While the gaze of the cycling world turns to the Giro d'Italia, the continental peloton will also be taking part in less well-known races that are starting to gain ground.
These races showcase new talent, but also beautiful landscapes and impressive climbs, as is the case with the Tour of Azerbaijan, which takes place on May 3-7. Here are five reasons to follow the Azeri challenge.
This race is a great place to spot emerging talent. The two current giants of the peloton, Primoz Roglic, winner in 2015 and, especially, Ilnur Zakarin, winner in 2014, made their names here. The Slovenian and the Russian were completely unknown until their victories in the Tour of Azerbaijan kick-started their careers.
The same can be said for Michael Schwarzmann, winner of the final stage in 2016, a few months before he narrowly missed out on success in the Vuelta. So who will it be in 2017? We will be closely following America's Ansel Dickey (22 years old, CCB Velotooler) and Kazakh Vadim Pronskyi (18 years old, Astana City).
The climb to Pirqulu, which is worthy of a World Tour event
It's not the only ordeal on the Tour of Azerbaijan, but it is unquestionably the hardest. The ascents on the stage towards Ismayli rarely exceed 5 km. The final ascent towards Gabala is really a large semi-flat, where even the sprinters hang on. In terms of difficulty the real king of the Azeri challenge is stage 4, leading to Pirqulu, at an altitude of more than 1300 m.
To get to the finish, the competitors must climb for 18 km at an average gradient of 4%. But the average is not the important factor. It is very irregular: with 2 km on the flat in mid-ascent, the slope exceeds 8% for the final two kilometres. It's ideal for the favourites to extend their lead. Indeed, Zakarin built his overall success from here in 2014.
See former heroes on the roads
If the continental events struggle to attract the major stars of the peloton, you can still find many former big names in Azerbaijan, who are now part of smaller teams.
With the participation of the Kuwaiti team the organisers, Cartucho.es, have made it possible to see two former stars of European cycling in Azerbaijan, in Frenchman Damien Monier (Bridgestone Anchor Cycling), a former stage-winner of the Giro in 2010, and Russian Edouard Vorganov (Minsk Cycling Club), 12th in the 2012 Tour de France.
story tour azerbaidjan
Image credit: Eurosport
It may seem obvious, but organising a televised event like the Tour of Azerbaijan is above all an opportunity for the Azeris to promote their country, in the same way as the Tour de France. The traditional crossing of the old town of Baku (recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site) with its narrow cobbled streets will remind cycling fans of the route through Siena in the Strade Bianche.
We also discover Qabala, Azerbaijan's foremost tourist town, which possesses more than just a football team capable of ejecting Lille from the Europa League and causing problems for Saint-Etienne. And we must not forget Maiden's Tower and Fritag Tower in the region of Ismailyi, at the arrival of the 2nd stage.
See unusual team jerseys
Do you like certain World Tour jerseys, like Quick-Step Floors for example, but aren't so keen on some others? In Azerbaijan there will be plenty to hold your attention, like the exceptionally simple tunic of Team Illuminate.
You might need sunglasses for this black, white and pink (?) tunic belonging to the Azeri team Synergy Baku Cycling Project.