Race Design Thread

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2020 has been a strange year.

It is a year I can’t wait to be over, it is a year I will look back on with absolutely zero fondness whatsoever - save for a small amount at the very start, where I spent some time in Östersund skiing and got to actually try my hand at biathlon, which was an experience I had been dreaming of for several years. But that’s just about the only thing I will look back on 2020 fondly for.

It has, however, had some unusual and unintended consequences. From March, the sporting calendar was pretty much completely grinding to a halt. Paris-Nice was raced hell for leather by a collection of riders who never knew when the race would be called off. The biathlon World Championships took place in Antholz (in retrospect a highly regrettable decision) but the season thereafter was behind closed doors; three-time crystal globe winner Kaisa Mäkäräinen retired on her home snow in Kontiolahti, but with nobody there to see her ride into the sunset. Football stadia were empty, the hockey season was called off (meaning some trades designed to provide injury cover became instantly very regrettable, Koronin probably will know immediately the one I’m thinking of), and hundreds of races that would have characterised our spring were replaced by an empty void that a bunch of short distance e-races with depleted pélotons and MarioKart power-ups that served as nothing more than an extended advertisement for Zwift just couldn’t fill for me. To sum up just how apocalyptically bad 2020 was, the proliferation of e-races led me to find common ground with my own personal bête noire, Peter Sagan, who concurred that these were awful and of no value.

At first I decided I would catch up on racing that had been able to take place in the first couple of months of the season using youtube and other streaming services, but there were limited amounts of it. The good thing about the Race Design Thread, however, is that it is fuelled by imagination and creativity, and of course geography. The need to find something to scratch that sporting itch meant that I could post a few things out of my backlog of races, although this has ground to a halt recently as once races have got back underway, a highly compressed calendar means there’s seldom any downtime in the sporting world at present, as important race after important race fills every weekend and most weekdays until the end of the Vuelta well into November. In the earlier times of lockdown, however, the thread was a good bit more active as contributors added race after race. Early in lockdown, I drew up a Vuelta a la Independencia Nacional, as this was one of the races I had watched to get my cycling fix in the early days of lockdown - the race took place in February and had coverage available, plus I knew nothing of what had happened as the 2020 edition was not a UCI race. It was ideal, and stoked an interest to me in seeing what the country was able to offer. After all, while I can still find plenty to wring some new ideas out of Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland… they’re kind of known commodities. I’ve gone further afield plenty of times, but there were whole areas of the globe I hadn’t even considered.

But then, we got some live racing back. It was an exciting fillip in negative and depressing times. We could watch some honest to god bike racing again, even if it was like stepping into a whole new world, which was like the bike racing we know but not quite the same. It was a three week cycling event with live coverage, helicam (actually drones), theme music, kings of mountains, teams in collusion and rivalries, it had drama and anticipation, it had completely bonkers imagery and racing, and it was in a stunningly beautiful backdrop that offered incredible choice for the traceur. This was the HTV Cycling Cup.



Words cannot express how much I love the HTV Cycling Cup. This must have been what it was like in Cold War times to accidentally stumble across coverage of one of the eastern bloc amateur races to somebody weaned on the Tour and the Giro. It was something completely recognisable and yet strangely different from what we were used to. It was long form stage racing, but on open highways decorated with socialist monuments, through tropical rainforest scenery, with a week 3 Team Time Trial (!?) and criterium stages interspersed in the middle of the race. With the lockdown having affected the race, none of the overseas riders that had frequented previous years’ racing were on hand, and only two outsiders were able to start - France’s Loïc Desriac and Spain’s Javier Sardá, both of whom are based in Vietnam and had been there when lockdown began (Colombian Jordan Parra, who also rides in Vietnam, was back at home when the spread of the virus became unstoppable, and so has not returned). I knew literally no Vietnamese, but the amateurish charm of the presentation (especially when they went all out on staging, road closures, barriers and podiums) won me over and despite a parcours that resulted in a large number of sprints, soon I was invested in the names involved and talking like I was an expert in a cycling scene I knew next to nothing of. After all, Vietnamese cycling is pretty obscure even by the standards of the UCI Asia Tour, with no UCI categorised races.

Oh, one more thing about the presentation: their TV host is The Man. No, really. That’s his name.



I knew straight away I wanted to ‘do’ the HTV Cup. The country was so ripe for discovery. It’s an established race, having been held since the 80s. Cycling fans, starved of real competition for months, were giving the race more prominence worldwide than it had ever had, just through lack of any opposition in the calendar; the race can be as long as you want (the longest edition, 2018, being 30 stages in length), and Vietnam offers geographical diversity as well as historical and cultural sites I really hadn’t investigated. I hadn’t really done any Asia Tour races to date, and though I went with Taiwan first, I had had a go at doing a more creative Tour de Langkawi which I may post at some point. But the HTV Cup had piqued my interest and once I’d abandoned an early attempt which sacrilegiously went south to north (the very point of it being the HTV Cup means it has to end in Ho Chi Minh City since HTV is the Ho Chi Minh City TV station, but the absolutely pan flat terrain around the Mekong Delta made it difficult to put together a route I was happy with), a route eventually came into place.

My hope is that the race can build on its unexpected, serendipitous higher profile and when it can hopefully return to including overseas riders next year, they can continue to develop it, making a tougher and more varied route with a bigger péloton so that we don’t see such a bogarting of the success by a small number of riders, since only 82 riders were able to start this year’s race across 12 teams. In previous years, however, they have seen teams from neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Thailand take part, as well as from further afield such as Korea and with riders like the infamous Mirsamad Pourseyedi turning up as mercenaries. Other Vietnamese races have seen teams from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia also take part and my thinking is that although not all of these teams will necessarily want to peak for a 3 week race in Vietnam and may not be able to bring some of the ringers they sign specifically for racing Langkawi, the improved worldwide recognition of Vietnamese cycling afforded by their running opposition-free in a post-Covid world might make the race somewhat more attractive to them. And that that, in turn, would encourage the organisers to make a more rounded parcours.

In a ‘normal’ year, you could rely on the same 12 Vietnamese teams that contested the race this year:


Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh - the team of 2019 and 2020 winner Javier Sardá, effectively the lead team of the race’s home area. Lê Văn Duẩn is also very strong and with a wealth of experience.
Hồ Chí Minh-MM Mega Market - sister team to the above, their kit is the same only orange instead of red. They are built around star sprinter Lê Nguyệt Minh, who with so many races ending in sprints is one of Vietnam’s most recognised riders.
Bikelife-Đồng Nai - the most international team, they race elsewhere in Southeast Asia often, and are led by French expat Loïc Désriac and Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, one of the better climbers in Vietnam and the nation’s most successful rider of recent years in international competition.
Ynghua Đồng Nai - sister team of Bikelife, quiet this year with Jordan Parra, their main name, stranded at home in Colombia.
Dược Domesco Đồng Tháp (DDT) - brightly coloured team led by Nguyễn Tấn Hoài, a versatile all-rounder with a strong sprint who finishes high in the GC, akin to a Vietnamese Cândido Barbosa, and who led most of the 2020 edition of the race en route to 2nd in the final GC. Perhaps more fairly compared to somebody like Wout van Aert or Edvald Boasson Hagen in skillset, though obviously not to their kind of level.
Dopagan Đồng Tháp - unfortunately named sister team to DDT, led by break specialist Trần Tuấn Kiệt, who won 3 stages of the 2020 edition. Their kits resemble Phonak.
Châu Thới Vĩnh Long - southern team whose kits resemble Groupama-FDJ, led by the best young prospect in Vietnam, Võ Thanh An.
Lộc Trời - smaller team with white and fluorescent green kits, who Pourseyedi subbed for as a mercenary.
Quân Khu 7 - a team with ties to the military I believe. Owners of the best kits in cycling. Truly glorious.
Quân đội - less distinguished team also with military ties, but fewer high profile riders and lamer kits.
Nhựa Bình Minh Bình Dương - fairly small team whose kits resemble Total-Direct Energie.
Hà Nội - the team of the capital, they wear yellow and black and have a small team that will likely be looking for a mercenary signing or two.

Now, although it’s less common nowadays, there have been plenty of overseas teams rock up at the HTV Cup in previous years, and if the race is going to grow, then they will probably want to entice a few more overseas teams to increase the international exposure. So I’ve taken a bit of a look at races in the same part of the world to consider who may reasonably be considered a plausible team to compete. Of course, however, the race does not pay bonanza UCI Asia Tour points, so we’re not going to see the kind of International slightly star-studded cast that rocks up to the Tour de Langkawi; the political position and role of Vietnam will mean you’re less likely to get the random US and European teams that turn up to the Tour of Taiwan; also, while there are some teams who are quite local to the Vietnamese border and could feasibly turn up, such as Yunnan Lvshan Landscape and Shenzhen Xidesheng, the current China-Vietnam relationship means it is unlikely that we will see Chinese teams with their Colombian and Ukrainian mercenaries on the startlist. Even so, there are a good few squads in South East Asia who can complement the national péloton.

I was thinking some of the following teams would potentially be interested:

7-Eleven-Cliqq-Air21 by Road Philippines - team led by Marcelo Felipe who has some good results across South East Asia in the last couple of years.
Go 4 Gold Philippines - team of younger development guys, a couple of whom went well in the Cambodia Bay Tour at the start of the year.


Cambodia Cycling Academy - some young Cambodians accompanied by some French expats and some Russians plying their trade in South East Asia, most notably Matvey Mamykin.


KFC Cycling Team - some useful riders, not least the rather impressive-looking Muhammad Abdurrohman.
Mula - A very strong team with both Aimen Cahyadi (TTs and lower gradient climbs) and Jamal Hibatullah (climbing specialist) who could be major players.


Team Sapura Cycling - most likely without their big money Euro acquisitions for Langkawi, still some useful Malaysian riders like Muhammad Nur Atman Zariff.
Terengganu Inc-TSG - a very good team including overseas acquisitions like Youcef Reguigui, Carlos Quintero and Metkel Eyob, though these may not ride a race like the HTV Cup. Mongolian star Maralerdene Batmunkh may, though - he’s ridden the race a few times in the past - as might Singapore’s best ever rider, Choon Huat Goh, and sprinter Muhammad Harif Saleh, who took some major scalps en route to two stages at Langkawi in February.


Thailand Continental Cycling - a very good team in the region with a number of strong riders, mostly from the home nation. Sarawut Sirironnachai looks the likely strongest.

Finally, I would expect a
Laotian national team, to be led by 2017 GC winner Alex Ariya Phounsavath, now that he and Thailand Continental have parted ways. He has moonlighted in the race for Vietnamese teams, but with the race now making occasional forays into Cambodia and Laos, a Laotian national team backing him could really add to the race, especially now CCN is no more. Of course, not all of these teams are likely to be interested, but just adding 3-4 of them would add a much stronger international flavour to the race, or at least a couple of notable names to come in as ringers like we have seen in the past.

Gong Hyo-Suk, of LX Cycling Team in South Korea, rocked up in 2019 after doing the race with his trade team in the early 2010s, and won the queen stage to Đà Lạt, while Colombia’s Vladimir López also entered for Ynghua that year; he was part of the reason Jordan Parra was tempted to go and race for the team in the latter part of 2019, so he may be willing to return. A couple of the Iranian extraterrestrials have raced here too, but with no Asia Tour points, I wouldn’t expect Foolad Mabarakeh or Tabriz. A few other riders who have moonlighted in smaller races in this part of the world are:
Valentin Midey, a 30 year old Frenchman whose career is almost entirely comprised of Thai races in the last couple of years;
Edgar Nohales Nieto, a 34 year old Spaniard who has been racing in Asia for eight seasons now, and who appeared as a mercenary in the HTV Cup in 2018;
Florian Hudry, a 25 year old Frenchman who has been racing in Japan for a few years and was briefly with Cambodia Cycling Academy;
Konstantin Fast, a 44 year old Russian veteran who has bounced around South East Asian racing for a number of years in his career twilight;
Amir Kolahdouzhagh, a 27 year old Iranian former motorbike who tends to bounce around early season before signing for a Chinese team to moonlight in races like Langkawi.

I have decided to produce something that is not like completely tearing up the fabric of the HTV Cup, but is also developing the race into something that looks more like a higher level race on the world calendar, with the range of geography and stage options that Vietnam offers, and allowing for finishes outside of major cities. There will still be the occasional criterium stage, as these happen within the HTV Cup, and stage lengths will vary significantly with a few real short stages mixed in with longer ones (the real race includes road stages of any length between 40km and 240km!), and aiming to showcase the full extent of what this beautiful and scenic country offers at the same time as also showing something that would not be unachievable for the race if it is able to continue the momentum its unexpected leap to prominence on the world scene has afforded it, so as to make itself into a race which can have the same kind of standing as, say, the Jelajah Malaysia or the Tour de Banyuwangi Ijen (I am not going to bite off more than I can chew and pretend it will become the Tour de Langkawi, besides that benefits from being outside of European cycling season, the HTV Cup traditionally finishes outside the Independence Palace on April 30). So here we have a 21-stage, normal Grand Tour sized race, within the confines of what might be realistically achievable in the short-to-mid-term for the race.

Stage 1: Hà Nội - Hà Nội, 59km





The HTV Cup typically has two route formats. Either it starts and ends in Ho Chi Minh City, or, given the geographical shape of Vietnam, essentially a long thing strip of land linking the Red River Delta at the north and the Mekong Delta at the south, it starts somewhere north and heads southwards in a point to point type style akin to, say, Paris-Nice. The last two editions began in Vinh, but ’twas not always thus. 2018’s longest-ever edition began its 30-stage odyssey in Lạng Sơn, on the northeasternmost border of the country, while 2012 started in Huế. In 2008, 2010, 2015, and 2016, the race effectively linked the second biggest city of Vietnam - its capital - with its biggest - the traditional finish of the race. And that is what we are going to do this time too, starting and finishing the first stage of the race in Hanoi.

The other thing that we are doing is starting the race with one of its beloved criterium stages - in recent years pretty much every HTV Cup has started in this format, with only a couple of exceptions. Prologue time trials have been used twice in the last 15 years - 2005 and 2018 - and 2007, 2009 and 2011 had full length road stages. But these were shorter editions, 12, 9 and 9 stages respectively, and those are anomalous in a race which typically veers between 16 and 20 stages in length. No king of the mountains points are there for the taking, therefore, but with jersey sponsors of less inherent value in a single party state where the race organisers are themselves a state organ, giving them airtime is perhaps of less paramount importance. Either way, traditionally - and especially in the last ten years - the first stage of the HTV Cup is a criterium, usually of between 40 and 60km. So of course, I’ve gone for the longest level of this.



Racing in a single-party state often means some deference to pageantry and ceremony where the party is concerned, as any recollections of the Peace Race can tell you. We aren’t going to be having all of our finishes in big city centres, so we can compensate with a very dramatic start to the race in the very heart of Hanoi, at Quảng trường Ba Đình, a major tourist site and pilgrimage site in the heart of the city.

Named for a royalist uprising against the French colonialists, it is a strange thing in that that history makes it a dual site of pilgrimage for those who reminisce about the old royal family and to those who wish to show deference to the most famous Vietnamese of them all worldwide, the Communist leader Hồ Chí Minh, whose body remains entombed in the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum, likening him to other iconic Communist leaders, most notably Lenin. A number of important government and administrative buildings are located around the outside of the square, making this a perfect place to race around and enable the TV coverage to show the might and ceremonial majesty of Vietnam.

A recent race was set up to celebrate 1000 years of Hanoi, but the Vietnamese capital is in fact much older than that, tracing its origins to the citadel of Cổ Loa, the capital of an old Yue kingdom by the name of Âu Lạc in the 3rd Century BC. The kingdom was overthrown and annexed by the wider kingdom of Nányuè (meaning ‘southern Yue kingdom’), which encompassed most of modern southern China including Hong Kong and Macau, and which was rendered in the local tongue of Âu Lạc as “Nam Việt" - from which you can see where the modern country’s name comes. It was renamed first Tống Bình, then Đại La, under which name it became the capital, but upon this honour being bestowed upon it, in 1010 it took the name Thăng Long, which it would bear among others (such as briefly being named Dongguan under Chinese control, and “Đông Kinh” or “eastern Capital”, from which the obsolete European name for northern Vietnam, Tonkin, was taken) until the capital was moved in the early 19th Century to Huế. Not long after this the city inherited its present name, and it was restored as capital in the late 19th Century when the French colonised Indochina, and made Hanoi the capital of both the Vietnamese province and of French Indochina as a whole.

Hanoi was captured by the Japanese in 1940, and upon liberation the rebel Việt Minh movement declared independence, until the French reasserted their control in 1946. However, the first phase of the Vietnam War was ended in 1954 when the French conceded and North Vietnam became independent, setting up the more famous second phase. The aftermath of this left many investors sceptical of Vietnam, but following the 1986 implementation of Chính sách Đổi Mới, or “renovation policy” which saw the country rapidly develop and transition from a fully planned economy to a socialist-modelled state-controlled supply economy, the city has rapidly developed and with the economic advantages of the big cities and the shape of the country drawing people to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the population of Hanoi has trebled in the last 35 years, to its present 6,5 million.

My course is designed to showcase largely the governmental section and some of the developments, but also a bit more of traditional Hanoi, especially on the extension I have added to the crit course with the out and back along the edges of Hồ Tây, or Western Lake. Essentially the last part of the course is traversing this isthmus on Thanh Hien Road, which keeps the lake from the smaller counterpart Hồ Trúc Bạch. These lakes include the American War Monument, which commemorates the capture of future Presidential candidate John McCain, and also Trấn Quốc Pagoda, the oldest surviving Buddhist temple in the city and the oldest pagoda in the country. We also pass the Quán Thánh Temple, an 11th-Century Taoist temple which is one of Vietnam’s leading tourist attractions.





The stage is essentially 12 laps of a 4,9km circuit, which starts at Ba Đình Square and heads south, taking two right-angle lefts to head back up at the other side of the square, backing onto, on our right, the UNESCO-inscribed 11th-Century Citadel, effective enough to be used as a headquarters by the North Vietnamese army operations in the 1970s, and the adjoining former royal residence.



A left here onto Quán Thánh road, which takes us past the eponymous temple, then gives way to a 90º right, which takes us onto the road separating the lakes. A hairpin bend about a kilometre out gives way to a straight broken up about 400m from the line with a 75º left-hander, before a wider acceleration through a right-hander onto the final straight.

This stage should last barely over an hour and will probably be won by a sprinter, though in 2019 young rider Thanh Tùng Huỳnh of Quan Khu 7 escaped and won the crit in Vinh to hold the maillot jaune for the first 10 days of the race. And it will finish on the spot where the man who led North Vietnam through its growing pains first proclaimed its independence. I’m even tempted to make it an evening crit for the sake of the lighting and the atmosphere. It will no doubt only be showing the side of Vietnam that the state wants you to see. But at the same time, if you have these kind of cultural and historic resources and sites, why wouldn’t you show them off?

 
Reactions: Samu Cuenca
Libertine, I know that you mainly wanted to focus on the Asian riders, but you actually forgot Terengganu's most successful rider, the Sputnik Artem Ovechkin. He was won the Tor de Langkawi and Antalya for them and has podiumed in Lankawi and the Tour of Thailand for them.
Igor Frolov is one of the random guys who could also show up at this kind of race, this year he won the Doi Inthanon Challenge (and beat the old recorrd of the ascent by 6 min). He's mainly known for actually postingsome vintage Volta a Portugal level watts on Strava.
Given the fact that the countries have pretty decent relations it wouldn't surprise me to see Vino - Astana Motors in this kind of race.
 
Reactions: BlueRoads
2020 has been a strange year.

It is a year I can’t wait to be over, it is a year I will look back on with absolutely zero fondness whatsoever - save for a small amount at the very start, where I spent some time in Östersund skiing and got to actually try my hand at biathlon, which was an experience I had been dreaming of for several years. But that’s just about the only thing I will look back on 2020 fondly for.

It has, however, had some unusual and unintended consequences. From March, the sporting calendar was pretty much completely grinding to a halt. Paris-Nice was raced hell for leather by a collection of riders who never knew when the race would be called off. The biathlon World Championships took place in Antholz (in retrospect a highly regrettable decision) but the season thereafter was behind closed doors; three-time crystal globe winner Kaisa Mäkäräinen retired on her home snow in Kontiolahti, but with nobody there to see her ride into the sunset. Football stadia were empty, the hockey season was called off (meaning some trades designed to provide injury cover became instantly very regrettable, Koronin probably will know immediately the one I’m thinking of), and hundreds of races that would have characterised our spring were replaced by an empty void that a bunch of short distance e-races with depleted pélotons and MarioKart power-ups that served as nothing more than an extended advertisement for Zwift just couldn’t fill for me. To sum up just how apocalyptically bad 2020 was, the proliferation of e-races led me to find common ground with my own personal bête noire, Peter Sagan, who concurred that these were awful and of no value.

At first I decided I would catch up on racing that had been able to take place in the first couple of months of the season using youtube and other streaming services, but there were limited amounts of it. The good thing about the Race Design Thread, however, is that it is fuelled by imagination and creativity, and of course geography. The need to find something to scratch that sporting itch meant that I could post a few things out of my backlog of races, although this has ground to a halt recently as once races have got back underway, a highly compressed calendar means there’s seldom any downtime in the sporting world at present, as important race after important race fills every weekend and most weekdays until the end of the Vuelta well into November. In the earlier times of lockdown, however, the thread was a good bit more active as contributors added race after race. Early in lockdown, I drew up a Vuelta a la Independencia Nacional, as this was one of the races I had watched to get my cycling fix in the early days of lockdown - the race took place in February and had coverage available, plus I knew nothing of what had happened as the 2020 edition was not a UCI race. It was ideal, and stoked an interest to me in seeing what the country was able to offer. After all, while I can still find plenty to wring some new ideas out of Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland… they’re kind of known commodities. I’ve gone further afield plenty of times, but there were whole areas of the globe I hadn’t even considered.

But then, we got some live racing back. It was an exciting fillip in negative and depressing times. We could watch some honest to god bike racing again, even if it was like stepping into a whole new world, which was like the bike racing we know but not quite the same. It was a three week cycling event with live coverage, helicam (actually drones), theme music, kings of mountains, teams in collusion and rivalries, it had drama and anticipation, it had completely bonkers imagery and racing, and it was in a stunningly beautiful backdrop that offered incredible choice for the traceur. This was the HTV Cycling Cup.



Words cannot express how much I love the HTV Cycling Cup. This must have been what it was like in Cold War times to accidentally stumble across coverage of one of the eastern bloc amateur races to somebody weaned on the Tour and the Giro. It was something completely recognisable and yet strangely different from what we were used to. It was long form stage racing, but on open highways decorated with socialist monuments, through tropical rainforest scenery, with a week 3 Team Time Trial (!?) and criterium stages interspersed in the middle of the race. With the lockdown having affected the race, none of the overseas riders that had frequented previous years’ racing were on hand, and only two outsiders were able to start - France’s Loïc Desriac and Spain’s Javier Sardá, both of whom are based in Vietnam and had been there when lockdown began (Colombian Jordan Parra, who also rides in Vietnam, was back at home when the spread of the virus became unstoppable, and so has not returned). I knew literally no Vietnamese, but the amateurish charm of the presentation (especially when they went all out on staging, road closures, barriers and podiums) won me over and despite a parcours that resulted in a large number of sprints, soon I was invested in the names involved and talking like I was an expert in a cycling scene I knew next to nothing of. After all, Vietnamese cycling is pretty obscure even by the standards of the UCI Asia Tour, with no UCI categorised races.

Oh, one more thing about the presentation: their TV host is The Man. No, really. That’s his name.



I knew straight away I wanted to ‘do’ the HTV Cup. The country was so ripe for discovery. It’s an established race, having been held since the 80s. Cycling fans, starved of real competition for months, were giving the race more prominence worldwide than it had ever had, just through lack of any opposition in the calendar; the race can be as long as you want (the longest edition, 2018, being 30 stages in length), and Vietnam offers geographical diversity as well as historical and cultural sites I really hadn’t investigated. I hadn’t really done any Asia Tour races to date, and though I went with Taiwan first, I had had a go at doing a more creative Tour de Langkawi which I may post at some point. But the HTV Cup had piqued my interest and once I’d abandoned an early attempt which sacrilegiously went south to north (the very point of it being the HTV Cup means it has to end in Ho Chi Minh City since HTV is the Ho Chi Minh City TV station, but the absolutely pan flat terrain around the Mekong Delta made it difficult to put together a route I was happy with), a route eventually came into place.

My hope is that the race can build on its unexpected, serendipitous higher profile and when it can hopefully return to including overseas riders next year, they can continue to develop it, making a tougher and more varied route with a bigger péloton so that we don’t see such a bogarting of the success by a small number of riders, since only 82 riders were able to start this year’s race across 12 teams. In previous years, however, they have seen teams from neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Thailand take part, as well as from further afield such as Korea and with riders like the infamous Mirsamad Pourseyedi turning up as mercenaries. Other Vietnamese races have seen teams from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia also take part and my thinking is that although not all of these teams will necessarily want to peak for a 3 week race in Vietnam and may not be able to bring some of the ringers they sign specifically for racing Langkawi, the improved worldwide recognition of Vietnamese cycling afforded by their running opposition-free in a post-Covid world might make the race somewhat more attractive to them. And that that, in turn, would encourage the organisers to make a more rounded parcours.

In a ‘normal’ year, you could rely on the same 12 Vietnamese teams that contested the race this year:


Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh - the team of 2019 and 2020 winner Javier Sardá, effectively the lead team of the race’s home area. Lê Văn Duẩn is also very strong and with a wealth of experience.
Hồ Chí Minh-MM Mega Market - sister team to the above, their kit is the same only orange instead of red. They are built around star sprinter Lê Nguyệt Minh, who with so many races ending in sprints is one of Vietnam’s most recognised riders.
Bikelife-Đồng Nai - the most international team, they race elsewhere in Southeast Asia often, and are led by French expat Loïc Désriac and Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, one of the better climbers in Vietnam and the nation’s most successful rider of recent years in international competition.
Ynghua Đồng Nai - sister team of Bikelife, quiet this year with Jordan Parra, their main name, stranded at home in Colombia.
Dược Domesco Đồng Tháp (DDT) - brightly coloured team led by Nguyễn Tấn Hoài, a versatile all-rounder with a strong sprint who finishes high in the GC, akin to a Vietnamese Cândido Barbosa, and who led most of the 2020 edition of the race en route to 2nd in the final GC. Perhaps more fairly compared to somebody like Wout van Aert or Edvald Boasson Hagen in skillset, though obviously not to their kind of level.
Dopagan Đồng Tháp - unfortunately named sister team to DDT, led by break specialist Trần Tuấn Kiệt, who won 3 stages of the 2020 edition. Their kits resemble Phonak.
Châu Thới Vĩnh Long - southern team whose kits resemble Groupama-FDJ, led by the best young prospect in Vietnam, Võ Thanh An.
Lộc Trời - smaller team with white and fluorescent green kits, who Pourseyedi subbed for as a mercenary.
Quân Khu 7 - a team with ties to the military I believe. Owners of the best kits in cycling. Truly glorious.
Quân đội - less distinguished team also with military ties, but fewer high profile riders and lamer kits.
Nhựa Bình Minh Bình Dương - fairly small team whose kits resemble Total-Direct Energie.
Hà Nội - the team of the capital, they wear yellow and black and have a small team that will likely be looking for a mercenary signing or two.

Now, although it’s less common nowadays, there have been plenty of overseas teams rock up at the HTV Cup in previous years, and if the race is going to grow, then they will probably want to entice a few more overseas teams to increase the international exposure. So I’ve taken a bit of a look at races in the same part of the world to consider who may reasonably be considered a plausible team to compete. Of course, however, the race does not pay bonanza UCI Asia Tour points, so we’re not going to see the kind of International slightly star-studded cast that rocks up to the Tour de Langkawi; the political position and role of Vietnam will mean you’re less likely to get the random US and European teams that turn up to the Tour of Taiwan; also, while there are some teams who are quite local to the Vietnamese border and could feasibly turn up, such as Yunnan Lvshan Landscape and Shenzhen Xidesheng, the current China-Vietnam relationship means it is unlikely that we will see Chinese teams with their Colombian and Ukrainian mercenaries on the startlist. Even so, there are a good few squads in South East Asia who can complement the national péloton.

I was thinking some of the following teams would potentially be interested:

7-Eleven-Cliqq-Air21 by Road Philippines - team led by Marcelo Felipe who has some good results across South East Asia in the last couple of years.
Go 4 Gold Philippines - team of younger development guys, a couple of whom went well in the Cambodia Bay Tour at the start of the year.


Cambodia Cycling Academy - some young Cambodians accompanied by some French expats and some Russians plying their trade in South East Asia, most notably Matvey Mamykin.


KFC Cycling Team - some useful riders, not least the rather impressive-looking Muhammad Abdurrohman.
Mula - A very strong team with both Aimen Cahyadi (TTs and lower gradient climbs) and Jamal Hibatullah (climbing specialist) who could be major players.


Team Sapura Cycling - most likely without their big money Euro acquisitions for Langkawi, still some useful Malaysian riders like Muhammad Nur Atman Zariff.
Terengganu Inc-TSG - a very good team including overseas acquisitions like Youcef Reguigui, Carlos Quintero and Metkel Eyob, though these may not ride a race like the HTV Cup. Mongolian star Maralerdene Batmunkh may, though - he’s ridden the race a few times in the past - as might Singapore’s best ever rider, Choon Huat Goh, and sprinter Muhammad Harif Saleh, who took some major scalps en route to two stages at Langkawi in February.


Thailand Continental Cycling - a very good team in the region with a number of strong riders, mostly from the home nation. Sarawut Sirironnachai looks the likely strongest.

Finally, I would expect a
Laotian national team, to be led by 2017 GC winner Alex Ariya Phounsavath, now that he and Thailand Continental have parted ways. He has moonlighted in the race for Vietnamese teams, but with the race now making occasional forays into Cambodia and Laos, a Laotian national team backing him could really add to the race, especially now CCN is no more. Of course, not all of these teams are likely to be interested, but just adding 3-4 of them would add a much stronger international flavour to the race, or at least a couple of notable names to come in as ringers like we have seen in the past.

Gong Hyo-Suk, of LX Cycling Team in South Korea, rocked up in 2019 after doing the race with his trade team in the early 2010s, and won the queen stage to Đà Lạt, while Colombia’s Vladimir López also entered for Ynghua that year; he was part of the reason Jordan Parra was tempted to go and race for the team in the latter part of 2019, so he may be willing to return. A couple of the Iranian extraterrestrials have raced here too, but with no Asia Tour points, I wouldn’t expect Foolad Mabarakeh or Tabriz. A few other riders who have moonlighted in smaller races in this part of the world are:
Valentin Midey, a 30 year old Frenchman whose career is almost entirely comprised of Thai races in the last couple of years;
Edgar Nohales Nieto, a 34 year old Spaniard who has been racing in Asia for eight seasons now, and who appeared as a mercenary in the HTV Cup in 2018;
Florian Hudry, a 25 year old Frenchman who has been racing in Japan for a few years and was briefly with Cambodia Cycling Academy;
Konstantin Fast, a 44 year old Russian veteran who has bounced around South East Asian racing for a number of years in his career twilight;
Amir Kolahdouzhagh, a 27 year old Iranian former motorbike who tends to bounce around early season before signing for a Chinese team to moonlight in races like Langkawi.

I have decided to produce something that is not like completely tearing up the fabric of the HTV Cup, but is also developing the race into something that looks more like a higher level race on the world calendar, with the range of geography and stage options that Vietnam offers, and allowing for finishes outside of major cities. There will still be the occasional criterium stage, as these happen within the HTV Cup, and stage lengths will vary significantly with a few real short stages mixed in with longer ones (the real race includes road stages of any length between 40km and 240km!), and aiming to showcase the full extent of what this beautiful and scenic country offers at the same time as also showing something that would not be unachievable for the race if it is able to continue the momentum its unexpected leap to prominence on the world scene has afforded it, so as to make itself into a race which can have the same kind of standing as, say, the Jelajah Malaysia or the Tour de Banyuwangi Ijen (I am not going to bite off more than I can chew and pretend it will become the Tour de Langkawi, besides that benefits from being outside of European cycling season, the HTV Cup traditionally finishes outside the Independence Palace on April 30). So here we have a 21-stage, normal Grand Tour sized race, within the confines of what might be realistically achievable in the short-to-mid-term for the race.

Stage 1: Hà Nội - Hà Nội, 59km





The HTV Cup typically has two route formats. Either it starts and ends in Ho Chi Minh City, or, given the geographical shape of Vietnam, essentially a long thing strip of land linking the Red River Delta at the north and the Mekong Delta at the south, it starts somewhere north and heads southwards in a point to point type style akin to, say, Paris-Nice. The last two editions began in Vinh, but ’twas not always thus. 2018’s longest-ever edition began its 30-stage odyssey in Lạng Sơn, on the northeasternmost border of the country, while 2012 started in Huế. In 2008, 2010, 2015, and 2016, the race effectively linked the second biggest city of Vietnam - its capital - with its biggest - the traditional finish of the race. And that is what we are going to do this time too, starting and finishing the first stage of the race in Hanoi.

The other thing that we are doing is starting the race with one of its beloved criterium stages - in recent years pretty much every HTV Cup has started in this format, with only a couple of exceptions. Prologue time trials have been used twice in the last 15 years - 2005 and 2018 - and 2007, 2009 and 2011 had full length road stages. But these were shorter editions, 12, 9 and 9 stages respectively, and those are anomalous in a race which typically veers between 16 and 20 stages in length. No king of the mountains points are there for the taking, therefore, but with jersey sponsors of less inherent value in a single party state where the race organisers are themselves a state organ, giving them airtime is perhaps of less paramount importance. Either way, traditionally - and especially in the last ten years - the first stage of the HTV Cup is a criterium, usually of between 40 and 60km. So of course, I’ve gone for the longest level of this.



Racing in a single-party state often means some deference to pageantry and ceremony where the party is concerned, as any recollections of the Peace Race can tell you. We aren’t going to be having all of our finishes in big city centres, so we can compensate with a very dramatic start to the race in the very heart of Hanoi, at Quảng trường Ba Đình, a major tourist site and pilgrimage site in the heart of the city.

Named for a royalist uprising against the French colonialists, it is a strange thing in that that history makes it a dual site of pilgrimage for those who reminisce about the old royal family and to those who wish to show deference to the most famous Vietnamese of them all worldwide, the Communist leader Hồ Chí Minh, whose body remains entombed in the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum, likening him to other iconic Communist leaders, most notably Lenin. A number of important government and administrative buildings are located around the outside of the square, making this a perfect place to race around and enable the TV coverage to show the might and ceremonial majesty of Vietnam.

A recent race was set up to celebrate 1000 years of Hanoi, but the Vietnamese capital is in fact much older than that, tracing its origins to the citadel of Cổ Loa, the capital of an old Yue kingdom by the name of Âu Lạc in the 3rd Century BC. The kingdom was overthrown and annexed by the wider kingdom of Nányuè (meaning ‘southern Yue kingdom’), which encompassed most of modern southern China including Hong Kong and Macau, and which was rendered in the local tongue of Âu Lạc as “Nam Việt" - from which you can see where the modern country’s name comes. It was renamed first Tống Bình, then Đại La, under which name it became the capital, but upon this honour being bestowed upon it, in 1010 it took the name Thăng Long, which it would bear among others (such as briefly being named Dongguan under Chinese control, and “Đông Kinh” or “eastern Capital”, from which the obsolete European name for northern Vietnam, Tonkin, was taken) until the capital was moved in the early 19th Century to Huế. Not long after this the city inherited its present name, and it was restored as capital in the late 19th Century when the French colonised Indochina, and made Hanoi the capital of both the Vietnamese province and of French Indochina as a whole.

Hanoi was captured by the Japanese in 1940, and upon liberation the rebel Việt Minh movement declared independence, until the French reasserted their control in 1946. However, the first phase of the Vietnam War was ended in 1954 when the French conceded and North Vietnam became independent, setting up the more famous second phase. The aftermath of this left many investors sceptical of Vietnam, but following the 1986 implementation of Chính sách Đổi Mới, or “renovation policy” which saw the country rapidly develop and transition from a fully planned economy to a socialist-modelled state-controlled supply economy, the city has rapidly developed and with the economic advantages of the big cities and the shape of the country drawing people to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the population of Hanoi has trebled in the last 35 years, to its present 6,5 million.

My course is designed to showcase largely the governmental section and some of the developments, but also a bit more of traditional Hanoi, especially on the extension I have added to the crit course with the out and back along the edges of Hồ Tây, or Western Lake. Essentially the last part of the course is traversing this isthmus on Thanh Hien Road, which keeps the lake from the smaller counterpart Hồ Trúc Bạch. These lakes include the American War Monument, which commemorates the capture of future Presidential candidate John McCain, and also Trấn Quốc Pagoda, the oldest surviving Buddhist temple in the city and the oldest pagoda in the country. We also pass the Quán Thánh Temple, an 11th-Century Taoist temple which is one of Vietnam’s leading tourist attractions.





The stage is essentially 12 laps of a 4,9km circuit, which starts at Ba Đình Square and heads south, taking two right-angle lefts to head back up at the other side of the square, backing onto, on our right, the UNESCO-inscribed 11th-Century Citadel, effective enough to be used as a headquarters by the North Vietnamese army operations in the 1970s, and the adjoining former royal residence.



A left here onto Quán Thánh road, which takes us past the eponymous temple, then gives way to a 90º right, which takes us onto the road separating the lakes. A hairpin bend about a kilometre out gives way to a straight broken up about 400m from the line with a 75º left-hander, before a wider acceleration through a right-hander onto the final straight.

This stage should last barely over an hour and will probably be won by a sprinter, though in 2019 young rider Thanh Tùng Huỳnh of Quan Khu 7 escaped and won the crit in Vinh to hold the maillot jaune for the first 10 days of the race. And it will finish on the spot where the man who led North Vietnam through its growing pains first proclaimed its independence. I’m even tempted to make it an evening crit for the sake of the lighting and the atmosphere. It will no doubt only be showing the side of Vietnam that the state wants you to see. But at the same time, if you have these kind of cultural and historic resources and sites, why wouldn’t you show them off?

Nice first appetizer stage in a beautiful country, I really liked your (not-so)political description. Apart from making me regret I missed the HTV cup I also enjoyed your personal take on this year. :) Looking forward to the next stages.
 
Stage 2: Thái Nguyên - Thái Nguyên, 13,0km (TTT)





Yea, I know. I hate the Team Time Trial. So I’m keeping it short, to minimise its negative impact, but we do still have to acknowledge its presence, especially considering its importance to racing especially in countries where teamwork is stressed as hugely important due to political ideology. The Khanh Hoa TTT on stage 13 of 18 was key in 2020, putting the TP Ho Chi Minh squad in charge of the GC and able to control the jersey to set up Javier Sardá’s winning attack on Đèo Prenn two days later. In 2016 the TTT was in Nha Trang on stage 15 of 19. I feel it is fair to honour the tradition of the race and its ideology and therefore include the format - but I’m getting it out of the way as soon as possible with a shortish stage that will be of some value for setting up the GC battle but, at just 13km in length, is not going to completely overturn and ruin the race.





My CRE takes place in Thái Nguyên, a city of 420.000 inhabitants which is, by road, just over 60km from Hanoi, so a perfectly reasonable transfer to be handled after a 60km crit stage. Located on the Cầu River to the north of the nation’s capital, it is Vietnam’s ninth biggest city, but has not appeared in the HTV Cycling Cup at all as far as I can find, so unless it appeared at some point in the 90s (between 1993, when the race jumped from a one week race to its current length, and 2000 most likely, as these editions were all around 17 stages but I don’t have the records of where the race went) it is a new stage town. Part of that is likely the fact that it is a city which is expanding rapidly - really rapidly in fact, having increased in size by 33% since 2009.

Thái Nguyên has a strong role in Vietnamese independence, with a number of anti-colonial uprisings taking place in its streets, most notably in 1917 when protesters stormed the prison and the guards mutinied, freeing political prisoners and common criminals, took the local government office, executed French officials and Vietnamese collaborators, held the offices against bombardment for a week and precipitating an armed rebellion that took the French forces nearly six months to pacify. A very different way to go down in history for a hitherto relatively small town known almost entirely for its highly prized Tân Cương tea, immortalised in a sculpture of a teapot outside the famous factory.


The Tân Cương tea hill, outside Thái Nguyên

Following the independence of North Vietnam, however, as the country has sought to rapidly industrialise and develop a manufacturing economy, Thái Nguyên is no longer a city of idyllic tradition of luxury teas, nor of industrial action, but of industrial production; with the abundant resources of iron and coal in its nearby hills, Thái Nguyên is a city renowned in the same way as, say, Pittsburgh - this is Steel City Vietnam.



TISCO, an abbreviation for Thái Nguyên Iron and Steel Company, is a huge iron and steelworks and processing plant to the southeast of the town which was opened in 1959, and bringing in workers and their families to operate the works largely catalysed the immense growth of the city, especially with the need to provide weaponry, defence and other such products for the war effort. The immediate increase in population this caused it to be reclassified as a city almost immediately - in 1962 - and the steelworks came to dominate the city until it had grown to sufficient extent to become a genuine, multifaceted city in its own right. The steelworks were passed from state control to part-public part-private ownership in 2009 and began major exports overseas. However, in recent years it has become something of a sick plant, with the company spreading to other cities and the original home plant struggling on, racking up huge debts in the oft-delayed production of TISCO-phase 2, a complete renovation and rebuild of the plant to adapt to the changes in demand and industrial progress, especially after its position of prominence in the city was threatened by the construction of a Samsung phone factory in 2014. A Chinese joint venture was launched, but the original works continued to suffer and even endured bankruptcy after the main deal with Chinese state-owned enterprises fell through.

The actual course of the TTT is very, very simple. The course starts and finishes at the wide open parade grounds you can see at the start of this video, heads to the central fountain photographed above, where we turn right and head southeast out of town on the wide dual carriageway of the QL37, which runs parallel to the main Thái Nguyên-Hanoi expressway. It’s then a case of heading out of town on the QL37 until we reach the main gateway to the TISCO works, where we have a u-turn and return from whence we came. This is actually at the 6,6km mark rather than an exact halfway, simply because of the sheer size of the traffic island we are encircling!!!

Either way, this should set up a GC that isn’t just sprinters, but at only 13km should not isolate or distance people too much just yet, which is imperative as we have some interesting days to come.
 
Stage 3: Thái Nguyên - Yên Bái, 139km





GPM:
Đèo Khế (cat.4) 1,4km @ 6,9%

Stage 3 is the first ‘real’ road stage, a short flat stage through northern Vietnam which sets off from Thái Nguyên, yesterday’s stage town. The HTV Cup is much more likely to do the old fashioned “no transfer, start where you finished yesterday” style of race, for two reasons:
the race frequently finishes in large cities so there’s no problem with the apparatus of the race, and the aim is to bring the race to the populace rather than vice versa
With often an infrastructure that varies from top notch linking a lot of cities to some fairly sketchy back roads, and a national reputation for absolute chaos on the roads, long transfers can take longer than you might expect on the more established European road system.
I have got a few transfers in here, as the real race includes a good few, but it’s also good for me to save space with these zero-transfer stages, as I don’t need to tell you about the stage start host again!

Instead, we set off on what is largely a flat stage with a few little rolling stretches, and the first point of interest is Hồ Núi Cốc, a large lake with shoreline resort villages and several islands which is a popular spot for visitors in northern Vietnam.



Núi Cốc is actually the name of the mountain that overlooks this widening in the Công river, a tributary of the Red River. Legend says that Cốc was a boy from a poor family and Công a rich Mandarin girl who he loved; he would play songs to entice his love from her house, but she was forbidden to leave to see him. After his death he was transformed into a mountain by supernatural beings, who communicated his fate to Công; she then cried, literally, a river, which fed the lake that lies beneath her lover’s mountain. The tears are also said by mythology to have influenced the flavour of the local tea, and led to the high reputation and prestige of Tân Cương. In recent times, since 2007 especially, this has also been a centre for ecotourism, attaching attractions such as musical fountains to the existing carved figures, statues of the Buddha and boat tours.

We head along and over our first categorised climb of the race, a small and fairly unthreatening cat.4, around 100km from the line. Nobody should be having trouble here. The worst climbers among the sprinters may, however, have to go deep enough to compromise their form for the first intermediate sprint, just 10km later. The main urban stop off for the stage is the second intermediate sprint in Tuyên Quang, a former garrison town with a strong military history; it was one of the most celebrated garrisons in the French Foreign Legion’s history after they defended it for four straight months of siege during the Sino-French War, however in 1954 the legionnaires were rounded up and led to the monument celebrating this achievement to symbolically surrender to the Viet Minh on that specific spot.



The rest of the stage is a rolling route with no real climbing to be done, and which will favour the bunch, especially as they will want to make hay while the sun shines, since it’s not long until the race heads into terrain that will see them removed from the GC mix once and for all, not keeping them hanging on the way they often get to in the HTV Cup. We loop around Hồ Thác Bà, an artificial lake created in the 1960s by the damming of the Sông Chảy river to establish the Thác Bà hydroelectric plant. We take a slight extension of the route to pass the power plant, because this is a stage race through a single party state, so broadcasting their strength and development to the world is of importance to them, and with the stage being as it is, that isn’t going to create any difference to the action. And the drones (which replace helicams at the HTV Cup) will give us some beautiful aerial shots of the hundreds of islands which dot the lake.



The stage finishes with a series of rolling curves and then a long fast straight finish in the city of Yên Bái, capital of the eponymous province. There is a 30º right hand curve around 800m from the line, but it’s a wide road and an open, wide-radius curve in the road rather than an actual corner, so this is a very safe sprint if indeed that is the finish we see (which it is likely it will be). Yên Bái is a city of just under 100.000 which, due to its location at the far end of the country, has not seen HTV Cup action before. It is best known for the Tổng khởi-nghĩa Yên-bái, or Yên Bái Mutiny, in which 50 members of the 4th Regiment of the Tirailleurs Tonkinois, the French colonial forces in the region, assisted by 60 or so civilian independence fighters representing the Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng (or VNQDD). The impact of the mutiny was relatively limited in the short term, but much stronger in the long term, and not in the way the VNQDD would have wanted.

Ultimately, the mutiny failed when it was unable to convince a larger contingent of the colonial forces to defect, and the majority remained loyal to the French colonists. The VNQDD had been blamed for the assassination of an unpopular French labour leader, and had gone into hiding and launched grass roots campaigns to stir up nationalist feeling. The Yên Bái garrison was targeted due to its advantageous position near the top of the Red River Delta, since the VNQDD was only strong in northern Vietnam, and this area was disproportionately represented among their supporters. However, the attack was hastened by the raiding on Christmas Day 1929 of their meeting to form a provisional government, thanks to an informant in their midst. This meant that the French were aware of a planned mutiny, albeit not knowing where, and took steps to mitigate it. The intention was for three attacks to take place simultaneously, however the messenger sent to instruct Nguyễn Khắc Nhu, the member responsible for Yên Bái, to instruct a new, later attack time due to unforeseen issues at other sites was intercepted, meaning he attacked at the original planned time, not knowing that he would then be facing a more prepared French force than originally expected.

While the VNQDD did manage to capture the armoury and raise their flag, killing 5 French soldiers en route, and it seemed the nationalists had overestimated the pervasiveness and persuasiveness of their propaganda, as around 90% of the Vietnamese colonial forces remained loyal to their commanders, resulting in a swift suppression of the mutiny. This was largely as the highest-level VNQDD supporter and distributor within the garrison had, unbeknownst to the civilian attackers, been removed from position due to ill health in the lead to the attack; the French had also instigated a widespread transfer of troops to minimise the impact of nationalist ideology, with a majority of the potentially nationalist-sympathising troops in the Yên Bái region transferred to more loyalist southern provinces and vice versa. As a result, with the French now being aware of the attacks, the subsequent mutinies at Sơn Dương were quashed almost as soon as they began. Nguyễn Thái Học, the charismatic 28-year-old leader of the VNQDD, was captured and executed, and further punitive retribution on the part of the French colonial forces would serve as a significant cause of resentment that aided in the aggressive overthrow of the colonists in the immediate aftermath of World War II. However, the public image of the VNQDD had been damaged by the fallout from the mutiny and they lost ground in oppositional stakes to the Đảng Cộng sản Đông Dương, or Indochinese Communist Party, with the failure and poor execution of the Yên Bái Mutiny being a key argument which led to Hồ Chí Minh, leader of the DCDD, becoming the central figure of opposition to colonialism in Vietnam. The VNQDD were the equivalent of, say, the Kuomintang, as a nationalist movement which had some left leanings but ill at ease with the Communists; however, with the execution of Nguyễn Thái Học they had no equivalent of Chiang Kai-shek to rally themselves around, and were never the force in post-colonial Vietnam that they had set out to be. Nguyễn Thái Học was a young, dynamic and intelligent leader that could have served as a genuine alternative to Uncle Ho, but the errors and omissions in the execution of the 1930 mutinies decimated the leadership of the VNQDD and paved the way for the Vietnam that we know today.



As a result, a stage finish in Yên Bái sort of commemorates a long dead nationalist movement that failed, but it also commemorates an important step in the anti-colonial struggles of Vietnam, and in the story of how Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam (the CPV, or Communist Party of Vietnam) came to rule the nation.
 
Stage 4: Yên Bái - Lào Cai, 167km





GPM:
Đèo Khe Lếch (cat.2) 5,0km @ 7,1%
Đèo Sơn Hà (cat.3) 2,2km @ 9,5%
Nam Tien (cat.4) 1,2km @ 6,9%

The uphills start to get a bit more serious here as we are, in fact, heading away from Ho Chi Minh City, all the way up to the very north of the country, right up against the border with China. This is also the first stage which is of what you would call typical pro length (although obviously short TTTs are hardly rare), being up in the 160-170km range. Once more, no transfer at all as we set off from the town we finished in yesterday. As mentioned on the previous stage, Yên Bái is on the Red River, and we will basically be following the path of the famous waterway up to the border with Yunnan Province. As mentioned before, Vietnam is essentially a long thin strip of land which connects two river deltas, the Red River in the north and the Mekong in the south. As a result, reaching the Chinese border on the Red River means hitting the northernmost point we will reach in the HTV Cup.


The Red River, or Sông Hồng in Vietnamese (and 红河 in Chinese characters, Hóng Hé in Mandarin), near Yên Bái

Of course, the Red River has been the source of much trade, military action and other transportation of people and goods throughout history; “Viet”, as in “Vietnam”, is a Vietnamese-language reflection of “Yue”, or ‘southerly’ from Chinese, and “Nguyên”, that most archetypal of Vietnamese surnames - indeed something like 40% of the population share it - is a Vietnamese-language reflection of the Chinese “Yuan”. However, Chinese-Vietnamese relations are somewhat strained of late; despite being perhaps the two most recognised and successful Communist nations in the world here in the 21st Century (I contest that Vietnam is clearly doing better than Cuba at present in the second category, and is probably in a close-run battle with Cuba for second place in the former) - the long-standing territorial disagreements between the two nations recommenced after Vietnamese reunification in 1975, despite the Chinese support for North Vietnam’s war efforts. The Vietnamese remained skeptical of Chiang Kai-shek’s support for the ailing VNQDD, while the difficult history - including several colonisations and territorial captures and significant Han migration into the Red River Delta - between the two led the Vietnamese communists to be highly conflicted and concerned about the motives of the Chinese support for their war effort, a suspicion which ultimately led to them choosing in favour of the USSR in the Sino-Soviet split despite bribes from Deng Xiaoping should they come down on the Chinese side of the ideological battle.

China subsequently strengthened its position in Southeast Asia by allying itself with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, especially after reunified Vietnam formalised its alliance with the Lao PDR, following the combination of the Lao assistance in the war with the US/Reunification War, and the removal of the royalist leaders and the former king from Laos in 1975. China-Vietnam relations were therefore extremely strained by the war between Vietnam and Cambodia, precipitated by Cambodian aggression in the Mekong Delta, but ending with a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the deposition of Pol Pot. China attacked northern Vietnam along the Red River route in early 1979 but withdrew after two weeks of aggression; however the peace talks broke down and the route from Yên Bái to Lào Cai was heavily militarised, as were other border passes and river routes. In all, around one million troops were stationed at the border by the two countries, and frequent minor skirmishes would break out but no full scale conflicts. The turn of the political tide coinciding with the European Wende thawed the Sino-Vietnamese relations, with Vietnam agreeing to exit Kampuchea (which renamed itself Cambodia) and the dissolution of Vietnam’s China-baiting alliance the USSR after the latter folded. Major infrastructural projects were undertaken to improve communications between the two single-party states, and one of these was the improvement of the highway along the Red River, since the river itself had largely been used as the transitory route from Yunnan to Hanoi historically. Modern relations have cooled somewhat over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and this actually proved relatively useful for the Vietnamese in making it easier for them to shut the Chinese border early on in the 2020 pandemic. It also means that we are less likely to be interrupting too much trade traffic when we close part of that road for our stage route here.

Parallel roads flank the Red River northwest of Yên Bái; to the north of the river lies the DT162, to the south the DT163 and the newer, high-speed route of the CT05. We take the DT162 for the first 80km of our route, which are almost entirely rolling with one gradual - just false flat - ascent with a descent down to the riverside again. No threat to even Andrea Guardini, and I don’t think even the péloton of the HTV Cup has anybody who can climb much worse than that. We then reach the tranquil temple at Bảo Hà, a popular site of pilgrimage below the Cam Hill overlooking the Red River, where allegedly the Holy Prince Hoàng Bảy, from the Pantheon of Four Palaces (Đạo Mẫu, a Vietnamese folk religion involving the worship of Mother Goddesses), resided. Truthfully, this mythology arose because during the Lê Dynasty, General Nguyên Hoàng Bảy was sent to pacify this region against foreign incursions and invasions, in which by and large he succeeded; he was eventually killed in action while heavily outmatched, and the villagers built a temple to his namesake deity in his memory.



Crossing over to the southwestern side of the Red River, we immediately start a cat.2 ascent, the 5km at 7% of Đèo Khe Lếch. Mostly consistent, this climb is around 75km from the finish so unlikely to cause any incident, but there’s a meta volante at the base with bonus seconds - probably going to the break, but given the less controlled racing in this part of the world, offering the potential for somebody to get some time if they fancy attacking the climb or descent and then sitting up.

We then head back northwestwards, but are now in the floodplains of the Nậm Chăn, a tributary of the Red River, separated from the larger river by a mountain ridge. After 25-30km of rolling terrain, actually leaving the riverside as it heads east to join the Red River, it’s time for us to rejoin the larger flow, this time by taking the steep road over the ridge that takes us to Phố Lu, capital of the Bảo Thắng district. This climb is just over 2km in length but is genuinely steep - over 9% - and crests about 40km from home. A stage hunter might think about it, but more realistically the teams of durable riders who can sprint, like Nguyễn Tấn Hoài, will use this to drill tempo and get rid of more power-oriented sprinters like Lê Nguyệt Minh.



No sooner have we reached the Red River, however, than we’re turning back onto the DT152, toward Tấng Loỏng, over a cat.4 ascent which is 1200m at 7% and crests 32km from the line. This should help enable any gaps created by the Đèo Sơn Hà climb that precedes it to be preserved and solidified, and make it harder for those dropped to instantly get back into the thick of it. Tấng Loỏng also hosts the final intermediate sprint of the day, again looking to incentivise a bit of pace on the climbs with the enticement of bonus seconds. Likewise this may expedite the chase of the breakaway, meaning the prospect of fresh attackers in the last 30km. However, most of the last 10km are absolutely ramrod straight, which obviously favours the chasers; eventually, after arriving in Lao Cài we have a long and sweeping turn around a huge roundabout at Vòng Xuyến, where we take almost a full 360º left-hander before two consecutive right-handers onto our finishing straight, the central thoroughfare of Hoàng Liên, just in front of Nhạc Sơn, an artificial lake with a temple pagoda built on an artificial island at its centre.



Lao Cài had a central role in the Chinese-Vietnamese border issues mentioned above, as you might imagine - it sits at the confluence of the Red River with the Nậm Thi, known to the Chinese as 南溪河, or Nanxi (the last symbol there is “hé”, which means “river”) where Hekou County, Yunnan meets Vietnam. The Nanxi forms the border between the two states to the northeast, while the Red River forms it for the next 50km or so northwest. Lao Cài is precisely on the border, commandeering the western side of the Red River and the southern side of the Nanxi, confining the neighbouring Chinese town of Hekouzhen to a quarter of the available terrain. Hekou Gao’s entire population for the county is just under half of the population of Lao Cài city itself, which totals a rapidly-expanding 173.000.

Lao Cài is largely a timber producing town, but also has a carbide processing plant. This has made it somewhat attractive for international trade, at least once the border was reopened. The Chinese had attacked the town in 1979 but been repelled, and with the Sino-Vietnamese relationship strained through the 80s, the border was closed until the early 90s. When it was opened, however, China implemented and developed the Hekou Border Economic Cooperation Zone, one of China’s designated specialist industrial areas where international trade and overseas investment is encouraged. The old colonial-era railway connecting Yunnan to Vietnam through Lao Cài to Hanoi and on to the port of Hải Phòng was reconnected and renovated, and further connecting Vietnam into southern China, with the terminus being Kunming, capital of Yunnan, through a newer, standard-gauge railway from Kunming to Hekouzhen. Having been a somewhat distant outpost for many years while China-Vietnam relations were poor, the city rapidly expanded once trade was reopened, and has doubled in size in the last 20 years as a result. It also has a role as a gateway to some tourist attractions, but that’s a story for another day…


Lao Cài, with Hekouzhen in the background on the far side of the river
 
Stage 5: Lao Cài - Lai Châu (Chùa Linh Ứng), 105km





GPM:
Pờ Sì Ngài (cat.2) 9,3km @ 6,3%
Đèo Ô Quy Hồ (HC) 40,0km @ 4,7%
Giàng Ma (cat.1) 11,5km @ 5,4%
Chùa Linh Ứng (cat.3) 4,7km @ 6,0%

Yea, things are getting hard early. Super short stage, but super difficult - so the riders will be glad to know that this is the third straight night where there’s no transfer whatsoever and they can rest up ahead of this one. Which they’re going to need because this is one of the hardest stages of the entire race, featuring the altitude ceiling that the race is going to reach as well - sure, that seems unlikely in a world of the Cima Coppi but it isn’t unknown - for example, the Vuelta has reached its highest point on stage 8 in 2008 (Port de la Bonaigua) and even stage 4 in 2011 (Pradollano, the ski resort of Sierra Nevada, by its oldest and most traditional side). Here, it’s more a result of Vietnamese geography, where essentially the entire country rises from shoreline in the east to mountains in the west, and the highest of these mountains are at the north of the country, protecting it from Chinese expansion.

To counter the impact of having such a brutal stage so early, however, it is at least pleasingly short, which means that it actually has more in common with the kind of mountain stages we see from Latin American cycling, with races like the Vuelta al Tachirá, Vuelta a Guatemala, Vuelta a Costa Rica and Vuelta al Ecuador all commonly featuring stages of around 100-120km in length with major altitude differences. This one is a really tough one, so we might have to take advantage of some of the idiosyncrasies of the HTV Cup - as the race is not a UCI event, they have in the past, due to relatively small size of péloton (especially this year, with no overseas involvement), operated a rule that allows riders missing the time cut to remain in the race, but at the expense of no longer being able to appear in the General Classification. Some of them might be grateful for such a rule existing, especially if some of the better climbing mercenaries or overseas interests compete (and especially if some of the overseas teams do bring riders they have signed for Langkawi) - if people like Carlos Quintero and Matvey Mamykin or some of the Iranians are going nuts, there could be some issues with the time cut. Gong Hyo-Suk has a 2nd on Genting Highlands (behind José Rujano) and on Mount Fuji (behind Sérgio Pardilla) in his palmarès. Hell, even if the guests and overseas teams don’t, if riders like Jamal Hibatullah and Javier Sardá - or indeed Vietnam’s best prospect for a home GC win on this parcours, Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, are going great guns, this could still be a very difficult stage for a lot of riders; the gradients aren’t any tougher than anything they’ll be familiar with, but the length of time spent climbing might be.



Almost as soon as the stage begins, so the climbing does too, as we head into the Hoàng Liên Sơn range, which is a feature of the northwestern corner of the Red River Delta end of Vietnam. And, just for an added touch of evil, there’s an intermediate sprint in the middle of it - though that does have its reasons.

Đèo Ô Quy Hồ, sometimes just known as “Ho Mountain Pass” is one of the most famous roads in Vietnam, a tourist attraction in and of itself which ascends nearly 2000m in 40 kilometres of ribbon-like tarmac strewn across the Hoàng Liên Sơn mountains. This is a true behemoth, and finding comparable ascents is difficult. Its ascent consists of a number of smaller ascents, which makes it hard to find reasonable European equivalents. Perhaps the Alto da Torre, from the Seia side, is one of the more reasonable equivalents, Cálar Alto from Serón, Puerto de los Portillinos / Llano de las Ovejas from Ponferrada, or Val Thorens. This is a really, really difficult climb.



The climb itself is made up of several smaller climbs. The first one has even been categorised separately in order to encourage some early moves, seeing as, as we saw from the racing on Đèo Ngoạn Mục in the 2020 race, tempo is likely to rule the day, especially if somebody like Nguyễn Tấn Hoài holds the yellow jersey. The first part of the climb, to Pờ Sì Ngài, has been arguably under-categorised as a cat.2, as it could reasonably fit cat.1 status, but the distance from the finish meant the cat.2 points were decided upon - not least because it also counts as part of the overall ascent to Ô Quy Hồ.

Ô Quy Hồ in its totality comprises a number of sections of climb:
the initial ascent of 9,3km @ 6,3%, before a 2km respite of flat;
6,5km @ 7,2% from Trung Chải before another 2,5km or so of false flat and flat to Bản Sà Chua;
3,3km @ 6,5% from Bản Sà Chua to the entrance to Sa Pa, through which there’s another kilometre of flat ending with the aforementioned mid-climb intermediate sprint and the associated bonus seconds;
4,7km @ 4,6% from Sa Pa to the lookout point across to Phan Xi Păng, known in English as Fansipan, the highest mountain of the Indochinese peninsula;
A 6km plateau of barely 1% incline, where the Sa Pa - Ô Quy Hồ forks left to avoid heading over a lower pass and descending - via a second but smaller and lower incline - to Mống Xóa, and ending at the Silver Waterfall, known locally as Thác Bạc.
4km @ 5%, around 5,5% as far as Đèo Trạm Tôn and then a final kilometre of just 2-3% to our eventual summit.


Sa Pa, a scenic mountain resort and site of the intermediate sprint


Thác Bạc waterfall, one of Vietnam’s most renowned natural wonders

Sa Pa is a necessary intermediate sprint stop as one of the biggest towns we will pass through and a major tourist hub for northern Vietnam. Many ethnic minorities, long since confined to backwater and isolated areas of the country, live in this area, and Sa Pa is also a cultural centre for the nation’s Hmong community. Around 60.000 people live in Sa Pa, accessing the wider world only via two significant mountain roads - the one we are climbing, and one which heads at a shallower gradient down to the Red River around about the point of the last two climbs in the previous day’s stage. Home to stone carvings on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites, it was a backwater until the French discovered the spa town potential of the area, and Chapa (as the French called it, owing to the harsh pronunciation of the initial S- in Hmong) started to appear on the map. A military sanatorium was established in 1912, and then private villas swiftly followed for French colonial elites. Việt Minh sympathisers, and subsequently French anti-Việt Minh air raids, destroyed almost all of this colonial architecture in the post-WWII era, but its spa town opportunities meant it had strong tourist potential and it was reconstructed accordingly, although the industry really took off in the mid-90s, when tourists visiting Sa Pa increased thirtyfold (!). Trekking, hiking and absorbing the isolated Dao/Yao and Hmong cultures are popular pursuits that attract people to Sa Pa, as is the cool and less humid climate during the hotter and, yes, more humid season in Vietnam - Sa Pa is one of very few areas in the country which is susceptible in winter to snowfall, in fact. The area is also known for incredible variety in flora and fauna in the Hoàng Liên Nature Reserve, now a national park, plus the cable car access across a terrifying valley to access Phan Xi Păng.

Like yesterday’s lakes, Ô Quy Hồ’s name is rooted in legend; it is alleged to be the song of the phoenix, arisen from the ashes of a lover who died too young. It is known to some Anglophone sources as “heaven’s gate”, as it forms a spot which frequently stands above the clouds, out of which the mountains rise majestically, lending a supernatural feel. The summit of this monolithic climb comes with 60km still to go, however, so the chances of riders going all out on this one just yet are fairly limited. We will likely see a group of the elites here, with the likes of Gong, Sardá, Hibatullah, Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, Désriac, Lê Văn Duẩn, Sirironnachai and maybe Nguyễn Tấn Hoài likely to be there with a thimbleful of domestiques each. Maybe Võ Thanh An - he is Vietnam’s most promising young rider and is well reputed when it comes to climbing, but crashed out of 2020’s HTV Cup before he had the chance to prove that. There is then a 30km descent that will enable riders to recoup as much of their strength as possible - again, similar kind of gradients, descending 1230m in the first 22km, so around 5,6%, then a flat, a second bit of descent and then a flat stretch into Cò Lá, which hosts the second intermediate sprint.





The descent is very sinuous, especially the first part, which is full of twists and turns and technical, although it opens out and is a faster route further down. After the meta volante, the road turns uphill again on a pass which has a village at its summit called Giàng Ma. This climb, which separates Cò Lá from Lai Châu, is a 11,5km @ 5,4% ascent which is mostly pretty consistent in gradient, although it has a couple of steeper kilometres at around 8%, most notably at the very bottom of the climb. This ascent crests with 17km remaining, and is a somewhat lopsided climb, so the descent is a good bit shorter before arriving in Lai Châu, which would be the de facto stage town here as well as providing the logistics for the race overnight. This video showcases a few highlights of the scenery of the second half of this stage, starting in Lai Châu and climbing over Giàng Ma and then continuing all the way to Ô Quy Hồ. Cò Lá is passed through at about the 11 minute mark, so before that is the Giàng Ma pass, then about the 16 minute mark we see the turning for Ô Quy Hồ, which then takes up the remainder of the video. If you like breathtaking scenery, it’s worth a watch.


Lai Châu, formerly Mường Lay (this name is preserved in a separate, smaller town to the west of Lai Châu), is the former capital of the White Tai people, an ethnic group that inhabits the borderlands between Vietnam, Laos and Yunnan Province, China, and whose autonomy was recognised by both the Chinese and the French during colonial times, largely thanks to the great respect commandeered by Cam Oum, known to Vietnamese as Đèo Văn Trị, who united the Sip Song Chau Tai, or union of White Tai communities, and was loyal to the Nguyễn Triều, the last royal dynasty of Vietnam. This is very much an outpost in Vietnam; inaccessible other than by difficult and often treacherous mountain passes, with no rail connection and unsafe to implement an airstrip, and isolated from major trade routes, Lai Châu has remained underdeveloped to the present day and largely dependent on agriculture and forestry, however as of 2000, when the province was found to be 93 times less productive than the richest provinces of Vietnam, a state-run program to improve the industrial capacity of the region was implemented, tripling the economic productivity of the region in seven years. The thawing of Sino-Vietnamese relations has enabled the city to be linked to Gejiu in China, albeit by similarly treacherous mountain passes as it is accessed by from other Vietnamese cities. These roads - many of which west of the provincial capital are unpaved - are undergoing rapid infrastructure development to bring the region up to speed with the rest of the country, and so showing off these improved roads is a key motivation to bring the race to these climes.



The final intermediate sprint takes place in Lai Châu city, before a short flat and our final uphill to the line, a simple cat.3 to the hilltop Chùa Linh Ứng temple, which overlooks the city. The climb is around 4-5km in length at a fairly unthreatening 6,1%, but after climbs like this, this is likely to be an absolute Aprica, no? There should be some big gaps now, just because going uphill again after a genuine, WT-level HC mountain like Ô Quy Hồ and then a perfectly reasonable cat.1, is likely to be enough to break things apart because I don’t see anybody having many teammates to hand by now.

This climb, like the main one of the day, is also built out of separate sections. The first kilometre is just 2,5%, but then it jumps up to 8km for the next kilometre. There’s then a flattening out, before 800m at 7%, 600m at 4%, and then a final 600m at 9% including our steepest gradients right near the top. This will hopefully be one of those situations where even if the best are together late on, those final few hundred metres are going to hurt and extend gaps from small to medium, and medium to big. You can see a video about the reconstruction of the temple here. Early contender for queen stage here - not the one I say would win the title - it is only 105km after all - but it’s a legit contender at least. After this we should know who is going to be contesting the GC, that’s for sure.

 
Stage 5: Lao Cài - Lai Châu (Chùa Linh Ứng), 105km





GPM:
Pờ Sì Ngài (cat.2) 9,3km @ 6,3%
Đèo Ô Quy Hồ (HC) 40,0km @ 4,7%
Giàng Ma (cat.1) 11,5km @ 5,4%
Chùa Linh Ứng (cat.3) 4,7km @ 6,0%

Yea, things are getting hard early. Super short stage, but super difficult - so the riders will be glad to know that this is the third straight night where there’s no transfer whatsoever and they can rest up ahead of this one. Which they’re going to need because this is one of the hardest stages of the entire race, featuring the altitude ceiling that the race is going to reach as well - sure, that seems unlikely in a world of the Cima Coppi but it isn’t unknown - for example, the Vuelta has reached its highest point on stage 8 in 2008 (Port de la Bonaigua) and even stage 4 in 2011 (Pradollano, the ski resort of Sierra Nevada, by its oldest and most traditional side). Here, it’s more a result of Vietnamese geography, where essentially the entire country rises from shoreline in the east to mountains in the west, and the highest of these mountains are at the north of the country, protecting it from Chinese expansion.

To counter the impact of having such a brutal stage so early, however, it is at least pleasingly short, which means that it actually has more in common with the kind of mountain stages we see from Latin American cycling, with races like the Vuelta al Tachirá, Vuelta a Guatemala, Vuelta a Costa Rica and Vuelta al Ecuador all commonly featuring stages of around 100-120km in length with major altitude differences. This one is a really tough one, so we might have to take advantage of some of the idiosyncrasies of the HTV Cup - as the race is not a UCI event, they have in the past, due to relatively small size of péloton (especially this year, with no overseas involvement), operated a rule that allows riders missing the time cut to remain in the race, but at the expense of no longer being able to appear in the General Classification. Some of them might be grateful for such a rule existing, especially if some of the better climbing mercenaries or overseas interests compete (and especially if some of the overseas teams do bring riders they have signed for Langkawi) - if people like Carlos Quintero and Matvey Mamykin or some of the Iranians are going nuts, there could be some issues with the time cut. Gong Hyo-Suk has a 2nd on Genting Highlands (behind José Rujano) and on Mount Fuji (behind Sérgio Pardilla) in his palmarès. Hell, even if the guests and overseas teams don’t, if riders like Jamal Hibatullah and Javier Sardá - or indeed Vietnam’s best prospect for a home GC win on this parcours, Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, are going great guns, this could still be a very difficult stage for a lot of riders; the gradients aren’t any tougher than anything they’ll be familiar with, but the length of time spent climbing might be.



Almost as soon as the stage begins, so the climbing does too, as we head into the Hoàng Liên Sơn range, which is a feature of the northwestern corner of the Red River Delta end of Vietnam. And, just for an added touch of evil, there’s an intermediate sprint in the middle of it - though that does have its reasons.

Đèo Ô Quy Hồ, sometimes just known as “Ho Mountain Pass” is one of the most famous roads in Vietnam, a tourist attraction in and of itself which ascends nearly 2000m in 40 kilometres of ribbon-like tarmac strewn across the Hoàng Liên Sơn mountains. This is a true behemoth, and finding comparable ascents is difficult. Its ascent consists of a number of smaller ascents, which makes it hard to find reasonable European equivalents. Perhaps the Alto da Torre, from the Seia side, is one of the more reasonable equivalents, Cálar Alto from Serón, Puerto de los Portillinos / Llano de las Ovejas from Ponferrada, or Val Thorens. This is a really, really difficult climb.



The climb itself is made up of several smaller climbs. The first one has even been categorised separately in order to encourage some early moves, seeing as, as we saw from the racing on Đèo Ngoạn Mục in the 2020 race, tempo is likely to rule the day, especially if somebody like Nguyễn Tấn Hoài holds the yellow jersey. The first part of the climb, to Pờ Sì Ngài, has been arguably under-categorised as a cat.2, as it could reasonably fit cat.1 status, but the distance from the finish meant the cat.2 points were decided upon - not least because it also counts as part of the overall ascent to Ô Quy Hồ.

Ô Quy Hồ in its totality comprises a number of sections of climb:
the initial ascent of 9,3km @ 6,3%, before a 2km respite of flat;
6,5km @ 7,2% from Trung Chải before another 2,5km or so of false flat and flat to Bản Sà Chua;
3,3km @ 6,5% from Bản Sà Chua to the entrance to Sa Pa, through which there’s another kilometre of flat ending with the aforementioned mid-climb intermediate sprint and the associated bonus seconds;
4,7km @ 4,6% from Sa Pa to the lookout point across to Phan Xi Păng, known in English as Fansipan, the highest mountain of the Indochinese peninsula;
A 6km plateau of barely 1% incline, where the Sa Pa - Ô Quy Hồ forks left to avoid heading over a lower pass and descending - via a second but smaller and lower incline - to Mống Xóa, and ending at the Silver Waterfall, known locally as Thác Bạc.
4km @ 5%, around 5,5% as far as Đèo Trạm Tôn and then a final kilometre of just 2-3% to our eventual summit.


Sa Pa, a scenic mountain resort and site of the intermediate sprint


Thác Bạc waterfall, one of Vietnam’s most renowned natural wonders

Sa Pa is a necessary intermediate sprint stop as one of the biggest towns we will pass through and a major tourist hub for northern Vietnam. Many ethnic minorities, long since confined to backwater and isolated areas of the country, live in this area, and Sa Pa is also a cultural centre for the nation’s Hmong community. Around 60.000 people live in Sa Pa, accessing the wider world only via two significant mountain roads - the one we are climbing, and one which heads at a shallower gradient down to the Red River around about the point of the last two climbs in the previous day’s stage. Home to stone carvings on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites, it was a backwater until the French discovered the spa town potential of the area, and Chapa (as the French called it, owing to the harsh pronunciation of the initial S- in Hmong) started to appear on the map. A military sanatorium was established in 1912, and then private villas swiftly followed for French colonial elites. Việt Minh sympathisers, and subsequently French anti-Việt Minh air raids, destroyed almost all of this colonial architecture in the post-WWII era, but its spa town opportunities meant it had strong tourist potential and it was reconstructed accordingly, although the industry really took off in the mid-90s, when tourists visiting Sa Pa increased thirtyfold (!). Trekking, hiking and absorbing the isolated Dao/Yao and Hmong cultures are popular pursuits that attract people to Sa Pa, as is the cool and less humid climate during the hotter and, yes, more humid season in Vietnam - Sa Pa is one of very few areas in the country which is susceptible in winter to snowfall, in fact. The area is also known for incredible variety in flora and fauna in the Hoàng Liên Nature Reserve, now a national park, plus the cable car access across a terrifying valley to access Phan Xi Păng.

Like yesterday’s lakes, Ô Quy Hồ’s name is rooted in legend; it is alleged to be the song of the phoenix, arisen from the ashes of a lover who died too young. It is known to some Anglophone sources as “heaven’s gate”, as it forms a spot which frequently stands above the clouds, out of which the mountains rise majestically, lending a supernatural feel. The summit of this monolithic climb comes with 60km still to go, however, so the chances of riders going all out on this one just yet are fairly limited. We will likely see a group of the elites here, with the likes of Gong, Sardá, Hibatullah, Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, Désriac, Lê Văn Duẩn, Sirironnachai and maybe Nguyễn Tấn Hoài likely to be there with a thimbleful of domestiques each. Maybe Võ Thanh An - he is Vietnam’s most promising young rider and is well reputed when it comes to climbing, but crashed out of 2020’s HTV Cup before he had the chance to prove that. There is then a 30km descent that will enable riders to recoup as much of their strength as possible - again, similar kind of gradients, descending 1230m in the first 22km, so around 5,6%, then a flat, a second bit of descent and then a flat stretch into Cò Lá, which hosts the second intermediate sprint.





The descent is very sinuous, especially the first part, which is full of twists and turns and technical, although it opens out and is a faster route further down. After the meta volante, the road turns uphill again on a pass which has a village at its summit called Giàng Ma. This climb, which separates Cò Lá from Lai Châu, is a 11,5km @ 5,4% ascent which is mostly pretty consistent in gradient, although it has a couple of steeper kilometres at around 8%, most notably at the very bottom of the climb. This ascent crests with 17km remaining, and is a somewhat lopsided climb, so the descent is a good bit shorter before arriving in Lai Châu, which would be the de facto stage town here as well as providing the logistics for the race overnight. This video showcases a few highlights of the scenery of the second half of this stage, starting in Lai Châu and climbing over Giàng Ma and then continuing all the way to Ô Quy Hồ. Cò Lá is passed through at about the 11 minute mark, so before that is the Giàng Ma pass, then about the 16 minute mark we see the turning for Ô Quy Hồ, which then takes up the remainder of the video. If you like breathtaking scenery, it’s worth a watch.


Lai Châu, formerly Mường Lay (this name is preserved in a separate, smaller town to the west of Lai Châu), is the former capital of the White Tai people, an ethnic group that inhabits the borderlands between Vietnam, Laos and Yunnan Province, China, and whose autonomy was recognised by both the Chinese and the French during colonial times, largely thanks to the great respect commandeered by Cam Oum, known to Vietnamese as Đèo Văn Trị, who united the Sip Song Chau Tai, or union of White Tai communities, and was loyal to the Nguyễn Triều, the last royal dynasty of Vietnam. This is very much an outpost in Vietnam; inaccessible other than by difficult and often treacherous mountain passes, with no rail connection and unsafe to implement an airstrip, and isolated from major trade routes, Lai Châu has remained underdeveloped to the present day and largely dependent on agriculture and forestry, however as of 2000, when the province was found to be 93 times less productive than the richest provinces of Vietnam, a state-run program to improve the industrial capacity of the region was implemented, tripling the economic productivity of the region in seven years. The thawing of Sino-Vietnamese relations has enabled the city to be linked to Gejiu in China, albeit by similarly treacherous mountain passes as it is accessed by from other Vietnamese cities. These roads - many of which west of the provincial capital are unpaved - are undergoing rapid infrastructure development to bring the region up to speed with the rest of the country, and so showing off these improved roads is a key motivation to bring the race to these climes.



The final intermediate sprint takes place in Lai Châu city, before a short flat and our final uphill to the line, a simple cat.3 to the hilltop Chùa Linh Ứng temple, which overlooks the city. The climb is around 4-5km in length at a fairly unthreatening 6,1%, but after climbs like this, this is likely to be an absolute Aprica, no? There should be some big gaps now, just because going uphill again after a genuine, WT-level HC mountain like Ô Quy Hồ and then a perfectly reasonable cat.1, is likely to be enough to break things apart because I don’t see anybody having many teammates to hand by now.

This climb, like the main one of the day, is also built out of separate sections. The first kilometre is just 2,5%, but then it jumps up to 8km for the next kilometre. There’s then a flattening out, before 800m at 7%, 600m at 4%, and then a final 600m at 9% including our steepest gradients right near the top. This will hopefully be one of those situations where even if the best are together late on, those final few hundred metres are going to hurt and extend gaps from small to medium, and medium to big. You can see a video about the reconstruction of the temple here. Early contender for queen stage here - not the one I say would win the title - it is only 105km after all - but it’s a legit contender at least. After this we should know who is going to be contesting the GC, that’s for sure.

That is one beautiful stage! A shame that it would be mostly no names, who'll battle for the win, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a good show.

Has the Đèo Ô Quy Hồ ever been used in the HTV Cup or in any other race?
 
Not to my knowledge - it's well out of the way for the HTV Cup most years, it would need to be a year like 2018 when it starts at the very top of the country to include it. VTV's rival race seems to be in the centre of the country, so really we'd need either an independent race organiser or perhaps if H1 (Hanoi's equivalent of HTV) decided they wanted to organise a rival race in the Red River area (most of the biggest races in Vietnam seem to be organised by television companies in much the same way as the big European ones were started by newspapers) we might see it, but it's otherwise unlikely it seems. You know, unless the HTV Cup (which has a 30-year head start in terms of prestige) grows big enough and the level improves enough that a race like mine becomes feasible.

Stage 6: Lai Châu - Nghĩa Lộ, 221km





GPM:
Giàng Ma (cat.2) 7,8km @ 5,5%
Phiêng Phát (cat.3) 3,4km @ 6,4%
Long Thang (cat.4) 4,0km @ 3,8%
Đèo Khau Phạ (cat.2) 10,6km @ 4,2%
Mạ Tun (cat.4) 2,3km @ 6,3%
Nậm Búng (cat.4) 1,1km @ 7,7%
Thuyen Chai (cat.4) 1,1km @ 6,0%

Stage 6 is the final day before the first rest day. One helpful thing about the HTV Cup is that its finish being traditionally on the 30th of April regardless of the day of the week means that there is not the most straightforward of adherences to the formats that we’re used to with Grand Tours (9-6-6, 10-6-5 and 9-7-5 being the most common, at least now the three rest day format has come in and we aren’t seeing 3-9-9 as we have done a few times with overseas starts like in 2010 and 2012’s Giri). The second is that although Saturday and Sunday is, influenced by the time under French colonial control, still informally known as the weekend in Vietnam, the country in fact operates a labour practice of a standard working day of 7:30am - 4:30pm daily, with an hour’s lunch break, but a maximum working week of 48 hours. In effect, this means that workplaces can operate on a consistent basis 7 days a week, with staff mandated to have a day off, or equivalent, each week. As a result, the placement of rest days is less crucial to television audiences than it is in the western world; the race has held rest days on Saturdays and on Sundays in the recent past.

This 6th stage leads into the first rest day - a conventional Grand Tour format would see that rest day being on a Friday, but who knows what day it would fall on in whatever future year this race would be held. It is a very long stage - the longest of the race in fact, at 221km. This, you would say, is almost excessively long for the Southeast Asian calendar, only really the Tour de Langkawi might be expected to put this kind of length stage in (the most recent being in 2018, when Manuel Belletti won a 222km stage from Nilai to Muar, and that was the first 210km+ stage since 2014), and that attracts a more professional péloton than most of the other races in this part of the world. However, this only tells half the story. The Tour de Singkarak featured 4/9 stages in excess of 200km in 2019, although the race had only held one stage of that length before in its history - in 2018. The Tour of Siam in Thailand held a 220km stage in 2005 and 2006, while the Tour of Indonesia had a 220km mountain stage in 2009 which saw 5 of the top 6 riding for Tabriz Petrochemical Team, and the one interloper being an Iranian riding for Azad University (it wasn’t a total Iranian whitewash though, as Andrey Mizourov was riding for Tabriz at the time). In 2016 and 2018 the Tour of Thailand had a 230km flat stage, even. As far as I can see, stages from 180-200km are fairly common at the HTV Cup; stages in excess of 200km are rare, though there was a 220km stage from Pleiku to Tuy Hòa on stage 10 of the 2019 edition, and average stage length is increasing, so I don’t feel this one is too unreasonable, especially given there’s a rest day following it.



Again we are not going with a transfer - although it’s not a zero transfer per se, obviously yesterday’s stage finish was just above Lai Châu, and we’re starting from Lai Châu itself. As I mentioned with that stage, only around 20% of the roads in Lai Châu province are paved fully, and apart from Sơn La there aren’t really any other realistic stage hosts of sufficient size around the western part of this northern protuberance of Vietnam’s Red River Delta area; as a result the first part of this stage is retracing our steps from yesterday’s stage, going over the Giàng Ma pass to Cò Lá. As I mentioned previously it’s a lopsided pass, so from this northern side it’s only a cat.2 climb, since the length is reduced down to just under 8km. However, at the fork in the road after Cò Lá, we take the right-hand fork so as not to duplicate the climb over Ô Quy Hồ; instead we head southeastward, flanking the opposite side of Fansipan, through some rolling terrain with no real flat territory but no climbing of sufficient steepness to classify, at least at first. After an early intermediate sprint in Tân Uyên, a small town adjacent to the narrow northernmost finger of the Hồ Thúy điện Bản Chắt lake, we have two smaller categorised climbs, both fairly consistent and straightforward; firstly a cat.3 climb of 3km at 6,5% or so, and then after the descent from that, a 4km at 4% grind. There is then a second intermediate sprint at Thân Uyên - not to be confused with the host of the first one - the capital of a county of around 70.000 inhabitants, but with just under half of those resident in the town.


Mù Cang Chải

This gives way to the main meat and drink section of the stage for selectivity; the next 40km ascend around 650m, so only at an average of less than 2%, through the Mù Cang Chải valley, one of Vietnam’s more prized tourist attractions for those who wish to see a bit more of the country than Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City - however it does mean that when the riders hit the legitimate climbing part of this stretch, up to Đèo Khau Phạ, they will already have had a fairly significant and consistent level of struggle in their legs, which may enhance its selectivity. Several of these rice fields have been selected for preservation as intrinsic monuments to the cultural history of Vietnam by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and this is the original ‘rice terrace’ so to speak, as this was the area where the Hmong people first managed to harness the water sources and manufacture the terrace environment to maximise their crops using a series of locks and gates akin to European canal systems in order to prevent flooding of crops and to manage water flow between levels.

There is plenty of time to review the scenery for the riders, since it’s a bit of an endless grind of low gradient climbing, like a Big Bear Lake stage but without any actual expectations. It will look phenomenal on the drone shots, at least. And a bit like the Nha Trang stage of this year’s HTV Cup, the distance from the finish is likely to dissuade genuine moves on this climb, but it could see selectivity in terms of riders who suffered yesterday being put out of contention, or a strong break move being formed, with it cresting about 67km from the line. The last 4km of the ascent are the most serious, being at 6% of gradually steepening gradients, with the last 1500m at 8%.



This is followed by a long and twisty descent, not especially steep - 20km at a little under 5%, looks a bit more precipitous than it is on the stage profile thanks to the length of the stage. Nevertheless I’ve tried to incentivise pushing on if there are any moves being made here, with some more bonus seconds available in an intermediate sprint at the base of the descent. The downhill into the Tú Lệ valley is impossibly scenic, as this is an almost untouched natural beauty of Vietnam (of sorts, it’s also almost entirely man-made of course), with the hillside steeped in rigid steps of tea plantations and endless terraces of rice paddies, like gold and green contour lines draped across the mountains. The sticky rice here is particularly prized, and the local speciality, roasted pork with spices and sticky rice, is a prestige dish in northern Vietnam.



There is then 11km of undulating terrain including two categorised climbs, both cat.4. Some great opportunities for the drone cameras to show off a bit of Vietnam’s topography as we head through scenic forested terrain, as there are very few major communities in this neck of the woods, with most of them being on the other side of the mountains on the Red River shores and in its floodplain. This area is largely small agricultural and logging communities, with the occasional natural beauty - most notably the Suối Tiên waterfall - which we pass under (some way under, it’s up on the mountainside) when we are going over our final categorised ascent, which is more a double ascent really, around 750m at 7% followed by a short descent, a false flat kick up, a flat for a few hundred metres and then 1,1km at 6%, cresting 17km from the line. Is it particularly tough? Of course not. But if we have a péloton reduced by attrition, since many of these guys will not face 200km+ stages often, then this could be a surprisingly decisive stage. Especially as there’s a rest day to follow, and therefore they have every reason to go all out with whatever they have left in the tank. 1,1km at 6% isn’t really enough to open up separation in and of itself, but with so many riders likely to be feeling the effects of yesterday’s climbing and with plenty of up and down in the day’s riding already, we should have some small groups up here, either from a breakaway that is allowed to go, or from the favourites having whittled down the group with attrition.

There’s around 9km of vague sauntering downhill after the final ascent, and then we pass a junction on our left that takes us back on an unpaved road to the Red River; we instead continue straight on into the stage town of Nghĩa Lộ. It is the main urban centre in this mountainous area, and the municipality’s population has more than doubled in the last 20 years, with now around 68.000 in the municipality, a little over half of whom are in Nghĩa Lộ itself.


The road into Nghĩa Lộ, the closing stretches of today’s stage

The county of Nghĩa Lộ has an advantageous climate for agriculture, being significantly less humid than the floodplain areas that surround it to the east, and food crops, especially tea, and fruit trees are the most common economic commodity exported by the region, followed by timber. It is an area which has changed hands many times in history, and so the city to which it has been allocated economically in provincial life has varied over time. As a result, however, it has never grown a dependency on any one city, until the small market town of Nghĩa Lộ was inaugurated and upgraded to a city in its own right, in 1971. It has become a popular getaway for those in the extended Hanoi agglomeration, due to its potential as a spa town and, especially during the hot season, its comparatively temperate climate with far lower humidity than the neighbouring areas. It is sustained by a tributary of the Red River which springs from a nearby stream called Thia. In an echo of the previous myths and legends of Vietnamese geography, Thia is translated as “tears”, not in Vietnamese, but in the local language of the indigenous people of the area (I believe that this is a variety of Mường, but I am not an expert in the Mon-Khmer families!), and derives, as before, from a legend of lost love. Though this one isn’t the result of parental disapproval or tragic loss of life, instead it is simply that a boy from the affluent lowlands fell in love in the quiet mountains, and left his love to return to the hustle and bustle of city life.


Finishing straight through the centre of town

The city has also been immortalised in popular song, an oft-covered standard named Anh có vào Nghĩa Lộ với em không, or Would You Come To Nghĩa Lộ With Me? (this is something I do know about Vietnamese: the setting of the negative, không, which means “no” or “not”, as a question marker! The literal meaning is, “You come to Nghĩa Lộ with me, no?”) setting the poetry of lyricist Hoàng Hạnh to music, celebrating the natural atmosphere and climate of Nghĩa Lộ, seen as a tranquil dreamland away from a hectic life in the Red River Delta. For the riders, the question is more like Who will be the first to get to Nghĩa Lộ? Its tranquility was interrupted for a period in the early 1950s, when this backwater, isolated and tranquil region that had so often escaped unscathed from the conflicts between different Vietnamese dynasties, and in Chinese incursions from the north, as these would generally use the river as the direction of invasion, found itself embroiled in the First Indochina War, as the Viet Minh sought to liberate the nation from the French. The secluded nature of the province led to it being seen as an excellent place to assemble force without attracting too much attention, which led to a comparatively swift victory for the Communists. This will give them something to fête when the race heads into town at least!

The riders can then enjoy Nghĩa Lộ’s trademark tranquility for the first part of their rest day, before travelling in the afternoon down the QL37 and QL32 into the delta lowlands ready for week 2 to begin.
 
Reactions: Samu Cuenca
Stage 7: Việt Trì - Núi Ba Vì, 52km





GPM:
Núi Ba Vì (HC) 12,1km @ 8,5%

Some riders used to riding the HTV Cup, but who don’t look too deep into the parcours at first glance, might see a 52km stage coming straight off the first rest day and think ‘that’s nice, one of those criterium stages to ease our way back into competition’. After all, sub-60km stages at the race are pretty much invariably circuit races. But when they spot that the stage start and stage finish aren’t the same place, they might realise that this is, in fact, a road stage, despite the absurdly short length. And then they might see the destination as being Núi Ba Vì, and then they might start to quake with fear, and at least be thankful for the short distance that needs to be completed in this one, because this is going to be pretty tough.

This stage has been one that has actually been redesigned quite late in the day. I know, redesigning such a short stage? But actually, originally this stage headed the other direction, into the ridge of mountains we skirted the northeastern face of on stage 3, and up to Tam Đảo, a resort town for the elites constructed by the French in 1907. The issue with that one was that though the climb to the finish is similar to this one - a couple of kilometres shorter but at similar overall gradients - the climb was actually to the north of Hanoi, so it necessitated successive long transfers (the one from Nghĩa Lộ to Việt Trì poses no problems as it is on a rest day, besides it’s only about 140km by road, but due to the difficult roads involved it’s about a three hour journey according to Google); while the real race does include occasional sizeable transfers, finishing in Tam Đảo then necessitated both a lengthy transfer to the next stage start, but also a much longer and less realistic stage 8. I think the actual solution here is much more realistic and much more achievable.



The stage start, however, was always destined to be in Việt Trì. This was the town I had picked out among those on the Red River in Phú Thọ province, a region tied intrinsically to Vietnamese history through the Hồng Bàng period, where the state of Văn Lang, essentially a kingdom of the Red River Delta and a precursor to modern Vietnam (the Vietnamese ethnic group traces its origins to this end of the country and has expanded southwards along the coast to the Mekong over the centuries), was ruled by 18 related dynasties through a period of over 2500 years. Much of the history of this era has passed down primarily through myths and legends, and therefore the kings, queens, , princes, princesses, noblemen and warriors of this time have often seen their tales ascend to the ranks of myths themselves, and have been enshrined within the cultural and even religious history of the country. As a result, historians treat the Văn Lang state’s recorded history as ‘semi-mythical’, with many attributed feats which are physically impossible and have more in common with supernatural myths and legends of other cultures.

The Hồng Bàng dynasties were an absolute monarchy, ruled by the Hùng Vương, or “Hùng King” in western parlance, and centred around a capital at Phong Châu. Hùng Vương II, or to use the name we have come to recognise, Lạc Long Quân, is one of the most legendary of the Hùng Kings, and it is said that Phong Châu was chosen as the site where he and his wife Âu Cơ would settle, and their many children were born in the city, which rose to become the capital of Văn Lang. He was, according to legend, the son of the first Hùng King (Lộc Tục, the legitimate founder of the nation, in that prior to his establishment of a kingdom, Vietnam was an anarchic collection of unassociated villages) and a dragon goddess, who developed the isolated nation and slayed the Ngư Tinh, or fish spirit, a demonic aquatic monster that had prevented the Vietnamese from conquering the sea and harnessing its resources. He married Âu Cơ, an immortal mountain fairy, and they had 100 children. However, as dragon and fairy cannot live in harmony, as they represent fire and water respectively, they arrived at a pact to divide the children equally between them, with he controlling the coastal and lowland areas and her returning to the mountains. As a result, Âu Cơ is integral to the Vietnamese creation myth and regarded as the founder of Vietnamese civilisation. He is regarded as living for 300 years, dying in around 2525 BC.

Of course, realistically this is the stuff of myths and legends. 2524 BC is regarded as the start of the third dynasty in the Hồng Bàng lineage; as a result it is likely that simply Lạc Long Quân was succeeded by successive generations until that point where the direct lineage stopped and the next dynasty began, but record keeping and oral history has led to an interpretation that Lạc Long Quân lived out the period as though Vietnam was his own personal Macondo. Phong Châu was probably settled on as a capital because of its advantageous location at the confluence of three rivers of the Red River tributaries and delta offshoots, and the creation story is apocryphal, similar to that of Romulus and Remus in Europe, although Phong Châu was not so enduring as Rome, being sacked in 258BC, resulting in the capital moving away and the city being left in ruins. Either way, however, the reason the Hồng Bàng dynasties are regarded as “semi-mythical” is that Phong Châu most certainly existed; though its name has been conferred upon another town in Phú Thọ, the few existing remnants of the original city lay in Việt Trì. Unfortunately, however, the abundance of timber means that much of the city was constructed of wood, and so historic Vietnam does not have the same kind of iconic ruins as, say, Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Vat Phou in Laos. There are some, further south, but these are outside the historic territory of Vietnam, having been originally settled by various Khmer ethnicities and then added to Vietnamese territory during southward expansion later. Therefore the worship of the nation’s founders and the Vietnamese creation legend takes place at the reconstructed Hùng King Temple at the village of Cổ Tích, on the outskirts of Việt Trì.



Modern Việt Trì has a population of 260.000 and lies a little down from the confluence of the Red and Black rivers, where the Lô joins the two. It is a key industrial city for northern Vietnam, specialising in the manufacture of plant and engineering equipment. It is undergoing rapid reconstruction and infrastructure development, and is the centre of the Phú Thọ province. We set off here and cross the Red River immediately, before hugging its western shore until we get to Sơn Tây, a metropolis of over 200.000 inhabitants which has bizarrely been downgraded from a city to a town in recent years, after its own eponymous province was merged with that of Hà Đông to create Hà Tây, and then subsequently the extended urban sprawl of the national capital meant it was absorbed into Hanoi province. Sơn Tây is a modern town, but it is surrounded by villages which date back over 1000 years, and is perhaps most known as the hometown of South Vietnamese general Phạm Văn Đổng, who was exiled to America after a smear campaign run by President Thiệu of South Vietnam in 1974, to rid the nation of threats to his rule; as a popular and successful military figure, Đổng was seen as potential opposition to Thiệu’s power; he was marginalised and his power reduced, and then eventually during the Fall of Saigon he was exiled and offered asylum in the United States.



Sơn Tây also hosts an ancient citadel (picture above), which is its main attraction, and is more famous at least in the western world for a Viet Công prison camp until 1970, and then briefly in 1975 too. The US army launched at great expense Operation Ivory Coast, parachuting 56 paratroopers into the camp by helicopter, only to find that the 61 American prisoners of war they had thought to be present had been moved on already.

After the intermediate sprint (only two in this stage owing to its short length) we head southwestward to a second sprint at the entrance to the Ba Vì National Park, which introduces us to the scenic, though somewhat small, mountain range that holds sway over the western part of the Red River Delta.


Ba Vì mountains from a distance

It’s time, therefore, to begin climbing, and to begin climbing one of the hardest climbs of the race. There are a group of summits in the national park; the highest is Dình Vua, or “Emperors’ Peak”, at 1296m, but the most important is neighbouring Dình Tản Viên. Tản Viên is 15m lower in its summit than Emperors’ Peak, but it holds an important position in Vietnamese mythology, as Sơn Tinh, the God of the Mountains (also known as Tản Viên Sơn Thánh), one of the Four Immortals, is said to reside there. He features as a central character in one of the most enduring myths of the Hồng Bàng era, where he is pitted against Thủy Tinh, the Lord of the Water, in a competition for the hand in marriage of the beautiful princess Mỵ Nương, daughter of 18th Vùng King Hùng Vương. The myth states that with both beings equal in all competition, they were set challenges to return ever more fanciful objects as gifts. Sơn Tinh won by a few minutes and took his new bride back to the mountains with him, and Thủy Tinh, unable to accept defeat, used his powers to raise the seas and force her back; he was no match for the mountain God, who raised the level of the mountains (thus explaining the protuberance of the Ba Vì range) and filled the land with dykes and channels to prevent the Lord of the Water’s attacks from destroying the homes and lives of the people. Thủy Tinh’s anger subsided and he lowered the sea level back down, but he never forgave the Mountain God and every year he tries to attack the mountains with the power of water to spite his usurper. This legend is used to explain the coming of monsoon season and the defence of Vietnam against it.

With the site therefore having such spiritual and historic significance in Vietnamese mythology, therefore, it was of great controversy when plans were unveiled to a far newer figure in Vietnamese mythology - although uncharacteristically, the architectural style was kept in keeping with the earlier, more spiritual ambiance. This character, of course, being Hồ Chí Minh. No matter how beloved and revered
Uncle Hồ may be throughout the country… a lot of people really felt that Ba Vì is a sacred site and that Communist ideology had no place in it, not to mention that the elevation of the man to mythical and iconic status in that manner is at odds with the very idea of Communism (but of course, it’s not like the same hasn’t happened to Lenin or Che Guevara), so there was a lot of opinion espoused about the temple.

However, the construction and development of the temple meant the reconstruction of the road that ran up the mountainside to give access too the Tản Viên and Vua peaks. The summit of the road is at about 1100m and sits between the two summits, at a car park which is connected to a series of market stalls and tourist stands, with hiking trails for pilgrimage up to the mountain summits and the famous pagoda.


Remains of French cathedral


Đền Thượng temple complex, at the summit of Tản Viên, dedicated to Sơn Tinh



The actual climb that the riders take is a savage one. Cronoescalada has a slight glitch suggesting the climb finishes with 100m at 43,5% which obviously is not the case, but makes the profile a bit harder to read thanks to that anomaly - this is due to an odd placement of the final kilometre marking with the rounding up, I believe. It’s a climb that leads you on slowly, opening up with a kilometre at 3% and one at 6% before truly hitting its stride. The next 6,4km average a not inconsiderable 9,5%; this is mostly fairly consistent, with the steepest kilometre being just over 11%. A brief flattening out and some lower gradients follow before kicking up to a steepest overall kilometre, averaging nearly 14%, between 2 and 3km from the top. Things then settle down to around 5% for the last 2km before a final repecho which is steep but, of course, nothing like the preposterous gradient attributed to it by Cronoescalada. The overall total is 12km at 8%, putting this one in a similar kind of realm to Kandel in Germany, or Collada de la Gallina in Andorra. That might actually be its best analogue to a western audience, with that steeper first part.


Switchbacks and facets through the forest

You can see the full climb, unfortunately with some pretty dreadful soundtracking, here:


As you can see, perfectly well paved, perfectly wide, perfectly accessible, space at the top, susceptible to bad weather - it’s ripe for use by the HTV Cup if they find themselves in this neck of the woods, and trying to develop their reputation as a challenging race increasing in value and intrigue to the rest of the world outside of Vietnam. And of course, the fact that it can pretty much only be Unipuerto is less of an issue in these less developed cycling regions. Besides, with those 6km at 9,5% in the middle and a kilometre at nearly 14%? It’s plenty hard enough to produce gaps all its own. This is a super short stage at just over 50km in length, kind of like an HTV Cup equivalent of, say, the 2009 Giro Blockhaus stage, in that it’s a super short Unipuerto stage; obviously Ba Vì is not as long or as high a climb as Blockhaus, but then the stage is also scaled down by almost 50% to reflect that. This is the first day after the rest day, and the riders will have been in the saddle for barely an hour - possibly even less than an hour - when they arrive at the base of this one, so this will be a real power test. It could well be less than two hours in the saddle, but it could be a very significant two hours in the saddle. Let’s hope that we don’t see some proper 2014-5 era Tabriz Petrochemical Team carnage here…
 
Stage 8: Hòa Bình - Thanh Hóa, 170km





GPM:
Đèo Dốc Cun (cat.3) 5,2km @ 5,0%

Stage 8 is one I’ve redesigned a couple of times; the original stage followed the original design of stage 7, so ran from Vĩnh Yên down to Thanh Hóa. However, that was nearly 240km, which seemed a bit excessive, especially after 220km on stage 6, and not especially realistic (when I’m already pushing the boundaries with my mountain stages in a race which historically hasn’t had many real ones), and I therefore decided to make it a more palatable length by moving the start of the stage to Sơn Tây, which brought it down to about 215km. That meant a fairly sizeable transfer from Tam Đảo, however, which had me a bit uncertain about it. The discovery of the viability of a mountaintop finish at Ba Vì, however, made this more logical, seeing as Sơn Tây is so close to the Ba Vì range. It’s not much further, however, to turn right at the exit to the park after descending away from it, and driving about 30km down the road to Hòa Bình, which made my stage 8 parcours a much more palatable 170km in length, so this is the approach I have taken. After all, yesterday’s stage will have only taken a couple of hours, so little issue to be had with taking the riders for a short transfer at least.



Hòa Bình is a city which serves as the capital of an eponymous province, which is historically at least majority Mường in ethnic and cultural background. This was the reason the province was created in the first place, to create effectively a semi-autonomous Mường community within Tonkin, in 1886. The French colonial forces turned the Mường province into Hòa Bình, following their tendency to name each province after the city at its core for ease of understanding to the colonial elites, who frequently had little to no knowledge of Vietnamese languages and customs. The Mường still make up nearly 2/3 the population of the province, although with the expansion of Hòa Bình itself, the Kinh ethnicity (which is the one most westerners would recognise as Vietnamese) is making inroads and now makes up nearly a quarter. The city was given its name during Chinese colonial times - it was given the name of 和, meaning “peace”. This, in pinyin, is reflected as Hépíng in Mandarin, and Woping in Cantonese; Hòa Bình is the Vietnamese reflection of these syllables (note, unusually, the total inversion in tone - the Mandarin is all ascending tones, the Cantonese is all flat tones (flat tone tends to be high in Chinese languages, in Vietnamese this high flat tone is designated by there being no tonal marker in the orthography, since Vietnamese is written in the Latin alphabet), while the Vietnamese reflection of this features a pair of descending tones. The only Chinese variety which features two descending tones in these syllables is Hakka, which is less likely as a source tongue due to the initial [h]- becoming [f]- in the Hakka reading of these characters, Fò-Phìn). It seems that the Vietnamese borrowing likely comes from an earlier time as it more closely resembles the rendering of these characters into Middle Chinese.

Hòa Bình was the scene of a battle during the first Indochinese War; the Việt Minh suffered heavier losses than the French but ultimately wound up victorious after the French plan to lure the Communist forces out of the valley was unsuccessful. Following the Communist success, the city became the site of controversy when the Vietnamese were reunited in the mid-70s; the new government enlisted Soviet assistance in constructing the hydroelectric power plant which dammed the Black River at Hòa Bình, further angering the Chinese who felt they were being taken advantage of by the Vietnamese government, who were aligning themselves ever more with Moscow. The stage actually starts with a ride up to and along the edge of the dam, extending the route by a couple of kilometres… but ultimately this is a race in a single party state, therefore slightly self-aggrandising detours to show off how developed and forward thinking you are would be par for the course!



The only climb of the day also comes almost straight away, so if the King of the Mountains so wishes, he can just control some riders to ensure the break doesn’t get away until after the first 16km are done with, and then try to win the climb and get some points for cheap a bit like Benoît Cosnefroy managed in the stages with little breakaway action in this year’s Tour. This climb is followed by about 15km on a slightly elevated plateau before we descend back down to around 100m above sea level, and we spend pretty much the entirety of the rest of the day below that, on some flat floodplain roads. The most distinctive thing about the rest of this stage is that I have decided to try to incentivise bringing back the break early, by way of putting all three intermediate sprints in a very short period of time, starting with 43km to go. With a bunch of time available in bonuses plus points for the blue jersey competition (the points classification pays a blue jersey in the HTV Cup), will the teams of riders like Lê Nguyệt Minh and Jordan Parra get greedy in the hunt for points? Will Nguyễn Tấn Hoài, who lest we forget was 2nd on the queen stage in 2020, be close enough after stages 5 and 7 to feel it worth expending some domestiques to try to gain some time bonuses in the intermediates?

The first intermediate sprint comes in Vĩnh Lộc, 43km from home. This is a city largely known for its Citadel, constructed in the Hồ dynasty times and briefly - from 1401 to 1407 - the capital of Vietnam. Following extensive archaeological work to uncover the extent of the Citadel, it is now inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The next intermediate comes just 6km later at Chờ, the centre of the Yên Phong district. With two intermediate sprints with 43 and 37km to go and then a lull for 20km until the third, this could be a good time for a stage hunter - especially someone with a good eye for a breakaway and a good time trial, like multiple 2020 stage winner Trần Tuấn Kiệt, who managed to foil the sprinters a couple of times, or Thanh Tùng Huỳnh who managed to foil the sprinters on a wide open crit circuit in 2019 - to sneak away or to try to form a breakaway group while the sprinters’ teams are regrouping. The alternative is that of course the breakaway takes the sprints, but you can’t say we aren’t at least trying to make the bunch work to bring them back early and open up opportunities for lesser control late in the race!



The stage finish for today is Thanh Hóa, a rapidly expanding city that was upgraded from town status in 1994, and since a heavy redevelopment plan has come into effect in 2012. It was known as a stronghold for Lê Lợi and his Lê dynasty; Lê was born in Lam Sơn, a small town in the west of Thanh Hóa province. In 1407, the Chinese Ming Dynasty overthrew the short-lived reformist Hồ dynasty and captured Đại Việt, which was what passed for a Vietnamese state at the time. The Ming searched for a successor to the pre-1400 Trần Dynasty, much more pliable and less reformist than the Hồ, but, finding no suitable heir apparent, they instead chose an aggressive policy of colonisation and extending Chinese influence in the area, in order to re-establish Chinese supremacy in the region. Valuable artefacts and trinkets were confiscated and transported to China, while Vietnamese-language signage and literature was burnt. Lê Lợi personally saw the Chinese raze a Vietnamese village for failing to adhere to the rigid policy of adopting Han Chinese hairstyles and clothing (in the name of “civilising the Vietnamese barbarians”, a doctrine “justifying” the mistreatment of the colonised similar to that adopted in Africa, Latin America and all over the world by European colonisers centuries later), and was spurred into action. He recruited prominent elite and powerful families in Thanh Hóa, and the day after Tết in 1418, the campaign began. Initially the campaign was tolerated by the Chinese to an extent due to Lê having found a Trần pretender to the throne, but in time this supposed heir faded to the background as the legend of Lê Lợi grew, and he himself became the de facto leader of the Vietnamese. Initially greatly outnumbered in battle, he fought a guerrilla campaign centuries before that became common practice, and a rebel general, Lê Lai, even pulled the “I Am Spartacus” trick, launching a headlong charge disguised as Lê Lợi that served solely as a diversion through which the real Lê Lợi could escape. By 1427, Lê’s forces were dominant; in a last-ditch attempt to reassert their authority over the Red River Delta, Zhu Zhanji (the Xuande Emperor) sent a large conquering force.

It was a disaster for the Chinese. By this point, Lê was well versed in military strategy and an unconventional thinker. He lured General Liu Sheng to follow a false retreat after initially meeting the Ming head on in combat; this enabled him to capture and kill the General. He then sent false reports of dissent that tempted the Chinese to descend on Hanoi; as they arrived in the city they found it largely deserted, and the Vietnamese then fought and defeated their adversaries in a series of battles in and around the city. The Xuande Emperor accepted defeat, and Lê Lợi became the new king of a re-established Đại Việt; after an abortive and disastrous campaign of aggression in Guangxi, he ensured the Ming would not return by being magnanimous in his victory, providing ships and supplies to display mercy on his prisoners of war, sending them home to China. Although Lê did not live to enjoy many years of rule, the dynasty formed by him would last into the 18th Century.



In later years, Thanh Hóa became a Viet Minh stronghold; as a result it was heavily bombarded and largely destroyed by American forces during Operation Rolling Thunder, seeing it as a strategic target. Almost the entire infrastructure of the city was destroyed, rendering it a veritable ghost town by the end of the conflict. As a result, the city has been reconstructed almost from scratch to the design tastes of the Communists before extensive expansion and redevelopment in the last eight yeras, so the modern city - which is home to just over 600.000 people, a trebling of its population in just 11 years - bears practically no resemblance to the town of Lê Lợi’s time. He lives on, however, in the form of a covered avenue which bears his name, and also serves as our finishing straight. It is likely that the sprinters will have their day under the watchful eye of the great national hero.

Thanh Hóa has been a regular stop for the HTV Cup when the race has started in the north, frequently hosting the end of stage 2 when the race commences in Hanoi. Lê Nguyệt Minh won the last time the race arrived in the city, on stage 5 of 30; Nguyễn Thanh Tân won on stage 2 in 2016, and the race has also used Thanh Hóa to host the finish of stage 2 in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2015.

 
Stage 9: Thanh Hóa - Chùa Đại Tuệ, 172km





GPM:
Chùa Đại Tuệ (cat.2) 4,7km @ 7,6%

We’re back to the original ploy of starting in the place we finished the previous day’s stage, with a nice easy overnight in Thanh Hóa after yesterday’s exertions. Today we have a more tricky stage, though it may reasonably still be a sprint of sorts, just a different one, as we go Unipuerto. For the most part, however, this is a transitional stage, which remains almost rigidly pan flat as we travel through the coastal lowlands as we start to move southwards along the long, narrow spine of Vietnam, through the North Central Coast region.

Much of the stage takes place in the province of Nghệ An, which is Vietnam’s largest individual province by area. Stages departing from Thanh Hóa typically finish in the major cities of Nghệ An; typically this would be Vinh, as in 2013 and 2015, but the province’s namesake town also hosted in 2018 when Lê Nguyệt Minh was triumphant. Stages into Vinh have actually had some unexpectedly GC-significant winners, such as Nguyễn Hoàng Sang and Lê Văn Duẩn. We follow that typical pattern - a usual stage length is 137km into Vinh, my stage arrives in that town at 138km which suggests I’ve more or less pinpointed the exact route they take, give or take a bit of neutral zone; I’ve just appended a bit more on.



Apart from the first intermediate sprint, perhaps the first point of interest on the route is at Nghi Lộc, a coastal district which includes some notable beach resorts, particularly Bãi Lữ. It is a former fishing community which has grown into a hub of seafood, but also it is the home of the Cam Xã Đoài, a prized variety of orange which was derived from Spanish settlers travelling up to Taiwan and the Philippines, and named after the old-script name for one of the villages of Nghi Lộc, where they initially perfected the variety, to maintain the flavoursome and juicy nature of the Spanish oranges while maximising their adaptability to the Vietnamese climate. From here we head southwards into Vinh, the economic hub and administrative centre of North Central Vietnam, and the fifth city in Vietnam to be awarded Grade-I city status. With around 500.000 inhabitants it is the largest city in the region, and is one of the most service-dominated cities in the country, with over half of its population working in service sector industries. Originally known as Ke Van, the city has borne several names, mostly beginning with Vinh, until under European influence it simply became known by its present identity in the 18th Century. Coterminously it underwent considerable development under the Tây Sơn dynasty, which was then furthered by the French, who developed it as an industrial centre.

Much like Thanh Hóa, Vinh has been extensively damaged during conflicts - first by the French during the Indochinese War, and then by the Americans during the eponymous conflict. As a result, much of the historic city has been lost, and again the reconstruction was heavily influenced by Soviet ideas of architectural purity and strategy, so we have a lot of wide boulevards and concrete apartment blocks dotting the landscape. As a result, Vinh has only in recent times developed into a site of tourism; being much smaller than Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, and not having the historical sites of Đà Nẵng or the scenery of Đà Lạt, it has often been overlooked as a tourist destination within Vietnam; however it has easy access to the prestigious Cửa Lò beach, and now that the Soviet Union has fallen and Communism is a thing of the past in much of the Western World, there remains a certain fascination for this kind of town planning and iconography that can no longer see that itch scratched in Europe.



Vinh is a very common host for the HTV Cup and has in fact hosted the Grand Départ in both 2019 and 2020. It is easy to see why Vinh would be a site that the race organisers are attracted to in terms of willing hosts; Vietnam remains a single party state, and there is perhaps nowhere in Vietnam more intrinsically linked to opposition, resistance and revolution than Vinh. It was the hometown of Phan Bội Châu, an early nationalist figure from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, who formed the Việt Nam Quang Phục Hội, or Vietnamese Restoration League, and aimed to overthrow European colonial leadership. He allied with the Japanese in the early 1900s, after they defeated Russia, and also corresponded with Sun Yat-Sen in China and the then-exiled Hồ Chí Minh. However, although he had grown increasingly convinced by Socialism and influenced by Russia in the later period of Lenin’s life, Phan would not see the success that became of the germ of an idea he had had for an independent Vietnam all those years earlier; he was arrested and imprisoned in Hỏa Lò Prison, later known as “the Hanoi Hilton”, by the French in 1925, and, placed under house arrest due to failing health and fear of uprising in his name if he remained in prison, he spent the last 15 years of his life in a small three-part house in Huế. He had been travelling to meet Hồ Chí Minh in China when the French captured him, leading to a pervading theory that Hồ had double-crossed him; this theory is generally believed to have been anti-Communist propaganda, however, as Hồ was believed by Phan to be the most likely successor to him as a leader of anti-colonial resistance in Vietnam, and would have gladly collaborated with such a prominent anti-authority force as Phan especially with the latter becoming increasingly committed to socialism; it is more likely that the culprit was his secretary and charges-d’affaires, Nguyễn Thượng Huyền. Phan himself believed the latter to be the culprit, having had suspicions about him previously. He eventually died in 1940, shortly after Japan invaded North Vietnam.



Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, another Vinh native, was less fortunate than Phan. She is, if you like, an Asian equivalent of Rosa Luxemburg, a strong young woman prominent in the communist movement, who died young and was martyred by the party as a result. She was a gifted and committed child who helped found the Tân Việt Cách mạng Đảng, or Revolutionary Party of the New Vietnam (usually just known as Tân Việt), when she was just 16 years old. The Tân Việt was a prominent voice in the early days of the Independence movement after the capture of Phan Bội Châu, the most well-known of all those who called for independence at the time, and swallowed several smaller separatist movements; this put her into the circle of Trần Phú. Trần would travel to the Soviet Union in 1927 and study at the KUTV in Moscow, which greatly influenced the future direction of the Tân Việt. In 1929 it went from being a leftist separatist group to an expressly Communist agenda, and then in 1930 it merged with two other regional Communist groups to form the Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, or Vietnamese Communist Party, which is the predecessor to today’s sole ruling party.

Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai at this stage went to Hong Kong, where she served as a secretary at the Comintern, in the office of Nguyễn Ái Quốc, who would later come to greater fame under his later name of Hồ Chí Minh. After a three year spell in a British colonial prison, she married fellow revolutionary Lê Hồng Phong - who had come to prominence in the party after becoming a professional revolutionary after losing his job in a match factory in Vinh for inciting workers against exploitative regulations - and returned to Vietnam where she was installed as the head of the CPV in Saigon. Her husband was captured by the French authorities in 1939, which forced her into hiding; upon her arrest in 1940, she was publicly trialled, and sentenced to death for her anti-authority and revolutionary activity. Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai faced the firing squad on August 28th, 1941, and has been hailed as a revolutionary martyr in Vietnam ever since. As a postscript, Lê Hồng Phong was sentenced to house arrest for six months, before being transferred to Côn Đảo prison, where he died in the infamous claustrophobic “tiger cages” on his fortieth birthday.


The Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg of the East, Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai and Lê Hồng Phong

Of course, Vinh has at its heart a history of revolution, tied to the legacy of the Vietnamese Communists, and at its heart there’s a square dedicated to the one name that stands above them all. I mean, all these years on, if I asked you to name a famous Vietnamese person, there’s a very high chance that the first name that comes to mind for, well, pretty much anyone, will be good old Uncle Ho. I mean, we are on a cycling forum so perhaps the occasional individual may think of Lotto-Soudal’s Nguyễn Thị Thật, or a few people might think of famous sportspeople or personalities from the Vietnamese diaspora. But for most people, Hồ Chí Minh is going to be the first name to come to mind.

But while the second intermediate sprint may take place at Hồ Chí Minh square, the third takes place closer to his heart - in his home town of Kim Liên. The most famous attraction of this small town is the Kim Liên Museum, which hosts artefacts of Communist lore and revolutionary history in the house in which the country’s dearest leader grew up. Nguyễn Sinh Cung was born in 1890, though at later times he chose multiple years within that decade to claim as his ‘real’ birth year. A gifted scholar who quickly mastered Chinese and grew up in the Confucianist tradition, he was renamed Nguyễn Tất Thành at age 10 by his father in accordance with said tradition. His father, a prominent scholar and teacher who imbued his son with a voracious appetite for learning, also imbued him with a sense of rebellion, after he turned down a post in the imperial bureaucracy so as not to serve the French. The young Hồ, not yet known by that monicker, was schooled at a lycée in Huế alongside several other major figures from Vietnamese modern history, including both prominent allies and rivals.

Hồ became a traveller in the 1910s, which he later falsely attributed to a role in the 1908 student revolts (aggrandising his revolutionary credentials, hardly a new thing!). Working on ships and taking stays of absence in many countries, this period of his life took him to New York, Paris and London. It was in Paris that, having fallen under the tutelage of the socialist Marcel Cachin and being united with fellow Vietnamese diaspora, that he became the figure that we know now, publishing articles as Nguyễn Ái Quốc, a fanciful name meaning “Nguyễn the patriot” which was originally a sort of assumed name used by the whole group but eventually became a nom de guerre for Nguyễn Tất Thành, i.e. Hồ, alone. The letter that brought infamy was to be presented at Versailles; it was originally written by fellow Communist Phan Văn Trường, but as Thành was the most gifted orator and most presentable face of their case, he became the public face of “Nguyễn Ái Quốc” and became associated with the name to the wider world. He became a founding member of the French Communist Party and his eloquence, charisma as an orator and the tone of his speeches led prominent Bolshevik Dmytro Manuilsky to sponsor his relocation to the Soviet Union, to be put to work in a prominent role in Comintern, especially due to his oratorial skill and his value in a variety of countries thanks to the many languages he had picked up due to his persistent travelling. He was posted to Guangzhou, China, where he worked under the assumed name Ly Thuy, and met - and wed - a Chinese midwife named Zeng Xueming, who was never legally divorced from the leader, but is not acknowledged to this day by the CPV - their alliance was short-lived after Quốc was forced to flee after Chiang Kai-shek’s anti-Communist coup in 1927. He was part of the meeting in Hong Kong which created the modern CPV, and was also captured there a year later, where he ran the risk of being sentenced to death, but he was saved by the intervention of a British socialist solicitor (!). After a period back in Moscow he returned to China to advise the Communist forces under the name Hồ Quang in 1938.

It was in the early 1940s that the history we know began. The Việt Minh needed a leader, and Quang was chosen. He started using the nom de guerre by which he has been known throughout the world, and advised or oversaw successful military operations against the French (well, Vichy French) colonial powers throughout World War II, especially after being freed from prison in 1943 by the Chinese Communists and returned to Indochina. He became Premier of the Provisional Government following the August Revolution in 1945, following the abdication of Bảo Đại, Vietnam’s last Emperor. Hồ Chí Minh made an agreement with Lu Han of the Republic of China to dissolve the Communist Party and hold an election to create a coalition government, since the provisional government had a broad mixture of nationalist and Communist elements. However, fighting broke out quickly after Chiang Kai-shek agreed concessions with the French to withdraw from Indochina, in return for French non-interference in Shanghai, and for Vietnam to be recognised as an independent state within the French Union and the Indochinese Federation. Both the French and the Việt Minh wanted to see the back of the Chinese forces, then subsequently joined forces to isolate and purge the Vietnamese Nationalists, and soon, unencumbered by other adversaries, resumed their quarrel. While the Communists suppressed all other parties, war with the French was unavoidable. On 19 December 1946, Hồ Chí Minh declared war on France, beginning the Indochina War, and beginning the lengthy conflict which began as a decolonisation war to end the French hegemony in Indochina, and ended as an ideological conflict which embroiled the major superpowers as a proxy war for the Cold War being played out on a former French colony’s narrow strip of land. The Indochinese War was concluded by the Geneva Accords, which recognised the Communist North Vietnam as a genuine independent state, while turning South Vietnam into a French Protectorate, which was formally dissolved the following year, tempting Bác Hồ to try to overthrow the South Vietnamese government; by 1959 he was requesting support from the Soviet Politburo for this cause and backing the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam, giving us the background for the conflict which gave us Apocalypse Now, along with a colossal human cost, and caused the pride of the US Army the most savage blow it had received since the Canadians sacked the White House.

Hồ, now ageing, relinquished his role as leader of the Communist Party to his hand-picked successor Lê Duẩn in 1960, but retained a key position of power in the Vietnamese Politburo and in an advisory capacity and he was instrumental in both the attempted adoption of the peace plan in 1963, and its circumvention once his southern adversary was ousted in a coup and executed, and he saw the opportunity to seize Saigon for the Communists. Obviously as we know, that conquest was still ongoing thanks to overseas intervention until after Uncle Hồ passed away of a heart attack on November 2nd, 1969, after a year beset with ill health and in which he seldom left Hanoi. Hồ had wished to be cremated, but the post-Hồ Chí Minh Vietnamese state went against that, embalming him and displaying his body in state in the same fashion as Lenin in Russia. Initially he was not replaced as President of North Vietnam, with the Politburo handling things to such an extent that when the tanks rolled into Saigon and ended the conflict, observers reported that the North Vietnamese forces were still led by.a man who had died more than five years earlier. The Party continues to venerate Hồ and cultivate his cult of personality to this day, so I can’t see the HTV Cup going through his hometown without some kind of pomp and circumstance to mark the occasion. He has also acquired all manner of other implications and associations within the populace, including some which have retrofitted him into popular mysticism and folk religion, where he has been seen by some as a manifestation of the Jade Emperor. However, for the most part the party line is quite literally the party line, and reflect only the “official” history of Hồ Chí Minh as he wished to present as leader - hence the writing out of history of his brief marriage (or long-lasting marriage in truth, since there was no official divorce, however he and Zeng never reconciled). And he lives on in the race’s name, in fact, since the sponsor and organiser is Hồ Chí Minh City Television, based in the former Saigon which was renamed in honour of the fallen leader almost as soon as the North Vietnamese flag was flown from the city hall and the reunification of the country proclaimed.



Seven paragraphs of Communist hagiography later, it’s time to get back to the bike race.

Союз нерушимый республик свободых,
Сплотила навеки Великая Русь,
Да здравствует созданный волей народов,
Единий, могучий Советский Союз!

…Sorry, where was I?

Oh yes, 19km from the line. Here we turn north into the hills which overlook Vinh from the northwest as we’re synthesising Vietnam’s old and its new, by following a lengthy period of veneration of Communist heroes and martyrs with a finish which is somewhere between a HTF and a MTF at a Buddhist temple complex, Chùa Đại Tuệ.


Chùa Đại Tuệ, car park on the left

The climb to Chùa Đại Tuệ is a little under 5km in length and is just over 7,5% in average gradient, although it’s not an especially consistent climb. It’s a bit like El Vivero, near Bilbao, for a reasonable comparison point, or a slightly easier Supergà. There are some severe gradients but overall it’s only a cat.2 ascent realistically. The first kilometre of ascent is at about 9%, then there’s a respite, before the steepest part of the climb, 1400m at 10%. This gives way to a steady 4,5% for a kilometre before it kicks back up to.a ramp of 13% and a final 1100m at 7,9%. Plenty of options to take some time, but it’s likely to be, at least where the elites are concerned, a sprint in that final kilometre. I see it as having the same kind of role in a race of this level as, say, Peña Cabarga has in a pro race. At 5,6km @ 9,4%, Peña Cabarga is a demonstrably tougher climb than Chùa Đại Tuệ, but it’s also in a race where there’s greater depth of péloton and quality of domestique. I foresee a lot of the big teams like TP Hồ Chí Minh and Bikelife drilling the tempo to burn off as many people as possible on the steep ramps at the bottom, then trusting their leaders to take it home in the final 1100m. Most of the climb is on a sort of hormigón too, those concrete slabs that make up some tough Spanish climbs like Bola del Mundo and San Miguel de Áralar, although these Vietnamese concrete roads are smoother, more like the concrete surfaces you see in Belgian one-dayers. The road quality also gets worse toward the top, but it’s perfectly ridable and would make a good finish I feel. It’s pure Unipuerto so everybody should be full power and charging up the climb as fast as they can. I’ve even looked to incentivise it with the coming days. This is the last real climbing for a few days, so no excuse not to go for it!

 
Stage 10: Vinh - Vinh, 51km





Yes, it’s a nice day to recover for the riders to a large extent, with one of the HTV Cup’s trademark crit stages. Stage 10 consists of simply 21 laps of a 2,43km long pentagon-shaped circuit which encircles Công Viên Trung Tâm, a public park and community hub which encircles Hồ Sỹ Huân, a small urban lake. The start/finish is on one of the shorter straights on the circuit, at the site known as Quảng trường Hồ Chí Minh, or Hồ Chí Minh Square in English.



Yes, we’re kind of accepting that cult of personality deal, holding a stage which starts and finishes on a huge open thoroughfare used for public parades and in front of a large parade ground, watched over by a gargantuan statue of Uncle Hồ. But there’s no need to go over that, really - I covered Vinh and its ties to the communist leaders in my previous stage’s post. Here, we’re just marvelling at the spectacular inner city created by the post-Vietnam War urban planning, as Vinh was heavily shelled, bombarded and much of its centre was destroyed, so these vast, expansive thoroughfares and urban green spaces were all part of the idealistic town planning of architects and town planners operating under the influence of Soviet ideology at the time.

You can see the entirety of our course from some drone footage here, which focuses on the start-finish area, but enables us to see the boulevards we will be using on our clockwise trek around the outside of the park.

And while it may seem a bit strange in 2020 to be holding a race directly in front of a great big statue of Uncle Hồ, and closing down a major city centre with thoroughfares that are dozens of lanes wide for a smallish race, but we ARE racing in Vietnam, and there is a very good reason why I think this course and this setting would be perfectly fine. And that’s that, crucially, they’ve done it before. This year in fact. And last year. Yes, in both 2019 and 2020, the HTV Cup’s Grand Départ was in Vinh, and the race started with this exact stage. Like, literally exactly the same. This is the epitome of laziness on my part, except for maybe when I literally C&Ped the 2005 final stage for the Tour in the Fantasy Doping Draft Tour route (at least the other stages I lifted wholesale, the St Etienne and Luxembourg time trials and the Floyd Landis Morzine stage, I mapped myself after researching the routes). But ultimately, with reduced péloton size and limited experience as well as being a couple of steps below the world class riders that populate the European pro races, the race organisers have recognised that if they want to have a legit 3 week race with full pro length stages, then they need to have a few shorter stages to balance that, and so these crit stages have become a staple of the HTV Cup, so it’s only reasonable that I should include a few. The last couple of editions have featured a ceremonial start underneath the watchful eyes of the statue, so this is a ready-made circuit with history and tradition on its side, as you can see from the opening stage of the 2019 edition:


This stage featured a slightly extended circuit that didn’t finish in the parade grounds, being 2,48km per lap rather than 2,43km but apart from that is identical. It consisted of 52km, as the race was 20 laps of the circuit preceded by a one-lap parade lap, akin to a formation lap in motorsport. It is bizarre for a first time viewer to watch the péloton rumbling down a 12 lane highway, but this is a fact of life for the HTV Cup in major cities, thanks to the Soviet town planning and the heavy destruction of many cities in the Reunification War, meaning many cities are characterised by these vast boulevards that seem incongruous for a bike race, especially to those of us weaned on narrow, twisty Spanish mountain passes, Italian hilltop towns and rural Belgian concrete and cobbled farm tracks. As you can see, a lack of serious control in the bunch (with it being the first stage so no team had the responsibility of the maillot jaune) meant that despite it being a 50km crit on wide open roads with a lack of technical challenges, Huỳnh Thanh Tùng managed to escape and take the victory with a margin that would enable him to hold the lead for a week. The same mistake would not be repeated in 2020.


Despite a number of attempts to replicate the previous year’s escape, just as the Women’s Tour opening flat stages in the east are now carefully controlled to prevent an unexpected escape like Niewiadoma’s in 2017, the sprinters’ teams made sure that their fast men got their chance on stage 1 in the HTV Cup this time - plus it being the first race post Coronavirus lockdown meant it was a chance to show off to a bigger than usual audience of course. A wild sprint across all four lanes of the road ensued, with Nguyễn Tấn Hoài victorious to start collecting the time bonuses that would bring him all the way up to 2nd on GC.

In my stage, of course, there will not be the yellow jersey on the line. We are 10 days into the race and have had multiple GC-decisive stages, so for a lot of riders, stage hunting will be their only chance to get something from the race, while the points jersey might be alive and well with pure sprinters feuding with GC men (and hybrids like Nguyễn Tấn Hoài) over it. This will be barely over an hour’s racing, but it could be frenetic, especially if the hunt for stage wins is ON.
 
Stage 11: Hà Tĩnh - Đồng Hới, 156km





GPM:
Đèo Ngang (cat.4) 2,0km @ 5,4%

At the mid-point of the race, we arrive at that most rare of occasions: an occasion where the real life organisers go harder on the race than me. As I mentioned above, the 2019 and 2020 editions of the HTV Cup have started with a criterium race in Vinh; both have then followed that up with a 199km stage along the coast from Vinh to the city of Đồng Hới. Having already included a couple of 200km+ stages, and bearing in mind this is stage 11, not stage 2, so there are likely to be some much more tired legs in this race, however, I have decided to play nice, and so I have moved the start of the stage across to Hà Tĩnh, which hosted the first intermediate sprint in those stages.

An identical stage was included in 2015 and 2016 as stage 5, in editions which commenced in Hanoi, while in 2008 and 2010 a slightly shorter, 190km route was used. I believe that route turned left immediately after crossing the Gianh river and avoided the undulating, slightly hillier terrain in the latter part of the stage. It looks like these stages usually end in a sprint finish - indeed 2019’s stage was won by Lê Nguyệt Minh - but in 2020 the bunch sprint was outfoxed after the péloton broke up, and the small size of the coronavirus-shrunken péloton relative to the pretty large breakaway that had got away made it too hard to control, and the reduced group was beaten home by young sensation Võ Thanh An, at 20 years of age probably the best prospect in Vietnamese cycling, and who went solo in the short uphills around 40km to go and held on by a short few seconds.


Being deep into week 2, however, I’m not going to give the riders a 5+ hour period in the saddle today, even though they got an easy day yesterday. Tomorrow will be a significant one so this stage is liable to go to the bunch. Therefore, no point in overdoing things on the length, when it’s not liable to be of any consequence, and also the further south we go the hotter things are likely to get; the average daily high in this part of the world in April is over 28ºC, so the more hours spent out in the sun the more the riders are going to pay for it. Temperatures regularly got above 40ºC in this year’s late-run post-quarantine edition, so riders will be glad to be back in the normal timeslot! As a result we have a 45km transfer across to Hà Tĩnh in order to start a more medium-length transitional stage.



Hà Tĩnh is a city of around 200.000 which is presently being earmarked for expansion with the investment of Taiwanese money to bankroll the FHTS Corporation, a steel conglomerate (FHTS stands for Formosa & Hà Tĩnh Steel) seeking to use the city as a manufacturing hub. It is a very new enterprise, however, and has only been producing steel since 2017, with a second blast furnace added in 2018 and a third one planned for 2020, but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It has been a troubled investment, however; plagued by mismanagement and some rather dubious corner-cutting practices, it has been attacked by anti-Chinese protesters in 2014, leading to 4 deaths and 3.000 workers relocating; a scaffold collapse killed 16 workers a year later; and in 2016 a leaking pipe led to huge amounts of dead fish in the South China Sea close to the city, with the subsequent investigation finding numerous tax and regulatory irregularities.

This is a relatively benign transitional stage; it is almost completely flat in the coastal lowlands, and apart from the intermediate sprint in Kỳ Anh there are no features whatsoever to the first half of the stage. The midway point comes at the base of the only categorised climb of the day, Đèo Ngang, a short and low crest which travels over a small hillside adjoining the low-lying mountain range separating Hà Tĩnh province from Quảng Bình, which eventually further inland transitions into the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, one of Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the location of the Sơn Đoòng Cave, believed to be the world’s largest. The pass has now been superseded by a tunnel as Vietnam rapidly improves infrastructure, but historically it was a divider between the traditionally Vietnamese-dominated Đại Việt, and the Champa kingdoms that made up most of the southern Vietnamese territory of today and were largely dominated by Khmer and Khmer-related, or Malayo-Polynesian, ethnicities and cultures. As the northernmost part of Champa, Quảng Bình had a significant Vietnamese population and, as a former province of Văn Lang during the Hồng Bàng period, was a province of some contention.



This contentious location meant after Vietnamese southward expansion, it was used as something of a buffer by Đàng Trong (known to Europeans as Cochinchina) to defend their interests against the hegemony of the northern Đàng Ngoài (known to Europeans as Annam), and the city of Đồng Hới, today’s stage finish, was constructed as a fortress from which to manage such military manoeuvres. It passed between hands a few times and, when the Indochinese War broke out, it was part of French Annam. This eventually manifested itself, of course, in a similarly central role when Vietnam was divided literally in the post-colonial era, and it was a frontier area during the Vietnam war, resulting in it coming under heavy bombardment from the US military. In fact, no region suffered more the consequences of aerial bombing than Quảng Bình. As a result, as with a few cities we’ve already been through, the city was reconstructed to socialist-realist ideals, influenced by Soviet ideas of town planning, and the amount of destruction created to poor areas resulting in an even more pronounced urban/rural divide than elsewhere in Vietnam, with some 90% of the province’s population living in a small number of major towns.

After crossing the Gianh river, we head up into some hilly areas which may give the prospect of a breakaway, but most likely the riders who have made the race hard in the real race in 2020 won’t be in the same position to profit in a stage which is over 20% shorter. There are a few ramps of up to 5-6%, but overall this is just a few kilometres of going up and down at around 3%, not even enough to drop Andrea Guardini you would venture. And even if it is, Andrea would have best part of 40km to catch up again and you’d expect that with a more normally-sized péloton the chance for a repeat of Võ Thanh An’s success in 2020 would be slim, especially on such wide open boulevards in the run-in.



With 120.000 inhabitants, Đồng Hới is the capital of Quảng Bình, and notable for its long, scenic sandy beaches, with over 10km of them available. It was, as previously mentioned, set up as a fortress to protect the interests of the Champa kingdom after acquiring it as part of the dowry on a politically arranged marriage. The Gianh River provided the border between Đàng Trong and Đàng Ngoài, which meant that, while not really a frontier town, the city became an important military base for the Nguyễn lords and its walls were seen as the protection that kept the regime alive.

This military strategic position made it a base that the French used to assault the Việt Minh and, concurrently, the Pathet Lao, who allied themselves with the Việt Minh. However, it was taken by Hồ Chí Minh’s men in the Indochinese War, which placed it north of the DMZ during the Reunification War; this made it the softest target for American air raids, and the city was largely destroyed. Some monuments remain, such as the bellower of Tam Tòa church, the last remnant of Catholic France in the city, which has been left standing untouched, like the Hiroshima gate or the ghost town of Belchite, as a silent relic of the war.

In the post-war times, however, this has helped Đồng Hới to rebuild itself; its location has become very convenient for tourism purposes. While the city itself, largely reconstructed in the Soviet model after the fall of Saigon, may not be of the most immediate interest, its proximity to such pristine beaches attracts tourists seeking sun, sand and surf, while its role as the nearest city to Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park attracts adventure tourists and nature-lovers, and its proximity to the demilitarised zone and position of prominence in the Vietnam War conflicts has rendered it an important site for historians and tourists seeking to view the battlefields and scars of the conflict. The government is also undergoing a project to develop the city as a deep water port and use it as a hub of import/export, which will further attract people to the city. And as a result it has become a regular stop-off on the route of the HTV Cup, in order to flex their infrastructural muscles and show off their development. So who am I to argue with that?
 
Stage 12: Đông Hà - Đông Hà, 31,3km (ITT)





Stage 12 is the lone ITT of the race. Individual Time Trials are a comparative rarity in the HTV Cup, whereas a TTT takes place every year. I kind of get it, I understand that in a Communist-led country the importance of teamwork is prioritised to a greater extent than in capitalist countries. I mean, in the Peace Race, the teams classification was actually of paramount importance, second only to the individual general classification. And a Team Time Trial was therefore an extremely important discipline both in establishing a team’s position in that classification, and also in ensuring every rider played their role in the individual victor so every victor would have a debt of gratitude to their teammates. I understand that.

However, the ITT is the Race of Truth, and how can you have a three week race without one? Spoiler: you can’t. So here’s my ITT, the only one of the race, but an important GC day, especially bearing in mind how few in number feature length time trials are in this neck of the woods.


Loïc Désriac en route to victory in the 2018 ITT in Lang Sơn

In the 2019 UCI Asia Tour (I’m not using 2020 due to how heavily affected by the Covid lockdown it has been), this is the full list of individual time trials:
22nd March 2019: Tour de Tochigi, prologue (3,0km)
19th May 2019: Tour of Japan, prologue (2,6km)
30th May 2019: Tour of Kumano, prologue (0,7km)
20th July 2019: Tour of Qinghai Lake, stage 7 (42km)
8th September 2019: Tour of China I, stage 2 (7km)
16th September 2019: Tour of China II, prologue (5,2km)
9th October 2019: Tour of Taihu Lake, prologue (5,5km)

2018 was similar; only one time trial over 11km in length - the 21km time trial in the Tour of China II - and that 11km one was in the UAE Tour, where it was largely World Tour pros taking part anyway. Otherwise, it’s all prologues save for the national championships and periodic regional championships like the Asian Games, the Southeast Asian Games and so on.

However, the national championships in Vietnam are often up around the 40km mark, and so the riders do get to try themselves out against the clock once in a while. It doesn’t look like the championships were held in 2019, which means the reigning champion remains Nguyễn Tấn Hoài, who won the title by completing the 40km course around Hanoi in 50’56, to take the title by 1’20 over Mai Nguyễn Hưng, with the bronze going to outgoing champion Trịnh Đức Tâm. Trịnh is an interesting one to note as he is generally speaking Vietnam’s best time triallist, and even spent a year in Switzerland at the UCI’s World Cycling Centre back in 2014. In each year’s championship since 2013, he has finished 2nd, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 3rd. Mai, on the other hand, is the classic nearly-man of the chrono, having never taken the title but amassed 8 podiums across a 10 year period beginning in 2009 - three silvers and five bronzes. The other prominent continual medallist in recent years has been Huỳnh Thanh Tùng, of the Quân Khu 7 team, who has only once (in 2016) taken the national title but has managed a full collection of the medal colours. 20-year-old Phan Hoáng Thài was, somewhat perplexingly, Vietnam’s representative in the ITT at the 2018 Asian Games, and the country hasn’t entered a rider in the ITT at the Asian Cycling Championships since 2017, when Trịnh Đức Tâm finished 12th. He has been 7th in 2015 and 2016, however, only around 3 minutes behind winners Cheung King-lok and Hossein Askari over 45km, so perhaps there is something there. The Vietnamese have, understandably, more success at the Southeast Asian Games, against lesser competition and not having to face the occasional World Tour moonlighter like Dmitry Gruzdev and Daniil Fominykh that comes to race the Asian Championships for Kazakhstan. They’ve even managed a gold medal, all the way back in 2005, from Mai Công Hiếu, probably Vietnam’s best ever cyclist. He has also picked up two bronzes, from 2007 and 2009, and Trịnh Đức Tâm also got a bronze in 2015. In the most recent championships, however, Trịnh was a long way from the man he once was, finishing 8th, but over seven minutes down on Indonesian winner Aimen Cahyadi - though there was an issue with food poisoning affecting cyclists at the course in the Philippines so he may have an excuse. Other riders who may be potentially on hand in the HTV Cup from that race would be the two other medallists, Thailand’s Thanakhan Chaiyasombat, and Singapore’s Choon Huat Goh. The Filipinos, Ronald Oranza and Mark Galedo, are outside possibilities, but 5th placed Laotian star Alex Ariya Phounsavath is a good bet to either lead a national team or moonlight in the race, having won it outright in 2017.


ITT at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games

The last time the HTV Cup had an ITT, it was the 6,4km prologue in the 2018 edition, an effective out-and-back similar to what I did with the stage 2 Team Time Trial. This seems to be a popular method in Vietnamese cycling for setting up time trials, as the Nha Trang TTTs use a similar format. The long-established imports of Vietnamese cycling, Loïc Désriac and Javier Sardá, took 1st and 2nd, ahead of a who’s who of the best contre-le-montre riders in the country - Mai Nguyễn Hưng, Trịnh Đức Tâm, Huỳnh Thanh Tùng and Nguyễn Tấn Hoài were the next four fastest in order. The overseas riders still seemed to hold something of an advantage, however, with Ali Ghazemi in 8th and Edgar Nohales Nieto in 12th. Before that it looks like we’re going all the way back to 2009 for the last ITT before that, with Mai Công Hiếu winning the 25km test around Nha Trang ahead of Korean long-time veteran of the race (either with Korean national teams, his trade team, or as a mercenary) Gong Hyo-Suk. An on form Mai Nguyễn Hưng or Trịnh Đức Tâm ought to be able to do well though, or at least give a good account of themselves - especially as they are more likely to be in form here, seeing as they will target it - even up against riders like Cahyadi, Phounsavath and Maralerdene Batmunkh.

Highlights of the 2018 HTV Cup ITT

My ITT takes place around the city of Đông Hà, starting and finishing in the centre of town. I am going to follow the all-too familiar design plan of time trials in this part of the world, taking advantage of those wide open multi-lane dual carriageways by launching a lengthy out-and-back, albeit with a difference. The first 9km are on an out and back, so the last 9km also follows this same route. The middle part, around 13km in length, is a loop which takes in the city of Quảng Trị, which gives the province through which we are riding its name.



Đông Hà is around 100km southeast of Đồng Hới, so this is one of our longer transfers - another reason for the shortened stage yesterday. As such, much as Đồng Hới was one of the southernmost cities in North Vietnam, Đông Hà is one of the northernmost cities in South Vietnam, and so it was also subjected to heavy bombardment during the conflict. It has been reconstructed as so many cities have and is now home to 90.000 people; its role has vastly increased since the late 90s, when the East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC) development program for trade between Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam was commenced; the Lao Bảo border crossing is the Vietnamese entry point for goods travelling on the main axis of the trade route (which effectively forms a stylised cross), which means that Đông Hà is the first major city through which goods will travel in Vietnam.

Đông Hà is known outside of Vietnam largely for Đông Hà Combat Base, also known as Camp Spillman, a US marine and army corps base taking advantage of its northerly location within South Vietnam, just 10km south of the demilitarised zone. It was frequently raided, bombed or ambushed by the PAVN, sometimes with assistance from the Việt Cộng, from 1968 onwards in particular, and eventually the city fell on 31st March, before the combat base finally followed suit on 28th April 1972. Its tourist industry is relatively underdeveloped, but there is a lot of interest on the part of ex-military and those interested in the Vietnam War, as Đông Hà is often used as a base from which to visit the DMZ. In Vietnam and amid the Vietnamese diaspora, it is perhaps known most as the hometown and birthplace of Như Quỳnh, a rising singing star who emigrated to the United States in her early 20s and was picked up by Asia Entertainment Inc., under whose tutelage and promotion she carved a reputation as one of the foremost interpreters of Vietnamese popular music, and has become a major figure with the Vietnamese diaspora, blending traditional with the contemporary, performing ballads always dressed in the traditional áo dài.

The area we are travelling through was a major battleground in 1972, and the Battles of Quảng Trị comprise two parts: north Vietnamese advances as part of the Easter Offensive, and south Vietnamese rebuttals in the following autumn. The point at which our route deviates from a standard out-and-back is when we reach Ái Tử Combat Base, sometimes simply known as Quảng Trị from a military perspective. This was a second combat base that was conceived after it was decided that Đông Hà was too exposed to artillery fire due to its proximity to the DMZ. Now, the camp has been turned over to farmland, with a road running right over the former runway. On the outbound journey we continue on the highway past Ái Tử, and turn left a few kilometres later into Quảng Trị city, the only South Vietnamese provincial capital to fall in the Easter Offensive.



Quảng Trị is a city known primarily for its 19th Century, French-influenced citadel, a scenic Vauban fortress which served as a de facto headquarters for the US forces in the area after they were forced out of Ái Tử, and serves as the site of the mid-stage time check for our time trial. We continue out of town on the DT580, before a left hand bend takes us back toward Ái Tử, crossing first the Thạch Hãn River - which served as the de facto border between North and South Vietnam between January 1973 and reunification, after the southern riposte to the Easter Offensive was halted at Quảng Trị - and then the old Ái Tử Combat Base airfield, before rejoining the QL1A and retracing our steps back to Đông Hà via the same 9km route we took to get here.

At just over 30km, this is hardly a super long ITT, but then again the mountain stages in this race are going to be somewhat anaemic in comparison to those of a European Grand Tour because of the nature of the péloton; in addition to this, the paucity of decent length ITTs undertaken by these riders means that I would anticipate some serious gaps here. The 40km nationals routes tend to see some decent sized gaps, and while I wouldn’t expect, say, Huỳnh Thanh Tùng or Trịnh Đức Tâm to be contesting the GC here, so they would more likely be stagehunting, the likes of Loïc Désriac, Javier Sardá and Nguyễn Tấn Hoài likely will be contesting the GC - and if those international names are going to turn up, Aimen Cahyadi, Gong Hyo-Suk and Alex Ariya Phounsavath could all be in the GC mix here, plus there’s also the wildcards of wondering how climbing specialists like Jamal Hibatullah or all-rounders who are somewhat untested in this format like Nguyễn Hoàng Sang will get on. This will be a key GC day at the top end.
 

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