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Jason Sager at the Langkawi International Mountain Bike Challenge

Awards dinner shenangians

Racing the fast guys

Jason Sager
October 24, 2011, 19:07 BST,
October 24, 2011, 20:33 BST

Wrapping up a good time in Langkawi

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.

Racing chaos

Two days of cross country racing

Jason Sager
October 20, 2011, 20:11 BST,
October 20, 2011, 21:21 BST

On-the-fly changes keep improving Langkawi race

Everything is in a constant state of flux here in Langkawi. Most of it for the better. Stages are being modified to bring out faster and more competitive racing, avoiding long and dreary death marches in the heat in exchange for more cross country-oriented courses and pace.

Stage 2 was always slated as a UCI XCO stage - short laps with C2 points on tap, but the course profile published did little to convey the true quality of the course - straight up a 150m high climb over the course of about nine minutes.

A mix of slippery and steep rocky sections covered with greasy mud and high speed grassy pitches, the climb was complimented with a slippery and steep descent between rubber trees, interspersed with exposed and slippery roots. A true World Class XCO course, we all were expecting something flat and easy - this race was neither.

Not having race too many true cross country races this season, especially against a field of this quality, today's race was a real treat - requiring total focus on both effort and bike piloting, gaps between riders were tight - a true sign of the competitive nature of the track and the riders. Good job LIMBC!

I'd been struggling the first few days in the heat but started coming around on day 2, spending most of the race battling through traffic with my Georgia-based teammate Thomas Turner - we moved as far up as eighth but lost a spot on the last lap to close out the top 10 together. We were in the money and UCI points, so we'll take that. I was selected for anti-doping control where race winner Karl Platt and I spent almost two hours waiting for our hydration levels to kick in enough to do our duty. We heard that yesterday a rider spent seven hours waiting until he or she could provide a sample after the race!

Stage 3 was originally scheduled to be a six-hour endurance race on a 7km circuit. This would give riders approximately 20 chances to end their misery and DNF with each passing of the start/finish line. Fortunately, the race was modified to a cross-country style race on a shorter 4.5km circuit. Eight laps of what turned out to be about 50 percent grassy field and 50 percent technical singletrack - steep climbs full of rocks and roots, creek crossings and a nice slathering of slick jungle mud.

We took the scheduled bus ride to the resort property which hosted the event and took shelter from the heat in a local pizzeria while the women raced...and had our first real espresso of the trip!

Once the race began, things quickly sorted out and I slotted into fourth position with Platt, Stander, and Italian rider Johnny Cattaneo. Somehow Lachlan Norris was already off the front and gone. Things were great for two laps of the eight until I tried to wheelie a creek and slid out on the landing... and landed in the next creek. The rest of the race was spent in a dynamic and ever changing chase group. Eventually it came down to last lap battle with myself, Stander, and Thomas Dietsch - I used spicy Cajun skills to get away in the singletrack before the final 2km grassy field section. Not quite the podium, but the battles are getting better.

The highlight of the day was catching a ride in the military transport vehicle which was carrying racers' bikes 35km back to the host hotel. Sitting in the cab of the huge truck, I joked that we should ford a few deep river crossings to take advantage of the engine's wish almost came to fruition when a late afternoon monsoon hit the island and instantly flooded every road in site. Nothing seemed to phase the driver as he kept the gas pedal pinned no matter how flooded the roadway seemed.

One of the challenges of the daily racing schedule is being prepared - without a team staff, many of us are left to sort things out on our own - hotel departure to return can sometimes span six to eight hours, with a warm up and race in between, riders are looking at needing food, and a lot of it. Today, I ran out and bonked washing my bike. The walk from the hotel garage to the elevators was the hardest leg of the day.

Tomorrow's a road race will be a mass start group of mountain bikers, on pavement, heading out for 13km of rolling, urban, wet tarmac before tacking 13km of relentless climbing to the high point of the island.

I'm more scared of the commute than of the climb!

Blake Harlan during stage 1

Battling the tropical heat

Jason Sager
October 19, 2011, 19:41 BST,
October 19, 2011, 20:53 BST

Nevermind the leeches or flooded cow pastures

Stage 1 of the Langkawi International Mountain Bike Challenge (LIMBC) was a pretty amazing way to see the island from the inside: everyone knows about the Sky Bridge and fabulous beaches, but what's it like to live here? Acres of rubber trees harvested by the locals with hanging bags tied to collect the oozing white, accessed via hiking and scooter trails, rice fields, connected by what amounts to a great paved bike path system. Passing roadside food and drink stands made us all wish we'd carried a few Ringgits to quench our insatiable thirst. I'd have stopped in a heartbeat for some fresh and cold coconut water.

Racing in hyper humid and equatorial heat is one of those things where you're good until, well, you're not. There's little warning to the overheating process - and once you notice it happening, usually it's too late to do anything about it.

That's how it happened for me, about 20km into the 60km stage. Thoughts of pacing and heat management are always on your mind in these conditions, but on one particularly gnarly and exposed climb (that claimed many victims, I later learned) the warning signs of imminent overheating surfaced... no worries, we're in the big ring, so I'll dump the gears and sit this one out for a minute or two.

This strategy is a double edged sword, however - now I'm on said climb for twice as long, and with no wind or tangible forward movement in my 27x36, the heating process was just fed double the amount of time that it would've had before. Damned if you do, damned if you don't...

It's all part of jungle racing, though. You stop bothering to wipe sweat and drool from your brow or chin. Mud bogs that initially repulsed you with their stench, later aren't even noticed.

Leeches? Just flick them off.

Flooded cow pastures? Just try and avoid the deeper or darker spots.

Running vs. riding becomes the biggest question out there. You don't want to lose a shoe in a calf-deep sinkhole, but riding is often slower, if not impossible.

Today's opening stage was a fair mix of terrain - road sections contrasted with swamps. Steep paved climbs followed by serpentine hillside singletrack. The constants of the day were excellent course marking, locals on the course everywhere cheering and welcoming us through, at times, their own backyards, and the complete and full endorsement of the government and community of the event. The race hotel even has a channel on the television dedicated to the race!

I'd love to see that at the Holiday Inn for the Sea Otter Classic!

A typical Malaysian Parking lot

Ready to race in Malaysia

Jason Sager
October 18, 2011, 21:18 BST,
October 18, 2011, 22:37 BST

Team Jamis adjusts to new surroundings and climate

The song of the Malaysian community's Adhan seeped through our beachside hotel window just early enough to make Day Zero's wake up call superfluous. Being 14 hours ahead of our home time zone hasn't made waking up early difficult at all, though staying awake after dinner has been a fight we've given up on.

To Team Jamis, travel and the challenge of new places and experiences are the cornerstone of what inspires us. We are where we go. We don't do this just for the bike race. We do this because of where the bike race takes us. And where it takes us becomes a part of us. It is these early days before the race are where you're really able to take in the flavors and elements of a locale - something as simple as going out for a post-flight spin is where you wake up and realize what an amazing experience you've already embarked on... and the race hasn't even begun.

The Langkawi International Mountain Bike Challenge, a five-day mountain bike stage race on the Langkawi resort island off the west coast of mainland Malaysia, started off as an idea for a late season excuse to travel and do a bit of relaxed racing. Now that we are here, just one degree north of the equator, the race is shaping into one of the most competitive fields of the year, second only to the Absa Cape Epic.

Traditionally stage races like these are point to point, featuring true cross country terrain stages of 60-140km each, over mountains and valleys, and with thousands of meters of climbing. This helps the race starts to be a bit less hectic - the racing will sort out the hierarchy of riders in the group, through natural selection if you will.

However, I think the LIMBC will be even more challenging in some ways than those with more difficult terrain. Held on a compact island and rather than straightforward point-to-point races, the LIMBC has a lethal mix of endurance and World Cup cross country athletes competing on looped circuits as short as 4km and for durations as long as six hours.

This week is going to require a savvy mix of world class speed, endurance, tactics, and tenacity to pull off any portion of the $130,000 USD prize list. Well, that, and a high resistance to heat and humidity. Stepping off the plane straight from a snowy early fall week in Utah, the palatable blanked of humid tropical heat was the first thing that announced our arrival - we're in the tropics.

My travel partners for the 10-day journey are Jamis teammates Thomas Turner and Blake Harlan, along with fellow countrymen Brady Kappius (Clif Bar) and Russell Finsterwald (Trek/Subaru), in addition to stage race buddies Kona's Kris Sneedon and Cory Wallace, both of Canada.

The seven of us make up the North American contingent, giving us a modest impact on a race highlighted by cross country world medalist and Olympian Burry Stander, Cape Epic champion Karl Platt, French national champion Thomas Dietsch, 2011 Vuelta runner up Chris Froome, Asia champion Kohei Yamamoto...the list goes on and on. I'm doubting my local time in the Utah cyclo-cross scene last week is going to get me much of a call up with these guys.

Our first two days here have been filled with heavy legs, reddened faces, and endless grins as the reality of our arrival sank in - we're really here. Langkawi is an island full of hospitality, affordable food, amazing beaches, and its one of the better places I've ridden amongst vehicles.

But for now, we're focusing on one thing: riding on the LEFT side of the road. You'd be surprised how quickly you forget to do so.

Racing starts on Tuesday - a mass start 60km jungle loop circumnavigating the Gunung Raya mountain stage that later we'll be summiting. It should be a muddy and chaotic event. Catch you guys after the clean up.

Jason Sager at the Langkawi International Mountain Bike Challenge

Jason Sager (Team Jamis) is in Langakwi, Malaysia, racing the 2011 Langkawi International Mountain Bike Challenge. The 37-year-old father and husband manages the Jamis team and also still competes professionally.

Sager is a long-time racer who often does in mountain bike stage races and other endurance events although you will still see him in some cross country races.

In 2011, he won five stages of the Trans Andes and finished second overall at the Trans-Sylvania Epic with three stage wins along the way. He was 17th at the Cape Epic with a few top 10 finishes.

The past two years, Sager has finished as runner-up in the BC Bike Race, in which he has eight total career stage wins.

Sager, a former banker, is based in Ogden, Utah.