Tom Palmer Column: trials of a pro cyclist

Today it was announced that Tom Palmer had resigned from his position as a pro cyclist with the Drapac team. We wish him all the best with his future endeavours and hope that he will continue to contribute to RIDE as he has done a couple of times in the past year.

As a rider he enjoyed considerable success and was touted by some in the Canberra cycling community as The Next Big Thing… but injuries have taken their toll and he is now going to focus on his studies and other things in life.

Last year he wrote his first column for RIDE and the day of his retirement announcement seems like an appropriate time to publish this most enjoyable piece online… below you’ll find a flashback from RIDE #62, published in December 2013.

 

Easier ways to make a living… Theo Bos completes the clean sweep of stage wins for Belkin at the Tour of Hainan while a fallen KTM rider leaves Tom Palmer with no option. A microsecond after this photo was taken the Drapac rider was also smeared across the road.  The results of the Chinese race this November will reflect that there was one dominant team… what the data doesn’t show is the deals that were done to achieve this success. Ah, professional sport… it’s all relative.

Easier ways to make a living… Theo Bos completes the clean sweep of stage wins for Belkin at the Tour of Hainan while a fallen KTM rider leaves Tom Palmer with no option. A microsecond after this photo was taken the Drapac rider was also smeared across the road.
The results of the Chinese race this November will reflect that there was one dominant team… what the data doesn’t show is the deals that were done to achieve this success. Ah, professional sport… it’s all relative.

 

 

‘A Circus in Hainan Province’

 

 

– By Tom Palmer

 

 

The life of a pro cyclist: it’s so glamorous, right? Like every job, there are good and bad days. There are times when the harsh reality of the situation is hammered home. Tom Palmer vents about smog, sleaze, collusion and frustration…

 

 

I’m in a hotel room in a place called Haikou. The place is somewhere on the coast of Hainan; China’s tropical island that is supposedly famous for its resorts and air. I’m bleeding on crisp white sheets. I’m famished. The room has stone floors and an enormous television with 42 Chinese channels. There are walls of glass and fancy down lights. It would look deluxe in the catalogue. Everything out the window is obscured by a deep grey-brown haze, like a toxic Instagram filter.

Every year Hainan turns its wide, dirty, concrete roads into a circus ring for the Tour of Hainan. It’s a bike race. I reckon it’s a fairly big, weird operation and I’m racing. For nine days it trundles its peculiar troupe to another dusty, smoggy city. There are race cars and minivans, bicycles, busloads of performers, equipment trucks, police motorbikes, military marshals, crowd controllers, interpreters and cleaners. When it has circled the island everyone leaves.

There is no trapeze and no elephants.

If you listen, at each new province you hear speeches about the boost brought by the race. It’s like the idea was to vacuum the rest of the globe into Hainan on bikes, creating a peppy cultural bridge to the outside world. In day-to-day terms, it’s a factory for tourism pamphlet fodder. It’s a 1,500km photo opportunity.

People come to Hainan for holidays, for the beaches, the mountain air; so I’m told. It’s alarming, that somewhere around the world is somewhere so ruined by development that people can be lured here on holiday packages. Someone finds this place quaint. Someone thinks this is paradise. In my head these people are science fiction characters. As if tomorrow I catch a plane back to reality, where the horizon is visible and the air doesn’t choke you.

I’ve painted too bleak a picture. But this particular show has me in an ugly mood. The place is charming. Perhaps less so when seen from inside a bike race, as a spectator of spectators. What I see is pretty otherworldly, dystopian, with scale, growth and decay as central themes. Everything is grandiose, expanding and crumbling at once. They steer a bike race straight through this explosion. Swarming metropolises and four-lane freeways are frozen for me and other cycling weirdos to scramble through and win bonus seconds. All the while thousands of truck drivers smoke cigarettes for hours beside countless tonnes of stationary cargo. A hotel set in a coastline of resorts in various stages of construction, awaiting the promised masses of soon-to-be middle-class Chinese tourists.

The food in these hotels makes nearly everyone sick at least once. It’s usually not too bad. No one abandons the race – not from that alone, at least. I don’t have the stomach for the stuff. I bring a supply of long-life rice milk, gluten-free muesli, tinned tuna and dark chocolate. Without it I’d make maybe 24 hours. I eat the rice and olive oil. My stomach aches right now. Not as bad as my ribs.

A beer brand sponsors the race. Beer means cheer girls. It looks out of place, an over-sexualised routine, hammered into a setting that feels more like a school fête than halftime at the Super Bowl. Aesthetically, this race is a spectacle of flesh. The riders pose daily for the official photos; skin pics. Lean muscle and veins streaked with sweat in the hot sun; flanked by lean, softer curves with heavily made-up, fake smiling faces. Riders and dancers alike, everyone squeezing out a pose for a huddle of cameras, everyone clad in just enough dazzling lycra to display a brand name. Grimace or pout. Bike or pompoms. Whatever.

Our mechanic likes China and he loves the firecrackers. Locals seem to like lighting them and throwing them out of moving cars. Everybody carries on, nonchalant amidst the crackle as scraps of cardboard loudly blow up on the asphalt around them. I don’t very often understand the locals here.

It is hard to understand people you can’t communicate with. After a while you stop hearing them, seeing their faces. The thousand or so people lining the streets of some dusty, funky smelling town in the middle of nowhere; it just becomes a shabby, irregular barricade. The drums they are beating mark 500m to go before an intermediate sprint line. An enormous primary school jumping and cheering like you’re their idol; that is a street where you can’t piss or you’ll have to pay a fine.

I put on my sunscreen, check over my spotless bike, and fill my pockets with food bars packed from overseas. All the while several kids, not yet high as my hip, wide-eyed and dropped-jawed, gaze at me. I go to high-five one and he backs away scared. I know how bizarre I am.

I am the oddity in a whole other world of normal.

Later I race by a dormant old tractor beside a shirtless farmer lounging in the shade, watching coolly. Then further along, outside a stone shack with a makeshift roof, some loudly squeaking kids. They are not yet too proud or exhausted to show their excitement upon seeing the extravaganza speed into and then out of their normal.

I’m not really in China. At least I am in China about as much as you are in a coral reef when you walk through an aquarium wearing jeans and eating a hotdog.

Hotels and roads are both emptied before our arrival. If I wanted to meet a local I would have to stray from my path. If we need anything there are staff to go get it. I can say Nihao. The smog adds to the otherworldliness, like the warp effect of bulletproof glass. At any one moment you just get a snow-globe glimpse of what you’re really standing in the middle of. It also means you’re always at the centre of your universe. It betrays the scale of things, as it does your relationship to them.

This place, it’s where they build each of us a tent, police taped off, with security guards for the 20 minutes we spend at the start line. Instead of a rubbish bin there are cleaners on standby sweeping up garbage.

Here in my refrigerated hotel suite I check if the internet is working. Has my girlfriend sent a message? Has the news loaded? China blocks Twitter and Facebook. There’s no YouTube either. I don’t know how people survive this. You can easily find porn, of course. Still, internet blocking creates distance better than any long-haul flight ever could. Skype works a bit too and I carry electronic copies of all my favourite books and movies. The world stays tiny despite the best efforts to isolate. People try to shrink it. They transplant western sports events in trucks.

Walls and bridges, China builds both.

Today we raced past a seemingly deserted theme park. The decrepit enormous entrance declared it ‘Coffee Culture Amorous Place’. Nice try. I’ve had the coffee…

If there were another stage tomorrow I would get a massage from one of our soigneurs. That’s the person who digs their elbows into your aching muscles so they don’t seize up between stages. During the week one soigneur caught the eye of a particularly glamorous staff member from another team. Unfortunately her boyfriend was also riding the race. I figure the star-crossed lovers are having a moment somewhere, because I hear him wandering the hall, calling her name. He storms into my room. I say I don’t know where they are. He skulks off.

I’m cutting up pieces of gauze, scrubbing antiseptic into raw flesh. I’m positioning squares of bandages imperfectly, to match the stretchy bits around my joints. I’ve gotten good at this. I can smell tinned tuna, and alcohol wipes.

This bike race has decent prize money, $250,000 or something, complete with giant cardboard novelty cheques; some for each stage, some for the GC. There are maybe 20 teams of seven. One team alone has won most of the dough. Others have swept up the crumbs. Riders generally call this a ‘shitload’. I know people who would call it ‘f—all’.

This winning team is called Belkin, it races the Tour de France. From what I gather its lowest paid rider earns about as much as my five team-mates and me combined. We get enough. Our rate is on par with the other teams too, give or take a bit. Belkin won every stage, greedily and impressively enough that they often came second, third, even fourth as well. After the first day, the next-best team – also European – figured second was good enough for them. They added their numbers to Belkin’s, doing half the job for them, so the top dogs stayed on top while status quo was ensured and they finished up the invisible best of the rest. That other team is bankrupt, they say, this is its last race.

Getting dominated like this grates on a guy. Like the other ‘sprinters’ who aren’t going so well, I’ve wallowed in the also-rans from the beginning. One might expect some kind of resentment at the way these big shots have dictated terms. This does not seem to be the case. Even when their dictating is blatant, like when they pretend to piss so they can vocally and aggressively bully the smaller, usually Asian, teams into waiting, not attacking while a favourable race scenario is established.  Etiquette? It’s bullshit – it’s the tyranny of the coolest.

Half the bunch joins in on these beat-downs. They must enjoy hanging with the cool kids – even though they’re missing out on the novelty cheques – and coughing up their lunch money. Perhaps one would expect camaraderie to emerge between all us little guys but there are only scuffles for the scraps. One little guy punched another for cutting him off in a sprint. He got fined and thrown out. At stake was third place in a stage behind two big-smiling big-shots.

The final stage finished a few hours ago. I crashed with 10 metres to go. A guy directly in front of me stupidly, unnecessarily, infuriatingly collided with another guy. He dropped to the concrete and I could do nothing but ride into the flailing mess he had made of himself and his bike. I somehow made sixth place, literally sliding across the line. We still got some prize money. I guess that’s cool. A reporter here seemed concerned at first then told me how awesome he thought it was. Perhaps it was spectacular…

Last night at dinner we discussed American gun culture. Last night at dinner some Chinese rider copped a cake to the face. It was his birthday. They played the song, louder than a rock concert, for 20 minutes on loop. No one could talk over it. I gouged tuna from a tin onto my white rice and yelled to a team-mate next to me: “Is this what hell is like?!” I imagine hell is actually really rough. This wasn’t so rough when you really think about it.

When it rains here the spray from the bunch soaks everyone in the mud and diesel and sewage that coats these overcrowded roads. It gets in your mouth. It gets into the dressings over wounds. It stains your clothes and shoes. Miraculously, it has stayed dry for the last nine stages. You scrub the dust out of your pores and spit the grit from your teeth and you know how lucky you are. Last time I crashed here and went home with gastro and a staphylococcal skin infection. Plus some prize money, of course.

I’m going to watch the closing ceremony. I know what to expect. Cheer girls, speeches, novelty cheques and a promo book with photos from the week that was. I’ll probably spend most of the time thinking about arriving home, 48 hours away. I’ll probably call it a night after dinner when the swelling around my ribs gets worse. It’s not that I don’t like beer or parties but after a few years of this, I have a realistic idea of the prospects.

The last night of a race is usually more eventful than the others. There’s less work to do. Cliques open, competitive pressures allay. Sometimes equipment or luggage gets stolen by riders or staff as they depart for international flights. Tonight a lot of the entourage will get drunk. They’ll toast their free longnecks with the Belkin guys. They will make fools of themselves. Not in any sinister or extreme way. Just like red-faced hyperactive children let out of class. They will go in taxis to the nearest disappointing nightclub and get mugged. Skinny bike riders don’t hold their drink well at the best of times and even less after 1,400km of racing. A surprising number of riders are, in fact, seasoned heavy drinkers. They’re the same but the swagger-stupor suits them better. From the stories I hear riders used to do this every night on tour. My generation must be a bit soft.

After a long race there is some tension to be released. These nights are fun when you have something to celebrate. Last mornings are better. You can hop on the local transport or brave the street food and actually see where you are for the first time since you arrived there. This particular place seems hard to navigate and my knee, elbow and ribs have just been ground into the concrete.

I’m bowing out. My act in this circus has finished. They are packing up the big top.

Soon I’ll start 20-something hours of travel through a couple of airports and the day after my girlfriend will pick me up in Canberra during her lunch break. The sun will be brighter than it’s ever been. If I’d won I would have grabbed a duty-free bottle of champagne but I didn’t. I’ll tell her the tour wasn’t too bad, how’s it been here? How is everyone? I’ll ask what she has planned for the weekend. Can we have Mexican for dinner? I leave for a race in Japan in seven days. I’ll need a lift.

 

– By Tom Palmer

 

Author: rob@ride

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