So today was the first mountain top finish of the race. Funny enough, however, the course today reminded me incredibly of a lot of the races I did when I lived in Belgium last summer. It was a winding country road that went through some of the smaller, outskirt neighborhoods of Fuliang, snaking its way through some of the local country farmland over bridges and rivers.
To say it was sketchy doesn’t do it justice. My parents would hate hearing me say this, but it was downright unsafe. Were we to drive on this road and someone make the classic biker comment, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if there was a bike race on this?” my response would be, “That would be just stupid.”
And that’s what I raced on today. For 20 laps.
Some of the notable obstacles included a 90-degree turn, the inner line of which was bordered by an uneven, knee high brick wall-ish construction that was designed to “prevent” someone from falling into the ravine 15 feet down. Thank goodness nobody actually did hit that barrier and indeed fall, but holy crap, it crossed my mind every single time and was no less terrifying each time it did.
The other piece of road furniture that wins the award of the “crazy things I’ve almost run into during a race” was the farmer walking back to his house on the side of the road carrier two hoes over his shoulder who couldn’t care less that there was a peloton of 100 dudes roaring by a foot away from him at 45kph. I dodged him, swerving to the right, and avoided being impaled and ruining his gardening tools (it would’ve just been one more thing for him to clean), and kept going.
At this point, I should also note that, on Stage 1, during the neutral roll out, a woman walked out into the middle of the peloton carrier her baby on her shoulder. I’ll never forget the look she gave all of the riders crusing by: it said, “What the hell are you doing cutting off my path?” If anything, we were getting in her way, and I appreciate that level of boldness, especially knowing her child will be fearless for it.
The first big conclusion from today is that bike racing, an already pretty scary sport, is downright sphincter-clenching here in China. Things that I would consider basic safety precautions, such as foam protectors for poles or other road-side bits and bobs sticking out are either hastily assembled or just altogether absent. A couple days now and I’d like to think I’m becoming as desensitized to it as the motorists I’ve seen on the road who just drive with a reckless abandon of someone who have nothing left to lose, but I’ll admit: I’m still freaked out.
This isn’t to say that the danger isn’t actually fun though…Much as I hesitate to say it, for fear of sounding like someone from the 20s, truth be told, I’m exhilarated.
Back to the stage, the uneasiness of the day, however, was alleviated slightly by the fact that we had an uphill finish! Finally…
The past two stages have been almost completely flat, which is why I’ve tried relentlessly to either get in a break-away or take advantage of late moves. Today, however, I was able to put to the test the climbing fitness I’ve been honing in for the past month, and it worked out pretty well.
I was gunning for the win, but an early break containing some absolute tanks in it, got up the road and never was brought back–at least, never brought back in its entirety. We arrived at the climb, a 7km affair of about 6 percent average gradient, and I was in the top 20 wheels sitting very comfortably. The climb was a stair-step, so many of the earlier sections were of a low-enough gradient that drafting was doable and advantageous. I sat in the pack and waited for the attacks to start coming. My teammate, Justin Mauch, made a dig, but the pack responded, and I latched on. It was my turn, and I put in a surge, and was able to get clear, forcing a couple other riders to react and make their way up to me.
The 4 other responders and I then worked our way up the climb, catching riders who had popped from the break. The other two were about a minute up the road and third place had at that point been claimed by another rider out of the peloton who had attacked and whom I was completely unaware of (still kicking myself for that).
But I had glued myself to the back of my 4-man train chugging up the mountain and with 150m to go, I launched my sprint and took 4th place in a mountain-top finish in an international stage race, which is a pretty bonkers novelty for me.
The result puts me in 4th overall, and tomorrow is another mountainous finish that I’m really looking forward to, with plenty of opportunity to try to solidify my GC position or even improve upon it.
Race Report: September 15, 2017 – Stage 4: Hengfeng, Shangrao
I’m going to make the bold claim that today was the queen stage of the race. I honestly don’t think it’s hyperbole when I say that the two climbs that we conquered today were two of the hardest hills I’ve ever had the (dis)pleasure of riding my bike up.
We started out in the main city center and did 6 circuits on wide city streets with long and fast sweeping turns on immaculate pavement. The crowds today were incredible. Lining almost every section of the course, the locals had come out in droves and crowded to the sides of the road, almost three rows deep in some places, and cheered on with drums and bells and the chant of “Jai-ho” (gotta check my spelling on that). Not sure what it means, but I take it it’s the equivalent of saying “Yeah!” or “Wooooooo!” of “You go!”
And go we did. Like every start to every race so far, this one was yet again balls to the walls, with an average of 46kph for the first hour. I luckily had an armchair ride the entire time. An early break had gotten up the road and, seeing that it had a heavy number of dudes in it and thus was dangerous, Justin Mauch made the bridge, relieving the team of any chase duty thereafter.
The rest of the circuits was an almost relaxed affair for me, as my teammates sheltered me and always made sure I had a wheel to follow and a draft to sit in. To give a perspective of the lack of work I did, I averaged 186 watts for the first hour and a half, and was nose-breathing for a heavy portion of it.
But once we exited the circuits, it was time to get serious and focus on the climb to come. We had decided that this day I was supposed to be a protected rider based on my finish yesterday, and so I was shepherded through the pack up to the base of the first climb, which came around kilometer 89.
And oh my lord what a climb. There had been talk of there being a 28-percent gradient hidden within one of the ascents today, and I had mentally prepared for it.
What I was not prepared for were multiple sections of 28-percent gradients over the entire course of the 6 kilometer climb. I’m amazed I even have knees after today, considering that I think I pedaled at a cadence no more than 55-65rpm at any given point. It was downright gnarly, and the selection process had our work cut out for us.
I had made the 11-man selection over the crest, having survived the death-grip-the-bars descent by the skin of my teeth and regrouped with the rest on the valley road leading into the next climb.
The next climb was even worse. The switch backs would go from 25 percent to 30 percent and refused to relent or offer any respite whatsoever, and once again I found myself pedaling squares.
But so was everyone else.
Unfortunately, a Bike Aid Pro Cycling rider, a German Continental outfit, had gotten clear on the first climb and a lack of coordination coupled with his having two other teammates in the selection meant he was able to stick the gap and take the win.
But for the rest of the group, it was mostly a game of survival. We each chewed at our own stems and just went at our own pace, as drafting was non-existent on the climbs.
Having narrowly evaded death on the first descent, I decided I wanted to live to the see the next stage, and took it easy and lost a bit of ground in doing so (but something I don’t regret in the slightest doing). An Aussie rider competing for an amateur team had gotten a gap and he was able to hold it to take 5th on the day, while I outsprinted the Colombian and Kenyan riders I had caught up to for 6th, placing me 6th overall, 55 seconds back from the leader.
Going into the next couple of stages, I’m feeling really really good. Today was a great confidence boost that all the training I’ve been doing in LA the past month and a half, along with the weight loss and the 20+ hours-a-week has all been worth it, and it’s paying dividends. I never thought I would be up in the thick of the selection on mountainous climbing days in an international stage race, but so far, the signs are looking good, and I intend to ride the momentum as long as possible.
Race Report: September 16, 2017 – Stage 5: Mount Longhu, Yingtan
Today we were able to enjoy a much chiller day in the peloton, with a stage that was lumpy, but that didn’t throw any curveballs at us like yesterday.
The race was 5 laps of a 26.5km circuit around a beautiful national park-type area that had some absolutely breathtaking scenery. As we wound our way through the forested roads along rivers and through arches constructed in the traditional Chinese style, I was able to see in the background these huge, 2,000+ foot sheer cliffs that were stuck in the middle of the park. Though I don’t welcome pollution, the smog and cloudiness today made it quite mystical looking, kind of like those floating mountains in James Cameron’s Avatar.
A break went 2 and a half laps in, consisting of 6 or so dudes, and the Bike Aid team, who wears the leader’s jersey, got to the front and kept them on a leash of about a minute or so, alleviating any chasing duties for us, or anyone else for that matter.
Just because it was chiller work-wise does not mean that we still didn’t have a smattering of race-course bootleggedness, however, as that would be unbecoming of what I’ve grown used to. Among today’s obstacles of note included a super-poorly paved bridge with no guard-rails, or any kind of fall-prevention system at all, whose pillars underneath jutted out to the side of the construction, meaning if you fell, not only would you fall 20 feet into a shallow, rocky riverbed, but you would do so after impaling yourself on a pillar and promptly bouncing off and tumbling on downward. 9/10 on the scariness scale.
Other sketch-factor goodies included dogs not on leashes, and the occasional spooked cow family on the side of the road who had no fence in front of them to stop them from charging us if they really wanted to. They never did show any aggression, but the same cannot necessarily be said for the local community. I don’t mean that the locals themselves were not nice to us or anything. Since I’ve been here people have been nothing but kind and welcoming. By “aggression,” I’m referring to the 20-car train that ran parallel to us during the race on one of the laps, on whose cargo-carts were military tanks. Just a row of tanks being jetsetted across to who-knows-where. At dinner, we all couldn’t help but point this out, and we all also couldn’t help but speculate that maybe–just maybe–the train had been specifically timed to pass us during the race, honk its horn, and alert all of the international travelers of China’s military might. It didn’t seem that far-fetched, considering that, for the past 3 days, in our hotels, TVs have been playing some local news, all of which at some point or another showed videos of Chinese military in action in one form or another. Well, I can tell anybody to whom it concerns that we saw the tanks, they were really neato, and you got your point across.
After marveling at the tanks, we shifted our focus back to the race, which was coming to an end. The break was slowly being reeled in, but juuuuuuuust not fast enough, and it ended up that the back was only four seconds behind them when they crossed the line. Our sprinter, Sam Bassetti, finished 9th on the day, keeping the team’s top-ten streak alive one more day, and I finished in the group and even moved up a spot somehow, now sitting tied for 5th, still 55 seconds down.
Tomorrow’s another flat stage before the fun starts again with a mountain stage after the rest day.