Sleep for everyone had been a mixed bag of bad dreams and waking up panting in anticipation. Fortunately the organizers had decided to get a later start the day before as to let the trail dry out a bit. Our group sat around and silently ate breakfast. You could feel the tension as everyone ran the impending race through their heads.
We then went about wrapping up our pre-race prep: tire pressure, brakes and shifting, water bottles and race snacks. After which we headed up to the start line, and registered our bikes with their designated start spot. Then we sat waiting, huddling together in the morning chill as the opening ceremony dragged on.
If you’re not familiar with how these types of events are organized in China it’s worth noting that the whole affair is pretty silly. The race itself was sponsored by several separate government bureaus in the area. Each of these groups was represented by some relatively plain-faced bureaucrat, standing cross-handed on stage, shirt and tie and some neutral-tone windbreaker. The MC of the whole gig looked similar to the Penguin played by Danny DaVito in Batman. He would slowly go through the ranks of the officials and call upon each to give a speech. There’s little you can do in this hour window as you shiver and listen to speeches preaching the merits of the area, its population, its resources and a myriad of other mindless facts. At last, near frozen solid the race start was announced and we lined up waiting for the gun to fire.
The race itself was super fun, if not a bit frustrating. Off the line the race was a mad sprint on a paved uphill road leading to the trailhead. Morten, who’d been allotted the best starting position of our group, managed to get ahead of the bunch and hit the trailhead with only a few riders out front. The rest of us in the back few rows clambered up to the trailhead only to find ourselves in a tow-line of pussyfooted riders.
For anyone who’s ridden cross country mountain bikes, you know the most valuable skill is maintaining momentum. You’ve got to gain momentum at the base of a climb, carry it over the top and lay off your brakes on the downhill. Picking a good line up a climb helps make for less effort. Picking a good line on the descent means a fast and smooth way to pick up speed. Now, this is where a lot of our competitors found themselves for lack of. A lot of riders here are more accustomed to wide open fire roads that lack any of the technical features of single track.
Those of us who were less quick to the trailhead pedaled in an easy pace line behind several riders too stubborn to yield to riders behind who were continually nipping at their heels. Climbs were made tedious as we slowly crept up ascents only to have riders in front of us ease up before cresting. Descents were treacherous affairs as we watched riders grab copious fistfuls of rear brake, ignoring any need to pick a clean line and half-skipping, half-bouncing, lumber down generally tame trails. Post race we would discover that Morten, too, had a few minutes of his race wasted by this same force.
After the trail opened up, the more powerful riders took to the fire road with gusto and tore up the back half of day one. As the race closed out we tallied our final results. With an 8th place finish for men and a 9th place finish for women, our team happily sat catching up on each other’s race highlights.
That night proved to be one of the most interesting. After washing up we had a chance to sit around at our Tibetan homestay, warmed by a wood-fire stove while we whittled away time waiting for dinner. That evening, a local swung by to pick us up and we squeezed our whole crew (9 people!) into a minivan and made our way across the village for what was easily the best meal we had throughout our whole trip. We then hiked up to a viewing tower to take in the scenery as the sun set over the mountains jutting up beyond the far side of the lake. The second, harder day of the race was coming and we all knew it.