Words by Alan Grant, Photos by Craig Sheppard
There can be few more exhilarating sensations in sport than riding along in a fast-moving peloton. For the recently concluded Tour de Bintan, however, I hardly spent any time in the main bunch but that didn’t stop me from having a rip-roaring time.
The Tour de Bintan (www.tourdebintan.com) is a two-day, three-stage bike race set on the tropical Indonesian island of Bintan. A one-hour ferry ride from Singapore, Bintan is just north of the equator, so hot and humid conditions prevail.
Run by one of the premier sporting events companies in Asia, MetaSport, the event gets bigger and better every year and this, the third edition, was a spectacular success.
The Mavs hog the Stage 1 start line
I was there as part of the Optima Capital Citihub Anza Mavericks contingent. We entered teams in both Cat 1 and Cat 2. For the most part the Mavs stick to Masters races but as no age-group cats were offered for the TdB we took the plunge into Cat 1 as we thought it would be unfair to enter 20+ riders in Cat 2; there was some perception of us being bullies after our 13-man team dominated the 40s race in the Tour of Friendship earlier in the year.
There would be no bullying accusations in Bintan, that’s for sure and we weren’t mentioned at all in the pre-race predictions. But we were quietly confident that our 10-strong Cat 1 squad could do well as we had the mighty Matt “Psycho” Kinch as our main GC threat in addition to our master sprinter Ed “Teflon” Ayres in case the race stayed together.
My role was as a super domestique, which for the non-cyclists out there, means I was there to help the team leaders but I was only tethered by a loose leash in case the right conditions presented themselves for me to make a move.
As usual, I didn’t sleep much the night before Saturday’s Stage 1, and for one-day races this isn’t really a problem as adrenalin takes over and gets you through the action. But it’s key to get a good kip in two nights before the big day, which I managed successfully.
Stage 1 – Up and Down
The Mavs lined up en masse on the start line but we were under no illusions as to the difficulty of the task ahead. There were crack teams in the 70-strong field including Cannasia-Cannondale, NeilPryde Bikes, the South Island Riders (SIRs) from Hong Kong, Pico Bike Labz from Malaysia, the Perth-based Eddy Hollands and a mysterious team from Spain. And despite what well-known cycling blogger Colin Roberston insists on repeating, the 150-km course is anything but flat. Sure, there are no mountains but apart from one 20-km section along the coast, rollers rule – just under a hundred of them according to the official course profile.
A delay caused by the opening speeches dragging on brought a bit of edge to the waiting bunch and the nerves were jangled further by news from the race commentator that there was heavy rain ahead. Maybe that’s why a Cycleworx rider sped off like he’d ridden over a hive of bees right from the gun. Nobody chased of course because everybody else knew the first two clicks were neutralized. The commissaries quickly reeled the errant lad in and he sunk sheepishly back into the bunch.
Unwittingly drifting to the front
I was near the front when the flag dropped for real and watched a Pico rider kind of drift ahead. I half-heartedly pedaled after him expecting everybody else to follow. However, as he got further away I turned round to see what was happening and discovered that I had gapped the field by roughly the same distance, let’s call it 100 metres. I sat up as this certainly wasn’t the plan but as Pico stretched his lead and the bunch still wasn’t interested in starting to race, I impulsively put my head down and set off after him. He saw me coming and waited a bit so that we could work together, which we did quite well. I love TTs and also dabble in triathlons, I’m not afraid of the pain. That combined with my Neil Pryde Alize’s aerodynamic qualities mean I can do quite well in a breakaway.
Off the front and working hard
Of course we had no chance of staying away until the end but as the kilometres clicked down there was no sign of the bunch, a fact no doubt helped by the twisting nature of the first 15km or so. It was then that I started to dream. Not of winning of the stage but of small victories, like the King of the Mountains (KOM) points up for grabs at 28km. Could we stay away for that?
No, we couldn’t. Around the 17km mark just after we felt the first drops of rain, my partner indicated there was a small group of eight pursuants approaching so we took some of the gas off and awaited their arrival.
When it became apparent that most of the teams were now represented in this expanded breakaway, the thought that this move could go all the way obviously entered into everybody’s mind. Being in a break gives you wings and this little group had big birds in it. I must admit to being kind of excited but kept it cool and made sure my turns at the front were short just like everybody else’s.
Peeling off after taking a turn in the early break
However, soon reality in the shape of that KOM came back to snap me out of my reverie. We were by now on the “red road”, a 15km section of nasty little ups and super-fast downs. About a kilometre from the KOM one of the Picos launched himself and the pace shot up a notch or two. I clung on to the back for the first two inclines but by the KOM itself the gap was 10 metres and despite digging as deep as I’ve ever gone, I was out the back. I wasn’t alone, though, as only seven out of the group made this new selection.
Three of us dropees regrouped immediately and started working nicely and the rolling terrain gave the illusion that we were catching the leaders as they slowed near the top of each little peak but of course by the time we reached the same spot they’d be halfway up the next.
The rollers eventually petered out as we hit the coast for the only flat section of the course but the leaders were gone and indeed stayed away till the end. It was around this time that my Garmin computer died on me. It has a tendency to do this in the rain but luckily I had a GPS watch on too so I turned that on for back up. While the roads were definitely a tad treacherous due to the murky mixture of puddles and red dirt, the rain itself never got too heavy. Indeed, the clouds kept the temperature down to around 30 Celsius.
The peloton caught us just after the first ACE Sprint point at 42km. A few riders took the opportunity to slip away at this point and one of my breakaway partners tagged onto the back of this new group. Maybe I should have gone with them as I still felt fresh but I thought it best to drop back into the bunch and let my teammates know the situation.
It was quite nice sitting at the back for a breather but that didn’t last for long as Psycho had the first of many Maverick mechanicals. By the time Rich “Oldish” Paine, Chris “Scrabble” Szpojnarowicz and myself doubled back to him the Shimano neutral support guys were already there but it wasn’t the quickest of changes and we had a fast-moving peloton to catch. The chase was bloody hard but to be honest, such is the strength of Psycho that he did most of the initial work. Eventually we came across some of the Cannasia guys who had stopped to help one of their team leaders and with this expanded group bridging the final gap was a bit easier.
We had chased for about 15km so once again I sensibly sat at the back for a while to recover and get ready for the reemergence of the serial rollers. We rode through a big township and whole schools of kids were once again out in their hundreds waving their flags and cheering enthusiastically. It was really uplifting and I felt recharged for the battle. But then more shit fell on the Mavericks. Dave “Waxo” Wilkins, our man designated to go for the intermediate sprints, had a flat. Scrabble and I were right there and he unselfishly sacrificed his front wheel while I kept going to alert Oldish who was just ahead. He doubled back to Waxo while I spun ahead slowly so that when they reached me I could go hard on the front for a while. Ideally, it wouldn’t be the same three Mavs helping out so soon after one chase back but you just have to play the cards you’re dealt.
We knew the task was going to be super hard but fittingly I was with two of the hardest men I know so we just got on with it. My heart rate hit its high of 172 for the day during this effort and amazingly within 10km we were within touching distance of the bunch again. Then disaster struck.
Stage 1 snaked around the east and south of Bintan
The roads aren’t fully closed for the TdB but the police and safety cars do a great job of riding ahead of the race and making sure the oncoming traffic stops completely until the main bunch has past. Unfortunately for us a local motorbike rider thinking it was clear after watching the peloton speed by took this moment in time to coast slowly across the tarmac to talk to some friends standing roadside. All our warning shouts did was cause him to freeze and as Waxo and I diverged left and right the unsighted Oldish went straight into him! The sound of carbon hitting metal is never nice and I feared for the worst. Waxo made the correct decision to keep going as we had worked so hard to get him back on, while I turned back to check on our mate. Amazingly, a few cuts and bruises aside, Oldish was fine if a little shaken. And this was his second crash of the day! He reckoned the bike was screwed and so told me to head on. But as I reached the top of the roller ahead I realized I had absolutely no chance of getting back to the bunch so freewheeled back down to Oldish to wait with him until some more riders came along for me to ride with. In this short span of time Oldish had ascertained that his bike was fine and so we set off on the final 70km with Jez Broome of Cannasia, who’d given his wheel to his team leader, and the same Pico guy, Samuel Yang, who I’d shared that initial breakaway with.
We should really have taken it easy from here and conserved our energy for stages 2 and 3 but Oldish was having none of that and so we kept up a good pace as we tried to stay away from the Cat 2 peloton coming behind. After about an hour we came across Nick Swallow of Cycleworx, whose race had also been thwarted due to a puncture. Nick, the 2010 TdB runner-up, wasn’t content to sensibly spin back either so with his addition to our little group it felt like we were back in the race as the pace increased.
Luckily, the Cat 2 leading bunch caught us with about 15km to go and so we got to sit at the back, out of the way, getting a nice draft. A few other Cat 1 refugees were there too and it was a rather pleasant way to finish the stage.
I had mixed feelings about how the day had gone. I was pleased to have got in the early break but obviously disappointed that I didn’t have the legs to stay with the big boys. But I had no complaints about having to sacrifice my personal goals to help some of my fellow Mavericks as we’re a tight-knit bunch and without their support I wouldn’t have had the successful year I’ve had on the bike.
Stage 2 – Dropped
Stage 2 started and finished from the race’s Nirwana Gardens resort headquarters and was only 73km long but it held a bit of fear for me as in 2010 I had suffered badly in the first 50km and had only managed to cling on to the back of the bunch with the help of some of my teammates. However, I eventually recovered that morning and was right there at the finish.
Hanging out with Psycho, Daisuke-san, Teflon and Brando.
Determined it wouldn’t happen again I went for a decent warm-up of 40 minutes or so. The early break had stayed away in Cat 1 and the race leaders had a 90-second advantage to a second group of riders who had tried to bridge across in the latter part of the stage. Psycho had made it into that group and so was sitting in 8th place on GC, one spot behind my fellow Epic Rider Dave Christenson who was riding for the NeilPryde team.
Myself and Marlon “Brando” Quinn were given the assignment of attacking from the off so that we could be up the road when the pace inevitably heated up at the first KOM at 8km.
But right from the start my legs felt like lead and instead of sitting behind the commissaries’ car on the neutral start to Nirwana Garden’s infamous cobbles, I was struggling to even stay on as the peloton eased up the first hill. So it was no surprise to me when I was dropped like a stone on the KOM. I was bitterly disappointed especially as I’m supposed to be a climber. I wasn’t the only one to be spat out, though, a string of riders were left floundering on the short but steep slope. Once over the top I eventually teamed up with one of the SIRs riders. We agreed that we couldn’t just dawdle to the end and so we set ourselves the diminished goal of trying to stay away from Cat 2. We kept up a decent pace and had the company of a water motor bike who sat ahead and kept the on-coming traffic out of our way as we negotiated the fast and twisting corners. Coming into a town the kids were out in force again and we eased up a bit to soak up the atmosphere and have a bit of a chat.
Bintan is rarely flat as the Stage 2 profile demonstrates
Then, with about 30km to go we heard a shout from behind and there was a group of three approaching. We weren’t sure if it was a Cat 2 breakaway or fellow dropees so it was a relief to see their yellow numbers indicating they were Cat 1. Among them was another SIR and he quickly organized us into a paceline. This was just what I needed as like in 2010, I found myself reinvigorated and the legs were all of a sudden golden. We hammered it all the way back to Nirwana and I can safely and honestly say I put in the vast majority of the work. With 1km to go a police outrider passed us and the tell-tale sound of sirens behind meant that Cat 2 weren’t far away but we drove it home up the last hill and managed to avoid being caught. A small victory.
I rolled sheepishly up to my teammates and discovered that Psycho had again got in a breakaway that had made a minute-plus on the GC leaders. He was now up to 6th place and was only some 15 seconds off the lead. With Stage 3 being so short at 38km, however, it was unlikely there would be a great shake-up in the rankings.
We had two hours to kill before Stage 3 so I went back to my room, had a shower then went for a second breakfast. I sat there alone, still bitterly disappointed and feeling a bit sorry for myself. But I knew I had recovered fully and so sent our team leader Big Ad a text saying that I would try to redeem myself by attacking from the start of the third and final stage.
Stage 3 – Nothing Ventured …
I was given no team instructions for Stage 3, I guess the Mavericks tactical brains had taken note of my sorry performance in the morning so I was left to my own devices. This time when we started I got right behind the commissaries car, sitting inches away from the bumper as it negotiated the first hill and I stayed there as it sped down towards the cobbles.
Getting ready to pounce as Stage 3 rolls out
I was in the perfect position when the flag dropped and went for it like the proverbial bat out of hell. I was joined by that man Nick Swallow again and a NeilPryde rider also jumped across. I was delighted to discover that the old legs were indeed still golden and so I stamped down on the pedals as we negotiated the next hill and then swooped towards the right-hander that delivered us to the final inclines of that tough 3km section from the cobbles to the main road. As we rounded the left-hander into the long, straight open road there was no sign of the peloton. They obviously couldn’t be bothered racing yet so we had an opportunity to get away. It was soon apparent that NeilPryde wasn’t going to come through to contribute but Nick and I settled into a rhythm and just kept churning away.
My teammate Brando had warned me pre-stage that there was a headwind on the straight road but I was glad not to have listened to his counsel against attacking as I felt super strong. Once again, I knew there was no chance of staying away but I was after that bit of personal redemption, plus in the unlikely scenario there was a break from the bunch Psycho was sure to be in it so I’d be in a position to help him.
I must admit to having forgotten about the short stage’s only KOM until just before we turned left into Ria Bintan at the 15km mark. The KOM was as at 17km and we got a time check of 30 seconds so I put my head down and buried myself on the rollers up to the KOM. I was hopeful it wouldn’t be contested as NeilPryde hadn’t contributed a thing and I had probably done a little bit more of the work than Nick but nonetheless I threw myself up the last drag up to the KOM just in case. There was no cash prize and the 15 points were too little, too late to make an impact on the overall KOM classification but I can tell you it felt pretty damn good to cross that line first.
Within seconds it seemed we were caught and swallowed up by the bunch. But my legs still felt great so I settled in to recover and hopefully be able to help later. The rest of the stage, however, was over in a flash as there was less than 20km to go on basically flat terrain. Brando attacked a few times but they were having none of that and the whole race was together as we nervously approached the cobbles. The treacherous stones are situated at the official entrance to Nirwana Gardens and come complete with a roundabout in the middle leaving only a narrow space left and right to get to the safety of the tarmac. Luckily they were dry as the pace didn’t drop that much but I was right at the back. I guess my early efforts had taken a little bit more out of me than I’d thought as I didn’t make up much ground on the long drag up the penultimate hill. So rather than be in position to contest the finish I was a few seconds off the main bunch and stayed there to the end.
So that was the Tour de Bintan done for another year and I was fairly happy with my overall performance. I’d stepped up in class to Cat 1 and while not being as competitive as I’ve been in Masters racing all year I held my own and hopefully earned a little respect. I didn’t quite have my form of earlier in the year and I can only wonder what might have happened in that Stage 1 break if I didn’t have my first Ironman coming up in two weeks time. I’ve been putting a lot of weekly running miles in and this has definitely affected my top-end cycling speed. But hey, I’m just an amateur with a love for all endurance sports and I can’t wait to don that wetsuit and dive into the Indian Ocean south of Perth.
The Mavericks can be proud of themselves. The field assembled for the TdB was deep, with former and current pros as well as some big-name amateur names from around the region in attendance, so for us to get 7th place on GC through big Psycho (who incidentally is a gentle giant but got his name though his super strength and aggressive riding in training) only 15 seconds back was a great achievement. He’ll get a cheque for that and the Mavs will no doubt drink that up at our year-end bash.
It didn’t take us long to start celebrating anyway, as our Cat 2 boys did us proud with Stephen “Hairblade” Ames finishing third on GC and the squad taking the team prize.Post-race, the team got a little bit of media exposure in cyclingnewsasia.com (http://tinyurl.com/7qq2xq9) for our efforts. On a personal level, my exploits on Stages 1 & 3 were recognized ☺ but I was also named and shamed for getting dropped on Stage 2 ☹, ha ha.
The NeilPryde boys celebrate their team prize (photo by Alan Grant)
The 2011 Tour de Bintan was won by Heksa Priay Prasetya (Eddy Hollands), with Saiful Anuar Azia (Pico Bike Labz) in second and Wang Yip Tang (NeilPryde) third. Wang and his NeilPryde teammates, including my friend Dave Christenson, won the team prize.
There’s a lot of racing to be done between now and the next Tour de Bintan but I’m sure I’ll be back with the rebranded Confero Mavericks. Maybe next time I’ll try and do a bit more riding within the peloton … but maybe not!