Somewhere into the thirteen hour flight from Newark NJ to Beijing China it hits me- I’m traveling all this way to race a single, one-hour race. Somewhere in between the four movies that I watch, and the many episodes of Parks and Recreation, I realize that it would be hard to explain to anyone why this much travel was worth it. A whirl-wind five-day trip to the literal other side of the world for a cross race…who would have thought. But sometimes you just have to trust your gut, and I knew when I first saw the email about this race appear in front of me on my laptop, that this was an opportunity worth chancing. There was just too much potential to pass up, let alone the fact that the promoter was offering to cover almost all costs associated with the trip. Forget that as the days passed and departure was imminent that I had scarcely any details relating to being picked up at the airport, how I would get to the race each day, what the course would be like, or even who I would be racing against. Sometimes, the biggest rewards require an act of blind faith to achieve, so I put it all out of my mind and boarded the plane for my non-stop flight to the other side of the world. As landing approached though, the dryness in my mouth and an elevated pulse gave away that I wasn’t quite sure what I was walking into. But here we go.
One by one, this massive adventure proved all my fears unfounded. From the moment I walked out of customs, searching the crowd with eager eyes for someone or something that I might recognize, and spotted the giant placard with “2013 Qiansen Trophy UCI Cyclocross Event” on it, I was continually impressed with the level of organization and commitment that the promoters of this race displayed. For the next 4 days it was like a summer camp of bike racers. Slowly everyone trickled in from their respective corners of the globe and it was clear that this would truly be an “international” affair. It was also clear that the competition would be no cake-walk with a strong field of riders for both the men’s and women’s races. But it was easy to get distracted from the coming race by the strangeness of it all and the shared sense of adventure. Despite being a group of athletes from different teams, and different countries all coming here with the goal of competing with one another, there was a camaraderie centered around the adventure of it all. We had all committed to making the same leap of faith and, I think, were all proud to be a part of something that was happening for the first time. It was hard wanting to be as much a tourist as a bike racer- being in such a foreign place for the first time. Compared to my travels in other countries up to this point, this was the most removed I have ever felt while traveling. The language was almost indiscernible for me, either to hear or to read- a fact that while understandable perhaps, still makes me feel unworldly and embarrassed. And beyond that sense of isolation from the world around you, there was also the palpable sense of being “different”. Walking down the street or as we rode to the course we were obviously not the everyday sight in the city of Yanquing and drew looks and commentary from people wherever we went. But in all, it seemed to be enthusiasm that we were met with as we played tourist- visiting the Great Wall en-mass and wandering around the town checking out the local sights. The Wall was truly the most amazing man-made structure I’ve ever seen, and the area, both there and around the city, impressed me with its beauty- transitioning from the urban cityscape to rural farm land and then quickly to steep and lush mountains.
Eventually though, it came time to race bikes. And to this end, once again the promoters had done a top-notch job of creating a course that was fast and still technically challenging with steep vertical transitions, custom made bridges and a challenging set of double stairs set in a up-down u-turn. Despite being extremely slippery earlier in the week after some nighttime rain, the course by race day had dried into tacky hard packed perfection, and aside from being pretty bumpy through the woods sections, was going to be a real wide-open race. Thanks to a strong season last year, I had the second position in the call ups, right next to former World Cup winner Thijs Al and his teammate, former Jr World Champ Arnaud Jouffroy of the Telenet Fidea team…yikes. I was nervous about my ability to live up to such a good start spot, and I also knew that there was no shortage of domestic and international talent further back. The focus was have a clean start, and stay steady, as I had watched my Redline teammate Kari Studley work her way up into 6th by the end of her race, coming in as top American. I had something lofty to set my sights on.
The start was frantic, going from the straight away into a 180 degree turn almost immediately, followed soon after by the double stairs. But I made it through clean and settled into about 4th or 5th wheel for most of the first lap. By the beginning of the second, it was clear that Thijs Al was the strongest as he surged away from a chase group containing an Italian rider, Brian Matter and myself. Soon I was able to put some distance between myself and the other two, but it seemed that I would never draw and closer to the lone leader.
Unfortunately, after a couple of solo laps in second position, I was joined by Thijs’s teammate Jouffroy and he was unwilling to share in any pace setting duties with his teammate up the road. I tried to put the pressure on through the technical sections, causing a small gap to open each lap, but he would claw back up to me on the straightaway sections and I was unable to shake him. It’s a disconcerting feeling in bike racing when you know a move is coming but there is little you can do about it. I knew Jouffroy would attack me at some point, but this knowledge didn’t really prove helpful as when he did I had little snap left to answer it. The mission became keeping him at a reasonable distance, hoping he made a mistake and maintaining my now third position.
Unfortunately for me, those guys don’t make many mistakes and third was the best I could manage as I rolled across the line feeling like I had done about all I could do. Mission accomplished.
The crowd at the podium presentation was awesome, and I felt honored to be asked to sign so many autographs, and pose for so many photos. The enthusiasm was contagious, and I was left grinning for the better part of the night and my trip home the next day at how well this whole trip had gone. We all got to play a part in a truly historic event, and were welcomed with open arms by a culture distinctly foreign to ourselves. It’s not every day that you get to feel that as a bike racer, you have engaged in something culturally relevant, but this was honestly something different. There were amazing sights, amazingly helpful people and great racing. I was proud with my performance and the fact that I had represented my sponsors and my country to the best of my ability, but I was also glad to have met so many new people and embraced the risk associate with the trip. I hope I get to return to Yanqing next year if the event happens again, but at least this time I was took that leap of faith.