As was reported here previously, Jenna Makgill, Paul Larkin and myself were heading to China for the first ever UCI Cyclocross race on mainland soil on sep 21st. We got back a week ago, and while there was only one race as part of the trip it was an eye-opening experience that seemed to include about a lifetime's worth of happenings, more unintelligible signs than you could shake an unmistakeably named unidentifiable foodstuff at, and a whole bunch of friendly folk kept in close formation. I've not been able to contain myself, and as a result will have several posts' worth of writing to stagger under the weight of and drip-feed over the next deep fried while.
We were greeted cheerily at the airport by three young guys who seemed to exhaust most of their English language knowledge within 5 seconds of getting our attention. We were lead outside to wait for our shuttle, to observe the large groups of adults herded about like schoolchildren with matching caps and backpacks, and to embibe the hazy atmosphere that is omnipresent anywhere near the vicinity of Beijing (but no doubt aided by the cigarette smoke being blown in our direction from one of our hosts and the disarmingly casual and slinky security guards, unanimous in not only their consumption of tobacco but also their possession of the most slight and delicate physiques you could ever find in para-military style black boots and uniform).
After about 20 minutes a bus pulled up, full with the Australian contingent and their equipment. We loaded ours and ourselves up onboard, gruffly directed by the bald bus driver (bearing in mind it was now almost 1am) and were haughtily off into the gloomy night.
Large buildings reared up out of the utter anti-glare of the night, only to fade once again into obscurity when more than about 100m away as they were swallowed up by the general darkness. Apartment buildings, or businesses, or nightclubs, it was difficult to tell quite what anything was due to the ever-present neon signs lighting the entranceways with dilapidated façades staggering like Atlas under the weight of disrepair, struggling to hold themselves up in horizontal fashion.
Although we had travelled for over 24 fairly sleepless hours at this point, via Sydney and Nanjing, and my eyes were closing themselves from time to time with increasing regularity, the best part of the trip so far was only just beginning to unfold before us. Heading North away from Beijing towards Yanqing on various bits of motorway our journey was shared with about as many different types of truck and precarious load-bearing vehicle as you could imagine. The one uniting feature between all of them was an almost completely invisible exterior; lack of tail lights apparently made up for on occasion by oddly placed combinations of small multi-coloured LEDs in a psychedelic yet totally unsatisfactory fashion. A thick layer of dust the colour of the vague night coated all vehicles and gave rise to extended and perhaps, in a certain way, sophisticated use of the horn. It seemed no truck was approached without a short blast, warding off the imminent lane change that would occur at the least convenient moment. If this parp wasn't enough of a warning the headlights began to flicker up and down in sporadic flashes. While this seemed an effective backup plan, I was skeptical of the trucks' mirrors being clean enough or adequately mounted to be of any use. As an emergency manoeuver the last resort was tooting and flickering combined, sure to alleviate any former lack of attention or misconstrued action ahead. Applying the brakes was most definitely an absolute final last resort.
Despite all the insane and somewhat chaotic fanfare, large trucks were still navigating about each other with inches to spare, often getting caught out using the shoulder by-lane as a third lane to surge boisterously around the traffic, only to find it disappearing in front of them. They were thereby forced to speed up and squeeze further into the traffic sandwich, releasing a portion of mayonnaise and tomatoes, or concede to the ever regurgitating tide of trucks piled high with anything from a ton of spring onions to bags of rice, a flock of goats or other incongruous objects tied in the most precarious and minimal way, and risk losing places valiantly earned in the wandering slumber-race into the night.
The Badaling Spa Resort in Yanqing hosted the huge conglomeration of riders, support staff and media for the week, keeping us well fed with smorgasbord Chinese food three times a day and bottled up with mineral water. The morning following our arrival, it quickly became a hive of activity as more and more international contingents arrived, and the space outside our room became a makeshift workshop. After bikes were assembled and travel-damage inspected, we headed out for an initial inspection of the course, which we were reliably informed was an easy to find two-intersection ride away. The first turn after leaving the hotel involved navigating 270º through a roundabout, which would usually not be too complicated a process. However on the busy streets of China the Westerner finds nothing so frightful as just going in a straight line so making a turn was destined to be an exciting experience. As we found in the bus the night before horns and brakes are respectively used extensively and sparingly. Pedestrians, bikes, mopeds, motor-tricycles, cars and trucks all jostle for thoroughfare, those most assertive with their toot taking precedence. While initially it appeared that red lights and pedestrian crossings were of no apparent concern to motorists, a certain order to the flow of things did eventually present itself. Despite witnessing numerous seemingly outrageous manoeuvres we only saw one accident, and generally there was ample space for everyone, thing and animal on the streets.
That day we were so caught up in surviving on the streets and so charmed by locals and the environs that we never actually found the course. Of course, we were riding right past it the whole time, only a couple of hundred metres away. But riding anywhere in a new country, with fresh eyes soaking up the infinite spectrum of details, makes for an interesting and satisfying experience.
More excitement was waiting for us in the restaurant where that evening we were to discover such intrepid edibles as “Flesh of a donkey”, “Mushroom with rape” and numerous other slightly bewildering delicacies. More often than not the item was much less sensational than we were being led to believe, and what was clearly stir fried bak choy one night would be labelled “Lettuce”, “Chinese vegetable” and “Fried green” on subsequent occasions.
Perhaps it was just someone having fun with their vocabulary, as often seemed to be the case with all the signage about the place. Rather than just use the standard, or garden variety of word called for in a given situation, it was common practice to seek one slightly more unusual and out of context. This had the effect of instantly adding inexplicable and unintelligible value to the given edict, always eliciting a small chuckle.
While trying to find out information about the race before I headed over, I stumbled upon a website with what looked like a translation from the Chinese of the event and some background information about cyclocross. It was difficult to decipher, even for a keen and experienced Google translate user, so I was eager to find out what we would be in for after reading the following:
“Cyclo-Cross that road cross-country race, originated in the 90 era Europe, a combination of mountain biking, road cycling and weight-bearing runners, not only have a good rider riding ability, but need not be riding on and off road vehicles only carry. An excellent cross-country road close to full speed players roadblocks, carry the car running, skipping roadblocks and then re-ride car, quickly start to accelerate forward, smooth action can reduce the maximum speed of the loss, the relevant skills of the players the comprehensive capacity demanding”
It struck me as more of a World’s Strongest Man competition, especially the carry the car running bit, so I began to doubt my chances somewhat. At least I knew most of the field would also have trouble doing this.