Sandbaggers are no longer a feature in the Tour De Bintan!

Sandbaggers are no longer a feature in the Tour De Bintan!

Even the most prodigious cycling sensei has harboured a love-hate relationship with Tour De Bintan despite its great location, good roads and leg-smashing course and outstanding organisation.

Thursday 19th July 2018

UCI Granfondo Qualifier

Bintan is a great location for a bike race, especially if you don't like climbing. Proper climbing that is! There's a lot of elevation in your legs at the finish of any stage, those endless rollers add up, but the short sharp undulations suit the Puncheur, not a pure climber! On top of the rollers, the badass conditions switching from brutal heat to torrential downpours have always given the race an added edge of difficulty, turning it into a real "hardman's race". 

Love-hate I say? The dissatisfaction I allude to is that the combination of the three category divisions and a "none-climbing" course has meant that it has always been a race controlled by teams and bit lacking in action. In most years the results were decided on day one in the ITT and following stages ended up in bunch sprints. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with a race that favours a certain type of rider, or teamwork for that matter, but it is sometimes frustrating if a few strong riders shut down every move.  This was perhaps particularly true for the category 2 rider, which is the category that most amateur cyclists (with a job!!) that ride 6-10 hours per week will place themselves. Cat 2 naturally attracted some very strong talent that probably should have been Cat 1, but without a team, these strong riders opt for Cat 2 and thereafter become known as the sandbaggers.

But I'm wasting your time reminiscing as this is all old news. The Tour De Bintan became a UCI Granfondo Qualifier event last year and the format changed significantly. This year I decided to ignore my “that’s it, not cooking myself in Bintan again” resolution and race its new format, and I have had a Bintanbone ever since.

UCI GranFondo Format

In 2017 Tour De Bintan joined the Niseko Classic as a UCI Granfondo qualifier, which meant adopting the rules and requirements of the UCI series.  I heard good reports from the 2017 edition and so decided to give it a try for the 2018 edition which was held on March 29-31. 

Race-wise, the biggest single change is there are no more categories! Riders previously split into cat 1, 2 and 3 now all ride together in age groups of 5-year spans! Death to the sandbagger in one quick blow! Grouping by age creates a level playing field and there is a much higher degree of selection made during the long stages as the stronger riders push on and drop those that can't sustain the pace. Many of the age categories saw successful breakaways and the whole vibe was more akin to a European spring classics race rather than a formality sprint stage at the Tour De France. 

Another big change is that the race now relies solely on static water stations instead of using motorbikes at the rear of the peloton. I can understand the need to standardise the race format between Granfondo locations and static water stations are easiest to deploy, but they can be a bit tricky. Riders try to get through quickly and exiting to the right away from a successful pick up is often impeded by arriving cyclists veering in from the right. Added to this some riders, well stocked with fluids, will use them as an attack point, particularly towards the end of a stage. The teams handing out the bottles in Bintan did a great job and to be fair most of the time riders were very good at slowing for the sections and also happily sharing the liquid proceeds, even with competitors from other teams. A contact from MetaSport has reported that the aid stations may be turned into neutral zones for future editions of the race so that should calm things down.

The Race Experience


Getting to Bintan from Singapore is pretty straightforward, and the ferries on the Thursday before the race are very empty, so a good tip is to book a ferry time that is comfortable to achieve from your flight arrival time, and then ask to be put on an earlier ferry is there is one available.  There is a range of accommodation available and Nirwana Gardens is the best choice for convenience. At registration, you may have to pinch yourself and remember you are in Asia, as the process is swiss-like in its efficiency. The MetaSport team have really got their shit together from years of refining these events and also taking a lot of learnings from the triathlon world. The briefing was on a looped video that was detailed and yet brief, and the whole process was smooth as freshly shaved guns!

Individual Time Trial

A great 17km course with a few tight corners and lumpy bits, and there always seems to be a strong headwind for the first few km making it hard to judge. The atmosphere at the start/finish is pretty good, and the process to weigh your bike and queue for the start ramp is very efficient. 

The Road Stages

Again, the organisation is smooth and the atmosphere at the start/finish is great! During the races, one of the biggest factors is being able to deal with the heat and subsequent dehydration, as the pelotons drive over the succession of rollers. For most age groups its a case of the peloton getting whittled down, riders slowly dropping off the rear, rather than a deliberate breakaway, but these can happen! An issue with the format of age group pelotons separated by mere minutes, and this is the same for other Gran Fondo World Series, is that small breakaways can bridge up to the age group ahead and then sit in. The "Century" route used on for the Sunday is shorter and includes a few more significant climbs that the "Classic" route, as well as some narrow twisty sections, making breakaways more likely. On the whole, the water stations work pretty well but be warned, the decision to take water towards the end of a stage can also be the decision that gets you dropped (unless these are converted into neutral zones as suggested by MetaSport). 

My verdict

I've done a fair few Tour De Bintan races since my first in 2012, so I obviously like the race format and location. MetaSport have worked hard to bring improvements to the race and I have ridden various versions including the one with two stages on the Sunday, the one with the crit, and the latest 3 different versions of the ITT course. Some of these versions worked better than others but of course, that is all part of refinement and also keeping it interesting.

As a rider that always wanted to ride Category 1 but never made that step up, my perspective might be different to other riders, but I LOVE the new UCI format of the race. It feels safer than the old category format and there is much more freedom to excel as an individual rider.  I could understand it if former Cat 1 riders may feel that their peloton has been invaded by less experienced riders, but I do think this is sorted out pretty early in the stages.

Many riders did not ride the final stage, as their primary goal was the UCI qualification, so perhaps the stage race element has a lost some of its importance, but it's great that MetaSport have not dropped the Sunday stage as its a good opportunity for different riders or teams to achieve their differing goals. All in all, I highly recommend the race and think its a good one to stick in the calendar.

-- Rupert Griffiths