Killer loops

Registration woes persist, but the quality of courses and competition with the HKCA races these days is unmatched writes Brandon Kirk

“Only seven riders today?” scoffed a bemused Cheng Cheuk Chun as he surveyed the field of Open class competitors, which included myself. As the overall winner of the 2008 Action Asia mountain bike series, Cheng was accustomed to beating down hundreds of riders in one go – today he would have to be content with laying the smack down on six of us. Like anything where government bureaucracy is involved, joining an HKCA race has always been an arduous process, similar to what I would imagine purchasing alcohol during Prohibition must have been like. But just like the moonshine you would get from a speak-easy, there’s nothing like enjoying a well-kept secret. Where else can you enjoy a killer race for 35 Hong Kong dollars?

“I’m out of shape,” Cheng complained. “You’ll still beat everyone,” said Masters competitor John Tonks. No one doubted this, but my hopes were high that I might at least have a shot at the podium, which I had been trying for years to claim. Before the main race, the uber-fit fools did a one-lap, full-out time trial as an additional prologue event, which I decided I’d rather not blow my limited energy on. Cheng rolled in with a time of 10 minutes 59 seconds, which is absolutely insane given that the slowest person to attempt it didn’t come back for nearly half an hour.

Unlike the Wan Tsai race, the officials did not spare us any laps based on the finishing times of this one-lap test run, and so we would be on the hills-of-death course for over two hours. Thankfully, though, the course did not include the treacherous high-speed water catchment run with slime-covered blind corners skirting past unforgiving concrete blocks with sharp edges sticking out right at knee-level. So I had no excuses for holding back on the almost entirely dirt loop, and nobody in our category seemed to be taking it easy.

The young guns sprinted off the line, leaving the more experienced and calculating racers to pick them off later as they dropped like flies. I held a steady pace towards the back, knowing that I would race much better if I didn’t make myself winded in the first couple of laps. Avoiding a crash was my main concern at first, so I pedaled on the side of caution rather than trying to get up front since there wouldn’t be too many over-exuberant newbies to pass [whether immobilized by exhaustion or lack of technical skill] as would be the case in the Action Asia series.

The lack of a huge crowd was actually quite welcome. A couple of times slower riders would clog things up on the long technical downhill, but I never had to waste any energy on yelling “Get off the trail if you’re going to stop!” It was a situation that I much preferred to the larger races – kind of like traveling independently on your own time versus joining a frantic tour group with a tight schedule.

The loop started with a gradual middle-ring climb, which dipped and swerved and got you into a good rhythm early on. At the top of the first hill, where I had stashed my water and gels, a small crowd of supporters were gathered to cheer us on and watch as we downshifted into a fast and furious contour trail through dense forest, lasting only a short while before the most difficult technical section – a long slog, mostly uphill, through a denuded hillside smattered with rocks jutting out from all different directions and requiring absolute concentration to avoid falling off. I wished I had worked more on my core strength for this one – especially as I was lying in the bush hyperventilating on the penultimate lap having to tell myself, out loud, “get up or you’re going to cramp” - and halfway into the race I realized it was best conquered in the granny gear to avoid getting stuck.

Next, we climbed a series of steep switchbacks where, right after my crash, I was mercifully lapped by Cheng Cheuk Chun but managed to hang onto him until just before the very top when I began to cramp on the outside of my legs from having come off the bike. Earlier, I had followed Elite B rider Edward Cluer up the same hill after he closed the one-minute starting gap and passed me, keeping pace with him all the way up. Such climbing prowess I can only credit to an excess of training time, which has been one of the few benefits of my rather extended unemployment.

“There are two guys ahead of you!” shouted my photographer friend Wong Ho Fai, as I rounded the top of the hill on the final lap. I railed the downhill section, knowing I would gain some ground on the leg-shavers. And then he appeared, right in front of me. SCAA rider Chung Yuet Shan was 20 feet away, as I came to the bottom of the big sweeping turns, and I chased him up the last steep hills. He was slower, but steadily getting faster as he knew I was right behind him on the home stretch. I held him, but couldn’t get any closer as my quads burned right on the edge of seizing up, and I saw him cross the line right in front of me. Only 1.96 seconds away from third-place and my would-be first ever podium spot, after two hours and six minutes of non-stop hammering. Still, it was one of the best racing days I’ve had yet.

Cheng of course took first in the ten-lap Open category with a time of 2 hours, five minutes and 42 seconds, one lap up and a few seconds ahead of second place finisher Leung Chun Wing, who was a minute ahead of Chung. Ed Cluer won the Elite B / Masters 30-39 with a time of 1 hour, 50 minutes and 42 seconds for eight laps, relatively far ahead of second and third place finishers Sin Chun Kwong and Leung Man Hin who came in at around 1:55 and 1:58 respectively.

As usual, Yeung Chi Pui dominated the field of Masters 40-49 riders with a time of 1:24 for six laps, six minutes ahead of John Tonks and a lap plus a minute and a half up on third place finisher Chan Chik Fai. Yeung Siu Yiu took first in the Novice category in a close four-lap race of just over an hour where the top five riders finished within seven minutes of each other. Thanks to the sublime course built by the Lamma crew [most of whom were out riding on Lantau, ironically enough] and an increasingly well-organized HKCA, it was an absolutely fantastic event for racers and spectators alike, and one that I would recommend to anyone who takes cross-country racing seriously.