Cycling is like life. Cycling with no goal is meaningless. What meaning is there cycling in circles? Or living aimlessly? Meaning comes from direction and destination. Join me in my life's journey on a mountain bike :)

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Mishaps and miracles

Xiwuqi, Xilingol, Inner Mongolia, China, 240 km

Prologue
When my room mate W asks me if I race a lot, I told him I used to but have "retired" from it. I'm here because it is a tour for me. As the race instructions state, "there is cattle (sheep, cows, horses ...) in the grasslands and they occasionally run over our course signs. We count on your sense of adventure and good spirits". What I didn't know was, the adventure begins before my Genghis Khan MTB Adventure.

Surprises
Days 1-2: 2-3 Jul. SIN-PEK. Non-cycling day.
Surprise 1: my flight is delayed by 1 hour! This means I get three hours of sleep instead of four. Surprise 2: at PEK, there are no holes in my bicycle box. Surprise 3: no taxi driver wants me, because of my bicycle box. A guy shows up and offers to help, for a fee. At the Holiday Inn Express Minzuyuan , I get surprise 4: a free room upgrade. I lie down, half asleep and check out hours later. The hotel staff thinks it's impossible to use the subway. As I push my box along the streets on my makeshift contraption of a foldable trolley, a passerby thinks it is a table.

At the charter bus pickup point, I see two guys carry their boxes on their shoulders. "How did you get here?" I ask. "Subway," they say. Surprise 5.

I settle down for a 10.5 hour bus ride, and catch up on sleep. Surprise 6: we don't stop for lunch; the bread, milk and "penguin sausage" we're given in the morning is lunch. I soon realise why there is no lunch; the place is barren. There is food for the buses though: petrol stations.

Surprise 7 awaits at the destination Xiwuqi: when I enter my room at Electricity Hotel, part of the door frame comes off with the security chain. My room mate W is inside. Surprise 8: the meal coupons I've paid for are useless at my hotel. The meals are served only at the race hotel. Without prompting, one of the organizer's staff offers a refund.

And so, for the rest of my stay, it's a race to find food and groceries.

Misadventure
Day 3: 4 Jul. Stage 1: 75 km.
Misadventure #1 My pump is kaput. I'd tested it at home but here, it fails under pressure. W lends me

his. His race prep includes leg shaving! He doesn't need to race for food; he drove from PEK and his car is a grocery store, with milk and whey powder for milk shake, bread, apples, electrolyte and carbohydrate powders. He doesn't eat out. His race strategy is to eat little and race light. He comments on my two big water bottles. He doesn't even intend to carry water for tomorow's  43 km race. A German, he works for Volkswagen. I've a food guzzling "engine".

Ceremonial start to the race
At the start point, I seem to be the only one with a rigid bicycle. Though I suppose anyone on a hardtail with a failed suspension would be on a rigid too.

Misadventure #2: a competitor with platform pedals catches my rear tyre valve as we both push our bicycles. He jerks his pedal free. As the race starts, I steer from one trail to another. #3 My wheel catches on a ridge and i crash. I get up to see a competitor's wheel stopped where my frame starts. Whew. "Ride slow," are his parting words.

I find my rear tyre losing traction. I look down, its not wobbling and seems ok. I think it is the loose sand. I ease off on my pedals to reduce the spin out. At the 17 km mark, a passing cyclist says I've a flat. I stop to feel the rear wheel. A slow leak from a broken valve from the freak accident. No wonder the traction loss and slow speed. I wonder whether to inflate it and ride on to the first checkpoint but decide against it. Too much effort, too little assurance it will hold.

As I fix my flat, the sweeper van and ambulance pull up. I ask if I'm last. When the last man overtakes me, I am last. A DNF cyclist lends me his pump, which works far better than mine. I cut my hand somehow. The drop of blood on my spoke glistens in the sun like dew on a spider web. I am unfortunate, but the poor DNF guy who pulled out so early in the race helps me. I also wonder if the guy on KUL-PEK who arrived without his bike got it back in time.

I'm just 17 km into the race. Time to make up for lost time. I overtake someone on slick tyres. As I close the distance from another cyclist, I tap my brake levers to indicate I'm coming. She veers towards the sound. Our shoulders bump but we don't fall. She gasps "ahh". As I pull away, I see she's wearing slippers.

Head for the hills! Into the horizon
To make haste, I hardly slow down to drink from my bottles. Instead, I quaff a bottle of energy drink and gulp a Snickers bar or two at each drinking station. At one, I overhear someone ask for sunblock. I offer her mine. She asks if I like the ride. I shake my head. I don't tell her about my puncture or crash. She looks at me and says, "To encourage you, it's all downhill from here. The worst is behind us. There's just one more hill."

The hill climb is 150m or more. Not high, but steep though the longest climb is 7.5 km. I clock what is probably my downhill personal best: 38.3 km/h.

I also have another near crash. Hurtling and bouncing in the gully, the wheel could hit the ridge. If I cycle on the ridge, the wheel might slip into the gully. Wherever I am, hang on for dear life.

I've overtaken the laggards, including those at the drink stations. Where is everyone? I see a red jersey in the distance. Red Star, my guiding light. I keep an eye on it as he trail winds it's way up and down. When I overtake Red Star, it's just me.

#4 I get lost when the yellow signs that mark the route disappear. I stop at the race hotel, get directions and sprint. Tired, I fail to see the finish line is against traffic flow. I waste more time before I find the way.

W is already back in the room. He has a bad crash, with abrasions. He rested half hour before finishing the race, yet is ahead of me. Like me, he crashed outside of the danger areas, which include "corrugated" trails downhill. This trail is technical in parts. Need to pick a line, for speed and safety.

I'm a kite, fly me
Day 4, 5 Jul. Stage 2, 64 km. The sky brightens at 4 am to what sounds like firecrackers. When the wind blows, my room door shakes. I'm awake.

After yesterday's pounding, I decide to buy a tyre. Bikeshop man goes to the back of the shop and digs out a good tyre for me. "The ones in front are no good," he says. A lady, presumably his wife, says, "You're racing, right?" It is a good tyre, at a good price. I also drop by a shopping mall. The mannequins outnumber the staff who outnumber customers. A couple of staff lie down to sleep.

W decides to rest too after yesterday's crash. As I head out, I hear something loose. Yikes! I tighten headset and front skewer.

At the start line. Dude with aero helmet
At the start line, I'm fifth row from the front, away from newbies and platform pedals that knock into tyre valves. When the race starts, hordes overtake me. Bewildered, I stop to check my tyre. Seems ok.  I keep it on the soft side for offroad. It's the only suspension I have. Though I suppose a hardtail with faulty fork is a rigid bike too.

The ride is uneventful. There are danger signs. When I see them, I sometimes think "you call this dangerous?" Sometimes, danger is not immediately obvious. The most dangerous for today is downhill on rutted ground and a hard right turn after that.

I dismount to shoot this photo. If every shot takes 30 seconds,
what a big time penalty! I shoot about a hundred times
There are some steep climbs. I don't get off; I'm here to cycle not push my bike.

The wind blows across the plain. I feel like a kite, with a cord drawing me to the finish line. But where is it? There is no arch im the distance to shoot for. A policeman points the way.

After that, it's about 20 km back to my hotel. Others stay at the finish line for the official welcome dinner and bonfire.

W stays in the room while I dine on hotpot. I eat enough for two meals. Tomorrow is the longest day.

I also repair my watch strap with Elastoplast; a watch shop doesn't carry that model and won't even try to fix it.

The longest day
Day 5, Stage 3, 100 km. W leaves at 5 am - in his car. He's going home. I eat poorly, get ready to checkout and get ready to race.

At the start line, I meet A, who had used my sunblock in Stage 1. I tell her about my crash and slow
Muddy Waters. The "Waffen SS" car is behind
leak. "It's your duty to encourage me," she quips. I tighten her seatpost for her  and say "One hour warranty". When the race starts, I see an unzipped saddle bag with energy gel in it and yell at the rider.

Ah, uphill and against the wind. It's so strong, it lifts the drinking station tent.  I am sunbaked like the trail and wind dried. I imagine things: that cyclist with his back to me turns out to be a flat rock, the cyclist holding his bike turns out to be a fence post and support strut, the yellow directional arrow turns out to be yellow flowers.

I also see a jeep in olive green with the words "Waffen SS" and, later, a vehicle on the trail. The people don't get out of the way as I head downhill. One says "be careful", then I see deep ruts in the ground. It could've been a bad crash at that speed. The guys move off. I'm grateful they warned me. I wonder about the other riders.

Sometimes it's like cycling on talcum powder. I know, as I fell while going uphill. "You should've gotten off earlier," said one cyclist. Everyone else there was pushing. This is the only time I push.

I'm grateful for the big knobs on my front tyre. On the "talcum" downhill, I slip and slide but the knobs bite somehow. I wonder what it would be like on semi-slicks.

My shifters don't shift well. I adjust the barrel adjusters. There's also chain suck. No more shifting on demand. I have to shift early and ease off when the chain clanks.

There's a stretch off downhill so fast I use the sides of the furrows as berms when I corner.

The numbers on the km markers go bigger and bigger, past the 60, past the 90 km mark. The last few km make a last ditch effort to drop us. The rider in front of me gets off to push up these last climbs. I keep going.

Back in town, I sprint past the finish line at 44 km/h. Sporadic applause breaks out. It is done. I do my "victory lap" round the town square to warm down and feel this one last time. I made it. Months ago, I'd emailed the organiser to ask what happens if I'm injured or bicycle is damaged; how do I get back in time to catch the bus? The reply was, you have to finish, or else it would be hard to find you.

My watch, which fortunately has more bandage on it than me, has held up. And I'm on time to get back to the hotel, dismantle my bicycle, have a quick wash in a toilet and in time to catch the bus back to PEK.

I talk to the volunteer on the bus, who tries to contact the bus driver who'd seemed interested to drive me from the bus drop off point to the airport. Well, he doesn't seem interested anymore. B overhears me. "You want to go to the airport? We're going to the airport, we've hired a van. There's room for you." As simple as that, problem solved. I'm at the airport at 4am, in time for a long wait. Somehow, I'm not hungry, not sleepy. I'm just glad I made it, through the race and the mad rush to the airport.

to be continued

Saturday, June 28, 2014

At last

Jun distance: 193 km

Admiralty Road West, 50 km. My new WTB tyre is on its maiden ride. It buzzes loudly compared to my Merida tyre; the latter is lighter, with lower rolling resistance.

I cycle loops, pushing myself hard. Traffic is heavy and I sprint a few times to get away from heavy metal, including a transporter big enough to carry a bulldozer.

Without intending to, I've found a new training route: it's quiet, with no cars even after several rounds. There's a dog which lunged at me, then charged alongside towards an open gate. Fortunately, that was its neighbour's gate, with a fence between it and me.

Back home, I check my bicycle, do some maintenance then box it up. It's only after I'm done that I realised I've not referred to my packing instructions. After several trips (this is the fifth time I've packed this bicycle box), getting a bicycle expedition ready is muscle memory.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

What the blazes

The wispier the clouds, the less cloud cover there is and the hotter it gets
Woodlands, 61 km. It is hot. So hot, I sweat even when I'm sitting still. At 6 pm, it's still sweltering. But
I didn't cycle last week, so, I've got to train.

Regardless of: how hot it is, how my back hurts, and even though I ran yesterday.

I purposely cycle with soft tyres at 40 psi. The higher rolling resistance means more effort in less time but also less distance on dangerous roads where cars and buses come too close for comfort.

As the ride grinds on, I get that sleepy feeling.

Soon, the training will end. And the unknown will begin!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Goodbye again

Lim Chu Kang, 82 km. Time to train hard. Buzzed by a bus, I head into some grassland. But it's overgrown in places. Tall grass whips me and a thick strand of spider web dangles from my bar end.

I used to do this long route as a routine, in 2010, 2011. My last ride there was in Oct 2013. Now, I wonder if I've got what it takes. Well, yeah, though it's 2x what I've been doing in recent years.

Today, I say goodbye to my chain, prematurely discarded because it broke last year while on expedition in Sumatra. I replace it with an old model, HG73. I hear Shimano doesn't make it any more. I couldn't get it from two other shops today, so I go back to a really old shop. There, someone I know lets me jump queue while she goes for dinner.

Too bad the shop closes next month. Bikeshop man says he'll be back, someday, somewhere. Meanwhile, instead of being boss, he joined someone's staff.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Saturday night fever

May distance: 267 km

Sembawang, 52 km. I'm so sick and tired, I sleep more than ten hours before I awake. I want to rest more to recover fully from my cold and intend to train tomorrow, but a loud party tonight puts paid to that. And so I cycle.

Again, what was meant to be a shorter ride ends up 2.5 hours long, including several rounds of an old road where I keep my eyes peeled for wild pigs darting across the road. Well, none tonight but on the big roads, a big bus buzzes me.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Fear of fur

Mandai 51 km. Thunder rumbles in the distance. I cycle in search of grass and clear skies. In a park, I cycle on a slope so steep, my pedal hits the side as I cycle along the contour.

Along the road, I see that it has rained. It is misty. Rays from the setting sun filter through the trees. It is red. It is beautiful.

But pain and suffering is nearby. I have close calls with pedestrians crossing the road without looking, a motorcyclist who bullies me the way drivers bully him, and close call with a car and a bus.

Coming closer than people are dogs. As I turn into the road where they used to hangout, I hope they are gone. I peer under the parked lorries and in the distance. Even black rubbish bags could be dogs. Suddenly, I see them. I turn back. As I pass a parked lorry, a furry face peeks out. The chase begins. I speed to safety.

Three hour's of training, longer than I'd intended.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The F word

Caldecott, 34 km. Yesterday, I dismantled my headset to remove the creak. Though it is stainless steel sealed bearing, somehow rust formed on the aluminium part of the system. Without a bicycle stand, it is hard to hold everything together, balance the bicycle and clean all at once. It's a sunny day but I do this instead of cycling as I wish to recover from my cold.

Today, it rains, so I wait till it stops. To avoid mud and mess (and muck in my headset), I stick to the road. There are 15 traffic lights on this route. Two drivers and a pedestrian come close to giving me grief. But I do not end up like the crushed mango I cycled past.

Mango that fell from a tree near a place full of long-dead people. There are more uncrushed mangoes on the road, for the picking, but I ride on by.

My knee hurts, so I ease off a bit from my Fartlek. When time is short, make the most of it. When the pain goes away, I put more back into the training. Back home, I prod myself. Tender tendon, not a meniscus mess. All I need to do is tend to my thigh. Whew.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Unexpected

Kranji, 51 km. My knee hurts when I go up and down stairs, and I feel a cold coming on. So, I will be
an easy rider today. I'll just do a short, scenic ride then head home. Yeah, right.

Instead of pedalling a piddling 40 km, I end up cycling over 50, including over grass. Just what I need to train for my race. And the views are nice too.

I didn't expect today to be even tougher than the past weeks; all that hard riding after a hiatus since Dec has taken its toll. But I made it back.

Similarly, I was hit by the unexpected at work. After six months, I seem to be making it back too.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Something is better than nothing

Caldecott, 39 km. By the time I'm on the road, it is almost dusk. It's dark but not just became it's late. Black clouds hover overhead. I look where it is light and head there.

When I get there, I realise the clouds are in a pincer movement: over where I start and where I head. Ah well, I train anyway. A nice loop, several km long, with no traffic lights at all.

Though I don't have much time to train, I put what I have into it, keeping my heart rate up. I keep my tyre pressure low for more rolling resistance. And it doesn't rain. Nice.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Loop de loop

Caldecott, 40 km. Traffic averse, I look for a more efficient way to train, one with less time and less traffic. So I go around in circles, with one loop six km long. As I head up one of the steepest hills in the country, someone shouts "100%!" then goes "oh!" A car comes up, I squeeze my brake, my rear tyre skids.

I go downhill safely. Nice, going round in circles can clock some distance.