Rathe Tour of China Report Part II: Striking Back
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 about the second-half of the race. Part 1 of this report is HERE.
By Jacob Rathe
Tour of China — Stages 4 – 7 (In part 1, Rathe hurt his back in a pile-up 300 meters from the line of stage 3 and was struggling to continue).
I woke up on the morning of stage 4 feeling horrible but better than I expected. I successfully got out of bed, which was a feat that I questioned my ability to do the night before. When I got on my bike I was pleasantly surprised that I could pedal pain-free sitting down. Standing up was another story.
Racing wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The adrenaline rush blocks out the pain receptors more or less, and I was happy to be in discomfort and not in agony. I didn’t want to be the guy at the back of the pack stretching his back and weeping. I was less active in this stage than any other race I have ever been in. When attacks were flying off the front in the beginning, I was in my saddle being passed until it slowed. When the field bunched up, I kept going and moved right back to the front. I didn’t follow a single attack, or chase anyone down, or even attempt the field sprint. I was happy to make it to the finish. My back only started to get achy the second half of the race; 173 km is a long time to sit on a bike any day, and that day was no exception.
Danny was 9th on the stage. Ricco Rogers, a New Zealander of the Giant Asia Racing Team, won the stage. David Tanner of Fly V Australia took the yellow jersey with time bonuses.
The next day was a transfer/rest day. I was happy that I could rest but not happy that I had to sit on a bus for six hours. Being the second day after a crash, I was expecting to be incredibly sore. I was, but what really bothered me were the spasms that started happening every time I moved. The spot on my lower right back would clinch up so tight I couldn’t breath. It would relax, and I would be spasm free until the next time I needed to turn my head, get something out of my backpack or move in any direction. It was a long bus ride, worse than sitting on a bike.
The next day was the only “mountain top” finish of the race. In the race book the course profile looks daunting, if you actually look at the elevation gained its not so bad. For every stage there is a profile for the whole stage and the last 3 kilometers. The profiles for the last 3 k couldn’t be more deceiving. For example: the last kilometer the line ascends steeply. Upon glancing at it you would think that the last k was uphill. When you look at the scale, it goes from 145 meters to 146 meters. 1/100 percent isn’t very steep, most would consider it flat.
We finished at the Mount Tai resort. The climbs averages 4.7 percent for 10k. The bottom 8 k turned out to be very mild, gently rising next to a river with short pitches. In the end the road turned up with 10+ percent. Normally if I’m in the group 1k from the top of a climb, I will make it over. But I was dropped like a rock right when it got steep with 1.5 k to go this time. (On the rest day I was only able to ride 30 minutes; all cylinders weren’t firing). But teammate Danny Summerhill did well. He was 9th on the stage and moved up to 3rd on the General Classification.
David Tanner (Fly V Australia) lost the yellow jersey to Dirk Muller, the winner of the prologue and the only previous yellow jersey wearer. He rode away from the Fly V rider in the last kilometer. It turns out that Muller was the German national Champion not too long ago, I think in 2006. And he may have at some time served a six-month ban for a failed doping test…
The day after Mount Tai was another transfer day, no racing and six more hours in the bus. We arrived at the metropolis of Shijiazhuang in the late afternoon. It was raining and we were surrounded by city in every direction. No teams rode. The last two stages were unlikely to change the General Classification. They were both flat 85 km races within big cities.
It was spitting rain and for the first time we didn’t have any neutral. We sprinted off the start line like it was a ‘cross race or a junior race. Due to the short distance, the race was full gas through the wet bumpy boulevards, and of course. some freeway. There was slippery paint all over the roads, seemingly much more than in cities anywhere else. This seemed especially ironic because nobody pays any attention to any road markings.
The goal for the team was to protect Danny’s 3rd-place spot on G.C. Muller’s Team Sparkasse was back in the lead, and we were confident that they could keep it together for 85 k, and they did.
The racing on this stage was very aggressive, and followed a similar pattern as the “standard” bicycle race. The speeds were high in the beginning, and the break eventually went. The leader’s team rode the front to bring back the break, and the race ended in a field sprint. There were enough strong teams that can controlled the race. Though a break could have still succeeded, it’s not necessarily how strong the break is and how fast they can go, but rather that it’s the right group of riders and all the teams strong enough to bring it back are happy with it. Our tactic was to follow the three strongest teams, assuming that if one of them wasn’t represented it would come back.
The good news was that my back was coming around. I was far from moving normally, but I was fine on the bike. I got my confidence back in the field sprint and squeezed into the top 10 to get 8th on the stage.
A couple hours after that stage ended, we were back on the bus again headed to the finishing city of Tianjin, which meant six more hours on the road. Our police escort caravan included all of the team cars, officials, four tour buses and many smaller buses. Though we were on a freeway with low traffic and a police escort, we cruised at 50 miles per hour. Add in a few stops and some city traffic, and 320 kilometers takes six hours. But Tianjin turned out to be an incredible city, at least the part that we were in. The view from our hotel room was quite a sight.
The course the next day was 8.5 kilometers up and down both sides of a river, crossing a bridge on both ends 10 times. The field was surprised the first lap when we went through a 500 meter tunnel that started 1,000 meters from the finish. A dimly lit tunnel is a little bit scary, especially when there are sharp small bumps that nobody knows about. They weren’t bad enough to make anyone crash, but full bottles were bouncing out of bottle cages and flying everywhere, and the sudden jolt wasn’t a very funny joke.
The laps ticked down, and I survived without crashing. (The last trip I made to Europe I flew home with oozing road rash). I did what I could to help Danny, he got 7th on the stage and stayed in 3rd on GC. Muller, the German, protected his overall lead.
Things were looking up It was a beautiful day, I could even see the sun. The spasms stopped in my back, and now I was just an old man with a bad back. “Grandpa” was my new name. We met an American who was living in Tianjin working as an airplane pilot. He was so happy to talk to some Americans. As he put it “it’s so nice to not have to talk like a third grader,” as you have to with Chinese people who speak limited English.
A trip to China isn’t complete without at least one person spending the night next to the toilet, and it was me on the last night. After the nice dinner at the awards party, everybody went out, I came back soon after. My dinner left me, and I couldn’t stomach anything but 7-Up for the next day when we drove to Beijing to fly home. I slept all afternoon while everybody else went shopping for knock-off cheap junk, a must for all tourists.
We were all happy to have come to this crazy country, but also happy to leave. I hope that I never have to eat fried rice again, or at least for breakfast. And remember, Being careful not to loses one’s balance and falls ins a landslide, Please!