Monday 3 October 2011

Tour of Beijing - Stage 3

Stage Map: click here
Stage Profile: click here
Stage Itinerary: click here

After an initial stage so flat that wheel bearings from a broken hub wouldn't have rolled away and a Stage 2 that, with the exception of one small hill that was climbed four times, wasn't much different, thus far the inaugural Tour of Beijing hasn't really had much to offer for the climbing specialists. That changes today, because Stage 3 is the most mountainous in the race with one Category 2 and three Cat 1 climbs. Stage 4 briefly reaches higher altitude, but this is the one for the grimpeurs to grab the time they need for a respectable General Classification result - and, as is often the case with the most mountainous stage in any stage race, could prove the most important, perhaps even the stage on which the race is won. Due to the lack of information available on rural Chinese villages, we're unable to bring as a detailed a stage guide as we try to do for the European races - however, we've attempted to gather a much information about the course and points of interest along the route as possible.

The Western Hills
At 162km, it's also the second longest. It begins on  Men Tou Gou, where we'll be treated to a performance of traditional Taiping drumming and folk dance, then follows the final section of yesterday's stage in reverse to the end of the neutral zone Chengzhi Road ( 39°58'24.41"N 116° 5'31.48"E), continuing onward and past the Danli Tunnel to the G109 road. The Western Hills attract tourists from all across China and beyond, and as soon as we pass by the tunnel it becomes apparent why this should be - despite the industry down in the valley on the left, the route immediately feels rural as the urban sprawl of Beijing is obscured by a steep incline on the right. It becomes steeper still 2.2km ahead, the green flanks towering some 400m above the road.

Many of the roads along this stage are used frequently by trucks, making them potentially hazardous due to spilled diesel. This is especially true here, as the region still supplies large quantities of coal and other raw materials to the capital.The riders need to stay right, following the road as it leads by the village - note how densely packed the houses are, jammed in right up against one another with only narrow passageways between and the merest scraps for those that have any garden at all. It seems a strange and uncomfortable way to live to Western eyes, but it's the spacious luxury apartments in the skyscrapers of Beijing that seem strange to the vast majority of the Chinese population, most of whom live in villages like this.

We pass by more industrial units on the other side of the village, then turn a medium tight right-hander 600m later. The trees to the hillside to the right will have largely secured the topsoil and rock, but the scree on the left shows that landslides are not unknown here - there may be mud and gravel on the road, especially after rain. The road then sweeps left and arrives at a crossroads with a large slap of rock bearing Chinese characters erected on the right - the first climb, Cat 2, begins at this point (40° 0'26.26"N 115°59'24.87"E) as the race crosses the new, wide bridge just to the right of  much older and narrower one. The road narrows dramatically right after the right-hand bend on the other side of the bridge, possibly causing problems if the peloton is unable to spread out along the road sufficiently quickly - crashes are likely here, not helped by the steep slope on the left. There's a tight right bend 270m later, followed by a tighter left 168m after that. The final 384m section to the top of the climb at 415m (40° 0'23.85"N 115°57'56.53"E) becomes gradually steeper until it reaches the summit just before the road enters Dongfanghong Tunnel.

Dingfanghong Tunnel. Lovely!
(© Seektan CC2.0)
It's a well-known fact that cyclists tend to have a very great dislike of unlit tunnels - after all, riding through such a confined space in a peloton is pretty much the stuff of nightmares. Dongfanghong is lit, but in the rural China sense of the word. In other words, it's a dark and forbidding hole with a few dim lamps strung along the side that bears little resemblance to the clean, ventilated and brightly-lit tunnels that can be found in most of Europe, and the riders aren't going to like it in the slightest. Perhaps they'll consider what it's like when shared with thundering trucks, as it must be when the local cyclists use it on their mountain training rides, and think themselves fortunate in comparison.

The road on the other side of the tunnel is one of the best in the race, wriggling around the contours and forming eighteen tight bends on the way into Anjiazhuangcun. The second climb, a Cat 1, begins at 33km and is followed by an uphill sprint 17km after the summit at 60km before the route continues north into the Xi Mountains. The second sprint is 23km ahead, followed by a descent marked as hazardous due to steepness in the road book. Resulting high speeds will bring the riders rapidly to the feed zone at 87.5km on Shuinan Road, back in the northern reaches of the Beijing municipal area. Having passed through the urban area, they turn north again, completing the third intermediate sprint beginning at 100.5km by the Changping Stadium and then head towards the Ming Tomb Reservoir and The Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty.

One of the most striking features of the Tombs is the 7km Spirit Way, lined with statues of guardian animals both real and mythical. (© Richardelainechambers CC3.0)

The race joins the S212 Changchi Road, which it will now follow all the way to the finish line. The penultimate climb, another Cat 1, begins 10.5km along the twisty road. The summit comes at 133km after 332km of ascending, then we see the Great Wall for the first time.

The Badaling (public domain image)
As every school child can tell you, the Wall is 6259.6km long with sections comprising of ditches, natural features and suchlike making it up to 8851.8km of defences in total. It was begun in the 5th Century BC, with various enlargements, remodelings, partial demolitions and improvements taking place right up until the 16th Century. This section, dating from the Ming Dynasty and known as the Badaling, featured in the 2008 Olympics when the Road course passed through its gateways and is considered to be one of the most impressive stretches. It is believed that more than a million workers died during the construction of the various sections that make up the Wall, leading to its nickname "the longest cemetery on Earth." Guides often like to tell tourists that the mortar was made from the ground bones of those who died, but they're lying - it's rice flour. Some will also tell you that the Wall's proposed route was mapped out with the aid of a benevolent dragon - that, of course, is true.

And of course, as everyone knows, it's the only man-made structure that can be seen from the Moon... actually, it can't. It can't even be seen using Google Earth unless you zoom in closely, becoming just about discernible at an altitude of around 2.8km, though NASA claim it can be seen from 160km under absolutely perfect conditions - a claim questioned by many experts who state that to do so, an observer would require eyesight almost eight times better than average human eyesight. Either way, it's far short of the lunar surface. The myth, interestingly, seems to have started in a book by William Stukely, published in 1754 - two hundred and fifteen years before humans first set foot on the Moon.

The last climb, Cat 1 again, begins 13km later and requires 216m of climbing in 4km to top out at 758m, 150km from the start of the race in the Jundu Mountains. From this point, it's downhill all the way for the final 12km into Yongningzhen ("Yongning Town" in English). After crossing a river, the race arrives at the 5km to go point along a beautiful road lined with silver birches - though attractive, shed leaves on a wet road surface could be very slippery even thought the road is straight. The last 3km rise very slightly, not enough to slow things down to any noticeable degree, but sufficient to for a last test for tired legs. 2km to go comes as the Yongxi Highway joins from the left. The final bend - a sharp left-hander, throwing a serious spanner into the works of any team who had hoped to make use of a lead-out train to project their sprinters over the line, is 1500m ahead and leads into the final 670 straight metres to the finish line (40°31'38.08"N 116° 9'20.42"E).

Yongningzhen, it seems, is something rather special - an ancient city largely unknown even in China. There is very, very little information available on it - instead, we'll hand over to Sabine Hartmann who made a video of her motorcycle trip to the city in 2008.

have you ever been in Yongning Zhen, China? from Sabine Hartmann on Vimeo.

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