What did we do before Facebook? Seriously. I made a passing comment about needing inspiration which was spotted by fellow MTBer Les Heap and through a six-degrees-of-separation type phenomenon I had accepted an invite to race in Saipan despite not really knowing where it was. A friend told me that even Google didn’t know where it is because when he searched for it there was just a flag in the middle of the ocean just off Taiwan. I told him to zoom in…closer…closer…closer…there you go.
The journey went Cairns-Guam-Saipan and we were escorted to the Pacific Islands Club resort where our host Kieren Daly had previously been Manager for 10 years. The Hell of the Mariana’s 100km road race was started by Kieren and is now in its fifth year – the first year he has been hands-off since moving to the Gold Coast with his family. I am mystified how he managed to tear himself away from the resort as I was definitely ready to set up there permanently. The water park includes a body surfing wave machine which is great fun until you stack it and the current almost rips your bikini from your body – when the attendant told me board shorts were a good idea, I really should have listened. Water slides for the kids, the grown-up ones too, and the resort is absolute beach-front for snorkeling and kayaking. Humidity, temps in the low 30s – I’m getting used to this.
I wouldn’t normally bother with a course reconnaissance for a road race but Kieren highly recommended it due to some interesting ‘features’ of the race – namely the steep climbs and road surface. With pinches kicking up to 15% and a shell-composite road surface which comes with a ‘slippery when wet’ warning, it was starting to feel a lot more like mountain-biking. We did a practice run of the last couple of climbs including Suicide Cliff where the Japanese soldiers and civilians jumped to their deaths when cornered by US forces during WWII. The race is a tour of the island which conveniently starts and finishes at PIC resort which meant the 6.15am start was going to be a 50m roll from our accommodation. This turned out to be just in time for sunrise as its technically winter in Saipan despite the balmy conditions.
Rolling out, the day was going to belong to those who hydrated well, stayed upright on the slick roads and had a bit of luck in not getting flats as there is no official ‘spares’ vehicle. I was regretting bringing tubular wheels as there was no plan B but it was a case of ride what you brought. With 150 riders total the field broke up quickly on the first climb with the lead men’s group pulling away. I cobbled together a few stray guys to form a grupetto to help each other on the flats between the hills. Being conservative on the descents I could only gasp at how fast some of the local guys were taking the corners. I never came close to crashing but there was a bit of excitement on a cyclo-cross-like section where road works became dirt littered with shallow pot holes – cue: stray dog with a penchant for cycling shoes!
With the tough first 50km behind me I started to feel a bit more confident. The field was strung out in ones and twos so there was little chance of being caught by another female in a larger group. I had been working with Pete, a rider from Guam, in the middle section of the race as it helped to have at least one person to swap off with in the gusty conditions. As the last 25km was a dead flat drag back to the resort I was hoping to maintain the situation but unfortunately he was hit by the dreaded cramps just before the turnaround. He apologized profusely for his recalcitrant legs and dropped off to continue his suffering alone.
We were virtually promised a tailwind on the way home by Kieren and I was cursing him all the way as I time-trialled solo into a cross wind for the final haul. I kept looking back, praying for someone to catch me but with 15km to go I decided to just get on with it. Crossing the line for my first international win I even remembered to zip up my jersey – what a pro – although I resisted the temptation for the two arm salute lest I crash and knock myself out two metres from the finish line. Every rider falls straight into the healing hands of the team of Thai massage therapists who sort out the kinks from the last few hours. I nearly fell asleep and regretfully got up at the conclusion of treatment, only to have both my hamstrings cramp, much to the amusement of others still receiving their rub.
Finishing the day with official presentations at the buffet on the beach it was time to kick back and enjoy the rest of the weekend. Watching the sunset over the Pacific with a glass of red wine in the company of locals and visiting riders from as far away as Russia, it capped off what came close to the perfect day. Yep, I’m getting used to this.
Many thanks to Kieren Daly, the organizers of the Hell of the Mariana’s and PIC resort for your amazing hospitality. As always a shout out to my sponsors: For The Riders, Santa cruz, Shotz, Sram, Schwalbe, Adidas Eyewear and PCS Coaching.