Thatʼs not a word you would normally associate with the fierce and furious world of bike racing, not with all the hustling and bustling, the jostling and the bombasting, the razor-sharp attacks and (sometimes) even sharper egos. Calm is not, if itʼs not obvious enough, a state that lingers long over any peloton. Nerves get shredded. Tempers get frayed. Dreams get slain. Souls get crushed.
The pack is called ʻthe packʼ for a reason — collectively weʼre hunting, and yet, paradoxically, every individual is potential prey. The Cannibal? Man, we all love the taste of rider meat!
And yet… there are these moments. Ephemeral, fleeting, there but not there like threads of gossamer swaying on the wind, invisible to the non-cyclist yet so very real to those who kneel at the shrine of Eddy. Moments when you stop wishing that the guy in front would just zip his damn flapping jersey up, forget about the crick in your neck and the boil on your arse. Your legs move without command, your hands nestle on the bars like you were born with them in your grip, carbon rims hum and you know, without being too fussed about the whole thing, that you have The Flow.
Itʼs prime time, amigo, and it rocks.
I had it at times on stage 4, had it more often than I would have dared ask for. Myself and fellow old boy Shinichi Fukushima (Terengganu) broke free about 35km into the 127km stage. With a tailwind and a peloton eager to let a small break go, we quickly built a one-minute lead. Shinichi is a true warrior of the road, a very classy rider and even nicer human being who is genuinely liked by just about everyone. Heʼs also The Breakaway Kid. Iʼve never seen someone go so often, so regularly, and with such gleeful abandon.
If he were a superhero he would be The Bran Flake.
So, you know how great it is to ride with a good friend? Well this was just like that. From the get-go I knew that whether we were fighting for the win at the end, got caught with three-to-go, or even if I got dropped along the way, this would be one to remember.
Back to the action. With a good minute-and-a-half lead and our tails a-fluttering like little peacocks in season, we hit a left-hander and a cross-wind the likes of which even a granite-hard Belgian would nod in admiration.
Wham. And I donʼt mean the effeminate 80s pop band-type of Wham either.
So hard and so side-on was this banshee that we actually rode side-by-side, right next to each other, just for one of us to get some kind of protection, scant though that was. We were leaning into it close to, I donʼt know, 15-20 degrees.
After 10km of this, and somehow with our lead extended to three minutes, we saw a right turn ahead. Should be a tailwind, we think. We struggle up there and turn and… headwind! It was just crazy, disheartening and damn irritating at the same time, but still we plowed on, swapping over and grinding it through the swirl like we were on a 7% gradient in the big ring. Yet still our lead grew, up to over four minutes with 90km gone.
Difficult an effort as it was, I was finding myself lost in it all. The Flow. Body and mind melding, the wind doing its thing, Shinichi and me switching off without elbow flicks, organic, dependent upon one another to manage even 30km/hr at times. It was us against them, in awful conditions. I thought of Oates and Shackleton out on the ice, lost in the driving snow, doomed, perhaps, but still marching on, labored step after labored step.
With 30km to go, finally we got a break and a tailwind, and still had just under four minutes. Might we do it? I was tiring fast. Each pedal turn now sent a little buzz to the thighs. Despite the cold I needed to spray my face with water just to freshen up. Shinichi had been here hundreds of times; me not so many.
With 20km to go and we had three minutes. You know the pack is frothing behind like rabid stallions reared on rider meat. And damn, they be hungry.
Fifteen to go. Only… 15…. So where was that steep, windy climb that Iʼd been told about? That might just maybe give us that cat in hellʼs chance? Whatʼs this long, wide drag doing here? This near-Champs Elysées piece of junk thatʼs going allow the pack to truly rage on up?
Yeah, any excuse, I hear you thinking, and I concur. We got caught with about 6km to go. I did get some sprint and KOM points out of it but I also blew my GC chances by dropping off the back with about 4km to go. However, no point putting on your best dress if youʼre not going dance, right?
Thanks though to Shinichi; it was a pleasure to see a master at work.
That night I rushed back from dinner to watch the highlights on ESPN. There we were, strutting our stuff. I didnʼt hear much of the commentary though, as I was laughing and yelling, “Go on!” as though we might actually make it all the way through.
What else has been going on? Lots, but Iʼm running out of words, so onto stage 5.
This was also a very sweet day, as we started at Taichung City Hall, which is three minutes from my office, and finished in the cityʼs Metropolitan Park, where I train at least twice a week. Last year my team missed this race and I couldnʼt even manage to go see it, I was so gutted not to be in it. To make matters worse, on every ride since up two of my favorite training climbs I have had to go over the spray-painted ʻKOMʼ lines.
Yet all that was laid to rest today. Despite a horribly fast and fractured first 40km, the race finally came back together as we approached Favorite Training Climb No. 1. Three guys were up to road, but I led the pack up the first half, purely driven by adrenalin and the sense of smiting last yearʼs injustice. We headed down a descent I must have done 100 times, and, like one of those annoyingly smarmy preppy boys that sells those veggie slicers on those infomercials, I shredded that downhill like mature cabbage! The attack had no meaning whatsoever and it did cost me some energy — you could say it was showboating, if you were in the mood. I was soon gathered into the peloton on the ensuing flat, but damn, it felt good.
We caught the leaders with about 7km to go, and, knowing the coming hill well, I got to the front before the 90-degree left turn. Having knowledge of the hill was a massive bonus as I hit the steepish beginning in the small ring and could maneuver through those falling back in too big a gear. A TPT guy attacked, then another. We caught them and then I tucked in behind the Drapac boys at the front as they chased Nutrixxionʼs Dirk Muller, he of the cellophane-covered muscles (I am not joking, the dude is made of Tungsten), and as the 4km sign came and then the three and then the two and still I hung on in fourth place, I had a sense that this might just be the very first time I take part in a real sprint.
And it was. And I was 11th. And thatʼs ok. Iʼm anything but a sprinter, and Iʼll be honest, its the fear that stops me from getting up there, but today was a big step to correcting that.
Old dogs and new tricks, donʼt mix they say? Woof! I say. Thanks for reading.
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. Check out Lee’s previous diary entries