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Rapha Gentlemen’s Race Hong Kong
Words by Simon Shoebridge
— Saturday 14th September 2013
Hong Kong is renowned for its expansive skyline, bustling harbour and for being one of the top financial centres in the world. It is also one of the most densely populated cities on the planet, with more skyscrapers than any other. The vertical nature of its urbanised areas has arisen, quite literally, due to the lack of available ‘sprawl’ space; coupled with the steep mountainous terrain, it makes for some challenging cycling routes. Add to this the fact that 40% of Hong Kong and its surrounding islands are designated national parks and you begin to get a sense of just how well suited Hong Kong is to days spent suffering on a bike.
This unique setting was to play host to the first Rapha Gentlemen’s Race Hong Kong (RGRHK). The objective, for those unfamiliar with the Gents Race concept, was to ride in teams of four, through three designated checkpoints, before finishing on majestic Victoria Peak, Hong Kong Island’s highest point, at just shy of 600m above sea level.
From a staggered, time trial-style start, with positions based on each team’s assessment of their own ability, teams were to navigate their own routes to the checkpoints, choosing the order in which they reached each one. The only requirement was for all four riders to have their race cards stamped at each checkpoint. With the checkpoints based on two different islands, teams were also permitted three trips on public transport, via ferry or train. Finish at the Peak with your race cards stamped and team intact in the quickest time, and the glory of winning the inaugural RGRHK would be yours.
Sounded easy enough but there was, of course, a catch.
When the checkpoints were released to teams, a mere 24 hours before the race commenced, we discovered they were located across three very distinct geographic areas within Hong Kong’s territory:
- Kowloon: the North side of the harbour, known for its busy streets, neon lights, night markets and traditional Cantonese food. Also home to the highest point in Hong Kong, and one of the checkpoints, Tai Mo Shan. This is the only hors catégorie climb in the city (957m above sea level, a 10.5km climb at an average gradient of 10%, with some sections up to 18%).
- Lantau Island: home to Hong Kong International Airport and some of the steepest and most gruelling climbs known to Hong Kong cyclists, including the infamous and unforgiving ‘Beast’ (3.5km, at an average gradient of 9% but with sections up to 25%). It is also the site of the Big Buddha, a 34m-high bronze statue located at a Buddhist monastery atop one of the highest peaks on Lantau, and the location for the second checkpoint.
- Hong Kong Island: on one side of the island is a hive of activity, high-rise apartments, narrow streets and the city’s central business district, as well as the famed Victoria Peak, where the race would finish. On the other side of the island are country parks, beaches and seaside mansions. A complete juxtaposition. It was on this southern side of the island that the third checkpoint, Shek O beach, was situated.
At 5:00am on the morning of the race, 18 teams assembled in the dark near the iconic Star Ferry terminal, excited but bleary-eyed. Rapha enthusiasts had come not just from Hong Kong, but from Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand and the air of nervous anticipation was palpable.
As the sun rose in the east over Hong Kong island’s famous skyline, light was also cast on some of the beautiful carbon fibre machines on display, along with their riders, who would be put to the test over an estimated 150km and more than 3,000m of climbing. The hottest topic among the teams was which direction, and therefore which checkpoint, would they be making for first?
While the logical first stop would be to climb Tai Mo Shan, a 40-minute ride from the start, a number of teams thought to use the first of their three permitted journeys on public transport early and tackle the formidable Lantau Island first up. Consequently, Shek O beach would be the third and final checkpoint for those teams, before then climbing towards the finish on Victoria Peak.
Soon after the first teams began rolling out, it was apparent that, indeed, a number of them had opted to go to Lantau Island first, via the city’s underground Mass Transit Railway system, and tackle the Beast and Big Buddha climbs. The remaining teams headed swiftly to the foot of Tai Mo Shan to begin their own painful ascent.
Once you alight the train on Lantau Island, within minutes of riding away from the station you are heading uphill and faced with the aptly named Beast. It is brutal and exposed to the elements and the road surface cooks you as you try to work yourself into a sustainable rhythm.
Just before you hit the really steep ramps there is a roundabout that takes you down to a shanty town which runs alongside a stream. It was through this shanty town that a small number of teams had located a hiking trail leading up to the Big Buddha statue. It eradicated the need to climb the Beast and Big Buddha climbs by bike, but instead forced them to carry their bikes, cyclocross-style, up some very steep and slippery slopes. This path saved teams up to 45-minutes of riding, and in true Gentlemen’s Race fashion, was a sign of shrewd route selection.
For those teams who had opted to tackle Tai Mo Shan as their first checkpoint, they would approach the mountain through the bustling streets of Kowloon, weaving through both high-rise apartments and industrial areas.
Tai Mo Shan can be broken down into three sections. The first is the longest and moves up gradually through suburbs for 6km at 8%, before you reach the entrance to the country park and quieter roads. From this point, the second and middle section is the hardest, at a distance of 3km and grades ranging from 11-18%. A slow, steady slog. It is here that a rider’s resolve is tested, the false flats continuing to deceive when you are most in need of respite. As you ascend, the vegetation becomes sparser and riders find themselves close to the third and final section of the climb. Once through the early steep sections of the last portion of Tai Mo Shan, riders are treated to the most breathtaking views above the clouds; north to the Chinese border city of Shenzhen, and Hong Kong to the south. Finally, gentle 5%-grade switchbacks lead riders up the last kilometres of the climb and the reward of a checkpoint stamp on the now perspiration-soaked race card.
Irrespective of which direction your team chose, the heat soon caught you on the climbs. With temperatures rising to a maximum 30C, and with 85% relative humidity, it was key to remain hydrated, and this meant having the odd rest stop for food and drink.
Having collected two checkpoint stamps, it was at this point in the race that all teams would be converging on Hong Kong Island for the last checkpoint and a final collective push towards the finish line. Fatigue was starting to set in but riders were fuelled by the sense of achievement they envisaged upon summiting the Peak, and so made haste to Shek O beach for that final stamp, and a completed race card.
Word spread soon after via checkpoint marshals and the race Instagram feed (#rgrhk), that the first team had crossed the finish line. An impressive effort, seeing as a number of teams were still en route to Shek O beach and were yet to commence the 30km journey to the summit of the Peak. However, it didn’t take long for more teams to trickle across the finish line. As the cold beers started to flow, and stories were shared of each team’s tactics and race routes, the suffering of the day was quickly forgotten and replaced by laughter, satisfaction and, importantly, enquiries of when Rapha would host the next RGR.
Many thanks to Adam Taylor-Campbell and the rest of the Rapha Asia team for organising a truly memorable event.