The South China Sea experience - Part I (read Part II here)
December 23, 2005
Greetings cyclingnews.com readers!
When last I wrote, I was flying at 30,000 ft. somewhere over Siberia. Well, I arrived in Hong Kong tonight after a relatively easy flight from LAX and another adventure is underway. I will be racing in the Tour of the South China Sea, an eight-day stage race on the UCI Asia Tour calendar. The event is one of the premier stage races in Asia, and will be contested by national teams from a variety of countries including Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and mainland China, plus regional teams from Australia, various provinces in the PRC and of course Champion System. Most all of the Asian riders will be in peak form, as will the Australians, who have their open national championships soon after this race finishes. While my form is good, I'm not peaking but I hope to still be competitive.
Teammate David Sommerville met me at the airport with Champion System team support person "Gilbert." We drove to the Hong Kong Sports Institute, where Jared Bunde, Dave and I are going to be staying with our HK teammate Simon for tonight. After checking me in and dropping off the gear, Gilbert drove us to a nearby market for a classic street food dinner with our other teammate Derek Wong (second overall in the Tour of the South China Sea last year) and his girlfriend Colleen, plus a rider from the Shanghai team and his girlfriend.
Got my Champion System kit tonight - holy smokes. It's good to be riding for a clothing manufacturer! More clothing than I've ever received at one time. Five jerseys with my name and country flag printed on each collar, five bib shorts, leg warmers, arm warmers, caps, gloves, wind vest, thermal jacket, and enough leisure clothing to replace the wardrobe I brought with me. Doh! I'm going to end up leaving most of the clothing I schlepped to Hong Kong here at the Sports Institute with my bike case once we get on the road. Note to self - pack less next time.
We also received special "Champion System" edition watches from Accord. I can check off another box on my "things to achieve in cycling before I retire" list, as riding for a team that issued me a watch has been a goal since I first read the Bob Roll diary in which he mourns the loss of his 7-Eleven team issue Tag Heuer. That anecdote, in which Roll loses his watch while snowboarding, only to recover it months later after the spring thaw, forever biased me to the Tag Heuer brand. I own several, including one received from a trade with Greg LeMond in 1996. Greg, if you're reading this, thanks again. And an aside to my brother - don't lose or break the limited edition T.H. Chronometer that you're supposed to be keeping safe for me!
I'm rooming with Simon tonight, and he snores like an animal. I didn't think someone so unimposing could make such noises!
December 24, 2005
I couldn't sleep in as much as I'd hoped after the long flight, but I did enjoy a leisurely breakfast with Dave and Jared at the Sports Institute (think Olympic Training Center, without the wide variety of food). There is a truism of stage racing in foreign countries: your first few meals upon arrival, which always seem utterly horrible because you've just come from your home country and its wonderful cuisine, will inevitably end-up being the best meals that you'll be served until the conclusion of the Tour when the boss takes you to dinner and puts it on the sponsor's tab. Except Italy.
After breakfast and clothes sorting I assembled my bike, in this case a battered old team bike from 2004. I definitely need a new ride. Derek Wong, the nominal team captain, wanted the entire team together for a training ride today, no doubt to test me out in front of the others and see if I pass muster. Dave told me that he and Jared were already put through this meat grinder courtesy of our teammates a few days ago.
Thankfully the ride was short at just under 2.5 hours, though we did complete two 2km paceline efforts and an eight-minute climb to "loosen" the legs. Derek told me later that he felt bad about subjecting me to so much intensity since I was just off the plane, but that he had to test me just like he'd tested D and J the previous two days. After I'd taken a few pulls and he realized my legs were as lean looking as our other teammate Daniel Lee's, it was clear I would be ok for the tour.
Before finishing the ride we stopped near where Louis - the Boss - lives and had lunch on his tab at an Italian restaurant. Note that this lunch was the third meal of the trip, and would be the best. There is another Boss/Sponsor here, Scott Kaylin, and he and his female companion Helena joined us, as did Louis's wife.
After returning to the Sports Institute, we packed up everything and drove to the Metropole Hotel in Kowloon, where we'll stay for the next two nights. It's the race hotel.
Christmas Eve was very subdued. I don't even remember what I did...
I'm rooming with Derek and I went to bed early. When I got up to pee, there was Colleen in bed with him. Oops. Not exactly protocol, and I'll have to watch out for that in the future. Good thing I gave up sleeping naked.
December 25, 2005 - Christmas Day
Merry Christmas! Today marks the fourth consecutive Navidad that I've spent outside of the USA.
All of the Champion System riders are together now at the Metropole, and Dave's girlfriend in NYC sent a small present with him to be opened this morning. It was a pack of English-language slang/hip-hop flash cards from www.knockknock.biz. This may be one of the best gifts I've ever seen, and I intend to buy a set upon my return to the USA, finances-willing.
We had a quick review of current slang terms and quizzed our Hong Kong teammates, especially Daniel, who is proud to "represent." Nonetheless, despite the instant camaraderie that we're building and the total ease with which all of the riders and staff are interacting, this definitely doesn't feel like Christmas to me. It doesn't feel like the prelude to a bike race, either, and I can only hope that in the next 24 hours I switch on. Maybe it's the jet-lag?
After breakfast we drove out of town to the circuit that will be used for tomorrow's stage. I felt surprisingly good, which is never a positive sign for me the day before a race - seriously. The fact that I felt great today means I'm in trouble tomorrow.
Nonetheless, I thought that the rolling circuit was awesome and could totally suit my abilities. I am obviously not 100% and haven't had any road racing yet, but I still felt good on the course which is up-and-down with almost no flat. It's going to shatter tomorrow, for sure, especially since the field size is small.
In the evening we attended a low-key press conference for the race, and we did our best to look good and smile for the cameras.
Kam Po Wong (HKg) got most of the media attention, but Daniel received his fair share, too. He is a top athlete in the Asian triathlon circuit, and is in the ITU rankings, which is great for us because he could be a source of media interest and a powerful engine for the squad. It bears mentioning that both Daniel and Simon are very inexperienced road racers, so it will be up to Derek and me to help them channel their efforts. Dave brought a full set of Alinco credit card radios with him, which will make communications much easier during the stages.
Stage 1 - December 26, 2005: Hong Kong Broadway Cup (Tsimshatsui to Tsing Yi, Hong Kong) - 100.1km
My legs just weren't working today. I felt totally blocked and was pedaling with only one leg, just like in the stage of the '05 Vuelta a Cuba that finished in Bayamo, when I almost quit the race. I think that it's a neuromuscular issue that is also affected by tightness and lack of flexibility in the joint and the muscle tissue, which inhibits proper muscle contraction and full range of motion. Maybe.
Tactically we were good, with Derek going in what would be the winning break, and both Simon and Daniel going up the road in small groups while Kam Po Wong - the pre-race favourite - was back in my group. Even when Wong started to go across on his own, we were still in a tactically solid position, with three riders up ahead. However, Wong went straight by Simon, and then Derek! Unbeknownst to us, Derek had broken his chain and had to change bikes, then took the 50 Swiss franc fine for motorpacing back up to the break. By that point, however, it was no longer one group, with Kam Po up ahead with several others, and Derek in the second group, Simon and Daniel in the third, me in the fourth, and Dave and Jared still further back. Shit. More out of frustration that anything I won the sprint from my small group, but on the whole my teammates and I gave up our chances of a high overall GC finish by losing so much time today.
Spirits were low and tensions high back at the Metropole as we tried to find our bus for the transfer to the PRC. I saw my first genuine Chinese fire drill and yet eventually we exited Hong Kong, crossed the border into the PRC and arrived in Shenzhen where we checked in to the Shenzhen Guest House hotel. Dave and I have a great view of the city skyline out of our room. Sweet.
One thing that has kept me amused since I arrived in Asia is the bastardised translations of various Chinese-language signs that adorn hotel bathrooms, elevators, and lobbies. My favourite was the towel exchange sign that proclaimed, "Be Careful Throw Down!"
Tonight Dave played one of the best practical jokes on me that I've ever experienced. While I chilled in the hotel to rest for tomorrow's stage, Dave and some of the others walked over to a nearby mall. When they came back, Dave had with him a plastic bag filled with chocolate, cans of Coke and sundry foodstuffs. We were shooting the shit when he tossed me a bag of Lays potato chips … I didn't think anything of it (other than it was nice of him to get me some chips) and after bs'ing for about 15 minutes I reached for the Lays and made ready to chomp.
Without stopping the conversation, I opened the bag and absently pulled out a few chips and popped them into my mouth. Hilarity ensued as I ran around the room struggling to find a place to retch - Dave had brought me Shacha Chicken flavoured chips, which he said were the most un-Western he could find. Thanks man. I did some research on the Internet later, and Lays offers quite a few unique flavours of chips in China, including: Cool Cucumber, Crisp Hokkaido Seaweed, Fresh Lemon, Spicy Crab and Five Spice Fish. But Shacha Chicken was terrible. Horrible. Disgusting. If I want the flavour of chicken, I'll eat a chicken. I can't even describe how bad it was.
Stage 2 - December 27, 2005: Shenzhen Longhua Jin Xiu Jiang Nan Cup (Longhua, Shenzhen, PRC) - 88km
The Champion System factory is based near where we are, and this region is known for its factories producing bicycles and other cycling components. I think it should be known for excessive traffic and noodle shops.
We had a short bus transfer to the start venue, which I undertook with the IPOD plugged in pumping a pre-race playlist that included Big Boy, Orishas, Paul Oakenfold and Daddy Yankee, among others.
The Hong Kong guys were saying there would be a bunch of spectators today, but there were only a few people milling about in the immediate vicinity of the drop-off point. I made a wise-ass comment about the apparent lack of fans as we were riding to the team paddock, when - wham! - there they were. Tens of thousands of excited Chinese surrounding the Longhua circuit. Wow.
The race itself was very aggressive, but owing to the wide open course and small field, it was difficult for attacks to stay away - except, of course, for the late-race move that we missed. However, Simon "Little Bear" Chau bridged across to it after a major effort, and with a Champion System rider up the road, we were free to sit on as the other teams chased.
I wasn't feeling very good today, and I think the shock of an abrupt return to racing is what's to blame. I trained well this winter, but racing is a different game entirely, and it takes the body some time to adapt. Owing to feeling like crap, I didn't try to go for the points sprints, and I was thanking God when Simon went up the road and latched onto the back of the break so we didn't have to chase. Nonetheless, when the field came back together in the final kilometres, I switched-on and promised to have a go in the sprint. Neither Daniel nor Simon are very good at fighting for position because of their relative inexperience in road racing, so it was up to Derek and me to represent in the mad dash to the line.
The City of Perth team - all of whom seem like a nice bunch of guys - took control coming out of the final corner on the last lap with just under 2km to go to the line, but their train fell apart far short of the finish banner. Good bike handling and positioning saw me right behind their last rider, with Kam Po Wong on my wheel and Derek on his as we passed the 500m sign. As the Aussies imploded, and the best rider in the race watching me like a hawk, it suddenly seemed like I wasn't so well placed after all. Shit.
I hesitated for as long as I could, but with my line along the barriers on the left side of the road about to be blocked by a fading John Wordan (Aus), I had to jump. There were still more than 300m to go, but I gave everything I had and was averaging over 1000w to the line. I kept hoping that Derek was going to come over the top of Kam Po and that we could pinch him and take the win, but "Nippolini" (as we would affectionately come to call him) simply obliterated us. A picture at the finish line reveals by just how much Asia's best rider smoked Derek and me.
A double podium finish made the sponsor happy, however, and what we couldn't do to Kam Po in the race, Derek and I did to him on the podium, drenching the little bastard in champagne with a concentrated attack. I'm just kidding when I call him a bastard. Kam Po seems like a nice enough guy.
Since we don't have a soigneur with us, the team boss treated me to a massage in the salon that is attached to our hotel.
I'll have to finish on the podium more often.
Stage 3 - December 28, 2005: Foshan Circuit Race (Lake Qianden, Nanhai, Foshan, PRC) - 100km
Bad day for me with little to report except for the fact that I crashed in the rain and then mistakenly turned down the chance to return to the race with what would become the winning break after I took my free lap. Instead, I rejoined the main field even though I guess I did technically crash out of the break, and finished 4th in the field sprint for 8th on the stage.
It's been awhile since I crashed and had proper road rash, but one never forgets the utter horror and pain of having to clean bits of gravel out of freshly-mauled tissue. Nothing is pleasant right now.
A major thumbs down to the organizers, who took what could have been a fun (or at least safe), rectangular four-corner circuit and instead added two additional sections of road with u-turns on each end with rows of carpet-covered turtle-like reflectors throughout. I'm just going to take a picture of the course diagram rather than trying to explain it.