Saturday, May 10, 2008

China! Finale...

The final day of the Jazz Apples Cycling Team's stay in China dawned clear and warm with just a hint of smog *cough*. After breakfast, briefing and all the usual pre-stage brouhaha, we rolled up to the start/finish to find a somewhat festive atmosphere - the crowds were bigger, the riders were pumped and the race crew all carried that last day of school feeling.

As everyone would be busy packing and rushing off at various times to many different races in all parts of the world after the race finish, people were busily swapping emails and phone/skype numbers and saying their fond farewells beforehand. As I've been lucky to find over the last few years, being a part of these events is often a bonding experience where good and lasting friendships can be forged, and I did my best to make it around as many of these friends as I could.

I especially noticed how keen the Chinese Race officials and UCI Commissaires made a special effort to move around the Teams to say goodbye - very much appreciated, especially when one of them presented me with his Chongming Tour cap! I'd been eyeing these extra-long-billed beauties up all race and was stoked to be given one...

Modelling my new cap

Below is the Team doing last minute prep for the stage

Note Susy redressing her mangled hip, Ruth marking the sprints onto med tape for her 'bars, and Malindi gurning just for a change...

A chance too to say so long to the Kraft-Genie-Champion Systems Team, as they...

...rolled to the start

Susy and Malindi plot and scheme prior to the start

Then it was time once more to jump into the cars. Chris was again driving, and I again jammed myself, my tools and a pair of wheels into the passenger seat, while Wo Mei and Mr Ding sat in the back.

Come in please Car 14, your time is up!

Today's stage was basically an extended rectangle of 73km on mainly narrow roads. Again, long straights dominated as we paralleled the motorway from stage 3 on the way out.

The crowds were as large and enthusiastic as ever along the parcours.

Then, just as we turned onto the long, straight and narrow Gaogang Road, a bridge caused a crash. Again, a laconic "Crash." came over Race Radio, so we knew it would be a foreign rider - from a long way away we could see it was a Jazz Apple, and as we drew nearer it became apparent that it was poor Susy who had gone down again.

It seemed like ten minutes passed as Chris tried to force our way through the taxi driver driven convoy to her, but by the time we got there she was up and riding. Chris pulled up alongside her and with a grimace she told us that she had gone down on her right hip again and yelled that our good luck bracelets weren't doing their job! I offered her water out of my window and tried to ascertain if her bike was okay as she picked up speed - it seemed to be fine, thank goodness.

She quickly tucked in behind the car so a concerned Chris could pace her back up to the peloton, but as soon as she did a motorbike cop/commissaire pulled up alongside her and gestured for her to pull off and for us to speed away. At 50kph, Susy effortlessly (it seemed to me) pulled out of our slipstream, and rode up alongside this guy to remonstrate with him. He was left in absolutely no doubt that Susy wasn't keen on the different standards applied to the foreign riders from the Chinese. I was scared enough in the car, but this guy was terrified! He decided discretion was the better part of valour and sped off back up to the safety of the bunch, as a furious Susy tucked in behind us again - a resolute Chris wasn't about to abandon her anyway...

The tension was palpable...

It seemed like no time before we were back at the tail of the convoy again, so Susy jumped away and worked her way through the cars back up the tail of the field. Lauren and Malindi later related that they were waiting at the rear of the field to help her out (initially they hadn't realised she'd stacked), but Susy steamed past without a word, rode straight through the entire field and attacked the the front of the race! Chris and I heard over the radio that a Jazz Apple was attacking, but could only guess that it was Susy. We took fierce delight whoever it was...

Believe it or not, this is supposed to be a shot of Susy convoy-hopping...

It had turned out that it was one of the Vietnamese girls who had just chopped Susy's wheel out from under her in a poor attempt to avoid crashing herself into the bridge parapet. Susy told us later she could see it coming but had nowhere to go to avoid it. Dammit!

Meanwhile the race continued alongside canals and past hamlets, as many attacks were launched against the Tour leader, though none succeeded.

It was amazing for me to see that women were washing clothes in this brown water, and it seemed that fishing was common too. I guess clean water is a relative thing...

Families turned out to watch the race pass

The scenery was quite lovely at times, although I longed for a hill to look at! Vast wheat fields dominated, but in June these would be harvested to make way for rice. We also saw several sugar cane fields.

Wheat fields

It was also fascinating to see that they seemed to be slowly culling all the old buildings to erect new faux-mansions everywhere. We saw disused schools and military bases, alongside hovels and vast new housing tracts, all jumbled up together in a random manner...

What the? What's going on?

A beautiful canal

At one stage of the stage, we were startled by a huge roar as we were buzzed by a military jet - another one passed over us, and then a third, before we realised we were driving alongside an extremely well camouflaged air force base and the jets were landing there.

The best shot I could get of one of these fast moving jets

Our motorbike friend takes a hike, stage left

The race continued with much furious activity - Chris and I could hear that the Jazz Apples were instigating or involved in almost every break - Ruth's number was called several times, and the other girls were mixing it as well by the sounds of it. As the race turned towards home our tension increased. We desperately wanted a break to stick, and we desperately wanted for there to be no more crashes - at least not involving us!

Up ahead, the peloton en masse

Suddenly, there it was - the finish line. The end of the stage and the 2008 Chongming Tour. It almost came off for Ruth again, only for the sprint to go to South Africa's Cherise Taylor as we were left rueing being chased down by an unnamed team that shouldn't really have been chasing...oh well, that's bike racing.

We gave the girls their post-stage water and rapidly the tension lifted to be replaced by relief and even some satisfaction. It was at this point that Susy discovered that her crash had jammed her brake against her wheel, so she'd raced 60km with her brakes rubbing! Still she was in the mix until the very last metres of this fiercely fought race. As I said before, she's damned tough!

Once our fleeting disappointment at not getting a result had passed, it was good to see how the South African's attacking attitude throughout the Tour had finally paid off with a stage win - a win that consolidated Cherise's Points Jersey. If we couldn't pull off a win ourselves, at least the stage went to a winner we could respect and admire. The Tour overall was won by China's Li Meifang of the GiantLenovo PRO Cycling Team.

A tired but delighted South African Team reflect

Wo Mei and I

We said many more farewells and adieus, before scooting back to the hotel for a final meal in the dining room. I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but 6 days of this food was quite enough! Then it was up to our rooms to pack. The girls packed their bikes then we all had showers and were bundled down to the bus at our allotted time, only to find that we had missed our ferry and had to wait for another due to the unsafe winds! For people accustomed to Cook Strait ferry crossings and Wellington winds, we were somewhat bemused as a gentle breeze barely ruffled the surface of the Yangtse River...

We took the opportunity for a quick beer (no such thing as white wine for poor Susy!) in the hotel lobby, and we took the chance to say thank you and good bye to Ruth, who was flying out to Australia later on. She is a pleasure to work with, and it's fantastic to see how quickly she's picking up the nuances of international road racing.

Before long it was time to jump aboard the ferry for the hour long crossing to Shanghai, then it was an hour and a half drive through crazy evening traffic to the newly opened Terminal 2 at Pudong Airport.

Our last view of Nanmen - our hotel the tallest building on Chongming

After the usual diabolically long wait to check in, we found ourselves sitting at a table in a cafe in the departure lounge, where we were finally able to chat and reflect on this extraordinary venture we'd been on.

Despite the racing not going our way, and despite the crashes and the pain the girls had endured, I think we all felt we had got something out of the trip.

Adversity can make or break bonds between teammates, and for us it had definitely shown that this group can and will work superbly together, and will also get along famously - a critical factor in creating a strong unit.

Despite Susy and Ruth having never raced together, they were already forming an understanding - one that will only get stronger as they shared experiences. Lauren showed that she can translate her World Championship medalist track abilities to be a fine roadie - her teamwork was exemplary. Despite not being at the top of her game through illness, Malindi showed her NZ Criterium Champion's class every day - making sure she was of great use to the Team until she could work no longer. And of course Susy showed all of her legendary skills and vast well of experience as NZ's most winning rider ever to guide and encourage the girls to perform to the best of their abilities. With more time together, and a full complement of riders, the US fields better watch out!

The general consensus was that we would definitely go back to the Tour of Chongming Island if invited. Louis from Champion Systems has already told us we'll have to fly out early to spend some time with him training in Hong Kong beforehand - I'm there! Our overriding feelings were that the race was a positive experience, and that we were looked after very well indeed. The hospitality and race organisation was first class, and our only real gripe could be that at times there were some parochial actions occurring from time to time that seemed a bit unnecessary.

I won't bore you with tales of the flight home, or the delight and pleasure I took in seeing my beautiful family again - suffice it to say that I loved this job, as I've loved every job I've done for Susy and Chris. I'm proud to be a Jazz Apple Cycling Team member...

Due to not wanting to spend three months away from my beloved family, and though I was proud and honoured to have been offered the chance, I recently declined to join the rest of the Team as they undertake their main focus of the year - the USA season.

Ruth, Lauren, Malindi, Susy and Chris will be joined at various times by Junior World Championships Team member, Emma Peterson, and Olympians Alison Shanks and Rosara Joseph will also be with them for some of the trip, as will the latest Jazz Apple signing, Australia's recent Track World's Scratch Race bronze medalist, Belinda Goss. Belinda won 2 stages of last year's Chongming Tour, so the team will have lots in common to talk about!

Ruth will be ducking out of the Team to ride for Australia in the tough Montreal round of the UCI Women's World Cup - a big coup for her, and great to see the Australian Federation recognising her vast talent and potential.

The Team will be doing many of the US and Canada's most prestigious tours and road races. Among others, they'll be doing the Mt Hood Classic, Philly, Manhattan Beach GP, Nature Valley and BC Superweek, among many others.

I wish the Jazz Apples Cycling Team all the very best on this Great Adventure, and will try to relay some of their feats as best I can.

Thanks for bearing with me on this long and protracted saga. I've enjoyed reliving it. Cheers, Oli

Susy's Genius Squadra...

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