I’d prefer to open the season with a smaller local race surrounded by my local cyclocross family, get comfortable with my skills, find a grip on my nerves, and have a feel for the flow of a cross course before it becomes paramount that I’m in tune with it. There is something to be said however about diving straight in, at an upper level event, in a foreign country, with a group of riders who you mostly are unfamiliar with to shake the cobwebs out.
The trip to China is a spectacle as much as it is a race destination. It’s definitely less stress inducing to be returning, having experienced the ordeal previously and holding the golden ticket of a ten year visa so as to not have to deal with the effort and cost of acquiring another. The hours of travel is still a plight to contend with, this year made a bit more hefty with venues and host cities far exceeding the realm of previous years locations. Notably each event was in the complete opposite direction from each other and our original flight destination of Beijing. Still, anytime I'm out on the world experiencing new things I'm generally excited, having bikes be a part of it and good friends along makes even the longest travel day tolerable.
The initial 24 hours it took me to get to China was then compiled with a ten hour drive north. Few things weigh on one heavier than facing an impossibly long drive in a bus traveling around a whopping 35 miles an hour. The first race happened without hitch, we checked into our rooms, in my case discovered my roommate was my new Holland based friend from the bus ride, built our bikes and went out to check out the course. The following day was the first race and while the smog levels were low and the hot temperatures weren’t too extreme, the wind was whipping and inch or so of rain that we received that night didn’t prevent the dust from flying.
The race course was like the others I had experienced in China, made specifically for the event, never really used before, a bit narrow, featuring oddly shaped and elaborate flyovers, and a powdery dirt that quickly became soft in the corners. This course was mostly flat with three severe climbs up the man-made cliff-side. The first was immediately off the start stretch, the second shortly after, and the final shorter pitch was at the end of the lap leading into the finish line; essentially three in a row. The other half of the course was permeated by three sets of flyover stairs and one set of barriers.
The start caught me off guard as I was expecting the traditional “30 seconds” call that never came after the one minute warning. I was washed back quickly but the start was clean and the girls stayed safe as we clawed our way up the first 60 foot climb. I definitely didn’t have the oomph needed to move up much and the heat and shock of an extended period of high heart rate rapidly began to feel overwhelming. Regardless my result was reasonable, rounding out the top ten and securing those precious UCI points I showed up to hunt for.
After the race it was an immediate rush to pack and load bikes on the buses before dinner. We were out of the hotel and traveling by daylight the next morning although any amount of travel movement usually took an excessive amount of time to get into motion. The next three days was a blur of bus and rest stops, weird highly processed foods, and sightseeing at resort locations built to showcase the country. Despite the eerily feeling that we were the test subjects for the showcase, most of the sights were incredible. The hotels, state houses, and resorts had something of an isolated feel, much staff with few visitors, dreamlike playgrounds with no families, guards with no threats, and massive infrastructure construction with an insignificant number of tourists. The Great Wall is awe inspiring in every sense and this year it was a treat to be in a location not saturated with visitors even if the majority of the surrounding tourist infrastructure was in the process of being created.
We arrived at our final destination hotel and resort in the mining town of Fengfeng at the Xiangtangshan Senic Area and historical site. We built our bikes and had the option to (finally) ride. I was feeling less than optimal after all the travel and lackluster rest and nutrition and couldn’t muster the energy. I was nearly incoherent as we passed out, a very unfamiliar sensation for me. The nights rest was shattered by the mandatory choice of extreme room heat or sleeping with the lights on, I’d preferred lights while my roommate preferred heat. After a while or trying to decipher why on earth the lights would not turn off I gave up and resigned to no sleep. As nearly every room experienced the same issues, there was a lot of grumblings at the morning coffee line.
The course was a near spin from the hotel and I joined a few other Americans to spin along a mostly constructed road that followed the curvature of the mountainside the hotel and park was located below. After the exploring a mountain drainage system and the crumbling village adjacent to it, we took a few dusty tight turns around the cross course. This track was crammed into a small gulch along some sort of tourist center, much of it had been dug out of the hillside and was full of sharp rocks, powdered dirt, possibly an active septic line, and one strange shaped ramp of a downhill flyover and two sets of side by side elongated stairs.
By evening I was feeling downright uncomfortable, food was unappetizing and I felt anything but rested. We had managed to recruit the hotel electrician to unplug our recessed ceiling full send nightlight thanks largely to our neighbors a few doors down getting electrocuted by their door panel. When we called it a night I was awake shortly after emptying whatever was in my stomach into the toilet. The remaining night was spent between hot sweats and shivering spells, joint aches and intense headaches. The race was only a few hours away when I pleaded for my “team” mom to come save me with her doctors bag of medications.
I made the last five minutes of breakfast fully loaded with every anti be sick drug out there to choke down a piece of toast. Not ideal but amongst the French fries and garlic cabbage it was a safer bet. I couldn’t bear the thought of not lining up but the thought of lining up and sucking was pretty hard to take too. My unofficial team mom (and official doctor) said there was a chance if I pushed it in the race in the heat I could end up worse so I got ready and went to see how I felt.
I don’t think there have been many occasions I show up to a race as if I wasn’t going to be racing. I barely slept, wasn’t hydrated, hadn’t had dinner or breakfast, didn’t warm up, and didn’t get the course dialed. I rolled on to the start line and went straight to the back of the field, at least I was ready for the whistle this time. I went back and forth with another racer for a while, her technique was questionable so it was good practice to work on getting around multiple times.
I was actually having fun on the course but definitely not feeling strong and after an attempt to out run her on one of the longer sets of stairs and feeling my stomach clench up I slowed down and let her go. I rolled to a full stop in the pits a couple times for water and opted to keep rolling even though I was getting lapped since I was incredibly still in the money. It was humbling to be cheered on when I wasn’t really going hard and at the finish line I felt bad to be around all the sprawling girls with end of race heat exhaustion and fatigue. I didn’t have any of that. I rolled back down to the pits to change, recover, and help out with the boys race. I was seeing sparkles when I stood up but it was manageable. When we got back to the hotel it was time to clean up and head to the closing banquet. The food there didn’t help me out any.
It was sad to begin to say goodbye to my new friends but for those on our bus we had another ten hours to bond. If I ever see the inside of a bus again it will be too soon. The drive was long and slow again but the company was good and occasionally hilarious as boredom and frustration of being cooped up on transportation for the 39thhour of the week took over. The flight back was equally as long but otherwise less stressful, with my “’team” being good companions. Taking the train back to Golden was simple and didn’t feel as long as it took besides deciding that it wasn’t actually going to go all the way to Golden and everyone had to get off early and wait for another. The car started up and I made it home with a fresh appreciation for clean air, healthy food, and the freedom to train as I need to.
Next year (if there is one) I’ll be bringing a squeeze bottle of soap in addition to hand sanitizer, a jar of peanut butter, more Enduro Bites, a Costco size bag of jerky, and at least one tuna packet per day if not two. It was a bummer to loose out on an entire other week of training since the Breck Epic but I'm sure once racing gets underway fully I'll barely notice it.