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Tales from the travellers the diary of Team Marco Polo
Tour de Hokkaido - 2.5, Japan, September 15-20, 2004
Multinational in Japan
Reports by Michael Carter and Eddy Hilger
OK, here it is, the 2004 Tour de Hokkaido. After the Tour of Qinghai Lake earlier this year, where I came home with my tail between my legs, (my wife is eager to point out that the only reason that I did not do well there was because I came down with a bug - which I did, but still... never a pleasant experience getting dropped in territory that normally you control. Even after a pretty good Masters world championships, where I finished a frustrating 7th place in the 40+ road race, 3rd place in the 35+ road race and 1st in the hill climb... but that was Masters Worlds, not a pro-race. For me, the Tour of Hokkaido is a big question mark. Stay tuned...
Eddy Hilger: One of the neatest things about our team is the diversity. For example, my teammates, manager, and mechanic are from New Zealand, Hong Kong, Mongolia, South Africa/Italy (that's our team manager who runs the "Davis Phinney" camps with Davis and his wife), Japan and Belgium. Other teams and riders involved in this race are from Russia, Iran, Canada, Italy, China, Ireland, Australia and Japan. After putting our bikes together and having a terrific lunch at Paul's café (Paul is our translator who is from Belgium but lives in Japan) - it's a Belgium pub with some Japanese flare (food wise), phenomenal Belgium beer and excellent Italian espresso - we decided it was time to stretch the legs a bit and actually ride our bikes. When I first got on my bike I felt like I hadn't ridden in over a year - OUCH! However, after an hour or so, I finally started feeling a bit more normal.
The Marco Polo Cycling Team in the Tour de Hokkaido:
Team manager: Allan Wolhuter (South Africa)
Prologue - September 15: Sapporo ITT, 2.6 km
Having arrived back in Colorado from Europe (just coming home from Master World Champ's in St Johann, Austria) on Tuesday, September 7, climbing back into the aluminum tube on September 11th for another trip of a total of 17 hours of flight time - not to mention a layover of 3.5 hours in Osaka - this first effort is going to hurt! I have no idea what time zone I am in, neither does my wife Nanci who is joining the team on this trip as "massage therapist", who has hardly been out of Colorado her whole life. She seems to have adjusted to the first 8 hour difference from Colorado then the 15 hour difference from Japan, much more than the crusty, gristly old globe-trotting pro cyclist who can't seem to grow up.
Sure enough, felt absolutely stuck to the road for the prologue. Thankfully, Eddy Hilger who has joined us from the States after leaving behind his new-born (5 weeks old) daughter Kenzie, wife Carlee and son Jackson, uncorks an awesome prologue and finishes 10th. Eddy definitely carried the Marco Polo flag with pride. I on the other hand, finish a dismal 54th out of 100. For a race that is super tight with time bonuses, gentle climbs and little opportunity to make up time personally, I am in a world of hurt. But Eddy is our guy! With more than 500 K to go in the tour, a lot can still happen and I hope that it does and that it does so in the favor of Marco Polo.
Stage 1 - September 16: Sapporo - Date, 185 km
Eddy Hilger: While I slept incredibly well the night before, I couldn't have slept worse last night. I was up probably every hour and then at 4:30am I was up for good! Thankfully our South African manager brought his travel espresso maker. At first I told him I'd pay him good money for an espresso, then I bartered with finishing well enough to move our car up in the caravan. In cycling, your team car is based on your best rider in the overall general classification. So, with me being 10th overall, our team car is 10th out of 20.
Thankfully it is hot. Good chance to sweat out the 17 hours airplane trip in the aluminum tube.
The profile for this year's Tour of Hokkaido looks to be rather difficult. This stage has two big climbs; the second is going to 900 meters from essentially sea level. In reality, they were very gentle. Race was very much controlled until the 20 K to go sign marker. I rode in the back of the field nearly all day. Oggi and I went for the less stressful tactic in a stage of this nature and hung out in the back all day long. On the two climbs I moved to the front just to keep tabs on what was happening and to check on Eddy. Eddy looked pretty good so I followed Dominique Perras and Ghader Mizbhani, the two big threats in the hills, when they attacked. Thankfully, I had no absolutely no trouble following those guys. Looks like the "China Syndrome" (the curse of Qinghai Lake) is behind me! The whole field is together with 30 K to go but a group of 11 noodles off the front, not one Marco Polo rider there. Oggi looks at me and says "We chase, huh?" So we start to work our way up to the front. In the meantime, Ben puts in a fantastic effort to bring it back the group that contains Mikhail Teteriouk from Nippon-Hodo.
Not too long afterwards I follow an attack with 20 K to go. I counter that attack on a slight uphill, turn around and see we have a gap. At that point there are maybe 6 of us, and then to my pleasant surprise, I see Eddy. The group continues to grow in number until it reaches 16. At 8 K to go, there is a pretty good hill and I anticipated a move there by somebody, but it never comes. The great thing about this whole break that we have is that the race leader missed the break so has a huge threat to win, David McCann from Giant who is in 2nd place at the time. But, Eddy is there. So I am dedicated putting as much time as we can to put Eddy in the top 3. Long story short, Kam Po Wong wins the stage, I am happy to see him win since not only is he a first class rider, but a Marco Polo member as well, although Nippon-Hodo's Giuseppe Ribolzi is the new race leader.
Eddy Hilger: We haven't got the results from the stage but I think I moved us up to the 5th car:) I happened to make the winning move/break, but didn't have much at the end of a tough 115-mile race. I ended up finishing 8th.
Today's race was beautiful! I haven't seen the type of scenery and landscape like I did today outside of Colorado. Our Kiwi says the views remind him of New Zealand - sorry I can't describe it better. These are the times I wish I could write, but don't get me wrong, I'm much more thankful that I can ride a bike halfway decent than write... (Mom that's for you.)
On a side note, our hotel is quite similar to a vacation hideaway. Think of the movie the Last Samurai and you'll have an idea of the room we have. We'll be sleeping on the floor with mats, we have slippers to use before entering the main area, and there are sliding doors and one of those tiny tables in the middle of the room. For some Asian culture, our Hong Kong rider has Japanese music playing on his computer right now and I'm sipping on green tea :) The view out our window showcases a gorgeously peaceful lake with a volcano on one side and a temple (probably) across the lake. Last but not least, as soon as I get done writing this I'm off to the mineral springs "bath" - a hot springs more or less.
Stage 2 - September 17: Abuta - Oshamambe, 174 km
This stage looks to be the decisive stage of the race - on paper in any case. Starts off with a climb that gains 250 meters in 9 K, just enough to wake up the body! Then its big rollers to the "Hot Spot" at 63 K, then a 16 K climb starts shortly thereafter. This climb starts at 175 meters or so, tops out at 875 meters. This is followed by a short descent of 4 K, then another climb of 8 K, then another short descent, then another climb of 3 K, then a long descent from 97.6 K to 118 K or so. Then there is 47 K of flat, and at 154 K, another short but steep climb of 3 K, then a run in to the finish.
The stage starts out fast, attack after attack. Mostly it is the Aisan Team and the Anchor Team trading off, countering each other. That stimulates Shimano and Nippon - Hodo and of course, Marco Polo! So we all are attacking and counter attacking each other non-stop. And in classic fashion, a lull in the action ensues, and crafty rider that he is, Oggi recognizes that this is ripe for an attack. Eddy, 2 from Shimano, and Anchor rider who I don't know, and one or two others all noodle off the front and gain 3 minutes before the first big climb.
Eddy Hilger: Today's stage really had me hoping I would not be dropped as it's quite hard and there are some REALLY GOOD climbers... thankfully I made the break with our Mongolian hammer-head! He's only won the Mongolian national road race 20 times and the time trial like 15 times - I'm serious, he's a legend in Mongolia. This guy still sprints pretty well - back a few years ago he was sprinting with the sprinting stars of cycling!
Having over 3 minutes up the first climb was nice - we gained close to 2300 vertical feet as we wrapped around a volcano - it was almost surreal as the race's helicopter flew over us, people ringing cow bells, motorbikes leading the way for us, camera man taking pictures, TV camera's shooting footage on the motorbikes.
Unfortunately for us, the Shimano guys Tomoya Kano, Shinri Suzuki and Hidenori Nodera are still with us, so along with Aisan, this Shimano trio dial it up on the climb. It is not until the start of the second climb that we catch the group with Eddy and Oggi. Oggi had set the tempo for the breakaway, while Eddy relaxed as best he could. As we do catch, more attacks follow, one after the other. On the big descent, everything settles down a bit, but only for a short while. Eddy rolls off the front - solo - again! A long way to go still remains before the stage concludes. But he ends up with a rider from Team Canada, Cameron Evans, and then two others bridge up to them and they build a lead to as much as 3 minutes at one point. The main group slows to what seems like a crawl. Despite that seemingly slow tempo set by Nippon-Hodo, the field eventually catches Eddy's break back, and even the stragglers from way behind the main bunch also catch back, including Giuseppe who was OTB all day! I follow a few of the ensuing counter attacks and end up off the front with a screaming Dominique Perras from Canada. Dominique seems to think he has to yell at every one in order to get them to work in the break. That guy always has some instructions for his breakaway companions. Good rider in any case and have to love him for his enthusiasm. At any rate, we end up with a 25 second gap, but are caught with less than 3 K to go. Oggi pulls off a 5th, thanks in part to help from Ben.
Super day for Marco Polo, regardless of not winning. Bummer that Oggi and Ben receive time penalties for crossing the center line of the road. That cost the team 4th on team GC, but seems the UCI commissaries want to play a "power trip" game and disregard the nature of bike racing. In the closing moments of battle, it is only natural to "go for it" and do all necessary to win - particularly in the last few hundred meters. Even the eventual winner of the stage is relegated! Poppy cock if you ask me and EVERY other rider in the race!
Well, Eddy is now tied for 3rd with a Canadian, Kam Po Wong is in a comfortable lead now. That guy is riding amazingly well.
Stage 3 - September 18: Yakumo - Kamiiso, 187 km
This was to be yet another long day at the office. The way the organizers have made the profiles for these stages is a bit deceiving. From the profile, this day looks to be brutal. Climbs that look to be like walls are actually quite gentle when you look at the scale. You realize that the average grade of each climb looks to be about four to five percent. Maybe the last K of the first and last climbs are hard, about 8% but in reality, even those are not so bad.
This race starts out as a carbon copy of yesterday's stage - attack after attack. This day sees a climb after about 7 K's that is 20 K long, and reaches 380 meters from sea level. Not steep but again, a great way to wake up the legs!
The field stays together the remainder of the stage, minus one crash with 10 K to go that splits myself, Oggi, Kano, and a few others off the charging field. We have to chase super hard - biggest effort of the day in fact to make it back on. Eddy and Ben were near the front, so for them, no problem sitting in. Oggi puts in a HUGE effort to make it back, with a precious 2 K to go. I make it back just ahead of him with about 3.5 K to go. Hidenori from Shimano suffers a bad crash with about 200 meters to go, but Eddy and Ben survive just fine and avoid any catastrophes. Kamp Po still has the jersey and quite comfortably so. Eddy is tied for third with Cameron Evans of Canada.
Eddy Hilger: We had a plan for the final 2km but it didn't work as Oggi and Mike got caught behind a crash with 4-5km to go. However, Ben (the young kiwi) led me out in one of the most nerve-racking sprints. I mean guys were all over the road, no one team was organized so it was a free for all! Thankfully we stayed upright - 2 guys crashed really hard right in front of us with 100 meters to go.
Stage 4 - September 19: Nanae - Hakodate, 157 km
Even though this stage is shorter than the first 3 road stages, there no reason at all to think that this stage will start off any different than the three previous. Sure enough, the stage starts off with attack after attack.
Dominique Perras instigates a move over the first climb that starts at 6 K and goes for 10 K, gaining 140 meters, which again, so no big deal really. But it is enough to split the field. I end up countering the attack by Dominique and Shinri from Shimano, and eventually, there are about 16 riders off the front. Once again, Eddy has made the selection, which is just great! I tell him to sit on and do nothing - I will do it and he needs to rest. That size of a breakaway group is really too big. Too often, too many will sit on and not help. Then these gaps occur in the echelon, and invariably, guys stop working and the move disintegrates. Sure enough, that is what happens, but not until I have sufficiently driven my self to a near death trying to keep the move away. All for naught though, as Team Canada and the Iranians chase us down.
So, the finish was all that waited. Oggi tried to give Eddy a lead out into the finish, but Oggi is very aggressive in these things and timidity does not win out. Eddy loses Oggi's wheel, and Oggi ends up 6th.
Eddy Hilger: Since our plan went to pot yesterday, Oggi was pretty motivated to lead me out. He led me out but I lost his wheel (to the points leader) in the corner with 1km to go. I was sitting 5th going into the last corner but I don't have much against these pure sprinters.
Man can they go! I was still top 10, but had hoped for a top 5. Oggi and my other teammates were a bit upset that I couldn't pull out the sprint, so our manager and Mike talked to me a bit. As many of you know, sprinting can get a bit crazy - guys pushing each other at 35mph, bikes hitting each other - simply "fearful" things going on which if you aren't used to it then it's nutty. My team manager told me when the South African team would lead him out he would wear 3 T-shirts under his jersey because he knew the risks he would have to take - and those risks could cause him to crash. Basically they were saying don't EVER let someone else take the wheel of your lead-out man.
On a side note, I'm a bit frustrated as only the race leader has been on the climbs with me and the few other climbers. Every other guy in the top 10 is dropped like a brick on the climbs but the finishes are so far out from the climbs everyone pretty much comes back together. For example, the Italian who is 2nd overall was in the 3rd group on the 2nd stage - several minutes down, and that was on the first climb of three! Oh well, that's racing, you learn, adapt and try to figure out how to can gain time elsewhere.
One crazy crit to go! Eddy is in 4th, behind Cameron, so should be interesting tomorrow.
Stage 5 - September 20: Kamiiso, 60 km
Our goal today is to protect Eddy's 4th and to get him in a break where he can steal some bonus sprints and move up in GC. We're not too sure about the opportunities at the finish where the time bonuses are ten, six and four seconds. Aisan, Nippon-Hodo, Shimano, Anchor, the Koreans all have good sprinters and seem to be much better at that game than we are, so the Hot Spots look to be the best chance.
What is making this stage so exciting are the Hot Spots. Four of them today at laps 12, 9, 6 and 3 to go. Time bonuses are 3, 2, and 1 second. With the top 20 guys all within 60 seconds, this Tour of Hokkaido is coming down to the last stage, and maybe, to the very last sprint!
Stage starts out super fast (why should anything be different?) as every team is trying to make the most of this last opportunity.
Eddy does end up off in a break after about lap 5, and steals the bonus at 6 to go! Not sure who has won the others, but 3 seconds will be huge! The break does get caught, and this one is coming down to a field sprint. I hit the front with a lap and a half to go, and start to dial it up. On the last lap from the top of the course, Oggi is on my wheel, and Eddy is on his. At 1 K to go, I swing off, let Oggi take over. THIS time, Eddy does not waver, he is right on Oggi's wheel. Oggi takes him down to about 400 meters where Ben then takes Eddy down to the line and Eddy places 2nd behind Park, the young Korean! That makes for a total of 9 seconds in bonuses for Eddy, ties him for 2nd on G.C.!
Giuseppe from Nippo was 3rd, is tied with Eddy. To break the tie, the officials go back to the prologue, where Giuseppe beat Eddy by mere 100ths, so Eddy ends up 3rd on G.C.!
Eddy Hilger: With 2km to go Oggi came up to me - I hugged his wheel like crazy, then lost it in a corner but realized if I didn't get it that could be it for me. I fought for his wheel and pretty soon we were flying. With about 1200 meters to go we are doing close to 32-33mph, just Oggi and I at the front. It was really weird because it was so easy being behind this powerful cyclist. I had no clue what was going on behind and thought we were going to get swarmed any minute, but with a little crosswind I think it was tough. With 1000 meters to go Oggi picked the pace up but I was yelling at him to save some for the finish. At about 800 meters our New Zealand teammate Ben came out of nowhere and made sure I got his wheel. I'm glad I have some muscle because I threw this little Japanese guy out of the slip stream - at 400 meters the sprinters started coming up and I tried sucking onto the Korean who had won yesterday and 2 of today's time bonus'. In the end he took me to the line but I couldn't come around him - heck 2nd isn't bad for bunch sprint - probably my best ever! Especially for a big UCI stage race! It wasn't me, it was the team!! Hand's down, I wouldn't have gotten 2nd nor would I have been tied for 2nd for the overall if it weren't for them! I wish you could have felt/seen the joy I had for them as I heard and saw them celebrating our "victory". It was truly incredible, all cultural barriers gone and a team going crazy... getting on the podium (top 3 finishers overall) is absolutely a HUGE achievement for my team and I!
AWESOME job by Eddy! He never let down, raced this whole race each day, with all he had to give. The team all rode great, and the staff of Allan, Paul our translator and Marco Polo Fan Club President in Japan, our mechanic Rick and soigneur Nanci; all played a significant role in the success of the team. Not bad for team that has no one receiving a paycheck!
Eddy Hilger: I'd like to thank some of the people and companies who have helped/sponsored me from an "outside" perspective - this year. This is quite obvious but my wife and our families deserve the most thanks. Particularly Carlee in encouraging me to follow a dream and quit working full-time...this was my first year not working full-time - I still run our educational business but it has provided extra time for training/racing. My coach Mike Carter, and thus Dr. Eric Clark who unknowingly brought us together - so much in just one year, heck in just a few months. More UCI points than I would have ever imagined, giving me belief/confidence, going above the goals we set, and learning how use energy for key moments. Marco Polo Professional Cycling team for taking a chance on an unknown:) My man JB, and Mike Carter too, in teaching me how to eat with recovery in mind and balance.
Marco Polo Cycling Team: We are very happy with this podium placing by Eddy Hilger in the Tour de Hokkaido 2004. It is already a very successful season for Marco Polo, with overall victories in the Tour of Sri Lanka, the Tour de Korea and recently in the Tour d'Indonesia!
This is also an incredible result of Eddy Hilger, in only his second year of racing and first year at international level with the Marco Polo Cycling Team!
We want to thank everybody for their help and support and the Tour de Hokkaido organization for their hospitality.
Up next: Tour of China.
Images by Chi Yin Leung
For more information on the Marco Polo Cycling Club and its travels, visit: www.marcopolocycling.com