It’s time for the family to take a break. Excited website visits and consuming brochures on tours in other countries. Ah, but for you, Great Cyclist, there is only ONE type of TOUR. Dr Low Wye Mun was with Singapore’s national cycling team in the Tour Of Egat recently. Here are some of his tips to make your BIKE TOUR experience an unbeatable one !!
Most people won’t understand it when you tell them that you’re taking your bike with you and going on tour. But then most folks won’t know that clipping in has nothing to do with seat belts or bent pieces of paper-bearing wire. You do, because you’re a cyclist. And if you are a Singapore-based road cyclist, you will have heard of (and perhaps even ridden in) the Tour Of Egat. This 4-day cycling tour is set in sunny (and seriously HOT and sunny) Thailand, and covers more almost 600km of hard riding from Bangkok up to the dams near Kanchanaburi, better known for the bridge over the River Kwai.
Having had the privilege of being involved with the 2005 Tour, I’d like to share individual and collective wisdom on things that may make your first – or your next – Tour a better experience. Here then is a checklist that hopes to see you spinning smoothly in your Tour.
Make your commitment early
For the avid cyclist who has had a taste of the Tour, they have already mentally signed up for the next race during their last one. But if you are possibly considering participation, don’t leave the decision to a date any closer than 3 months before the race. The reasons are:
- You will need time to form a team and enjoy the benefits of companionship, experience, and support
- It will take you at least 3 months to develop the conditioning base that is needed to see you through the 4-day event, while meeting your hopes for your participation
- Learning how to drink and eat on the bike for 4 hours a day on 4 consecutive days needs time
- Planning your personal time off from work (and possibly the family, as chasing you around Thailand in rented vehicles for hours at a time may not be quite what the spouse and kids consider “holiday fun”….) takes time as well.
Sinagapore Team: The Singapore Junior/Development Team was selected early enough that cyclists including Muhd Farhan, Low Ji Wen, Timothy Boey and Ang Kee Meng could juggle their individual school timetables to train together as a team. This helped immeasurably in getting to know each other’s pace, strengths and weaknesses, and impacted on the race in Thailand.
Form a Team
The importance of doing this transcends the improved quality of training that you will enjoy before you go on Tour. It comes down to simple and very practical realities:
- If you meet the team numbers requirement of the Tour, you are entitled to a team vehicle. This is more than just a flashy presence and people shouting at you a la Tour De France. It is the life-sustaining and soul-supporting availability of food, fluids, and mechanical support during each day’s hard ride.
- Having a team around you also means that you have support that comes down to little things: you are stuck in the pack and away from the person passing out water bottles. Teammates closer to what the Tour calls “neutral” water suppliers can get that water for you. They can also let you know what’s happening around you. And when things are tough, you can work together and get that extra pull from the drafting you can share.
Singapore Team: Packing your team van is an art. Cooler boxes of ice and drinks readily available, energy bars and gels at hand’s reach, feed bags primed to go, spare wheels at instant access locations, medical kit, communication sets, personal luggage, and yes, even the odd visitor. Assistant Team Manager, Lim Hui Min, a cyclist himself and who has ridden the Tour Of Egat, shared invaluable experience in not only knowing the race route but in setting up the team van. Every van needs one …
Train and Eat as you will during the Tour
The training part seems so obvious as to be silly to mention. Build up the base mileage, condition yourself to handle 4 hours of racing (or more) per day every day for 4 days (uh-huh…), train on hills in preparation for the climbs on Day 2 of the Tour and the later stages. But there is more:
- Plan your nutrition strategy. This starts with knowing how much energy you will need for your daily rides. As a rough rule of thumb, plan on about 18 calories per minute of riding. So if you are racing for 3 hours, this comes up to 3240 calories. Now, one Power Gel gives you about 120 calories. A liter of energy/electrolyte drink gives you about 4-500 calories. So you can do the maths for the energy needs on top of your body stores of energy from your energetic eating !!
- Drink and eat as you would on the Tour. That means adjusting your water, electrolytes, and food-on-the-go (gels, bars, etc) before you reach the Tour. This gives your body time to adjust to what it wants to ingest and how often it needs to do it, so that you don’t need to give it a physical shock when you start racing in Thailand.
- Make allowance for the weather. The 2005 Tour saw temperatures reach beyond 40 degrees for most of each day’s racing. In addition, there was sun aplenty and no cloud cover. This adds up to very different cycling conditions from Singapore, and it means that you will lose more sweat (water and salts) which need to be replaced in larger volumes of fluids in Thailand.
Singapore Team: Firdaus Hamzah is well known for his proclivity for breakaways. With the race pace in Thailand and the accumulative distance covered by the 3rd day of racing, providing him with sufficient nutrition became the pre-occupation of the team support. Familiar energy gels and bars made the difference in reducing the distraction that he and supporting cyclists like Mohd Fazli and Eddie Cheah faced when eating while racing. Changing nutrition patterns during the race would have reduced performance significantly.
Pack your bike carefully
It seems like such an obvious point, but much grief can arise from poor planning of the packing of your bike to survive the harshness of handling that accompanies air travel. And no matter how many and how large the FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE stickers you apply to your bike container, know that the handlers have seen so many that they may no longer mean anything at all. Even if they could read them…
- Just as they say that it’s not about the bike, in packing terms, it’s not about the container. Cyclists’ choices for what they pack the bike in range from the inexpensive (ie. free) cardboard bike box to the more luxurious hard case with wheels to ease your movement of the case.
- You can get the cardboard box from a bike shop. Some important tips if you adopt this option:
- Ensure you know the size of your bike frame, as boxes do vary in size to a certain degree
- The more compact boxes (eg. Litespeed, Cannondale) may require you to take off your rear wheel – that in itself requires you to remove your rear derailleur, and this means more time setting up your bike again when you get to Thailand
- The more impact cushioning materials you can get (eg. the ones used to pack the bike when it was first shipped out, and which fit around the tubing of the bike, etc), the better cared for your bike will be.
- Use tape to secure the cushioning materials, saving zip ties for the most valuable parts. Simple reasoning here: the zip ties are more difficult to remove, and remember that you can’t carry a knife, scissors or multipurpose tool as carry-on in the airplane.
- The hard cases are more expensive, and you will need to juggle the relative expense of these (upwards of $1000) against the value of your bike, as well as how often you think you will be traveling. Oh yes, they are a pain to store at home as well…
- If you are not familiar with how to take a bike apart and then put it back together again, then avoid the option of having your favorite mechanic pack the bike for you. Learn how to do it yourself. This is as important for an overseas bike Tour as training for the race itself. And do make sure you pack the necessary tools to handle that re-assembly when you get into bike-tour-town.
Singapore team: Discussion ranged back and forth about the ideal bike container. The relative merits of cardboard boxes, padded cases and hard shell cases were given a new twist by Timothy Boey: a cardboard box reinforced with a wooden frame and a nifty lock. Effective, innovative, but just a little heavy..
“It’s never perfect… “
Everyone has different goals when taking part in the Tour: participation, survival, completion, outright racing. For all, there must be an expectation that nothing is perfect and you can save yourself undue stress with some pre-thinking and preparation:
- In the inevitable rush to have everything ready to go for the Tour, things are left out, forgotten, and then regretted when you are there. Do yourself a favor and make yourself a checklist of all the things you need to pack, prepare, and do (all the way from passports to spar inner tubes).
- Remember to have your bike fully checked and serviced before you pack it for the departure from Singapore. This includes all the mechanical moving parts as well as things like brake and derailleur cables. Ensure it is all lubed up and ready to go so you can hit the ground ..uh… cranking when you get to Bangkok.
- Clothing is not as easy to plan as some would think. To help you out before you leave and especially when you are tired out at the end of each day’s ride, use large Ziploc bags and place your 4 days worth of clothes in them, marking them clearly. This may seem simplistic, but when you are facing down the challenge of the race each day, simple is just very cool.
- Nobody expects to have mechanical problems much less to have a crash. But when there are 230 cyclists on the road, anything can happen. And it does
Singapore team: One of Singapore’s cyclists,, taking part in his first Tour event, crashed 30km before the end of the first day stage. Bent rear drop-out, dropped chain, broken shifter, bent handlebar. The response: back onto the bike after a quick check, and a 6th place in the General Classification at the end of that day. Crashes happen. Deal with it !!
Bike Tour Checklist
|Personal items|| Passport / visa
Race correspondence (forms, replies, registration confirmation)
Money (Baht, USD)
Clothes: cycling, casual
Toiletries (including sun block)
|Bike|| Bike (duh ??)
Bike box/bag/case (with locks)
Helmet, gloves, shoes, sunglasses
Spares: wheels, inner tubes, cables, bar tape
|Others|| Ziploc bags
Clothes hanger with pegs (invaluable !!)
First aid kit
Pro-active is not kiasu
During the actual race, you will find that there are lot of people involved in the organization and running of it. This is not surprising given the total distance traveled (nearly 600km) and the different groups helping to run the race. Here are some tips for your continued peace of mind.
- Keep your eyes and ears open all the time. This is especially so when there may be no formal briefings on travel arrangements between venues, where bikes are, what to do with bike boxes, what time meals are, etc. Don’t expect all the information to be delivered to you individually. This is the time to not break away and visit some store on your own: stay with the main pack of cyclists and go with the flow. This is from the time you land in Thailand to the moment you depart.
- Ask, ask, ask. Not only for instructions and timings, but other valuable information such as the day’s race results and standings. This will let you know where you stand (if you are competitive), and will also let you know what the timing of the next day’s start is, etc.
- Know the race route. There will be surprises !! The 1st day stage for the 2005 Tour Of Egat was supposed to be … km. But then there was an additional 5km ride to the start line, and guess what else? A rolling start of 28km as well !!! That’s more than 30km even before you start racing, and a total of more than 180km for the first day…
- Learn some Thai. You build great relationships every day when you thank people in their own language. Other essentials are words like toilet, food, restaurant, and water/drinks. And of course, pasta and bananas….
Singapore team: Finding a 7-11 store is not too difficult. But locating bananas and pasta in semi-rural parts of Thailand are a real challenge. Leave it to Mohmamed Fazli’s knowledge of the Thai language to find both !! Never go on Tour without that handy Thai phrase book.
Learn to accept things gracefully
In spite of the heat and some heated exchanges, there is a certain grace to the mannerisms and actions of the Thai people. It is important for you to return that grace even when things are not all that you had expected or hoped. This fosters goodwill that comes back to you in unexpected ways. Think of it as reducing your rolling resistance to Tour happiness.
- The daily race results are a great help to those of you who are more competitive cyclists. But the logistics of moving hundreds of riders over such great distances literally stretches the ability to deliver all the support the organizers could hope to do. Quietly identifying the key senior organizers, making a polite introduction at an un-hurried and un-harried moment opens the door to an equally polite (if not impassioned !!) request for a copy of the latest results and standings.
- Water and spare wheels are available throughout the race from what are called “neutral water” motorbikes. These are festooned with water bottles and 2 wheels. When you are looking for replenishment, all you have to do is to look around for them and raise your hand. Shouting “NAM” helps to let them know your need, and then moving to the side of the peleton makes its easier for you to reach the water. And by the way, choose the motorbike carefully: one incensed cyclist complained that he was not given any water from a certain motorbike with water bottle on board. He was gently told that that particular person was the coach/manager of the Thai professional cycling team, Siam Bara, whose riders were contesting the top spots in the race….
- Finally, practice receiving an award on the podium. You never know when this might happen to you, and doing it correctly all just adds to that mystique of the successful, world-wise cyclist.
SingaporeTeam: Sinapore’s junior cyclist, Low Ji Wen, found himself on the podium with a top 5 finish in his category. A quick look at the protocol of the top cyclists receiving their awards from the VIP brought about a quick wai (Thai gesture of respect), 2-handed receipt of the award, and then the obligatory lifting of this above the head – in synchrony with the other winners who received the instructions in Thai !!! Podium etiquette at its best !!
I wish you luck on the roads as you train for your next bike Tour, and if it is Egat you choose, here’s wishing you the very best of luck !!