As we rolled off the start line in Beijing, my legs ached from flying half way across the world, or from fatigue, or both. In early October, after eight months of racing, training and travel, I was worn out along with rest of the peloton. The nervous energy that sparks the barrage of attacks for the first hour of the race was absent.
From experience, I knew that within an hour my legs would again feel normal. The power I had during the finales of races a few weeks earlier would still be there. An uncomfortable start, some suffering, would force everything to run smoothly. Once my mind was free of late-season complacency, and jetlag, the power would return.
In the outskirts of Beijing the racing finally began. Two dozen riders attacked incessantly on a massive highway, in an attempt to break clear. Another team controlled the race to ensure only a small group that they could reel in with ease escaped. Everyone else sat in the slipstream, being sucked along at over 50 kilometers an hour. Like mystical mirages in a city congested with towers, the mountains appeared through the thick smog as we reached the outer limits of Beijing. The landscape was completely foreign to most of us. But we swiftly settled into a routine we know: the race. The European peloton in its entirety had been transported to China. On the road, the red jerseys of the Chinese National team were the only anomaly.
The contrasts to Europe were notable. Lured to the roadside by the government with packed lunches and brightly colored shirts, spectators enthusiastically encouraged us with pompoms and drums like trained high school cheerleaders. They were held back from the road by kilometers of barriers and caution tape. In areas where people were given more access, they crowded at the roadside in the thousands. But there, the eyes of uniformed policemen and military officers monitored their movements closely.
The roads were closed to traffic and policed as if the president’s motorcade was rolling through town. Every hundred meters or less a uniformed officer patrolled the course with his back to the race. Occasionally, I caught one turning his head to catch a glimpse the blazing peloton. But most kept their eyes fixed away from us as if the road they were protecting was a king’s castle. Everything seemed to be orchestrated with precision.
The courses were the safest we have ridden all season. There were no parked cars on the roads, the corners were well signalled and the retaining walls around dangerous corners were padded like a madman’s room. The tarmac was as smooth as a car track. The peloton sped along, virtually incident free. Only the chaotic charge for the finish brought crashes.
On wide-open multiple lane roads, the peloton surged to the line in a mess of movement. The selection that occurs after one team forces the tempo and thins the peloton into a line didn’t occur. The variables that usually force the peloton into a line were missing. There was no wind, no technical corners and the wide roads allowed complete teams to move to the front in seconds.
Without the buses, which are normally our rolling locker rooms, we crowded around vans after the stages. Although the peloton flowed freely over the smooth routes, the effects of the poor air quality were evident at the finish. With our bags piled on the curb, the team staff wiped down the thick grim on our faces and legs, as journalists asked questions and fans reached for used water bottles. We coughed up thick dirty phlegm, our eyes were bloodshot and each rider complained of a burning in his chest. The thick smog affected us all. The locals knew better. While on their bikes they wore dust masks.
In small towns cyclists transporting loads of sticks, bottles, mattresses or a multitude of other equally awkward and heavy cargo stopped and watched the race. Like in Europe, the race’s arrival momentarily suspended daily routines. Their smiles and cheers were enthusiastic.
In a country where everybody seems comfortable on a bike, the race was still something unique. The blur of color, the carnival-like atmosphere, drew people to the roadside. It was in stark contrast to the utilitarian cycling they know. Like the grandmother who rides to the market in France, they could identify with the emotion of riding a bike, which is what can lead to a profound understanding of the difficulty, the speed and the thrill of the race.
Twenty kilometres from the finish of the first stage, as we stormed towards the line through a tunnel of cheers, my legs felt good again.