Words and photos by Christopher Chen
A mix of street lamps and flashing bike lights illuminated the car park of Macritchie Reservior against the backdrop of the still dark sky. There, as if part of some Lycra flashmob, 108 riders congregated at the start of the Rapha Gentlemen’s Race Singapore 2013.
Joggers skipped by in disbelief at the sheer mass of bikes and bodies. The distinct whirring of a generator gave power to a pop-up espresso stall, while riders queued across the car park for a pre-ride caffeine boost. Gorgeous bicycles included aerospace carbon speedsters and old-faithful steel numbers.
Running for the second year, the route took riders on a 170km course in a classic team time-trial format, setting off in teams of four across the varied terrain of Singapore.
Just barely warmed up, they were soon confronted by Vigilante Hill – a short and very steep climb reaching 20% in some spots. I stood there with my camera flashing, while the brave few assaulted the hill with grunting turns of the crank. Some underestimated the steepness and had to get off and push. That was only the beginning.
The route pressed on, passing the skyscrapers of Singapore’s financial district, headwind-filled coastal and industrial zones, seemingly endless rolling stretches of tarmac, and even a nice stretch of red mud and gravel.
It was a good 3km trek on foot from the main road to the gravel. Laden down by my heavy camera gear, I made haste, wanting to catch the teams as they went through the ‘red lands’. When in position, I could hear the kicking up of sand and stone against the bike frames of riders zooming past. Some wore expressions of fatigue, others hammed it up for the camera.
I knew exactly how the riders felt: I had ridden the route earlier as part of a recce to pick good photography spots. On that day the 38C heat was unrelenting and I found myself barely capable of riding the last 50km. Legs and arms shaking, I sucked on the rear wheel of the rider in front, while receiving the occasional push on my saddle from a kind soul behind me. I could only imagine what it was like for the riders on the day, riding as hard as they could.
I made my way back to the finishing line and stood in shock as the first team, Team Direct Asia, rolled in within 5 hours (4hrs 56 mins to be precise).
Twenty out of the 28 teams completed the race inside the cut-off time. A light rain showered down on the last 7kms for the teams on the way back, a well deserved cool-off after a day of searing heat. Once unclipped the teams were treated to refreshing Thai coconut water and ice-cold beers.
I weaved among them, snapping portraits and scenes of exhaustion. The atmosphere was filled with chatter, reminiscing about the 170km journey. I observed the laughs and words of encouragement between friends, a stark contrast to the cramps and sore legs, punctures and mechanical failures. Whether good or bad, they would never forget them. The suffering may linger for the next couple of days, but the stories and memories (and hopefully the photographs) will live on.