Tour De Bintan! The Path To Bintan!
Tour of Friendship 2017 was my first race outside of India. I went there out of form and suffered miserably. I told myself that if I’m going to embarrass myself racing against the best amateurs and semipros in the region, I would do so by racing at my fittest and not by racing out of form. So, when I signed up for Tour De Bintan, 4 months ago, I also signed up with my coach, Lee Rogers a.k.a Crankpunk and began to work towards getting myself back in shape. Apart benefiting from his experience of racing in the region and racing pro at a very late age, I needed someone who holds me accountable for putting in the work needed to get back and shape and progress further. Having a coach to whom I was answerable meant, I quit making excuses about being too busy with family, work and the trainees I’m coaching. I rarely missed a workout. Took ownership of staying healthy through intense training cycles by making changes to my diet and lost 4-5kgs in the process. At 66kgs and hovering in between 3.9-4 wattsperkilo, this is the leanest and fittest I have been in a long time. The personal best effort in the BBCH ITT the weekend before TourDeBintan was an indication of that and was a timely confidence booster. The goal was to finish in top 25% in the 144km road race and qualify for UCI master’s finals.
Tour De Bintan! A Three Day Stage Race!
Tour De Bintan is a very professionally organized three day stage race in one of the many hundred Indonesian Islands named Bintan. The three stages are, a 17km individual time trial on day 1, 144 hilly kilometers on day 2 and 111km of rolling terrain on day 3. The first two races are UCI master’s qualifiers for ITT and road race respectively. To qualify, I needed to finish in the top 25% in my age group(40-44). I was looking at the day 2 race as a qualifier as I knew qualifying in the TT is very tough in a field filled with some of the fastest men who have been racing bikes for decades. But, while being realistic about my chances, I also wanted to see how I compare and decided to give it my best effort in the ITT as well.
The ITT was scheduled for Friday the 23rd of March. I landed in Singapore on Thursday morning and took a ferry from Tanah Merah Ferry terminal to get to Bintan. My teammates Craig Raynes, Vicki Nikholson and Hari Menon were already on the Island having reached there on Wednesday to acclimatize for the hot and humid conditions. In the evening, I went out for an easy spin on the ITT course with Craig. The winding and windy course was punctuated with many short steep kickers that slow us considerably. I immediately knew this is not going to be a 40+ kmph kind of course. I decided to do my best and see what comes of it.
Stage 1: 17 km Individual Time Trial
My start time for the ITT was at 3:34:30 PM on Friday afternoon. The midday heat, humidity along with the stiff headwinds made the already tough course even tougher. I did a short warm up and arrived for a bike check 10mins before the start. The bike check was essentially to make sure that no aero bars, disc wheels or TT helmets were being used along with making sure that the bike meets the UCI weight limit(needs to be at least 6.8kgs). I rolled in and the guy tried to lift my bike and said you are good to go. He didn’t even bother to lift it fully and hang it to the weighing scale. While I found it funny and it saved me time, I wondered if the Biriyani Express felt insulted.
First time ever, I got to experience starting on a ramp. I sprinted up to speed and tried to get as aero as possible. A sharp left after 900 meters took me straight into a strong headwind. It felt as if I wasn’t going anywhere although I was pounding away on the pedals. Another sharp right took me on to the path leading up to the Ria Bintan loop. There are no big hills on the island but it would be difficult to find any considerable stretch of road that is not undulating. The steep kickers bring the speed to a crawl and in the mid day heat and humidity, every effort felt herculean. Halfway through the sufferfest, I realized that I was going way too hard on the hills and losing energy to push on the flat and downhill parts of the course. I tried to correct that in the second half. By that time a Mavericks rider who started 1min behind me overtook me. As I entered the finishing straight aided by tailwind, I saw a rider who started 4 places ahead of me and pedalled with renewed vigor to go past him right at the finish line. I stopped the clock at 27:03 and finished 22nd among 51 starters for the ITT.
Looking back, that was not a bad effort under the conditions but when you compare it with the top 12 riders who qualified for the UCI master’s race, I needed to go at least 93 seconds faster. The top 2 riders in 40-44 category were also the fastest on the day across all the categories and only one second separated them. Konstantin Fast(Roojai.com) finished the course in 23:19 and Pierre-Alain Scherway(Allied World) stopped the clock at 23:20.
In 50-54 Category, Craig finished 6th in 25:47 a little over 30 seconds faster than last year and finished 6th. Hari finished 21st in his category with 28:17. Vicki finished in 31:32 and took the win in her category as there were no other riders in her category.
Stage 2: The 144 km Grandfondo Classic! Hot And Humid Sufferfest!
The second stage of the tour is the queen stage of the tour and arguably the toughest day of the three. While the maximum elevation we reach on the ride is around 80m above sea level, the unrelenting undulating terrain means we gain nearly 1200m of elevation gain over the course of 144km. There are two intermediate sprint points one at 32km and one at 94km with feed zones every 30k or so offering water bottles that you can pick up on the go.
The race was flagged off by Indonesian dignitaries present at the race after a bit of dance and festivities. Our age group(40-44) had 101 starters for the day. To qualify for the UCI masters I had to finish top 26. The race started with a neutral zone of 3km and the pace picked up immediately after. Every hill was attacked with gusto. I made a conscious effort to stay with in the first 10-20 wheels so that even if I end up going slower on the climbs, I will still be able to stick to the tail of the bunch by the time we get to the top. Also, by staying towards the front, there is a lesser chance of being caught behind gaps in the bunch and end up in 2nd or 3rd bunch in no time.
I managed to stay on through the accelerations through the intense first hour and didn’t get to drink much in the process. As we entered red-road after 30km, on an exit of a bridge one of my bottles got ejected due to a pothole. There was an intermediate sprint at 32k that whipped up the intensity a bit more. The feed zone at 34km was mayhem with everyone trying to move to the left to pick up bottles while others attacked right after.
I managed to stay out of trouble and stayed right because, I could go on with the two out of 3 bottles I was carrying till the next feed station. All the intensity on the hills in the heat meant I was sweating in bucket loads and I started feeling a twinge in my left hamstring 50k into the race. I knew that onset of cramps so early didn’t bode well in such a long race but I changed gears to spin easier and drank my electrolytes to keep them at bay. As we approached the second feed station at 64k the same mayhem ensued and I missed picking up a bottle. That meant disaster. Immediately after that on a hill 65.5k into the race, the cramps came back with a vengeance and it felt as if I was cycling backwards as the lead bunch disappeared into the horizon.
At that point I was not sure if I could finish the race or not. Still more than 75 hilly kilometers to go in that heat, did not seem very promising. I was running out of water and the next feed station was 30km away. I kept spinning in a lower gear and kept going pushing the negative thoughts away. The lower intensity meant the cramps subsided a bit but the going was tough without water. The kids who lined up both the sides of the streets on the villages we rode through, offered some much needed encouragement.
After what seemed like an eternity, I reached the feed station at 92k mark and picked up 3 bottles of water and Pokari Sweat(an isotonic drink). The cold drink felt heavenly as it traveled down my parched throat and raised the energy levels a bit. I kept riding on and overtaking riders who got dropped from other groups. At one point, 45-49 peloton was going past me and I got into that group. Within a couple of minutes the cramps returned and it was clear that the legs were not ready to take on any inkling of intensity for the day. I dropped back and began to ride at my own pace. In the last 3km, the 50-54 group which Craig was a part of caught me and I managed to stay with them for a bit. I saw Craig at the front with 500m to go and knew he would be swamped in the sprint. Despite a great effort, he finished 16th for the day and 7th overall in GC after 2 days. I was just happy to get across the line and finish the day’s race. I was totally spent.
A bit of number crunching from the ride revealed that I ended up spending more than 37mins in zone 5 or above(above threshold) during the 1:45mins before the serious onset of cramps. It was clearly a combination of the effort the previous day in the ITT followed by too much intensity in hot and humid conditions with not enough electrolyte replacement that did me in on the day. With valuable lessons learnt, I would like to come back next year and do better in this qualifier. For next year, the things I need to work on in no particular order are, heat acclimatization rides, non-stop suffer-fest rides in rolling terrain, weight training and a few motor pacing sessions leading up to the race. While top 26 participants qualified, I finished 40th out of 101 participants in my age group on day 2. That pushed me from 22nd after day 1 to 29th in GC after day 2.
Stage 3: 111km Grandfondo Century! Tired Legs Get Trippy On Racing Action!
After the race the only focus was to keep myself hydrated and recover well for the 111km stage 3. Despite all my efforts, I woke up with very sore muscles from day 2’s cramps. I was not sure if I would be able to turn a pedal and ride much less race that morning. To add to that, it was raining heavily that morning. I did consider not racing but then convinced myself to give it a shot and see how it goes. ‘What is the worst that could happen? I could get dropped from the get go and might have to stop with dead legs or complete the ride at my own pace’, I reasoned with myself.
Craig and I were getting ready to ride the 10k to the start in rain when the hotel’s shuttle bus showed up and let us get on with our bikes. We hopped in and made it to the start line. By that time, the rain stopped and turned into a very mild drizzle.
As various categories were being lined up for the start with warnings of being careful on wet roads, I went up and down the road behind the start to get the legs moving. The muscles seemed to be refusing to work and were complaining in pain. I played deaf and acted as if I wasn’t listening.
The first 3k was announced to be a neutral start and we rolled to a start at 30kmph. Things stayed sedate till about 7k and then the surges began pouring in like the rain that morning. The first 40k and the last 30k of the route was peppered with little spikes that send searing pain through the legs with the middle 40k being slightly less dramatic. The big boys keep drilling at the front on every little hill to put their rivals in trouble and end up dropping lot of stragglers from the group.
On a couple of those attacks around 20k mark and then at 30k mark, I was almost the last guy to have made it to the group as I dug deep and hung on for dear life. Those couple of efforts gave me a bit of confidence that I might be able to stay with the group longer. I kept drinking every 10mins or so taking a gel every 30-35mins. It was raining intermittently and although squinting constantly to keep the spray from the wheels at the front from not going into the eyes was no fun, the rain water was helping keep the body cool.
The rain meant the roads were wet and going downhill at crazy speeds was not that safe. Steep downhills followed by sharper corners meant we had to try and control the speed as we got to the bottom of the hill and take a 90 degree turn and then accelerate out of the corner to follow the leaders. A couple of those corners were really hair-raising as the carbon wheels I was riding on didn’t afford great breaking in wet conditions. But, I managed to stay on the bike and with the leaders.
As I went past 65k mark at which point I got dropped with cramps on the previous day, it felt good. All the timely hydration and nutrition was helping but more so the cooler weather. By that time we were averaging 38.5-39 kmph. Around 90k a breakaway group of 5-6 riders from 45-49 age category made it to the front of our group and the pace went up even further. The second intermediate sprint at 92k was blistering fast as the leaders from two age groups fought for maximum points. There was another feed zone right after where I picked one last bottle for the day. I was almost the last guy to pick the bottle and quickly chased back to the main bunch with a short intense effort.
As the pace picked up, gaps began to appear in the group and on one such occasion a guy two wheels ahead of me gave up. I was tempted to quickly get up and chase but waited just a moment for others from behind to take it up. Surely enough a rider from Integrated Riding racing team started chasing and I got on his wheel to get back to the main bunch. That saved a valuable match or two for me. As we got closer to the last 10k, there were a series of 3-4 hills. I put in a massive effort and managed to stay on for the first and second hills but managed to look far ahead on the third one and didn’t see it ending. They were going so hard that I gave up. By that time I made it to the top, the peloton rode away but also left behind a few more riders. I recovered by that time to catch them and work with them to keep the pace up for the last 7km to the line. One rider from Matador, a couple from 4T2 and Integrated Riding Racing team were in the group along with a rider from 45-49 breakaway group.
We worked together taking turns but some were more ready or had more energy than others. It was a game of cat and mouse since most of us were in the same category. As we entered the finishing stretch with 500 meters to go, a couple or riders went off the front. I was changing from wheel to wheel as the riders dashing to the line began to fade. With 100m to go, I got out of the saddle and sprinted past 3 riders and crossed the finish line. After the disappointment and suffering of day 2, it was exhilarating and hugely satisfying to have been able to race well and complete in 2 hrs 51 mins at 39.1 kmph 1 min 20 secs behind the winner.
As I rolled to the cool down area and collected the finisher medal for the tour, I could hardly walk. But I was grinning ear to ear like a mad man. That was insanely painful and incredibly fun! I’m looking forward to building on the current fitness and improve on the performance next year.
Thanks to my teammates, Craig, Vicki and Hari for their awesome company and encouraging words through the weekend of suffering and fun. Thanks to my skipper, Dr. Arvind Bhateja, who got me out of my comfort zone by signing me up and sponsoring me last year for TOF. Although he couldn’t make it here this year, I’m sure he’ll come back next year. Thanks to him also for lending me his racing wheels for this trip. I’ll try and make them go faster next time. 🙂
The race is a brilliantly organized event. Tour of Friendship and Tour De Bintan are two amazing events that I had the privilege of participating in the last two years. I’m definitely coming back to TourDeBintan next year. Stronger and Faster!
Full Race results here: http://bluechipresults.com.au/Results.aspx?CId=11&RId=1123&EId=21