'Cycling in Vietnam made me fat'

By Jon Aspin   September 3, 2019 | 11:10 pm PT
'Cycling in Vietnam made me fat'
Javier Sardá Pérez competes for Ho Chi Minh City-based Team VUS in HTV Cup 2019. Photo courtesy of Javier Sardá Pérez.
In the lead up to this year's VTV Cup, Spanish cyclist Javier Sardá Pérez has spoken about living and racing in Vietnam.

Before one of Vietnam’s biggest bike races got underway in Hanoi on Sunday, a favorite for the overall title, Pérez of Team VUS, spoke to VnExpress International about his preparations, and how he became a member of the Vietnamese cycling peloton.

The 2019 HTV Cup winner also weighed in on the impact of a Vietnamese diet, chasing KOM’s for wealthy Hanoi businessmen and what he describes as Vietnam’s toughest climb.

Months before the start of the annual VTV Ton Hoa Sen Cup*, which began with a 30-lap criterium around the Hoan Kiem Lake, the locally contracted Pérez was preparing alone, far away from the hustle of Hanoi.

During June and July this year, when the wet season calls for a hiatus in Vietnam, Pérez took himself home to his native Cantabria, the mountainous region of northern Spain.

Cantabria is synonymous with some of the most iconic mountain-top finishes of the Vuelta a España, the three-week UCI grand tour that has been held in Spain since 1935.

"Here I have everything I need as a cyclist," the 31-year old said. "There are all kinds of terrain."


Having arrived in Vietnam at the back end of two seasons of cycling in Japan, Pérez’s first experience of the sport here was emblematic of a career choice that goes against the odds.

Invited to ride in the 2017 edition of the VTV Cup by BikeLife Dong Nai, now a rival team, he performed well, finishing second overall and winning the 126-kilometer 12th stage from Nha Trang to Da Lat. However, after departing to complete the Japanese season, much to his surprise, he never got a call back from the team.

"I still don’t know why they didn’t call me again after that," he said with a smile. "But I guess this is cycling, and there is only so much you can do."

Javier Sardá Pérez competes in Japan in 2016. Photo by Shizu Furusaka.

Javier Sardá Pérez competes in Japan in 2016. Photo by Shizu Furusaka.

In hindsight it was a situation that mirrored the frustration he had felt in Europe, where he says contacts, sponsors and politics are often as important as good legs and good results.

Despite a promising career as a young rider, when he specialized in winning some notable one-day races, like many others he found opportunities in his home country hard to come by.

To highlight the narrow margins involved in his sport, in 2015 Pérez finished just 11 seconds (and 30 places) behind the current road race world champion, Alejandro Valverde, at the Spanish national championships.

It was not enough to attract the interest of a quality team, and so Pérez began to consider his options overseas. After spending time in Argentina and then Bolivia, in 2016 he signed with a Japanese team, Victoire Hiroshima.

"It is very difficult in Europe to find a strong team without good contacts. If you do not have a lot of financial support, you cannot join. Here in Asia, if you have good results you are more valued because riders here want to learn from your experience, so they like foreigners."

Changing teams

With his time in Japan at an end, Pérez moved on quickly from the BikeLife disappointment, signing a contract for the 2018 season with a team from southern Vietnam's An Giang Province, Gao Hat Ngoc Troi AG.

Here his individual results in the most important races were not to his liking, which he says was exacerbated by feeling alone.

"When I was racing, I felt good, but when my team moved to Long Xuyen [the capital of An Giang], I felt very alone. I couldn’t speak to anyone because no one could speak English, and this was a big factor in leaving them."

Now, having signed for the Ho Chi Minh City-based VUS team in September last year, Pérez "feels good" and wants to stay. This has been cemented by his success in the country’s most prestigious event, the Ho Chi Minh City Television Cup, which he won in April.

"This is the most important race to all of the Vietnamese teams.

"It has the longest history and the highest prestige."

Javier Sardá Pérez in the leaders jersey at the 2019 HTV Cup. Photo courtesy of Javier Sardá Pérez.

Javier Sardá Pérez in the leader's jersey at the 2019 HTV Cup. Photo courtesy of Javier Sardá Pérez.

The HTV Cup is a multi-stage race that has been run in Vietnam in one form or another since 1989, and generally covers the length and breadth of the country. In 2018 it included a soul-destroying 30 stages, but sanity prevailed this year when it went back to 16.

"I was working to win that race for a long time, and I’m really happy to have won it.

"It was great to work together with my team because they took care of me during every stage. I had some difficult days in Hue, for example, when I woke up sick and had to suffer a lot."

Getting fat

The HTV Cup hasn’t been the Spaniard’s only significant win. At the end of last year, not long after joining VUS, Pérez took out the 12-stage Tour of Indochina, which rode into Cambodia and Laos for the first time. It was not a bad result considering his early struggles with weight, an essential metric in any cyclist’s life.

"I struggled with my diet when I first arrived in Vietnam.

"Something about all the rice and some fried food made me put on three kilograms, which is a lot for me. So yes, cycling in Vietnam made me fat.

"I went from 62 kilograms when I arrived to 65 kilograms a few months later. When I went back to Spain, I began a diet, and now I’m about 61.5 kilograms, which means when I go to the climbs, I feel good."

Fat-shaming aside, it’s all part of the process of adaption, he says, which includes dealing with the weather in Vietnam and taking advantage of unusual opportunities whenever they present themselves.

Earlier this year, before he returned to Spain for the summer, Pérez could not say no to the chance of making a few dollars by climbing a notable hill outside of Hanoi in Ba Vi National Park. An unnamed businessman offered him VND10 million ($430) to break the record time for climbing it, and he duly did so.

"A rich man from Hanoi challenged me to get the best time up Ba Vi," he laughs.

"[He] offered me 10 million dong if I could do it. So now I have the KOM (King of the Mountain) for Ba Vi on Strava!"

The ‘toughest climb in Vietnam’

Javier Sardá Pérez recces the course of the 2019 Coupe de Hue. Photo courtesy of Javier Sardá Pérez.

Javier Sardá Pérez recces the course of the 2019 Coupe de Hue Gran Fondo. Photo courtesy of Coupe de Hue Gran Fondo.

On the topic of opportunities, Pérez will get another in Hue later this month.

On September 22 he will likely start favorite again in the second edition of the Coupe de Hue Gran Fondo. It is a 150-kilometer amateur race that starts and finishes outside the Hue Citadel and includes just over 1,800 meters of climbing.

Already officially recognized by the UCI and open to anyone with a decent road bike, the weekend will offer a chance for riders like Pérez to swap stories with the 2009 world champion, Cadel Evans, who will be there as a guest of the event’s main sponsor.

It won’t just a be fun run for those going for the win though: On day one a 15-kilometer uphill time trial awaits, ascending what Pérez describes as "the hardest climb in Vietnam," Bach Ma Mountain.

"But how hard depends on the rider," he said.

Usually closed to the general public, the People’s Committee of Thua Thien-Hue Province has granted the race organizers access to the national park for the day.

With an average gradient of 8.3 percent, peaking at 15 percent in some sections, the climb is a steep 1,200 meters of elevation over just 15 kilometers. For those looking to go fast, the Spanish pro recommends the right combination of gears.

He recced the course in May. "It is a very difficult climb, but when you reach the top, there are some very beautiful views of Hue and Da Nang.

"If the mind is good and the body is strong, everyone can do it."

Broadly speaking, that is exactly the kind of philosophy that Pérez has applied to his gallivanting cycling career. Having been inspired as an eight-year-old by his grandfather, who was also a cyclist in Spain, almost 25 years later Pérez sees no reason to give up.

"Cycling is freedom to me," he says before heading back out on his training ride in the highlands of Cantabria.

"When I reach a point where I can’t get out of bed to work anymore or if I start to not enjoy it, I will stop. Valverde is the world champion, and he is 39, so I think I can still ride for a long time."

*The 2019 VTV Cup covers 1,045 kilometers over eight stages and is contested by 82 riders from six local teams and six others from Thailand, Korea, the Philippines, Australia, the Netherlands and France.

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