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Tales from the travellers the diary of Team Marco Polo
Tour of Qinghai Lake - 2.3, China, July 17-25, 2004
The China Syndrome
Report by Michael Carter, Marco Polo
For starters, let me explain how to pronounce some key Chinese words. In particular words like "Qinghai". In Chinese, a word beginning with "Qi" is pronounced like chee as in chee-se burger. A word like Xining, is pronounced shee-ning.
This is the report about the Qinghai Lake Tour, a UCI 2.3 stage race around a huge lake called Qinghai Lake in the west of China. The race starts and finishes in the city of Xining and is at altitudes up to 4000 meters (13,000 feet).
This year's Tour certainly seemed as though it would offer a bit more of a challenge than last year, and even the year before, when I helped Tom Danielson win his first of what is no doubt to be many international races. The UCI upgraded this year's tour to a 2.3, which provides for more of those ever-precious UCI points that are so critical to any rider hoping to elevate their status as a professional (and earn more money!).
This year, the Marco Polo Cycling Team had the following line-up in the Qinghai Lake Tour: Cory Lange from Canada (winner of the Tour de Korea 2004), New Zealander Robin Reid (2nd in the Tour of Wellington 2004), "Oggi" Jamsran Ulzii-Orshikh from Mongolia, Ben Robson from New Zealand and Tim Wilson from Australia. Chinese Linna Zhang, Wilco Geerts from the Netherlands and Nathan Dahlberg from New Zealand took care of the support for the team.
Stage 1 - July 17: Xining Circuit, 104.4 km
A bit different from last year, but this opening stage still offered a fairly "gentle" profile on a 16 K circuit (8 laps). Rather nondescript really, except for the cheering fans - numbered close to 750,000, I was told by our translator. What is (was) unique about this first stage as opposed to other "big" races is that the teams are obligated to sit through a fairly formal opening ceremony. Each team is paraded across a stage in front of tens of thousands of spectators and also what seemed like hundreds of dignitaries. The Chinese are gearing up for the 2008 Olympics and they see the Tour of Qinghai Lake as an appropriate venue to practice their "pomp and circumstance". Don't get me wrong - the ceremonies are impressive. It is rare for cyclists to participate in ceremonies of such extravagance, so it's "pretty cool" to experience that kind of production. The speeches, the number of people, the number of different ethnic groups dressed in ethic garb added to the color of the ceremonies. I have been told that there are 52 different ethnic groups in the Qinghai (remember, that is pronounced "ching-high") Province alone, and each ethnic group was represented at the opening ceremony.
Following the grandiose opening ceremony, the race finally started. It was good to race on the brand-new Bontrager wheels that the Marco Polo Cycling Team will be racing on from now on. Nothing significant to report except that rain was eminent. After lap 4, I could see that the rain was coming, and given the dust on the course, and the S-turn at the bottom of the small downhill on the course, I decided to get up to the front, and avoid any of the riffraff that was sure to follow in the event it did rain. The dust was unreal, so if it was to rain, better to be at the front and avoid any problems that might crop up in the field. The rain did start to fall, so I went to the very front of the field and ended up off the front with Alex Lavellee from the Canadian National Team. With wet slick roads I knew that crashes were sure to occur in the field, so off the front was the place to be. Alex as a Canadian, so he surely had experience on slippery surfaces? (ALL Canadians play hockey right? And hockey is on ice right? Ice is pretty slippery, right?) Thought we might just make it to the end. Turns out, Alex has very little experience in a hockey rink, hence not so good on slippery surfaces. I found myself waiting (not a good thing in a two-up break) for him to get his slip-sliding under control.
Needless to say, we were caught after five laps, but not before we both picked up a few time bonuses. Alex picked up four seconds, I picked up two. With that Alex was in 4th on G.C. and I was 8th at the end of the day. Viktor Ripinski won the stage, and 2nd and 3rd on the stage received their bonuses, as did a few other riders as they scooped up time-bonuses just before the last lap.
Feeling good, I must admit!
Stage 2 - July 18: Xining-Xihaizhen, 182.6 km
Nathan believes that this could be one of the hardest, if not THE hardest stages of the tour. I agree. At 187 K's, with a max altitude of 3,450 meters, the altitude will certainly effect the pro's from Europe. First 60 K's are flat, then we start climbing for another 20 to 25 K. After that, we reach the lake of Qinghai (that is what the tour is named after, that lake "Qinghai Hu" and "hu" means "lake" in Chinese - FYI). The course wraps around the lake and features a few big rollers with crosswinds. I make it over the climb OK, as does Cory, Rob, Ben and Oggi. Never did see Tim once the climb started - learned later that he had to stop as he was feeling ill. Rats, we needed him for this race, but it is a bike race and those things happen. Just as we approach the lake we make a right run and a crosswind starts, Cory is in the "sweet spot" right on Ripinski's wheel. The rest of us are in the gutter clinging to life. The group splits with Cory in the first group.
I am in the second group - all the rest of the Marco Polo guys are behind. Being pissed off, I drive the second group, with hopes of making contact with the first group. Enduring all the yelling and pissing and moaning of the Italians and other guys, I forge ahead and end up jumping across by myself to the first group. Not long after I joined the first group, there is a KOM sprint, which really is no big deal. However, after the KOM there is a descent onto a plateau with strong crosswinds. With 30K to go the big attacks start. Navigators have five of their six guys up there. Cory misses a split and I start to follow and counterattacks that come mostly from the team from Kazakhstan. With 6K to go, Jeff Louder of Navigators makes a brilliant move and jumps away from us. With 5K to go I end up off the front chasing Jeff with Iglinsky of the Kazakh team, but were reeled in with 2.5 to go. Louder wins and it looks like GC is beginning to take shape.
Stage 3 - July 19: Xihaizhen-Niaodao(Bird Island), 152 km
The last two years I have done this race, I have drilled it from the start and have split the field into a winning break of 12-15 guys. This year, Nathan suggests to me that I conserve my energy and let someone else spend the energy to split the field. It looked like Ghader Mizbhani, Chris Baldwin and Burke Swindlehurst were going to do just that. I couldn't follow Mizbhani when he attached to the KOM at K 26.1, but I did manage to follow the Phonak rider, Fertonani, and bridge up to those three with Ryan Cox of South Africa. However, we never organized and the whole field reformed. The difficulty in this stage is that we follow the perimeter of the lake, which means big crosswinds. Rob Reid was the ultimate teammate in helping me make the front split. Just as Rob died, after having ridden in the wind with no protection at all for at least 6 K, the pace picked up. Rob took me right to Cory and he took me to within 75 meters of the split. Put in a flat out effort to bridge a gap that seemed as though each centimeter was more difficult to close than the last. I was the last rider to make the first group on the split that day. Rob and Cory were awesome! We were looking great at this point. All my principal rivals had lost time on the previous stages. I had only lost time due to bonus sprints and none of those guys that had won those sprints could climb. Things were looking like a top three finish - for sure.
Stage 4 - July 20: Niaodao-Qinghai Lake Hotel, 120 km
Last year with 20 K to go, the Italians split the field and helped Damiano Cunego position himself for the win. I lost 57 seconds and saw my hopes of a top three finish in the overall ride up the road. This year I was more nervous for this stage than any of the other stages for that reason. I was bound and determined to survive this day and not lose time. Once again, Rob and Cory helped me more than I can say. I survived every split that occurred and ended up finishing in the first group. Things were looking great for us, except for the fact that Cory had picked up a bug from Ben, who had now dropped out of the race due to illness brought on perhaps by Tim. Shoot. Down to three healthy Marco Polo riders left in the race.
Stage 5 - July 21: Qinghai Lake Hotel-Xining, 173.2 km
This stage featured a course that took us around the east end of the lake, as we did in Stage 2. From the easternmost end of the lake, we descended back down to Xining. First four days were stressful and hectic with the wind. So this day seemed to offer a relatively innocent stage. But it wasn't to be. Phil Zajicek, Burke Swindlehurst (both of Navigators), an Italian from De Nardi (a Division 1 team) and Jeremy Maartens of South Africa ended up off the front. At one point of the stage with 70K to go, they had over eight minutes lead on the field. I tried to talk to the Kazakhs and the team from Japan, Nippo - Hondo, as well as the team from South Africa to help us chase. Giant knew that Mizbhani was in trouble with that kind of a lead and helped chase. The Kazakhs helped for maybe 10 K, Nippo did for maybe 5 K - the gap did come down to 2:53 in the end, but knowing how well Phil could climb, I knew first place was sewn up. Burke had already lost time and so Phil was the big threat to GC. I have known Phil for a long time. He came to one of the first regional selection camps that I ran for USA Cycling years ago as a young rider with a mountain of enthusiasm. Phil did not really display any outstanding talents at that camp, but his dedication and toughness was proving to pay off for him. He was a dedicated domestique for riders like Scott Moninger and Tom Danielson in the past and like most domestiques, received very little recognition for his selfless efforts.
I knew that Phil was going to win this race despite the valiant effort by Cory, Rob, Oggi and two of the other Giant riders chasing. The race was now for second.
Stage 6 - July 22: Xining-Menyuan, 153 km
Finally, the first big mountain day arrives. I am so happy to see this stage coming - no more crosswind battles, just the big 30 K climb to 3,792 meters. Trouble was, at 3:00 in the morning, I woke to shooting pain in my kidneys and stomach. I tried to repeat to myself that it was no big deal and that I would be just fine... this was NOT happening. I had survived the most difficult parts of the race for me with the best parts to come. But... just wasn't to be. As the stage started, Navigators controlled the race on the first flat 8 K. The climb doesn't really start until 100K. At a 111 K the KOM comes at 3,792 meters, descends to 130 K and 2,950 meters and then a flat 23 K run-in to the finish. I felt ok the first 100K and as the climb started, I felt my body shut down. I went from a sixth wheel behind Mizbhani and company and blew. I knew at that point my GC spot for Qinghai was gone. The worst part of it for me was knowing that Rob and Cory had sacrificed for me and it was all for naught. I limped my way to the top and crawled to the finish, 7 minutes down... .RATS!
Stage 7 - July 23: Menyuan-Huzhu, 167 km
In yesterday's stage, Phil did get dropped from Phonak's Fertonani, Ryan Cox of South Africa and Mizbhani. But those crafty Navigators had Chris Baldwin, Burke Swindlehurst and Jeff Louder stay with Phil and on the descent and the run in to the finish, drilled it and conserved Phil's lead of over 2 minutes. Today was another repeat performance; first 110 K were slightly downhill through some of the most beautiful parts bike races go through. The course followed a river valley with huge peaks on either side that go to over 3,400 meters. Actually felt better at the start, but just as soon as the intensity picked up, exact same as yesterday. I had lost another 7 minutes. Mizbhani, Cox, Fertonani and a Kazakh were away over the top with a lead of over 2 minutes on Phil at the descent. Navigators subscribed to the same tactic as yesterday. Baldwin, Louder and Swindlehurst stayed with Phil on the climb and then together they drilled it again and caught the breakaway at the line.
Stage 8 - July 24: Xining-Ledu-Pingan-Xining, 130.1 km
This stage turned out to be more of a formality. An out-and-back course of flat roads. There would be absolutely no change for the GC standings as the field conceded the win to Navigators. Navigators did the classic team time trial at the front all day. When things go well for a team, sometimes they go really well. After working all day long, Navigators' Ripinski out-sprinted everyone and took the stage. The thing about this stage was the rain and the filth on the roads. Normally a rain washes away the grime and dirt, but here in China, the rain turns the roads into what looks like muddy dirt roads. We were absolutely filthy at the end of this stage.
Stage 9 - July 25: Xining Circuit, 109.5 km
This is a flat circuit, essentially the same as the opening day. Great weather all day, no breakaways, Navigators controlled the whole stage again. Phil wins individual GC. Of note, on the Marco Polo side, we seem to have a new sprinter... Cory goes for it in the final gallop and ends up 12th. Not bad at all for a rider who says he can't sprint. And so goes the 2004 Tour of Qinghai Lake. The one thing about cycling is there is always another race. Next big tour coming up is Tour of Hokkaido; hopefully I will have a more successful Marco Polo story to tell.
Images by Linna Zhang
Images by Lin Chia-Shin
For more information on the Marco Polo Cycling Club and its travels, visit: www.marcopolocycling.com