Azerbaijan team committed to developing Azeri riders

The Baku Cycling Project is going into its second year strengthened by its successes in the 2013 season and looking optimistically for bigger and better things in 2014 and beyond. The team boasts 16 riders for the coming season, 5 of them from the team’s home of Azerbaijan – reflecting the team’s goal of introducing young Azeri riders to professional cycling.

“Our goals for the 2014 season are to keep our status quo on the UCI Asia Tour where we were consistent, but now we want to perform to a higher level on the Europe Tour. We set the team up so late last season that it was hard to get starts in Europe. Now we have them and I want to perform well for those organizers”, said team general manager David McQuaid.

“Our 14 UCI wins last season were far more than we ever expected. It was incredible. But now we have to follow it up with even more success.

“We put Azerbaijan cycling on the map. We have brought Azeri cyclists into the limelight. Those are our top goals, always.”

16 riders will wear the Baku black, pomegranate and white in 2014, with one more signing possible, McQuaid said. Five of the riders are Azeri – Elchin Asadov (26), Mahammed Alakbarov (28), Samir Jabrayilov (19), Aqshin Ismayilov (26) and Tural Isgandarov (21).

There are three German riders, Daniel Klemme (21) and brothers Michael (28) and Christoph (27) Schweizer, and three Australians, with Luke Davison (23), Pat Lane (22) and Will Walker (27). Austria sends two riders, Markus Eibegger (28) and Jan Sokol (23), as does the Ukraine, Maksym Averin (27) and Alex Surutkovich (29). The team also includes Irishman Connor McConvey (25).

The new squad reflects major changes from 2013. Nine riders have left the team, with only seven carrying over. “We are not concerned about this re-structuring of the team,” McQuaid said. “Although only three of our winning riders will be with us again, we are confident of doing as well or even better this year.”

One of those winning riders is teen-ager Jabrayilov, who brought in the team’s first Azeri win at the fifth stage of the Jelajah Malaysia the end of June. “We have a lot of goals and a lot of work in 2014. We must earn points on the international scene towards the Olympic Games and the European and World championships. We want to ride more professional races, and to develop and grow as a professional team on this level, and to let the world know about professional cycling in Azerbaijan.”

Asadov, whilst not the oldest, is the team’s “Elder Statesman”, who “uses his experience to look after the younger guys,” McQuaid said. “He deserves respect for being a true father figure to the upcoming riders.”

The newcomers include young German Daniel Klemme, who come from the Leopard-Trek Continental team. He proved himself this year by winning two stages at the Tour of China II and finishing second overall. Also new to the team is Michael Schweizer, whose younger brother Christoph joined the team in 2013.

Walker and Eibegger bring WorldTour experience to the young team. Walker rode with Rabobank for three seasons. Eibegger was in the top ranks for only one season (Footon Servetto in 2010), but in that one year he rode both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, gathering valuable experience which he can share with his young teammates.

Eibegger sees a dual role for himself in his new team. “I know all the positions in a team, being the worker, the guy who has to win, preparing sprints first hand. Therefore I think I can help to build up a winning team, to improve the Azeris and to create a great team spirit. My goal is to support the Azeris sportive development and for sure to win races!”

Inevitably, the team’s top priority will be the Tour of Azerbaijan (May 7-11). It was a big success for the team in 2013, with Surutkovich finishing second overall, Christoph Schweizer winning the first stage, and the team going on to claim the points, mountains and best Azerbaijan rider classifications. With the race moving up to 2.1 ranking, top teams will participate, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t do again what we did in 2013. We have a great team in 2014 and I fully believe that we will be in the mix right up to the final stage.”

The Azerbaijan focus, of course, continues with a strategy to further develop young Azeri riders. A number of them will participate in training camps, but not yet be on the team, as they “are too young, too physically immature to face racing UCI 2.1 events week after week.” Three of them will join the team as of August 1, as stagiaires, and ride races through the end of the season.

The young riders, the BCP Trainees, will be part of the team in every aspect except for the UCI racing, although they will ride the Tchibo Cup series in Austria. Mixed teams can be entered in such races, which Baku did last year and will do so again this year, “so the youngsters are getting some quasi-UCI racing experience.”

And looking to the future, 2015 offers even more possibilities and challenges, as the team plans to bid for Professional Continental ranking that year. This will open the chance to ride higher-ranked races and provide the riders with a higher-class competition.

But Professional Continental is as far as the Azeri team is planning to go. “The WorldTour in this moment does not fit with our goals of developing young talent,” McQuaid concluded.

“A lot of media asked us this year were we to be the new Astana, was it a goal? The answer is that we are not looking to replicate Astana, instead we are looking to build things slowly from the bottom up, as opposed to from the top down.”