It’s almost over. The Arabian Odyssey is to come to an end. One of the single most intense experiences of my life is about to be abruptly interrupted by a 3am wake up call and a drive to Muscat airport for a 5.55am flight to Doha. Then onto Sri Lanka for a stopover, on the way to Malaysia for the ten-day Tour de Langkawi.
It’s non-stop, this pro cycling thingy…
Let’s get the last two days over and out of the way before I start pontificating and meandering, shall we? Because I feel like I could write all night. The adrenalin, the buzz, the noise, the speed, the aches and the pains, the wide-eyed fear, the beauty and the Heineken, they’re all surrounding and invading and escaping in no particular order and only Eddy knows when in the heck I’m gonna calm down from all this.
Stage 5, up to Green Mountain, one of the most intensely boring bike rides I have ever experienced – except for the last 17km. A small break got away almost from the gun and from there until that fateful 17km to go point we minced it up the mountain like a collective giant sloth. Had you been listening carefully you might have heard our outrageously long nails scraping over the Omani asphalt. Jeez it was painful. My butt ached, my back ached, it all ached.
Usually we go so fast that the aches aren’t even worth noticing. Not that day.
4 hours 48 minutes for 160km, average 33.2km/hr. Not slow at all for a club run, especially considering it was uphill all day, but this wasn’t a club run. And then the maelstrom hit. The calm shattered. The beast appeared and, adorned in a headband and a Guns & Roses tank-top, it was quite obvious that it was ready to rock, and rock hard.
Katusha (Rodriguez), Liquigas-Cannondale (Nibali) and Radioshack-Nissan-Trek (Velits) powered the peloton out from a roundabout that took us onto the road before the 6km Green Mountain climb as though their entire families had been kidnapped by a Honduran paramilitary death squad that had huge bets on the approach being the world’s fastest, ever. I am not sure how I held on. I am proud I did, but I am honestly amazed, because I have never even come close to that kind of relentless 11km effort before.
In the midst of it I worked out in the wind along the edge of the pack to get my teammate Jai Crawford up nearer the front, but I could only manage to get him from the back to the mid-point of the peloton. Then I drifted inexorably back to just latch onto Jeremy Hunt’s (Team Sky) wheel and, believing I was last of the race and not wanting to be first off, I fought for all I was worth. I made it. The pace slackened as the road finally reared up. I’d never been so thrilled to see a climb before.
The pack splintered from there and I just dug in and pushed. The first 2km were 10%, the third 12% and then finally it leveled slightly at 6% for the next kilometer. Popovych (Radioshack) was chasing and up ahead my ‘nemesis’ from Champion Systems dangled. Then up again, the final 2km at 13%.
Again I dug in. I reminded myself that though this was hurting, it was nothing compared to the climb I did in Taiwan just 5 weeks ago. Zero meters to 3275m over 90km. The final 2km kick up at an average of 17%. Now, that is a climb. So, 6km? Nothing…
Ah, bravado is a wonderful thing after the fact huh?! That 6km hill kicked my ass, and that’s the truth. Still, I was (probably too) happy to have come in in 42nd place….
Cycling is, more than most sports, very much to do with the power of the mind. I mean, why do we go out and murder ourselves on a daily basis? Most people would see the kind of insane efforts involved in this sport and judge them to be, well, insane.
So, why? I haven’t got an answer for everyone. I have one for me though. I consider the greats of this sport, Merckx, Anquetil, Coppi, Hinault et al, to be akin to the great explorers throughout history, the men who clamber up impossible peaks, trek to the Poles, solo great oceans, go to the moon. It’s just that the legends of cycling conquer the lands within. They, and for that matter everyone who has won, say, Paris-Roubaix, battered themselves, steeled mind and body for that supreme effort of the will, expressed through the tool (the bike) and the vessel (the body).
The cumulative effect of all of that meticulous preparation, and of that incredible command of themselves that they achieved, all of that was communicated to all who witnessed their feats. They are truly artists, in my opinion, the road their canvass.
I would not even stop to consider myself in the same breath as those athletes, nor many of those I raced against this week. Yet essentially, this is also why I ride. The bike serves as an expression of my will. It allows the tiny, minute black dot that could be defined as my soul, loitering as it does within this cavernous universe, to be heard.
Even if only for a nanosecond.
I don’t like to quote too much but I read this rather wonderful paragraph last week in Bryce Courtenay’s novel, The Power Of One (Ballantine Books), which, if you will allow, I’ll bore you with here:
The Power of One is above all things the power to believe in yourself, often well beyond any latent ability you may have previously demonstrated. The mind is the athlete; the body is simply the means it uses to run faster or longer, jump higher, shoot straighter, kick better, swim harder, hit further, or box better. Hoppie’s dictum to me, “First with the head and then with the heart,” was more than simply mixing brains with guts. It meant thinking well beyond the powers of normal concentration and then daring your courage to follow your thoughts.
‘Daring your courage to follow your thoughts…’. Isn’t that awesome? I will attest, I still cannot face a pack sprint, and I want to drop out at some point in just about every race I do — my courage wavers something rotten — but I like this, the idea Courtenay captures in these few words.
Last stage! Broke away at KM Zero with three other guys and was sure we would be zipping onto the final 7km circuit with the cheers of the crowds along Muscat’s seafront ringing in our ribcages but, alas! It wasn’t to be. Nibali wanted to try to get his second back at the sprint point (no chance Vincenzo! Why’d you have to ruin my day in the sun?!) and sent his Lime Greenie Meanies to the front where they just let us sit 30 seconds off the front for 45km in the wind. Not nice.
Onto the circuit, 6 laps to be ridden, the pace was mostly manageable. I decided that on the last lap I’d sit up with 1km to go. I was so far back on GC it didn’t matter, and I wanted to just savor the end of this epic race and these quite amazing last two weeks. Amidst all the frenetic riding, the near-crashes and the heat of it all, I wanted a moment to myself.
I saw the winner fling his arms aloft, I took in the crowd, I looked out over the sparkling Arabian Sea, and smiled a little smile to myself.
The 2012 Tour of Oman. Done. Dusted.
17 years after stopping racing as a junior in England and traveling and working around the world, Lee Rodgers started cycling again 4 years ago “to lose a bit of weight” and now rides for UCI Continental team, RTS Racing Team, based in Taiwan. He works full-time as a journalist and part-time as a cyclist.