The Tour of Sailimu Lake continues in the far west of China and now we are in Wenquan Village, nestled amidst majestic snow capped mountains, at an elevation of more than 1300 meters. Today’s stage was just a precursor of the penultimate climbing stage tomorrow, and there will surely be a big GC shake-up after the mountain climb up to Sailimu Lake, gaining more than 1,000m over 30kms. Stage three was basically climbing the whole way with a block head wind for most of it, and this was reflected in the slower average speed of just 39km/h. It was also a day where many riders opted to rest ahead of stage four’s big climb.
The Kung Cycling Team continued their fantastic run of form with their B-Team Shane Westrop, who is built like a fit rugby player with massive pistons to propel his machine forward, winning the stage in convincing fashion. Westrop won solo after dropping his breakaway companions 10km from the finish, and in the process moved into top 10 on GC with his 1.27 winning margin. What is even more impressive, is that this is Westrop’s first ever road cycling race and has come out firing on all cylinders. It remains to be seen how well he can climb in tomorrow’s stage and continue his march up the GC order. Another impressive ride came from Hu Hao (Xinjiang Cycling Team) who put in an impressive burst of speed with 5km remaining to escape the clutches of the main peloton and actually caught the remnants of the breakaway, passing all except Feng Kuanjie (Triace).
How the racing unfolded
In front of a massive crowd in Bole City, 113 riders lined up for the 92km stage and once again there was no neutral rolling section, just full on racing from the beginning. For the first several kilometers the pace was quite hot with no one successful at making a breakaway. The first breakaway to succeed was when a couple of Motion riders leapt out front and Gao Ganggao (Cronus-Kuota), my teammate, quickly joined them with one other rider. The four riders worked well together but the gap never got beyond 40 seconds and several attacks from the peloton quickly snuffed out this move. The next break that was allowed to go was when French rider Bertrand Jouve (Kung B Cycling Team) took off in pursuit of several other riders. This breakaway gained quite a bit of time and Jouve took maximum points at the intermediate sprint. The peloton, after meandering along with speeds as slow as 25km/h, finally roared back into life and there was a symphony of attacks leading up to the intermediate sprint and it was at this point that the road angled upwards more steeply, thus making it more challenging to maintain speeds. The breakaway was quickly re-absorbed. At this point, I decided to see what would happen if I put in an effort. This got me a little gap with Cui Hao, who is only 6 seconds behind me on GC, but Cui Hao was not interested in working with me to put pressure on the others to close the gap. Since we were both high on GC, it was short-lived; however it served to inject some pace into what was a lucklustre stage so far.
A threatening breakaway of about a dozen riders got established, so I attacked hard to bridge across with two ideas in mind. If I made it across, I could have a small chance of escaping with them but more realistically it meant I was putting pressure on the GC contenders to chase hard to bring back the breakaway move. It proved to be the latter, however after the catch was made the peloton immediately sat up and this allowed for a counter move by three riders including my team-mate to edge clear. Eventual stage winner, Shane Westrop, was also handily placed at the front of the peloton and was allowed to go up the road. There was no reaction from the main bunch as Westrop rode hard to bridge the gap and form the winning break of the race. This suited me fine as there was my team-mate in there and also no highly ranked GC riders. The bunch was content to roll along without any attacks for a while. I rode at the very back for large portions of this section, admiring the snow capped mountains and the sheltered tree-lined road to Wenquan. All of a sudden there was another flurry of attacks and a threatening second breakaway of eight or so riders were rolling off the front and this caused me a bit of worry as I believed that some highly ranked riders were within. I took it upon myself to ride steady on the front of the bunch to peg them back, I got most of them back except for one rider whom seem hell-bent on escaping. At this point I flicked my elbow and asked for riders sucking my wheel to roll through to bring back the lone-rider. I did not get co-operation at all, I guess they thought I was wanting to catch the main breakaway up the road… so I yelled a bit and then let out another yell as I attacked to catch the solo rider… as it turned out it was not Cui Hao, but his team-mate!
The last 20km was a slug-fest as Cuihao (4th on GC and six seconds behind me) made many attacks to get away. This together with other attacks from other teams forced me to respond. There was attack after attack in those closing kilometers, a brutal end to what was otherwise a “rest” day for the contenders. In the finale, I positioned myself quite well and ensured that one of my team-mates was firmly on my wheel for the lead out. I did not have my usual power for the finish sprint, but did enough to help my team-mate finish second behind Zhang Li (Kung Cycling Team) and myself in fourth for ninth place.
Tomorrow’s penultimate stage is going to be a decisive one and will require me to be riding at my best to limit any time gaps going over the top to Sailimu Lake. It will be a big ask to hang with the lightweight Chinese riders who possess excellent climbing abilities. I have conflicting reports as to the gradient of the climb, the official race manual says it is a 35km climb with an average gradient of 4-5%. But the latest I’ve heard is that there is a 3-4km section that ramps up to 10% just before cresting up onto the plateau where the lake is at 2,100m. Will surely find out tomorrow…
Stay tuned for the updates here and also for photos… they are coming!