Monday, October 26, 2009

Race Report: Finally, the race

A few ex-pros joined the race and stayed up at the front. They included Sven-Ake Nilsson, who placed 7th in the Tour de France in 1980. Also racing was Bernt Johansson, gold medalist in the road race in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

The race start with a series of long rolling hills. We had to ride along a 24-kilometer stretch of highway before we got to the lake. The elite bunch shot down the road and quickly opened a big gap on me and the other weekend warriors.

We made an analytical mistake a month earlier when we studied the course on paper and decided the race would be mostly flat with a few undulations. We did most of our training on flat roads and scaled back our climbing workouts.

Fuxian Lake turned out to be breathtakingly beautiful and amazingly pristine for a body of water in a country of 1.3 billion people. In America, such a lake would be crowded with homes, resorts, marinas and bait-tackle-and-beer shops. The tranquility would be spoiled by the roar and whine of jetskis jick-jacking over the water.

But Fuxian Lake was virtually undeveloped. We rode along long stretches of road without seeing any buildings or even boats on the water, which was a clean deep blue. The villagers lived in clusters of red brick homes with tile roofs. They lined the roads screaming the most common Chinese cheer: "Jia you!" (which literally translates as "Add oil!). One group of boys wore nothing but underwear soggy from a recent dip in the lake. A couple guys yelled at me, “Come on!” in English. I’ve never heard a Chinese use this phrase and I wonder who taught them.

I'm reminded on an almost daily basis that China is an authoritarian police state, but I'm always amazed by how many cops and other security forces can be mobilized for an event. The police did seem to come out of the woodwork. More than 1,100 of them were used to shut down all the roads, which were generally in good condition and free of traffic. However, several spots were littered with big pieces of gravel and in one case a brick, which an elite Norwegian rider hit, breaking his wheel and ending his race close to the finish.

There were also many speed bumps. Most of them weren’t painted yellow or marked with signs. I hit several of them that were positioned at the bottom of hills. I was lucky to be able to stay on the bike.

Aid stations were set up all along the course and were staffed by enthusiastic volunteers who handed out bottled water, Snickers bars and bananas. Powerbar was one of the race sponsors, and I thought the aid station tables would be piled high with them. But Powerbar wasn’t handing out freebies. They were selling them before the race at prices that were a bit higher than I pay in Hong Kong. I still pledge my allegiance to the Clif bar.

I spent most of the race with three guys I occasionally ride with in Guangzhou. Our abilities were roughly the same so it worked out well as we rolled along at 32-34 kph against a blustery headwind whistling off the lake.

About 120 kilometers into the race, we caught up with a strong Chinese rider from Beijing. The guy was really amazing. He would do a long pull, then go to the back of the paceline for a few minutes. Then he would sprint back to the front and do another long pull. He finally rode away when we stopped to pee. But about 10 kilometers down the road, we spotted his bike parked next to the lake and saw him bobbing in the water, taking a dip in the lake. He got back on the bike and went back on duty at the front of our paceline.

I snarfed down a Snickers bar and a banana at the 150 kilometer mark, and the food hit my stomach like a rock. My back was aching and the nerve endings on my feet felt like they were dipped in gasoline and set aflame. One of the riders in our group developed foot problems and told us to go on without him. The two other riders picked up the tempo on a long hill and I cracked and tumbled out the back door.

I began feeling nauseous in the last five kilometers of the race, and my main concerns shifted away from my fatigue to coping with the potential embarrassment of puking in front of the crowd at the finishing line. But as I came around the final turn and heard the crowd, I began to sprint and pretend. I barely made the cut in the top 50, about an hour behind the winning rider _ Darren Benson, an Australian riding for Trek.

A band playing rockabilly tunes was jamming at the finish line. After my friends finished, we rode back to the hotel, cleaned up and walked to McDonald’s for a quick meal. Most of us didn’t bother to put suntan lotion on and suffered some bad burns. I was one of them and displayed some of the ultimate signs of bike geekdom: sunburn markets down the side of my head where my helmet straps were.

Our travel package included a post-race banquet in the hotel. The food wasn’t near as good as the night before. Throughout the meal, local Communist Party hacks and government flunkies gave loud, long-winded speeches. We were all given a thermos as a gift.

The top of the hotel had a bar and we spent part of the evening enjoying free drinks purchased by the friendly guys at Nordic ways. Everyone I rode with enjoyed the race and planned to return next year.

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