The experience of racing in Azerbaijan and Iran was an interesting one for Team Illuminate’s Alexander Ray. Here he recalls his experiences in a chat with RoadCycling.
RC: First of all, having spent the last two weeks racing in Azerbaijan and Iran how was your experience of racing over there?
Alex: Azerbaijan and Iran were really interesting places to race in. We were able to get a taste of new cultures and compete in highly ranked 2.1 tours. Language barriers could be problematic at times but laughs often ensued as something completely unexpected happened.
Azerbaijan was a well organized race, a bunch of pro conti teams and nice hotels made the race that much more stress free. It had been a while since racing, each day I was feeling stronger and more keen to be in the race but my legs couldn’t muster enough punch to really be useful when needed.
Several hours in Tehran airport getting our visas verified lost us some hair and much needed sleep; though once racing we got off to a fantastic start. Late in the first stage we got together and forced a defining split. Connor [McCutcheon] was on flying form and was able to take the stage and yellow. The Iranians were hell strong, making unreal pace (I haven’t hurt that bad since my first Southland). We did our best to keep Connor up on GC but day by day the Iranians managed to put riders into the top 10.
They’re both countries that really welcomed us, a group of foreigners on a US team; it was humbling be a part of and wrap up another small racing block with the Illuminate guys.
RC: I understand being with Team Illuminate for the two weeks set a precedent as the first US squad in the Tour of Iran. What has that meant to the team, given that the ‘goal of [the] team is to show the power of the bicycle, and part of that is how cycling can connect people that might not meet otherwise’?
Alex: We were riding for results and having that happen sets the team up for invites to races later in the year and makes us more attractive to sponsors.
The amount of spectators in Azerbaijan was wild, a lot of people were truly wowed by the race passing through their towns! Being on an American team in Iran and getting results was a pretty big deal; we saw a lot of stigmas get broken and/or realized they didn’t really exist. A lot of cheering from fans at both races reflects the honestly and freedom associated with people who are interested in cycling. Before we caught our different planes home, the reality of what we had done began to sink in a little more. Together we had become stronger as a team and really showed the power of the bike, we love to race and want to share this passion with as many people as we can.
RC: Tell us about your role over the two races.
Alex: I’d had a lot of good training after the Tour of Taiwan and was looking forward to some results on harder stages that suit my punchier style of racing. We all managed to get little moments of sunshine in Azerbaijan, and were pleased to have Griffin amongst the top GC riders. With my legs lacking race intensity, I was happy to do what I could to support Griffin’s challenge for the overall.
Connor stormed the first stage of Iran, and we were all confident of being able to get him to the finish in Tabriz, wearing the leaders jersey. Sadly our Aussie amigos, Scott and Miles had to abandon as they got really sick during the race.
Part way through stage 3 a massive set back had me doing a forward flip, slamming into the road with my backside. Each day gave me a lot of pain and really limited my ability to put out power, I could only grit my teeth and do what I could to survive and support Connor and Grif.
RC: Team Illuminate raced very well throughout the two races with Scott Sunderland on the podium, Griffin Easter, Edwin Avila, Miles Scotson and Callum Scotson all in the top ten on various stages; and Connor McCutcheon taking the win in the Iran opener. Was it part of the strategy from the outset to really exploit the strength in depth within the team?
Alex: Everyone on the team is super talented, I’m really happy to have team mates that I can call friends. We don’t really have designated roles, each day can be very different and we’re proving that our strength as friends allows us to show our abilities throughout the races. Most of the races have about 6 riders per team so controlling the race can be very difficult; there is a lot more aggressive racing which suits the way we ride as a team.
RC: What will you take away from your time in these two races?
Alex: I’m going to move on knowing that I have the endurance and energy to do tough week long races. If I can work on more intensity, I’m confident of a good showing in races throughout the rest of the season.
The support and equipment we have is fantastic! There are some great memories of the past few weeks, crazy airport transfers, podium finishes, illness and a couple of crashes.
Not having the form I wanted has just left me frustrated and prepared to work that much harder on getting the little things to fit. I’m looking forward to a bit of rest back in NZ then going and crushing some solid training before the next call up!
RC: What comes next for you?
Alex: Some of the guys have a couple of races in the States so I’ll be cheering them on and getting on with training!
At this stage I’m in for Qinghai Lake in China. It’s a while away so I should have enough time to plan accordingly.
Photo: Tim Aiken