Tour de Qinghai Lake

by Jono Lovelock

Qinghai Lake, it’ll take your breath away, quite literally.

In a word, Qinghai Lake is breathtaking. Hypoxia and astonishing vistas ensure that upon arrival in this foreboding foreign land ones pulse rate rises, ones eyes stay wide open and a general feeling of excitement laced with fear is hard to shake. Despite the inherent beauty of Qinghai Lake, no one is here for a holiday; there is business to be done; a race to be won, glory to be gained and a lot of money to be made.

The Tour de Qinghai Lake has long been considered as the premier race in the UCI Asia Tour. The Tour de Langkawi may have grown to levels of higher prestige with top level teams seeking to sharpen their claws early in the season away from frosty European mornings, but it is at Qinghai Lake where the hardest, fastest and most painful racing takes place. Teams spend large parts of their time and budgets getting prepared to assault the high altitude and come away with the spoils. The Qinghai plateau sits in the centre of China with the lake situated at a measly 3000 metres. The tour each year consists of one or two stages around Xining (where riders fly in) at the paltry level of 2250 metres. There will be a number of flat stages that wind their way along the lake up at 3000 plus metres with the strong winds whipping off the lake ensuring no respite despite the flat profile.  Intermingled between the easier stages are the brutal climbs that often fall just shy of 4000m. Now we are talking serious altitude. Ear popping, headache inducing heights that mean even when climbing at gradients of just two to three percent, your legs, lungs and in my case your lower lumbar all burn like never before.

But I know you want more;

Just to keep riders on their toes, and more often that not, on the toilet, there is the further challenge of the food; the ‘Russian Roulette’ buffet of death. Which meal will carry the ‘brown bullet’? Riders quiver with trepidation hearing tales from the past of diarrhoea, vomiting and general misery. Sights of riders sporting their bibs around their waistlines, as opposed to over their shoulders, in preparation for a hasty evacuation within the peleton are the usual giveaway. You can be sure you won’t be seeing that rider go up the road today; he will be going off the road, normally more that once.  Don’t get me wrong here, at many races the dinner buffet can be a melting pot for gastrointestinal upset, but at Qinghai Lake it seems the dirtier than elsewhere tap water and god knows what else combine to ensure the gruppetto for each stage is usually decided by who visits the toilets at the start line more than once. The greatest challenge faced by yours truly was a hat trick of visits to the start line toilets prior to stage two.

Envisage a wet slippery metal floored squat toilet, tired quads, an explosive bout of food poisoning induced ‘arse piss’ (for lack of an even more humorous and offensive term) and you can see that my lovely white Lake shoes were not guaranteed to remain so lovely and white. Perhaps next year Sorbent will issue each rider with a pair of booties? I even heard some entrepreneurial talks about possible nappy sponsors for 2011… Until then I am going to be busy doing many squats at the gym, hopefully mitigating future disaster.

Enough toilet humour, for now, let’s get serious.  Emerging victorious from this race requires luck and hard preparation. Teams coming from sea level homes endeavor to spend time at altitude prior to the race, this becomes even more important when other teams such as the Iranian Tabriz team spend the majority of their year living and training at high altitude.  As I am busy chalking up excuses for myself, I have no qualms in telling you we arrived a day and half before the race started.

The race itself was as tough as expected, it was fast and from day one there was a well established autobus of which I was a passenger. Four trips to the toilet the night before the race, plus an evening shivering wearing full tracksuit and woolly socks in bed, compounded by continually clutching my doona for warmth, despite a warm temperature, confirmed that I was going to struggle! Fellow Aussie Simon Clarke suffered a similar fate from day one, nevertheless he recovered to podium on stage 7 (and did his cause for another ride at the World Championships no harm)

The modus operandi for the gruppetto was simple, if anyone rides too hard at the front, they get screamed at. Repeatedly during the stages blood curdling howls in Italian of  “PIANO!” , or the English equivalent of “EASY!” were heard. I believe I myself may be guilty of letting rip with a desperate “Slow the **** down CHINA!!!” following a highly unnecessary increase in pace through the feed station on stage 3.

Of course, the autobus needs to make the time cut, so it’s certainly not a coffee shop ride at the back of the race. Survival in the autobus is an ever evolving game of maths, diplomacy and politics. Mathematically speaking, one must ‘guesstimate’ what the time of the leaders will be, then by applying the time cut of 8 % for a flat stage, 15% for a hilly stage, or 20% for a god awful death march through the mountains, you work out how long you have to complete the stage. The politics comes into play if you suspect you may not make the cut; from this stage it is in every riders interest to keep the gruppetto as large as possible as the organisers will be reluctant to cut large amounts of riders from the race. The riders essentially take the organisers hostage to their want for an exciting race, that final circuit race through the city wouldn’t be so spectacular with 30 riders would it now? Sometimes as a rider you have to play it smart. Unfortunately some cyclists’ mathematical ability and general sense of logic are poorly lacking; there where times when riders would roll a turn in the gruppetto and try to smash everyone’s legs off, even when making time cut was a certainty. It was at this stage that all diplomacy between fellow passengers of the bus eviscerated.

At one stage a certain rider, let’s say, ‘Rider A’, was furious at our lack of enthusiasm for keeping the pace high. By furious I mean an avalanche of abuse, in more than one dialect, was angrily thrust in my general direction. I am sure if I understood any of it I would have been highly offended but I guess ignorance is bliss. Fortunately, many other passengers of the bus served to remind ‘Rider A’ that we in fact had at least 40 minutes to finish off a downhill run of 10 kilometres to the finish. It was also deemed imperative to inform ‘Rider A’ that the real race was 5 kilometres or thereabouts up the road and if ‘Rider A’ had so much energy what was he doing riding with a bunch of exhausted skeletons who have spent more time on the toilet than on the bike in the last week. We could not absorb any essential nutrients let alone digest what ‘Rider A’ was serving up. So if ‘Rider A’ saw it possible would he please excuse himself from our presence with great haste. ‘Rider A’ was not very popular than day.

In future races I hope to give some insight from the front of the race, if, however, this proves not to be the case, I hope I can continue to cover my tracks with a smokescreen of humour as I have done so far.

If you ever have the chance, go to Qinghai Lake, it really is breathtaking.  I shit you not.

Jono