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Life as a Bike Jockey: Breaking the norm in China part I

Editor’s note: Judy Freeman is a pro mountain biker out of Boulder, Colorado. Freeman races for the Crankbrothers Race Club. Watch for her monthly “Life as a Bike Jockey” rider diary on VeloNews.com. Also, be sure to follow her adventures on her Facebook athlete page.

Late last month Chloe Woodruff and I got an invitation to race a World Cup test event in Guiyang, China. The local and provincial governments and the Chinese Cycling Association are working to get on the 2013 World Cup calendar so they were paying all expenses to get elite riders over there for this short track and cross-country “tournament.”

We said, “hell yeah,” overnighted our visa applications and 11 days later, we were a crew of four fixing to race bikes on the other side of the world in the Guiyang International MTB Invitational Tournament. Chloe’s husband TJ came to compete in the men’s elite race and my fella’ Tom came to be support and talk NBA with our race liaison, Tom (aka “Asian Tom,” aka “T-Dawg” — I’ll explain more later).

A break from the norm

What was it like racing in China? For this event anyhow… it was a delightful change from this season’s usual low-budget trans-Atlantic race trip norm. There’s a lot to say, so I’ll break this up in two parts [part two will run later this week –Ed.]. For now, I’ll just talk about the days up to the races.

Help along the way

Rather than us figuring out how we’d even show up to the startline, the promoters took care of everything from transport, to logistics to food and lodging. And instead of having to communicate our way across China through pantomime and one-word sentences, we were assigned our very own interpreter, Tom.

Every group was assigned their own liaison for interpreting, navigating the week’s events, buying anti-diarrhea meds, whatever. Tom was an English major from a nearby university that met us as we got off the plane around 1 a.m. on Wednesday. Tom wasn’t his given name — he had chosen it, inspired by Tom Cruise. Most everyone we worked with had taken western names. The hotel front desk had an Ivy and Dmitri, for example. It was probably so that we didn’t screw up their Chinese names to the point of insult.

Mandarin is a tonal language, relying heavily on inflection to create meaning. Pronounce a couple vowels incorrectly and instead of telling someone you have a cold, you may find yourself telling them you copulate with cats. So, aside from landing one on the PETA blacklist, you can see how a few mispronunciations might do little for international relations.

But with two Toms in our group, there was a little confusion. So American Tom dubbed Tom, “T-Dawg” or “Asian Tom” to help keep communication running smoothly.

Not exactly roughing it

Contrary to our usual digs in the cheapest lodging the Internet could find, this time we stayed in a five-star hotel. (Somehow we suffered the change.) All of our meals were provided in the hotel restaurant on a huge buffet resembling China’s Great Wall itself. I brought some provisions, not knowing what we’d find, but there was more than enough recognizable grub for the shyest of all Western pallets. Comfort food came in omelets and inexplicably green pancakes for breakfast and a random cornucopia of German fare at dinnertime. But there were also enough local dishes throughout the day with fish faces and chicken feet to remind us that outside our western oasis was a country we had little idea about.

I don’t know the usual World Cup race budget, but I think it is safe to say that the rumored $10 million that organizers spent on the Guiyang Invitational was a change from the usual. Obviously, there was the money spent on supporting the attendees, but then there were other touches like the signage that lined most all Guiyang roadways, a World Cup-level prize purse and the special ceremonies.

Biking on ceremony

The whole event was done with Chinese flare — meaning ceremonies galore. The Tournament started off with a parade of the riders (or “players” as the signs referred to us) through downtown Guiyang. My bike was held up in Beijing so I didn’t go, but Tom said, “it was like closing down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, only Guiyang has about 1.5 million more people.” They rode a police-escorted 10.5 miles through downtown with reporters and photographers in-tow while mildly curious Guiyang residents, mostly just going about their day, watched.

The next evening was the Opening Ceremony, which reportedly cost a bit over $1 million. In Olympic style, we paraded out in front of a packed auditorium behind our country signs. Local government dignitaries gave speeches and even Pat McQuaid was on hand to deliver a few words. Oddly, there was no mention of any Armstrong.

After the speeches, we sat in the bleachers for a three-part program with acts to welcome us to the region of “Colorful Guizhuo,” celebrate riding our “bike of freedom” and stoke the “burning passions” ignited by racing bikes. For $1 million, Tom was hoping they would have just pulled in Metallica. Instead, he got cheerleaders and men running round in neon-body suits.

Not the usual to and fro

Chloe and I normally make our way to foreign racecourses in a cramped rental car with a small library of Google Maps and GPS information. But not this time. Our hotel was a short 15-minute ride to the venue, which we did every day with police escort. It was pretty entertaining getting to blow red lights behind the police moto, riding by motorists that just got the “talk to the hand” from the fuzz. All fun, except for the first day.

Since my bike arrived late, Tom and I missed the group leaving the venue on the first day. I think our officer was either cranky at having to work later for two slow pokes or maybe gave us too much credit as athletes. Instead of an escort, it was a short motorpace session in rush-hour traffic. Traffic zipped in between our moto-escort and us as we pedaled to keep up. A car buzzed by Tom within inches, which was way too close for comfort. It was only after he yelled at the open driver window that we realized it was another police car. We both held our breath a little as that car drove off.

Thursday came and we headed out to the venue for the short track.

Check in later for the rest of the story…

You can see more photos on my athlete Facebook page.

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