Rider Journal
Park held yellow all the way to Seoul. Photo: Tour...

Lee Rodgers Diary: Conflicted airborne memories of Korea

Our off-beat diarist is en route to Malaysia and is back with his thoughts on an up-and-down Tour of Korea

I’m sat on an airplane on my way with my RTS team to Kuala Lumpur, the steamy capital of Malaysia, for a five-day break before we compete in the exotic-sounding Tour of Jelajah.

Are airplanes colder than they used to be or what? I’m freezing my ass off here…

One tour finishes and another is about to start, which is great as we can carry our hard-earned form over into the next race but I think we all need this break as several of us are nursing rather stupendous hangovers from last night in Seoul. Amazing what you can find on a Sunday night if you’re really desperate. At one point of the night we lost a few guys and I jokingly said “I’m sure we’ll meet them later in some seedy club,” and, sure enough, though we had travelled in a cab for 25 minutes and crossed a major river in the meantime, my words proved true.

Racers have to be disciplined but when they party, trust me, it gets messy…

Where in the heck is the food? I gotta admit, I am a lover of airplane food, wish they’d hurry it up. Don’t they know who I am…?!

The Tour de Korea was an odd race, what with the cancellation of stage 4 and the disastrous stage 5. Korea itself proved quite beautiful with some good roads and fantastic scenery, very much like rural Japan in places. There was a noticeable lack of crowds generally, which is always a shame, especially compared to the tours we do in Malaysia and Thailand, where sometimes the crowds can be five deep for kilometers at a time.

The racing was hard, no other word for it; there wasn’t a single mass pee-stop all week as it was just full-on attacking every single day, which is great training but stressful. Ultimately, though, the race as a whole left a bad taste in the mouth. My teammate still may lose his thumb as a result of a dangerous finish that should have been neutralized, and another lycra-clad brother had to endure hours of surgery on his spine thanks to one seriously moronic moto rider.

So the last two stages. Stage 7 was supposed to be the queen stage, and with the top of the GC delicately balanced it looked like the 500m bergs in the middle of the stage would show just who had the cojones to break the race. Park of Korea hung on to a slender three-second lead with Omega’s Candelario in second and Richeze of Nippo in third. My teammate Jai Crawford sat 23 seconds back in 20th, and as a climber he had had his eye on these hills since the race start.

Jeez they get right up to me then run out of chicken and rice. Great.

We got within 1km of the first climb, me taking Jai up to the front on the outside of the peloton when I heard the noise we all hate to hear — that of air rapidly leaving a tubular. It wasn’t me but it was close enough to get me looking round.

“Jai punctured,” I heard from a passing rider. I stopped and gave Jai my wheel. Lucky we were right next to each other. Staying calm in that situation is paramount even though all you want to do is scream “&%$@ MY LIFE!” repeatedly. Jai jumped back on his bike, I pushed him off, waited a few seconds for the team car, got another wheel and set off in pursuit of the pack.

Seventy kilometers alone is a hard way to finish a stage, trust me, and as I’d been climbing like a limbless orangutan all week I knew I had to gun it if I was going to get back on to the peloton. Amazing what fear and adrenalin can help you accomplish. I probably climbed the first hill only a little slower than the skinny guys who were dutifully beating each other up at the front, then flew down the other side with the other real men (ha), then up the next hill more like the brick I am, spent and huff-a-puffing like a three-pack-a-day kind of dude, then another nutty descent.

So there I am with a group of some 20 guys about 45 seconds to a minute down on the main group. With maybe 50km to go there’s a natural inclination (in me anyway) to want to give in and just banjo it to the finish, but one of the golden rules in stage racing is that you never give up. The lead group may well be streaming ahead and putting seconds into you with each kilometer but they might have a ceasefire at some point, or may decide to have a feed break, or the guys in your group might be super strong on the flat and able to bring anything back with enough kilometers to work with.

Red wine with the beef and taters it has to be, doesn’t it? Apologies, head.

So, we hammered. It took a while to organize and there was some very decorative cursing directed at one or two of the donkeys (Mr. H, I salute you, not often I grimace in pain and laugh at the same time) but we got back on. Park hung on to yellow and the rumored promise of a $50,000 bonus for the overall win, with Ken Hanson of Team Optum taking the stage.

Park was never under pressure even though his rivals did attack (the hills ultimately proved not hard enough). He was never under pressure because, as more than one rider told me, several other riders from several other teams rode for him. One team manager said that it was the most “disgusting” display of riding he had ever witnessed. I was at the back and can’t comment on that.

Onto the last day, a 45km sprint onto the outskirts of Seoul. Man it was fast; we hit 50km average for the stage. Another dodgy bit of road appeared 4km from the finish but luckily everyone was safe by the end, The stage was won by a rampaging Hanson once again, with Park claiming the GC win.

And so that was that. A potentially great week’s racing just got lost amidst all the crap that this event got mired in. I am all for spreading the sport around the globe because it is a wonderful one, one that survives despite all the scandals and dirt that infects it, yet if the push for globalization of cycling means that corners are cut, eyes are averted and backs turned on the responsibility for rider safety that we all must bear then that is a price too high to pay.

One teammate’s chances of riding in the Olympics this year for Ireland are rapidly diminishing thanks to a sliced thumb he sustained on a dangerous finish, and another rider will be out for at least a year as a result of spinal injuries sustained in that last moto crash.

Will we be back next year? I really don’t know. More than a few of us will probably say no, but then, we are racers. So…

Ah, a Cognac with my coffee. Some things never disappoint…

Thanks for reading.

Read also: Lee Rodgers Diary: Tour of Korea stage 5 marred by multiple crashes, sketchy support