This is the fourth 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, part two here, and part three here.
At 6am, on my way to breakfast at the Qafqaz Karvansaray Hotel in Gabala, I catch my reflection in an elevator mirror. I look like hell. Today is Stage 4 of the Tour of Azerbaijan, which means it is also my fourth straight day of waking up before six, making lunch for the team, and acting as staff diplomat in the team car. I look like I've been doing it for months.
This sort of deterioration around the edges is endemic to cycling. It is a grind, and something you would never do unless you loved it so much that not doing it would feel even worse. This is acutely true when you're working your ass off at a small race like the Tour of Azerbaijan. A lower-level team like Airgas-Safeway has to make due with less money, fewer resources, and less prestige; that is especially true here, 15 miles south of the Russian border, about as far from their San Francisco home base as they could possibly be.
There is only one spare back wheel, now, and only three of us to prepare riders and then ease them back in after the race; there is a small margin for error, and it is shrinking. None of the riders quite know about this, because the primary goal of support staff is to be invisible and make the race go smoothly every day. It's a full-time gig, and while my immersion into the inner workings of a cycling team means seeing all the work that goes on behind the scenes, it is also a lesson in the importance of keeping all that work out of view. We have to be attuned to the particularities of each rider and help them out with as few ripples on the surface as we can. It's the type of high-intensity work that makes a desk job seem comically placid.
The logistics of cycling, both at a team level and as a sport, are pure torment. Putting on a bike race is an expensive, byzantine endeavor that involves hiring security, closing down hundreds of miles of roads, and making sure 20-plus teams have places to sleep. Even Paris-Roubaix, the most prestigious single-day classic, had a high profile logistical fuckup when they forgot to check the train schedule and ended up with hundreds of riders watching a TGV commuter train pass through the middle of the race.
The pool of available money for this sort of thing is drying up, and many races across cycling's traditional heartland are downsizing or dying as a result. The Tour Méditerranéen was once an early-season World Tour staple, but debts forced it to shut down. Roma Maxima benefitted from a finish adjacent to the Coliseum and a partner in the Strade Bianche, but 2014 was its last run. Spain's Vuelta A Murcia has contracted from five stages to one, and there are persistent whispers about lopping a week off of the famed Vuelta A Espana.
Races on the frontier are starting to fill the void. The Tours of Oman and Dubai each recently moved up to 2.HC status and attract the best cyclists in the world. The Tour of Qatar is directly affiliated with the Tour De France. Races in the Gulf are an increasingly important part of the start of the cycling season because, among other factors, that's where the money is. State-sponsored races in silly-rich petro-states don't have to worry about the bill—they don't sweat the other disruptions much, either—and so can circumvent the warped economics of trying to profit off of a bike race.
The Tour of Azerbaijan isn't quite on that level, at least in its present incarnation. Rather than an exhibition game for the world's stars, the Tour is a more modest affair; its A-list consists of ex-World Tour guys and regionally dominant squads. They, too, rely on corporate partners, but, as the joke goes, there's really only one company in Azerbaijan.
So where top flight teams can fly out masseuses and staffers for races in the gulf, Airgas-Safeway is here in the Caucasus with a mere trio of helpers, one of whom (me) has never done work like this and didn't know, going in, that he would be asked to do it. But the grind has a rhythm to it and Chris Johnson and Mark Purdy are patient teachers. The domestique work I'm doing boils down to constantly curating the team's surroundings. When the team isn't fighting for wheels or sprinting for points, they have to be resting as efficiently as possible. Tonight features a four-hour transfer back to Baku, and this morning we are trying to plan how to play it so the riders are fresh for tomorrow. Finding some sleep on the drive will be hugely important. Chris and I pack the bus so that there's room for one or two guys to lie down during the ride. It's the most we can do.
The start scene today in Gabala is far different from yesterday's. The imported crowds of schoolchildren are nowhere to be found. Instead, clumps of vaguely interested men walk by and squint at us. A man holds his phone up to the microphone and bumps Russian electronica. Today's race is the most obvious sprint stage, with a slightly downhill start and then a pancake-flat run into Mingachevir. If Horner wants to move up, tomorrow is his only chance.
Chris wants two riders in a break today. Having two riders in, say, a five-man break would give Airgas-Safeway great odds at winning a final sprint. One rider attacks, the other sits on and forces the others to chase, repeat as necessary until the finish. But the likelihood that any sprinters' teams would let that kind of break go are very low.
Just like yesterday, most teams want in on the breakaway. With tomorrow's relentless circuit race closing out the week and still only two teams on the board thus far, teams are desperate to get a win and some TV time. The race starts at a brutal pace, with pods of riders flying off the front before getting reabsorbed. We travel 54.6 kilometers in the first hour. At one point, a group with Alex Darville starts to look like it has some daylight. Then, out of the bunch, Griffin Easter jumps up to join him. This immediately provokes a reaction from the peloton and they shut both breaks down. Alex's break was the right one, but with Griffin in it, it wasn't anymore.
Finally, 78 kilometers in, we see the bunch widen; nearly every rider pulls over to piss on the side of the road and we know a break has formed. Horner tells me that he never stops to pee before the break forms because it's harder to chase back up. Some guys try and ride side saddle and piss while riding but that presents logistical challenges that you can probably imagine. Once I saw a rider go for the whip-it-out method in what he thought was an unpopulated stretch of road only to accidentally flash some shepherds.
The bunch is finally satisfied with giving the breakaway some rope because the teams controlling the chase—Adria Mobil, Drapac, and RusVelo—got sick of working so hard. Later, the director of Drapac, the Australian Professional Continental team, tells me that his team and RusVelo were fighting to get a man in the breakaway. Neither would let the other succeed, so both gave up. Luckily for us, Griffin managed to get into this break. Kevin Gottlieb and Alex did their jobs and made Adria chase a lot harder than they wanted.
We drop back to find the team cars of our allies Synergy Baku and Parkhotel Valkenburg. Each has a rider on the same time as Horner, giving us similar priorities. Both teams say they are happy not to chase, instead waiting to see how the race shakes out before they make moves. Parkhotel has a fast sprinter in Marco Zanotti, but they won't push it; Horner helped their guy get on the GC podium, and they are grateful for it. Politics matter in cycling, more than you'd expect.
Our status as a respected team comes in handy, as we are short on a few rehydration products. Because of the limited supply of bottles the team could bring—remember, Chris had to pack for both the Tour of the Gila as well as the Tour of Azerbaijan at the same time—we are nearly out of water. More crucially, we are short on gels. Griffin is committed to making his break stick, and he'll need all the fuel we can give him. We head back to fellow anglophone teams Novo Nordisk and Anpost Chainreaction to try and barter. It works and we score a dozen gels in exchange for a few Fantas and some sandwiches.
Airgas-Safeway needs a win, so Griffin is the number one priority. We give him gels and offer all his break-mates a bottle if they need it. We hope Griffin can get the jump on them and beat them to the line, but for now a harmonious breakaway group is important.
In the car, I ask Chris about how he signed Horner. He tells me that he tried to sign him two offseasons ago, but he ended up getting a late offer to stay in the World Tour with Lampre. So when they had the conversation again in 2014, Chris aggressively pursued Horner and he conditionally agreed to sign. Horner wanted more than Airgas-Safeway thought they could offer—which was still a significant pay cut from his Lampre salary—but the opportunity was too good for Johnson to pass up. "How would I have told my riders I passed up the opportunity to sign Chris Horner and then go and ask them to work for me?" Johnson grins. "Sometimes you gotta do stuff."
Airgas-Safeway wants to expand and move up, and signing a rider of Chris Horner's caliber, both as a mentor and racer, was a shrewd move. His signing is also an endorsement of Johnson's ambition. Despite getting higher offers elsewhere, Horner chose Airgas-Safeway. Horner tells me it was because of the flexibility and chance to work with younger riders. Money obviously wasn't his primary concern. Johnson mentions that he also worked to bring in some of Horner's preferred gear sponsors. Getting snubbed by the Tour of California is a setback, but neither Chris is much for giving up.
The Amgen Tour of California celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. It is an eight-stage race that is situated opposite the Giro D'Italia, which is an open concession that they want to be a warm-up race for the Tour De France. About half the teams in the Tour of California are in the World Tour, and a small masthead of major stars come every year. The race's website even compares it to the Tour, which is fine given that this is most Americans' only reference point where cycling is concerned, but the comparison is only true in the sense that both are stage races.
In October 2014, race organizers flew Chris Horner out to Sacramento to promote the announcement of the race's host cities. He gave interviews about the race and its importance, saying that it was a good tune up for the Tour and a good barometer for American racers. Three months later, they threw him out on his ass.
Horner won the Tour of California outright in 2011 and would have been the only American former winner at the start. The team's exclusion from the race only gets weirder from there. Safeway is the third largest employer in California; all but one of the Continental teams invited are registered outside California; despite California having the highest Mexican population in the U.S., no Mexican riders are racing in this year's Tour, not even Luis Lemus. None of these regional advantages are airtight guarantees of an invite, and the other Continental teams proved worthy of their spots, but according to Johnson and a few riders, Airgas-Safeway was passed over for an extra team slot that went unfilled.
The Tour of California was Airgas' big objective for the season, but rather than sit around while their hometown race went on without them, they accepted the invite to the Tour of Azerbaijan. Tomorrow the Tour of California will start. The team badly wants to get a win to show the tour what they're missing.
Griffin looks strong on the front. The break is all working together, but Adria, Dukla Praha, and Tavira are feverishly chasing. It's just like yesterday, except this time we don't even bother to try and make deals. We find out that one of the guys in the break with Griffin has a great sprint in him, but we decide not to tell him. The race is now inside the last 40 kilometers, which means there's not much use to this knowledge. The other riders in the break all speak English, as we discovered when offering them bottles, so they'll overhear any intel we give him.
The time gap is hovering around 3:30; the rough rule is that a chasing team can peg back one minute per 10 kilometers. I'm nervous, but Chris obviously has a better read on the situation and tells me he's more optimistic. His theory is that the early fireworks may have taxed our competition more than it appears and that the break has one last push in reserve if things get close in the last five kilometers.
Almost exactly a year ago, Griffin Easter won the national collegiate championship out of a two man break. His greatest trait as a racer is his aggression, which makes him a perfect fit for what Airgas-Safeway is out there to do, which as you will recall Chris Johnson saying, is "Race Our Fucking Bikes." After trying to get into the right move all week, Easter finally did it on Stage 4 and he badly wants to make the day's effort pay off.
Griffin was born into cycling the way a Bush is born into politics. His older brother Cullen also races on the team and their oldest brother Stratton works for Specialized. The family remains extremely close—like, talk-every-day-on-the-phone close—even as they travel all around for their jobs. If Griffin finds a way to win today, it would be crucial for Airgas-Safeway but even more important to his family.
Chris Johnson tries to drive up to feed Griffin one last time, but race organizers force us to stay back. Chris calls up the team's other coach, who is watching on Eurosport, and asks him for more intel on what things are looking like. It doesn't quite make sense that a team car right behind a race has less information than someone watching on TV, but all we have are race radio updates and what we can see, which is mostly the back of the peloton.
It becomes clear that the break is going to make it about five kilometers out, when we're on the outskirts of Mingachevir and the radio confusedly shouts, "Uh, nobody is chasing?" Chris has been playing "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City" for most of the second half of the race in hopes of keeping us loose, but our nerves are frayed. Massive crowds greet us as we enter the city proper. Our man in the states is trying to keep us updated, but we lose the connection in the maddening weave to avoid other cars and riders dangling off the back. The feeling in the car is something like the tension that hushes an arena when a potential game winning shot is up in the air, but it lasts for five minutes.
800 meters out, Daniel Turek of the Cycling Academy team finally jumps. Everyone looks around at each other, waiting for someone else to pick up the chase. Griffin has a fast sprint in him, so he takes up the impetus and tries to ride down the escapee. But the moment of hesitation was enough for Turek to get daylight and he solos in to win. After all that work, Griffin is left with fourth on the stage.
It seems like a heartbreaking result for Griffin's 205 kilometers of work, but he is buzzing afterwards. After all, regardless of what happened in the last sprint, he and only three others held off an angry, skilled, motivated peloton in a 2.1 classified race in the UCI Europe Tour, the only breakaway to do so all week; even better, they did so on international television. He is wrung-out but ecstatic as everyone congratulates him. Airgas-Safeway still hasn't won yet, but for the third consecutive stage, they've shaped the race. Over the next few hours, each of his brothers will pen heartfelt Facebook posts about Griffin's race. Results matter, but there is more to success than simply coming in first.
After the race, we have to sit around for 45 minutes before the caravan can leave. Today went faster than anticipated, but we all have to travel together because the roads are apparently dangerous. Chris Johnson uses the downtime to slip into a hotel near the finish, where he somehow finds available showers for the riders to sneak into. Connor McCutcheon, Horner, and I are sitting around while swarms of Azeri kids come up to ask for any available cycling doodads and memorabilia. A daunting number of group photos are taken.
As the team bus gets in gear and rumbles out of the parking lot, our driver lights up a cigarette, oblivious to the fact that his cargo consists of people who depend on their respiratory capabilities for their jobs. After a heap of sign language, he rolls his eyes and accedes. I sit next to Kevin Gottlieb and help him craft a tweet about the race.
Johnson pushes the guys to post on social media regularly and Kevin is still working on his skills. He is a big dude, the team's resident workhorse, but he admits to me, "I don't know anything about Twitter." He lost his wallet recently and with it, the $200 he earned at the Sea Otter Classic. It's a particularly cruel bummer for a low-level pro like Kevin, but it doesn't appear to bother him much. He will later inform me that there is no Tinder scene to speak of in Baku.
Nobody is really sleeping and the conversation veers towards an article from an Azerbaijan Air inflight magazine on the country's desire to diversify its economy. Azerbaijan is over-reliant on oil and heavy industry, and wants to shift at least some resources to less volatile sectors. A man on my flight referred offhand to the "oil crisis." It took me a second to do the math and convert from "cheap gas" to "oil crisis."
Historically speaking, Azerbaijan has always been someone else's. The region was conquered by Alexander the Great, the Umayyad Caliphate, Turkish Seljuqs, the Ottoman and Russian Empires; it was, most recently, part of the Soviet Union. Aside from a two-year foray into independence in the 1910's, Azerbaijan has only been an independent state for 24 years. The nation's vast petroleum resources give them the economic leverage to assert their identity independent of their historically influential neighbors in Iran, Turkey, and Russia. But all that oil is not an answer to any question in and of itself.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is known in Azerbaijan as The Great Patriotic War. Azerbaijan played a crucial role in the health of the Soviet Union during that war by resisting an Axis attempt to seize Baku's oil fields in 1942; that victory came at the cost of over a quarter million Azeri lives.
After centuries of sacrifice and foreign rule, it makes sense that Azerbaijan would want to be independent. The cramped, paranoid shape that hard-won sovereignty has taken makes a bleak sort of sense, too—it can be found in seemingly every other state that's more rich than strong, and which has mostly known life under some authoritarian thumb or other. You know how the rest of this goes from the other nations that have traveled the same road. The extravagant construction projects—Azerbaijan's most notable one is the Khazar Islands, which will soon be home to the world's tallest building—presuppose the existence of a booming luxury class and an endless supply of oil, but the idea that this development would benefit anyone but the nation's entrenched elite is laughable.
The Aliyevs and their cronies have a tight hold on power, but this is a different thing than saying they've leveraged their astronomic wealth into stability, or widespread support. The regime's human rights record is dismal, to the point that they are not even letting members of human rights organizations into their country anymore, and opposition voices are suppressed utterly. Azerbaijan has more political prisoners than Russia. The Baku 2015 EuroGames was Azerbaijan's big moment in the spotlight, and they were very careful about what that spotlight illuminated. When the lights go off, there is still the open question of what comes next, and what Azerbaijan will be once it's done becoming a sensation. All of us on the team bus and in the race are, however minor, part of the answer to that question.
Read more about Patrick Redford's adventures in Azerbaijan here.