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Tales from the travellers the diary of Team Marco Polo
13th Tour de China - 2.5, China, October 29-31, 2004
What's Marco Polo doing in China?
Report by Remko Kramer
We left the Netherlands for the Tour of China with team manager Rob Conijn, soigneur and photographer Francis Cerny and riders, Neequaye Dsane and myself, Remko Kramer. The rest of the Marco Polo Cycling Team came from other parts of the world.
Nathan Dahllberg, fresh from his win in the Tour d'Indonesia, joined us as well. Nathan served as a part-time D.S. and part-time team captain in Europe. On his way home to New Zealand he made a stop-over in Indonesia. Here we had some other team riders and guest riders joining together to participate in the Tour d'Indonesia. With Nathan's first place finish on G.C. in the Tour of Indonesia, we decided to register him with the team again to be strong in the Tour de China. Other riders that joined the team were Jamsran Ulzii-Orshikh (Oggi), coming from cold Mongolia, training mostly on the rollers the past month because of snow. Then Chi Yin Leung (Kenji) came over from Hong Kong and our team captain Michael Carter came from the USA.
At Beijing airport the travel agent from the race welcomed us. Oggi was already there and with some of his great stories from Mongolia, the time passed quickly until the arrival of the Polish team.
A bus ride through Beijing showed the incredible development that the city has had recently. It changes so fast that it is almost unreal to see the modern buildings, streets filled with modern cars and the Beijing people wearing the latest fashion.
On the way to Changping, just north of the city, those coming from Europe fell asleep once in a while. But to kill the jet lag quickly, it is the best to take the rhythm of time as soon as possible - i.e. stay awake and build up the bicycle for a good ride!
We already can fill our bottles with Nestle water. Team manager and commercial director of the Marco Polo Cycling Team, Rob Conijn, has a meeting with a representative from Nestle water to discuss sponsoring for next season. And Nestle made sure we had water waiting for us at arrival.
The area of Changping is nice; here the mountains start to rise and if you go further up in the mountains, there are tourist sites to the Great Wall. The longest stage of the Tour de China 2004 will also go into these mountains.
The first stage is a short time trial of 6,3 KM, but this will be long enough for the specialists to make some difference. We hope that Michael will have the legs for a good time, so that he can later be dangerous in the mountains, his terrain. However there is one problem: his frame was damaged in the plane and there is a crack in the rear stay. We mark the crack and hope it will hold...
Stage 1 - October 29: Seiko Time Trial, 6.3 km
It is early in the morning and still very cold. The climate in this season is like Europe. The wide roads are already closed for traffic and more and more people come to watch what is going to happen.
Neequaye Dsane, is nervous. He races his first UCI race! This guy had an incredible season. Last winter he hooked up with the Marco Polo Cycling Club because he wanted to start racing. Neequaye has an African (Ghana) father and Dutch mother, but lived most of his life in the Netherlands. His first races were a shock for him. Starting immediately in the Elite category, he could not keep up with the high speed and the fast turns of Elite races. He didn't loose his motivation though and kept training hard. Halfway through the season he started to finish some races and at the end of the European season he even finished a few top tens! We decided to reward his progression with the registration in the Marco Polo Cycling trade team and give him a chance in the Tour de China.
OK, this is his first UCI race and his first time trial race and what happens... he has to start as the very first rider. So you may understand why he is nervous...
The commissaire at the start even makes it worse. Neequaye is asked to make a test start at the podium, they want to check some things out. When he does this test, some other commissaires think this is for real and they confuse him when they want him to continue. Anyway, Neequaye luckily stops and returns for his real start.
I am next.
During the warm-up, I felt what is possible, and going about 45 km/h is about the limit I can keep steady for longer then a few hundred metres. But with the body in racing mode and the concentration at the start podium, I easily go up to 50 km/h the first few hundred metres. I know this is above my ability and I hold back and keep going 48. This goes well for the first half of the race. But after the turning point I know again I am not a time trial specialist. My legs get heavy and my speed goes down. But after the finish I can only be satisfied, I went as fast as I could.
Michael puts down a good time. He is third for a while, but with some specialists still to come. The Chinese Luo Jianshi wins the stage and will wear the yellow jersey in the afternoon.
At the time trial, Rob, meets with Todd McKean from Trek bicycles. After earlier correspondence about support for the team, we meet Todd again here at the race. When he hears about the crack in Michael's frame, he makes a phone call. And can you believe that one hour later in the hotel he comes over to us with a complete brand-new Trek bicycle, fitted to Michael's sizes and position. He only needs to turn the handlebars up a bit and it feels like the bicycle is made for him. Unbelievable, in the Tour de China, in one hour a complete new bicycle ready to race! Thanks Todd, that was a great job!
Stage 2 - October 29: Road Race, 85 km
After a decent lunch, we relax a bit for the afternoon stage. The race takes us to a large circuit where we do 3 laps and then return to the centre of Changping to finish. Because it is so short, there is no moment of rest. Attack after attack and nobody hesitates to chase. In some of the breaks Oggi takes over and he puts in so much power and speed! Amazing how strong the guy is, and more amazing how he kept his form this well. With snow up and extreme cold, most of his training he did in Mongolia was on the rollers. (The other day, Marco Polo mechanic Wilco Geerts told me about some years ago, when Oggi was staying at his place. One day he comes home from work and hears a strange noise. Walking to his kitchen he sees water coming from under the kitchen door. There he finds Oggi going flat out at the rollers. He already did 3 hours and wanted to do one more...)
The race kept going fast. Because it was so short nobody held back, and when the one break was caught, the next went. The average speed of the stage was over 47 km/h. Therefore it was even a more impressive attack from Shinichi Fukushima to get away with about 5 km to go. He took 100 metres on the super-fast peloton that was preparing for a mass sprint. But Fukushima just kept going and with 2km to go he was still up there. Then Nathan and Michael had a plan, they passed the peloton like a rocket and tried to jump over to Fukushima. But unluckily, there was a tricky corner and they took no risk and the peloton caught them again. Fukushima was still up the road and with just 500 metres to go, the sprinting peloton rolled him in. The Chinese Wang Fei won the stage before Polish Thomas Lesniak. No Marco Polo rider in the top ten.
Time for a good sleep with a 200 km day tomorrow...
Stage 3 - October 30: Road Race, 200 km
It was really cold at the start and we made sure to wear enough clothing and warm the legs with special warming-up and protect cream from Born. The race went to the Changping water reservoir where we did 10 laps of 12 km around a lake. In the lake was a small island with a beautiful Chinese temple. The lake is surrounded with mountains where some older pieces of the Chinese Great Wall can be found. The course is going up and down all the time, which will make it a tough ride even before we reach the real mountains in the big loop.
We have a guest in the team car today. It is Sam, representative from Craft underwear. Craft will supply the team next year with underwear and we invited Sam to experience a cycling race from inside. And could he choose a better day then today? This day had almost everything that makes cycling such a great sport.
Our strategy is to have some of our guys in a break so that other teams need to worry and chase. Michael and also Oggi are the guys that will wait and hope to be strong enough to destroy the opponents in the mountains.
The first part of the plan goes all right, although only one rider in the 14 men break is not too much. But it is Nathan that is up there and we have seen him do amazing things in long hard stages like this, but now it is cold... and Nathan does not care much for the cold. But we are all confident in Nathan.
Then I suddenly hear Oggi shouting. I look around and see Michael struggling with his jacket... it wraps around his cassette and stops him. I turn around and we try to get the wheel out, but it is completely stuck. We try and try and it takes forever to get it loose. Also Kenji came back and now we are with half the team way way back. We start chasing and Rob drives the team car in front of us.
Francis who is shooting photos at the dam, almost thinks the first group had a fast lap, but it is us, minutes behind the peloton.
The speed is so high that I, in third position, can't hold the wheel. But they have to go and try to get Michael back. I think my race is over... then I see a Korean rider up the road and their team car coming back. New hopes! I catch the draft and after about one lap, riding at my max, I return in the peloton.
Then our strategy starts to work. The group is minute away and some teams start to worry. The Guangzhou team chases for a while, then Hong Kong and the Mongolians. Too bad that Koji Fukushima from the Japan National Team is in the break. But his brother Shinichi in the peloton feels so strong that he tries to get away a few times. Finally he evens succeeds and with a few riders he tries to get to the first group that now is 8 minutes ahead.
I say to Michael that we can't let him go. Michael says the race has been probably been decided already. We try it with some hard attacks and when we get a gap with some riders, the Chinese riders really get going. This group goes! We keep going as hard as we can. I work and help chase while Michael hides himself in the back of the group to save some juice if we make contact...
And we make it - almost. Leaving the circuits around the lake, we go up towards the mountains; there we see some cars in the distance and with some last hard pulls we reach the remainders of the early break.
But the brothers Fukushima already have left this group along with five others. Nathan is ready to take over and sets a very unpleasant pace up the foot of the first mountain. When the steep part starts, Michael puts on his big ring and takes off. Some brave riders try to hang on but later they fall back again one by one.
I still hang in there and try to survive and the group gets smaller and smaller. Close to the top, I see something blue in the corner of my eye. I think Nathan comes up to me to check. But then I see it is Oggi?! On his big ring, he asks me how many are up the road. Where did he come from? I can't imagine how hard he must have gone by himself to get back to us.
Michael went so fast on this mountain, that he caught 3 of the 7 on the first climb, dropped them, then chased solo to the second climb, where he caught a Polish rider and a rider from the Aisan Team at the very top of the second climb. But the Fukushima brothers were gone and Michael and the other two riders never caught them. The "Brothers Fukashima" finish four minutes ahead, number 1 and 2 in the stage and GC!
Back to the action in the stage; Nathan and I keep driving our group to the second mountain to keep Oggi in a position to still make it to the front. And at the second mountain he goes again and disappears with two Chinese riders.
I think it would be over now for me, but I still survive. And on the flat roads to Changping,I even start to think of forcing a new break. A bigger group with more fresh riders returns from behind us.
At the finish for Michael, the sprint is for 3rd. Michael jumps with 300 meters, gets a good gap but at the line is just passed by the Polish rider Tomasz Kloczko and he ends up with 3rd. Oggi finishes in the next group and is 7th.
After a few attacks, I finally get away, still with 5 KM to go. A Hong Kong and Japan National Team rider join me and we go as hard as we can. I am in a good position as the third on the team to finish and I can secure a good placing in the Team Classification.
Many people are watching the race, in the last km's there are rows of people at both sides of the road. I give it all I have, finish 14th, check the time and check the distance to the group. That looked good! That effort paid off for us, as we sealed up 2nd in the Team Classement. A good solid race by the whole Marco Polo Team! Everyone rode great and contributed to successful day for Marco Polo.
Stage 4 - October 31: Changping city circuit race (6.4 km x 15 laps), 96 km
It is raining and really cold. It is good that we have a nice tent close to the start line. Todd from Trek arranged this, so we can sit under a roof in his chairs for a leg rub. Then luckily the rain stops and during the race the road dries.
There is not much to winning a flat criterium like this. The Japanese riders take control and can easily chase back any riders that try to break away from the field.
But it is a race, and anything can happen! Our "freshman" Neequaye gives it a try and gets away with a strong Polish and a Japanese rider from team Aisan. They get a good minute ahead. And Neequaye gives it all. But all is too much... he explodes and gets dropped. Neequaye learns a good lesson - how to "check yourself, before you wreck yourself". Now things look different. With a Team Aisan rider up the road and some Chinese riders got over there making a group of seven.
We wait for a while but nobody shows interest and the gaps get over two minutes. That means we loose our second place in the Team GC. So we organise and get going with all six of us. The tempo goes up and with strong riders like Oggi, Michael and Nathan, the peloton behind must be suffering.
With a few laps to go we catch the group and it looks like coming down to a field sprint again. Kenji decides to give it a try for Oggi. He has been so strong these days, we think he has chances in a mass sprint. Nathan sets the pace and keeps us up the front. Entering the last km, I wait for Nathan to pass the first riders and take the lead. But then the Polish train passes us and we are boxed in. Oggi finds his way out and passes at the outside. Organisation is gone and we take the last turn at 500 metres to go. I shift and accelerate, catch some good speed and pass on the left side. I shout to Oggi to catch my wheel. I now throw the chain at the 11 and give it all I have. Pass the sprinting bunch and at 100 metres I am next to the top three. When will Oggi pass? Then I notice him, shouting, "Remko, grr... left!" I pull to the left and Oggi shoots like a rocket from the inside and throws his bike forward for... 4th.
Damn! IF I pulled away a little earlier... But "if" and "when" don't count. Michael 5th, Oggi 8th, I got 13th and the Marco Polo Cycling Team 2nd in Team GC, not bad.
We enjoy China some more with some good sightseeing in the city, the Summer Palace and the modern centre. We have a great dinner in town and enjoy different authentic dishes with of course delicious Beijing Duck!
Around the races we had some meetings with the China Cycling Association to discuss future cooperation. We have signed a contract with the CCA until the end of 2008 and are the official partner of the China Cycling Association. We will develop the racing skills of the best Chinese riders in the Marco Polo Cycling Team which will be a Chinese Continental Team starting in 2005. In the team there will be a mixture of experienced and talented Chinese and western riders. So the Marco Polo Cycling Team will become the first Chinese professional cycling team next season!
In our meetings we filled in the last details of the things that need to be arranged now and we can shake hands happily with our friends from OUR cycling federation. We look forward to a bright future. China has the potential to become a great cycling country and we are there to develop the first steps towards the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
We would like to thank the race organiser, the staff for their great support, our partners, Nestlé Pure Life water, Craft, Trek and of course the China Cycling Association.
Images by Francis Cerny/Marco Polo Cycling Team
For more information on the Marco Polo Cycling Club and its travels, visit: www.marcopolocycling.com