Stage One – Prologue
This was the day. Of all stages, I’d naturally pegged a prologue TT to target. The course was a “long” 6.3km, technical circuit through the Singha Park bike path. It’s tight, twisty, undulating and as I learned during recon – slippery when wet. I’d focussed my training around efforts suited to targeting a ~8.5 minute time around this course, I was quietly confident of a top ten but I came here to win.
The warm up felt good, one of those days when you need to remind yourself it’s only a warm up. The power was on tap and I started to get excited, wanting to get out pointlessly large efforts that I was only just able to sensibly reign in. I made it to the start line, sweating, caffeinated and praying that all moisture had evaporated. It was my lucky day.
I hit the first corner conservatively, started to wind up out of it and tucked my head. For once the Garmin helpfully alerted me I hadn’t hit start, one tap later it was officially time to enter the pain cave. I’m not naturally the most confident cornerer but if you give me point A and B and tell me when to arrive, the adrenaline does help to forget that.
The fact the course ran in reverse from my recon crash turned out to be a blessing. I’d still memorised a lot of detail and the sweeping 180 degree bends were mostly moderated by flat or uphill ground rather than downhill. The course was grippy enough and the tyres stuck all the way around. After a nervous 40 minutes waiting for a manual time, the Garmin reading was validated. I’d won the prologue by 21 seconds and earned my first leader’s jersey. What a day!
Stage 2 – Undulating 135km road race
There’d been some disbelief surrounding my time on the previous day, peloton politics had me a little bit concerned though it seemed all good by bed time; Peter Pouley (Roojai) had stepped in and moderated the debate via a good old Strava KoM-off. Still, I was worried I might find myself in a ditch and either way, I was now the man to attack.
A call up to the front with the team is never unwelcome in a hundred plus peloton! Rights to safety and not having to fight just to see the front of the race can’t be overestimated. The lads and I chatted grand strategy, optimism and actionable tactics. I was hoping to ride conservatively to a bunch finish and preserve my lead intact. To this end, when the aggression started from the gun my team mates were active in initiating moves, following them or chasing.
As so often happens, not much of the original plan panned out. Racing was aggressive, I followed the wheels of Uppers, Connor and Jordy around successive moves and I ended up in a 12 man breakaway with some major contenders. The elastic snapped, the teams in the bunch controlled moves and rode tempo. We were away.
I’d lucked out and Uppers had made the move with me. We did what we could to maintain cooperation while preserving our legs. The gap would blow out to about 5 minutes over the course of the stage. I felt pretty good though the move had necessitated a high tempo and I was in a position of vulnerability with a target on my back. There were a few pointless stabs over the first 80km but generally it was cooperative. There were two jerseys each from Velofit-Santic, Roojai and Yupster. This would come to bite me.
As we approached the intermediate sprint at just past 100km, Peerapol from Yupster attacked and pulled a commanding gap. Thus ended the group cohesion, with 35km of racing left, it was now my jersey to lose. Peerapol would take the sprint time bonus and his team mate, Phuchong then attacked to take the second bonus, dragging another rider with him for the last bonus. Hard times.
Uppers did what he could, covering small moves and chasing while riders ducked or rolled off the front. It was time to rep the jersey so I went to the front and wound into a chase. The riders came back in, Uppers conserved and gave me enough respite to keep ticking it over – I then told him to site in before the catch so he could pull tempo while I swing back, recover and guard against the next attack. He came through like a champ.
From here on, there would be only brief respite until the finish line, attacks were incessant. Lurch. Grab a wheel. Chase. Ride tempo. Rinse. Repeat. I cheered up when an attack came before the final turn, the attacker, with his head down, missed it and shot up the road. I turned the corner. Cross wind, 4km sign, huzzah!
I stuck it in the gutter and started to prise a gap. Unfortunately I’d be punished for this too, with both Yupster riders coming over to me to work me over. One working, the other sitting on. As other riders bridged, Phuchong punched it, I couldn’t respond. I watched precious seconds tick by. The last 3km to the finish only saw assistance provided by the aggression of Pouley and Uppers’ second (or tenth) wind; he came to the front right before I cooked to give me a few pulls to the finish. It came together, I lost ten seconds and remained leader into the third stage.
Stage 3 – Flat, hilltop finish
From the outside, I’d had some delusions of being able to win this stage. Entering it with legs having been torn to shreds over the last hour of the previous day and keeping the bulls eye square on me, I wasn’t feeling as confident. Strategically this was simple. I had to get to the final fresh, that meant a hard day for the boys of riding the front, covering moves, riding breakaways and closing gaps for me.
The stage again started with aggression. Perth’s Bryce Lanigan, riding for Cyclemania, launched the first attack and went solo for a while. He came back and then over the next 30km there’d be some probing attacks from the remaining GC contenders which had been greatly thinned by the breakaway time gap to the peloton. None of this would stick. Doug, Connor, Andy, Uppers and Jordy covered everything. Connor and Jordy kept a watchful eye on my position so I didn’t get caught out, while Andy, Doug and Uppers spent a lot of time up the road. uppers was ranking high on GC, necessitating work from the other GC teams and none from any of us.
Aside from a few forced responses and a little bit of self-punishment under the fools errand of trying to make a split, I had one of my easiest days on the bike ever thanks to the team work. I was able to ride a recovery level average power up to the base of the climb which was sorely needed.
As we came towards the climb the boys rode tempo again. We had Andy up the road, maybe able to ride to the finish and continue to keep pressure off. Jordy set off to claim the KoM and Doug covered a move trying to reach him. I sat and tested my discipline then turned my Garmin over to the elevation page so there was no power or heart rate to psych me out. Roojai and Yupster shot their trains to the front, riding a solid tempo up the base of the climb. Peerapol sat on Pouley and each still having a team mate ranking nearly as high on GC. Uh oh.
I needed Peerapol’s wheel, he was the greatest threat. How to break into a hostile train protecting a GC rider? Uppers and Connor were riding near me so I could hold position without touching the wind. I moved for Peerapol’s wheel, Connor moved up the other side and we squeezed until Jay (St George Continental guest for Yupster) dropped the wheel – show time. Yupster riders tried to push me out but I wouldn’t have it.
As we rounded up Andy (job well done mate), Pouley hit the gas. The race for the stage win and GC was now on. I held the wheel and we rapidly shot clear of the bunch. This climb isn’t exceptionally long but it twists and seems to ramp ever steeper with each bend. Pouley second guessed the attack as he hadn’t gapped myself and Peerapol. He swung off so I took a minor dig to keep them guessing. There were now five of us, Alex (Yupster) and Sainbayar (Roojai) were glued on just to menace me. Meanwhile, Jordy was still up the road accomplishing his mission of locking in the KoM jersey!
I can’t remember much here. Anaerobic heart rate makes things fuzzy, but there came a time where the clear attacks stopped and everyone was just riding on whatever strength they had for the line. Except for Alex. He rode clear, passed Jordy and forged on with purpose for the stage win; kudos, that was classy. Jordy drifted back to try and help me over the last 500m of the climb which must be near the most I’ve ever suffered on a bike. We turned left, the finish line was in sight. Alas, another pinch and into a headwind. Out of the saddle, seeing stars, why not!? I passed Pouley and put another 5 seconds in. Jordy took 4th, myself next to him at 5th. Peerapol moved into the GC lead by 0.267s. Mixed feelings.
Stage 4 – Crit/points race, one complicated affair
So, we entered the day with the narrowest of margins down on GC. Usually a final day crit would be looked at as a free day on a tour, where the GC would not change. We would be happy to lock down second on GC but wouldn’t accept this as default. Heading in, what could we do to change this? We discounted the idea of trying to ride out the points race to achieve a time bonus but at the same time, we couldn’t even be certain a time gap would count to the GC. We resolved to just ride conservative to preserve a GC podium and if an opportunity presented itself, take it.
Again the boys went in ready to fry themselves for me, covering moves, riding the front and closing gaps. The race was fast and the field shredded, averaging nearly 50km/h initially. I did my best to pick safe wheels, continue to mark GC riders and ride efficiently. Around about half way through the moment came.
I’m still not quite sure what possessed me but after looking back at the footage, the field was splitting again, Uppers had just ridden me over a gap and I’d subsequently cornered myself up to the front 5 wheels of the bunch. Peerapol (current GC leader) swung off hard and looked over his shoulder. I attacked immediately and through the next corner, his team mate Alex dutifully grabbed my wheel. I rode.
For the first couple of minutes a voice nagged, telling me this was a stupid move. But, it was opening and Alex was looking frustrated. He played his team role perfectly, sitting in for the free ride. It took two laps for me to realised that he was obviously going to sprint me for every point (and win, because I was working). I realised first that I didn’t care, I was just riding for a time gap that I hoped would count. I then realised, even better, that for every three laps until the finish I would be grabbing two points by default and four at the line – if I stuck it. Whelp, it’s all or nothing now and you can have your free stage win Alex.
Again, I stopped looking at power and just rode for the line. It hurt, a lot. I knew the team behind me would do all they could to frustrate any chase. Unfortunately we’d have a tragedy, Connor was squeezed out at the finish line one lap and suffered a broken bike but gladly, not a broken collarbone. As it turns out, it looks like Yupster had burned their matches. Footage shows that Peerapol had to chase and that there was rarely more than one of them at the front. By two laps to go, it seems it had reached the stage of acceptance. I buried my head and started to empty the tank.
I reached the final corner, realising I had a street length gap. Is this really happening? PUSH! I purposefully towed Alex forward for his last sprint bonus, first over the line and first on points. Never mind. Point at the logo, “Velofit-Santic”. That’s a 16s gap to the bunch, second at the line and a third on points. Stage podium. GC wrapped up. That just happened. I asked Alex to check my math. I again asked Uppers, we opted to reign in the enthusiasm and I contemplated whether I might blush at celebrating second on the line without being awarded GC…
However, fortune smiled on us and that’s the story of how we won the 2018 Tour of Chiang Rai! What an emotional roller coaster. I’ve seen some beautiful scenery, laughed my arse off and bonded. I couldn’t ask for more in a team. As a rag tag, zero budget, composite team we were able to knock off professional teams. It’s been an accomplishment for all involved and an absolute high point in my life. The organisers have made for a fantastic tour and above all I’ve been incredibly impressed with their streaming, the race coverage was great, especially the criterium. Thanks to the organisers for the invite, I very much hope I can return to defend next year.