Joining Thomas were Primoz Strancar, a former Slovenian pro mountain biker who raced at the Sydney Olympics, who spent time as the Iranian national team coach, and currently personally coaches the three riders. Faranak Partoazar, current, and multiple Iranian female XC Champion, who is studying to become a structural engineer between trying to break into the World Cup scene, Mohammad Allah Yari (with beard), one of Iran's top XC riders, and all-around quiet guy who just loves to be out there in the mountains shredding trails, and Farzad Khodayari, current Iranian XC Champion of small-town Kurdish origin who is fast making a name for himself on the regional racing scene.
Steve Thomas - Do you all ride for the same FASTOS team in Iran (importer of several bike brands) and are there many MTB teams?
Faranak Partoazar - No, we are all from the same city, Shiraz. There are not really pro teams and big investment as such; it's not like in Europe. Last year there were a few domestic teams but this year they cut them, and now there are officially three men's teams (Scott, Giant and Fastos). The others are just related to the associations, state teams. The three sponsored teams give riders contracts and some support; the others, they race purely for passion. They have to be part of a team to ride bigger races, but they have their own bikes and pay everything themselves.
Steve Thomas - You're all also part of the national team, how does the team set up work?
Primoz Strancar - The national team is all down to the (Iranian) cycling federation. Their main goals are the Asian Championship. Usually, they support just Asian Championships. Next year is the Asian Games, which is the most important race to them, so they support that too. The riders and the federation explained to me that this is as important as Olympic Games to Iranian sport. The problem is that there are not enough races in Iran. I pushed the federation to send riders outside to race, and last year I took a few top riders to race in Italy, it was the first time they went out to Europe races as a national team.
Steve Thomas - As a national team rider are there restrictions on what you are allowed to do, and who you can race for?
Faranak Partoazar - We don't have problems there; though we also don't have offers from teams outside. But, there are some rules we need to respect when we are representing Iran outside. Like for women the strict dress code.
Steve Thomas - There were no Iranian riders at the World Championships, and yet you have points to qualify to race. What is the situation?
Primoz Strancar - The guys all have UCI points. It was my plan to go, maybe just two riders, as it's so expensive to travel to Australia. Many nations take just their best riders in such cases. Our goal, of course, is not medals. My aim was to go there to grow. Because if you want riders to raise their level they have to race with better riders, meet them, talk, learn, and you have to do this in many races.
Faranak Partoazar - The federation look mainly for races that we have the chance for medal. It took time for me to realize the conditions and how I need to improve. Since last year, instead of just waiting for others to do things for us I decided that I would do things myself, and to be independent of the way others work. If we wait, we will go nowhere.
Mohammad Allah Yari - If they have budget problems we don't go, we need to have outside sponsors to fund this.
Steve Thomas - If you want to simply travel outside of Iran to race alone can you do it?
Faranak Partoazar - Well, with national team the federation arrange all of this. But, when we wanted to go to World Cups to race (outside of the national team) they made it very difficult. We have to have invites for sporting visas. If we want to just go as a tourist then why not? But, it has to be to countries where we can get visas, and then it's often made very difficult or takes a very long time (from the relevant embassies). We have to supply bank account details and all sorts of documents.
Steve Thomas- How many riders, and what age/sex breakdown is there at a typical Iranian MTB race?
Primoz Strancar - men and women race on separate days, even in separate venues.
Faranak Partoazar - It's cultural, of course, in some cities they don't even accept that a woman rides a bike. Those cities, automatically, cannot host a woman's race. There is no written rule, but at the same time, they cannot ride, for no obvious reason. We fight, and slowly by getting good results in international races we are becoming more accepted at races in Iran. As girls, we have to fight for equality in Iran.
Steve Thomas - For the guys; was it always a cultural and religious stand for you that men and women should be separate? How do you take to someone like Faranak?
Farzad Khodayari - She's like a manager, she said - "you should come and learn with me"("laughing).
Primoz Strancar - My experience was that male riders help the female riders. They agree with them and want female races. Many times I also see male riders helping them out on the course with coaching. They are not against them; and if they can find a way to be on the course and cheer the girls, give good energy they will do it.
Farzad Khodayari - We always help the female riders, because when they grow it grows the sport for all of us in Iran.
Steve Thomas - How many riders are there at Iranian races?
Faranak Partoazar - Just remember, mountain biking in Iran is not really that developed.
Primoz Strancar - They don't have under 23 and younger categories, so the men or women race together. All in there are less than 100 riders at the start line of a race. At the beginning of the year, there are a few more, but the numbers go down through the season.
Farzad Khodayari - Because all of the riders know who will win and be second they lose motivation Now, when I come here (Turkey), all of the riders are asking if I will go to the next race in Iran, and when I tell them no then they all decide to go (otherwise he will probably win). I tell them to go, they need to race.
Primoz Strancar - For women, it's usually 20-25 women in all. They start together, with juniors just doing 1-2 laps less than elite.
Steve Thomas - Where are the best places to ride in Iran?
Primoz Strancar - The North!
Faranak Partoazar - Shiraz is best (of course)! We have a variety of conditions in Iran. If you want dry trails like we saw in Cairns there are many places, as we have many arid mountains. If you want trails like in the European mountains then go to the north, around the Caspian Sea.
Primoz Strancar - In the north is like Europe, and can often be wet. It can be really a challenge for Europeans, as you can ride over 4,000 meters. I've done a few tours up there with friends; the nature and the people are really nice.
Steve Thomas - How restricted is it in Iran for foreigners - can you just turn up and ride anywhere?
Primoz Strancar - It's really easy, and the people are really polite. If you just turn up in a village the people will be really helpful. You're made very welcome, it's a very warm feeling. Because cycling is not really popular when people see you coming to remote places with a bike they have respect for that.
Steve Thomas - Is enduro and downhill big in Iran?
Primoz Strancar - Enduro doesn't really exist still in Iran. I started to encourage riders to watch MTB movies and go and learn to build trails, and it's moving, they are starting to build jumps, tables and doubles. I follow them on Instagram; it's coming, slowly.