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Racing in unusual places: Illuminate goes to Iran

The men in the black kits were far from home, racing in a foreign — very foreign — place. And, to top that off, as they raced across Iran’s mountains, about a mile above sea level, the weather was starting to turn.

“Racing in Iran was difficult, and the weather was pretty crazy,” Chris Johnson, director of Team Illuminate, said. “On stage 2, there was a sudden storm as the riders were racing across a mountain plateau. From the team car you could see this dark reddish cloud suddenly move across the sky and then the winds started gusting. When the storm hit, I almost thought it would blow the riders off the road, but after five minutes, the skies cleared and the wet roads and soaked riders were the only evidence of what had just rolled through.” He described it as a scene from the movie “The Mummy.”

The Tour of Iran has run for 31 years, but this year was the first time that an American team took part. Johnson took his Illuminate team to the Middle Eastern country to participate in the race in mid-May.

But in some ways, the race itself was easier, at least simpler, than the process to get to Iran. The first problem the team encountered was getting visas to travel and compete. The United States does not have an Iranian embassy, but the team was in Azerbaijan racing the Tour d’Azerbaijan, so they went to the Iranian consulate there to get their visas. “The process took over a dozen trips to the Iranian consulate in the capital city [of Azerbaijan] Baku,” Johnson said. “In the end, we were on a first-name basis with the people at the consulate and received our visas the same day we were set to leave for Iran.”

The troubles didn’t stop there. Once in the country, the team’s credit cards wouldn’t work. They also had to hire a local mechanic and soigneur to help the team for the week, neither of whom spoke English. Driving in Iran was also much different than anywhere in the U.S., and the team learned quickly that being assertive and honking your horn made getting around much easier.

Johnson said the race was well-organized, for the most part. Each morning, caravans of team cars, race vehicles and riders would have to navigate morning rush hour traffic on open roads. Before one of the stages, Illuminate’s riders got separated from the caravan on their way to the start line and got lost in Tabriz, a city of 1.5 million people. “As I arrived at the starting line with the mechanic, we realized they were missing,” Johnson said. “Somehow we were able to delay the start of the stage by 15 minutes as the race motorcycles scanned the city, found the riders, and escorted them to the race start.” After that, it was all smooth sailing and the team raced well. Though the results weren’t the only highlight of the trip, Connor McCutcheon finished eighth overall, including a stage win on stage 1.

Despite the weather, difficult racing, and problems they faced, the trip to Iran was “a great experience,” Johnson said. “Before almost every stage, the Iranian people came up to the team to practice their English and take pictures with the riders.” Everyone in the country, from race organizers to spectators, seemed excited that there was U.S.-registered team competing.

Johnson said he is thankful for the opportunity to go to Iran to compete. “It was definitely worth going to Iran and would love to go back, even as a tourist. The people there were extremely friendly and the food was really good. The area that we visited was beautiful.”

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