Chris Johnson realized that the Tour of Iran was a different sort of bike race while trying to solve what’s usually a simple mechanical problem. It was Stage 2 of the five-stage race. Johnson was driving Team Illuminate’s official team car toward an approaching dust storm while Edwin Ávila attempted to speak to the team’s mechanic in the back seat. Ávila speaks only Spanish, while the part-time mechanic, who works as a chocolatier in Tabriz, speaks only Farsi. This left Johnson stuck serving as translator—with the help of a smartphone app—while simultaneously piloting the car straight into the storm. Johnson said it was like something out of Mad Max.
Eventually, they figured out that Ávila just needed oil on his chain; then they all charged off into the dust storm and what Johnson and some of his team’s riders described as one of their hardest days of racing in their careers. “It’s not like the Tour of Utah, where the break goes and everyone chills,” Connor McCutcheon told me. “There, it’s game on all day.” His teammate Griffin Easter also described it as the hardest race of his season. “I felt like the whole race was sprinting,” he said.
The Tour of Iran is one of the oldest bike races in the Middle East, having run continuously since 1986. Riders from Iran and Central Asia have won almost every single edition, and while teams from Russia, Western Europe, and Turkey have participated and occasionally even won stages, it’s always been a rather insular affair. That hardly means the field is substandard—the same Iranian riders who have excelled at the prestigious Tour of Turkey, regularly started by a good third of the World Tour peloton, also took the start line in Tabriz, and in fact nine of the last 10 winners of the UCI Asia Tour have been Iranian—but the field at this race is the best of Asia, and that’s usually it.
That is, until this year. While the cycling world’s attention was consumed by the Giro d’Italia, Team Illuminate became the first American team ever to start the Tour of Iran, and made a very particular sort of history.
Cycling is an incredibly regionalized sport at its highest level. The best pros come from Western Europe, and all the most prestigious races are in Western Europe. More Tour de France winners have come from Luxembourg than from outside Europe. The World Tour peloton is growing increasingly diverse by the year, and next season will feature teams from China and Bahrain, but the majority of riders are still from Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. It’s an enclave.
As you move away from the center and closer to the fringe, though, you encounter a different scene. Though there are few top-level races outside of Europe, the second-tier Pro Continental division is studded with one-day races and stage races in places like Gabon, the United States, and Colombia. Even here, though, there’s just one team from outside Europe, Australia, or the United States, and the sport only truly becomes worldwide at the third-tier Continental division.
That’s where Team Illuminate races. Founded by Johnson in 2013 as a developmental squad, the team’s young life has been defined by unceasing ambition. They made waves in 2015 when they signed American cycling legend Chris Horner, who won the 2013 Vuelta a España at 41. Their 2015 season saw them race in China, South Africa, and Azerbaijan (where I accompanied them). They sported promising riders like Connor McCutcheon and Mexican champion Luis Lemus, but the team was primarily a Horner vehicle with a small group of 20-something semi-pros. They wanted to try and move up a division and get invited to larger and larger races, but Johnson’s ambitions didn’t align with the now-45-year-old Horner’s, so the team then known as Airgas-Safeway reengineered their roster and replaced their top-down structure with a balanced group of climbers and sprinters from all around the world.
Former track world champion Scott Sunderland joined up, as did fellow Australians Callum and Miles Scotson. The team retained McCutcheon, Griffin Easter, and a few others, but their marquee signing was Edwin Ávila, who won the Colombian road race national championship over superstars like Nairo Quintana and Sergio Henao. “There’s been more freedom in a way,” says Easter. It’s such a different kind of team now, all these different types of people are coming together and we’re still competing at a high level. We’re kicking butt and having fun.”
“If you can get results at this level, as Primož Roglič knows,” says Johnson, “then you can get results at that next level.”
Johnson also ditched Airgas’s busy kits for the most striking uniforms in the professional peloton. Illuminate wear all-black kits with slight neon accents. The only rider who wears something different is Ávila, who is draped in the Colombian flag.
Most cycling teams make their money by plastering the logos of their sponsors all over themselves. The practice is so entrenched that Cycling News was even able to do an analysis of the most cost-effective locations for sponsors to slap a logo. (It’s above the butt.) Johnson rejects that model—“I wanted to create something that was bigger than any one company,” he says—and Illuminate’s sponsors apparently agree with him. At a race in North Carolina earlier this year, NBC’s Bob Roll told Johnson that they had the best kits in the pro peloton.
In 2016 the team once again missed out on an invite to the biggest American races (the Tours of California and Utah) so they hustled and accepted race invitations from around the world. They kicked their season off in Taiwan, with a roster of five riders from five different countries. After a month of racing in the United States, the team set off for their second Tour of Azerbaijan.
A year after spending some time in breakaways but leaving without a result, Easter finished ninth overall in Azerbaijan. The team says they were more comfortable the second time around, and they fought their way into the top 10 on several stages.
Azerbaijan is in the middle of a three-Tour circuit of Western Asia, sandwiched between the Tours of Turkey and Iran. Because traveling to Iran is incredibly tricky for Americans, one of the riders who came with them to Azerbaijan spent all his time in the country securing travel logistics for the team’s trip down to Iran a week later.
The United States approved a deal with Iran in January that lifted sanctions imposed because of the country’s nuclear program; despite the thawing of relations, the State Department still has a travel advisory for tourists headed to Iran, and while they declined to tell me how many Americans visit Iran annually, it’s certainly still one of the most remote places in the world for American citizens. Chris Johnson told me that fewer than 1,500 visit every year.
McCutcheon traveled with the team to Azerbaijan, but stayed in Baku while the rest of the team traveled to the western part of the country and back. “The whole time I was trying to get visas for us,” he says. “There was only one lady who spoke English, and I think she was really happy to have the opportunity to speak English with an American.” He eventually obtained visas for the American riders, but Ávila had a much tougher time of it.
“We’re checking in at the airline front desk, getting our bags in, and they stop Edwin,” Easter told me. “He’s got his visa and everything lined up, he should be good.” But the Iranian airline staff told the team (as Easter paraphrased it), “he can’t come into Iran. They just recently made it illegal for Colombians to travel to Iran, so he can’t come in.”
“We didn’t have a choice,” Easter said. “We had to go. He had to stay. We had three days before the race was about to start. So for those three days, he was in Azerbaijan, in purgatory.”
Ávila mulled over returning to his training base in Italy and skipping out on Iran altogether, but eventually settled in to grind through half a week of bureaucratic nonsense to try and score a last-ditch visa. “He was going to the embassy like Connor, but he doesn’t speak any English,” Griffin said. The embassy eventually conceded and approved Ávila, allowing him to travel down to Iran, about 12 hours before the race was supposed to start.
So Ávila hopped in a taxi, and took the 10-hour red-eye taxi ride southwest from Baku. He barely made it, getting to the team’s hotel in Tabriz two hours before the race started. He wolfed down his only pre-race food, a plate that Griffin fixed for him, then changed into his kit, rode his bike to the start line with no time to spare, and started the hardest race of his season on no sleep and no fuel.
Despite the numerous logistical hurdles facing the team and the stacked field, Illuminate came into the race aggressive. In the first stage, McCutcheon managed to get himself in the breakaway with four other riders, including the riders who’d eventually finish first, second, and third overall in the race. The five-man group made it all the way to the line, and McCutcheon out-sprinted everyone to take the win. It was illuminate’s first UCI win of the season, and it put the mustachioed, cowboy-looking McCutcheon on the podium just ahead of Mirsamad Pourseyedi, Iran’s most decorated rider.
“It was cool, you know, our first win, but even on top of that, here we are in Iran, and the most American-looking guy on our team with this huge mustache, here he is in the yellow jersey at this huge race,” Easter said. American riders had raced the Tour of Iran here and there before, but a team never had, and no American had ever won a stage or led the race. As McCutcheon said, “I think I’m the only American to ever win a bike race in Iran.” Johnson told me, “The race organizers were really excited that an American team was there, but they were not expecting us to win, by any means. When we came out and did that on the first stage, it definitely surprised a lot of people. The real dominant team got second and third that day, and you could tell by the looks on their face at the podium that this was not a good thing.”
McCutcheon could not hold his lead through the mountains and dust storms of Stage 2, but Illuminate had already turned heads. A local government honcho hosted the entire team at a banquet the night of their win, and they quickly befriended Pourseyedi’s Tabriz Shahrdari Team. Illuminate ended up finishing fifth in the team competition, and McCutcheon ended up eighth overall.
Chris Johnson told me that the Iranian riders were self-conscious about negative portrayals of their country in Western media, and were thus incredibly kind to his team. In fact, everyone I spoke to raved about the crowds at the race. “There was a lot of people in Iran that cycled. There would be tons of people around the race on bicycles around the race. Women, men, kids, old people. Cycling in Iran is a really positive thing,” Easter said. “It was a paradise. They love cycling over there. They wanted to take photos, they wanted to meet you, they wanted to talk to you.”
“My whole family, before I went, was like ‘I don’t think you should go out there,’ ‘I don’t see why you should do this race,’ ‘I don’t know if it’s worth it,’ because you hear all these stories about all these people being detained,” Easter said. Organizers cautioned riders to stay in hotels or with race staff, especially when they traveled to more remote parts of the country. At one point, a few staffers from a German team forgot that weren’t supposed to wear shorts and had to hightail it away from the morality police and sneak into a team car before they were disciplined. Easter said that the trickiest thing about navigating his week in Iran was figuring out how to communicate with people back home. WhatsApp and Messenger didn’t work, but he was able to talk to people using Instagram’s direct messaging system.
When Illuminate went to China for the Tour of Qinghai Lake later in the season, they roomed with the Iranian riders, and shared tea and supplies with them throughout the race. “They were the coolest guys. You end up making these connections that you didn’t think you’d make, they were super happy that we went over there,” Easter said.
Illuminate wants to finally get an invitation to their home race, the Tour of California, which is now part of the World Tour. It runs at the same time as the Tour of Iran and it’s two levels higher, so if they’re successful and get an invitation, they won’t return to West Asia next year. Team Illuminate signed Simon Pellaud from World Tour squad IAM Cycling and they’re also launching a women’s team in 2017. Their first trip to Iran might be their last, if everything goes to plan.
But seeking out new bike races is still baked into Illuminate’s DNA. Johnson once floated entering the Tour of Rwanda and Ávila opens doors for them to race in South America. This is, broadly speaking, the point of Team Illuminate.
“We’ve been traveling the world this year, making friends and racing our bikes,” he said. “You get to do certain things in life, and you start realizing the importance of people coming together.”