In stage 4 of the Langkawi International Mountain Bike Challenge (LIMBC), the group of 14 had whittled itself down to seven of us as we rolled the last few meters of the slight respite in our 13km climb, leaving 3km of real estate for the fireworks to go off in earnest. Chris Froome (yeah that Chris Froome) was next to me and I said... "Just like the Vuelta, eh?" Froome, looking effortless, immediately said "there were times where I wished I'd had a mountain bike in the Vuelta!"
Its not too often you find yourself at the pointy end of a race that joins cross country stars like Burry Stander, endurance racers like Karl Platt, and road racing GC studs like Froome. Halfway around the globe, dodging monkeys, literally, in the mist, in a mini-truce before everyone hits the full-gas switch in an uphill dash for the line. Such is the LIMBC, mixing everything its island circumnavigating stage 1 marathon, World Cup-style trail racing, American style short track, and stage 4's 100 percent pavement road race/hill climb. The beauty of mountain bike stage racing is that you have to be able to do it all and be ready to handle whatever and whomever they throw at you.
Stage 4's hill climb was pure international mass start racing - none of the polite and gentle North American roll out business we do back at home. This was everyone sprinting from the gun, where every guy is going to be a hero, and no wheel is safely yours for more than five seconds. Full gas and full attention at all times, and then the 13km climb starts.
The group hit the bottom with most of the men's field intact as the road tilted into the clouds. Our racing season has taken us to all corners of the globe through out the year, but we all know each other and our place - I planted myself on a familiar wheel and waited for the big guns to bring the heat - which they did, right from the bottom.
Like all long climbs, we all seemed to go through phases of no chain, wooden legs, pain cave, and being reborn. Coming off of that false flat into the last few kilometers, I knew that only then would the real show begin. Froome was the first to Give'r, followed quickly by Platt and Stander... the twisting road hiding the finish line behind a series of unknown turns. We were all sprinting into oblivion, following wheels and figuring, if he's doing it, I suppose I should, too.
Pulling along side Jhonny Cattaneo right at the line, he nipped me for the last podium spot in third. It wouldn't be the last time we dueled for the podium here in Malaysia.
Stage 5 brought more heat and sunshine to the final stage of the race - a 45-minute North American style short track: 2.5km of heavy and bumpy grass mixed with windy pavement sections and 165 guys trying to fit themselves into the pace where 15 riders belong.
Banging bars and out of the saddle the entire 500m from the start line to the first narrow grassy section, I slotted into fourth place and before we'd even exited the wheel sucking grass, Platt and Stander had opened a gap. While losing the opportunity to win a race in less than three minutes never feels good, it was impressive to see the power of those two as they simply pedaled away from us despite constant pressure from several of us at the front of the group for the duration of the race.
Feeling more like a 95-degree Fahrenheit cyclo-cross race than a mountain bike event, every moment of the race involved a constant juggling of pace, position, and timing. Having been sick on stage 1 and lost a heap of time, 10th place on GC was still within reach - I needed just 12 seconds on friend and fellow North American Kris Sneddon.
Sneddon was yo'yo'ing in the back of our group, so I knew if the pace changed enough, I could possibly get those 12 seconds back, but this required me pushing the pace more often than I should... putting in danger my ability to pull off a good stage result.
To show the thin lines to which we race - I lost the sprint for third (again to Cattaneo), having lead it out in an effort to get those 12 seconds on Sneddon - which I did get over Kris - but in the end, needing 12.5 seconds... a tie on GC, but coming down to tenths of a second.
I'd come back to the LIMBC in a heartbeat. It had organization that would put longer-running events to shame, great food, excellent lodging and island hospitality that always made us feel welcomed and safe, cheap scooter rentals and a race staff eager to implement feedback from their customers makes this an event that can only continue to prove excellent racing and travel experiences for those brave enough to challenge themselves.
As they say, the only the thing keeping you from going is leaving.