Langkawi, February 6-18, 2001
You take a plane in Sydney, fly via Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur. A few hours later you board the plane for Frankfurt, where you change aircrafts to continue on to Brussels. You spend one brief night in your own bed and fly up to Denmark for a few days. You fly back down to Brussels, only to pack another suitcase and to catch another flight back to Malaysia a few days later. A complicated way to collect fly-bys? No, this is what the first few days of February looked liked for me.
I found myself at the start of the 6th edition of the Telekom Malaysia Tour of Langkawi; underdone training wise but way overcooked in travel. 175 cyclists participated, a lot fewer reached the actual finish; 2050 kilometres in 13 days; I was going to get some time on the bike in, ready or not.
The heat was striking and although I usually acclimatise well to the hot weather, the humidity was something I just couldn't get used to. The race organisation took the initiative to hose the peloton down with fire hoses at the finish of the stages; the instant cool down was more than welcome to most. The longest stage counted no less than 240 kilometres. The heat was knocking everybody around and our Team used 84 bidons that day. (12 each!)
After eating rice for two weeks, I couldn't stand having one more grain on my plate in the months to come. My wife said she was making a stir-fry for dinner the other day and my expression and the tone in "you're kidding right?!" was enough for her to burst into laughter.
Malaysia was fun, and it was great for Team bonding and a perfect way to have a training camp but it surely wasn't that favourable to your gut. Even though Team Fakta was the only team to finish complete, we had our fair share of diarrhoea and flu. It took most of the European riders a while to adjust to the Eastern diet and the bowels kicked up a stink in most cases.
During one stage, I estimate 15 guys had to take sanitary breaks, trying to get their gear off in time not to soil their nicks. Some guys were the subjects of mockery and their mishaps in the digestive process made for some hilarious sights. The locals thought it was great entertainment and a few guys were cheered on while running for the bushes. Twenty kilometres before the finish my team mate Morten Sonne suddenly stopped dead in his tracks; he got off, hung his butt over a ditch and whilst hanging onto a post so he wouldn't fall in he looked up and saw the spectators on the other side of the road laughing and clapping their hands. (Sorry Morten, had to mention this!)
As the race rolled into a quieter moment, another unfortunate (Bonjour) rider came sweeping past and cut in front of the peloton to the side of the road, onto a small dirt track. He was running before his feet touched ground, simultaneously pulling his shirt over his head, flying towards the shrubs, hoping to make it in time...
Even yellow jersey wearer Jans Koerts wasn't spared that day, he had to stop twice, but the peloton was sympathetic towards him.
Having ridden all of the steepest hills in European races, I thought I had a pretty good idea on how to climb. Stage 9 (to the Genting Highlands) promised to be tough and very hard in the final, with a climb of 25 km (1800 meters high) announced in our race-itinerary. I was told a 39/25 would be needed.
I thought, as I have managed OK with 39/23 on the steepest climbs in Europe, I would be all right with that gearing. When I got to the start, I noticed Jans Koerts, Henk Vogels and Gordon Fraser (who all raced this race before) fronted up with 39/27; which looked like a dinner plate on their rear wheel. I thought, "Hell, I won't need that!"
Man, was I wrong! The first 20 kilometres of the climb went ok; I was riding within myself and felt all right. But the last 5 kilometres just went vertical - I reckon I would have needed ropes and climbing spikes in case it was any steeper. I am talking constant pain here with my knees screaming for a smaller gear - the only alternative would have been to get off and start walking.
That evening at the dinner table, everybody was commenting about how they were hurting. All the guys had been straining but the team was satisfied to have tackled such a hard climb without casualties. A few teams lost quite a few guys that day. A group of 25 riders didn't make the cut-off time; it put a big hole in the peloton.
Kurt Asle Arvesen has now been named our"Crash Test Dummy", after T-boning a Chinese rider who had stopped in the middle of road for some reason (???), while we were steaming along at 50km/h. Kurt didn't even have time to hit the brakes and went flying thru the air. He came out relatively unscathed but loosened a few screws. His bike was smashed; two tubes and both wheels were bent. The Chinese guy? Don't know, didn't see him anymore after that. I hope he was all right.
Rolli (Roberto Lochowski), who isn't shy of doing any work; always attacking, riding on the front or getting bottles, had a bad day as well. With 20 km to go, he wanted to make sure nobody was short of water. He went back to the car to get 7 water bottles. It is a feat in itself trying to fit those in your jersey while on your bike. He no sooner put the last bottle in his pocket and he realized his tire was going flat. That meant stopping and changing a wheel with nearly 4 kilo's of extra weight in his shirt. He got going again to catch up to a peloton doing 55km/h at that stage. Rolli bravely reached the front with 10 km to go where he offered me a bidon. I am sorry now I didn't take one as he was (softly put) heavily disappointed. He started throwing the unwanted bottles to the side of the road while cursing intensively in German and Polish.
Langkawi made for good racing but the atmosphere was enjoyable too. We went out and got haircuts, which started with a 10-minute head massage, heaven! Kim Andersen, our director, gave us the go-ahead on visiting Chinatown the evening before the last stage. The boys went mad, buying video CD's and CD players. Between us, we can now start up our own CD rental service...
A slight panic when Morten discovered his ticket missing. For a moment it looked like he'd have to spend a couple of days longer than needed in Kuala Lumpur. He was able to sweet talk himself onto the flight the last minute - I was happy for him 'cause we were all looking forward to going home and it would have been a long two days by himself.
Fast racing, fast digestion. Well, that wraps up Malaysia. The race organisers said they want Team Fakta back and I am looking forward to the next edition of the Telekom Malaysia Tour of Langkawi. I am planning to go there with my family and visit the Cameron Highlands prior to the race as the cultural and touristy aspects of this beautiful country are really appealing.
Next on the schedule are Chiasso (Switzerland) and then return to Belgium to start the Belgian program. Talk to you later!