After a long flight I stepped off the plane in Manila, Philippines and when I went to gather my luggage I saw a woman holding a sign with my name on it, “wow…v.i.p. treatment” I thought. I wasn’t expecting someone to be waiting for me but it was a welcome surprise as she quickly got me sorted with transportation to Matabungkay.
Matabungkay is 100km to the south of Manila and the lack of major roads makes it a three and a half hour drive. As we drove along through the darkness I could only get glimpses of my surroundings. We drove over a large mountain and down to the coast and arrived at the hotel in Matabungkay. The hotel was quiet and empty as I’d arrived two days prior to the race but there were still hotel staff working busily, prepping for the arrival of the riders. I got to my room totally smashed from the flight, which was less than ideal with layovers in both Hong Kong and Singapore before finally arriving in Manila, the total travel time was thirty six hours.
I awoke to the sound of waves crashing outside my room so I got up and headed out to find some breakfast. I had no clue when I arrived that the hotel was so close to the water so I had a nice view while at breakfast. I noticed another foreigner at a separate table and I realized it was a friend of mine, Daniel Carruthers. Daniel is a kiwi living in China and has been racing in Asia for quite some time and I usually see him two or three times during the season at races in south east Asia. After catching up briefly we decided to go out for a ride and explore a bit so after a quick bike build we were out on the quiet roads around Matabungkay.
This was my first trip to the Philippines so I really didn’t know what to expect and even though the locals knew about the upcoming race, to us two white guys on road bikes it was still a bit of a novelty. I quickly noticed a strange contraption that looked like a small school bus with a chop top. Daniel explained that they are called “jeepnies” and are a main mode of transportation in the Philippines, those and tricked out scooters with sidecars.
The next day the teams start to arrive and my teammates slowly began to trickle in. I race with a Hong Kong based elite amateur team called Team DirectAsia.com. Asia has a lot of amateur events that are similar in that they are usually in an area you’ve never heard of and you’re racing through the heat, the rain and sometimes heavy pollution and you’re constantly pinching yourself because you really can’t believe you’re there racing your bike. Another aspect of these races is that it draws a lot of talented riders from all over the world. You’ll meet guys from everywhere, my team alone has riders from Scotland, New Zealand, the US, Canada, Australia, Italy and New Zealand. In addition to the foreigners you’ve also got the top local riders turning up to race in their local race and to try to win some money as being a pro cyclist in Asia doesn’t pay well at all so any prize money they can win is helpful. This year the Tour of Matabungkay was the races ninth iteration and had four stages over three days. The first stage was to be a 20km individual time trial in the morning followed by a 70km road race in the afternoon. Stage three, the queen stage, was 150km with a 30km climb and the final stage was a 40km team time trial.
Stage one started early in the morning since there were to be two stages on the day. As we warmed up for the time trial there were large crowds lining the roads and a lot of hired military with machine guns controlling traffic. With the crowds and all the riders out on the course you really get the sense that you’re taking part in something special, something that not a lot of people get to do.
I roll up to the start line and get the thirty seconds to go from the commissaire I get really focused and then “5-4-3-2-1” and I’m off speeding through the Matabungkay countryside. The crowds lining the roads are definitely a benefit as it makes you push that much harder. As I make my way over the small climb I’m cheered on by several fans and even had one guy jogging alongside me till he was too tired to keep going. Quickly down the other side and through the flats, up the long drag the finish, inside the barriers with more cheering fans and its over. I was seventh on the stage and my teammate, Colin Robertson, took the stage win, a great start to the race for our team.
Back at the hotel you have enough time to rest a bit and change your race kit then you’re back rolling out to the start of stage two. As I’m riding along all I can think of is how hot it is out now, at least ten degrees more than it was during the time trial and I was thinking it was hot then. As we take the start line there is a certain sense of pride that I’m riding with the yellow jersey in my team but also a bit of stress knowing you’re going to have to try to help defend that jersey.
The commissaire holds the starting pistol up, says a few words, fires and we’re off. This is where things start to go awry for me, I’m not feeling well at all in the heat and I’m still suffering from jetlag. Another aspect of racing in Asia is that course descriptions and distances can be less than accurate, the stage was described as “rolling” and as we head towards a large climb I think to myself “are we going up that?”
As we rode up the climb the pace was blistering and the gradients steeper than anything you’ll see in the US. You’re looking over at the child-sized Filipino riders next to you looking totally comfortable on these gradients while you’re struggling to hang on. At the top I’m still with the front group and as the road starts to descend it’s just as steep as what you just rode up and super technical, at the base of the descent there’s a crash in front of me and there are bikes and bodies strewn across the road but I manage to stay upright and have to stop to put a foot down. By this time there is a group up the road that Colin, the yellow jersey, has gotten into so I’m trying to make my way back up to him but I realize I probably won’t be able to. The course that was described as “rolling” ended up having ten 2km climbs with gradients between 12-20% and the final climb averaged 17%. There was some serious suffering going on and several riders had to walk up the final climb. I had some thoughts about putting a foot down and walking but managed to get over it using every bit of my 39-26. At the end of the stage I’d learned that my teammate, Eric Felbabel, was one of the riders who’d crashed and was at the hospital with a broken collarbone. He returned that evening in tatters, covered in road rash but still in good spirits considering he’d crashed out.
Stage three was to take us 150km over rolling terrain and a 30km climb for good measure. As we made our way towards the climb we rode through several small towns and again were greeted by fans on the roadside. With the climb in sight the pace was high as riders jostled to be at the front. On the lower slopes the speed was very high and the race blew apart. I was just behind the front group but not really able to climb with the best of them on the day so I rode my own pace and got into a good group that was working together. At the upper slopes the views were amazing, out in the distance was a huge lake with a volcano in the center and in the crater another small lake. You don’t have much time to enjoy the views as you’re soon over the top and descending. A 30 km climb means a 30km descent and it was an absolutely ripping descent, not many turns and good roads so you could really push it.
At the base of the descent the group I was with had swelled to about thirty riders and the chase was on. I was at the back of the peloton chatting to one of my teammates, David McAdam, who we’d caught on the descent to ask what the race situation was up front and suddenly, boom! His tire exploded, he swerved toward me in an effort to keep it upright and we both almost hit the tarmac. We stopped to see just exactly what had happened and he told me to go on ahead so I rode off alone having lost the group and no way to catch back on. I finished the stage riding at a fairly easy pace and was able to enjoy some scenery along the way. At the finish the difficulty of the day showed on many of the riders faces. I had come in several minutes back on the lead group but riders were still coming in 45 after I had finished.
The fourth and final stage was the 40km team time trial and again an early start. The same crowds were lining the roads and greeting you with smiles. I know this will be a tough fifty or so minutes on the bike but I’m also thinking “just one hour and the race is done and then time to relax down at the beach”. Racing in the heat takes a lot out of you and wreaks havoc on your body. On both road stages I’d been struggling to eat and to keep water down, on stage three I’d only managed to eat one gel in the whole 150km. I was feeling drained from the last couple of days and just really looking forward to not racing in the heat.
My teammate, Colin Robertson, is the best time trialist I know. He’s spent a lot of time honing his position and not to mention he’s got a massive engine. He’d also qualified to ride the Commonwealth Games a few years prior but was unable to take part due to illness. My teammates are no slouches either, some of the best amateur riders racing in Asia. These are the things I’m thinking as we’re about to start, all these things I’m mulling over and it all adds up to “this is going to hurt!” Such is Colin’s skill in the time trial he tells us he’ll ride the first 20km on the front and then we’ll come through in the final 20km to help him out.
At the gun we quickly fall into line and we’re flying along at 50+kmh. I’m sitting third wheel and feeling comfortable and thinking “this isn’t so bad”. At about the 10 km mark I hear a loud rattling and I quickly realize that my saddle has come loose and it’s flopping all over the place. I’m not able to sit on it or get any leverage from it, I’m sort of hovering over it just to ensure it doesn’t fall off. I’m not sure what to do should I pull out of the race? Only three riders have to cross the line so pulling out would be ok but when I look around I notice that we’ve already lost one of our five riders so I stay. I yell out to the team to let them know I’m having a problem with the bike but when you’re going 50kmh with a TT helmet on you don’t hear much. The rider sitting second wheel is starting to suffer so he rolls off to the back of the line and I’m now sitting second wheel.
At this point my lower back is wrenching with pain from the awkward position I’m holding my body in and we start to climb one of the two short climbs on the course. Colin rises out of the saddle and pushes the pace a bit but I yell out to him “I can’t get out of the saddle or else it will fall off” so he backs off the pace a bit. In a normal TTT I’d be feeling the pain in my legs but I feel nothing except the awful pain in my back and I’m not sure how long I can keep this up. After the turn around point I finally tell the guys that I can’t handle the pain in my back anymore but then I look and realize we’re down to three riders having lost another rider on the climb.
Now I just accept that I have to make it to the finish to ensure the team gets a good time. On the second climb I realize we haven’t got far to go so I’m motivated by the thought that “only a bit further and it’s over”. On the descent off the second climb I’m flying and I look back to see I’ve opened a huge gap on my two teammates so I slow slightly to wait for them. Once we regroup we make the final push for the line and as I cross the line I rise up off the saddle and it falls off. I’m happy that I can finally sit up off the bike and the pain quickly subsides.
Back at the hotel we have a few drinks and laugh about certain points in the race and although we only finished with three riders in the TTT we still managed second place on the day. With the race over and the awards ceremonies all wrapped up riders quickly pack up and head to the airport.
I stay on a few days more to explore Matabungkay off the bike. I take a few trips to the beach and visit a few small villages and sample local street food.
This is sometimes my favorite part, the aftermath, the complete exhaustion and no agenda for a few days time. I also realize the racing is what brings me here its not why I do it. Although the results matter to a point the true reward comes from the adventure, all the things that don’t have to do with the bike. I think traveling half way around the world just to race your bike would be crazy, although some of the rewards are obvious some of them are intangible but are things that will be with you forever.