Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson

Azerbaijan On Two Wheels: The Whole World On A Bike

At the Tour of Azerbaijan, cycling's wild globalized economy is on full display. But all these riders, from all over the world, are chasing the same elusive dream.

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Jul 7 2015, 3:00pm

Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson

This is the second 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.

"We've got a problem," Airgas-Safeway manager Chris Johnson tells me before the start of Stage 2 at the Tour of Azerbaijan. "The guys are eating too much candy."

The hotel is aswarm with riders preparing to race and staffers packing everything up for our transfer. From above, it is a hive of ants in spandex. One of the riders found our in-car stash of candy and now everyone is loading up. With 186 rolling, winding kilometers today, they'll need the fuel. There is no getting used to the degree to which elite professional athletes eat like 13-year-olds after school. If we had pizza rolls or bagel bites, they'd eat them all, too. If we hid Hot Pockets, they'd find them.

Read More: A Day At The Long Track World Championships

A few team directors come up and talk to me. What's the action today? When is Horner going to make his move? I shrug and smile. They know the rough structure of what's going to happen, same as me, but we'll all have to wait and see exactly how it plays out.

Chris Horner's gravity shapes the entire race, yet he's more relaxed than anyone here. Riders from other teams come to take pictures with him and get his autograph every morning. On the team, all the younger riders imitate his tics in subtle ways. Horner stretches and works his muscles over with a hard lacrosse ball for about 45 minutes every day. As a result, Griffin Easter added stretching to his routine, and even brought a roller to Azerbaijan. Horner meticulously packs a rain bag before every race, with all his gear in its own nook, and now Luis Lemus does too. Even when he's not explicitly trying to be, even when he's running through tactics, Horner is a mentor.

The team van, ominously, has gone missing. This morning, after making lunch for everyone, I ran between floors, grabbing bags and schlepping them to the van. Our driver apparently swapped jobs with a colleague overnight and the new one is nowhere to be found. I am laden with four suitcases when I finally find our guy. He is harder to communicate with than any of our Italian friends. He never tells me his name. I add "mastering translingual gesture communication" to my growing list of jobs.

Stage 2 starts at the European Games' freshly-constructed BMX track, on the shores of the Caspian Sea; we are headed today for Ismayilli and then Gabala for a few nights. Herds of children decked out in Tour of Azerbaijan gear flow by on their way to the presentation area. Right out in the open, a rider pops his bibs off and takes a shit on the road. A fancy car drives by, too quickly for me to see the team logo emblazoned upon it. I am munching on candy and listening to the team doctor for Novo-Nordisk, the only other American team here, tell me about the Tour of Rwanda.

Novo-Nordisk is a massive Danish company specializing in diabetes care, but the team is registered in the U.S. As of this year, every rider on their squad is diabetic; when they have multiple races going on all around the world, they have to make sure each team has a medical staff with them. Novo has a European base as well as that American one, which is one of the luxuries you can afford when you are a second-division Pro-Continental team. None of their riders here, or at the Tour of California, are American.

With Australian and Irish teams also in Azerbaijan, English is the most commonly heard language, although there's plenty of competition. There are teams here from Luxembourg, China, Romania, Slovenia, Russia, Italy, Turkey, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Laos, Portugal, Greece, Estonia, Belarus, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Israel, Netherlands, Germany, and Azerbaijan. Riders represent 35 countries, including Croatia, Indonesia, and Mexico. Every layer of the cycling world is here, from the core out to the fringe. Riders with years of World Tour experience are racing against kids making their UCI debut.

Europeans have always dominated cycling, but the sport has opened up considerably in the last decade. Colombian Nairo Quintana won the Giro D'Italia last year and he is a favorite for the 2015 Tour De France. MTN-Qhubeka started the Tour last week and became the first African team ever to do so. Races outside of Western Europe are becoming increasingly important. The Tour of Azerbaijan isn't a prestige race, but its diverse field is a cross section of cycling's future.

The Cycling Academy Team is registered in Israel, owned by a Slovakian who is racing for a Russian team; their best rider is Czech, and they ride American bicycles. I spoke with a Dane currently riding with an Italian team about his time racing for a Laotian team at the Vuelta A Chiapas in Mexico, where a demonstration stopped the race and race officials had to physically toss prostrate protesters off the road. The 'How Multinational Is ____?' game can go in any direction, and you can play it with any team here.

And every team wants something different. Synergy Baku Cycling Project wants to show out in front of home crowds and defend their turf. Androni wants something for their guys to do while the A-team is at the Giro. Many of the outlying teams are simply here for the experience. Airgas-Safeway came to prove their worth after the Tour of California snub, and also for the adventure of it all.

Price of fame, man. — Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson

The race has started and we can't find Chris. I take the team car and weave through the labyrinthine parking lot. Every passageway looks the same. Here's a grove of pine trees. Here's another series of access roads back to the BMX track. The car is fun to drive, but if I have to handle it all day, we're sunk. Purdy and I are starting to get nervous when a smiling Chris shows up, fresh from taking pictures with fans.

After yesterday's Hospital Waiting Room vibe, the team is here to fight on Stage 2. Cycling incentivizes waiting; chill long enough and some other team will probably chase breakaways for you. If you save your powder until the finish instead of attacking and using energy earlier, you'll be fresher for the sprint, if also at the mercy of forces outside your control. Racing is a balancing act between pragmatism and faith, between trusting your legs as much as your luck. Tim Krabbe famously advised would-be riders, "always attack as late as you can, but before the others do." Johnson tells me that Airgas-Safeway will always be aggressive and, in his words, "Race our fucking bikes." That is exactly what they get to work doing on Day 2.

Griffin, Kevin, and Alex are not as suited to climbing as Horner, Luis, and Connor, so they can't be there for Horner once the field explodes. But they can turn screws early in the race and make it selective. Each rider takes turns jumping into breaks, forcing strong teams like Adria Mobil and Drapac to expend precious energy chasing. We can't see the front of the race, but intel filters back from the team when they drop back for bottles. The pace stays high and no break is allowed to go. Our rivals are chasing hard, and our guys are making them earn it.

And so it rolls on, into the lazy foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, which rise soft and mantled with wildflowers. It's been 50 kilometers without a catastrophe, about our longest consecutive stretch thus far. As we snake our way into central Azerbaijan, we enter an unbroken chain of construction sites and empty lots, each bounded by walls adorned with large-scale landscapes or pictures of palaces to come. Anything in progress is discreetly covered; the idea is that the construction process, dirty and noisy and common, doesn't happen here, and fully formed apartment towers and industrial centers rise from the ground whole in a triumph of time overcome with money.

The peloton hits the first climb intact and immediately smashes up against it, sending hordes of riders reeling back towards us. The climb is not as difficult as it purports to be, but that doesn't mean it's not selective. Darville, Gottlieb, and Easter all pass us in small groups. They look wiped out from their early efforts. Horner is at the front in a large group when he decides to incite the peloton. He attacks and there is an immediate scurry of action. After the race, he told me matter-of-factly that the entire group was watching his wheel, and when he got sick of towing so many guys, he decided to rip it up.

Only 12 riders can go with him. We can't see because of the caravan, but we get a sense of the carnage as flocks of heavy-breathing racers start to drop back towards us. What starts as an echelon is a fully formed break by the second climb. Adria has three guys in it, Synergy Baku has one, and we have the strongest rider. Then they are gone. One of these few riders will win the Tour of Azerbaijan.

We pull over after feeding Horner on a small rise. It's been a day and a half of tense damage control, but Airgas is finally dictating the action, no longer passive witnesses to their fate. Horner is outnumbered three-to-one by Adria Mobil in the break, but his reputation as a master tactician puts him a sort of notional command. His breakmates keep a constant watch on him; for his part, Horner seems content to sit and let other teams exert themselves between climbs.

Griffin and Kevin have caught up to the main chase, where Luis and Connor are also sitting, ready to spring Horner again if he and his conspirators get chased down. Behind them, in a group with some Estonians and Romanians, Alex comes up to grab a bottle from me. He slams his old one down, more out of intensity than frustration. He will later apologize to me, but I get it. Alex busted his ass to make it harder for his team leader's rivals. It's an indirect way to help the team, but an important one. Alex may want more—he's an ambitious athlete, and probably does—but this is his job, and he's doing it.

Who cares a lot? — Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson

The category one climb starts after a quick descent into a wooded canyon. Riders bottom out and cross a muddy braided river before the terrain abruptly flips upwards. It's an unsheltered climb, six windy kilometers of crisscrossing switchbacks. Adria's Primož Roglič makes the first move. Horner follows with two companions in tow, but allows the Slovenian escapee a small gap. Nobody knows it now—and really, nobody ever knows until it's too late—but this will be the moment in which the race is won.

Roglič quickly pries open the gap to one minute when he crests the hill. Horner's group has another minute on the splintered remainder of their breakaway. They are 30 km out from the finish. In the team car, we are worried about Horner getting reabsorbed into the chase. Both riders with him are sitting tight on his wheel, but if he hesitates now, his whole race could be done. Rather than insist on help, he pushes on for Roglič. There is now no chance that his pursuers will catch him.

But catching Roglič will be a tougher matter. We are behind Horner when he starts to negotiate with his two breakmates. The three of them can catch the one guy up the road if they work together. Unfortunately, Dutch rider Jasper Ockeloen, from Parkhotel Valkenburg, is cooked and can barely hold on. Slovenian rider Matej Mugerli from Synergy Baku is up to it, but he needs some encouragement from Horner, which he gives him in the form of physically moving him to the front with a little push. As we descend toward Ismayilli, the gap starts to fall. The decline is agonizingly slow.

Crowds swarm the roads in Ismayilli, and the car is too nervous to comment on it. Mugerli and Horner are working well, and the gap is down to 45 seconds with 10 km left. Ockeloen is drained and can't help. Contradictory data flies from race radio; everything is nervy, confusing, hectic. Eventually, Roglič repeats his 2014 Stage 2 victory and wins by 34 seconds. Horner sprints for third and even though he is wholly responsible for towing Mugerli and Ockeloen up to the line with him, he has to settle for fourth out of the three-way tie for second because of his mechanical problem in Stage 1. He is not bothered by this workaday cycling cruelty. "Oh good," he says to me as I toss him a thing of cookies, "I was worried you were gonna get some healthy shit."

Horner tells me that he let Roglič have some rope on the climb, hoping he would burn himself out on that acceleration, so that he could then catch and drop him. Roglič had more in the tank than Horner thought, and his partners' inability to chase compounded this tiny miscalculation. Airgas-Safeway raced well, but to win selective, tricky stages like this, strong is not enough. In 2010, Roglič competed at the Winter Olympics for Slovenia in the ski jump. His transition to road cycling makes him somewhat of a wild card, which may explain how he was allowed to get away.

I sit in on the press conference where other journalists ask Chris about his future, his Vuelta, and his race today. Mugerli is animated about getting to work with Horner all day and he seems proud of being his peer for a day. The podium is framed by huge portraits of Heydar and Ilham Aliyev, the past and present rulers of Azerbaijan. One Turkish journalist asks Horner about the development of cycling in Azerbaijan and if he sees this Tour ever growing to the size of the Vuelta. It won't, and Horner knows it, but he's graceful in praising the country's roads and climate. He adopts this generic European-sounding accent that's not quite his voice when he's answering questions. It's weird and false, but also almost poignantly diplomatic and professional.

In that room, with the Aliyevs glowering down at us, the relationship between the development of sports and the deterioration of human rights in Azerbaijan seems strikingly plain. The government spent billions on the European Games, while also bringing the full shameless force of the state to bear on dissenters as the international spotlight swung their way. Ilham inherited power directly from his father—election authorities announced the results of 2013's election before voting had started—and, per Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, has only increased the autocratic policies his father put in place. A United Nations expert recently called for the release of prisoners, but so far, the government has not budged. Freedom House now says the country has more political prisoners than Russia.

As the muscle-flexing capitalism of the European Games coincides with a contraction of freedoms, it seems that "development" in the broad sense might actually be making things worse. The construction of new facilities will certainly be good for kids in sports, but it also seems ancillary to the ruling family's desire to host an international "LOOK AT ALL MY SHIT!" party.

Great party, sir. — Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Tour is not the Games. This race is considerably smaller and less centrally-planned, and while the Azerbaijan Cycling Federation is a subsidiary of the government, all the sporting aspects of the race are organized and directed by the UCI and FREUNDE Eventagentur GmbH, a German company. The race has goals for developing the domestic cycling scene, but they're less grandiose. Stage 4 is traditionally a difficult romp into the Caucasus Mountains, but the powers that be reportedly changed it to a sprint stage in hopes of helping Azeri riders get UCI points.

It's absolutely fair to ask cyclists about the geographic growth of their sport; they have opinions about it, naturally, but they aren't there as sociologists. They are here to race, earn money, and advance their teams and careers. Once during my week with the team I tried and ask Horner if the race feels especially out there or cutting edge and he quickly reminded me that, for them, the riders don't see it that way. It's a novel experience, and it's also just another bike race, different and eccentric in its own way, but at its core, the same species as the others. You get on the bike and go.

And yet there are also glaring exceptions to the 'Just Another Bike Race' truism for every rider. For Chris Horner, it's the 2013 Vuelta A Espana. His run up to that season-capping Grand Tour was a sea of frustration. Horner started hot, climbing with the world's best at Tirreno Adriatico, but it all quickly went sour with knee injuries and rushed recoveries. He had to sit and watch the Tour De France at home, knowing he could hang with those same guys from Tirreno who were populating the top 10.

He went to the Vuelta more confident in himself than his team was. Most press outlets had Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim Rodriguez, and Alejandro Valverde as the favorites, but Horner correctly predicted he'd wear the leader's jersey after the first mountain stage. Radioshack-Leopard, however, only gave him co-leadership of the race, along with Haimar Zubeldia and Robert Kiserlovski. Months off had left him a forgotten man, but also meant he was fresh for three grueling weeks of racing. The Vuelta is many things, but above all it is grueling, and Horner's best previous results had come at Tirreno, famous for sadistic ramps of 30-degree grades, and the Vuelta Al Pais Vasco, probably the hardest week-long stage race on the calendar. It's Horner's favorite race.

His prophecy came true when he collected the red jersey after Stage 3. He told me he knew the race was his when he won again atop the Alto de Hazallanas, which is curious seeing as how he lost the leader's jersey the next day. But throughout the grinding second half of the race, Horner kept taking chunks of time here and there from Nibali. He tells me he did most of the race on his training bike and that the team didn't even see fit to send him a spare bike until Stage 15. The last stage of consequence saw Horner and Nibali separated by only three seconds, which didn't amount to much since they had to summit the fearsome Angliru. Horner distanced Nibali by 34 seconds and nearly caught the stage winner for good measure.

Even after the victory, people still didn't believe in him. Radioshack asked him to take a pay cut and wanted him to return as a domestique, even though he'd just won a Grand Tour. Cycling News published a speculative hit piece on him, so he released all his biological passport data for the past five years. He ended up logging one season in the World Tour with Lampre, then signing with Airgas-Safeway for 2015.

The Vuelta will go by this year without Chris Horner. Instead he is back on the American circuit, which he dominated during the 2000's while Lance and the USPS team were at the peak of their powers. Horner was 33 when he made his first Grand Tour start, so he's as much late bloomer as he is old guy.

Before this season, Horner had offers on the table from other continental American-based teams for at least twice as much as Airgas could offer him, according to Johnson. He and Johnson tell me that he is with the team because of their flexibility and ambition. Every year, the team has improved and is not content to settle for, as Johnson tells me, "doing the same races year after year." Johnson and Horner click so well because they are restless, competitive people. They are the same type of strange, and the same type of driven.

Both want to win, and move Airgas up a level. Both want to help a crop of young riders with potential become winners. And ultimately, both want to get Horner one last crack at the Vuelta A Espana. It's their white whale. Here in Azerbaijan, that dream feels both distant and vital. They'll chase it, because it's all they know.

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

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