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Tales from the travellers the diary of Team Marco Polo
Cleaning up in Sri Lanka
Tour of Sri Lanka, February 24-29, 2004
By Remko Kramer
It was the first time in eight years that the Tour of Sri Lanka was being held and the first time in history that foreign teams participated in this event. So the Marco Polo Cycling Club had to be there to discover new parts of the cycling world.
The men's team: Maint Berkenbosch, Lionel Syne, Jos Kaal, Ralf van Heugten and Remko Kramer. Women's team: Francis Cerny, Eyelien Bekkering and Willeke Evenhuis. Staff: Christian Baerends, Joost Vijselaar and Gudo Kramer.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful tropical island in front of the coast of India. The tropical green island has a long and rich culture with a lot of Buddhist, Hindu and Christian influences. The roads are fairly good, not always smooth but not many holes.
We were picked up with two vans from the airport. The traffic through Colombo made clear that the Sri Lanka traffic is the most crazy you can imagine. Here rules the right of the strongest. And cars, buses and trucks pass each other whenever there is one centimetre of space.
We were happy that we arrived in a quiet beach resort south of Colombo. We were welcomed with flower chains and fruit cocktails. A swimming pool was behind the hotel with many palm trees around it and a wonderful white beach.
After a quick lunch and some work on the bicycles, we went on a ride to loosen our legs from the long flight. We rode through a tropical landscape with palms and banana trees everywhere. At some parts it was almost jungle. The road was ok - pretty bumpy but not many holes in it. The traffic was the only thing that made the ride not so nice. Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and many, many tuck-tucks (three-wheeled taxis) all drive like crazy here; they take over whenever.
Stage 1 - February 24: Prologue, 2 km
First stage, first victory
The next day the Tour of Sri Lanka started with a 2km time trial. 8km was planned but the organisation had to find another location and there was a runway of a military base available.
Early in the morning we rode to the military base, a short ride from the beach hotel. The opening ceremony was nice with flag raising of all participating countries and music and dance in colourful costumes. The commissaires needed some time to place time keepers at start and finish. But then the race started with each rider separated by a minute.
We rode very well. This is also our strength; coming from racing in Europe using big gears and with high speed. Jos Kaal had the best time, then I, Remko Kramer, took the lead but finally Maint Berkenbosch showed his great form and won the stage and took the first leader's jersey.
1 Maint Berkenbosch (Marco Polo) 2 Remko Kramer (Marco Polo) 3 Jos Kaal (Marco Polo)
Stage 2 - February 25: Galle to Ratnapura via Kalutara, 155 km
Stage 2 started at the main road through Galle. It took a while before everything was in right order, but then we started, still worried about a big traffic jam like we saw many times the past days. But the roads were free to race, because the people in Sri Lanka were all waiting to see the tour pass. It was a pretty big event in this country and people loved to see the race.
The Sri Lankan spectators wanted to help the riders by cooling them down a bit with water. With temps over 30 degrees, some water from a hose or a sponge can be nice and refreshing. But here they have another habit: they throw anything at you that can hold water - bottles, plastic bags and complete buckets of water were thrown at us. So half of the time we were soaking wet.
We controlled the race by jumping in breaks. After a while I got away with five Sri Lankan riders. Lionel Syne made a good chase and joined the group. We pulled hard, but the peloton stayed close. The Siam Team from Thailand was leading the field and was trying to get us back. We tried to reach the second points sprint at kilometre 75, but never saw the sign.
The peloton joined again and we turned on a twisting road inland. Three Sri Lankan riders got away and we slowed down. They got a three minute gap so we had to start riding again. Lionel was super strong and after a while he broke the group into pieces and Maint and Lionel were in the first part. The road was going up and down and Maint, who could save all his energy up to then, attacked and got away with Sri Lankan Varna Shanta. He dropped him with 2km to go and secured his yellow jersey further.
We stayed in a local hotel with jungle sounds in the evening and some real hot curries for dinner.
1 Maint Berkenbosch (Marco Polo) 2 Varna Shanta (President's Team) 3 Mohd Sayuti Molto Zahit (Malaysia)
Stage 3 - February 26: Ratnapura to Kandy via Kegalle, 129 km
Before the start of stage 3, one of the commissaires and a high police officer had a serious talk with the motorbike riders behind the peloton. To get drinks to the riders and to have spare wheels nearby, there are motorbike riders between the cars and the riders. The 100-plus Sri Lankan riders in the race had their own staff/family/friends/fans on bikes with wheels, bottles and buckets to give some support. Gudo Kramer had to sit at the back of a motorcycle to do this job for us. He told us about the crazy race behind our race. 50 to 80 motorcycles race behind the field. All the motorists try to be at the front and fight their way past the others. Crashes don't matter, they catch on again quickly.
The talk didn't help much, still the same crazy motorrace. After a few more days, registering the helpers from teams and giving them a preferred position did help a bit, though. It is still a nice characteristic of the Sri Lankan cycling culture, just like the water throwing!
From the gun the Sri Lankans attacked and were trying to force breaks. Lionel took care of the first attacks and got away with two others. They got a nice gap and we could take it easy.
Stop for a pee, coffee and an ice-cream
Maint had to take a pee after a while and tried to tell the first riders that he just wanted to go a bit to the front to stop. However when he rode away, the riders that understood him before, chased him down immediately. So he decided to stop and find a nice tree. This was the sign for the Sri Lankans to launch attacks from everywhere. Riders were shouting to their team-mates to attack as hard as they could. We tried to make clear that it was not very sportsmanlike to attack the yellow jersey when he stops for a pee. But here they have other ideas and attacked when there is an opportunity.
Maint had no problem to get back, helped by two Mongolians that waited too. And when he came back, we were at the foot of a serious climb, he took over immediately and forced a break. Later we heard that riders were telling stories about Maint stopping for coffee and an ice-cream, getting back on his bike, ride back to the field and just pass it and ride away to the stage win.
A clear hat trick for Maint Berkenbosch
It was not that easy. Until the last hard climb, there was still a main bunch together. Jos and Ralf were doing good work and Lionel had trouble at the last climb were Maint got away for the stage win. Over the top, Lionel could ride the big gear again and came back and won the sprint for the eighth place. Maint won three stages in a row, a clear hat trick!
In Kandy we stayed at a beautiful mountaintop with a nice view, however riding to the hotel the step road up was not so nice. We enjoyed the tasty Sri Lankan food and slept well for the next day, a long 184 km stage.
1 Maint Berkenbosch (Marco Polo) 2 Mohd Sayuti Molto Zahit (Malaysia) 3 Jayantha Pushpakumara (Paragon Peddlers)
Stage 4 - February 27: Kandy to Trincomalee via Dambulla, 184 km
At the start, good-old Jamsran Ulzii-Orshikh from Mongolia had some plans. He started like crazy and in the chase that followed, we could catch on with Maint, Lionel and I. We had a serious gap on the field, but still with 184 km to go. We kept riding and Jamsran was pulling. After 15km on a long hill, the Malaysian team and especially their leader, who was second on GC now, closed the gap.
Then three Sri Lankans, 10 minutes from Maint in GC, got away and the peloton got quiet for a while. When they got five minutes, Jamsran decided that it was enough and he send his young team-mates to the front. They pulled a good chase and the peloton stretched single file. After a long chase, the time difference came again: six minutes! Here was something wrong.
We started also to attack to get the tempo up. Then Maint had a flat tire. This was the sign again for the hardest attacks of the race. I gave Maint my wheel and together with Ralf he chased the field that broke in two parts. After my wheel change I also went for a good chase, but the friendly commissaire at the motorcycle made sure that I had all space to ride. He waved away all cars from the motorcade, so I was riding without any cover and never came back.
Meanwhile the others were together again and Jamsran and Lionel got away for the stage win. Lionel was the fastest in the sprint and took care of victory 4 for Marco Polo.
The beach resort we stayed in was a longer ride on some bad roads. We passed some military check-points, because this area was under Tamil power. But the ride was worth it. The beach was absolutely beautiful and squirrels and monkeys ran around the cabins. At dinner a band was playing at the pool and we would have loved to stay here some days more. But the next day we had to race again.
1 Lionel Syne (Marco Polo) 2 Jamsran Ulzii-Orshikh (Mongolia) 3 H.L. Krishanta (Sri Lanka National)
Stage 5 - February 28: Kantale to Anuradhapura, 108 km
A short stage, today only 108km. We arrived just on time at the start village but the truck with bicycles was late. The commissaire almost started the race, but convinced them to wait until we were ready.
The start was like each day, attacks, attacks and attacks. Jos was really motivated to make a good break. And he got away with four others. We controlled the peloton. This meant that we had to chase all race. The Sri Lankans never give up and keep attacking. They throw in all their power, they are not afraid to fall back and just race to the front.
Jos tried to get away in the last kilometres but the Sri Lankans raced strong. They had a strong sprint and came first and second, and third was a Thai rider. Jos came in fifth and managed to get to tenth position on GC.
In the afternoon, the local organiser took the foreign teams on a nice tour through the historic city of Anuradhapura. We visited an old Buddhist rock temple and we saw the oldest historical tree in the world. After dinner, there was a show with drums and dance. Maint had to go on stage and he made some western drum beats.
1 Sampath Krishanta (Sri Lanka National) 2 M. Kapila (Sri Lanka National) 3 Laithai Kunhintung (Thailand Cycling Union)
Stage 6 - February 29: Dambulla to Colombo, 171 km
Standard bicycle racing
The last stage of the Tour of Sri Lanka 2004 was also a race for the, as they call it, standard bicycle racers. This is a sport on its own in Sri Lanka: bicycle races with normal transport bicycles. Hundreds of participants raced today - they told us over 400 starters - and that was just in the main men's event! Many of them are in race uniforms and have completely rebuilt the bicycle, with bottle racks and clipless pedals. This sport is also very popular in Sri Lanka.
We decided not to chase breaks again all day and try to make a move on the hills early in the race that would make the others in the first group also work. Our plan went well and Maint, Lionel and Jos made it in the first group of 13 riders. But behind, the Sri Lankans kept attacking all the way. All stage they tried to get away and chase each other down. Impressive how persistent they are in their attempts to get away from the pack.
Some small groups came back, but the group (of about 20 riders now) stayed away and Lionel had a good feeling for the final sprint. Maint pulled as hard as he could the last five kilometres to keep the group together. And Lionel showed that he deserved the green jersey! He won the stage and Maint was the overall winner of the Tour of Sri Lanka 2004!
1 Lionel Syne (Marco Polo) 2 Mohd Sayuti Molto Zahit (Malaysia) 3 Jamsran Ulzii-Orshilkh (Mongolia)
Womens race Tour of Sri Lanka
February 29: Negombo to Colombo, 37.7 km
Today the Marco Polo girls also had their race. They had a hard time. The Sri Lankans were so scared for the European cyclists, that they only sat on the wheels. When our girls didn't ride, the tempo fell down bellow 20! Eyelien Beckering tried many times to break away, but the Sri Lankans chased her down each time. In the sprint it became clear that they were really fast. They got first and second and our Francis Cerny came third, with Eyelien fourth and Willeke sixth.
It took forever to have a ceremony for the prize winners. But the people stayed all the way and hundreds of spectators were looking for all winners of the maybe 20 races that were held that day. Finally the girls got on the podium and received flowers and a trophy. And at last the men's stage race was celebrated with Lionel and Maint on the podium.
The dinner and party were in the garden of the luxurious Thaj hotel. It was a great atmosphere among the teams and after some drinks everybody was soon tired. At the airport on the way home many people were greeting us and even the people at check-in knew the name of Maint before he showed his passport.
We would like to thank the organisers of the race, the Interim Comittee for Cycling and especially Mister Sanjeeva Muttiah for their great hospitality and the super-event they organised. It was impressive that they could organise such a high quality event, even after eight years of not having this tour! We will be back next year and we are sure we will have a hard time winning! We won the event because of Maint's good form and the teamwork, whereas the strong Sri Lankan riders were operating individually. They will have learned from our tactics and they will be hard to beat!
For more information on the Marco Polo Cycling Club and its travels, visit: www.marcopolocycling.com