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ZHONGWEI, China (VN) — Imagine landing in a foreign country literally on the other side of the world, where few — if any — speak your native tongue. You have no luggage, limited WiFi — with no access to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Google, or even Pro Cycling Stats without a now-banned VPN. You have limited currency and none of the tools needed to ply your trade.
Now imagine you are a professional bicycle racer and the luggage lost includes your kit, bike, and go-to nutrition in a world of limited Western food.
That is the situation CCB-Velotooler found itself in at the start of the 16th Tour of Qinghai Lake (2.HC) mid-July. Already hamstrung with a five-man roster out of a possible seven due to the all-too-familiar Chinese visa issues, the American-registered UCI Continental team was making its Asia Tour debut behind the eight ball, so to speak.
With all their belongings still sitting in a U.S. airport awaiting departure — a full 7,000 miles from its destination. The team had to think fast and scramble to borrow bikes from neutral service — and of course the size, fit, and components were all wrong.
And things only went from bad to worse. Within days, the squad had dwindled to just two riders due to untimely illness. After Finland’s Antti Sizko and Americans Cory Small and Jonah Meadvancort all abandoned by stage 4, only New Englanders John Harris and Patrick Collins remained.
Despite being outmanned, outgunned and out-resourced, the pair plowed on with Harris making an immediate impact on a breakaway with two other riders for the majority of the 115-kilometer stage 2. Although he would ultimately be reeled in within sight of the finish, the 23-year-old Connecticut blue-blood was already bitten with the Asia Tour bug. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only bug he would be bitten by over the course of the 13-stage race widely regarded as pro cycling’s ‘unofficial’ fourth grand tour.
“It was a bit like back home — American crit racing,” said Harris, who was introduced to cycling at age 13 by his brother-in-law and took a part-time summer job moving furniture to save up $600 to purchase his first road bike. “I guess there really wasn’t a chance for the breakaway to win, but I suppose with a little bit of luck there is always some bit of hope.
“But not long after stage 2 I caught a bug that put me on the ropes.”
While Harris and Collins were last men standing with more than a week to go, the duo’s fallen CCB comrades were busy trying to “get the hell out of Dodge” — which was easier said than done. A lack of communication, initiative and good ol’-fashioned American ‘can-do’ attitude was keeping the abandoned trio on the ground with a failure to launch.
With an airport more than two hours away and one 7 a.m. flight daily, team director Anotili Sizko was struggling to find a race official willing to provide a van and driver to transport the three to their flights, which were now being re-booked and re-financed daily.
“This race is a catastrophe and it has yet to really begin,” Sizko told VeloNews. “How much worse can it get?”
Sizko and the CCB remnants would soon find out — a lot worse.
With four lead changes on general classification within the first five days, the race was heating up — and so was Harris’s temperature. The Ledyard native found himself developing a serious bout of Chinese flu with little relief in sight.
Meanwhile, his sole remaining teammate was now nursing a severely bruised hip and a fractured wrist sustained from a mid-race crash. The situation looked dire for the troublesome twosome.
“You crash hard and you think you are in a lot of pain and start questioning if you can go on,” Collins told VeloNews. “I guess I can push myself through that. I remember being dead last with the broom wagon on my ass with 85km to go on stage 8 or 9. I was thinking I was done.
“I just kept telling myself to hold on and make the time cut, that’s all I have to do,” the 22-year-old Bostonian continued. “I started doing the math in my head, and when they told me I had 20 minutes with 15km to go I just barreled forward.”
According to the team director, each day was a “shit show” and seemingly only spiraling continually downward, but something started to shift. Harris and Collins, who were shown little to no respect in the early going from a field of predominantly Eastern European Continental teams and two Italian Pro Continental teams — Nippo-Vini Fantini and Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia — were starting to earn the admiration of not only their rivals, but also the local media who touted them as as international heroes for their unwavering courage.
“The thing I enjoyed most is finding our place in the peloton and realizing we do belong,” said Collins, who turned to cycling at age 17 to lose some weight and get in shape. “In the beginning we didn’t have much respect, we couldn’t find our place in the line. By the end we had earned respect and had riders apologizing for conflicts earlier in the race.”
As the days lengthened, so did the bus transfers afterwards. Stages of 111km gave way to those of 224, 235 and 240. Transfers went from one hour to two, to four, to eight — with the latter coming after the cancelled 240km stage 10 when half the field hit the rain-soaked, mud-caked tarmac following a gnarly descent of a Cat. 3 climb.
Each day their bodies mended, and their resolve deepened. It was no longer a question of survival, but rather a single-minded focus to finish.
When the dynamic duo finally crossed the finish on the final stage to close out the race, it was a surreal moment of both relief and accomplishment. In the end, it was neither the length of the race, nor the lack of equipment — or even the injuries and illness that plagued them both that made its mark, but rather the fortitude and brotherhood honed in an environment that either makes or breaks the human spirit.
“The struggle was the hardest part of the tour,” said Harris. “Having a lot of stuff thrown against us but us realizing we belong. Like Patrick said, the peloton’s attitude toward us, and getting the respect we earned out of sheer perseverance means everything.”