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 CCN Cycling Team, based in Taiwan. He works full-time as a journalist and part-time as a cyclist.
GRESIK, Indonesia (VN) — After three days of racing at the UCI Tour de East Java, my CCN Cycling Team and I found ourselves up in rarefied air at the beautiful Surabaya Tawas Resort, nestled away in the highlands above the capital city of this dry little island, just one of the thousands that make up the Indonesian archipelago.
I’m up in the stratosphere in new pastures in another sense too, as, with just one stage left of the race I am sat in second position on the GC, just seven seconds off the lead. Never been so close to the race lead and yet, if ever there was a truer maxim, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, baby. And there’s no more stubborn and determined group of folk than pro bike racers, all determined to fight ‘til the end, all determined to kick the crap out of each other, just because, well, that’s what we do.
After a miserable journey to get to the start (arrived at Surabaya Airport at 12 a.m., then was driven in a tin box for five hours with the AC on full blast up a winding, rutted “road” to some resort at 2,500 meters, to be greeted by the race organizers, all wearing wooly hats, ankle-length jackets and gloves, and me in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops and miles away from being even remotely amused), we finally kicked off the race with an 80km leg buster.
Everyone had looked in the book at the flat profile, the short distance and thought, “pfffft!,” but then the race just took off, as they tend to do here in Asia. It’s a completely different style than in Europe or the USA, with a greater sense of the unexpected. It’s kind of fun, though, not knowing what’ll happen next. On that day, what happened was attack after attack until a group of 10 got clear, and luckily I was in the escapees.
Roland Yeung of Hong Kong won the stage by 19 seconds from my group, solo. He also won the KOM jersey, best Asian jersey and best young rider jersey. There was a forlorn hope that the chief comm might make him wear all four jerseys the next day and slow him down, but it wasn’t to be. These HK kids are super strong, yet diminutive in stature. I’ve heard countless new guys, Caucasians, say things like, “The HK guys won’t be able to defend the lead,” only for them to be left shaking their heads in disbelief at the end of a stage.
Trust me, the Asians are a-coming. It might not be this year, or the next, before a real star emerges in Europe, but it won’t be long.
So I was in ninth after stage 1. My goals were a stage top three and top 10 on the GC, so things looked ok so far. I felt good, too. I had The Flow. The bike felt like it was rolling on silk, the pedals turned crisply, rises flew below me and I wasn’t chatting to mates anywhere near as much as I usually do — a sure sign that I was locked in.
Stage 2 was 125km and I decided to just sit in the top 20 of the bunch all day. A break went but the Kongers kept it within a minute and we reeled them in by the finish for a bunch sprint. I was preoccupied all day, though, by guys coming up and trying to take my position, even though I’d been riding there for most of the day. There’s time when you let people in, but there are others when you need to defend yourself. If you let one guy in, the others behind take you for a soft mark and you can suddenly be swamped. No one barges in on the Iranians or the Kazakh Astana team, so why should I let them in on me? Grrrrrrr!
My teammate said to me later, “You look really on it out there.”
“You mean I’m being a bit of an asshole?”
Seriously, though, the other guys see you being pushed around and they take note. No quarter given, none asked. Better to nudge back, rile the guy but hold him off, finish the race then seek him out for a handshake. You can be sure then he won’t try it again.
After stage 2, by dint of my finishing position, I moved to sixth, 38 seconds off the lead. The HK team looked beat, but still had the lead, the Iranians not as hot as usual, but the Kazakhs were looking good with three guys in the top 12. Funny dudes those Kazakhs; you say hello and smile at breakfast and they look at you like you’ve exposed a weakness. Must be tough work, disliking the vast majority of the world’s population…
One thing they can do, though, is ride, as we saw on stage 3.
It was the second longest stage, at 135km. It was again flat, but windy. We started off fast, with the race leader Yeung putting in attacks for some reason. I figured he was bluffing, trying to look strong to deter others, but it was a naive move and no one bought it. After about 25km, three Iranians got clear with about six others, including one Kazakh that was low on the GC and two Kongers, and as the pack held off I bridged across.
We rode hard for 65km and had three minutes at one point, and I became leader on the road, the first time that’s happened in a UCI tour. We hit a long straight and had a vicious crosswind, so the Iranians and I hit the front to try to break the stragglers that were hanging on to us. Suddenly we were told there were chasers at 25 seconds — where the heck had they come from?
The Kazakhs. Machines on machines. They’d ridden across a three-minute gap in 30km of crosswind, three guys inches off the gutter with some 10 guys strung out for dear life behind. Impressive.
And who wasn’t there? Yeung, the race leader.
With seven kilometers to go, things got nervy. Attacks went. Probes. Feelers. Eyes darted, muscles twitched, cranks got hot. On these flat finishes it sometimes looks easy for a group to go, but it’s seriously hard to judge it right. Going after the wrong move can deplete the bank — that’s why we aim to be strong enough to go with everything. Only problem is that you can’t keep that form for long.
But today the stars aligned, and I read it right. Seven of us got a slender gap, the others hesitated, and the top Kazakh rider, Tissaruk, and I, knowing we were racing into the GC lead, hit the front. Nervous glances over the shoulder lifted exhausted bodies — we were breaking the chasers.
In the sprint Tisarruk and I had nothing left, but we managed same time as the stage winner, Burr Ho of the HK team. I moved into second on GC, seven seconds off Tissaruk, with the next guy behind me 12 seconds off the lead. There’s six other guys within striking distance, and the last stage, 150km, is going be hard. I’ve still got The Flow, though, so let’s hope it sticks around one more day.
I have to give a shout out to Darren Benson, my teammate who rode hard to get up to our group and helped me out at the end.
The CCN boys and I will do our best. Can’t ask more than that.