Thavone: BikingMan Laos’ Wildcard

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Thavone: BikingMan Laos’ Wildcard

 

A Lao village kid pedalled his way into the global ultracycling spotlight by capturing third place in BikingMan Laos in May 2019. Thavone Phonasa, the local wildcard, breezed past many of the world’s best, and he had never even heard of them.

BikingMan Thavone LaosThavone grabs third

BikingMan Founder and CEO Axel Carion called Thavone’s achievement, “A really big deal.” But for Thavone, the BikingMan race wasn’t about a win; it was about the adventure.

Thavone’s cycling journey began in 2012, when he moved to Vientiane at 19 years old to study business.

His brother, Done, already lived in the “Big City”, and owned the Si Som (Orange) cycling shop.

“My brother gave me a ‘fashion bike’. It only had one gear, but looked like a racing cycle,” Thavone said. He began touring the flatlands around the Lao capital. “I mostly did 25 to 30 kilometres on the weekends.”

Everything changed in 2015. Thavone set his sights on “real performance bikes…Like most guys at that time, I was into mountain biking.” He competed and won.

At the same time, he saddled up on his first high-performance road bike, a 22-gear Lapierre. He joined the 6:00 a.m. Cycling Team, a high-speed group of about 20 that raced 30 to 60 km. He conquered them all.

BikingMan Laos ThavoneThavone's race bike

Top Cycle, considered the premier Lao cycling team, noticed Thavone’s results. “They contacted me and asked if I’d like to join.” He signed up for 2016.

“We entered small races in Laos and Thailand,” Thavone said, noting no team member received priority. “We raced as individuals, but worked together, not just for one rider. We helped each other.” He ended the season with more points than his teammates.

Thavone’s performance raised the eyebrows of the Lao National Team, and they chose him for the 2017 squad. Now, he would compete on the global stage.

“I got to go all over Asia and gained a lot of experience,” he said. “Sometimes I went with others on the team, and sometimes I went alone.” His top finish was 32nd out of more than 100 riders in Malaysia. “I was happy with that result.”

The Asian Games in Indonesia highlighted Thavone’s 2018 season. He finished 49th in a talented field of 286 cyclers representing 25 nations. 

“I really enjoyed this race,” he said. “I got to ride alongside a professional team from the UAE along with my teammate, Thavisack “Bobby” Souvannara. We had great support from Coach Kopson and Willy, a Lao-French backer.”

As the calendar flipped to 2019, the Southeast Asia Games in late November rated high on the Lao team’s and Thavone’s schedule. And then, BikingMan Laos rolled into town.

Enter BikingMan Laos  

“I read something about BikingMan Laos on Facebook about two weeks before the race,” Thavone said. “I talked to Willy, who talked to Bobby.” A local cement business, the Saythirath Group, and Green Discovery Laos, the country’s leading adventure tour company, sponsored his first ultracycling attempt.

BikingMan Laos Thavone SunTara EscapeThavone at the SunTara Escape Sports Bar in Vientiane

“I had heard about ultracycling, but only 200 to 300 kilometre races,” Thavone said. He had never cycled the circuit, but had pedalled from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, a common mountain route for local bikers. Thavone was mostly a flatlands guy with just 14 days to prepare.

“That’s not a lot of time, so I just got ready for a long ride,” he said. “Once the race started, I discovered that ultracycling was quite a different style compared to road racing.

“When I had thought about BikingMan, I thought about touring…more like an adventure, not a race. I didn’t think about the other cyclers. I just kept going and tried to ride naturally.”

Thavone admitted he occasionally thought about winning, “But not much. For me, it was important to just have fun.” He said he was relaxed during the race, while Bobby was a bit uptight.

Thavone and Bobby had entered as individuals and not in the pair’s competition, but they arrived together at the Muang Xay bus station, where the French team of Simon Noel and Romaine Level were eating lunch.

Thavone BikingMan Laos Muang XayThavone (right) and Bobby having lunch at Muang Xay

One noted how close they were riding and wondered if that was within the rules. The other said, “Who cares?” That is how they always race, but it didn’t matter. Bobby retired shortly after due to heat exhaustion. Temperatures had soared above 40°C. Others also dropped out.

Could Thavone have finished better than third if he ran alone? “I might have done better,” he said with a shrug.

Checkpoint 1 at Pakbeng presented a minor obstacle. He slept a few hours, and then went to leave early in the morning, but said the gate was locked. “I had to climb over a fence with my bike.”

We Are Lao met him again at the Hongsa Market and the start of “The Jungle” stretch. He was wandering around the stalls and talking to shopkeepers, one of whom was his aunt.

BikingMan Laos ThavoneThavone at Hongsa Market: "I'm feeling good."

The people at the market had seen the leaders. “They asked if I was guiding a cycling tour. They didn’t know it was a race, and thought it was strange,” Thavone explained.

After briefly chatting with his aunt, he headed into The Jungle, where his chain broke. “That was really the only problem I had.”

BikingMan Laos Thavone Welcome to the JungleWelcome to The Jungle

He said The Jungle was the toughest section, even more difficult than the Mount Kasi ascent to come. “I climbed Kasi in the early morning when it was cool outside.”

Then he got lucky. “I reached Checkpoint 2 when it started to rain hard. So I rested for three hours until the rain stopped.” He was in third place by then, a position he held to the finish.

BikingMan Laos ThavoneRunning 3rd at Checkpoint 2

So what’s next for Thavone? “In the future, I’d like to focus more on triathlons, study sports science, and become a coach. But, my short-term goal is to compete in BikingMan Taiwan in November.”

Now the search is on for sponsors to fund the BikingMan Laos wildcard for Taiwan, where he’ll face a larger field. How will he do? Only time will tell.

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