• The view from the top... climbing through the switchbacks at the Tour of Qinghai Lake (Tour of Qinghai Lake)Source: Tour of Qinghai Lake
Racing at an average altitude just shy of 3000 metres above sea level. Risking life and limb in treacherous conditions as the bunch swarms with massive prize money on the line. It's not the Tour de France, it's the Tour of Qinghai Lake. Marcus Culey of St George Continental was riding for the first time in the 13 stage event and described his experiences from one of the toughest races on the calendar.
By
Marcus Culey

4 Aug 2017 - 10:36 AM 

When July rolls round each year you can be assured the eyes of the cycling world world are firmly fixed in one place. France. ‘Le Tour’ is the pinnacle of the sport in which merely participating is a dream of all aspiring young cyclists! For this reason, you’d be forgiven for having not heard of the ‘slightly’ smaller .HC event, the Tour of Qinghai Lake, occurring just 7500km east of Paris in Qinghai, China.

The jewel of the Asian tour, this ‘breathtaking’ event takes place over 13 stages and 2042km of racing. Add to this the location, China’s Tibetan Plateau and an average racing altitude just shy of 3000m, peaking at 4120m and that ‘breathtaking’ event descriptions takes on a more literal meaning.

It's the central focus of the season for a great many on the Asian tour; with a mythology of food poisoning, fast racing, huge prize money and possibly season ending fatigue that has grown over the event's 16-year history. With past victors such as Cunego, Hamilton, Tjallingii and Danielson and a 2017 start list that matched the pedigree of those champions of yester year (indeed Cunego returned for the first time since 2003), it is clear this is no race for the faint hearted.

So it was, in the early morning of the 10th of July while those in ‘Le Tour’ were enjoying their first rest day, myself and the St George Continental team where huddling around the one of the many coffee shops of Sydney Airport preparing for departure. 36 hours of travel across 3 separate flights weere to follow. Travel of this duration wouldn't even be entertained for a second by your standard UCI team. For us, St George, a second-year Continental team whose focus is firmly on Asia, it's just part of the normal way of things.

Arriving in Xining, a small city at the foothills of the Lake and only 2400m above sea level we would have 4 days of final acclimatisation to follow what had been for me almost 8 weeks in and out of a hypoxic tent back at home in Sydney.

As expected, racing was fast, very fast. Low air pressure, smooth wide roads (8 lanes at times) and half a peloton of highly motivated Eastern European professional teams, intent on generating a large percentage of their annual income from the $US500,000 prize pool. Instantly, it became apparent any prior knowledge of my bodies physiological capabilities in races could be thrown out the window, expensive power meters previously used to refine exact training programs back home were proven redundant, it was heart rate that dictated all.

By Stage 3 it was time for the first day in the mountains, high mountains. Forget the talk of the great Cima Coppi of the 2017 Giro d’italia, the Stelvio Pass at 2757 metres. Today we were climbing to 3819 metres above sea level. Team manager, Brett Dutton, would later tell me of breathtaking scenery of the likes he had never seen before, on a seemingly eternally rising road in a place you would never visit if not for events such as this. All I remember is Gisseppe Fonzi’s rear wheel (Ursus, maybe 50mm deep, 28 cassette, yellow). He was the Lantern Rouge of this year’s Giro, if he could haul himself around Italy for 3 weeks and survive he could haul himself up this mountain!

As it turned out, going up wasn't as much a problem as coming back down. The 60km descent back to 2200m proved too much for me, fatigued and slightly disorientated I lost my front wheel at 60km an hour around a switchback right hander and slid across the road. Only missing some skin, I was quickly back up and able to limp to the finish. 10 stages to go!

The race quickly turns into a blur, good days, bad days, rainy days, blistering hot days and days of wondering what sort of sequence of life events led you to riding your bike at over 3000m in the middle of China in the pouring rain and wind for hours on end.

By stage 8 I was tired, everyone was tired, except perhaps the Kolss team. Back to back 220km plus stages before a highly-anticipated rest day left the field shattered all perhaps Ukrainian rider Oleksandr Polivoda who took back to back stage wins on these five-hour-plus days in the saddle.

Stage 10 and I made the break of nine which went over the KOM in the middle of the stage. In the group, Stefan Schumacher, former yellow jersey at the TDF, Yevgeniy Gidich, 2018 Astana world tour recruit, and a host of Asia’s best.  Just happy to be there and do my fair share of the work, I wasn’t so happy to be caught with only 800m to go on the stage, oh so close, yet somehow still so far.

Stage 11 is where things got crazy, the 240km epic eventually had to be cut short due to mud on the road from the continued pouring rain. It began with a 120km uphill drag to start the stage, pouring rain all day and once the descent started it became wild. Every corner we seemed to lose a rider, touch your breaks in anything other than a perfectly straight line and you became well acquainted with the road.

By the 160km mark the race resembled a “Tour de France crash highlights” reel. Human skittles as dubbed by myself. In one instance 30 or more riders went down sliding up to 100m each, leaving the organisers no choice but to cancel the race. To drive home the point another 20  riders came down as we slowed down for the end of the stage and before I knew it, there I am face up on the side of the road, covered in mud, sweat and rain. Intense pain shooting down my right side. It’s been an experience.

The race finally made it to the finish of the Tour in Zhongwei. 13 stages done, 2000km of racing complete. Someone won, many more lost. So, while 7500km away Chris Froome stands in yellow upon the Champs Elysees, I slump in the back of a plain white van, on the side of an 8-lane highway in rural China. We’ve both raced our tours, perhaps now you’ve heard of mine.

Marcus Culey is 23-year-old Australian cyclist, riding his first year in Asia for the Australian squad St George Continental.