“It’s more fun in the Philippines”

After making his debut for Oliver’s at last years Tour of Tasmania, 19 year old Tom Bolton was signed for season 2018, and last month was his first opportunity to race abroad at the Tour de Filipinas, the Philippine national tour which is sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and is part of the UCI AsiaTour. It was the team’s third appearance at the race. Here is Tom’s recount of a crazy event!

“It’s only 40 km to the opening dinner”. We leave the slightly rundown hotel from our first night in the Philippines at 2:30 pm. We’re about 20 km south of Manila after flying into the capital the afternoon before. We have stayed in the south overnight because we have been told by our local driver and team assistant Melvin the traffic would be much too heavy to even train where the race starts on Sunday. The team presentation for the 9th edition of Le Tour de Filipinas is scheduled for 6pm Saturday. The traffic is heavy but we’re sure that three and a half hours will be long enough to get us there on a Saturday afternoon…It’s not. We miss the team’s presentation. Fortunately, thanks to Sam our team manager, who travelled to the race hotel the evening before, nobody seems to have noticed our absence. We get there before they’ve packed up the buffet, but unfortunately not before the bugs’ have infiltrated the beef stew…. not the ideal start to my first UCI Asia Tour race, but things can only get better from here! We check into the hotel, already an upgrade from the previous night. The race begins at 8 AM the next morning, a 3 km ride from the hotel.

Stage 1 Quezon City > Palayan City – 157.15 km

We wake up at 5 AM for the race organized buffet breakfast. After a large bowl of rice and egg, and the more familiar cereal the team has brought from Australia, we pack our things and get changed into our cycling kit. We leave the hotel at 6:45 and arrive at the start with an hour before the race. Our local man Melvin arrives with some sticky rice cakes or bebinka as it’s known by the locals. We hang around for a while, taking in the atmosphere (some heavy bangers on a Sunday before 7am that everyone seems fine with. Some quick photos with the locals that have come to watch. A few minutes before 8 AM we’re called up to the start line.

We assemble, ready for stage 1. The countdown finishes and off we go for 9 km of neutral riding while we leave the busy streets of Quezon City. The flag drops and the race is on. Attacks fly from the beginning, and we race hard as took tooks disobey the road closure and drive alongside the race. We keep flying along at 50 – 60 km/h through the city. Around a few fast turns and the road narrows for road works. We hit a short section of gravel as we dive down one side of it. Still the traffic merges into the race, making for some sketchy racing. About 10 km in, the race is neutralised. The traffic is just too heavy to race, so the race commissaire decides we’ll ride for another 30 km until we leave the city. Relieved, we regroup and continue along, chatting. As the peloton nears the 40 km mark, riders begin to move up to the front. The flag drops again and off we go. Attacks fly, traffic keeps moving around us, seemingly oblivious to the 30 or so police and escort motorbikes with sirens blaring and the 100 bike riders following suit. Another 5 km later and we encounter a road block. Up ahead, the traffic has queued up in both directions and the lead car has no choice but to slow us down until the traffic has cleared. Neutral is again called by the commissaire, but this time no km mark is decided upon as where the race will recommence.

We ride along slowly, the lead car yo-yoing in front of the bunch as we catch it and it drives away again. Confused, we go back to the chief commissaire car. As we get there to see what’s going on and apparently, the race is back on again. Up in the distance there is a group of riders already off up the road. The peloton doesn’t race. With traffic still all around us, there is an unspoken agreement that it’s not worth racing. The breakaway group continues to get time. We keep riding, unsure of what’s going on. We arrive at a town, and as we ride through, the road is fully blocked again. The bunch stops at a service station, the riders look around, and a couple of confused service station attendants come over and start shouting in Philippino. The decision is made that stage 1 is cancelled. A little relieved that the chaos of the traffic is over, the we get back on and continue riding, and slowly it dawns on us all that we still have to finish the 157 km stage. The “race” continues uneventfully, but with around 30kms to go a few local riders realize that we can cut off about 10 km and a hill if we go a different way. We turn around and continue to the finish. As we arrive at the finish, we’re informed by the race organizers our hotel for the night is 12 km back the way we’ve come. None of the support vehicles have made it back to the finish yet thanks to the shortcut. So off we go, rounding out a crazy 5-hour day in the saddle.

The Harvest Hotel Bayombong lobby is an air-conditioned paradise after the hours in the sun which peaked at nearly 50 degrees on the road. After about half an hour sitting down, and some pasta, we feel recovered enough to check in and head up to our rooms. After showers and briefly exploring the local streets, we get in the car for what turns out to be a reasonably long drive to dinner. We finally arrive and grab the table closest to the buffet and furthest from the speakers. The Oliver’s boys have been to a few of these now they know the score! The presentation begins, and we enjoy the buffet whilst watching a local dance troupe. After filling up on lots of rice and a bit of “cyclist fish”, we decide to head over to meet the local dancers who have just performed. We’re all mobbed. Everyone wants to take a photo and hi five us. It’s a fitting end to a strange day.

Check out video from team car from this stage here.

 

Stage 2 Cabanatuan City > Bayombong – 158 km

The plan for stage 2 is for Jack Sutton and Ben Andrews to get in the break. It starts out well. Jack goes up the road with a group of around 15. Ben and Trevor Spencer join a group of 5 to bridge across. The group fractures and Ben makes it across. Still having two in the break is the perfect scenario. I go back to the car to tell Sam the news and grab some cold bottles. I get the bottles and start riding back to the bunch. Suddenly, I’m riding hard and can’t get to the car in front. It’s a van filled with photographers for the race that has gotten between me and the peloton. They don’t know how to drive in the race convoy. My team car tries to come to the rescue, but they are quickly waved away: “NO MOTORPACING OLIVER!” the commisare shouts from his motorbike. I’m off the back of the race by myself in the convoy for over 5 minutes. Finally, the pace eases up and I get back onto the bunch. There’s only 40 left and I haven’t seen anyone get dropped. We take a turn in the road and I see another group of 20 riders about 30 seconds up the road. Whoops….

Trevor and I are in the third group and the race is riding away from us. The group starts attacking each other and we follow, riding to try to get back to the group in front. About 20 km’s of hard chopping off and we’re back with the main group. As soon as we catch, moves start to go again. We’ve started the long slow 25 km climb and the race is getting hard. We’re riding a false flat, following moves and then we see the breakaway. We catch them. Jack and Ben continue following moves up the first 7 km categorized climb. Early on Jack starts a move that gets a gap. Ben follows more moves and eventually he’s up the road too. Perfect. I move towards the front as we get to the base of another 10 km climb after no real descending.

The local continental team 7-Eleven start driving it up the climb. A few riders are put into difficulty early on. As we continue climbing, I drift to the back of the group. I see Ben coming back through the bunch about 3 km before the top of the climb. We keep climbing. 3 km. 2 km. 1 km. 500 m. I see the top. I’m last wheel in the bunch and I push hard to stay with them. As we crest, I see Jack at the front of the bunch. We start the long and – fortunately due to the bumpy road – slow descent. The convoy is a long way back after the strung out climb and descent, and everyone needs water. The whole bunch sits up, waiting for the convoy to come back. They finally get back to the bunch and I go back for water. I get some water and an ice sock and get told the time gap is over 4 minutes. The decision from the car is that with three riders we don’t have the man power to bring the break of 14 riders back. We look to other teams to chase, offering to help them, but no one does. The remainder of the break win, and Jack, Ben and I come in with the bunch. Jack tries a flyer inside the final km and I follow the right wheels to take out the bunch kick as Jack is caught.

We find the team car post stage pretty easily because it’s the one surrounded by the most local fans. I follow the other boys and hop in the team car with the air con on full blast. Another hot day done. Unfortunately, we finally find Trevor Spencer there, he has had to DNF the stage due to an old leg injury flaring up badly. We get changed on the roadside with towels wrapped around with an uncomfortably large crowd watching on. More photos are taken with us as we make our way back down to the finish for the post-race presentation and lunch.

The presentation creeps along as the attention of all the riders is on the buffet which is slowly being brought in. The Philippine Navy Standard Insurance team have totally dominated the day: donning all the leader jerseys apart from the under 23. The event organizers come over holding a jersey, very keen for our manager Sam sign the jersey despite not being a rider. None of us mind however as Sam thankfully always manages to always carry the conversation with any of the local VIP’s Lunch has a continental stand and we fill ourselves up on spaghetti and roast chicken covered in beans. That’s more like it! As usual the speakers are blasting club beats to make sure we’re in the mood for lunch. The best news of the day is that the hotel is only a few hundred meters down the road. That is, until we get there…The hotel for the night does not have an elevator, and as we walk up the stairs the temperature keeps rising. We keep climbing, up to the third floor and it’s steamy. We enter the rooms and somehow it is hotter inside. We sit down to no WIFI and an air conditioning unit bolted to the window that seems to just be there to make noise. Sam comes up and lets us know that we’re not staying here. He has quickly booked us in somewhere else better. Cheers Sammy!

Stage 3 Bambang > Lingayen – 188.1km

Even though the new hotel is an improvement, the next morning’s hotel breakfast is pretty limited, so we fill ourselves up on the last of the brought along cereal. We all try to order coffees, but it seems to be getting lost in translation, so we give up and pack our things. We hop in the van, for the first time in the tour not being able to ride to the start. Sam and Melvin turn up with a big bag of rice cakes, bananas, and COFFEES! They are really killing the managing and while we sip on our coffee’s, we ask them how their night was staying in the original hotel…all we get is “it was ok”. Stage 3 is over 200kms if you include the neutral zone, and the race proper starts from the bottom of stage 2’s descent and goes back over the climb, down the other side with over 140kms of flat for the rest of the day. The plan for us is pretty much the same as yesterday. Send Ben and Jack up the road and save me in case it comes back for a sprint.

The flag comes in and it is a super hard start once again. Lots attacking in the first 20 km as the climb starts and a move goes without us represented. We all sit in the bunch to the top. With a few last-minute changes to the race distance, no one really knows where the top of the climb is. We eventually crest, about 4 km after we expect to and begin the descent. As the road flattens out, we regroup and have a chat about the plan: With about 15 riders up the road we have to chase, so Ben and Jack begin riding at the front of the group for a few km’s as I go back and try to convince other riders to join them. About 8 riders begin to work and we slowly pull the break back within sight. Once we can see the group, everyone begins to ride and we bring them back. “Just sit in here, it’s too fast for attacks to go” I hear Jack say. The pace steadies and we cruise for a while in the bunch and a group gets away, with Jack following their wheels. Their gap increases to over 2 minutes pretty quickly. The Forca team from Malaysia start chasing but not very hard. As we come out of a town, we reach a wide valley and the wind starts picking up. Attacks start flying and Ben gets in a few but gets chased down each time. After a while the green jersey from Philippine Navy Standard Insurance gets away with a small group. We miss this group unfortunately. About 10kms later the race leader also from Philippine Navy Standard Insurance, does a flying attack solo that nobody follows. The peloton increases its tempo, but we don’t get close to the yellow jersey. He disappears up the road.

The attacks settle for a while, and the peloton seems happy to cruise to the finish, a further 70 km. The km’s tick by, the only interruption being the impromptu feed zones the Oliver’s team car sets up on the roadside. With prizemoney each day down to 20th place, at around 40 km left the attacks start up again and the pace is back on. We ride hard for the rest of the race. Ben takes a flyer towards the end, which sets me up for the bunch kick. I hit out too early, getting rolled on the line by a CCN rider. Spewing. We reach the team car to the news that Jack has come 10th! Nice work Jack! We sit around in the shade, taking on cool drinks until we eventually we can be bothered to walk across the street to the hotel.

We head off to a restaurant for some food and a bit of shopping for the next morning’s breakfast. The huge meal of pizza, pasta and a drink come to about $8 Australian, and is a nice change from the sweet energy food that we’ve been eating during the race. I go to bed thinking about the 25 km climb at the end of tomorrows stage. Not keen!

Stage 4 Lingayen > Baguio City – 154.65 km

Another early start, some more rice for breakfast and some more photos with local fans. Melvin arrives with the final haul of sticky rice cakes and we set off on the final stage. As soon as the flag drops, the attacks start, and we all try different moves. A move goes off the front, and Jack manages to get into a group bridging across. The pace momentarily eases off and we lose sight of the front of the race. A few teams who have missed the move begin chasing, and about 10 km later we see the group coming back. It’s not the whole break away but we can see Jack in there. Ben and I have a quick chat and get ready to follow some more moves. As we catch the group I move forward to go with some attacks. As I expect a group goes as soon as we catch, and I follow. We ride hard for a few minutes and look back. The bunch has sat up and let us go. Sweet!

I realize we’ve still got 120 km to go and 25 of that is uphill. There’s five of us in the break and we work well together, extending our advantage over the bunch. I’m instructed by the Oliver’s car to not do too much work in the break. The km’s tick by as I wait for more instructions. I know that a plan is being devised. The team car pulls back up beside me and Sam shouts: “Ben’s coming across with a group. Wait for him and then ride hard to the bottom of the climb”. I’m relieved as I have purpose again in the race! We slow down, and Ben’s group catches us quickly. I then ride hard to the bottom of the climb. As we reach the lower slopes, attacks go, and I’m distanced. Ben goes up the road, and I’m briefly hopeful that the group will stay away. That is, until the peloton comes flying past me a couple of minutes later. I watch them ride up to me, and then past me and I begin the long slog uphill to the finish. I creep up the first 40 minutes of the climb, still hurting from my effort on the flat, until the broom wagon pulls up behind me. The van sits about a meter off my wheel for the next 10 minutes. It’s too tempting to get in, so I decide I must catch and overtake someone. I around a corner, and my team car is there. I grab a bottle; some ice and the boys are giving me plenty of encouragement. It’s exactly what I need and I’m able to catch and overtake enough people to get the broom wagon off my wheel.

The final few km’s of the climb are quite surreal, with an armed soldier every 50 or so meters, standing on the centerline of the road. Eventually I reach the ‘descent’ for the final 500 meters…which isn’t nearly as easy as downhill as it appears in the race book and cross the line. The team van is already mobbed with people and by the time I’ve let go of my bike it’s already missing the two bottles that were there when I finished. We sit around the van for a while, all lost in our own thoughts. Not much is said until we down our post-race drinks and try to summon the energy to make it to the hotel.

We arrive at the nicest hotel of the race, check into our rooms and shower, ready for the team’s presentation. We decide to walk, as Baguio City seems to be a permanent traffic jam. “The closing ceremony is only 800 meters away”. I won’t name and shame here, because it would have been, had we not walked well past it before checking maps. We eventually arrive, a little more familiar with the streets of Baguio City than originally intended, and a bit wet from the drizzle we’ve just spent half an hour walking through. We take a brief detour on the way to our table to each get a beer, and we sit down, ready for the presentation. We all fill our plates when the buffet is opened, and our feeding frenzy is only briefly interrupted when we’re called up to collect our purple Air21 hats and have a photo taken. A traditional dance group begins performing on stage, and somehow a few of the boys end up on stage, dancing and playing drums with the locals.

After the presentation, we head back to the hotel for the 5-hour overnight transfer back to Manila, ready for the next day’s flight. Melvin manages to negotiate an extra van to give us some space for the trip, and we settle down for the drive. Just as we’re about to leave, we’re informed that the man in the passenger seat is our security guard for the trip. He clearly has some old school form of revolver tucked underneath his coat that he is wearing in 30-degree heat. I drift off on the decent back down the mountain, pretty content with my first UCI tour, and keen for some more experiences later in the year! At the airport Sam cashes in on the crazy Philippine pricing and gets some Duty-Free. He picks his bag up as he gets on the flight. It’s bright yellow with “It’s more fun in the Philippines” on the side. True statement…most of the time!

Tom Bolton is 19 years old and is a member of Dulwich Hill Cycling Club. At the end of 2017 he moved from Sydney to Bathurst to commence a Bachelor of Communications at Charles Sturt University.

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