There are some hobbies, passions and sports that we pick up over time, only to eventually lose interest. One Maltese man’s relationship with cycling, however, went from something he enjoyed doing, to something he absolutely hated, to the absolute next level with some of the world’s most gruelling races. And it all happened in just over a decade.
“After the 2006 Life Cycle, I had come back and just sold my bike,” Chris Mangion told Lovin Malta. The experience, which proved to be emotionally and physically taxing, took its toll on Mangion, who decided to get into a different sport. That’s when he got into canoe polo instead.
“I still participate in the sport lightly,” Chris said, “but since Malta only really has one canoe polo team, there isn’t a high level of competitiveness. It’s still a really enjoyable sport and a great way of staying active, though.”
When the Tal-Qroqq National Pool Complex was closed for refurbishment back in October 2016, Chris’ canoe polo group was split up with everyone doing their own thing. “I found myself in a bike shop for something totally unrelated,” Chris remembers. “Jack, the shop owner, suggested I go back to cycling. He said I should try a road bike instead of the mountain bike. I was initially scared since it looked thin and flimsy, but I decided to give it a go.”
Jack told Chris to keep the bike for a week and see how it went. Eventually, Chris ended up buying the bike. Three months later, he bought another, better bike. And a couple of months later, now on Jack’s team The Cyclist, Chris took part in his first race… placing third.
Eventually, Chris realised that cycling offered much more than just a hobby, and that’s when he started noticing the positive effects on his body. Having previously worked in journalism and suddenly training on a very regular basis, he lost over 30 kilos, going from 115 to 82kg. Changing jobs last summer, he joined TOLY Products, where he works in commercial photography and frequently cycles to work.
“I’ve always been very competitive in everything I do,” Chris told Lovin Malta, preempting the next phase of his story.
“Someone had passed a comment telling me, ‘It’s not like you were going to take part in the Paris Roubaix Challenge.” The challenge is widely regarded as the toughest cycling race in the world, and is sometimes referred to as The Hell of the North. Full of winding, World War I era cobbled streets and trenches, the race has had seasoned professionals say they prefer a whole week of the Tour De France than one day at the Paris Roubaix Challenge. “Once they said that, I knew that I had to accept the challenge,” Chris smiled.
The race was as tough as Chris had read. Scraped knee, cut face and exhausted body aside, he ended up placing an impressive 560th from over 5,000 participants. Not bad for someone who had previously sworn off of cycling and who ended up being the first and only Maltese man to ever participate in the toughest cycling challenge in the world.
“Turning 42, I realised that I needed to step my game up,” Chris told Lovin Malta. “With the class suddenly being larger and people from the higher Elites class joining my Masters class, the level of experience in the class suddenly drastically increased.”
Chris ended up joining a personal trainer, cycling every single day, going to the gym twice a week, and embarking on a very specific training regiment. “I started outperforming myself from previous races,” Chris said, recounted how at one point, he had even managed to take off an entire 10 minutes from a previous race time.
“We have a popular saying in the sport that you never miss two workouts in a row because you start eating into your reserves,” Chris told Lovin Malta. “But after a long break that I needed to take because of my work and other duties, I ended up missing over a month’s worth of workouts.”
Nevertheless, Chris will tomorrow be embarking on his next adventure, in the form of the most prestigious national race there is, the Tour ta’ Malta.
The road bike race around Malta and Gozo is actually split into four stages, each with their own levels of gruelling challenges.
First, there’s a five-lap, 12 km time trial around the Mtarfa bypass.
Then, there’s a six-lap, 52.8 km hill race on the San Martin Hill.
Next up is a 10-lap, 45.4 km super fast race around the Żebbuġ bypass.
Finally, an eight-lap, 36 km race around the St. Paul’s bypass.
And all of that will be happening with absolutely no breaks… except for a sleep and a motivational speech or two from the fellow club members, of course.
Today is the last day before Chris embarks on the four-day Tour ta’ Malta, so he’s taking his training a little bit easy. But that doesn’t mean he’s been sitting down and not doing anything.
“I’ll be cycling around the south of Malta to avoid traffic and make the most of the hills between Żejtun and Marsaskala,” Chris told Lovin Malta. He took two bikes, alternating them depending on the time and the terrain of each session. Using the rest of the day as a heat of sorts, he’ll be preparing himself mentally and physically for the next four days. “It all starts tomorrow morning with a rigorous stretching routine,” Chris said.
“My job in this year’s tour is not to challenge for a class or stage win but to protect and aid the best Maltese rider get that,” Chris told Lovin Malta. “Next year will be a different game.”
So what’s next for someone who’s already taken part in the toughest cycling race in the world?
“Well, more!” Chris said. The Maltese man, now in his 40s, already plans to take part in next year’s Tour ta’ Malta, adding even more months of training between him and his next national race. In the meantime, he’ll hope to continue challenging himself, and improving on his times.
“I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for Jack and a fellow team mate, Chris Formosa,” Mangion told Lovin Malta. “They keep pushing me on, and that’s why I’m here.”
And remember, if you’re thinking of challenging Chris to participate in another tough challenge, be careful; he might just accept it.