Tour de Beauce, Tour of Qinhai Lake reports, August 10, 2006
In the last month I have seen, heard, smelled and tasted a pure sensory overload of experiences, all of which have shaped me mentally and changed me physically for better or worse I have yet to decide. Still be it a good memory or a bad one I have some great stories to share.
Tour de Beauce
Starting with a trip to North America to race the tour of Beauce (French speaking part of Canada). With this part of Canada being unique with a mix of American culture and French having me confused to what parallel universe I was in. One moment you are in the middle of a typically French village the next the scene is transformed into Banjo playing America with the rednecks instead saying bonjour and kissing each others cheeks.
The Tour de Beauce itself started fast, 108km/hr to be exact. At those speeds you are glad you have got glasses on. But just as fast as the race started my race finished. On the second day I managed to ride into a metal shelving brace that was lying on the road. Normally things like this happen but this time the L shaped piece of metal managed to flick into my front wheel and chopped my forks clean in half. I happened to be standing up on the pedals at the time and I face planted still holding onto the handlebars.
Bewildered on how the road had managed to come up and hit me in the face I started the normal body check list before I tried to stand up and get back on the bike. I got to the first thing my teeth as I thought I would have lost a few. My teeth where thankfully all there, "mom would be happy about that" I thought. I noticed that I was pumping blood onto the road. Thinking that I had cut my throat open from seeing the amount of blood I clasped around where I thought my jugular was but the blood wasn't coming from there it was squirting from my chin. Deciding that I might take it easy and get someone to look at it I relaxed back onto the road waiting for some help to arrive.
The first guy on the scene was the neutral service mechanic. His face went pale at the sight of me before he turned and hurried away. I knew then that I was doing the right thing getting someone to give me a hand. I managed a smile at my team manager and team mechanic (who was taking photos) as I was being put onto a stretcher to go to hospital where I received 13 stitches in my chin. Girls like a good scar.
I spent the next week in Canada watching the boys race while walking around with a big bandage over my chin looking like I was in the television show Extreme Make Over. I did, however, have some luck when travelling back from Canada I was upgraded to business. I made sure I was in my seat early to wave to my team mates as they shuffled past me too the back with the other economy peasants.
Getting back to Belgium from Canada with nearly a week off the bike and all healed from the crash I was keen to get some good training in before I headed to China for another tour. I decided to travel to the South of France to Limoux in the Pyrenees. The two weeks spent down there on some of the best training roads you can find was awesome. Also being the New Zealand base in Europe meant lots of Kiwis and heaps of socialising. This was a great break from life in Belgium and the training in the mountains was out of this world. Riding some of the course that in a few weeks would have the riders of the Tour de France drip sweat on the same hot tar that I was riding.
Tour of Qinghai Lake
The Tour de France started in Europe and my team started the Asian equivalent race the Tour of Qinghai Lake. The crowds, culture, madness, smells, sounds, sights, landscape, weather and organized chaos makes the tour of Qinghai Lake a fantastically unique spectacle.
The quality of the teams riding this 2.HC ranked race was very high with Pro tour teams and other very good Professional teams making a truly international race at the highest level. But the level that really mattered was the altitude at which we had to race. With all our racing done at over 2000m and most of it spent between 3300 and 4000m above sea level. Traversing mountains at just under 4000m that take in climbs of over 40km long. With the extreme toughness of the course it doesn't take long for the climbers and the rest to be separated by enormous gaps.
Most days I spent riding in the grupetto. Grupetto is the word for a bunch of riders that are riding a steady pace so everyone in the group finishes within the time limit of the race. The time limit is determined by a percentage of the winner of each stage. For mountain stages it is normally around 15 percent. This sounds like a lot but believe me when you have a bad day trying to finish inside this time can become just as hard as winning.
Most climbs start with the whole bunch being slowly stretched then snapped into many pieces. Shouts of 'grupetto' can be heard early from the back of the bunch as the pace or steepness starts to form cracks in the peloton. For the non-climbers or the guys having a bad day this bunch of riders is the only thing that lets them survive. With everyone in the grupetto working collectively for the same goal. Without each others help they are all doomed to elimination.
Everyone carefully calculates the absolute least amount of suffering they have to undertake to get to the finish in time. There is a lot of different sorts of riders in the grupetto from the sick to the workers that have protected and helped their team-mates before the climbs. For most riders like me it is just trying to save your legs for tomorrow where there is another opportunity perhaps to get away from the bunch in an early attack or win on a flatter stage
The grupetto is run by masters of determining survival time. They govern the speed at which the group goes with an iron fist. These dictators are normally larger riders that are already angry that they have to carry 20kg more up the side of a mountain. People setting the pace too fast on the front are abused to slow down. Riders that do not share the work are abused. Riders that need abuse get abused and the abuse is done in every language so they get the message. The echoes of abuse can be heard resonating up the mountain valleys. I now know how to abuse someone in at least 10 languages. Still there is an unsaid bond between grupetto cyclists. Good friends are made riding with familiar faces for extended periods of grovelling. Everyone shares the achievement and temporary relief of crossing the finish line together. Until the next day.
Whether I was battling to stay with grupetto or the front group the vast changes in weather landscape and altitude had my body hurting in so many new ways. Rain that not only made the road slippery and dangerous but made filth form on the road that I have no doubt was for the most part human faeces. This was due to the towns that had third-world plumbing; most of the time the plumbing was sophisticated dirt ditches that flowed pure filth.
This cocktail of excrement and rain covered every part of you. You smelled awful, tasted horrendously bad and the smell was impossible to get out of your clothes. The rain was temporary but the lack of oxygen made the suffering seem permanent. My head felt like I was about to pass out and gave me strange tingling sensations throughout my body. I was gasping for breath like a gold fish out of his tank.
Nine days of suffering with oxygen deprivation is bad enough but the food that caused stomach problems the whole time and two weeks later is worse. I was lucky with the stomach issue as I had only a moderate case compared to others. Some riders raced all day constantly having to stop on the side of the road to battling with the squirts. These riders are easily identified with their bibs already undone so they can pull their paints down without having to take their shirts off first. Speed is of the essence. I also manage to see some brave and sickening sights. I feel I must share this but have to admit it probably will give this story an R18 rating.
On this particular day I was feeling strong and had managed to ride over the top of the mountain in the second group only a minute or so behind the front. Toilet stops are out of the question at the front of the race so the squirts have to be dealt with another way. On the descent I was passed by a rider (who will remain anonymous) with his pants down and spraying out the rear. I made sure I passed the rider as quickly as possible as I didn't want to receive any excrement on my person. Then moments later he came past me again wiping his butt with a feed bag. He then tossed the bag which narrowly missed me. I was too stunned, thankful, and impressed to insult him for nearly receiving evidence of his shameless accomplishments at speeds reaching nearly 100km/hr on a very technical decent.
From this and other experiences I have learnt that being a cyclist you have no room for shame. I do feel sorry for the spectators that have to witness these undignified events as in the excitement they could receive more than even the most crazed fan can tolerate.
If you are in search of crazed fans then China is the place to go. To have over 30,000 spectators at the opening ceremony is unbelievable. A purpose built giant stage that went out into Qinghai Lake for the teams to ride out and parade for the cheering thousands. At the start and finish lines you where swamped by spectators that wanted to touch, take photos, get your autograph and just stare at you. If it wasn't for the police armed with batons things would have escalated into dangerous crowed crushing situations. The teams put on a good show and made many friends with most happy to oblige a few photos and signatures. But the best show was put on by my team-mate Leigh, who with some naked antics when getting changed made hundreds of Chinese faces turn wide eyed and open mouthed.
I can honestly say that cyclist have no shame. I am proud to be a cyclist.