Saturday, 14 May 2011

Tour of Azerbaijan

Following a couple of relatively laid back weeks the battle for the 2010-11 UCI Asia Tour title re-commences this week with the Azerbaijan International Cycling Tour, which takes place in the far north of Iran, and takes in much of the countries share of the Azerbaijan region.
To many people Iran and bike racing may seem like a strange cocktail; yet those who have their broader attentions focussed outside of the main European World Tour races will know very well that bike racing is a global sport, and that the racers themselves don’t come much tougher and faster than the Iranian riders; especially those wearing the Champion System sponsored Tabriz Petrochemical Team jerseys.
Cycling as a sport ranks highly in Iran, coming in around 5th place in the most popular list, hence it’s hardly surprising that the country produces so many top road and track riders. If only the political situation of the World was slightly different these riders would be able to obtain travel visas more easily, and there’s absolutely no doubt that they’d be a major player in the European pro peloton.
The Azerbaijan Tour is based around the northern city of Tabriz, which is also where most of Iran’s top racers hail from. This is a mountainous and spectacular region, which helps to explain the Iranian’s liking for the hills. The race started out back in 1986, and has been one of the three Iranian Asia Tour races for some time.
Starting out on Friday the 13th with a short 4-km out and back uphill prologue time trial the race then hit’s the local mountains, which are very much a characteristic of this tough 6 day tour. Day three sees a hilly 50-km team time trail, which is followed by three more hilly days in the saddle. The penultimate stage takes in a 2000 meter high climb, which will carve its name deeply into the GC, although with a 1600 meter climb to the final stage finish things will stay open right down to that final nail is hammered into the podium.

Team Champion System will be fielding 4 riders in Iran; Joris Bollat, Holger Burkhardt, Wu Kin San and Simon Chau, who will be up against an impressively strong roster of both international and Iranian teams.
The GC charge will naturally be lead by the TPT squad, who have five-time Azerbaijan victor Ghader Mizbani and UCI Asia Tour leader Mehdi Sohrabi in their ranks. However, strong opposition can be expected from the MTN team from South Africa, NSP from Germany, and even more so from the Italian sponsored Miche team, who bring Stefan Schumacher to the race; a German former Pro Tour rider who has just returned to racing following a doping ban, and promptly came out won his first two races – stages in the Tour of Asturias, so he’s clearly on top form, and something of a mission.
Another strong line up comes from the Champion System backed Le Tua team from Malaysia, who have conscripted the help of veteran climber Libardo Nino of Colombia, who nearly caused an uproar by narrowly missing the overall victory in the Tour de Langkawi this year. The team also includes Asian TT Champion Eugen Wacker, Jelajah Malaysia stage winner Vidal Celis Zabala, and their long term climbing engine Ng Yong Li.
We’ll catch up with the team when we’re able over the next few days.

Retro image and map thanks to Azertour, story Steve Thomas/Team Champion System