Final Battle-stage at Jade Mountain
The best stage was saved for the last with a splendid course laid out for all of the Gran Fondo participants, it was not the longest stage of the week but it was one with parcours that was packed with action, beginning in the quaint ancient village of Lijiang in front of a large crowd. The weather was fantastic with the skies impossibly blue and the centre-piece: The majestic snow-capped Jade Mountain rising into the sky, with its jagged peaks reaching upwards. It was a splendid climax to what was a brilliant week of racing in five different areas of Yunnan Province. Dali and Lijiang were by far the favorites with the Gran Fondo peloton. It is hoped that the 2015 edition will see more stages centered around the Dali and Lijiang areas, perhaps even as high up as the Shangrila region with its distinct Tibetan influence.
Back to the racing. The GC battle was down to just two riders: John Cattrall (England) and Wei Kui (Specialized). Cattrall had the lead by a slim 45 seconds and would need to perform at the top of his game to beat a superior climber and ex-professional rider from the Specialized team. Further, Wei Kui had three team-mates at his disposal while Cattrall had zero. The battle at Jade Mountain unfolded with Wei Kui emerging victorious, but this was not decisive till the last five kilometers where he was able to dance away with ease from Cattrall to finish 7th for the stage, but more importantly finishing up to the base of Jade Mountain with 2minutes 15 seconds over the Englishman. This gave him the overall win at the inaugural Colorful Yunnan Gran Fondo by a convincing 1min30 seconds.
Another big eye-opener was the incredible performance by 16-year old kid Lv Xianjing who simply powered away up the final slopes in a big gear to blow away the opposition. No one had an answer for this young teenager's, hailing from the high mountain villages of Yunnan, turn of speed and in short time Xianjing who has never heard of the Tour de France, opened up a massive gap that would continue to increase all the way to the finish-line. This young rider, who also won the mountain ITT, is definitely an emerging talent worthy of world-class and could be the next Chinese super-star. Stay tuned to Saddle Drunk to learn more about this special prodigy.
Carruthers Perspective - How it unfolded
This was the last stage in what has been a big month of racing for me! My super-crazy-hectic month of racing began on October 13 when I did three stages of Poyang Lake, then over to do the Tour of Matabungkay and back to do the last three stages of Poyang Lake. I then raced two more Chinese races before jetting down to New Zealand to do the week-long 1000km Tour of Southland. I arrived at the Colorful Yunnan Gran Fondo already fatigued from my cycling adventures and this brought my total race days to 24 in just over a month! As you will have read from my previous reports about the Yunnan Gran Fondo, I had been plagued by bad luck that ultimately lead to the destruction of my high GC placing (the unfortunate but beautiful stage of Dali), I was determined to be rid of the bad luck and sign off my 2014 season with a good stage.
The parcours of this stage did not really suit me, featuring two laps containing a 6% 2.7km Temple Climb before racing up the 12km Jade Mountain climb. However, I was still very active in the race in support of two riders. While lining up on the front row of the race, I was next to John Cattrall who was shivering quite violently, perhaps from a combination of the cool temperatures and nervousness? Cattrall knew that Wei Kui from Specialized could climb better than him and he would need to pull something extra special out of the bag to stay with the lighter rider. Cattrall asked me for help during the stage so I agreed to help to the best of my ability; this would mean sacrificing my own aspirations for the stage and focus on keeping Cattrall close to Wei Kui and sheltered from the wind as much as possible, at least for the first half of the race.
When the gun went, the Mongolians went on the attack immediately, like they always do but it was back together after they made an error at the round-about. The usual counter-attacks flew up the road one after the other, but nothing was allowed to go. I was riding on the wheel of Wei Kui for the majority of the time with John right behind me. A few times he would lose my wheel as the attacks would string out the field and I would find him and pull him back to the front. Sometimes it was not always necessary to be behind Wei Kui.
About 5kms before the Temple climb, there was a dangerous breakaway of about 8 riders and I took it on myself to bridge the gap with John in tow, it took several minutes but I made the catch and coming into the climb I was on the wheel of Wei Kui. When the road pitched upwards, Wei Kui rose out of the saddle and accelerated hard. I followed immediately and John was still right with me as we motored up the climb - however, within the first 1km my legs had exploded, perhaps due to the altitude; I was no longer able to sustain power and it was up to John to look after himself from here on. In a blown state, I managed to get over the climb about 30 seconds in arrears and managed to get with some other riders to rotate hard to catch the front group 10 minutes later. But not without some drama from some of the Chinese riders who refused to contribute evenly to the collective effort of the chase group. I recovered somewhat in the front group and was able to survive longer with the front group up the climb before getting dropped yet again just after the half-way point. I caught up with Shannon Bufton who was 5th on GC and was clearly not having a good day. He was struggling on the climb that I gave him a quick push and then helped pull him back to the main group right as the 12km climb begun. I had worked extremely hard to make the catch yet again after the Temple climb that I was already well into the red-zone as we climbed towards the 3,000m mark. With about 7km to go, the front group surged forward, most likely the attack from the young wonder-boy Lv Xianjing, which broke up the front group into pieces. I was already out the back when this happened. I was climbing solo for quite some time, before a group of three Chinese riders caught me with 3km to go. It was weird, I was riding steady tempo and they would have been riding faster in order to catch me. When they made the catch, they slowed down. I don't know why but thats what they did and the pace was slower than the pace I was riding at on my own. When I pulled to the front, they all slotted behind me. Clearly they wanted a draft and easy ride to the top. I swung wide and forced them to do the pace-setting; they responded and the pace went up. But soon they slowed down again, obviously watching for the foreigner (me) who was barely clinging on at the back. I had enough of this cat and mouse games with 1km to go, so I attacked. As I went by, I yelled some Chinese words that obviously riled them up. One of them yelled at me as he charged ahead with vigor. I wonder how come he was not expending this energy earlier? My surge forward was short-lasting, at this altitude I notice that my attacks are shorter and it takes longer for me to recover. So I rode the last kilometer up Jade Mountain with heavy lead legs with absolutely no acceleration left at all. At least I gave my all and made the Chinese riders fight hard. It was truly an epic end to an epic week of racing in Yunnan.
With the finish up at over 3000m, the wind was icy cold and it was important to get down the mountain before we got too cold. It was a splendid downhill run all the way back to the city of Lijiang. I did not want to leave this region, it was so beautifully majestic with the jagged peaks of Jade Mountain as the center-piece and the numerous rolling hills unfurling out across the horizon. This region is what many cyclists would die for to have the opportunity to ride in; we had only barely scratched the surface with the 82km raced from Lijiang to Jade Mountain, there are plenty of other roads and other vistas waiting to be explored. It is the collective hope of the peloton that the Yunnan Gran Fondo 2015 edition will see more stages held in the Lijiang region. It is also the bicycle tourist dream region, do consider adding Yunnan to your cycling destination bucket list whether its for the 2015 Colorful Gran Fondo or if you are embarking on your own organized adventure!