Exciting days in China

Carlos Sastre changes into dry clothes after a tough day on the bike

Carlos Sastre changes into dry clothes after a tough day on the bike (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

China, October 4, 2005

Our week in China has been action-packed, extremely enjoyable, and very educational. We got to experience the enthusiasm of Chinese cyclists through the Great Wall Bicycle Festival, arranged by Nordic Ways; we got to know our Merida family in China; we got a taste of cultural history dating back to the old kingdom of the Chinese Czar; and we got to taste the utterly fantastic Asian cuisine.

Wednesday, September 21

After a substantial plane trip from Stavanger to Beijing, we arrived in the metropolis of Beijing in the afternoon, local time. We were met by representatives from the Norwegian-Swedish organisation Nordic Ways, and were driven to our hotel. Nordic Ways has its offices in the centre of Beijing, where three Norwegian and 17 Chinese employees work full-time, organising and arranging huge sports venues within the country - e.g - cycling, orienteering and cross country skiing.

We were invited to China by Nordic Ways to take part in the Great Wall Bicycle Festival, which was in its second year. The whole event takes two days, and on Saturday there's road racing, while mountain biking takes place on the second day. A good 1300 locals took part, three times as many as last year.

This year Merida China was the main sponsor for the day of mountain biking, and this gave us a great opportunity to meet our Merida friends in the country. Merida will be putting a lot of focus on cycling in large areas of Asia in the years leading up to the Olympics in Beijing. In other words, we will probably be travelling to this part of the world again in the years to come.

We checked into a nice hotel about 5-6 kilometres from the centre of Beijing, and had a short hour of exercise to get our circulation going again. In the evening we went for a walk in the surrounding area and then enjoyed a quick supper. We're feeling somewhat comatose after a long day of travelling and entering a new timezone. Our first impressions are of a place with a lot of dust in the air, many cyclists and pedestrians everywhere, and lots of noise. We're really looking forward to tomorrow.

Thursday, September 22

Today we were fetched by the General Manager of Merida China, Simon Hsu, and some of his colleagues. We were driven to the arena for the weekend's biking event, where the Chinese cycling organisation also has its offices. The plan is for the Olympic race course to use this park too, but at the moment it's not 100 percent guaranteed. In my opinion, this is too small an area for a proper mountain bike race. What we saw and tested today lacked demanding climbs, technical sections and variation.

This afternoon we've had a press conference with a number of television channels and newspapers from Beijing. Afterwards we were driven to a television studio where we did a programme. It was then shown on TV later in the evening, on a show that normally has several million viewers. We've enjoyed a tasty dinner together with people from the organisation this evening - it's been a wonderful and interesting day, and we've both enjoyed ourselves. We had a late night tonight, but that'll probably be the case for the rest of the week too!

Friday, September 23

Today started with an hour of running on a treadmill at an exercise studio just next to the hotel. We were then driven to "The Forbidden City" in the centre of Beijing, and it made a powerful impression on us. We've only seen this place on TV and read about it in books, but today we were actually able to see and touch these mighty buildings. I could have wandered around in this village for many days in order to catch all the historical details and all the things to touch and see.

This afternoon we visited a Merida bike shop in the centre of Beijing, and it turned out to be an experience to remember. I wasn't aware that I actually more or less have my very own Gunn-Rita/Merida shop right in the centre of Beijing! I was greeted and welcomed like a queen by enthusiastic cycle-fans from the whole region. I was given flowers and presents, and lots of pictures were taken and big posters signed.

This evening we've been to a sponsor's dinner together with other cyclists and people from the organisation. The restaurant was very special - in the old style, hidden in some narrow back-streets in the city. You don't have to move all that far from the very centre of town before you're in quite different surroundings. Here people live in small creep-ins which remind me more of sheds. The streets are very narrow and almost impossible to drive a car down, and vendors stand along the streets selling fruit and foods. They even have portable bike-repair shops along the roads down here, and I've never seen that before. Here they'll patch your inner tubes and fix your chain for a small sum if you're unlucky as you cycle to work.

Saturday, September 24

Today we were able to sleep in a little bit, and it did us good. We took a taxi into an area with large shopping arcades, and were especially interested in visiting the so-called "Silk market". Here they haggle for low prices from morning to night, and it's just teeming with people, including many visitors and foreigners. I don't think this was our best day, though, because after a while we had had more than enough of people shouting and jostling us, vendors grabbing our sleeves and dragging us over to buy their merchandise, and so on. We would've liked to buy a couple of nice bags, some belts and maybe a couple of silk scarves, but we'll just have to do that on our next trip to Beijing.

This evening Merida was responsible for the dinner, and as usual, there was no skimping. They had chosen a restaurant called "Slow Food" with an interesting interior, subdivided into sections and small compartments as one typically finds in China. Each room has a large round table with space for 5 - 20 people, depending on how large the party is.

You can order the menu beforehand, or one person chooses various vegetable dishes, a range of seafood, and meat dishes. The lighter dishes are served first and are placed on the large round glass disc which can be rotated. Thus one can help oneself to a little of each dish, and thereby get a taste of everything. It's a very enjoyable way to eat together, and it's very social. Eating with chop-sticks doesn't take long to get used to!

Sunday, September 25

We had an early start to the day today, and were woken up at 6:30am. We left for the park where we were going to take part in the mountain bike race, part of the festival's second day. I made a short speech at the opening ceremony at 9:00am, followed that with an hour of autograph signing before Kenneth and I both lined up on the starting line with the elite men at 12:00pm. It was a short and fast track, and we were to do four rounds. We got a small lead after the first round which gradually increased through the next rounds. As always it was a lot of fun for me to leave the male cyclists behind!

The women's elite group started at 2:30, and I didn't exactly have too much power in my legs by then, but after a few minutes of warming up and getting my system going again, I was ready for another trip into the woods. I managed to get a few hundred metres into the race before puncturing and having to change the tube on the front wheel. I reckon I must have had a slow-flat; I felt that the bike wasn't working as it should from the start. I guess something had stuck into the tyre from the previous race. Changing an inner-tube easily takes some minutes. In such a short race (25 minutes), there's no chance of catching up with the leading group again, so I ended up in third place today.

I then had a new round of autographs to sign after the women's race, and then a final ceremony for the trophies before leaving for the hotel again. A quick shower and some nice clothes, and we were all set for the banquet together with sponsors, the organisation and many cyclists. It ended up being a very enjoyable evening with delicious Thai food and friendly people. We even had time for a quick visit to a "disco" before leaving for home, and my "dancing legs" worked surprisingly well after a particularly long break from dancing!

Monday, September 26

Today we've spent most of the day on the Great Wall of China. It was an amazing experience! We didn't get to walk all that far on the wall, since I was modelling with and without my bike. I had many new dresses from Gunn's Stil with me, and I modelled them on the historical wall. Gunn is travelling to China in November to sell her first clothes collection, and this could turn out to be an exciting collaboration for the little company from Bryne in Norway! There was both a stylist and a professional photographer for the shoot on the Wall, and the resulting photos were very interesting.

This evening we've had a Norwegian-Swedish evening together with people from the organisation, and there was some very spicy Chinese food on the menu - wonderfully tasty food and an exciting culinary experience for everybody who was there. I'm going to really miss the food and the chopsticks when I leave for home tomorrow, not to mention all the very friendly and nice people we've gotten to know during our stay.

Wednesday, September 28

The flight back home went as planned, and was dreadfully long as expected. We were at home again in our own sitting room before 11:00 last night, and as usual it felt very weird to be back again after a period away from everything we're used to. We unpacked most of our stuff before going to bed last night - I slept somewhat fitfully, since my body doesn't know what's actually night and day now; but I hope it doesn't take too many days before we're back to the normal sleeping routine again.

We can summarize by saying that our visit to China has been an unforgettable experience, providing us with experiences that we'll take with us for a long time. Now action-packed days at home await us, and naturally a fair deal of exercise. You'll all hear from me again within a good week, at which point there won't be many days left before the wedding bells chime for Kenneth and me. We always associate the autumn with long hikes in the mountains, so we'll probably have our first trip to the mountains this coming weekend. Maybe that could be an exciting activity for you this weekend too…

Cyclist's greetings from Gunn-Rita.

[Translation: Crispen T. P. de Lange]

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Norwegian cross-country mountain bike racer Gunn-Rita Dahle is probably the best female rider this relatively young branch of the sport has ever seen. World champion in 2002 and 2004, Olympic champion in 2004 and unbeaten in the World Cup in 2003 and 2004, she has a breath-taking palmares. Dahle says her success is due to an unrelenting focus - she describes herself as a '24-hour athlete' - and the constant support of her boyfriend and coach Kenneth Flesjå. Follow her exploits on Cyclingnews as she works to stay at the top of her game in 2005. Or, for more Gunn-Rita, see her personal website: