Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Birkebeiner Rittet China

Last weekend Josh and I participated in a 50 km mountain bike race, by far the longest race either of us has ever done (pictures are posted at, some of our pictures of the area will be up at some point soon).  It is the Chinese version of a famous Norwegian race. We trained really hard for this. Really really hard. We did intervals on tuesdays and thursdays, long rides on Saturdays, 2.5 hr rides on Sundays, yoga on Wednesdays and went to the gym on Mondays. We fairly religiously followed the Blue Rooster team training schedule. The prize money for this race was amazing (1500 USD for 1st place) and so I really wanted to win. However, I had some idea that the competition would be tough. The woman who won last year has done the BC Bike Race and the Trans-Rockies Bike Race. From a distance, the profile for the course didn't look so bad (900 m climbing over 50 km) and totally doable. The major catch was that we were going to be riding single speeds. And that there were basically no categories. Pros are technically not allowed in this race, but the line between amateur and pro is rather blurry in China. The categories were: 50 km men, 50 km women, 25 km men, 25 km women.

We arrived a few days before the race with the idea that we could pre-ride on Thursday, do a ramp-up ride on Friday, race Saturday, and have a nice ride Sunday before our flight back to Beijing. We discovered Thursday that we couldn't pre-ride because the course wasn't marked yet. So we had a nice, relaxing ride. Friday we pre-rode about 15 km of the course and discovered that our dreams of riding 34-17 were just not going to pan out for me. I decided on 34-20 once we started to pre-ride the 2nd of 3 large climbs (the first was on a road and not so hard). I thought (naively) that I would mostly be able to stick the climbs in this gearing. I knew it would be a major disadvantage for the first and last flat 5 km. After the pre-ride I knew that I would be aiming for 3 hrs to finish and for top 5 rather than to win.

On race morning there was pretty much no time to warm up because we were supposed to be listening to opening speeches. I figured it didn't matter for me anyway since I was going to spin out in about 3 seconds after the start anyway. I was mentally prepared to be the last racer to the start of the first climb. Still, it didn't feel so good once that happened. Once we started climbing I was passing people everywhere, but pretty much they all were the 25 km group. Then the first descent came and I was really passing people. Pretty much the entire race was on tractor tracks which are sort of double track, so it was easy to pass people. I passed a lot of people. Chinese don't have a whole lot of actual mountain bike experience. Often mountain bike races are on the road using mountain bikes.

I rode through the first drink station since I had lots of food and water and it had only been 30 minutes. Next came the grueling second climb - the biggest of the day. Since we had done most of it the day before I thought I would be ok. I kept passing people and eventually broke down and walked up a good chunk of steep stuff. It was not really a trail. More like a tractor track (not smooth!) with lots of cut down wheat on it hiding the bumps. I did ride up the last bit to the top of the mountain and kept up my passing people plan on the descent. Only a few times did guys not want to let me pass. I just rode around, between, or through groups of them. It was helpful to know how to say "please let me through" in Chinese.  At the bottom the 25 km folks split off and the track quieted down a lot. Just the 50 km ones left and I was towards the end of that group. I passed a few more people on the next climb and descent and stopped for water at the water station. I chugged along and felt really good on the flatter bits. The 34-20 gearing was good. Then came the part that wasn't even a tractor track. After a really really sharp right turn off a decent dirt track, we rode straight across the fields with recently cut down wheat. No trail. Just bump bump bump across all the furrows. Poor Josh was on a rigid-fork bike. At least I had front suspension. After a few grinding halts and almost crashes I noticed people walking their bikes were gaining on me. I decided to walk. This was by far and away the worst part of the race. It included a climb as well.

At this point I wasn't yet half way done and was feeling pretty bad. The 3 hr plan went out the window when it was nearly 2 hrs by the time I passed the 25 km sign. Finally I passed 25 km and kept wondering what else was in store for me. There were only supposed to be 3 major climbs and I was sure I had done them all. I fed myself every 30 min (gu mixed with water in a hammer nutrition bottle (thanks Antonio!) and shot blocks when it was easier to eat). Also drank lots of water. I wish I had nuun in both bottles. Discovered that bar ends are a god send for single speeds. I love them. They are my favorite new accessory on my bike. At the next aid station I filled up one bottle with a nasty energy drink (some local brand) becuase I needed more calories and the other with water. I got lost briefly around km 40 but fortunately others were around. Managed to pass 4 more men, including a buff russian in a halter top. The final climb was brutal. We all walked it. I think even on my "real race bike" I would have walked it. The descent spit us out onto a paved road around the lake to the finish. I lost one position to the Russian dude on this bit since I spun out immediately.

I think that I lost about 15 minutes on the flat paved bits due to the single speed and climbing gearing. Another 15 at least for not having a granny gear and full suspension. I still would have finished 4th; I was about 45 min behind 1st and 35 min behind 2nd and 3rd. The other girls were really fast. Probably expert racers if they were in the US. Overall I felt like I brought a knife to a gun fight. Both in bike quality and in my riding skills and fitness. I did finish far ahead of 5-7th places though. The other women who started (just 2 more) didn't finish at all.

We discovered at the finish that if there are under 40 participants, money only goes 3 deep and if under 10, only first place gets money. so I had no hope of getting any prize money anyway. Bummer.

It was interesting to see how people react to the single speeds. The only other North American there (the Canadian woman who won both last year and this year) didn't seem fazed by them. She just said she felt bad for me on the climbs. Everyone else was wondering why we were so stupid as to not buy gears for our bikes. Or why we didn't rent bikes (which were wicked heavy, but geared) from the race organizers. I guess that single speed hasn't caught on outside of the US/Canada yet.

amanda :)

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