Tales from the travellers – the diary of Team Marco Polo

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Qinghai - Tibet, adventure at altitude

September 8-17, 2001

By Edwin Achterberg and Nathan Dahlberg
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Dizzy heights of success
Photo: © Marco Polo CC

This cycling race took part from September 8 until September 17. The extreme conditions make this race one of the most difficult ones in the world. It's not only the altitude (up to 5300m) that makes it so hard, but also the bad road conditions (sometimes even no road at all), the extreme weather conditions (sun, rain, wind, cold and even snow), the bad accommodation (military camps with wooden mattresses), transportation by buses almost every day (in total over 1600 km with an average speed of 60km/h) and the unusual Chinese food. This all made it a big adventure.

For this amazing adventure the Marco Polo Cycling Club travelled to China with an international selection; Jamsran Ulzii-Orsikh from Mongolia, Nathan Dahlberg from New-Zealand, Damir Iratov from Uzbekistan, Jon Tarkinton from the USA, Lex Nederlof and Rob Conijn from The Netherlands and as staff; Rutger Kock and Edwin Achterberg from the Netherlands.

The race started in Xining, central China and slowly wound its way west and south to finish in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa Tibet. The race turned out to be a real battle in harsh conditions, with altitudes close to 5000 meters, and rolling to mountainous courses the race was a true test of endurance. Despite the presence of a strong South African National team (Neil MacDonald won 3 stages) and the Zaxby's team from the USA, it was once again the Kazakhstan National team that were the big competition for the Marco Polo squad. The Chinese/Japanese character on the Marco Polo jerseys means "fight with the strong conviction to win" and so they did.
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The team in Lhasa
Photo: © Marco Polo CC

After an epic ten day battle in some of the most remote mountain regions up on the roof of the world, our Mongolian rider, Jamsran Ulzii-Orshikh emerged the victor of the Qinghai - Tibet cycling race. Jamsran and his totally committed team-mates were pushed to the limit all the way, and both he and Assan Bazayez (Kazakhstan) finished dead equal on time. However, with his better stage places, Jamsran was declared the winner. Despite the intensity of the race, at the end an exhausted field celebrated together, as this is also a tale of survival as well as a race.

For all involved it was a unique experience not only racing in such vastly different and extreme conditions, but to witness first hand some of the grandest scenery in the world, huge inland lakes, massive mountains and deep gorges, truly unforgettable!

How the race unfolded

Stage 1 - September 8, 2001

This day would be the start of the race. From now on we had to get up at 6:00 am every morning, because of the early starting time of the stages. After each stage we had transportation to the next military camp. All these transportation were really necessary, because it's such a remote area so there are no villages and towns with hotels. The day started with an opening ceremony at the Zhangfang hotel, after which we first had to get into the buses for over an hour to get to the starting place.

This first stage was 97 km long and it contained a heavy climb with an altitude difference of 800m. This uphill started after 30 km and the first group of 11 riders that passed this mountain happened to be the decisive break of the stage. This group contained 3 Marco Polo riders (Nathan, Jon and Ulzii), 5 Kazakhs and 3 South Africans. In the final sprint of this group Ulzii managed to place himself in 3rd position after being pushed away by the South Africans twice. Unfortunately the commissaires didn't punish them despite our protests. In the evening we enjoyed the great view over Salt Lake Qinghai Hu, which is very famous for its seabirds. This huge lake (4500 sq.km) is situated at an altitude of 3200m.

Stage 2 - September 9, 2001

The 2nd stage was 86 km long at an average altitude of 3400m. The day started rainy and cold and because of that the organisation decided to delay the start of the race until the afternoon and they also decided to shorten the stage to a distance of 68 km. During the race we noticed that the Kazakhs like the cold because 3 of them were in the breakaway of 6 riders, with 2 South Africans and Ulzii for Marco Polo. The final sprint again was won by the South Africans but this time Ulzii finished as 2nd. The main group with the other Marco Polo riders finished 1 minute behind the leaders so they didn't lose that much for the team classification. We were lucky to stay in a good 'hotel' in a touristy village at the west side of the lake called Bird Island, so we were able to dry our clothing and having a shower. Between 9:00 pm and 10:00 pm the shower even provided hot water!

Stage 3 - September 10, 2001

The 3rd stage was 78 km long and went away from the lake more towards the west to Chaka. According to the tour book it would go up gradually to 3600m. During the race we soon found out that this wasn't true, because after 10 km a never-ending ascent started, going up an altitude of 4200m. At the summit there was a breakaway of seven. Along them were Ulzii and Jon for Marco Polo, but unfortunately Jon got dropped during the descent so he ended up in the second group. Ulzii managed to stay in the first group where no one could force a serious attack. Again, the stage was decided by a sprint and this time Ulzii was way too fast for the others, so it was an easy win for him. Because of this result Ulzii also became the new leader of the race.

In the afternoon we had another transfer, so again we spent the whole afternoon on the bus. At night we arrived at a military station. The foreigners weren't allowed to pass the gate, but soon we heard from other teams that there was an Internet café near the station, so finally we also took off and had an exciting night, because we had to watch out for soldiers. But, of course, no one took notice of us.

Transfer - September 11, 2001

This day was filled with 410 km of transfers. Along the way we were able to see the most magnificent scenery. We passed a desert, some rough, rocky mountains and we went across a dried salt lake. We had a delay of one hour because one of the buses got off the road and almost crashed. After this accident a truck had to pull the bus out of the sand again. The good part of it is that we were able to make some nice pictures.

Finally we arrived at Golmud, which is one of the most remote places of China. We found that out during training when we saw signs with 1055 km to Lhasa (Tibet) and 1000 km to Xining.

Rest Day - September 12, 2001

RESTING DAY! We soon noticed that we were back again in a real city, because we found an Internet café again. There we got the terrible news about the plane crashes of the day before in the USA. Despite everything, we still went training in the afternoon. We went to the south (the only good road) where we had a great view over the Kunlun Mountains that were in front of us. After training we had another medical check-up and again we were all well adapted to the high altitude.

At night we found some kind of fair. At a shooting-gallery we gave our Uzbekistan rider Damir a rifle with which he had to shoot some targets and he broke all the records, so that night he beat the whole Chinese army. After that I went to play some pool in the streets with Rutger and the Mongolian coach. After that it was time to go to bed again.

Stage 4 - September 13, 2001

This was the day of the 4th stage with Ulzii wearing the yellow jersey. This time a rolling course at an average altitude of 3500m. The Marco Polo team took control over the race so nobody was able to get away. Unfortunately the final kilometre turned out to be 1500 m so Ulzii started sprinting too early. Still he managed to finish as 5th. Again the South Africans won the stage.

Later this 5th place of Ulzii turned out to be the decision of the race. For the first time there wasn't a transfer in the afternoon so we were free to do what we wanted. First we went to see the course of the next day's stage and after that we rode on some camels, a great experience. After that excitement we spent the afternoon and evening resting.

Stage 5 - September 14, 2001

The 5th stage was a short stage over 38 km and it finished at an altitude of 4200m. Also this stage was totally controlled by the Marco Polo team, so again the stage ended with a bunch sprint. Unfortunately Ulzii got a flat tire during that sprint but still he managed to finish as 11th while Jon finished as 6th. The Kazakhs pushed their main rider during the sprint like they do on a track. They already did the same the day before, so the South Africans and we protested against that sprint. But again the commissaires didn't change the results, so Assan Basayev took over the leading position from Ulzii.

The result of this was a well motivated Marco Polo team for the next few stages. In the afternoon we again had a transfer, this time of 290 km, but from now on the riders put their helmets on during the bus ride.

Transfer - September 15, 2001

Another transportation day! In total 415 km during which we passed the highest point of the race: Tanggula Mountain at an altitude of 5300m. Here we enjoyed the amazing view with mountains up to 7000m. At the top of Tanggula Mountain, the border with Tibet, we had a ceremony for changing from a Chinese police escort to a Tibetan police escort.

Before the race some people told us that we would experience 4 seasons in one day and they sure were right about that. Sun, rain, snow, hail and storms are what we got. The weather changes every kilometre. But as long as you stay on the bus it's really great to experience all these changes. In the evening we arrived at another military camp where we spent the night at an altitude of 4800m. At that altitude it's really hard to recover, but still no medical problems for members of the Marco Polo Cycling Team. Only one person with had a headache, which was less than we expected.

Stage 6 - September 16, 2001

This was the day of the 6th stage. For us an important stage because after this stage there was only one more stage to go (the final stage to Lhasa) and we wanted to enter Lhasa with the yellow jersey! After 100 km transfer the 6th stage started. It was 85 km long at an average altitude of 4600m. The Marco Polo team kept attacking with the South Africans and about half way a group of 10 riders got away, amongst them Ulzii and Lex for the Marco Polo team.

For the final sprint Assan Basayev stayed close to Ulzii's rear wheel. As planned Lex managed to get between them so Ulzii could sprint without being blocked and managed to finish as 2nd. Lex finished as 9th but got disqualified. Now Ulzii was leader because of his better stage results.

Stage 7 - September 17, 2001

During the final stage to Lhasa we had to defend Ulzii's leading position. At the beginning of the stage we surprised the Kazakhs, so a group of 15 got away. This group contained all the Marco Polo riders, 5 South Africans, 2 Mongolians, 1 American and only 2 Kazakhs. For us an ideal situation. Then we were told aver the radio that the road in front of us was broken but they would try to repair it before we would arrive at that place. Then, suddenly, after an off-road descent every one stopped. Rutger and I immediately got out of the car to see what was going on. When we started running we realised that the asphalt still was soft and warm. This meant cleaning the tires with a knife and changing the wheels as quickly as possible. After a short break the race started again with all the riders in the same positions.

With only 15 more kilometres to go 3 riders got away from the front group, Nathan, one African and a Mongolian. Now the Kazakhs had to chase because they needed a good stage result to win the overall. Later even more riders managed to get away from that group. Nathan finished as 3rd behind the South African and the Mongolian. Jon finished as 8th, and Damir 9th. The 13th place of Ulzii was good enough to win the overall, because Assan Basayev only finished as 12th.

Final stage results

1 Neil MacDonald (RSA)
2 J Damdinsuren (Mon)
3 Nathan Dahlberg (NZl) Marco Polo Cycling Club

Final general classification

1 Jamsran Ulzii-Orshikh (Mon) Marco Polo Cycling Club
2 Assan Basayev (Kaz) Kazakhstan
3 M. Andrey (Kaz) Kazakhstan                          0.35

For a full report and photos of the race, see http://www.worldwidecycling.com/qinghai-tibet.htm