Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Race Report: The Vattern....what?

Summer was quiet in Guangzhou racewise. The Chinese think it’s too hot and humid to organize anything. But the expat riders here were getting bored and needed a challenge.

The challenge finally arrived. It was the Vatternrunden-China _ a 175-kilometer road race on Sept. 5 organized by Swedes and held in the city of Yuxi in Yunnan, a lush and mountainous southwestern province that borders Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Yuxi – which means "Jade Stream" in Mandarin - seemed like an improbable place to hold a race. The city is famous for its cigarette industry. And it apparently feels no guilt or shame about pushing a deadly product. Before the race, a beautiful woman in a glittery blue gown kicked off the event by telling the crowd with a big smile, "Yuxi is the home of tobacco!"

But the area also has Fuxian Lake - the second deepest in China - and that's what attracted the Swedish race organizers.

The race name - Vatternrundan China - was borrowed from the world's largest recreational cycling event: the 300-kilometer ride around Lake Vattern in Sweden. About 20,000 people are expected to participate in the next one in June.
The famous "Vatternrundan" brand name has only been used for the ride in Sweden and the inaugural race in China this year. The China event was put on by Nordic Ways, a Swedish company that also organizes running, mountain bike, trekking and nordic skiing events across China.

The group of expats I occassionally ride with found out about the Vatternrundan about five weeks before the ride. That’s light years before we're informed about most races. Usually we get a week’s notice. Events are routinely poorly publicized or sorted out at the last minute.

We had little time to ramp up our training for such a long race. Most of the 20 or so regulars in the group are middle-aged guys struggling to juggle cycling with the demands of careers, families and erratic travel schedules. On weekdays, I woke up at 4:45 a.m. to get in a two-hour ride before work. I stuck to the schedule even when the fringes of a tropical storm were soaking Guangzhou. The rain filled up the numerous potholes in the roads, making them look like harmless puddles. I rode into one during a dark morning ride, badly dinging my front wheel and cracking a weld on the custom-made steel frame I planned to ride in the race.

On the weekends, I did 160-kilometer rides that kept me on the saddle for five hours in the August temperatures that often climbed into the high 90s F. On one ride, the temperature hit 107 degrees F. We didn’t have much information about the race. But somehow we decided the course would be mostly flat, so we spent most of our time hammering on the flats.

I thought I was ready for the race. I was wrong.

Next: More surprises in Yuxi

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