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Tales from the travellers the diary of Team Marco Polo
Qinghai, China, October 6, 2006
Qinghai Lake Tour - Pro Tour in China
Report by Francis Cerny
Qinghai Lake Tour 2006 is one of the most important races in Asia for Marco Polo. It is Asia's biggest race, in the preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, so obviously attracts full coverage from national and international media. The race has the UCI 2.HC (Hors Category) status. The riders have to contest 1350km of road, over nine stages, at an average altitude of 3000m. The event features some unusual sections, including a good view of nature, as it winds around the Qinghai Lake. As it's one of China's biggest events, several strong continental teams were represented alongside two Pro Tour teams - Bouygues Telecom from France and Liquigas from Italy.
This year, Marco Polo participated with two Chinese riders Fuyu Li and Yu Tong, Oggi from Mongolia, Australian Rhys Pollock, Frenchmen Jean-Noel Wolf and two Dutch guys, Thomas Rabou and Remko Kramer. Remko jumped in for a Chinese rider who could not make it at the last moment. As staff we had Edwin Achterberg as team manager, Henk Zuidema as mechanic and Francis Cerny as soigneur. Men van der Borgh was also there as guest, but of course he cannot sit still and helped as much as he could.
Trek, one of our team's sponsors, took great care of us by sending an extra car and the best material for the race. The staff from Trek also helped with the logistics and took care of special fast and light carbon wheels for our bikes.
After staying a while in Xining, doing some light training and preparing everything for the race, we finally started moving to the Qinghai Plateau for the first stage. We were welcomed by a huge opening ceremony, which saw some of China's biggest stars turn up. Competitors had to ride across the stage as they were presented, which was built half into the water leading up around Qinghai Lake, providing spectacular views as they crossed. Masses of people joined the ceremony and the nice weather made this starting ceremony complete.
Stage 1 - Qinghai Lake Hotel to Bird Island 121 km
The start was difficult for Thomas, who had fallen ill before the tour had even started, but he tried to recover during the first stage - a challenge to even the strongest rider.
Unfortunately, while the first stage of the race was flat, it was a bad day for Marco Polo. While riding back in the peloton and not paying attention, all of Marco Polo's riders missed the break and couldn't even reach the second group. That meant they all lost about eight-minutes and overall classification was not the goal anymore.
Stage 2 - Bird Island to Xihaizhen 152km
This stage was mostly flat, with the exception of the end where some small hills waited for the riders. After a high speed first hour, the peloton split into echelons a few times before a group of around 30-40 riders managed to get away and, luckily, Marco Polo's Rhys was among them. After this group stopped making pace, it all came back together again for the team. Now everybody was waiting for a mass sprint.
Oggi, who was in good shape, took Rhys in his wheel and wanted to set-up a good final. Rhys got pushed a few times and lost Oggis wheel, so Oggi, noticing this pretty late, had to go for himself but still managed fifth. Fuyu and Jean-Noel also had a good stage, finishing inside the top 20.
Stage 3 - Xihaizhen to Qinghai Lake Hotel 147 km
This stage included the first challenging mountain - the 3435ft tall Sun and Moon Mountain. After reaching the summit, riders had to travel a further 65 km over rolling hills to the finish. The mountain split the peloton into several groups as the riders climbed to the top. Rhys was again there when a group of around 40 riders formed a break, but this time team-mates Jean-Noel and Thomas were also on hand.
Later on, a group of 17 guys got away and drew out a four minute lead. Despite a strong challenge from an Intel-Action rider, Rhys won the stage - earning him an invite to doping control after the stint. By this time Giant's Hossein Askari was leading the tour.
Stage 4 - Qinghai Hotel to Guide 164 km
The fourth stage featured another tough 20km climb to the highest point of the tour - 3880ft. Almost everybody was unhappy, as it was a wet and cold day, but Rhys described it as "just the way I like it" and attacked a few times, but got caught back every time. After 20kms Rhys tried again and was allowed to break from the pack. Whatever the guys were thinking, nobody thought it necessary to join him. Despite having a minute advantage over the field, Rhys decided to wait as the peloton began chasing him down.
Thomas' time came as the weather cleared and the riders neared the climb. He climbed really well with the lead group of 19 riders and finish 13th. Unfortunately, Fuyu had a flat tire while travelling with the lead group and was forced back. Fuyu, Jean Noel and Rhys all finished in the second group but Remko's condition had worsened since the start of the event and he was forced to miss the stage.
The end of the stage was incredibly different to the start. At the start it was raining and fogy with green trees everywhere but by the end it was desert-like and very hot. Very strange! Former Marco Polo rider Maarten Tjallingii from Skil Shimano is built for conditions like this and had taken the lead of the event by the end of stage five.
Stage 5 - Guide to Xining 114 km
This stage was pretty much all mountain, but the riders did have around 20 kilometres to warm up before commencing the climb. Thomas was the only one of our riders who could maintain the leading break's speed leading up to the 1600ft climb. As the peloton approached the peak, the conditions became colder and the fog got thicker and thicker - so you can imagine it was a dangerous descent, with almost zero visibility.
The riders didn't stay together; it was more one by one, reaching speed up to 85 km/h, during the descent. With 20km to go, Thomas and David McCann (Giant Asia) broke away from the lead group of 16 riders. While the group was coming closer and closer over the closing kilometres, the pair held out a six second gap from the rest, but Thomas couldn't beat David to the line. We settled for second but were very happy with this great result!
Stage 6 - Xining to Minhe and back to Xining 208km
This was the longest stage of the race but, compared to previous stages, was very flat. Everybody took this as a chance to get in a break away, so the first 50 km was very fast with lots of attacks. Nearly all the Marco Polo riders missed it again, but Rhys just managed to break into the group at the last minute. The break formed a seven minute lead but the strong teams chasing soon reduced it to three minutes. With the lead group dropping down to just four riders, Kazak competitor Bogdan Bondrev escaped to win the stage. Rhys tried to set up a chase, but was attacked by the others and had to be satisfied with fourth place. While Rhys was tired and disappointed with the outcome, the team considered it another strong result.
Unfortunately good results from Oggi, Fuyu and Jean-Noel were overshadowed when Thomas was disqualified after officials ruled him to have held onto a vehicle while talking to Bouygues' team manager during the race (maybe to get a contract there Thomas?). Marco Polo manager Edwin tried to talk with the officials, but they stayed with their decision.
Stage 7 - Xining to Menyuan, 151km
This was the final stage with a Hors category mountain. The stage took place in the wet, as it had been raining all night, and later on the guys were a mess as their faces were covered in mud the bike's wheels has thrown up.
Fuyu was the best rider from Marco Polo going up the hill and broke from the peloton in a group of 13 riders. Conditions grew foggier as the riders progressed up the mountain, but while the descent was not very fast, the riders were going down at some crazy speeds!
After the climb Maarten Tjallingii managed to come back into the first group and take the stage win.
Stage 8 - Menyuan to Huzhu, 166km
Everybody was ready for the start of this stage when we suddenly got word that it would be delayed because the road was flooded from bad weather the day before. With an extra hour to spare, we had time to get close to the spectators and had some fun playing with the kids.
After a while we heard that everything was okay now and the race could start. Once the stage commenced, we could quickly see the point were it all happened - you could see they did a lot of work to get the flooded road clean.
A 12-man break had formed by the base of the mountain and, while this climb was not a 'hors' category climb, it was probably the hardest of the whole tour! The climb was littered with hairpin turns for about 20 km, followed by another 15 km of hard riding to the peak.
Our guys had a bad start at the base of the climb, but came back in their own tempo. Rhys, for example, dropped pretty fast and then climbed back through a number of groups before approaching the rear of the second break, mainly due to his fast descent. The second group pushed so hard it came close to catching the first. By the stage's end Rhys sprinted to third in his group and 15th on the stage.
Stage 9 - Xining Circuit Race 84km
This stage saw a race for victory between Maarten Tjallingii and Hossein Askari, who were separated by just one second. The landscape for the final stage was incredible as huge mass of spectators got together and cheered on the riders.
As Rhys was only fighting for morale by this stage he pushed hard in the criteriums and joined a group of riders two-minutes ahead of the peloton. Rhys was working hard throughout the 10 laps of the 8.4km course but the peloton closed in rapidly and finally caught all but one of the breakaway pack, Bogdan Bondrev (Intel-Action) - who just stayed away to win his second stage.
All the bonus seconds went to the breakaway riders leaving Maarten Tjallingii to win the Tour of Qinghai Lake 2006 by a second, as he and Hossein finished back with the main peloton.
Getting to the hotel was almost impossible as all the spectators were so interested in the cyclists, they wanted to see them up close and talk to them - you almost couldn't find your own riders in the huge crowd! We were drowned for a while in the masses and enjoyed the huge amount of interest they showed.
We would like to thank the race organisers for a great cycling event in China, the staff of the team and of course the Trek people that helped us around the race and with their great material!
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by Francis Cerny
For more information on the Marco Polo Cycling Club and its travels, visit: www.marcopolocycling.com