Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Birkebeinerrittet Experience

For the second year in a row Nordic Ways has successfully put together a Birkebeinerrittet mountain bike race in the deep reaches of Inner Mongolia, China. The town of Yakeshi was built to support the Trans-Siberian Railway and is located near the border of Mongolia on the grass lands. On September 11th, 2010 approximately 150 riders lined up for a mass start to both the 26km and 50km races with about one third racing the longer version.

We arrived in Yakeshi, Inner Mongolia a couple of days before the race so that we could orient ourselves to the course and decide what gearing to choose. Being the crazy foreigners that we are we had decided to put together single speed bikes for riding in China. Whether this was a good decision or not has yet to be determined. Never the less we set out to find the course, which after talking to Tobian the race course setter, we thought we could find easily. The purpose of this was to get a preview of the course for strategy and test the existing gearing on the bikes. At this point we were running 34x16 that we had set for riding in the city. After a couple of hills I decided that it would be worthwhile to drop down to 34x17 in order to get some better traction on the hills and save my legs. We mostly wound up riding around on the roads around the course instead of the actual course since it had not been properly marked yet and we got a little bit lost.

The next day we went back out with a couple of guys who had come up from Tianjin, both of which were from Denmark and wanting to get a preview of the course as well. This time the course was a little bit better marked and we followed the markers through the first 15km of the course up to the first big climb. It was there that I decided that 34x17 was the smallest I could go and still climb some of the steeper sections. Amanda decided that 34x20 was the smallest she was willing to go. My theory was that I could make up a little bit of the time that I would lose on the flat paved sections by pushing myself a little harder on the steeper and more technical sections.

On Saturday morning we were treated to breakfast which consisted of a variety of normal Chinese fare. After consuming a couple thousand calories of simple and complex carbohydrates we set out with the big group to the race start. The race started at the center of town in a public square. In true sports fashion there was a stage with presentations and music reminiscent of the Olympics. To signal the racers to prepare for the start there were several fireworks and an anxious crowd. I have to admit that I have a small pet peeve when it comes to lining up for race starts, which is it really annoys me when people try to crowd into an already crowded front line and the marshals do nothing to stop them or worse place them there.

As it’s been said “Rubbing’s racing” and a tight start line is no exception. When the start pistol went off I knew that I would be dropped by the majority of riders in the first couple of hundred meters but I still took off as fast as I could and started to settle into a nice pace my legs spinning at a little too fast cadence to make me look less like a racer and more like a windup toy that’s been wound a little too tight. The first challenge in the course is a corkscrew like overpass that goes over the railroad tracks and down into the long stretch of tarmac that precedes the more technical sections of the course. This was my first chance to pass some of the riders who were falling back on the short climb. I bested the climb and took advantage of the short descent to recover from my sprint at the beginning. Knowing that I had another steep climb coming up I dialed back a little and settled into a nice pace. You know that you are not working hard enough if you can talk to your fellow competitors while riding, but hey part of the fun of racing is getting to know other people. The first climb snuck up on me but I stood up on my pedals and mashed my way to the top passing a slew of other racers and readying myself for the first descent. I had done this section of the course the day before and knew that the best line was the upper of the two jeep tracks, unfortunately this was common knowledge and I had to continuously move between the two tracks in order to pass other riders and maintain speed. At the bottom I was passed on a flat section of road by another rider who yelled something at me in Mandarin. I was a little confused by this because I couldn’t tell if he was cheering me on or if he was berating me for passing him on the descent. His face was kind of nonplussed and he didn’t give me the normal cheer of “Add Gas!” that is normally yelled at Chinese races.

I made my first ever “hand up” at the first water station and proceeded into the first of many steep technical climbs. The climb starts out relatively flat through along a tractor trail. Most of the trail was covered in grass that had been rolled over and small sections of dirt trail. The grass makes for little bit of a greasy feeling while powering through narrow and bumpy road sections. I was able at this point to pass a few more riders who had begun to wear down a bit. I made it about a third of the way up the steep climbing section and began to lose traction and ability to keep pushing my legs up hill. The funny thing is that getting off of my bike and starting to walk up the hill did not effectively lower my heart rate it pretty much stayed the same but I felt a bit better. I got back on the bike about 10 meters from the crest and caught up with Stian one of the Norwegian racers and noticed that I was actually at a false summit and there was another 20-30 meter steep climb to the top. This time I mashed my pedals up the hill in hopes of a long descent back down the other side. I was blessed with a medium descent that led along the ridge line to a saddle and another water station. At this point I had only drank a little bit of my own water and wanted to save it for the long section between the next two water stations.

On the next climb I was once again forced to dismount and walk the bike up the trail for part of it. It was at this point that I got a good chance to really appreciate the remoteness and beauty of this area. There around me were vast rolling hills of grass and trees as far as the eye could see. The top of the hill led into a beautiful section of rolling double track cut through a grove of birch trees. The trail continued to follow along the ridge line with some scary off camber descents and greasy grass climbs mixed in. Coming down into the bottom of the valley I almost missed one of the markers and at the last second tried to turn sharply on the grass. Of course I lost traction at both the front and back tires and slid out. After brushing myself off, I noticed that some of the other racers were walking through this section. I found out why after a few meters of struggling over a horrendously bumpy section. The sadistic person who set the course sent us through a field that had been overgrown hiding the parallel rows beneath the grass. After walking most of this section up a short climb we got a reprieve with a long descent through the grass fields and onto a dirt road.

At this point I had finally reached the halfway mark of the race and began to hope that there were no more steep climbs and a minimal amount of paved road, oh and I really needed something to eat. I had just about run out of food and water was beginning to get low. However I was not being tailed by anyone and making a good pace along a slightly inclined dirt road. At about kilometer 34 or so I got some moderate cramping in my right leg which woke me up to the fact that I had some black cherry Shot Bloks in my pocket just for this type of thing. After consuming the rest of my food I continued up the dirt road where I saw another of the foreign riders on the side of the trail with a broken chain I offered my condolences and hope that he could get back in the race and moved on. The next food station came up after a fast mix of rolling hills along the road. I decided to stop and drink an entire bottle of sports drink and most of a bottle of water. The two people working the booth also gave me a banana despite my desperate cries for the Snickers bars that were sitting on the table next to them. Instead of a Snickers they offered me everything but Snickers including something that looked like white bread. I left the station with a banana in my pocket and the hopes that the calories contained within it would sustain me for the rest of the race.

I caught up with another of the foreign racers a few minutes later; he had a flat tire and needed a tube. Deciding that I had sealant in my tire and that should hopefully save me in an emergency I gave him my spare tube. He then handed me a pump and asked if I had a pump that he could use. Apparently he had borrowed someone else's pump and wanted me to give it back to that person. I rode off thinking I had done something nice for a fellow racer forgetting about the fact that the tube I gave him had a Shraeder valve and his light weight wheels were likely set up for Presta’s. When I talked to him later he said that the tube did not fit and since he had already put air in it he just through it in the grass rather than try to stuff it in his pocket. Now I’ll be honest, I didn’t need the tube but it would have been nice to get the tube back if it he didn’t use it. More than anything though who just throws a tube into the grass in a 50km course, it’s one thing to throw your used water bottle onto the trail a few meters from the feed station but to throw a brand new tube that someone gave you as a show of sportsmanship into the grass like trash is an insult not just to me but to the beauty of the surrounding landscape.

As I continued down the trail I would occasionally look over my shoulder to see if anyone was gaining on me. For the most part I never saw anyone catching up with me but around kilometer 40 I saw someone actually gaining on me and prime to pass. I was quite surprised to see that it was one of the Norwegians that I had no recollection of passing earlier in the race. Nevertheless she passed me and I decided to take the opportunity to grab her wheel and follow somebody for a while. For me this was nice as it gave me a chance to let somebody else set the pace and gave me a feeling of extra energy. Of course when the person crashes in front of you it kind of kills the whole momentum of the situation. I stopped to make sure she was ok and we got going again with me taking the lead until we hit the last climb. It seemed to be mutual in that we both walked the grassy slope to the final descent and onto the road that led to the finish line. I did my best to keep up with her on the road and another woman who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere but alas my little legs can only move so fast with respect to the speed of light.

I crossed the finish line at 2:58:51 just a little under 3 hours and about 45 minutes longer than I had planned. This time put me in 10th place for the men’s 50km and 13th overall a result that is pretty good considering the competition that I was up against and on a single speed as well. In order to properly recover I went searching for food, I was directed to the area behind the podium where I found some of the other foreigners crouched around the water, yogurt, and cucumbers that were being handed out. After consuming two yogurts and a cucumber and a bottle of water I was starting to feel a little bit better. Amanda came in about 25 minutes after me and of course the first thing I did was to get her some yogurt and water and offer her a cucumber. There was fried rice as well but I decided to forgo that option.

The race day was capped off by a dinner at the hotel with plenty of food and drinks going around. Amanda and I of course consumed more than our share of Coke and Sprite. After dinner as things were winding down we were lucky enough to get to sit down with some of the race organizers from Nordic Ways and give them some honest impressions about the race, what we liked, what we didn’t like, and give some suggestions for improvement in the future, all of this under the guise of fruitful consultation. All of this left a favorable impression of the event and organization with me and given the opportunity to return next year I would definitely but this time maybe on a more competitive bike.

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