Azerbaijan On Two Wheels: Making A Break


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Azerbaijan On Two Wheels: Making A Break

Every team at the Tour of Azerbaijan is there to win. But winning a stage isn't just about riding faster. It's about teamwork, luck, and opportunity, and it's hard.

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

In the abstract, starting a cycling team is not just difficult, but difficult to imagine. Start with a riderless idea, navigate the pitfalls of a sport in flux and maybe contracting, juggle the requisite sponsor-related chainsaws, and then, somehow and after surviving all that, get out there an race. For Chris Johnson, as he pulled together Airgas-Safeway, the idea was to keep it simple and focus on the people. "It's a lot easier to find a group of personalities to work together than a group of machines," he says. Johnson couldn't ask his riders to work hard and sacrifice while paying what he can to pay them—which is not much—if they all didn't get along and believe in the project. Airgas-Safeway will not sign a rider unless he can pass a face-to-face interview.


There have been times, Johnson says, when he's realized that talented riders he's had the chance to sign wouldn't fit with the team. By Chris' math, the only way Airgas-Safeway will win races is if everyone is happy and on the same page. It's working. Only so many World Tour teams would shack up in a church gym because they couldn't afford a hotel, and Johnson has, if nothing else, but such a team. They are a fun group to be around and enjoy each others' company, and are also competitive enough to train long solo hours and sacrifice other aspects of their lives for their careers. They are a team, but if they are to pull in enough dollars and attention to survive as one, they have to win.

This morning, Horner jokingly advises the younger guys against dating European girls; everyone is howling. It's a summer camp breakfast, basically, except at a fancy cafeteria just a few mountains south of the Russian border. Horner has been around the scene on both sides of the Atlantic so long that his stories carry the same sense of discovery for the young riders as they do for me. There's the one about how one of his Europeans teams hired a female masseuse and then couldn't keep her on staff because riders' wives all got mad and threatened the team. Or the one about how he took a wrong turn at a race, realized he was off course, and then just rode back to the hotel. Luis Lemus chimes in and tells everyone how Frankie Andreu once sent his team to Monterrey, Mexico instead of Monterey, California.


Luis has the most experience of any of the non-Horner riders. He spent two seasons with the Jelly Belly team—it's a bigger deal than that combination of words conveys—and won the Mexican road cycling championships twice. Like Horner, he has stories. Before every stage he watches footage of last year's race, and advises the rest of the team about how to ride. He is encyclopedic in his cycling knowledge and even Horner leans on him for information. The team enters today's stage, an out-and-back with one climb and an uphill drag finish, without a set plan beyond: 1) Take opportunities to make rivals work and 2) Be at the sharp end of things, knowing this could be the type of stage that Luis could go for. Eurosport will broadcast today's stage, too, so there is also the additional carrot of TV time. In a sport that doesn't offer much, this matters.

I am chatting with Horner and Kevin Gottlieb at the start scene when Elchin Asadov, the Azeri champion, asks Horner for an autograph. He is the fastest cyclist from Azerbaijan, at his home race, and even he wants a piece of Horner. It's like this most mornings with race officials, riders, and fans; everyone wants photos or autographs. Horner almost always obliges, and somehow has the most patience with the consistently pushy groups of kids begging us for cycling marginalia.

A DJ in a comically tricked out, all-black car is blasting EDM so loud that the race announcers can't be heard. The announcers introduce (I can only assume) the jersey leaders while children wearing perfectly coordinated red, yellow, blue, and green Tour of Azerbaijan gear cheer loudly. Kids mill around while race organizers try their best to keep them from milling onto the actual course. I give one a Snickers, which he interprets as an invitation to bring half a dozen of his friends over. Sunburnt men chain smoke at us and stare suspiciously. An old woman sweeping the sidewalk moves right onto the start area and has to be told to leave by three security guards. She ignores the race, walks around back, and keeps sweeping.


Stage 3 starts and finishes on a long straight hill; it is going to be selective but not nearly the peloton ripper Horner wants. There is a slight tailwind and no suitable breakaway can escape. The team car is in fourth position, now, after Horner moved up on GC, so we can see what's happening anytime the shape of the race deviates from a straight line. As the terrain starts to flatten out, it looks like Kevin Gottlieb and three other riders have daylight. Race radio tells us there is a gap quivering around 20 seconds when someone from RusVelo rolls the dice and tries to bride up.

Watch enough cycling, or really any cycling, and you will notice that most races follow a familiar pattern; an early break goes, the peloton chases it down, and there is a sprint or a climbing duel. It's all exciting enough, if it's the sort of thing you find exciting, but it is also fairly rote. But On the ground, it is incalculably more intricate. The formation and success of breaks are governed by a series of algorithms, submerged systems of political alliance, and, most cruelly, luck.

For one, I never realized how hard it is to even get into a breakaway. Most teams who don't have a horse in the GC race probably want to get in the main break today, especially on a Eurosport day. But teams with an incentive to keep the race together—the leader's team and anyone with a serious sprinter, basically—won't allow too big of a break, and chase any threatening move relentlessly, until it sputters back into the pack. If a team is dead set on populating the break, they'll help kill off fledgling moves. This makes picking the right move vitally important.


How this all works is roughly summed up by the Rule of Threes, which boils down to the following: your breakaway attempt is sunk unless you have at least three riders and the third successive escape is the most likely to succeed. Think of it like trying to time your call into a radio station to be the 97th caller, or whatever. It's not just a matter of being fast. You have to account for the murky motives of all the people who want the same thing.

When the RusVelo rider makes contact with Kevin's break, the race leader's team rears up and chases the whole group down without ceremony. The Russian was correct about that break being the right one, but with him in it, the calculus changed. Minutes later, a break with no Airgas-Safeway riders rolls off and nobody raises any objections. The team doesn't want to commit a concerted effort to bringing it back because Connor and Luis are looking after Horner. They'll have to play other cards during the race.

The hills are alive with the sound of exertion. — Photo by Patrick Redford

In the meantime, it looks like The Sound of Music out here. Technicolor wildflowers and mustard speckle both sides of the road; the farmers who work those fields blink at us curiously as we pass by. Most wear a full suit and vest, even as they're riding horses or picking vegetables. Men and women are less segregated here outside of Gabala. The Caucasus Mountains loom over us, impossibly sharp, swirling with private snowstorms. The rivers are imposing and wide, evidence of geological abruptness. Every 15 km or so we pass a billboard of Heydar Aliyev smiling at us next to his desk or looming in front of a billowing flag. It's been like this, but it's more glaring here in the interior. This is his country, even though he's dead.


In the car, tensions are simmering between Chris and mechanic Mark Purdy. On the third straight high-pressure day of riding in the team car, the differences in our contrasting styles are starting to create friction. This morning, Chris and I scrambled around trying to buy bananas and candy at the last minute, almost missing the start. The expedition went off the rails when neither of us had any manat or the language skills to trade anyone our dollars. We barely made the start, and Mark's patience was short after yesterday's near-fiasco. Later, at the hotel, they will talk about it, hug it out, and work together fine for the rest of the race. Both Mark and Chris have to prevent their stress from affecting the riders. There's no room for bullshit in an operation like this. There's no room for anything, really, but the job.

Alex Darville comes back to get water for the team before the climb. He is a rider looking for a statement race, and today's stage could suit him, but he has no problem working for Luis and Horner. Chris Johnson tells me how Darville was hand-picked at 17 by Lance Armstrong himself for the Livestrong developmental team that would become Bontrager, then Bissell, and now Axeon. This team has developed some of the best young American talent in the sport, including Taylor Phinney, Joe Dombrowski, and Lawson Craddock.

Alex was being groomed to ascend with them, but turning pedigree into wins is trickier than it seems, no matter the team. A few years running, he was pulled right before his home race, the Tour of California. He still has potential and talent, and he at last has the chance to develop on a different team. But the job is the job.


Johnson told me that when he was looking into signing him, a source cited vague rumors of "attitude issues." Narratives like this get spun out of discrete moments, but in this case, with the exceptionally and almost uncannily easygoing Darville, they are bizarrely off-point. If Johnson didn't have a face-to-face meeting policy, those rumors may have prevented him from adding Alex. The blindside non-invite this year is another chapter in Alex's run of bad luck, but he's the type of optimist who will keep grinding. In addition to racing, he is taking online classes at Santa Barbara Community College. While in Azerbaijan, he is reading The China Study for fun.

After the peloton rolls through the halfway-point climb—as expected, much easier than the official profile shows it to be—Luis quietly slips off the front. At this point, the race is in a lag between the main climbing of the day and the time to hit a concerted tempo to reel in the break. We initially think Luis is getting ahead so he can piss and not have to chase up through the caravan. Nobody reacts as if it's anything but that. Luis quickly cuts back 30 seconds of the break's advantage. He is going for it.

Luis takes his role as the fastest Mexican cyclist seriously. He's branded himself the 'MexiCAN' of the peloton and writes the moniker on his bikes data sheet every day. He lives and trains in Aguascalientes, but has raced for American teams for three seasons. His third Mexican championship is a main goal this year, in part because winning the race comes with the honor of wearing a flag-themed jersey. Past champions usually wear flag stripes on their sleeves, but he doesn't have those on his Airgas-Safeway kit yet. Luis is cool with it, but Chris Johnson was working while we were in Azerbaijan to lock down some custom kits, because he understood how important that aspect of Luis' identity is. Johnson has since succeeded.


When he raced the Tour of California last year, Luis won the most aggressive rider's jersey on the queen stage and was treated like a minor celebrity. People would take pictures with him and ask for autographs because he was representing Mexico. A superfan printed a photo of him celebrating his win at the Sea Otter Classic on a bunch of t-shirts and sent them to Chris. Later, Luis will run the numbers and figure out that not one Mexican is starting the Tour of California this year.

Cycling is a largely monochromatic sport and he says he still fights antiquated assumptions. "They don't trust Latin American riders," he tells me. Many teams see Mexico as a wild west of doping, cheating, and lax regulations. He is talented enough to ride for a higher division team, but to team directors with retrograde attitudes, Luis is a risk. To combat this, he has gone all in on social media. He is relentless, funny, and positive on Twitter, constantly posting pictures and engaging with anyone who crashes his mentions. It's absurd that he has to go out of his way to humanize himself, but that's the game, and part of the job in itself.

Seen here: the general public. — Photo by Patrick Redford

Luis lays down a brutal tempo for 25 kilometers before he catches the break. He timed his move perfectly to get on Eurosport, and as we weave through forests, the moan of the TV helicopter becomes a portentous soundtrack. We head up to Luis to refuel him. He is dog tired. The chasing peloton is starting to wake up, but Luis and his breakmates are still working well together. He is the strongest rider here, by his assessment and ours. If they make it to the line, today could be his. After a brave solo escape like that, this would be Airgas-Safeway's signature win.


I rip a page out of the race guide and make a chart so we can figure out how much time the peloton is gaining on the break per kilometer. The shape of the peloton indicates the urgency of the chase. If the pace is slow, the pack is wide, but if they are concertedly chasing, it's ribbon-thin. At that moment, it's single file.

Adria is doing most of the work, but the peloton is slowly fattening. Are they giving up? Up at the front, Airgas-Safeway is massed around Horner, protecting him and keeping him out of trouble. The team won't lift a finger to help, but unfortunately, the pace of the chase is not just up to Adria.

Suddenly, the peloton narrows. We are about 40 km out, and the break has been keeping a steady gap of about 3:30, but it starts to creep down. Chris drives us up to the front to see what's going on, and we find two new teams showing their asses. Amassed at the front are the yellow kits of Czech team Dukla Praha and the aqua numbers of Portuguese team Tavira. There are about seven riders churning in succession. "Fuck," the car sighs in unison.

We need more information. So we cruise back in the caravan and find the Dukla Praha car. "Hey!" I yell out the window, motioning for the director to roll it down, "Why are you chasing?" He glares at me, and in decent English, spits back, "Jersey, young rider." It's a long shot, but worth pissing them off, so we try to make a deal. "You hold off, we help you chase tomorrow," I ask. He shakes his head. Maybe they have an alliance with Adria? Someone checks to see if Slovenia shares a border or language with the Czech Republic. Chris asks him if Adria is buying them champagne tonight. We get an icy stare in return. Time to go find Tavira.


The Portuguese are even less helpful. We repeat the procedure with them and find out they are chasing to set up a sprint. Their director rolls up the window on me while I'm trying to persuade him to form an alliance with us.

The gap is falling south of two minutes and the dynamics within the group are starting to break down. A Kazakh rider is not taking any of his pulls at the front, hoping for a free ride to the finish line. Luis drops back to chew him out, first in Spanish, then in English. It works, for a while. But also there are only seven riders who've been cooking in the sun all day and there is a peloton behind them itching for a reunion.

So with 11 km left and a gap of 55 seconds, Luis attacks, dropping the breakaway and taking a solo flier. It doesn't matter that he already soloed the segment to bridge up to the breakaway, he is feeling good. It was time to toss his breakmates back into the void and pioneer ahead.

Valiant, optimistic solo lunges are among the coolest ways to win a race, but they rarely pan out. Still, this feels real. The chase is tiring itself out and the peloton slowly fattens around the edges, but Luis' gap is steady falling. At eight kilometers, 40 seconds. At seven, 35 seconds. The race turns onto the finishing rise and he's five km out, when race radio yelps, "Time gap: 1:15." Did Luis just cat-and-mouse the chase into letting up and then accelerate on the hard sector?


We start to celebrate what looks more and more like Airgas' first win of the week, when a cruel correction issues from the radio. "Correction: 15 seconds." Luis gets caught 3 km out and manages to hang on and finish with the front group,but for the third day running, the winner is Someone Else. Today, it's Josh Edmondson, who used to be on Team Sky but allegedly couldn't handle the organizational demands of the World Tour level. He's here with the Continental-level An Post Chainreaction team, another supposed former prodigy trying to find his way.

State of the art video session, professional cycling style. — Photo by Patrick Redford

At dinner, Luis is a celebrity. He was heartbreakingly close to a massive win for both him and the team, but he's proud of his ride. Coaches, riders, and UCI staffers all animatedly tell him how impressed they were with his charge. Edmondson is around here somewhere, but Luis magnetizes most of the praise. People appreciate winning but the doomed poetics of an audacious solo leap resonate more than a sprint victory. Later, we all huddle around Luis' laptop to watch the Eurosport coverage of the stage. Horner goes to his room to watch "Downton Abbey" and get some sleep.

The announcers are focusing on the break, discussing everyone's palmares. This guy got second in the mountain classification at the 2014 GP Sochi. That guy finished third in the 2013 Belarus U-23 time trial. It strikes me once again exactly how far away from the core of cycling we are. We run back a replay of Luis wailing on the Kazakh rider and he tells us how the whole break nearly conspired to boot him. The announcers note that most riders are on Continental teams and about their dissatisfaction about that; they point out that there isn't much money at this level, and that riders might be using the break as a televised audition to move to a bigger team. There is something surreal and a bit uncomfortable about hearing all these totally reasonable, possibly accurate postulations spoken aloud there with all the riders. It is, also, not anything that we all didn't already know to be true. As much fun as Airgas has, they are aware it's a business.

As usual, Johnson and I put the riders to bed then get to work. We didn't do laundry at the last hotel because it was too expensive; an Androni employee tells me that they blew over $200 but that kind of excess is not in Airgas-Safeway's budget. One of tonight's duties is tracking down our laundry, distributing it back to the riders, and paying the laundry staff in a combination of dollars and manat. Chris tells me that with more money, these hassles wouldn't exist. But that is not the world he or Airgas-Safeway live in, and so he has to be careful about everything he spends.

Chris wants to blast Luis' ride on social media, including the getting-on-Eurosport part, and so we are trying to find the best light to photograph the computer screen. As it happens, it's in the elevator. So we camp there, taking it up and down, shooting away as needed. Like Luis, one of Chris' most important jobs is social media. He tells me how vital it is to sponsors and fans that the team is well covered and interactive. Larger teams have a person or two in charge of this; in this case, as usual, the duty falls to him. We'll argue over photo filters and emoji selections all day and he takes those outwardly goofy conversations very seriously.

Tonight Johnson crafts unique Facebook and Instagram posts, staying up all night editing photos and trimming text so he can have them up at peak traffic time in the states. He gets about two hours of sleep. The only downtime we get is when we meet up with Cesare and Roberto for beers, and Johnson spends most of that time scheming anyway. On the TV behind us, Tajik pop star Parviz Nazarov is performing with the Backstreet Boys, a worthy novelty act on any continent. We are too deep in a harebrained plot to find a win tomorrow to notice.

Some of this is compulsion, but much of it is a clear-eyed response to an impossible fact—the only way Airgas-Safeway runs is if Johnson never shuts off. Luis' ballsy ride today is an opportunity to advertise the spirit of the ascendant but still obscure team, and perception is important after the slight of a non-invite to the Tour of California. The team needs momentum, but most of all, Airgas-Safeway needs a win.

Airgas-Safeway has proven they belong in this race and can even control it at times, but a win here in Azerbaijan would spark the narrative Chris wants for the team. We have two more days to find that elusive victory. Our best chances are behind us, but cycling is a strange sport. The opportunist will often beat the central planner, at least in the moment, and Airgas is a team built on and through opportunism. There is, at least, that.

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