The people hollered and cheered as we careened through the capital’s streets, an invited army in trade colors, various colored helmets and shoes of brilliant hues — some bodies black and some gone blue, yet still we shocked those looking on, so mighty was the sheer speed of our roaring phalanx, rising to over 60km per hour on the weary, battered road. Vibrant. Alive. Hurting. The sound of voices, freewheels and shifters reverberated from the walls of the valley of shops and office blocks, homes and empty lots. Adrenalin exploded into the collective cortex, the scent of the kill flared nostrils already forced wide by the demand for oxygen. Blood pumped, hearts thumped and we, exhausted after 1023km in 6 days, commanded our bodies to rage one last time.
We were obeyed. For one last kilometer.
The breakaway had gone away early on the 196km stage and in it was not only Shinichi Fukushima (Terengganu) who sat in seventh, 2:42 behind the leader Yusup Abrekov (Suren Team) but my teammate Jai Crawford (RTS Racing), who started the day in second, just 21 seconds off the lead. Five others made up the escapees.
Had Suren intended to let them go? No way. This was a huge screw up. Fukushima was riding better than I’d seen him all season, having done most of the driving in the break I’d been in the day before, doomed though it was. Shinichi looks a tad odd off the bike, a monster on it, hunched over, hands on the drops, his squat legs pounding the pedals relentlessly in a huge gear no matter the profile of the road.
Crawford was also going well, having taken the sprint on stage 2 from a five-man break, despite being a climber and slight of build.
When they went they went so hard that once the gap was established there was no one capable of jumping across. That they had the power, those five, to even get away was quite remarkable. The first hour had been a succession of attacks and chases that were the fiercest of the week, the pack full of aching legs and questionable wills but still desperate enough to ride itself into the ground. We covered 48km in that first hour alone. No one dare drop back for bidons.
The heat increased, as did the lead, but not immediately. It sat at 30 seconds after 10km and hovered there for what seemed an eternity. Some riders tried to jump, but Suren chased them down, desperate not to give the men up front added firepower. The Aisan team’s riders then began to launch attacks, one after the other like a string of firecrackers tossed onto the road.
Murmurs went through the pack. What were the Aisan riders doing? They had one man up the road and though he was no threat to the GC, they had Yasuharu Nakajima in third on the GC at 23 seconds. Surely it would be better for them to case the break with Suren and have Nakajima attack later?
The Suren riders were tired, exhausted from five days of protecting Abrekov’s lead and sick of these Japanese riders trying now to break them. The shouting began. The rhythm of the chase slacked then fell apart completely. The leaders’ time gap grew up to near three minutes. Tempers flared. One Suren guy rode up to an Aisan rider and grabbed him by the back of the neck and shook him near off his bike. The Japanese guy retaliated, racing to the Uzbeki to remonstrate.
All of this would be unknown to the leaders, who up ahead would be drilling it. Had they known — had they had radios — they’d have buried themselves even deeper at this moment to exploit the infighting spreading like a disease behind them.
Finally the blue jerseys of Aisan began to work. Still, there was very little inroad into the gap to the leaders. With 50K to go they still had 2:45. It didn’t seem much and surely, in this heat, they’d crack eventually. But up there were some of the strongest guys in the pack. Men in form, riding like trains, steaming to Kuala Lumpur and that thin white line of release, of redemption. A line that dangled the promise of glory or the blur of anonymity. A raised salute or a feeble ‘Nice try’ and a pat on the back…
The last KOM came 18km from the finish but it was not enough to separate the top 20 guys in the chase from the rest, though it did break the tail of the peloton. We hit the highway before entering the city proper. Fifteen kilometers to go and the lead was still sizable, some 45 seconds. From my position near the front of the chasers I could see a distant silhouette ahead, a rider from the break dropped. As we passed I looked across at him. He was shredded, dried up as old lemon peel. I’ve been there. Spent for nothing. Discarded, ejected, left to struggle alone against the wind, each kilometer longer than the last, each pedal turn a shovel scraping an empty barrel.
Worst of all, no one remembers the effort but you.
Last ten, another rider dropped. The 5km to go sign and we’re in the city proper, hardly a cyclist I’d reckon amongst the crowds but still they cheer, excited by the speed and the colors yet unaware of where we are physically and mentally, right now every one of us so far gone from the reality of these onlookers. They, in the sun, enjoying the delights of the city, sipping a latte, feet aching a little from a kilometer or two stroll in the shopping mall. We, in our caves, arses falling to pieces, hands numb, many with raw flesh grating against fabric, eyes buried in skulls, thirsting for cold liquid, thirsting for the end to come.
And what of those up ahead? One I can see, it’s Crawford. Perhaps Shinichi was caught and I missed it? One kilometer to go. Usually I drift to the back here to stay safe but I have to see this. My God. Is he going to do it? With the time bonus?
Eight-hundred meters to go. The road is bad, rutted and lumpy, riders are bouncing all over the place. I have to stand on the pedals to see ahead. Four-hundred meters and I see a right turn, 90 degrees. Still Crawford dangles, but now just 200m to go and still he has maybe three seconds, but….
They catch him, 30 meters from the line. An incredibly close call, a brave ride. The pack, though, is seldom denied… And then I see Shinichi, just after the fire trucks and the riders gathered in the cooling spray. His arms are up. Teammates are congratulating him.
He hung on. He won the stage, by three measly seconds!
Kudos, Shinichi. Huge, huge respect.
Abremov was a worthy overall winner; Crawford finished second and Nakajima third. Shinichi won two stages and his Terrenganu teammates another three. I finished 19th on the GC.
The average speed on the final stage was 45.3 kph, for 199.5km covered in four hours twenty-four minutes.
Over and out from Jelajah Malaysia!
Editor’s Note: Seventeen years after stopping racing as a junior in England and traveling and working around the world, Lee Rodgers started cycling again four years ago “to lose a bit of weight” and now rides for the UCI Continental team RTS Racing Team, based in Taiwan. He works full-time as a journalist and part-time as a cyclist.