It was May 2011 and I was in Germany with my wife's family – we were there for a party and the evening after, we had some quiet time – the Eurovision Song Contest was on – I hadn't seen it since I was a kid but the whole family sat around, joked and cheered as we watched Azerbaijan kick our Irish and German butts... Azerbaijan – I had heard of it before, but no idea where it was or knew anything about it.
Almost two years later and I'm boarding a flight from Dubai to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan to race the UCI 2.2 Tour de Azerbaijan – I was excited – I have travelled a lot, but never to this region of the world – I really didn't know what to expect (although Wikipedia did give me a bit of a headsup) and even after the trip, I still find it hard to explain.
|Organised group ride equals closed down highway!|
|Out for a spin, the day before the race|
After being picked up at the airport by race officials, we were whisked to our hotel – the driving was crazy, the traffic was mad, but oh my, the city – it looked like Paris... except cleaner... and more expensive. I didn't expect that. Huge buildings, sky scrappers, blue skies, one of the worlds largest flag (next to the building the built to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest) – I like it here!
Throughout the race, there was not a single thing I could fault the organization on (well, okay, tell us where to get ice – but that is REALLY nitpicking!) - I didn't see a single crash, a single car on the road (or side of the road) that wasn't part of the race – these guys are doing things right.
My race, well my videos mostly cover that – I arrived with a sore throat after Singapore, one that turned into a cough and sickness for most of our team (I'm sitting here in Dublin with an antibiotics prescription that I'm really hoping I don't have to take – I don't like what it does to your gut health – barely left my bedroom yesterday but feeling a lot better today) – the racing was hard, and looking at the power files afterwards, shows that it was far more difficult than any other stage races I rode this year (or last - stages 1 and 4 in the Philippines are up there though).
The final day, there is no video up. Twelve laps of a twelve kilometer circuit with a tough climb at the start – 1.6km at 7% - first 400m on cobbles Belgium would be proud of. Steep, shallow, steep, shallow – it was tough – twelve times around! I got on fine, and teammate Mark was trucking on the day – making a huge attack on the final lap to escape – it didn't work out and came together for a reduced bunch sprint with Orica Greenedge's Tomas Vaitkus claiming the victory.
|Final night feast - yes, it was very very YUM|
Azerbaijan was a really great experience for our team and I. Not only did we get to see an incredible country – but the racing was as tough and enjoyable as anything I have done. I hope our team will be able to return and take another shot at it next year (this time, without the addition of Asian bacteria running through our systems).