I’m embarrassed to admit that I know very little about Azerbaijan. But now I’ve done my Wikipedia research and I know that Azerbaijan is Iran’s northerly neighbour, it sits on the Caspian Sea and it has a population of 9.3 million. Its capital city is Baku and the official language is Azerbaijani. Two thirds of Azerbaijan is rich in oil and natural gas. The country has quite a fascinating history and I encourage you to read up on it.
The opportunity to work with the Baku Cycling Project came about when Jez, his wife Nerelle, and his 6 month old son Marlin moved back to Melbourne after Jez’s retirement as a cyclist. Once back in Melbourne, Jez was looking for his next challenge.
“Andrew McQuaid [Pat McQuaid's nephew] and another friend, Dan Lloyd — who I rode with on Cervelo — asked me if I wanted to do the job. I said ‘yeah, let’s go to Azerbaijan and have a look’. I mean, if you don’t go, you’ll never know.”
Jez visited Azerbaijan last year to learn more about the project. “It’s a lot different to what anybody might think”, he said, speaking of the Azerbaijani capital. “There are parts of Baku itself which are like Milan or Paris, with an Istanbul flavour. So when you get there you’d never expect in a thousand years what it’s like.”
Believe it or not, Azerbaijan has a bit of a cycling heritage. Some 35 years ago Alexander Averin (pictured right) won the Peace Race and took the points jersey in the Tour de L’ávenir. There’s a push in Azerbaijan to reignite the country’s cycling culture and it’s hoped that the Baku Cycling Project will do just that. One of the biggest goals is to put at least one Azerbaijani rider on the startline in the 2016 Rio Olympics road race.
As part of Baku “White City” plan there’s also a push to develop an Olympic Velodrome and bicycle park. The project’s international face will be the Baku Cycling Project racing team and it will be up to Jez, as Sports Director, to bring the riders up to a competitive level.
The whole project was assembled very quickly but sponsors were keen to come aboard. Azerbaijani private investment company Synergy Group is the title sponsor with AtaHolding, and BH bikes, Shimano, HED wheels are the technical suppliers.
The team will be based in Melbourne and you’ll see them racing locally. Last month they got a start in the Tour of Langkawi where they got some excellent results. Just a few days ago they won stage 1 in the Tour of Taiwan.
“So far we have starts in Taiwan, Thailand, Phillipines, Russia (Grand Prix of Adygeya), Sochi (Russia), South Africa (Mzansi Tour), back to Russia (Adygeya), and then to the Tour of Azerbaijan which is the big goal”, Jez told me. “We also go to the RAS (Ireland) and Tour of Beauce in Canada.”
“Our goal is to be registered as a Pro Continental team by 2016, but we’re just taking it step-by-step. We’re all learning and we’re all in this together. We just want to take it slowly and make it happen rather than jumping 10 steps and having it all go wrong.” Jez said.
The team is comprised of 16 riders, six of which are young Azerbaijanis. They’ve recruited some top-tier riders such as David McCann (who is also acting as their coach), Anuar Manan (a gun sprinter from Malaysian), Rico Rogers (sprinter), Dave Clarke (climber/GC rider), and John Kronborg Ebsen (pure climber). David McQuaid is on top of it all, as technical director and the man responsible for bringing the whole project together. David is Pat McQuaid’s son.
To the north east of Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea, lies Kazakhstan, home of the successful Astana Pro Cycling Team. Astana’s path is similar to what Baku would like to achieve. Unfortunately for Baku, Azerbaijan is part of the UCI European Cycling Federation which will make it difficult for Baku to win UCI points — valuable in the quest for race entries and license upgrades. Kazakhstan, by contrast, is part of the less-competitive Asian Cycling Federation.
You’ll be seeing Jez Hunt and the Baku Cycling Project riders out on the roads and in races here in Australia, so don’t be afraid to say g’day and make them feel welcome. If everything goes to plan you’ll be seeing them in some of the biggest races in the world in the next three years. We’ll be following their progress and we wish them luck.