“Come race UCI Asia Tour,” they said. “New cultures, amazing vistas, exotic wildlife,” they said.
Sounds too good to be true? Well, it actually is kind of true (if any truth can be “kind of”), but they forgot to mention one critical factor that will transform even the most transcendentally beautiful locale from Nirvana to Hell in one fell swoop: The Heat.
The temperature was between 95 and 100 degrees each day! It’s not that we actually want to go race fast, it’s just that, well, this is how it pans out.
Stage 1 was 161km, which we covered at 42kph. 201km on stage 2 at 40km/hr. Stage 3, 168km at 44km/hr. Pretty big distances at a decent pace – especially in that heat.
Even just walking around in this heat any time after 9am is not easy. Add humidity that is close to 90 percent, and within three minutes you look like you just stepped out of a sauna. And here we are, pounding out kilometer after kilometer in this furnace, our skulls expanding, feet rotting, and crotches disintegrating inside the steaming ovens that are our shorts.
We start with ice cubes in plastic bags down our necks (and another on the belly for me); many also stuff an extra bottle in their back pocket. After the feeding opens with 30km behind us, there’s an endless stream of guys dropping back through the pack, hands in the air with bidon held aloft. You have to be sure to catch the wheel of the last guy but also to keep an eye behind on your team car when it comes up. Then, when it finally arrives (it can take anything from 45 seconds to five minutes, depending where in the convoy it is and how many other teams need bottles too), you have to drop back behind the Chief Comm car and alongside your team car, where the mechanic will hand over bidons, ice bags and water bottles for you to haul back up.
It takes a while to get into the rhythm of the bidon run: You have to ride at the pace of the pack and simultaneously stuff bidons in every available place you can, while at the same time avoiding cat’s eyes, holes and other ruts in the road, other riders also dropping back, the Chief Comm car, and your own team car.
Then, when fully loaded up, you get a last “sticky bottle” – when you hold onto the bottle, still in the mechanic’s hand, so you can get an extra boost (terrifying the first time, going from 40kph to 65 in about two seconds) – then you have to sprint back on to the peloton, catch a breath, then pick your way up along the outside of the pack, which can be traveling at over 45kph at times, searching out your guys as you go.
The heat means, naturally, that we drink more. That means more bidon runs. Endless chilled PET bottles are taken, uncapped and tipped over the body. Head first in my case, then back, then thighs, a little for each foot, then a quick mouthful and then head again. Then toss. The next thought is, again: “Water!”
When your team car is up ahead with a break, and you’re not getting enough, you eye others with their chilled Cokes and bags of ice with an almost murderous envy.
I dare not think how much stuff gets tossed each race. It’s huge. Bidons, PET bottles, wrappers and bags – it would be enough to fill more than four or five Costco shopping trolleys I’m sure. In Korea we had designated zones where we could toss stuff: something that we found annoying, but as far as limiting our senseless dumping, it worked.
Anyway, why the heck are we racing 200km in this heat?! And we leave at 10:00 a.m.! People get exhausted, concentration wanes, crashes happen. Young guys look like hollow old men by the end. We curse the organizers and the UCI for letting it happen. The humidity envelops you like a layer of cling film, then the heat invades, pervades and damn near conquers – and once you’re cooked, you stay cooked. There’s no relief, except the finish line and the fire engines that await us with their jets of cold water. Riders throng under the showers, gasping for breath, desperate to cool their core. It’s madness.
It is a little disturbing to think of the limits to which we push ourselves in these conditions. We are ragged by the day’s end, brittle and broken, barely able to walk. There are always guys in the medical room on drips (despite the UCI’s no-needle policy). I worry about guys getting sick, about me getting sick. We are amongst the fittest men on the planet yet on that knife edge of being driven to A&E…
So, the actual racing: Man I have been busting my butt out here; I have good form after the Tour de Korea, and despite not liking the heat I’m racing hard and, if I am really honest, I’m having a ball. It’s great to have good legs and not something to take for granted.
On day 1 I got into the race-winning break which took off on the KOM after 10km, and ended with me and 22 others barreling to the line. My teammate Andrey Mizurov broke clear with four others with 10km to go, meaning I couldn’t chase. But I was happy that we had three guys in the break and I was in 16th, just 58 seconds down with several hard days to come. We blew the race apart that day with the second group coming over 10 minutes behind us. Shinichi Fukushima (Terengganu) won, and, lovely chap that he is, I was very pleased for him.
Stage 2 was another huge day at 201km (plus a 10km neutral). At 120km we started a 6km climb and I decided to take off at the bottom, knowing that I wouldn’t get over with the Mountain Monkeys. With 1km to go I was caught and passed by a group that contained four guys and my teammate Crawford, and I struggled from then in, properly on the rivet.
At the top I was joined on the descent by teammate Alex Coutts and Asian rider Yasuharu Nakajima, and we had 2 minutes, 30 seconds to make up on the lead group. We lost Coutts after about 5km. The two of us then just stuck our chins on our stems and rode. We caught the leaders after a further 25km of chasing. My eyes hurt, my fingers hurt, my elbows hurt. Everything was screaming, every sinew, every fiber, every tendon was begging me to stop.
Connected with the four again, I took one turn out before joining the rotation, then worked hard to drive the break, trying to stretch out the other guys. We had 30km to go and had 3:45, but we never let up. By 15 to go I was in trouble, each kilometer feeling longer then the last, each tiny little rise feeling like the Ventoux.
We hit one last rise with just 10km to go and I got gapped. And that was it. They all looked back once and didn’t look back again. There was no mercy: none asked and none granted. I was adrift. From there on in it was almost all slightly downhill but I couldn’t get over 35km/hr. I was busted.
We won the stage and took second on GC and Team GC, so not too shabby.
Stage 3 saw a break go and stay away, thank Eddy, because I was a spent force. The old legs needed a rest and are feeling better now, so we’ll see what we can do today.
More to come from The Furnace: stay tuned and thanks for reading!