Tour of Azerbaijan

I’m in a completely unknown town in northern Azerbaijan, nestled in the scenic foothills of the country’s mountainous region. However, my current predicament is far from scenic. I’ve been in many portaloos and a few grim toilets over the years but none compared to the one I’ve just entered.

The start of stage 3 is only a few minutes away; my teammate, Josh Edmondson and I, have no other choice. As we enter the two cabins, situated next to each other, we both let out laughs and then a simultaneous ‘oh dear god why?’ I feel like I have just plunged into the very depths of Mordor. With no other choice, as my bowels take a sudden and definite lurch; it is quite literally time to take the plunge. I yell over to Josh and ask what positional tactic he is employing to get the job done here. I’m informed about a sort of sitting down press-up, using my knuckles to levitate myself into the air above the sorry state of affairs.

The tactic works. However my brief relief is shattered when the door flies open, revealing a gaggle of Azerie kids asking for my autograph. “Mister, Mister! Your bike Mister” they shout. So here I am, in the middle of absolutely no-where, desperately propping myself up in a portaloo and praying to any god that my weedy arms will support me. I could just about accept the situation if it wasn’t for the crowd of 10 year old kids verbally abusing me. I don’t know what worries me more, the fact that this is not the strangest experience I’ve had in this country or that bicycle racing has made me quite indifferent to such a state of affairs.

After a good deal of swearing at, and by, me, we make the start and roll away for another day in paradise. I’m not actually being sarcastic here, once away from the dirty and dusty outskirts of Baku, the country of Azerbaidjan becomes truly beautiful.

Green, rolling landscapes replace the large expanse of oil fields and snow-capped mountains dominate the horizon. Despite the mentally scarring beginning to the morning the day actually goes extremely well. The finish is a 4km drag up to the line and we spend the day trying to give Josh the easiest ride possible before a potential final attack for stage victory. He goes early, earlier than I thought and all I can think is that is a brave attack.

Yet nobody follows and on the wide, open road he slowly pulls away from the charging bunch. The gap grows; 10, 20, 30 seconds. In the final few hundred metres the bunch is accelerating and yet he continues to cling on.

I almost forget to pedal as I watch the bunch close him down. Nonetheless he still leads and the line arrives, he did it!

Our first win of the season and the morale in the team takes an instant skyrocket!

The following stage begins and I find myself away out front in a break of 4, 5 minutes ahead of the bunch. It had taken 75km, of the 210km stage to form, and a constant deal of attacking, but here I was.

We worked well together and as the kilometres slowly ticked by I grew more and more confident that we could go all the way. I was proved correct. The final few kilometres fly by in a blur as my adrenaline intensifies. I’ve been hurting myself for the last 4 hours for a shot at glory but the win will decided in a matter of instinctive moments. I love these moments, it is literally my favourite part of the sport and I’m enjoying every second of being back in this scenario.

Then the Slovakian guy whacks it with a km to go and gets the jump on us. I hesitate, trying to look a bit f***ed.

The finish line is rapidly approaching and the Slovak still has a good gap on us before another breakaway companion cracks and takes up the chase. I stick to his wheel but the gap still isn’t closing and, with 500m to go, he eases and pulls over looking at me. Ideally, it’s too early to start a sprint but if I don’t then the win has gone to the Slovak.

So I give it everything I’ve got and pray to god the other two can’t get on my wheel, the gap is closing, but not fast enough, and my legs begin to fade. The win is slowly slipping away and I couldn’t shake one of the other riders who comes round me on the line.

Neither of us get back on terms and I take 3rd place. A satisfying result, however I can’t help silently cursing!

So it ended up being a good week for the team, especially after Josh held on to his 6th place overall after the fifth and final stage. Though the hardest part of that last stage wasn’t actually the riding part, it was actually getting to the start.

This was due to the fact that we decided to ride the seemingly short 10km to the start and the unknown fact that our path would cross the route of ‘the presidents parade’. The president had decided to parade around town and his route literally went everywhere. Literally, everywhere! After getting turned round by policemen wagging fingers at every turn, I lost patience and decided to just not stop at our next road-crossing attempt. This resulted in a rather scary looking policeman putting me in my place by reaching for his gun and repeatedly telling me to ‘stop crying and walk away Mister’.

We survived and made the flight home without anyone being arrested, shot or kidnapped. However, my teammate Sean Downey did have to spend three days quarantined in an Azerbaijan hospital due to a very bad skin rash. I’ve never felt so sorry for someone in my life. Its probably best I leave that to be told by the man himself, another story for another day.

Next stop Ireland, for the An Post Ras! Back to civilisation, I think…