Rathe Tour of China Report: Lost in Translation

Oct 6, 2010 by

Nineteen-year-old Jacob Rathe of Portland rides for the Jelly Belly Pro Cycling Team and the USA Cycling U23 National Team. He recently competed with the national team at the seven-stage Tour of China, where he hurt his back early but fought his way to a top-10 stage finish by the end of the week. He sent Cycling Action this report.

Jacob Rathe at the Cherry Blossom Cycling Classic earlier this year. File Photo / Pat Malach

By Jacob Rathe

Tour of China Part One. Prologue – Stage Three

Bicycle racing is one of only a few sports that I can think of that people do on every inhabited continent on planet earth. While Europe may be the homeland of the sport, interest spreads far in every direction; even to the urban jungles of China. This sport has taken me a few places in my short life, but China certainly wasn’t one of the places I was expected to be going this September.

I accepted the invitation from the National Team to go to a race I’ve never heard of, didn’t know anything about, and is in the world’s biggest communist empire. I knew I was in for an adventure, and I was certainly right.

The race started in Xi’an (she-uh. I think) and finished nine days later I Tianjin. Xi’an is an ancient city and was at one time the capital of China. After two days of travel, including an overnight layover in Beijing, we made it. We were warmly welcomed by a banner in the airport “Warmly Welcome Friends around the World Participating in Tour of China Cycling Race in Xi’an”. The English language never seemed to be used quite right in this country, but we got the point. On a daily basis we saw English written in ways that never ceased to make us giggle.

Chinese translations. Photo: Jacob Rathe

Our first ride in Xi’an was nothing less than a shock. Never have I been more terrified on a casual ride. The boulevards were four lanes, with another separated lane on each side for smaller traffic. This lane is used from anything from bicycles, scooters, vegetable trailer things, and other small motor vehicle devices which I cannot give a name to. Ideally this would be a pretty safe situation for a cyclist, being away from most motor traffic. But, Chinese people like to travel in both directions in these single lane passageways, and they don’t even bother to stay on the right side, even a little bit. What results is chaos where everyone is weaving all over the road avoiding someone else, almost like the feeling I got when I play football in 7th grade.

The cars were terrifying in a whole other way, almost like they enjoyed almost hitting you. In most places, you pull out in front of a car if there is enough room so that they don’t have to slow down. In China, you pull out assuming that they are going to slow down for you. Once we realized that every single car or bus would blatantly pull out in front of us, the number of screams of terror and dismay subsided.

We all survived the ride, though we only managed to pedal for 48 minutes for a total of 300 kilojoules before we decided that the high probability of getting run over by a bus was not worth preparing properly for a 4 minute prologue two days later.

Here is a little video of an intersection:

I hope you like the ponchos.

The day before the prologue we managed to ride to the prologue course, which actually turned out to be a really nice area. We would have never thought that there was a lake four kilometers from our hotel, deep in a metropolis. It was a nice road, with little traffic and only one stop light, a dream come true. It was 80 degrees and occasionally spitting rain, though the air was thick enough to soak you. In air like this you don’t even want to look at your speedometer, you will always be going a few m.p.h. slower than normal.

That night the race held an opening ceremony in and incredible part of the city. There were performances with drums and dancing. All the teams ate dinner on top of the wall of a castle-like structure.
Here is a video:

Sorry it’s sideways…

The morning of the prologue I woke up and saw the sun for the first time. The clouds/smog that shrouded the city was gone and a blue sky was almost visible. The Prologue went for the U.S. Danny Summerhill got 4th, and was in the lead for a while. Andrew Barker was 11th, and me, Larry Warbasse and Max Durtschi were 14th, 15th, and 16th, in that order. Carson Miller was further down, and suffering from some achy legs.

The field at this race is unlike any field I’ve raced against. We are the only American team, there are three teams from Germany, one team from Denmark, one team from Iran, and the rest of the teams from Asia. China had three teams, including the national team, Korea, Indonesia, Mongolia and Australia.

Before I left for this trip I was advised to bring food. Packaged tuna and salmon, and energy bars will be necessary at some point during the race. The food so far had been OK. My famous quote was “I love fried rice, I don’t care if we have to eat it every meal”. And we were, breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with some overcooked vegetables, and questionable meat. Also, we were to not eat “anything uncooked that touches water”. No salad for us. In China, it is not unlikely for foreigners to spend prolonged periods of time in the bathroom.

The next day was the first stage, a circuit race in Xi’an. The course was rolling, and at times incredible. We did 10 laps to total 126 k. On the 5th of 10 laps, I noticed a few blocks of the course was surrounded by a display of sculptures, plants and fountains. The roads were big, tall buildings visible in every direct, this was cool. The racing was very aggressive and fast, but smooth, not very difficult. Despite the aggression nothing managed to stay away. The yellow jersey team, Team Nutrixxion/Sparkasse a German continental team, defended well.

The sprint was chaotic, and you would expect. I rolled across 14th, with everybody else finishing in the pack. Aaron Kemps of Fly V Australia won the stage.

The next day Stage 2 started in Xi’an and we rode out of town and to the east, to Haushan. I hadn’t looked at the race booklet very closely, as I did not realize that stage 2 was on an interstate freeway for 115 of the 118 kilometers. It was mostly flat, and I think there were 2 turns in the entire race. The speeds were very high, we were all active hoping that a break would succeed. I was in a group of 20 split away and had 15-20 seconds. I thought we would stay away for at least a little while, but after 5k and 20 riders working perfectly and pulling through hard, the field somehow brought us back. Danny was in a break for a while at the end but was caught with 10 k to go.

The field sprint went poorly for everyone. I lost position at the end and Danny finished just inside the top 20. David Tanner of Fly V Australia won the stage.

After the stage we did a 2 hour transfer to Sanmenxia where we would start the next days stage. We then realized that we had two more days of Freeway riding ahead of us. We finished in Luoyang, 142 k down the road.

Early in the stage there was some mild climbing. In the first 20k we rose 1200 feet. That was enough to help 30 riders split away, none of which were team USA…that was a big problem. For 50 we were all on the front pulling through hard with the leaders team trying to bring it back. Maybe all of our failed attempts trying to get away discouraged us from even trying. We learned. It came back with less than 10 k to go. I went for the field sprint even though it was a tough day in the wind. I was positioned with 300 meters to go to finish in the top 10 on the stage when bad things happened in front of me. I’m not quite sure what, but riders tangled, somebody swooped into me from the right, and I flew over everybody, tumbling forward in mid-air, I came down hard on my back at 60 k/h. The good thing is that I suffered only minor road rash. The bad news was that something was terribly wrong with my lower back. Danny was 14th on the stage, and Aaron Kemps of Fly V Australia won, again.

Riding to the hotel after the stage, pain spiked through my lower back every time I pushed downward with my right leg. I was stabbed in the back every time I moved that evening. Sitting down was a painful, an almost impossible feat. The next day was the longest stage of the race, 173 k. I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out for me.

There are times when you are in a situation you would do anything not to be in. Like, for example, in China on a multi-day cycling race with long bus transfers, doctors that don’t speak english, with a back injury, and in a place so goofy its hard not to laugh at everything. I couldn’t laugh though, and that was the biggest problem.

Check back later this week to see how it all turns out for Rathe.

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