On Friday, one day before the Qiansen Trophy Cyclocross Race in China, the race promoter arranged a tour of The Great Wall for the racers and staff. The 2013 Qiansen Trophy winner Thijs Al, fresh off retiring from professional racing and accepting a full-time job with AGU, a Dutch clothing cycling company, attended the tour, bringing his girlfriend and eight-month-old infant.
Al carried the his baby boy in a Baby Bjorn and strolled The Great Wall, taking in the sights with his family with little regard for his legs and the race he’d contest the next day. Climbing steep walls with an extra 20 pounds strapped to your chest isn’t exactly the legs-up-while-on-the-couch position we imagine most pro cyclists to be in the day before an important race.
Al has won World Cups, and once commanded a hefty salary with AA Drink-BeOne as one of the top riders in the world and fastest starters. He knows those days are long gone, and instead was focused on reaping the benefits of an all-expenses-paid trip to a faraway country to defend one of his last victories as a professional.
Back at the race hotel, Ryan Trebon (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) opted to skip the tour. It was his first-ever trip to Asia, and despite saying two days before the event that his China result really doesn’t matter and that he was really just excited to experience China, he chose to skip the tour, ride his bike, and rest for the race. It was telling.
Trebon is a competitor, arguably at the peak of his career, and lining up as the top-rated UCI cyclocrosser, the former US National Champion was driven to get the win. He would later tell Cyclocross Magazine, “I just went riding, I wanted to make the legs feel better. We came here to race, not to sightsee. I’d like to go see [The Great Wall], but work comes first. That’s what we get paid for, that’s why we show up and do the best we can.” The Qiansen Trophy race would be Trebon’s first cyclocross race since requiring 13 stitches to close up a massive cut he suffered during the 2014 World Championships in Hoogerheide.
Al and Trebon’s approach to the event highlighted two contrasting perspectives to the race, reflective of different pressure to perform and representing two different career stages.
Just two months prior, Al thought he’d never race cyclocross again. After a tumultuous year with Telenet-Fidea that was filled with schedule and compensation disputes, the Dutch racer had had enough. His contract expired at the end of December 2013, and he knew he was ready for the next stage of his career. He just had no idea he’d find a job so quickly, landing a role in helping teams and companies order custom clothing with AGU.
But when the call came, while it was tempting, it was also daunting. He wasn’t in race shape, didn’t have equipment (his Telenet Fidea bikes were gone), and he had a little one at home. But when he realized he had a chance to bring his family, and enjoy one of the last perks of a long professional career, he committed.
One of the first calls he made was to Niki Terpstra, the Dutch classics rider on Omega Pharma-Quick Step and winner of the 2014 Paris Roubaix. The two put in a big training block together, and that riding gave Al a bit of fitness to hopefully not embarrass himself when he toed the line in China. “I’m hoping for a top ten,” Al told Cyclocross Magazine a day before the race, citing Steve Chainel and Ryan Trebon as proof of faster competition than he faced the previous year.
Interim Leaders, Accurate Rankings
Despite their contrasting approaches, Trebon and Al would line up 1-2 in China based on UCI rankings, and were only separated by three places entering the season. And with one and a half laps to go, their UCI rankings appeared accurate, with Trebon leading Al throughout the forest and over the bumps of the future cycling park in Yanxing, China. It just took nearly an hour and turns at the front by the third and fourth-ranked racers to get to that stage.
The race’s first leader was none other than the third-highest ranked rider in the field, KCCX’s Zach McDonald. The University of Washington college student did his homework before the trip, not by studying Mandarin or Chinese history, but by developing a plan that utilized his skills and maximized his chances of getting some exposure for his new sponsor. “If I could start well, then my goal was to at least get some Chinese television time ,” McDonald told Cyclocross Magazine.
Sure, it’s not as if Bill Marshall’s KCCX program has a vested interest in becoming a household name in the the Chinese market, but McDonald knew cameras would be on him, and they were:
McDonald led for almost an entire lap before AG2R racer Steve Chainel came roaring by in the finishing straight. Chainel last rode his cyclocross bike (a Focus Mares) during the 2014 Paris Roubaix, and still on that bike was the 53 tooth chainring. Chainel let everyone know he had it, and had the legs to use it.