Tour of Friendship Open (Regurgitation)

If you read the daily race digests then you already know what went down in Thailand. iPad failure limited the detail that could be given during the race and the extra time has allowed me to embellish the story and get some quality pictures.  Apologies for the self plagarisation but It’s a quiet news week and we needed the content!

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ToF is the primary chance for the Asian serious amateurs to play at being real bike racers for 5 days. It’s the big event for most of us each year and dwarfs the Tour Of Bintan in terms of difficulty and importance in the calendar.

On paper, this year looks easier than last. The distances are shorter and there’s much less climbing on offer compared to last years high altitude death march. However, due to sponsor commitments I’m riding Open Category for the 1st time & it’s been the hottest Thai spring in years so I turned up in BKK with a bellyful of concerns.

FRIDAY | Stage 0
Flight to BKK was uneventful – although I’ve a feeling the Crazies would be reduced by 50% had that plane gone down. I counted at least 20 riders on my flight alone. We’d all spent aeons packing the bikes and making sure everything went smoothly in the prep. It was amusing to see this immediately go out the window when we hit BKK as we ended up dog piling 30 riders and bike boxes into a single rickety old bus in order to quickly get to the hotel. Mai Bin Lai (it doesn’t matter) as the Thais would say…

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Arrival at the hotel revealed the shock news that aero gear had been banned from the Saturday prologue time trial – prompting some hot debate particularly from those that had already traveled all the way with a TT bike…! Personally, I would have preferred clip ons and aero helmets to be permitted as I’d brought them and they make the pictures look better. But rules were rules and it would make it a level playing field for all.

I hooked up with PA, Dave Cox and a few more of the team Direct Asia ANZA contingent and we braved the Friday rush-hour traffic in 40 degree heat for a (literal) warm up. I had planned <5 km just to check the bike but this ended up closer to 30 for the day.

SATURDAY | Stage 1. 7km ITT. Average: 41.1km
ToF kicked off with its standard ITT prologue – a straight out and back on a gorgeous course with 2 big humps in the middle. At 9am, we were already at 37 degrees and it was steaming hot in the black Assos gimpo skin suit. One plus of being in the open race is that you get to go first and so I was done and dusted by 9.30.

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My TT went ok – was 5 seconds slower than previous year but that had been done with the aero bars so I felt it was a fair result – coming 22nd from close to 50 riders. One concern was my heartrate which failed to get within 10 beats of it’s maximum which was worrying given the efforts that I’d expended. The pictures clearly show how quickly 7km can degrade your style from elegant to wasted.

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PA smashed it – coming 4th. He has to leave the race at the end of tomorrow for work so this might make tomorrow an interesting day… 🙂
Kudos also to Steven Wong who took the 50s win with a sub 10 minuter. A well deserved result given the huge efforts he’s put in this year.

SUNDAY | Stage 2. 115km. Average: 40.1 km.
Stage 2 is the transit stage where the race uproots from BKK and heads out to the provinces. Last year, this meant a huge 160k hike up a major expressway – “the highway of death” – and I was Judge Dredding the stage. Thankfully, the road to Kanchanaburi was a lot more pleasant and it turned out to be a great little day. The fabled “hottest day in Thai history” also failed to materialise and it was only a paltry average of 36 degrees (although 43 at the finish!)

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The neutralised 20k section through BKK was taken at pace and we already had an average of 38km by the time the race officially started. With PA leaving, our goal was to get him into a break so he could take the yellow before his Passage to India.

After about 40km of frenetic attacking, PA eventually got off the front with a small contingent. As Dave Christenson (TDA) also made the break, we spent the next 90k at the front with the Mavs policing breaks and sustaining a reasonably nippy pace to discourage further chasing. For a brief hour, my legs felt golden and it was one of my finest times on the bike. The plan went well with Dave C taking the stage win and Pierre, the Yellow jersey! An awesome days racing which resulted in huge amounts of exuberance and hubris from the team!

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I arrived at the new resort to find the wife had already checked in and stocked the fridge. Travelling with the family to longer races has it’s downs – as there’s much less opportunity for post stage beers and general sloth – but that full fridge definitely earned some brownie points.

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MONDAY | Stage 3. 132km. Average 32.9 km.
Stage 3 was the queen stage with the biggest hill of the race. The hill itself was meant to kick in around 50km into the race and was a 5km long mix of Faber and then Pepys.
With PA away, Dave Christenson was now virtual yellow and we were a target for everyone. We hatched a plan with another team to put some riders up the road prior to the hill so they could hook up and help Dave C later on.

At 30km, I couldn’t see my teammate so I took off up the road solo. A quick look around revealed that no-one – ANZA or otherwise had come with me – so I sat up and waited for the bunch. At 35km, i tried again and ,again, nobody followed. I was clearly no threat to the bunch and so they ignored me. They came back to me just before the hill – which turned out to be at 40km and not 50 – and the race exploded.

imageI’ll be honest and say I’ve no idea what happened at the front. I heard stories of Takei (the Japanese pro in the absolute best kit in the world – think Elvis Sequins meets Keirin) and Pouly attacking hard. I was too busy pissing sweat out of every orifice and holding down the barf. Uncle Pete Bennett had a flyer on the hill and put 100m into me but I could see Dave Cox just ahead. Coxy was then kind enough to drop his chain at the top so I could catch and pass him before the descent.

My descending skills are well documented and legendary. Not for the right reasons. I made it down at a snails place and lost a good 10 places on the descent. A bit of hard chasing on the flat and I was back in the small second group with Dave Cox and Pete B where some quick recovery was the order of the day.

The race then took a hard right into what previous editions have called “the valley of death” – a 40km sawtooth section round a lake with numerous sharp climbs and technical descents. The descents freaked me out and I ended up losing 5 mins+ to my previous companions in this section.

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I ended the day getting picked up by the 30s group and drafted the last 10km back to lunch. The lead group had mugged Dave Christenson and we were now out of the Yellow jersey for the rest of the race.

TUESDAY | Stage 4. 103km. Average: 36.9km
Today was a largely flat stage but with a vicious little kicker in the last 3km as we climb up to Srinikarin Dam.

Mark Cook (TDA) was celebrating his birthday and so was gunning for the stage. This resulted in a very painful first 10km where breaks kept pinging off the front and we averaged well over 42k. Eventually Mark and Bobby Snowballs Mav got away and the race settled down to a very sedate and enjoyable pace for a while.

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At 40km in, we hit a long uphill drag and the top boys decided to attack. The next 10km had some speeds of over 60km/hr and the pack splintered. I managed to hang in the 2nd group for most of the way but lost the wheel to live after 5 mins at these crazy speeds. Eventually Dave Cox, Yi Peng Mav and 2 CCN came back to me and we spent the next 50km grinding our way towards to the ascent of the dam. CCN wouldn’t work so YP did some fine work to gap them off and leave them stranded. The 3 of us worked hard to maintain a decent pace in the infernal heat and it was soul destroying to have the 30s & 50s pack catch us at the foot of the climb – with the rest of the Open pack just sitting at the back getting a free ride… The climb itself wasn’t bad – 3 ramps of NTU type gradients and the finish on the dam itself was spectacular.

Mark C rode a perfect birthday race and stayed out for the whole day to get the win. By this point, I’d no idea what was happening on the GC or any of the other races. I knew champion systems were in yellow as I could see him riding beside me but it was so far removed from my 29th place that I had no real interest anymore.

As always the food provided at the top was excellent and we settled into the usual rituals of coke and magnums post ride. My wifes rising frustration with my inability to walk in the afternoons peaked and she picked me up at the stage and drove me to the River Kwai for some site seeing. My legs were in no fit state for tourist tatt but I did have a beer and so the excursion felt more than worthwhile.

WEDNESDAY | Stage 5. 91km. Average: 43.4km
And so it ended. The day begins with team pictures under the resort sign and ends in a dirty gravel car-park in the middle of nowhere next to a bus station. ToF is an amazing leveler – I can see CEOs, CIOs and some senior boys and they’re showering under a plastic hose-pipe – in what can only be described as a puddle. It’s sad to see the bike boxes being hastily packed in the blistering sun but the smiles are everywhere and genuine. Our day in the sun is over but everyone had a blast!

The last stage was blistering fast and I didn’t get out of the 53:11 for the last 40km of the race. I got up the road about 15km into the race but nothing was going to be allowed to escape on this last day and the speed soon shot up to levels that prevented further attempts.

On super smooth roads, I was just hyper impressed by the speed and grace of the group. No-one shouted at each other and we had 0 crashes for the 5 days. I even saw eventual stage winner Wisut from Infinite Singha take a business call on his mobile when were going at 50km/hr+ and it looked like he was just going to 7-11 for some milk….

The stage ended in a sprint at 65 km/hr and I was happy to be there to see it and finish with the TDA-ANZA team. A quick beer and it was onto the melancholic packing of the bike box. My real race ended 2 hours later when I finally got the Big Mac meal I’d been promising myself for the last 5 days. I needed it… I was down 3kg to 62kg by the end of the race.
The legs felt fine but the heart-rate still wouldn’t get within 10 of the maximum which I’m hoping 5 days of beer, foot and general laziness will put right.

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Tour Of Friendship is a gem of the local asian racing scene. I was dubious about racing Open this year but admit it was the right thing to do. I learned a lot (but not how to go downhill!) and I’ll do it again.
After some persuasion to the wife – through the blatant naked bribery of a new phone – ToF 2015 is already locked in and I think Chiang Mai is calling again 🙂

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