azerbaijan Air and put us all up in a hotel—full disclosure: this includes me. Every night, there is a buffet dinner, which is where I finally meet the now semi-rested team. Airgas-Safeway has six riders here; Horner, Luis Lemus, Connor McCutcheon, Kevin Gottlieb, Griffin Easter, and Alex Darville. Most are nearly half Horner's age; Darville is 20. I worried that the team would find my embedding with them a nuisance, but we get along instantly. Most of them are my age and anything but hardened by past experiences with the media. They've had little such experience to speak of.

The riders are wiped out but talkative, and nearly as curious about my job as I am about theirs. They eat like people who have to race 154 kilometers tomorrow. I do not have to, but I make the mistake of eating like it anyway.


A race can be lost at any moment. There is always a crash, or weather problems, or the intrusion of some as-yet unknown force of entropy. Sometimes this means a neo-pro escapes the peloton and forces conspire to give him a big win. Sometimes all the former winners crash out of the first week of the Tour De France. This is what makes cycling great.

The first team meeting is dedicated to reminding the cyclists of this, minus the affirmation at the end. Stage 1 is not a time to win the race, Johnson says, it's a time not to lose the race. Tomorrow is a flat stage, meaning the race will likely finish together in a bunch sprint. Darville is the team's designated sprinter, but after conquering the Gila monster less than 24 hours ago, it seems wiser for the team to look after Horner and feel out the field instead of burning matches in chasing a full lead-out for a sprint victory. Alex wants to but can't wear one of the skinsuits that the team brought because they want to save those precious jerseys for the USA national championships. "I want to fucking win some shit this week," Johnson concludes. "Throw it in the Tour of California's face." Tired as they are, the riders manically agree.


The riders go to sleep, and we make a grocery run. Horner needs his Snickers tomorrow, because he needs his Snickers every day. Chris Johnson and I head out and are immediately lost in Baku. The city is impossibly illuminated. Parisian-style apartment buildings are lit up like a movie set. There's not a dark stretch of sidewalk in sight. We never go more than 30 seconds without seeing an advertisement for Baku 2015. Our standard-issue Mercedes team car would blend in well to the prevailing tax bracket in Baku's traffic, were it not for the big American flag stuck to the side. I ask what their domestic team car situation is. "Mostly Kevin's mom's car or another parent's car," Johnson says. "Man, I gotta get a UHaul sponsorship."

Our most important purchase that night is a small stuffed bear that we ziptie to the grille and dub AzBear. He will become the team's talisman and a regular feature of the team's Instagram. On the way back, a race official's car nearly runs us over.

Buy-A-Bear Workcraft. — Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson

One sugar. Two sugars. Three sugars. Four sugars. On the morning of Stage 1, the oldest Grand Tour winner in history is calmly adding a fifth packet of sugar to his morning cup of tea. "Man, I wanna race somewhere hot," Horner says as a gale howls outside. "I haven't raced a hot day since Spain."

"Well," smiles Johnson, "that's the great thing about this team: you tell us where to go, we go."

Chris Horner is not particular. Most stars would not want to suffer a massage-free race, much less one in a faraway country with teammates a generation younger. But this is the thing about Horner: he just wants to race his bike. At 43, he's somehow still among the best doing it, despite suffering a series of near career-ending injuries, including a number of concussions. Cycling is an old man's game, but it is not supposed to be a 43-year-old's game. Johnson attributes Horner's sticking points—must have Snickers in the team car, don't change plans last minute—in part to these head injuries. Everything else is just him.


In Azerbaijan, Horner is still battling a gnarly bronchitis infection that has plagued him for over a year. Last April, he was training in Italy when a car smashed him into a guardrail and dipped out. He told me he knew it was so bad that he could barely breathe. Turns out he punctured his lung, which led to the infection that's dogged him since. The crash could have ended his career, and maybe should have, but he went and finished 17th at the Tour De France that year despite riding most of the race as a domestique and not being able to breathe at full capacity.

Every time his hacking cough rings around the room, riders and team managers sneak glances at him. Nobody knows exactly how much the infection is sapping his performance, but he is the biggest star in this race and his condition will be tightly scrutinized. When the racing starts in earnest later in the week, everyone will be watching him.

The race starts after a presentation at National Flag Square, which is a square with a flag that is 70 meters wide billowing off a pole that is the third tallest in the world. Far below, EDM blasts while a man with an English accent announces each team. Horner is asked some rote questions that are hard to hear over the techno, and after some traffic-jam crockery, we are off. I'm in the front seat, Johnson is driving, and Purdy is in the backseat with the extra wheels.

Ten minutes into the race, the shit hits the fan. Race radio is peppering us with innocuous facts about the oil platforms, stadia, and mosques we are passing on our way out of Baku when suddenly, our worst fears come true. "AIRGAS! 51! Rear wheel! Puncture." It's Horner. Our plans for the day could be fucked.


So we honk and swerve through the caravan. Horner is dangling behind the peloton, hand up, looking for us. In the maddened weave of cars, bikes, and spectators, we take too long to get to him, passing him before finally scrambling out to change the punctured wheel. Purdy is sticking the skewer back into the wheel when pop, the cassette jangles off into the dirt. Johnson yells to me "BACK IN THE CAR!" Horner throws his hands in the air and as calmly as he can, sighs, "Ah fuck c'mon man, just calm down, change the wheel. We'll do a bike change later. Let's go now!" We push him off, then catch back up to him to tow him in.

At the front, the oblivious peloton is charging. Doomed breakaways yo-yo off the front only to get chased down. Nobody is controlling what is setting up as a swarm of a race. We have to get Horner back up there or we're done before the race even starts, so we get to finding out exactly how fast the car can go. The gas is pinned, we're flying at 90 mph. Horner is holding onto us, while Purdy fiddles with his wheel, yelling, "FUCKING FLOOR IT, GO GO GO, FASTER DAMNIT."

We zip by Kevin Gottlieb, who fell trying to go back and tow Horner up. As we grab him, Kevin holds onto my window while I get the debris off of his handlebars and check to see if anything is seriously damaged. After we do the bike change with Horner, we only have one functioning spare wheel, so it better not be. The dust has settled. We are frayed all the way out.


Every ten minutes or so, Johnson sighs and wonders if we've irreparably dropped the ball. We try to negotiate for help with the neutral support car, but they only speak Italian. Racing along the dry countryside, I'm halfway out the window trying to use hand motions, Spanish, and a Snickers to intimate that we will need an extra back wheel, should our streak of bad luck continue. We make the trade, maybe slightly less than half-sure we really understood each other.

The flurry of crises over, the race locks into a strangely calm groove. Johnson, Purdy, and I have a chance to take in the scenery along the Caspian coast; which is mostly hulking oil infrastructure and the odd monument, eventually ceding to semiarid hills. Everything seems to be named after either the former autocrat Heydar Aliyev or current autocrat Ilham Aliyev. I wonder aloud if the Caspian Sea is warm and none of us have really any idea. Policemen line the road every 50 meters or so, even in the starkly underpopulated segments of the country. A woman in a black dress and heels walks on the side of the desert road, miles from any town, oblivious to the race. The most exciting part of the next hour is when we watch three policemen chase a goat off of an embankment.

The race snakes across the Absheron Peninsula to the finishing circuits in Sumgayit, where we are greeted by masses of people waving small Azeri flags at us. I hop out of the car in the feeding zone with some extra waters. We don't have anyone on staff to sit there and wait all day like most of the other teams, but jumping the 17 other cars in the caravan is a logistical impossibility in the sinuous finish so I'll either try my feed the cyclists then or it's not happening at all. The whirring, speeding peloton charges by me but nobody needs anything. Back in the car.


You'd be happy, too, if your legs were that smooth. — Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson

The other shoe finally drops. The race is fast and spread out, churning toward the finish, when we hear those three words again.

"AIRGAS! 51! Puncture!"

The patched-together calm of the car shatters. Our race could be over. The balding tires of the Mercedes screech around the corner, narrowly avoiding riders, policemen, and other team cars. Purdy is yelling for Johnson to slow down. Johnson is yelling "FUCK FUCK FUCK!" If Horner was within the last three kilometers when he punctured, he will get the same time as the peloton. But if he stops before that mark, there is no regulatory salvation and his time is his time, meaning his chances of victory are dust. Nobody is sure where that margin is exactly. We all expect the worst.

And so we fly towards him with our imaginations in dark places, only to encounter a sublimely chilled-out cyclist. Horner raced for about a kilometer with a busted front wheel, got confirmation he was within the safe zone, then requested help. After the jittery start to the race, everyone laughs nervously as we change the wheel without incident and send Horner off to leisurely solo in the last segment of the race. He's fine. We're fine.

As all this happens, Alex Darville sprints for 12th. After the day we almost had, where Horner races all of 10km and someone pops a collarbone on the circuits, 12th place with no injuries feels like stealing. We cross the line and try to celebrate. "Don't worry dude," Johnson tells me. "It won't be like this every day."


The post-race scrum around the car is like a high school cross country meet, except with hundreds of children running around trying to score cycling ephemera. Everyone is idly snacking, changing, and mulling over the race. Horner shakes his head and admits, "Man, when I felt that wheel go, I thought 'Let's see, I could get a plane ticket today, be home by Wednesday.' I thought it was over." Johnson and I exchange anxious glances. Purdy apologizes to Horner, who is cool about it. It is my job to shoo away the kids. We will need all of our water bottles for the rest of the race.


Sumgayit is a pretty city along an easy, sandy stretch of the Caspian Sea, and also one of the most polluted places in the world. The course of Stage 1 started in the city's blinged-out monument zone and ended in what Richard Fuller of the Blacksmith Institute called "a huge, abandoned industrial wasteland." Azerbaijan produced most of the Soviet Union's oil during World War II, then became the largest chemical processing center in the entire Soviet Union. The environmental burden was unsurprising. Today, 80 percent of the Soviet-era processing plants have been shut down, and intensive mercury pollution remediation is underway.

As we return to Baku and melt back into civilian traffic, the city's luxury isn't evident until we roll into its core. The odd ostentatious monument to Heydar Aliyev or gaudy Land Rover dealership came and went, but the journey was mostly amid semi-urban industrial buildings. And then, boom, there are the Flame Towers. This pattern of sudden borders is all over the city. On the bus, Connor points out that many apartment buildings have new facades; look carefully, and it's easy to see the misaligned windows of an older building behind a newer facelift. Whole apartment complexes have been made to look fancier from the street, but their new costumes certainly make it harder to live there.


The density of these building cloaks increases the closer we get to downtown. The idea behind Baku's $10 billion makeover is that there are only new apartment buildings in Baku. This is not true, but it only needs to appear to be true. Three liters of terrible Russian beer cost a dollar, and you will walk past a Dolce & Gabbana store on your way to the taxi stop.


At that night's team meeting, Luis has bad news. Curious about the ease of the stage, he put a few climbs through Strava for analysis. It turns out that they are a lot easier than the profile shows them. The Cat-3 climb from Stage 1 actually grades out as an uncategorized hill, which makes sense since we loaded up Luis with water and chatted with him while he climbed it at speed. Earlier on the bus, Horner joked, "I was thinking to myself, 'Was that the climb? Did I miss it?' If that's a three, what am I doing here, man?" Stage 2 features the only Cat-1 in the race. Luis' data shows it's actually more of a Cat-3. Chris Horner's best chance to win the race is if there's sufficient uphill canvas for his superior climbing ability. There is less of this than advertised.

Horner is calm about the news. "I'm not here just to win, you know, I didn't come all this way thinking 'Oh cool, I can blow the race apart here, here, and here.' If anything, I'm here for the younger guys." If he has a day to shape the race, tomorrow is it. The team's job is to protect Horner. His is to go win a bike race.

Later that night, Johnson and I meet up with the Italian neutral service guys to give back their wheel. We buy them beers and become fast friends with Cesare and Roberto, as much as we can given that we mostly communicate via hand signals. Both new friends are missing the exterior half of their right index finger. Cesare lost it, I think, in a cycling accident as a boy. Roberto never tells us his story, although we wouldn't understand it if we did. We will hang out with them every night.

It's not just the neutral mechanics who are nice: UCI officials will joke with anyone who'll listen. Their week here is not a vacation, exactly, but I get the sense that coming to work the Tour of Azerbaijan is an adventure for most everyone involved. Johnson is quick to point out that this is not the case in America, where race officials can be comically bureaucratic, levying ticky-tacky fines for tiny transgressions. Everything is different out here.

It's a sentiment that Purdy echoes when I go downstairs to fill bottles. The work of a mechanic is lonely and thankless. Racing bicycles are fragile, complicated machines that require perfect harmony. You can't win, when a job well done means nobody notices you. When we get back to the hotel from the race, Purdy has to wash, disassemble, and reassemble every bike, every day. He does this meticulously, and quietly. Purdy is one of a few mechanics Johnson works with, and this is his first trip with the team. He operates "" Sound it out and it is exactly what it sounds like.

Being a mechanic is like being an astronaut or a lighthouse operator. You have to shake off your troubles and keep practicing your lonely craft, because people rely on you. I ask Purdy about the swarm of problems we had on Day 1. "We're both competitive dudes and when things don't go right, you get pissed," he says. "But it's not personal with [Horner]. I apologized after the race and he's cool with it."

Purdy tells me a story about a race in the USA, where a rider with a flat started cussing him out and yelling at him by name before he even got there simply because the car took too long to make its way up to the peloton. "You can't go and really accept that apology," he tells me, "because this is my livelihood."

I go upstairs for five hours of sleep before I am due on lunch duty at 6 a.m. Purdy fiddles with the bicycles. Chris Johnson will grind out a Facebook post and catch two hours of sleep tonight. Tomorrow is our day.

Read more about Patrick Redford's adventures in Azerbaijan here.