By Jon Aspin, Ho Chi Minh City
Da Lat, Vietnam: Earlier this year, a field of 148 local and international mountain bike riders lined up in the central highlands’ capital for the start of the second ever DDK Vietnam Victory Challenge. Cory Wallace, from the Rocky Mountain town of Jasper, and Sarah Kaufmann from Salt Lake City, both showed their class to defend their titles in the Pro-Men’s and Pro-Women’s categories.
Building on the success of 2015’s inaugural race, a wide range of ability’s were again drawn to the enduro event. This year’s field included several pro and semi-pro riders, with the Open Women’s category led by Utah’s own Sarah Kaufmann.
Coming into the final stage, Sarah, riding for Stan’s No Tubes Elite team had six and a half minutes up her sleeve on nearest rival Erin Greene from New Zealand. “I felt confident going into today,” she said, “because I had that time, so I knew I didn’t have to win (the stage). My plan was to ride hard on the first lap, see where I was at, where she was at, and because it was a short enough day, I didn’t think she’d put that much (time) on me.” Despite that, Sarah still had enough in the tank to compete for the final stage win. “I still wanted to win the stage,” she said, “so you know, I felt like I was in control. I did what I needed to do.” On the course itself, Sarah said her expectations had been blown away again. “When I came last year, I was expecting a lot less, and this year was even better. The single track out there is as good as any, and honestly the double track was fun because it’s so rough.” In terms of the climbs she said she was used to longer ones, but given the lack of switchbacks, they were steeper than usual. “This is as good as any event in the States” she said afterwards, “and you know it’s scary to come to such a foreign country, you kinda put your trust in a race promoter, but I would recommend this to anyone. I felt totally safe and everything’s been top-notch.”
This years’ Vietnam Victory Challenge was again run over three stages, the first two being 48km A to B rides, including 1,300m of elevation gain, (the second stage a reverse of the first) followed by four laps of an 11km loop on the final day through the aptly titled “Valley of Love”, a hub for international and domestic visitors.
In the Pro-Men’s category, Canadian national champion Cory Wallace, riding for the Kona factory team, virtually had it to himself again. In a repeat of last years’ result, Cory put light between himself and the competition, finishing the General Classification a clear 54 minutes in front of his nearest rival Sang Seyha from Cambodia. Beating everyone up the first climb on day one, he was barely sighted, demonstrating the gulf in class between the pro’s in nations where this is an established sport, and places like Vietnam, where it remains in its’ infancy.
Downplaying his win, Cory said he was excited to be part of the development of mountain biking here, and had noticed a big improvement in the times of the local riders. “It’s such a good race that Bob’s put on here, (Bob Lofgran – Race Director) I’m excited just to be part of it.” he said. Treating it as a training camp for the North American season come June, July and August, he also praised the course, even though it’s short by his marathon standards. “When it’s shorter you just go harder” he said, “I find these courses hard because there’s a lot of steep, punchy climbs, and it’s rough, so you always gotta be on it. There’s not many places you can really just recover, so I’ve found the racing really entertaining here.”
Battling it out
In the other categories, there were some great battles throughout the weekend, with yellow GC jerseys changing hands over the three stages. This happened most notably in the Men’s 30-39 category which was eventually taken out by Simon Gadient (Flying Bikes), who just pipped last years overall category winner Matthew Wright (Team 3V Racing) by a margin of 56.9 seconds, the closest of the weekend.
In the race inside the race inside the race, the Red jerseys for the best local riders were also hotly contested. Loc Phun Van (Quan Khu 7) took out the Open Vietnamese men’s category, with only a few minutes separating the minor placings and everything up for grabs until the last lap on day 3. The Open Vietnamese womens’ overall went to Huong Khong Thi (Vinh Phuc), who showed improvement throughout the weekend. Special mention must go to another rider from Utah, Katie Teubner (TRP Racing) who came over for holiday in support of her friend Sarah, who’d told her about the event, and took out third overall in the Pro-Women’s category. “It’s been an awesome week in Vietnam. Thanks a lot to everyone who supported this event. It’s really cool to see this level of racing happening here.”
Cycling in Vietnam
Happy with how the event had grown from last year, the husband and wife team of Bob and Tanya Lofgran from SEA Sports Marketing, were buoyant albeit tired at its conclusion. Stopping short of committing to next year, race director Bob was pleased with the traction the sport had gained over the last two years, and hoped that with the right kind of help from local authorities and the Cycling Federation of Vietnam, the Vietnam Victory Challenge could take a foothold in DaLat, and become a permanent, even longer event to attract more international standard riders. “I want to make this a totally international standard (longer) ride and have a lot more internationals like Cory and Sarah come out for it” Bob said. “But if we do that straight away, the local riders won’t keep up. So I think if we grow the event gradually, within the next on one or two years, we can have some real competition from them.”
Having attracted sponsors like DDK, Asama, Jett and Cube to support the event, along with so many people from so many different places (there were racers who flew in from China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Cambodia, not to mention the USA and Canada), ex-professional team rider Bob has every right to feel proud, but stressed the need to build community. “Cycling and bikes are my life,” he began, (he has a day job as Country Manager for the Specialized brand) and I feel like if you have a good racing and cycling community like this in Vietnam, it creates so many opportunities for riders. A lot of people might think it’s just a dumb race, but being a good racer or handy with bikes can open up so many more opportunities down the line. Look at me, I never thought I’d even visit Vietnam, let alone live here. I’m living proof of what this sport can do for people.”
For full results of the race go to webscorer.com and type in ‘Vietnam Victory Challenge’ and for more photos go to facebook.com/vietnamvictorychallenge
Jon Aspin is an Australian writer and editor working in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He rode the first stage of the race and loves all things cycling. He works for the biggest English language magazine in Vietnam. You can get in touch with him in at [email protected] and see more of his work for the magazine here: http://www.wordvietnam.com/food-drink/bar-stool/author/9499-jonaspin