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Tales from the travellers the diary of Team Marco Polo
Tour of Qinghai Lake - 2.HC, China, July 16-24, 2005
Hell freezes over
By Michael Carter and Gudo Kramer
July 15: Qinghai Xining Hotel
By Michael Carter
Here on the eve of the 4th Tour de Qinghai Lake, I can't believe I am back - again! Even after the first year when I was asked by U.S.A. Cycling to put together a U.S. team for the 1st edition of this race which Tom Danielson made his international debut and crushed the field for his first big win, I thought for sure that would be my one and only trip to Xining. Xining is the host city, located on the Tibetan Plateau which is a two hour airplane ride directly west of Beijing. Each of the subsequent years, I thought that each would be my last.
Started off here in the first edition coming in 5th on G.C. The second edition won by phenom Damiano Cunego, I managed an 8th. Then last year. What a disaster. Completely fell apart on the big mountain stage - could barely finish the climb on the decisive day that set up the rest of the top 10. Phil Zajicek of Navigators and his whole team rode a brilliant race and the day before the big climbing day, Phil ended up in a break that finished with 7 minutes ahead over a less than ambitious field. I attribute the source of the 2004 disaster to picking up a "bug" that one of my Marco Polo teammates brought over from Europe. All of us on Marco Polo save Robin Reid, ended up getting sick during the race. Our health problems had nothing to do with food, rather some kind of "bug".
Marco Polo is a team organized in Holland, but registered in China. We have a sponsorship from TREK China, and the Chinese division is managed by Todd McKean, a bike rider himself, and a very good one I might add! Todd surprised us by sending up two French press coffee makers, along with five pounds of Starbucks "House Blend". Todd also organized a "Trek Tent" that will be set up before and when it makes sense, after the stages. Looking very sharp this year, thanks to Todd! Just awesome!
This year, even after winning the Iron Horse in Durango, my confidence is not really there. I do have doubt about my 42 year-old body to survive this 4th edition. This one is longer than the previous three, and also features more climbing. Watching Lance ride this year's Tour is definitely inspiring - he is just incredible! Hopefully, some of his confidence and assertiveness will wear off on me. Stay tuned!
Stage 1 - July 16: Huangzhong-Xining, 101km
By Michael Carter
The course today featured a nice 37 mile downhill start to the finishing circuits around the city of Xining. In the first three editions of this race, nothing of any significance happened. All three years, the opening stage finished in a field sprint. Our D.S. and team manager, Gudo Kramer, mentioned that he thought today might be dangerous. I thought: "Yeah, right - after the last three years, nah... " Oops.
Rhys Pollock, our Aussie, attacked on the downhill solo. He built his lead to 1:10 or maybe a bit more, but is swallowed up before we hit the circuits, of which we were to do eight laps of an eight kilometre course.
But let's get back to the start where the opening ceremony took place in Huangzhong. Each year, the opening ceremony becomes more and more elaborate. It truly rivals the opening ceremonies at the Olympics. There are easily as many people watching as an Olympic stadium. This year, the ceremony was at a Buddhist temple, which feature a gold dome. The people watching had to number close to 250,000 people, Yes, that many! This IS China! People, people, everywhere. Incredible spectacle this year, too. The performances were amazing - we watched later that night on TV as the temperature was reportedly 38 degrees centigrade, which is like 98 degrees for us Americans. We were "chilling out" in our Trek tent (not at 98 degrees!) during the ceremonies, except for the team presentation part.
Now the race. Hit the circuits, and in my honorary place in the back of the field, just relaxing, trying not to conserve energy, a break of 37 rolled off the front, and gained three minutes! Dangerous riders up there, Chris Baldwin and Jeff Louder of Navigators, Dave McCann of Giant and others that I am sure are a G.C. threat. Gudo pulls up to the back of the field with five laps to go, and tells me that we can't afford to lose minutes like that. So I make my way to our English speakers (Fuyu sort of speaks English, Yutong not a lick) and tell the guys to start attacking (the field was creeping along). So we all start launching attacks in hopes of stimulating the field to start riding. I end up off the front solo, bridge up to a Kazakh rider, and the two of us catch a group of seven who were trying to bridge as well. After two laps with them, I end up accelerating off the front of that group, only to be followed by the Kazakh, and then one Barloworld rider. We end up closing the gap down by about one minute at the finish. The good news was that I put over one minute on threats, Ghader Mizbhani of Giant, Glen Chadwick of Cyclingnews, Ryan Cox of Barloworld, Cesar Grajales of Navigators and a few others. But, I lost a minute on some very good riders. Not really so bad really in a race like this. A Russian won the stage, a Kazakh 2nd and Polish rider was 3rd.
Stage 2 - July 17: Xining-Qinghai Lake Hotel, 145km
By Michael Carter
This stage was the first day of any climbing. The stage starts in Xining which is at 2,250 meters, or 6,730 feet, and climbs out of Xining to a max altitude at kilometre 83 of 3,419 meters, or about 10,257 feet. From there, the course descends to only 3,250 meters and finishes on Qinghai Lake.
The stage starts off very aggressive, with attack after attack. I know this climb and think that whatever does roll off, probably will not last. But this IS a bike race and you never know - anything can happen and it usually does. After a lot of groups form off the front and are swallowed up, a group forms at about 60 kilometres into the race. Oggi and I are on the front, watching it roll away, and no one is chasing. I mention to Oggi, "Maybe we should jump up there?"
So Oggi jumps away with two or three in tow. I stay in the field, and watch to see who of the dangerous riders in the field respond. Cesar Grajales does, so I jump after him. We make it to Oggi, who is driving a break of five riders. Oggi sees me on board, and for seven whole ', drills it! I turn around after a tunnel, and can't even see the field. The field has sat up!
We pick up a few riders who were dangling off the front, and when Oggi finally pulls off, the break organizes and we all start rolling through. The climb does not get too serious but does pitch up a bit at the 70k mark. My Kazakh partner from yesterday jumps away from us, takes the KOM, and the break is whittled down to two of us, two Giant riders, two Naturino riders (one is Simeoni, Lance's less than favourite adversary), a Lamonta rider, a Czech rider, and Cesar.
Long story short, Simeoni jumps us with 3.5 ' to go, I go after him and start to cramp in my hamstrings. Debilitating! Had to sit up, and had to watch in helplessness as he rode away, then the Lamonta rider, the Kazak and the other Naturino rider get away. The Giant riders, Ahad and Hosein do not chase! UNREAL. I end up just struggling to survive some of the most serious cramping I have had in years! At 42 years-old, that is a LONG time! End up ninth.
The good news: we put over five minutes on the field! I move into 4th overall, the Czech rider was in the break yesterday, so he takes yellow, Hosein was in the break too, and the Kazakh rider was about 10 seconds in front of me. Back in the hunt!
Stage 3 - July 18: Qinghai Lake Hotel-Bird Island, 121km
By Michael Carter
This stage circumnavigates Qinghai Lake and does have a couple of climbs. Not hard climbs, but it is the wind that is so dangerous here. Even though it is a short stage, a break can get away and all hopes of a good GC placing can be lost.
Well, a break did get away after 62 ' of racing in a wicked tailwind. 18 riders up the road, including my Kazak friend, Grajales, the Czech guy from yesterday, and Ryan Cox. A group formed with myself, Rhys, Fuyu both of whom rode great (as did Rob who did a lot of work protecting me early on) and all of the Giant team, who up until today, had the leader's jersey. At any rate, that group of 18 finished with 1:18 over our group. Not much to say about this one, other than it was a major crosswind battle after that 62k mark. The course wrapped around the west side of the lake so the tailwind turned to those lovely crosswinds, which was a great place to split the field.
Tomorrow, first 55 ' offer more of the same, then we hit a couple of climbs with a descent to the finish. The forecast is for rain, and a high of 58 degrees. I'll take that over wind!
Stage 4 - July 19: Bird Island-Xihaizhen, 152km
By Gudo Kramer
Stage 4 turned out to be a disaster for Michael and the whole Marco Polo team. With temperatures just above zero in centigrade and rain that felt like ice; 39 riders were eliminated from the race, including Michael Carter, our reporter from the first four stages.
Just half an hour into the stage and Mike comes falling back. The guys bring him back once or twice, but cannot keep him in the field, or at least whatever is left that could be called the main peloton. Peter Coates drives the team car to the field; mechanic Wilco Geerts calls to the feed zone, where I am having a quiet day to hang out and talk things through with Todd McKean of Trek, who came all the way up here to see the team in action.
They talk to Mike and the guys and tell Oggi and Rhys to do whatever necessary to keep Mike in the group or even in the race. It would be bad to go into the real climbing part of this stage race without our climber! Rhys refuses.
Another call from the team car. What to do? The situation was more clear now: with Mike loosing three minutes in just a few kilometres and Oggi with him. "Tell Rhys he'd better win the f**king stage if he refuses and let him go."
An hour and a half later the field passes by the feed, shattered to pieces. Rhys with the first group. Takes the bag, we shout: "Better win this one!"
What follows is a look into hell... guys one by one, little groups. Storm and rain. Guys stopping at the feed, begging for another jacket. Todd and me end up giving most of our clothes away. Then, over 15 minutes behind the leaders, Mike and Oggi. Mikes stops, he looks like he is over 60 instead of 42. Shakes all over, almost falls over when he stops. Cannot speak anymore, has to be helped out of his clothes. It is only then we realise how big the chill factor must be up here at this altitude. And... let's not forget, only two days ago, temperatures were still close to 40 centigrade! With this scenery, the record title of The Eagles comes to my mind: "Hell freezes over".
A long time ago I did my share of Dutch and Belgium 'spring' racing, in rain and wet snow, hail, whatever, but never saw so many guys just freeze! As Mike goes with Todd, I find a seat with the Chinese Cycling Association's secretary general, Mr Tian Junrong. We pick up more riders, though guys like McKenzie of Wismilak and Griffin of Giant. Shaking for over an hour in the car, almost crying, unreal! I end up in one of the two broom-buses; both are full of half-naked bodies, giving away all my clothes to cold and wet riders.
We pass group after group and I wonder where Oggi is. After the stage I find out, he passed most of the field by himself, and hardly lost any time after the feed zone, just riding by himself... long time trial... but why spend so much energy just to finish? We will still need our Mongolian warrior in the next days now we lost Mike!
We arrive at the finish to learn that Rhys did a GREAT ride. He ends up off the front for 20 kilometres with Cohnen of Lamonta, holding off big guys, but... losing the sprint by centimetres. When I find Rhys, I thank him for refusing to wait for Mike and saving the day!
Rhys' comment on the day:
"After making the front group all day, watching everybody shaking with cold, I thought this was a good time to attack. Well it was, with 20km to go, I went and was soon joined by a Dutch rider from the Lamonta Team. We road hard, really hard, I was experiencing new levels of cold pain in my legs. It was great. There was three riders chasing at 25 seconds and the field (which there was only about 40 left) at 1min 20 down.
We held them off and with 300 metres to go, I thought I had it; with 200m to go, I still thought I had it; with 100 to go, I thought: 'Shit, I'm going to win this!' Then with 50, to go I was watching him pass me. Close, so close."
Stage 5 - July 20: Xihaizhen-Guide, 202km
By Gudo Kramer
Shortened due to the cold. Finish on the mountaintop, instead of the intended finish in Guide, after a 60 km(!!) downhill. Everybody got into cars on the mountaintop; incredible scenery, this whole convoy in the middle of this rainy, misty Tibetan landscape, with nomadic people and their tents around...
10 kilometres before Guide everybody had to get out of the cars and ride the last kilometres in front of the numerous spectators again. There was an exciting sprint between the Polish team director and the Russian mechanic. The mechanic won. Turned out they rode instead of their chilled riders who stayed in the cars for this show-ride!
Stage 6 - July 21: Guide-Xining, 112km