Tour de Azerbaijan
We saw the commercials on Eurosport for the first few months of the year about the Tour de Azerbaijan, an attempt by the corrupt government to promote Azerbaijan (i.e. Baku) tourism and attempt to get it back to its former level, where Baku was seen as the gem of the Caspian. Since the fall of communism and the hellacious Nagorno=-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the country had fallen on hard times but thanks to oil money, Baku is getting back a bit of its former reputation. I might sound very negative about this part of the world but I have done research on Azerbaijan before (oil workers during the turn of the 20th century) and I love the country and the people. I just don't love the Aliyev family, who has ruled Azerbaijan for the majority of the last 50 years. Funnily enough, last year's version of this race was named the Heydar Aliyev Anniversary Tour, in honor of the late tyrant. Now that I have ruined any chance of being invited to the Tour of Azerbaijan, let's get to the race.
Azerbaijan is quite flat around Baku but once you live the city, it can get hilly fast. The first stage was won by the hometown team as Baku Synergy's Christoph Schweizer surprised the sprinters and held them off for an impressive victory. The 2nd stage started at sea level in Baku but climbed and climbed before reaching the highlands into Ismyaili...decimation is a word that fits quite well in what happened. A group of twenty two broke away from the peloton and created a big gap over the peloton. While Serhiy Grechyn got away in the end, it was an impressive performance by Astana Continental's climber Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev, who was able to go 3rd on the stage. Kozhatayev has had a wonderful season so far in the U23 ranks and I really hope this is a talent that can transition into the pros.
After a tame stage three, the fourth stage was utterly brutal for the racers as they made their way up to the Pirqulu Observatory. Jan Hirt (Leopard-Trek) jumped away from Rabobank Development's Jasper Bovenhuis and Baku Synergy's Connor McConvey on the penultimate climb and laid down some serious power to extend his lead to over 4 minutes by the time he summited the Observatory climb.
Hirt only joined Leopard-Trek midway through last year but he has the talent to climb with the pros, as evident by his ride here and his efforts in the Giro di Padania queen stage last year, where he was 11th after being dropped late by the leading group containing guys such as Betancur and Nibali. His Leopard-Trek teammate Sean De Bie, who helped Hirt early in the 4th stage, showed well on the final stage in Baku where he was 2nd in the final sprint to World Tour Tomas Vaitkus, who was riding for the Lithuanian National team.
The G.C. was largely decided by the 2nd stage breakaway with young riders such as Kozhatayev (3rd), Rabobank cyclocrosser Lars van der Haar (5th), Efapel-Glassdrive's Joni Brandao, Hirt in 8th and Astana CT's Zhandos Bizhigitov in 9th. Take a look down the rankings though and you will find some nice gems. While he missed the decisive breakaway, Merhawi Kudus (UCI Cycling Centre/Eritrea) finished 22nd overall and rode very strong for a team that has little to no consistent support. Ireland's Connor McConvey rode strong on stage 4 and won the KOM jersey, which is a nice result for the Baku Synergy squad and a positive sign of things to come for the young Irishman.
Tour of the Gila
In a desert far, far away from from Azerbaijan, American racing took on one of the more prestigious events of the year in the town of Silver City, New Mexico. Up at nearly 6,000 feet of elevation, this race is quite a shock to the system for those that are not fans of altitude. Gila is really known for three stages: the opening Mongollon stage, the TT and the closing Gila Monster stage, which makes everyones legs give them a last chance to scream at them. While stage racing isn't the heart of American racing by any means, this race has had a huge amount of talent pass through it. This year's edition was no different as both the BMC Development team and Bontrager showed up to throw down.
- The first stage saw the race go up the Mongollon Pass and while Jamis-Hagens Berman Javier Acevedo won the stage up the road, a trio of Bontrager riders in Gavin Mannion, Lawson Craddock and Nathan Wilson led home the young riders, taking 9th, 10th and 11th.
- Arnaud Grand of BMC Development took the 2nd stage of the race after Johnny Clarke (United Healthcare) nearly ran him into the barriers and was deservingly DQed.
- More strong performances on the young riders front in the 26 kilometer TT as Tour de Normandie winner Silvan Dillier (BMC Devo) went 3rd, Lawson Craddock (Bontrager) 4th and Bissell's Carter Jones went 6th.
- After suffering from mononucleosis throughout 2011, Kiel Reijnen is probably the most underrated American racer of the last two years. Reijnen stormed the 2010 Asian Tour with Jelly Belly but went through a so-so time with Team Type 1 before landing at United Healthcare. The Washington native has consistently performed on a multitude of courses and deserves a bigger role. Reijnen took the stage four win over youngster (and arrogant and stupid) teammate Luke Keough with Optum's young sprinter Eric Young rounding out the podium.
- Remember how I just said Reijnen was underrated? Bissell's Phil Gaimon was an out of shape gamer when he was 18 but after dedicating himself to getting into better shape, he took to cycling and went from a cat-5 to a cat-1 in just a year. After having some up and down results, Gaimon came into his own last year and even after a crash this year at the San Dimas Stage Race, this writer believes that Gaimon will be headed for the big time next year. I mention him because even after just coming back from a crash, Gaimon attacked the Gila Monster stage and drew out an elite selection of three others. While Gaimon eventually faltered (as dopehead Paco Mancebo won) and finished 4th, his performance was memorable. Behind, it was young Gavin Mannion who attacked the peloton and distanced race leader Javier Acevedo on the finishing climb to finish 5th.
I have to admit that I was surprised to see it was Philip Deignan who took the overall honors here. Wasn't this guy 9th in the Vuelta just a few years ago? How far people can fall but it is good to see him back in the winner's circle. Mannion sewed up the young riders jersey after his impressive climbing on the Gila Monster stage while Carter Jones rolled in 8th overall and Nathan Wilson 10th.
California will definitely be interesting as Bontrager will be lining up with a strong roster that might be able to challenge for a stage win.
Carpathian Couriers Tour & Szlakiem Grodòw Piastowskich
How do I go about doing this lightly...hmmm...Okay. Poland has five stage races, which isn't bad for a country that size and with their economy and so forth. So why the fuck would you schedule two stage races that overlap each other? Honestly, why would you do this? The Carpathian Couriers Tour is a U23 stage race and should be trying to attract some big U23 talent, no? So why is Silvio Herklotz and his Stölting team at Szlakiem? Along with Etixx-iHNed, Sava and others. But let's not get away from the main point...WHY ARE THESE RACES SCHEDULED TOGETHER?!? Literally, schedule one just a week later and you could draw some better teams for Carpathian Couriers and Szlakiem could be a logical follow up for some of those U23 teams that wanted to test themselves.
Szlakiem is a legit pro race and young riders were spit out without any remorse. Silvio Herklotz had one bad day but after his great 1st stage, Herklotz settled for 12th overall and won the white jersey over Etixx-iHNed's Patrick Konrad. Etixx-iHNed's Norwegian Daniel Hoelgaard was close to knocking off the sprint juggernaut that is Tino Thömel (NSP-Ghost) but had to settle for 2nd.
What is there to take away from Carpathian Couriers? Boris Vallee is quick. Slovakian Michael Kolar took his 3rd win of the year for his Dukla Trencin Trek squad. These wins need to be taken with a grain of salt though because honestly, the competition level is slightly lower than western Europe. Other than this? I honestly cannot draw much from here. It just really annoyed me that they could do so much with this race and well...they don't. I know there are limitations with money and logistics but really...this could be fixed quite easily.
Look forward to more coverage from the Fleche du Sud and the Giro della Regioni Friuli-Venezia-Giulia stage races. There should be no worries about a lack of talent here...these races will promise to be awesome. Also, the latter usually has some kick ass highlights, with last year's race getting 20 minute stage recaps. My addiction is getting bad when this is making me slightly salivate. Until then...