Ideally you wouldn’t kick the season off with an upper level race, there would be some time to work the kinks out of the bikes, smashing them around a local event or on a few trails to get all the ins and outs dialed. Usually the first thing to go is any bolt tightened to the manufacturers spec, surely those numbers don't account for the crazy that is cyclocross. Anyone who has ever followed the designated torques likely and startlingly discovers this fact when various bike component suddenly shift locations as soon as the heightened stress of the first few competitive pedal strokes get thrown down.
But as the beginning of the cyclocross season correlates with the conclusion of basically every other competitive industry subtype; who can blame folks for wanting to celebrate the glory that is being outdoors on two wheels with the wind in your hair in the more pleasant summer months? Alas, the preparation (or at least mine) to get the machines running is often rushed and rather hasty.
Still rolling on the conclusion of the summers highs and lows, still carrying fatigue from the mountain bike stage race earlier that month, I was regardless eager to get the cyclocross season underway. For the first time I was leading the charge for the trip to China, I had gathered a diverse group that spanned our country for the application and prepared them with what had thrown me the year before: an excessive amount of travel time, food that didn’t quite make my system happy, and an itinerary that resulted in a near absence of freedom for training.
While the “hardships” of the previous years China trip seemed to have discouraged many of the Americans from returning for the current year, I come for the uniqueness of lining up with a field of girls whose abilities I mostly have no concept of in circumstances potentially uncomfortable for us all. In essence we are all on level ground in that regard and I find a pureness to that competitive setting. The ensuing friendships that comes from sharing the experience of this relatively closed environment over the period of ten days is significant and cherished.
Despite the many first time introductions within our group, our crew hit it off from the beginning. We were combined with most of the other English speakers and three grumpy French guys on to the one gold colored bus. Having a newer model set of wheels (read working air conditioning), a young translator who was intelligent, compassionate, and kind, and a bus driver who had a sense of humor set the stage for the nearly 40 total hours of driving to be way less stressful than the previous year.
There were a few mishaps with other buses breaking down requiring us to unceremoniously take up camp on the side of a highway but notably bathroom stops were not the degree of desperation I was prepared for. The mood was light and anyone dozing off was guaranteed to be awakened to periodic shouts of collective laughter. We had brought enough snacks and reading material to get us through the days of ten hour stints on the road when adequate food and any form of entertainment wasn't easy to come by.
The race courses featured thin tape stretched between bamboo poles set in a dry, rocky, dusty base and a few awkward man made add ons to the tune of flyovers, stairs, and extensive hillside excavation. Workers lined the course picking out small rocks, preparing the tv coverage, moving dirt, pulling weeds. Hundreds of small pots of fresh carnations adorned the start stretch and any local with a cell phone shamelessly pointed it in the direction of the odd non-Chinese people to snap photos.
A venture next door to the BMX track bore witness to the same display of hundreds of potted carnations, albeit succumbing to the struggle from the few weeks of neglect since that event has been hosted. Colorless, dry, and dead, the flowers still held their post with the air of fleeting pomp and circumstance; telling the unspoken tale of venues showcased and then forgotten about in rapid succession.
My perception of China is that there is a lot of manpower available and perhaps a few less directions that manpower can take itself. Many of the tasks you witness being performed as you travel through the country are massive undertakings that almost appear frivolous in their excessiveness: literally moving an entire mountain to create a flat parking lot, planting thousands of fruit trees on the hillsides of an inhospitable, rocky and barren landscape, grand scale carving of tunnels for elevated roadways where the current flow of traffic is barely existent, or building a massive upscale tourist resort with few to no guests.
This feel carries over to the race courses; we arrived to crews trying in vain to roll the course with a paving machine. The dirt is dry and powdery so this resulted in a thin crust that would give way with the passage of tires while progressively and inconsistently get deeper where you least expected it. The courses were overrun with goat-heads, the little evil seeds that grow in the form of a creeper vine and puncture tires in multiple locations. The flyovers were covered in carpet which in a twist of fate removed the seeds from wherever we were picking them up and deposited them in clusters likened to mine fields waiting for you to remount your bike on their perilous offerings.
The open sewage drainage we were traversing on the second course had been redirected but the flyovers that appear to be permanent landscape fixtures featured less transition where you wanted it: the landings were harsher and the approaches full of undulating brake bumps. The base of the imposing staircase specifically built for the race was dusty puddles of powdered dry dirt hiding loose rocks. These fast downhill approaches that consistently led into any dismount were primed for twisting an ankle or another unceremonious termination of your momentum.
This year there was a running race on the first course the day before, parents and (very young) children in pairs donned bib numbers, gathered up in a huge group with much raving over the loudspeaker and then ran from the BMX track along the rough road to the cyclocross course, did a lap (minus the insane climb) and finished at our finish line. It had to have been over a kilometer, ending near a giant inflatable Pikachu. While there were some tears and a few fits, it was oddly impressive those very little, (presumably) less athletically exposed kids were completing the entire loop.
There is an air of desperation that floats over the staff on this trip, I can't imagine that herding athletes with over 16 represented nationalities is anything but easy. The crew in charge works for the China sports association, the goal seems to be building up the credibility of sport in China. They don't field any of their own riders for the UCI race but they do usually hold an amateur race earlier in the morning for local men and women and the few traveling staff wanting to stretch their legs.
From what we can gather, the translators assigned to us are generally students who are required to perform a degree of "community service" to add to their "social points" status. Our translator this year was a foreign policy and economics student who dubbed herself "Kelly" for the sake of us butchering the pronunciation of her given name.
To a degree the two host towns seem in part responsible for bringing the race to their location. Banquets at each appear to feature presentations from political leadership and historical cultural representation. It’s difficult to decipher what is actually taking place within the cavernous banquet hall overwhelmed with an obscenely loud PA system, blinding stage lighting, lack of ventilation, dance performances, and a never ending influx of mystery foods. Between extensive self-congratulatory announcements, over the top accolades, and a stream of ceremonious appreciation for seemingly everyone and everything, mandatory gifts are exchanged and drinking commences.
The first race in Aohan Station appears to be part of the development of a massive sports resort - in an area that seems devoid of people who would have any interest and far from any large population center. The second location, Fengfeng Station hosts a pop concert in conjunction to the race and brings out thousands of school children in matching T shirts and bob haircuts to perhaps further their ability to speak English. The children prepare "interview" questions and are set loose in the venue. Getting mobbed by groups of 30 look alike children at a time asking the same five questions in the midst of race preparation can border on overwhelming.
There is a tourist component to this trip, in previous years we were let loose on the Great Wall which is a personal highlight of the week, this year we stayed in the bustling and congested city of Chengde to experience some temples built in the Qing dynasty in the 1700's. It was unique but it was not the Wall; the vastness, severity, marvel, and a few breaths of cooler non-polluted air is a welcome reprieve to the rest of the trip.
They feed us a variation of local food, my take is that they are trying to westernize what they offer us so that we will perhaps like it: French fries and oily spaghetti for breakfast, exceptionally highly processed bread, miles of cooked vegetables smothered in greasy sauces. There's plenty of meat which I won't touch and also hot water.... with no tea. Salt can be asked for but isn't generally offered, the rule is byo water bottle to meals or you will be drinking soda, and always sit at a table close to the bowl of watermelon if you want any.
The accommodations vary, a few hotels are beautiful, brand new, rarely used, well put together. Others are old and worn, elevators (think many massive bike cases) are sparse, the beds are generally rock hard. The rooms in nearly all the hotels require key cards to use the electricity, only one card is provided to the two occupants and the air conditioning is connected to the power supply. Some hotels are strangely built, designed to look fancy and upscale but with obvious flaws, single panes of glass on full faced walls facing the majority of the days sun, door panels that shock you when trying to enter, ventilation that allows unseen cigarette smoke in, and lights that stay on the entirety of the night.
I brought a few staples of food this year: a loaf of whole grain bread, a jar of peanut butter, packets of fruit and tuna. I managed to stay feeling healthy throughout the week which I contribute to less oily foods and sources of protein my system is accustomed to. We were able to get out on a few longer training rides which were fantastic opportunities to climb, explore, and see the realities of the area, but also for inhaling more smog than I likely ever have before in my life. That put a lot of the healthy feelings at bay but I was still appreciative of the exploration, the views, and the miles.
The racing went okay, I had a number of new equipment complications; parts moving, bolts needing tightening, and an unfamiliar pit crew. Otherwise I felt reasonable, not exceptionally strong but still competitive. I was able to make moves and hold them, ride well technically, avoid the goat heads, stay upright, and finish in the points. I feel that the folks in charge of the trip are aware of me now, a strange factor of relevancy but seemingly key to getting more quickly accepted (think more ticket buying options) when it comes to applying a following year.
Often when larger groups of single nationalities come over on this trip they hang together, using that time to bond with each other. I’ve always been a bit more flexible, enjoying the company of an ongoing variety of folks, appreciating the opportunity to see another perspective, and get to know new people. The relationships I’ve developed over the years of returning for this trip are well worth any stress it causes. This year there were so many laughs it was next level, I can’t speak for those French guys and I could have done without the three hours of sleeping on the bus in a rest area on the way to the airport (mandatory rest hours for the commercial drivers) but the trip was one to cherish and I’m stoked to plan it even better for next year.