In 2000 I had the opportunity to race Dragon Boats in China. I never thought I’d be lucky enough to go back, so I made the most of it. I took far too many photos, I had way too little sleep, I ran the streets during the early morning so I could soak up the atmosphere. I’m glad I did that, because although I’ve just returned from the first UCI Cyclocross race in that giant Country, it was a whistle-stop visit and I decided that to go all that way for one 40 minute race, I wanted to at least get to the start line in reasonable shape.
I describe China as living in someone’s acid trip. It’s big. Bigger than you’re thinking right now. If it isn’t neon or doesn’t flash, it’s not worth selling. It’s noisy. Fireworks are commonplace – during the day – maybe it was to celebrate the Moon Festival, maybe it’s a good time to get married, nevertheless, it’s not a good time to ride tubs (sewn on tyres that are a pain to remove/repair) in a Firecracker infested bike lane… Riding to the course one day for practice, what sounded like gunfire exploded just by us. Having taken shelter behind a bus, another ‘bang’ occurred almost underneath me, and I saw that a firecracker spark had blown up my tyre (a Dugast Rhino for anyone geeky enough to be interested).
With so much laughter, the event was like a giant team camp, with all competitors housed up in the same lovely hotel. With everything so new, so unknown, such early season, the atmosphere was relaxed, friendly – a chance to chat with the Dutch, Danish, Belgians, Australians and Americans.
Several riders had some difficulty adjusting to the local cuisine. Being vegetarian and having prior experience, I brought some of my own key foods. Flesh of a donkey and exploded lamb are not part of my usual pre-race meals.
However, once we started practice on the course, familiarity set in. Yes, it was 25 degrees Celcius, and yes, the track was bumpier than most of us were used to, but the bridges and stairs were of superb quality, and, let’s face it, a dusty corner is a dusty corner – wherever you are in the world.
My problem was tyre choice. I’d checked the weather for Beijing in the weeks leading up to the trip, and decided that it was likely to be warm and wet. This was good as I only own mud tyres. Beijing, being a behemoth of a city, was still over 2 hours away, and the race course was baked hard and dry. So, mud tyres at high pressure would reduce rolling resistance slightly, but would provide no relief from the relentless bumps. Grip was good, but the high pressure coupled with a super stiff bike and wheel set-up meant that the bike constantly skipped and flicked. It took a lot of concentration and energy to try to keep in contact with the ground, and the power on.
The racing was exciting. I hit the first corner first and lead for the first lap and a half. The lead then swapped a couple of times with the odd mistake being costly on such a fast track.
Luckily fellow Brit Adam Martin kindly allowed me to borrow one of his bikes as a spare after the Rhino/firecracker incident. Luckily for him, I didn’t need to borrow it as the race went without incident. Eventually, I came in 3rd, 10 seconds down on the leaders. I was happy. I moved up on my grid position, made very few mistakes, left it all out on track and had my very first international podium to look forward to.
If the opportunity arose again, would I go? Oh yes, I think so. I hope that the sport can grow in China – but I worry that by simply flying in riders from the rest of the world, local athletes may not get the grass-roots racing that’s needed to create a sustainable base. However, if China wants to grow the sport, I’m sure they can. They can certainly put on an excellent event.
I must take this moment to thank Simon Burney for the invitation, I really appreciated the opportunity. Adrian Fox and Nick Walling from British Cycling were incredibly helpful and inspired confidence. And thank you to Hope Technology (@Hopetech) for all the support – I love being part of #TeamGreen!
More photos on Instagram (ACracer)