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I heart team Zissou!
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Discussion Starter #1
Things have been quite busy at work this spring and this has wreaked all kinds of havoc with my race training. I'm travelling alot and have to really eek out training time from a busy home-work schedule. I'm usually pretty good at doing this -- somewhat to the detriment of getting a square 8 hrs. of sleep per night but mixing training and travel is a bit tougher. Last year I had a nice Concorde frame chopped and S&S coupled to serve as my faithful travel companion allowing me to get some training in while away from home and, tangentaly, to bring you some travelrama picture shows from the riding I've been doing. Why am I boring you, dear reader, with all this seemingly trivial detail? Simply because I want you to understand that I had a very good reason (or so I convinced myself) to bring said travel bike with me to Baku, the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Rationalisations can be very dangerous things -- especially those of the most egregiously warped kind as the one I have just gone through for you in the above paragraph. But I had convinced myself that bringing the Concorde was an eminently wise and crafty way of reconciling my work schedule and my need to get some quality training in -- and to bring you back some insight on what can be expected from cycling the roads of the Absheron peninsula.

I was wrong.

So very, very.....v.e.r.y. WRONG!

But first, let me say that I truly enjoyed two aspects of Baku -- the superlative hospitality and kindness of the Azeris and the wonderful quality and beauty of the the architecture and layout of the centre of Baku... which is rapidly being destroyed by a cancer of disnyesque cookie-cutter skyscrapers financed by the ruling class' petrodollars and guided by what seems to be limitless fascination with kitsch.

But about the riding....

Cycling the Absheron peninsula is not a good idea. It is in fact a very bad idea and one that on a good day might land you in a hospital bed with your shattered legs in traction and that, on a bad day, might ensure that your memory is forever preserved in the official road mortality statistics of the Azeri Road Transport Administration.

The landscape outside of Baku, such as it is, is bleak, polluted, covered with alternating expanses of rusting soviet-era industrial factories, refineries and associated detritus, shacks allowing glimpses of the most abject poverty and meagre fields where rank crops and sickly flocks of sheep compete for the few favours of a land otherwise indelibly marked by the hydrocarbons that have been both a boon and bane for its inhabitants.

Oil is everywhere -- in the obscene wealth that has migrated to those members of the ruling family and its small cadre of hangers-on, in the smell of the air, in the black soot that lines the inside of your nose and in the brown scum that laps the seashore of the Caspian sea. A long time ago, flaring natural gas seeping from the ground gave rise to one of the fundamental elements of one of the world's first monotheistic religions: Zoroastrianism. Back in the mid-1880's, the first industrial oil boom brought money and made the fortunes of many Azeri and foreign oil barons -- including the Nobel family. The city of Baku built out of the old oriental walled city that had served as the centre of regional power under independent and then Persian rule and became quite a developed and western-style agglomeration where the Azeri, Jewish, Armenian and European populations lived in relative harmony under the relaxed brand of Shia Islam that still is observed by the locals today. Much of that harmony (and especially the relations with the Armenians), for a number of reasons, went out the door after the short-lived first Republic of Azerbaijan in 1917-1919. I won't go into the politics of the various conflicts that have marked the country since then but will just say that they have been bloody, brutal and have left a seemingly indelible mark on the population.

.... Back to the ride report....

Flying in and out of Baku is not as straightforward as flying in and out of many cities in Europe -- planes only come in and leave on certain days. Thus, my travel schedule, built around a 2-day conference, had 2 mostly free days on which I planned to ride. My bike, however, would have none of it and decided that the airport seemed so bleak that it preferred to stay on the plane. It travelled on to Ashgabat (capital of Turkmenistan), from whence it went to Kiev in the Ukraine before being brought, kicking and screaming, back to Baku two days later via Frankfurt thanks to the kind offices of Lufthansa. Luckily, I had my work clothes in my carry-on. I am, however, the proud owner of 2 pairs of Azeri socks and underwear! So, my first day of riding was shot -- but seeing as how the Azeris follow a very loose interpretation of the traffic code and view red lights as a reminder to honk before crossing an intersection at full speed -- I wasn't too put out. I spent the day exploring the city centre of Baku which, traffic hell notwithstanding, is really a rather pleasant place.

After the conference, I headed out early Saturday morning east towards the tip of the peninsula on what I will with full confidence categorise as the most hellishly unpleasant 2.5 hours of bicycle riding I have done in my life. The soviet-era decaying appartment blocks thin about 10 kilometres east of Baku just in time to signal the virtual border beyond which the roads department has not laid asphalt down since Leonid Brezhnev was a glimmer in the politburo's eye. I thought I knew potholes -- but let me tell you, I knew nothing! The roads out east of baku give a whole new dimension to the word "BAD". In all fairness, they did spiff up near the airport -- just in time to be swamped by a constant flow of antidilluvian Ladas and soviet trucks whose lack of functional brakes was directly commensurate with the speed at which they traveled.

I stopped once to get directions back to Baku and breathed a sigh of relief once I entered the maelstrom that is Baku traffic -- it reminded me of Paris traffic -- Paris traffic on crystal meth! But at least the flow was slower and predictably unpredictable like urban traffic can often be. I headed up to the velodrome on the northwest side of the city and spent an hour inside doing sprints and kilo runs -- just to make sure my lungs would be good and coated with a fine membrane of the everpresent diesel particles that hang in the air. After that, I tootled through town on my way back to the waterfront and my hotel.

What follows are mostly pictures from that ride interspersed with some pictures from when I was walking around.

But first a bit of context for the geographically challenged. 2 maps: one of Azerbaijan and the second of the Baku region with my ride in red.

Also, one of the hotel front with the omnipresent Azeri police. The Sign is the title of the conference where I was presenting.
 

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I heart team Zissou!
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Discussion Starter #2
RR#2 Velotreki!

Take me out to the Velotreki...
take me out to the track!....
I just want to ride round and round...
I don't care if I ever come back!

(sung to the tune of "Take me out to the Ballgame")

I'll skip the early part of the ride east as the less I am reminded of it, the quicker I feel I'll recover.

We'll start with the velodrome. One of 5 UCI-sanctioned velodromes in the confines of the ex-soviet union, this velodrome has seen better days. It still hosts an active race schedule and there it is surrounded by a bustling set of shops and stalls. I only saw one other rider just as I was cooling down to leave. It had been a while since I had ridden on a steeply banked track -- and the first time I had done so w/ a geared bike. I had to keep reminding myself to push the speed on the banked parts to stay perpendicular to the track surface w/ the help of the centrifugal force, otherwise, 172.5's have a tendancy to clip the track on the outside pedal.

It was good fun and I quite enjoyed pushing up high on the most steeply banked parts
 

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I heart team Zissou!
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Discussion Starter #4
RR#4 New town Baku

As I cycled-walked through the newer parts of Baku -- especially the central area built up during the firts oil boom years (1850's-1920's) and during the Soviet era, I couldn't help but think that with a little traffic discipline and with some re-investment of the current glut of petro-dollars, this town could be very pleasant indeed. As it is, however, much of the petro-dollars are going to finance exceedingly gaudy and soul-less skyscrapers which I was told, thanks to shoddy construction techniques, would no doubt come crashing down during the next earthquake.

After riding back from the track, I went out along the ocean-front and enjoyed a very nice cardamon tea while taking in the sights -- including what looked like one very sick bird! Bird flu has hit Azerbaijan hard -- 10's of thousands of dead birds have been counted and 5 people died from the flu while I was there. I ssaw a few people w/ masks picking up the limp and lifeless bodies of what appeared to be cormorants/loons while out in the penninsula -- eek!
 

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I heart team Zissou!
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Discussion Starter #5
RR#5 Baku Environs and Martyr Alley

Here are some shots of the suburbs of Baku as well as a bunch of shots taken from the hill that overlooks Baku to the east. Saturday was the Spring holiday in Azerbaijan (Novruz Bayram) and people were out wearing their best clothes and taking in the nice weather. On the hill to the east is both a war cemetary commemorating the Azeri war dead in the Azeri-Armenian conflict of the early 1990's as well as martyr alley commemorating the men, women and children killed by Soviet troops sent in to put down demonstrations in support of Azeri independance. All 121+ killed died in the night of Jan 19-20 1990 -- it is a very sobering monument.

On top of the hill is also the very nice Turkish Mosque whose Muezzin's call to prayer can be heard all over the city. Finally, on the way back to the waterfront, I ran accross this Azeri woman in traditional dress who was being filmed for some Novruz Bayram TV show.
 

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I heart team Zissou!
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Discussion Starter #6
RR#6 Sherwanshah Palace

On my walking tour, I visisted the Sherwanshah Palace (AD 1400s) in the old town of Baku. Built by the powerful ruling Sherwanshah family in the 1400's and restored intermittently under the Soviets and then again since 1992, the palace is a striking example of Persion-inspired architecture. It's clean lines reminded me of the stark beauty of the Romanesque Cistercian Abbey's in France (Senanque, le Thoronet). Anyway, I usually don't include non-biking pictures in these reports but what the hell-- enjoy!

I'll start off with a picture of me and a rather menacing soldier of the Khan!
 

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I heart team Zissou!
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Discussion Starter #7
RR#7 All hail Aliyev!

Okay, I'm not going to get into politics here but let me just say that it is very, very difficult to visit Baku without committing to memory the likeness of Haidar Aliyev, the late omnipotent ruler of Azerbaijan whose son was nominated (how does that happen in a Democracy?) to take over last year. Aliyev senior's picture is plastered everywhere and the cult of the image of the ruler just goes to show that old (Soviet) habits die hard.

Is it just a coincidence but in the first picture Aliyev is refered to as "grandfather" -- which, ironically. is what Stalin used to go by! Also, Aliyev - son, is also big on the image-o-meter since he's even made it onto some of Azerbaijan's famous carpets!

My bullet point conclusion to this ride report:
- Absheron penninsula: not a good place to bike
- Baku: nice city, shows great potential, bad place to go biking
- Azeri's: very nice and hospitable people: not a great cycling culture
- Azerbaijan: Rapidly mis-spending oil revenues: I would suggest they spend more money on infrastructure, education, health care and bicycle lanes and less on SUV's for the ruling party members and bad real estate ventures.

Hope you enjoyed the report nonetheless!

A+

Philippe
 

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gastarbeiter
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Wow! A+ is right. Fantastic stuff. Tres bon, chapeau!

I spent quite a bit of time in Istanbul last summer, and traveled as far as Diyarbakir, but I was sane enough not to even bring my bike. Yes, i missed 7 weeks of training (effectively ending my season in August) but I survived. I know it's a different country, but your pics reminded me a little of Diyarbakir, and your description of the riding there sounds like what i saw in Turkey.

Thanks for the great pics, and taking the time to write such entertaining and informative captions/text.

cheers!
 

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Premium Member
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Incubation period?

philippec said:
After riding back from the track, I went out along the ocean-front and enjoyed a very nice cardamon tea while taking in the sights -- including what looked like one very sick bird! Bird flu has hit Azerbaijan hard -- 10's of thousands of dead birds have been counted and 5 people died from the flu while I was there. I ssaw a few people w/ masks picking up the limp and lifeless bodies of what appeared to be cormorants/loons while out in the penninsula -- eek!
What is the incubation period for the flu?

I always enjoy seeing your reports. But, I have to say this is the first one where I did not say: "I wish that I were there."

Mark
 

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Just Riding Along
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Kind of Scary

It sounds like the kind of trip where you breathe a sigh of relief when you cross the border on the way out.
 

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Bacon!
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No problem on the noncycling stuff. Especially if you keep up the awesome pics. I liked this one!

 

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Devoid of all flim-flam
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Fantabulous post.
 

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What it is
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Fantastic -- Thanks for posting

Philippe:

Thanks for a fantastic post. Do you have any cycling shots so we can see how bad were the roads? Or was it so dangerous that you didn't try to take any shots?

Ken
 

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GeoCyclist
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Be glad you still have your bike!

The last Azerbaijan cycling story I heard didn’t have such a nice ending. First, this person opted to bring his mountain bike (fully suspended for the pot holes). Second, he decided on a countryside ride instead of cycling in the Baku city area. Decision one was smart, and decision two proved to have been a very bad idea. He was left to walk back to Baku after being relieved of his fully suspended Cannondale MTB and jeep. I guess he was luck to have his shoes and his life!

You posted some really nice photos of Baku! Thanks for the ride report!
 

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I heart team Zissou!
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Discussion Starter #17 (Edited)
no shots of the road riding b/c I didn't see anything worth taking a picture of... in hindsight, perhaps I should have taken some "this is how bad cycling can get" shots!
 

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I heart team Zissou!
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Discussion Starter #18
I was a little hesitant to bring my bike as well but after a few e-mail exchanges w/ the largely (solely?) expat Baku Bicycle club (thanks Google!), I came to the conclusion that it would not be a completely off the wall idea. In fact, I ran into two of their members on Saturday just before getting back to my hotel. They told me that, just as their website points out, the area is better suited for mountain biking -- especially in the Gobustan area about 70 kms sw of Baku where there is an amazing network of singletrack weaving its way through a huge rock garden dotted with millenial petroglyphs. If I ever go back, I might take them up on their offer to go mtb'ing there.

I figured if anyone had a story to tell about Azerbaijan, it would be you given your line of work.

A+

Philippe

GeoCyclist said:
The last Azerbaijan cycling story I heard didn’t have such a nice ending. First, this person opted to bring his mountain bike (fully suspended for the pot holes). Second, he decided on a countryside ride instead of cycling in the Baku city area. Decision one was smart, and decision two proved to have been a very bad idea. He was left to walk back to Baku after being relieved of his fully suspended Cannondale MTB and jeep. I guess he was luck to have his shoes and his life!

You posted some really nice photos of Baku! Thanks for the ride report!
 
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