Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Road Racing, Cambodian style.

Things are never done quite the way I'm used to here in Cambodia. That's one of the things I love about the place. With that in mind, I wasn't sure what to expect when I rolled up to the start line of the inaugural Sihaoukville bike race.

Having clambered out of bed some time before 5am (I don't like giving such early times the honour of actually being named), I forced down some muesli (and accidentally purchased strawberry UHT turns out the pink packaging that so attracted me was trying to tell me something). I then pedalled down to the start, feeling equal parts smug and jealous as I rode past the last of the drunken revellers making their way back to their hostels.

The race was scheduled to start at 6am. In true Cambodian style, proceedings were to be launched by a certain "His Excellency", in this case the Minister for Tourism and head of the Cambodian Olympic Committee, Dr. Thong Khon. In true Cambodian style, Dr. Khon was late.

So, at 6.15, just as it was getting light, and after Dr. Khon had regaled us with uplifting words of encouragement (I guess that's what he was doing), the race began in earnest. I wasn't confident that I'd be able to stay in touch with the leaders for long. My efforts to procure a road bike for the event had failed, so I was on my trusty mountain bike, fitted with "slicks". Therefore, my race plan consisted of "keep up for as long as possible".

Unfortunately, at about the 5km mark, a full one half of my team (Rowdie) suffered a puncture. He managed to fix it only to get another 6km later. So that was his day done. Punctures were not uncommon.  The course (which incidentally was three times around a 20km loop) varied; reasonable asphalt; an interesting potholed section of about one kilometre; sand; and several corners that were as gravelly as Bob Dylan's voice and as rough as Mickey Rourke's face.

And while the surface was interesting, it was nothing compared to the litany of creatures and machines that were using it to move from one place to another, or just to lie on. There were several close calls with dogs, cows and chickens. But the most absurd and delightfully Cambodian was a shopping strip that increased in busyness with each lap. On the final loop, the place was truly heaving, with people, motos, tuk-tuks, busses, vans, and trucks going about their mornings. It was great.

And just as corruption is common in government here, so too it is in sport. Several riders got disqualified for sitting out a lap and then joining in the lead group for the final sprint. I was also overtaken by a lad doing the "sticky bidon", except there was no bidon (this is also known as motorised doping, or just hanging onto a motorbike).

My race went better than expected. I managed to stay with the leaders for most of it. On the third lap, I even went on a solo, and suicidal, breakaway. I didn't even mean to. I just started riding at what I thought was the same pace we had been going. When I looked around to make sure everyone was present and correct, I noticed that I was all alone. I decided to keep on going, you know, just to see. After I couple of kilometres, my lead had grown to about 200 metres. I started dreaming of a famous victory. Then I started to get tired. Then there was a hill. Then everyone rode past me. I managed to latch onto the back of the group.

By the crest of the hill, the group had split, and I was with the last three. We rode together to the finish and I took out the sprint for what at the time I was told was ninth, but thanks to several disqualifications turned out to be sixth.

The race was won by Lucky, an ever-smiling tuk-tuk driver with Chris Hoy thighs. If you ever want to meet him, you'll find him hanging out around the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. He was bookended on the podium by a couple of members from the Cambodian national team.

All in all, it was a great race; fun; a little crazy; and very Cambodian.

The race was organised by Village Focus International, a local NGO that seems to be doing great work. If you'd like to know more about them or donate, click the link.

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