On his first morning in Iran, Andy Leigh woke up with a start, thinking his unexpected wake-up call was coming from a radio in another hotel room. It was the call to prayer, echoing around the street tannoys of Tabriz, the first of a few culture shocks.
As the WorldTour bunch limbered up for the Tour of Lombardy, the Briton and his Tarteletto-Isorex team-mates swapped the Low Countries for the mosques and mountains of north-west Iran. “When I got a phone call saying I’d been picked, I didn’t believe it. I’d never have imagined going there, I didn’t know what to expect,” he says.
“Everyone tells you before that it’s such a hard race, this and that about Iran. When you see the other countries around it, it’s normal to expect the worst,” he says, likely alluding to neighbours Afghanistan and Iraq, who were at war with Iran for the most of the ‘80s.
However, Leigh was soon struck by people’s friendliness. “They gathered outside the hotels and ask for selfies, I think all the riders felt like rock stars,” he says. “They talk a lot about their own country and always bring up the war. ‘Sport brings peace’ is what they said a lot.”
Riding back to their accommodation in the race hub of Tabriz one day, Leigh and his team leader Rob Ruijgh got separated from the group. “It was a bit stressful, but some locals saw that we were lost and started pointing in the direction of the hotel. We didn’t even have to show them a photo, they knew there was a race going on.”
The Tour of Iran is one of the jewels of the growing Asia Tour, with the same UCI ranking as the Tour de Yorkshire and the Etoile de Bessèges. Its 80-strong peloton is a mix of Asian national teams, Iranians and UCI Continental squads, including Kuwait-Cartucho.es and their infamous veterans Stefan Schumacher and Davide Rebellin. The 46-year-old won stage five ahead of Nicola Toffali whose ex-pro father, Marco, used to train with him.
More than double the size of France, Iran is far too big for a proper national tour. So the race was based around the country’s alpine north-western region of Azerbaijan (not to be confused with the neighbouring country with the same name), where the 2,000-metre mountains were a shock for Leigh after a season of cobbled races.
“It’s so empty at times,” he adds. “There were big, open roads that felt never-ending. You’d spend 70 kilometres on one highway that feels like you’re going nowhere.” Another rider compared the wind-swept, desolate landscape to the Star Wars’ fictional planet of Tatooine.
Leigh was impressed by the race’s full road closures, though it didn’t always stay like that. One day, the highway was accidentally opened behind one of the groups. “It was manic,” Leigh says. “I looked behind and there were hundreds of cars coming towards me.”
The racing style was also very different to the European norm. “The Iranians never raced there, so you didn’t know what to expect from them. They’d attack a lot, they’d attack the gruppetto, that’s what it came down to. It didn’t make any sense. Looking back, it was a top experience, but sometimes you just want to grab them and ask them what they’re doing.”
The six-stage race came down to a nail-biting finish. Before the final day, Leigh’s team captain Rob Ruijgh led llya Davidenok, a Kazakh on the local Tabriz Shahrdary squad, by a solitary second. The ex-Vacansoleil man took three precious bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint and became only the third European champion in the race’s history. Tarteletto emerged with more than $10,000 in prizes. “I’ve never seen my team manager so happy,” Leigh says.
In the end, like many of his peers, Leigh’s preconceptions were blown away. “When I was racing, I almost forgot I was in Iran, because the race was so well organised,” he says. “I guess I expected the worst and I got the best.”
A version of this feature was first published in Rouleur 18.1