“You guys are NOT allowed to go off to the Great Wall of China.”
There was a hint of desperation in the voice of our director sportif as he stood in front of us, still exhausted from the race, and tired from being asked if we could use our free time to visit the Great Wall.
He lingered for a moment in the doorway of the hotel room, eyes glaring out of his perspiring bald head — his physical presence a reminder of the barrier between the outside world and us.
He looked quite serious, I thought. You see, back then, back before the first question on everyone’s lips each day when we arrived at a new hotel was “what’s the wifi password”, and before every rider spent every night staring at their phones in their rooms, we had to find things to do to keep us entertained.
Back then getting out of the hotel and back could be like slipping in and out of a prison camp. I mean, our DS didn’t have anything against the Wall of China itself, but he hated the idea of riders doing tourist things at races no matter where in the world we went, we “weren’t being paid to look around.” Anything that wasn’t resting was bad news, as surely it would lead us to get up to no good.
Now in this case, I didn’t exactly harbour desire on going to the Great Wall of China, but I was certain we needed to do something; after all we had a full afternoon and evening before our flight the next morning.
“We should at least go for a look around… maybe have one beer?” I suggested innocently to my teammates as soon as the DS left, “I mean if we can’t go to the Great Wall…”
This was going to take a team effort I knew, but reluctance became agreement and I dragged the whole team out of the hotel and down some side streets until I spotted a filthy looking shack with piles of plastic beer crates and empty birdcages outside. Inside it was packed with people, sitting, drinking, smoking and gambling. “This’ll do”.
Cold beer tastes pretty good after a stage race, I can tell you. It cleanses the mind. Most of the riders didn’t drink that often, and as such they felt rather fine rather quickly. My Swedish teammate Stefan certainly did, and he ordered the second round. I mean, another couldn’t hurt, and at least we weren’t on a trip to the Great Wall.
I can’t remember who ordered the third round, or the fourth. Soon murmurs started in our now jovial group about getting back for dinner. Our director would be expecting us there. Julien, a young teammate who wore a permanently worried look on his face piped up, “We’ve gotta go back, the boss will kill us if we aren’t at dinner.”
“Don’t go”, I said, “it won’t end well.”
Even though to a man they were evidently not wearing the beer well, no one wanted to miss dinner and get caught outside the hotel.
“OK, but I’m staying.”
I ordered another beer and sat down to a card game with the locals, who were more than happy to be joined by a foreigner with no idea what game he was playing.
After losing all my coins, I wandered out into the street into the heaving mass of ancient trucks and tiny cars, criss-crossed by pedestrians walking though the traffic. Cyclists on huge old bikes rode in both directions on both sides of the road, motorbikes passed carrying dead dogs and cages of poultry. Soon I found a night market and drunkenly tried every dead insect on a stick the street vendors were selling, and washed it all down with more beers in the hot Beijing night, before eventually staggering back to the hotel for a shower and some sleep with the concerns of being caught by the boss neatly eclipsed by the experience of the city at night.
A couple of hours later I walked into the hotel lobby to see the rest of my teammates looking sorry for themselves. Julien’s look had gone from worried to plain despondent. “The boss knew in about ten seconds that we had been drinking. He was already angry, then Sammy threw up in an ashtray in the lobby.”
I saw the director coming my way. “Where the fuck were you last night!” he demanded. “This lot turned up drunk at dinner. Drunk! I ought to fire the lot of them.” Clearly my presence in the bar hadn’t yet been mentioned. “Well, where the hell were you?” Sometimes, I reasoned, the lesser of two evils can be a very good option. “Oh, well, I went to see the Great Wall of China…”
Henessee Cardozo is a former professional cyclist, part time team manager and long-term freewheeling adventurer.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.