It is Monday morning and after a hard weekend of racing I find the time to write about the race on Saturday.
From the start on we had difficulties to form a team. Alain and Olivier were on board almost immediately when the proposal came up to race in Tsukuba this year, but with only three riders and eight hours racing time we would have not stood a chance. And be very exhausted in the end. Alain and me tried to contact as many other riders as possible, sending personal e-mails, calling, resorting to blackmail and even offering money (well, 500 Yen of sweets to my son), and finally Jerome and his two sons Leonard (13) and Augustin (10) came to our rescue. I was very happy, as I had planned to attend another JCRC race in Gunma CSC the following day and I don’t want to race 2 – 3 hours on the day before in Tsukuba. As we didn’t know how many riders we were, I registered only Alain, Olivier and me as a three rider team.
So when we arrived at the race, we got only three team numbers and we need to change them secretly between the riders. This is not exactly the way it should be done, but as we had no ambitions to make the podium no harm was done [Note: Please delete all traces of e-mails discussing race strategy and podium ambitions send before the race from your PCs. It is just embarrassing.]
We were nevertheless probably the only six rider strong three rider team in Tsukuba ever and I still believe we deserve a special price for most skilled cheating and one more for radiating appropriate image of foreigners in Japan. I arrived early at 7:30 AM at the race track to reserve a good place close to the pit. (note: This is the image of us Germans, that we go to the beach at 4 AM in the morning, place a towel at a good place and come back at 10 AM to demand our rightfully reserved place). At least I thought so. But at least 298 of the 300 other teams seemed to be there as well. I found a nice place close to our pit nevertheless and erected our sunshade. After I fixed everything I was approached by two officials who told me that tents can only be erected at the yellow line and that I had to remove my stuff immediately. Yes, this is unfortunately Tsukuba. A lot of rules which are not necessarily logical but there since the race started. Tradition since 2003. More conflicts with the officials would follow in the course of the day.
Nevertheless I like Tsukuba. First of all, it has been the first race I have ever attended, at the tender age of 40. I was there with Juliane and the Veloz team [now: Tamagawa Cyclists] and we were doing pretty bad. But I was much impressed with racing. In 2006 we went there again with David, david and cycling Jane, targeting a podium place in the „racing mixed“ category and in fact we ended up 56th overall and 10th in our class. Also there are always a lot of good looking female riders attending and many similar good looking family support staff. It brings tears to my eyes when I see how some of the riders are pampered by their wives and girlfriends. They prepare barbecue for them, hold umbrellas to provide shade on the start grid and they do many other chores I can only dream about asking my wife.
So I took our tent to the top of the pits where there was just some space free and then Jerome and his kids and Alain and Olivier came already.
There are some important traditions at Tsukuba (since 2003) and one of them is the cheerleaders performance from nearby Toyo Highschool before the race. I took a lot of photos this year. Actually I didn’t bother to take much more photos after the cheerleaders performance. Of the race or so, for example. Cheerleading is very important in Japan. The main purpose is to cheer up the audience to survive baseball and shogi games. Often cheerleaders are supported by dynamic music bands to even enhance the cheerful atmosphere.
Then it was already time to start racing.
As Alain is extremely skillful of using his extended elbows (I still believe that he has some steel rivets attached to his bones below the skin) to push and shovel his way through large group of riders, he was the rider to start. And as usual, despite starting from position 174, so almost in the middle of the field, he managed his way to 7th place after the first lap and stayed with the fast group. After some more laps he was even in 2nd position which made us, and especially the kids very excited. Our best standing ever!
Actually the kids should not have been that excited, as we decided before the race, that they would not ride in case we show a good performance. But of course we couldn’t kept the pace. We cheered up Alain as good as we could, I even used what remained of my French language knowledge („Allez Alain – only 140 laps to go!“) and hoped that he stays out forever, so that I could enjoy the relative comfort of my camping chair and the good food brought by Jerome. But then it was Jeromes turn and then mine and then Olivier and we dropped to 20th place. So we decided to let the kids do some laps, whereas we dropped to 30th place. But that was ok.
In the meantime one of the race officials kept picking on us. First he was not satisfied how our team entered the pit area. Then he gave us a warning because we were standing outside the yellow line in the pit (as everybody else did) and then he asked me to fix our sun shade better. He was clearly looking at us and trying to apply some ijime at every occasion that was offered to him. I didn’t want to claim, as our rather unique six rider three rider team was anyway constantly in danger of getting disqualified. It was getting really hot. Later the CICLO speedmeter on my bike showed 47 degrees Celsius. I don’t believe that, but it was really, really hot.
The key to success in Tsukuba is to stay with a good and fast group and hold out as long as you can.
The track is very flat, so there is no much variation of speed, although you need to accelerate some times. Basically one can run all the time in a 35 – 45 km/hr range if you are riding with a group. If you are alone on the track it is rather hard to keep a good speed. In the afternoon it also gets windy, so in some places your speed might drop to 30 km/hr or even less. So the best strategy is to go out, take it easy at 30 – 40 km/hr and wait and preserve energy for a fast group to overtake you, then hang on to their tail as long as possible. My first round of laps was not very good, as I was on my own almost all the time and I couldn’t find a good group, neither restricting myself to go slow. But the second and third time were much better and I hang on to some fast guys, even leading these groups some time. We all did a good job, but with the kids doing slower laps and more frequent changes we dropped down to the 50th position.
Jerome had his bag of wonder dried plums with him. This, he explained to me, is his secret recipe for reviving his energy levels and showing good and strong performances during long races. Well, I am not sure what exact performance enhancing impact it has on his metabolism, but in my case the only performance enhancing impact I could notice was a more physical one, similar to jet propulsion. This was becoming more pronounced during the races and it has the interesting side effect that other riders drafted behind me only for very short periods before dropping from their bikes. Leaves were turning brown, insects stopped chirping, beavers started suddenly to prepare for the winter despite 47 degrees of heat and flocks of birds migrated in direction Siberia. Why is there no big yellow warning label on the packing?
Stabilize the pace at 50th place midterm during the race.
After some more warnings from the race officials (Jerome had to remove his speed bars of his bike, one of his kids was not wearing gloves when he rode) Jerome and his kids went home and our six rider three rider team was reduced to three riders, Alain, Olivier and me. We all felt that this was somehow unfair after all this unfair discrimination we had to endure during the past 6 hours. Jerome has told his wife that he would be home at 7 PM, assuming that an eight hours endurance race would include 4 hours of transportation to and from the race track. An understandable thought when one considers the patience and endurance one need to navigate a car through the traffic in Tokyo.
As the pit closes 30 minutes before the finish of the race, we fixed again our strategy. We were down to 55th place and we wanted to recover as much as possible. So we asked Alain to do some laps, and then Olivier and me would alternative until shortly before the pit closing whereas Alain would do the last 30 minutes. Alain hold out very long, so I did additional 6 laps after him which were fast and done with a strong group of riders. At the very end I accelerated to more than50 km/hr and sprinted away even from this fast group. Some guys tried to follow me and they were left dumbfolded when I entered into the pitlane at the very last moment.
This left only a few laps for Olivier to go and then Alain hat to come out again to do the last thirty minutes in one go. He was doing well in a fast group and we cheered him up („Go Alain, only 20 laps to go to the top!“) from the comfort of our pits. Also we flirted with the women teams to the left and the right, as there was nothing else to do. Then the last lap was called and as it was getting dark the race came to an end.
As I found out later, we ended overall in 49th position. My best Tsukuba result so far, a good start for Jerome’s kids and Olivier who did his first race. And also a nice goodbye to Alain who is leaving for France soon. After the last lap all riders assemble on the track and then they ride together one more ceremonial lap to the start. There is some music (I guess it was Titanic or so) and some fireworks, really nice, festive atmosphere. This is also a good old Tsukuba tradition and we were all very happy that we survived to see the fireworks and made a good show.
We were a good team and we had a lot of fun. And that is all we ask for.
Race analysis will follow later, once I have the lap chart from the organizers.
Best team name newly discovered : UGA („Ultra Genki Athletes“).