Altay Expedition Race Day 4: Finish Line Stories

By Nicola Cameron


Just outside the luxurious Jindu hotel in the pleasant city of Altay, China (the city rather than the region of Altay), a high quality speaker is playing American music as part of the finish line.  This is the first time I have heard an American song that wasn’t chopped up and remixed into a sort of undecipherable top 40 Chinese music salad.  It’s clarity and familiarity provoke the usual end of race nostalgia – relief followed by a quick come-down from the real world breaking through the confines of the circumscribed race world.

Seagate crossed the finish line, once again first place, looking as if they had been shaken with seasoning salt and left in a dehydrator.  Despite their appearance, they were much happier than when we saw them at the World’s Worst TA yesterday evening and noted that the bike ride to the finish was green and beautiful, a nice race ender after the harshness of the desert. Joanna Williams had the finish-line face I associate with the best adventure racers – so tired that she spoke with a time lag as if little weights held down her face and eyelids, but clearly still entirely functional and ready to keep on biking if that was required.  And still smiling.

Waiting at the finish was a team of fans – the other youth New Zealand teams of Sneaky Weasels and Greenhorns, eager to see the leaders of Kiwi adventure racing win yet again.  Sneaky Weasels, if you’ll recall, dropped out due to one team member’s dehydration, and Greenhorns had a mechanical issue on the bike.  It turned out that the navigator on the Sneaky Weasels had panicked a bit during the thunderstorm high on the mountains during the first trek – “I guess I went into a bit of fight or flight” – and forgot to drink for enough time that he later began vomiting and couldn’t continue. The Greenhorns shamefacedly admitted that their team member – who works at a cycle shop! – didn’t change his old chain prior to leaving, and that the dust and the mud ground down an already old chain to unusable. “I thought I had one more race in it – I didn’t think it would be this technical down here.  But yeah, I should have changed it.”  Both mistakes generated some great stories and wonderful warm interactions between the Seagate old guard and the up and coming racers. The contrast between the freshly showered young’uns (the greenhorns are the youngest team here) and the wily and weathered Seagate was striking.

Silva arrived about two hours later. Chris Forne from Seagate finished the rocky trek with a smirk on his face – the sport’s best navigator was pretty sure he had nailed the difficult section and that nobody would be able to follow his lead. Despite Silva’s comment in transition that “Forne should be a banned substance in racing,” Silva managed to have almost equal success in the trek and held onto Seagate through the bike with two-hour gap. Although they didn’t have a contingent of young swedes waiting to cheer them in, they commented how much in favour they were of the incentive for youth teams. The best adventure racing team in Sweden has been the best team since 2002 – no new teams have come up to take its place. Bjorn Rydvall of Silva spoke dreamily of Latitude 63, another Swedish team in the race, that features young twin Swedish girls, hoping that they would get strong enough that they could add two new Swedish girls to the pool of team-mates. (Latitude 63 requested a pick-up so we’ll have to catch up with them later to find out how their race went).

Estonia Ace Adventure arrived in the rain and dark five hours later. “That was the hardest day I have completed adventure racing” said team captain Rain Eensaar.  “The wind, in our face all the time, on the bike – this was very difficult.” After some prompting for details about their race, he continued “I have noticed such diversity on this race course, with the landscape and the weather.  We have been in the mountains and the desert, we have frozen and burned and faced these insects and this wind.  This will be a very nice challenge for the youth teams here.  We saw one of them on the trek.  I think they were quite lost.” After opening the champagne, he looked around at the crowd and said dryly, “now we will celebrate as Estonians do, by smiling a little bit.”

The top teams were all favourably impressed by the course, in particular the beauty of the trek and the dramatic change in landscape between the mountain trek and the desert one. However, all felt that the course didn’t test them enough navigationally or make maximal use of the landscape.  “Just one mountain range over and we’d have been on snow!” one racer commented. The desert trek was a highlight, which ARWS had fought to have included in order to make the course more challenging and different from the previous year.

There are very few strong navigators in China and the comfort in venturing off the tour bus track and into the wilderness is still in development, so, as the sport grows, we should see more interesting race course design. Louise, co-owner of the ARWS, noted that X-Trail’s desire to learn and capacity to effect change is astonishing.  “They’re just so eager to learn,” she marvelled, “And when I ask them to change something they have this army of people to make it happen.”

As the night wears on and we wait for Team Bones to arrive in 4th, the Greenhorns are demonstrating the youth eagerness to learn, asking race staff questions about everything under the sun and dot-watching like it’s their new sport. Wei Jun the race director is standing near the finish, looking coiffed and spiffy and ready to welcome teams with his set protocol of champagne, media questions, and handshakes. (He hasn’t progressed to race director hugs yet).  And Louise, the wheels of the race satisfactorily turning, is passed out in a chair in the ritzy lobby, catching five minutes of sleep.

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