Holding a cycle race in Azerbaijan, away from cycling’s traditional European heartland, is typical of the sport’s globalisation, both natural and engineered.
Azerbaijan is a country with money to spend and a point to prove. Yet for all the brand new roads and veloparks, there is one thing that money can’t buy: a cycling heritage.
In a place where some of the assumptions and things we take for granted about bike racing in Europe are less obvious, one man who knows about the challenges of working in a brand new bike race is Marty McDonald. Here in Azerbaijan to address the crowds at the start and finish line, explaining bike racing to a new audience can be an unusual task.
“You’re literally trying to educate them about bike racing, so you have to take yourself completely out of where you are normally as a commentator,” he says. “If you’re working now in the UK the crowds know who Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are, they’ve seen the Olympics. Here they have never seen a bike race, so you have to explain what it is.
“You can see their eyes light up as they build that atmosphere and build the race. It’s quite a special experience.”
Although you might not have heard the name, McDonald will sounds familiar to fans of cycling in the UK. His older brother, Anthony McCrossan, is a regular commentator on British TV and at races across the world and the pair’s voices sound almost identical.
“I dropped my surname and work as Marty McDonald,” he explains. “It gives me my own identity in a way, but people that know me and my brother know that we’re very different people. I’m the middle one, and younger than Anthony, so I was a born show-off I think!”
McDonald has built up a CV of covering exotic bike races, having this year commentated and addressed at the Tour of Langkawi (in Malaysia) and the Tour of Turkey before arriving in Azerbaijan.
“I like to work on new and emerging races,” he says. “You’re developing something new rather than being compared to something that someone else has done. For me to come and work at races like this is really interesting.”
In many respects the Tour of Azerbaijan like a typical European bike race. It takes a five-day format with a mix of stages over asphalt roads. There is a finish gantry and barriers along the final straight, and riders are presented with jerseys on a podium at the end of each stage. There is a real sense the people behind it want their race to look and feel like a bike race should.
Yet the organisation isn’t quite at 100%. Moments before the race rolled out of Baku’s new velo park on Thursday morning, officials hastily applied a large ‘Tour d’Azerbaidjan’ sticker to the road in front of the race. Later at the finish line, 45 minutes after the podium presentation had finished, a man arrived with his arms full of flowers for the winners.
All the while the landscape through which the race travels is unlike anything in Europe. Local singers emerge out onto the finish line as the race approaches, looking around in bemusement and expectation. Riders from exotic sounding teams sponsored by exotic sounding companies are happy to mill around, without team buses, before a helicopter from the days of the USSR hovers so low over the race that they have to lean on their bikes against its down-draft.
The race may be 90% of what a typical bike race should be but, heritage or no heritage, that missing 10% is what makes it unique. And fun.
“I’ve never been here before but it’s amazing,” McDonald adds. “I want to get into travel presenting now. I’m absolutely hooked on these countries!”
Organisers hastily apply a sticker just minutes before the start of stage two
Teams wait in the shade at the Baku velo park
The mountain bike trails at Baku’s new velo park
Marty McDonald (aka Martin McCrossan) whips up the crowd in Ismayilli
Local singers in Ismayilli out to see the race. Even if they’re not sure how it works
Richard Abraham on Twitter: @rabrahamlincoln