Stage 1: Here we go! Finally.

Race day began early. 6 am to be exact. Al pinched my Aeropress the day before and hadn’t returned it which forced me to down more sugar coffee than I would like to admit. Even Ben, who admittedly drinks vile coffee, said he would rather drink instant coffee than what’s served. Cafe 43 instant coffee is an affront to coffee worldwide. Always bring an Aeropress and some decent beans with you.
 
Race day means the buffet becomes serious. Eating during a stage race is not a pleasure and it becomes more of a chore the longer the racing goes on. Even the World Tour guys who get variety from their team chefs in their fancy team buses, struggle to eat in the final week of a Grand Tour. The Duoba buffet hasn’t been bad. Theres always spaghetti and fried rice for breakfast. Fried eggs can be hit or miss. The bacon is ham. And after the first day, the staff added a second person to help man the toaster.
 
Cyclists have this weird obsession with toast. Guys stack as many as 8 slices at a time on their plate. Points if there are only 8 slices available. And its not just in China. I’ve seen this phenomenon at every race buffet I’ve been to. Here’s the kicker, I bet 90% of these dudes don’t touch bread at home.
 
Buffets are a feeding frenzy, a total free for all. There is one rule here. Rule #5: there are no lines at the buffet. See something you like? Squeeze through the first timers who are standing behind each other, wistfully looking at the distant, disappearing, pile of fried eggs. And while they are doing that, take the last 6 pieces of bacon. Not because you want 6 but to screw everyone else who wanted some.
 
Last year, Tomaz gave an impassioned pre race speech. “Of course it’s hard to be at the front. Do you think someone is just going to give it to you? No! You have to want it. You have to reach out and take it, like a man!” A race buffet is an extension of the race.
 
By 7, the fight for food and bus rows was over and the entire race caravan rolled out to the start under police escort. It’s unbelievable. Roads, even highways, are completely shut down, police everywhere, traffic backed up for ages. And yet the locals wave excitedly.
In the start town, we paraded through the city, stopped at one end, did a U-turn and headed back down the same road! Along the route were long red banners with Chinese characters. I didn’t pay much attention to them until I noticed some had English translations below. Standard stuff like ‘Great luck to all participants of the race’. And more head turning ones like ‘The race enlivens a city on the riverside. Joy and passion fly from every side.’ Or ‘Be warm and inviting. Show the true Chinese spirit.’ It simply makes me wonder what the untranslated banners stated.
 
The first stage of a race, especially one without an opening time trial, can be chaotic and nervous and full of crashes. Tomaz told us about a rider who broke both his wrists on the first day in two different crashes. Everyone is fresh, everyone thinks they can win and take the first yellow jersey. Everyone wants the money. Money? Yeah, there is half a million USD in cold, hard, cash on the line. A stage win is worth 7 grand. A day in a leaders jersey pays out one and a half. Honestly, why do you think anyone wants to do this race? So our goals for Stage 1 were to stay out of trouble, save energy, and see if we could put something together for Szymon, our sprinter.
 
The race began with a bang. A group of 15 attacked from the start line. Once it got brought back, another group of 10 went, which swelled to 25 when 15 more darted across the gap. I felt the altitude immediately. My HR shot to 170 bpm and stayed there. But you could tell everyone was struggling a bit. Guys would suddenly blow up and go backward. Or the pace would be super high for 5 minutes, then slow and no one would counter. I could hear guys puffing behind me. It was a pleasant confirmation.
 
The stage ended in a bunch sprint even though the breakaway got a 7-minute advantage. Ben and Szymon were pinched in the final kilometer and only rolled in for 30th. But no one crashed. In fact, I didn’t hear a crash all day. That’s got to be a good sign for the remaining 12 stages.
 
Back on the bus and back to Duoba. I managed to find the best seat on the bus. It’s the second row. It has great leg room and a perfect spot to prop them up. The Malaysian team has resorted to using their van during transfers which has freed space up. But the fight for the prime rows will continue, especially for the long, post race transfers.
 
1 down, 12 to go.
 
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