Most of these entries just kind of write themselves. They take on a life of their own and I can get them done in about 30 minutes without too much of a fuss. Not this one, though. Fifth time I’ve started. It’s 10:45pm and we have one day of the Tour de Taiwan left and I’m gonna need all the energy I can muster for tomorrow.
Suddenly, as a result of what happened today, Stage 7 has taken on a whole new dimension. There’s a storm a-brewin’, ya see, and it’s gonna get ugly…
But let’s rewind a little, to Stage 5. So, after the mammoth break on Stage 3 and the sufferfest on Stage 5 when I managed 11th, nobody would have grumbled a jot had I chosen to sit in the peloton all day buffing my nails and debating whether it was better to pluck or shave and how far up exactly it was necessary to go, but no.
I go. Maybe 4km into the stage Abbas of Azad University (Iranian national champion) shoots out of the peloton like he’s dropped a stinker and I suddenly find myself following. I shouldn’t be too coy — there am I, in the back of my mind a thought of going for the stage’s KOM point at 14km, but when I turn after having reached Abbas to see the KOM leader Feng Chung Kai (Action Cycling Team) chasing hard alone, I wonder if the move might have been more fool than hardy.
As it is, we stomp up the long drag to the KOM stuffing a good one minute into the peloton, with Akai taking the full offering of points and me second. On the way down the hill our lead grows, and my brain begins ticking.
“Abbas, where are you on the GC?” I ask.
Hmm. I go to Kai, who I know is only 30 seconds down on the GC.
“Hey, we wanna go for it. You?”
He says he wants to go easy. I ask him if he’ll drop back. He agrees and it’s on.
Abbas is a heck of a rider, one of those powerful flat guys who churns a massive gear all day. We hit mostly head and crosswinds, but we are motoring up in the 50’s for most of the first 70km.
There is a feeling you get after several weeks of racing. It’s as if your inner thighs are literally made of titanium, light yet rock hard, a feeling of massed power that can lead to irresponsibility. Repeated stage-long breaks can result. But seriously, it’s an awesome feeling and hard to sit on. Successful riders know that when the legs feel great they should do nothing all day ‘til the finale. Others just splurge. I am one of The Others.
Yet I didn’t sign on to be pack fodder all day. The road is the canvas, the wheels the brush, the will the ink, and though the finished result might be more dog’s dinner than Last Supper, heck, better out than in, no?
There is so much that goes unseen in a bike race by those that aren’t in it. In a soccer game, if I may ramble, the action takes place in one fixed area. Often the result is a stalemate and the game as a whole may be less than stellar. Yet there may be one pass, one touch, one deft flick that makes it all worthwhile, that defies the mundane, transcends the toil and illuminates the darkness we stumble about in most of our lives and touches us as a moment of art within sport.
A Magic Johnson pass. A Wayne Gretzky pirouette. A Zidane shimmy.
Well, within a bike race, thought the winner is invariably heralded, there are other moments almost as or indeed as wonderful as seeing the victor cross the line, as seeing that pass, that pirouette, that shimmy. Much more difficult to see or capture on film, they nonetheless exist.
Take the desperately tired domestique heading back to the team car to be loaded up with eight full bottles the moment an attack is launched, then weaving back through the cars to fight to the front to deliver his bounty with rarely a thanks in return. The guy in the last 20km who gets a puncture yet fights back on to get 80th but the same time as the winner, against the odds. Then there’s the titanic struggle that goes on as the peloton turn into a strong head or crosswind and the pack lines out, every man for himself yet interconnected, dependent on each link in the chain to remain intact with the bunch, a battle of the will that can go on for 4km or 10 or 20, dependent on the road and the fury up front.
These guys don’t win, but they feel, sometimes, like they did.
Now that’s bike racing. And it’s also art. It’s the human self transcending adverse conditions, screaming its tiny, tinny voice into the blackness of the universe just to be heard. The canvas is the road, the wheels the brush, the will the ink.
Ok, where was I? (See how often that happens!) So we are rolling along, stage 5; I let Abbas take the five points for the intermediate sprint and I take three. We get caught, finally, with 2km to go. Such is racing. We left it all on the road, no complaints.
Back at the hotel I check the classifications. I see I’m just ten down on the points classification. Now, a thought enters my head. Not being a sprinter of any note whatsoever, it seems impossible to even begin to covet green. However… what if…? No! Madness!
But, what if I go on another kamikaze attack from the gun? What if I manage to get all ten points on offer for first at the sprint points and the leader — Akai — gets nothing? (Yes, he had the lead in the KOM and points, a heck of a rider.)
The race starts. Ali of Azad University takes off after about 500m. I follow. Anuar Manan (Champion System) comes, too. I put in a big effort to drive us away. Slowly our lead grows. With 30 gone we have two minutes. I take max points at the first sprint, and at the second. Behind, my RTS teammates shut Akai out so he can’t get the last point on offer.
With 10km to go we have 1:45 but we are all spent and the last 5km is uphill. We get swept up with 4km to go, but I am now equal on points with Akai. Matt Rendell grabs me to do an interview at the end. As we chat, my manager Daryoush comes over and says, “Congratulations!”
As a result of winning more of the sprints than Akai, I take green. I hug Daryuoush. Others congratulate me and I’m overwhelmed with so many thoughts and feelings, but prime amongst them is pride. Not cockiness, not brashness, just a quiet sense of pride that all those hours of getting up at 5 a.m. before work, the seemingly endless suffering in Qatar and Oman, the exhaustion of Langkawi and the mad, long breaks of stages 3, 5 and 6 have all paid off.
It is absolutely the best day of my cycling career. Now we have one day left, and Akai wants his jersey back. The guy in third wouldn’t mind it either. We have over 120km of rolling hills and two sprint points on offer. It’s gonna get messy and it’s gonna be hard.
It is, I think, gonna be rather awesome whatever happens.
Thanks for reading.