I woke up from a lovely dream. I was back home in the US. It felt so real until my eyes opened and saw Blair snoring in the next bed, the drab walls, suitcases overflowing with bibs and socks. I had to admit it to myself: I was homesick. Or maybe I was just China-sick. I was ready to go home. But we still had one more day to go and an early one at that. For some reason the race decided that it would be better to start the stage at 830 instead of the usual 10. Breakfast was horrible. I didn’t want to eat anything so I settled for bread with butter and some tea before getting dressed.
The last race of the season is interesting. Everything needs to be just right: the last time I line my shorts and socks up with my tan lines, last time I buckle my shoes, put on my helmet, adjust my glasses. The last time until February. A coach of mine once told me: “You are only as good as your last race.” Which in this case means until February. Thats a lot of time to run over everything that went right and everything that went wrong.
The 6 of us ride together one final time, two by two. Its quiet and cold and the highway we are on is devoid of any cars or big buildings except for an old castle complete with cannons and ramparts. Once we got to the course more lasts happened: last sign in, last time posing for pictures with beaming Chinese cyclists who are decked out in kits ranging from Discovery Channel and SaxoBank to Vanderkitten and CashCall. Last time finding our teams white tent and the last time riding the final few kilometers, which provided a first: there were corners and roads that were under 3 lanes wide. Almost American-ish. Right there Ty should have changed into his national crit champion kit.
Last time having to listen to the local dignitaries give long, embellished speeches, last time hearing 10 counted down to 1 in Chinese. You get the idea. Things got rolling quickly as usual and Joe got into a break on the first lap that looked like it might stick. However, Champion Systems came to the front and chased hard to bring it back for their sprinter who was looking for green jersey points. Coming into the race, Ty was in 21st overall by a second. He grabbed 2nd, enough to leapfrog into the top 20. This day was starting off well. Champ Sys kept riding on the front until the second sprint where, coming out of a corner, Tanner stood up and snapped a spoke. I was right behind him and a big gap formed. I freaked out. Gaps are never good. Fortunately, the race slowed after the sprint and I went straight to the front and didn’t leave it again. Oscar took advantage of the slowing and took off with 3 others. It was then I realized that I had made a pivotal mistake: I had no water bottles with me! Good excuse to drop back and get some, then round up the squad on the journey back to the front.
By the time I had grabbed my final sticky bottle (where director and rider hold onto a bottle as the director hits the gas. Then, as the two close in on the group ahead, the director lets go of the bottle and accelerator, rocketing the rider back into the group without any effort) Christinas Watches and Champion Systems had begun to chase the break. They had a minute with 3 laps left. It would be close, as always.
With one lap to go, the break was still out front and with a healthy gap. The Australian National Team added fire power to the chase to protect their GC riders who were mere seconds in front of Oscar in the overall. No fear, I told myself. Although thats never easy when you see TT1’s Sebreyekov and Christina’s Furlan banging bars, elbows, and heads at full speed in front of you. I looked for Ty and Joe. They were on the left side of the road and I was on the left. Has the break been caught? I can’t see anything ahead of me except for one of the Aussie kids wriggling his way into non existent gaps. 3 kilometers to go, turn, sprint, turn, dodge someone, sprint. The corners keep the field strung out, a novelty after chaotic, mass bunch sprints on 6 lane roads created a free for all where it takes 200 meters of sprinting to go from the very back to the very front. This is good for me. Turn. The final kilometer. Turn. Hyper speed. With 600 meters to go, we round the final corner (of the season) and I’m finally in the top 20. Suddenly, the right side of the road in front of me clears and with 250 meters to go I can finally sprint all out. With 150 meters left I start to pass Ty. He has riders in front of him and as he tries to squeeze through one of them loses control. I look over just as Ty flips into the air. It looks bad. I look towards the finish. There’s Oscar. He and his breakaway buddies are just riding it looks like. What are they doing? All of a sudden, one of the kicks for the line.
I keep sprinting, head down, then head up. Suddenly, Oscar raises his arms straight in the air! We’ve won another stage!!! I lunge for the line a few moments later. 18th. I ride straight for a screaming, crying, ecstatic Oscar and he grabs me and plants a huge kiss on my cheek. What a way to end the season.
Ty is ok and we slowly ride back to the hotel for one final time. I take a shower and put on a robe and lie in bed. Oscar comes back and we all head down into the basement and begin to pack our bikes, spare wheels, tools, and examine the Ty’s broken front wheel. We are joined by TT1, the Aussies, Andalucia. Brian passes around some Chinese beer and we all partake.
After bikes are packed and clothes are stuffed into bags, everyone packs into cars and heads to the Closing Ceremonies. More long winded speeches and a nice dinner of rice and olive oil.
There is a video that has footage from all the stages. I wish I could find it. Outisde, there are demonstrations of candy blowing, the art of tea, and a woman making red bracelets. Most of the riders put one on. Its like a secret badge.
This has been a long post, but one quick funny thing: after the very nice ceremony we decided to drive back a bit early to get a jump on the packing before going to bed. Of course, we got lost. The GPS in the van wasnt working and the driver couldnt understand Thomas and Brian’s angry gesticulations. Did we pull over 3 times to change direction? Yes. Did Craven make Olivia cry? Almost. Did we get a jump start on packing? Nope. It took us so long to find our way back to the hotel that by the time we did, all the teams were already back and the elevator. Race is over, but the adventures continue!