We were ushered into an incredibly rough paddock to park, and after unloading the bikes Megan and I went for a spin on the road to get the legs warm. We didn't ride for long at all, which I suppose was fitting leading into an 800-odd-km event. On the way back to the event base, I couldn't resist stopping to take a photo of an ostrich tending an egg, ironically a photo I could probably take at home in Wellington at the bottom end of Barking Emu!
We were due at the start ramp no less than 20 minutes before our allotted time, and as we joined the back of the queue, I continued to be impressed at the scale of this event. The start area was abuzz with people - it was large, and sported various trade-tents, a huge marquee (the somewhat corny "chill zone"), various enclosures for bikes and rider bags, and of course the start ramp itself.
All the riders wore numbers on their backs, featuring their race number, nationality and first name. The teams were starting in numerical order, and so we were able to count our way down to the moment when we'd be checked off and enter the single-file queue up to the start. When there were only two teams ahead of us, we carried our bikes up a short flight of stairs onto the deck of a truck, and within a minute we were standing side by side looking down the course.
|A twenty-second wait to bring a ten-month wait to an end|
We were both nervous, but I think we were both glad that this moment was finally here.
And, about 22 seconds after taking our spot, we were off!
|Mitre 10 MEGA/Yeti NZ are go!|
We headed under the massive arch with crowds on each side, then made a left turn, and instantly lined up not only our "minute men" but the ones before them. We'd started by no means quickly, but it was clear that some were going to take this short prologue bloody easy!
I'd decided that it was probably safest to simply follow Megan for this entire stage. She'd been doing plenty of races of this sort of distance, so I figured she'd probably pace herself pretty well. The course was very exposed, and the air was hot already, despite it being quite early in the morning. I had my nose in front for a little bit after Megan stopped to walk a little rocky section, but for the most part just followed.
It was a bit of a buzz passing through a spectator point on the far side of the course, whereupon we were announced to the crowd "and here's the Mitre 10 Mega Yeti riders Megan and John from New Zealand"! We (and everyone else) were getting great support!
We would occasionally get stuck behind slower riders, but generally people yielded when we called through. The latter climbs were through a vineyard, and wide enough for us to ride side-by-side. Megan seemed to be suffering, and I was feeling great, so suggested she hang onto my jersey pocket, and we were able to accelerate up the hills. At one point, I rode a steep pinch and then ran back for Megan - by this stage she was off the bike, but I ran it up the hill for her and was stoked to see a spectator had picked my bike up and had it waiting for me to remount! The description of the race being "MTB's Tour de France" seemed remarkably apt with all the supporters and the way they were involving themselves in the race. It was quite a blast.
We peeled off a whole lot of height, and then had a fast bit of road with plenty of width. Megan grabbed my jersey, and I fired my legs properly for a minute or so as we blasted along - it was totally exhilarating, and we made good progress to boot. Soon though, we were into our final climb, and it was all on Megan. I dangled out front, hoping that I was acting as a decent carrot, and ran alongside Megan pushing her gently as she pedaled up a steep pitch before the hilltop finish.
|Over the line side by side|
We had a brief pause at the top, but we weren't quite done yet. We had a time limit to get off the "mountain" so didn't muck around on the nifty descent. Ironically, I almost spilled the bike for the first time on a loose corner that I didn't give quite enough attention to. It was a nice reminder to concentrate!
At the end of the marked route down we were funneled into a tent, where our bikes were taken off us, and we were handed a paper bag with a bit of food and drink in it, as well as a map of our first proper event village at Robertson.
I'd been very pleased with my riding, and had felt totally at ease, which was promising. I think our team work had been good too, and I'd been able to help Megan to a faster finish than if she'd been alone. Neither of us had crashed, and the bikes had run flawlessly.
By the time we'd finished it was very hot, but we had some work to do yet. Luckily Gav was able to deliver our rider bags a bit closer to their final destination than where we'd parked was. The bags were heavy, containing all our riding and overnight gear, plus a bunch of other supplies. I also had a bag of stuff to check in to the mechanics whose service we'd both subscribed to, and a change of clothes in my camelbak. We also had to move our bikes from the washing area to the transport truck for the voyage to Robertson.
Teams had stopped starting by now, and the seeded riders were out on course. Before making our final push with the gear bags to the coach, we dropped into the chill zone to watch the stage finish - on live television! (Nationwide, not just in the event-village!)
We grabbed the front seats of the first coach to depart, and consequently enjoyed the drive to Robertson. It was close to a couple of hours, and included an impressive tunnel through the mountains. Our bags were on the same coach as us, so when we disembarked it was a simple matter of helping unload until ours popped up, and then boosting to the tents! We had literally hundreds to choose from, and opted for ones far away from the dining marquee and reasonably close to a row of porta-loos. The tent village was an amazing sight in itself, even without the majestic backdrop.
As instructed, we hung our individually numbered "tent keys" on the ones we'd chosen, and then set to unpacking. We had foam mattresses already in the tent, which we liberated from their plastic bags. The tent was a bit of a squeeze, but I managed to position my mattress, bag, and next day's riding gear in a way that seemed like a sensible use of my sleeping space for the next three nights!
There was time to explore, but also plenty of jobs to get on with. There was a big mobile shower unit to take advantage of...
... and bottles to check in to the optional race nutrition service we'd both subscribed to.
The sun was out in force, and it was worth keeping out of it as much as possible, which was wholly consistent with resting one's legs.
At 6pm, I had my first massage of the event. Another optional-extra, the team of student massage therapists from Stellenbosch University were well worth taking advantage of. I had a 6pm appointment each night which coincided with the opening of the dinner buffet. I was nervous about this, but had little choice, and besides, when I got to the dining hall, I discovered there was plenty of food and I had plenty of time to have my fill before they stopped serving.
The marquee was huge, as you'd expect for a space which needed to accommodate 1200 riders, a few team support staff, as well as 100 or so catering staff. There were about a dozen stations around the perimeter of the tent, half of them serving dinner, and the other half dessert and hot drinks. The food was hot and hearty, with plenty of bread and pasta or rice, along with meat dishes, and a big platter of salad. After initially thinking I'd avoid the salad, I helped myself to plenty, figuring the odd vitamin might not do me any harm, and enjoying the salty feta cheese! Besides, it gave me something to nibble on while I inched closer to the mains!
By virtue of my massage time, I'd arrived at the tail-end of a local band's performance, and was straight into the podiums for the Prologue: Men, Women, Masters and Mixed. After the top-3 were presented, the race leaders' jerseys were presented. One pair for the team leading each category, as well as the highest-placing all-South African-team, and the leading Exxaro development team.
After the jerseys were presented, the race director was introduced, and she ran through a video fly-over of the route for Stage 1. Megan was off at her massage by this time, so I tried to pay attention so I could report back. Of course it went in one ear and out the other, and all I could tell her when I saw her next was that there would be plenty of hills - about the last thing she wanted to hear, I suspect! The Petit Brevet had thrown this up as a real weakness for her, and consequently us, and the short prologue had again reminded us that hills would be a real challenge.
I'd headed in to the marquee in daylight, so was a little surprised (and underprepared) to find it dark when I next stepped outside. I managed to find my tent in amongst all those identical tents, largely by virtue of the blue shower loofah (yep, a real word...) I'd hung on it to dry. Despite a short day on the bike, we'd been up early, and even before 9pm, sleep came easily.
I'd set my alarm for 5:30am, and while I'd expected to be woken earlier, I had not predicted how. At 5am on the dot, pretty much everyone was snapped into consciousness by none other than a sole bag-piper. What an amazing surprise, especially in Africa, and what a pleasant way to be woken at such an uncivilised hour.
I'd slept with both my tent fly and inner open, but by virtue of keeping my eyes closed and the darkness outside, I managed to doze through the next 30 minutes. No sooner had I got up, but I got straight into the worst part of every day - queuing for the first ablution. I really began to appreciate pretty much never having to wait for the toilet at home, and I don't think I was the only one. We got there in the end, thanks to the attendants and their regularly chiming "NEXT PLEEEEASE".
After that, it was off to the mess tent again. I'd thought to pack the sunscreen, and put that on while demolishing a bowl of porridge and a plate of scrambled eggs. I thought I'd try some toast, but it had been toasted so long prior to me collecting it, I figured I'd use more energy chewing it than it would provide. It was also clear the local guys serving the porridge didn't often eat it (at least not the way I do) and I had to double-back on the queue to collect some sugar and milk.
In lieu of some proper coffee, I had a strong cup of instant, and then it was time to head back to the tent to suit up.
Despite the morning being warm the day before, I hadn't sweated much and my jersey was in good shape, so I decided to rock that one again. I swapped out my Roadworks bibs for a Yeti pair - part of my butt-care strategy was to rock four different chamois over the event, and not the same one on consecutive days. I also had a second (and different) saddle to use if I ended up with problems. I applied liberal quantities of Sweet Cheeks Butt Butter to the shorts before pulling them on, then getting outside to continue dressing in a slightly larger space! Megan was busy applying chamois cream out in gen-pop, and while it was good to know she was using it, I could have been spared the application technique!
We'd been seeded in Bunch D, and upon collecting our bikes, we checked into pen D together. A and B were lining up on the start line. They would start at 7am, and then C would be released from their pen to the start line, followed by D. That combined group would be off at 7:10am, followed by E/F at 7:20 and G/H at 7:30.
As the pen filled up, it was cool to see we were alongside the South African Yeti Importer's team.
|Morningside Cycles team, Kirk and Brett, looking pensive|
I enjoyed the calm before the storm, while Megan looked nervous!
|Oh dear, what have I got myself into...?!|
There were helicopters hovering above us, and an announcer going all-out on the PA, together with corny tunes, most of which I didn't recognize (thankfully, or I suspect they'd now be etched in my mind). Bon Jovi's Living on a Prayer was one of the "hits" used to keep us entertained, and perhaps motivated. It sure as hell was motivating to get away from there, and quickly!
The start was fantastic, and it was very cool to be finally rolling on Stage 1 - the Prologue really had been the poor cousin of the remaining races in the event, not only in the numbering, (it was not a "stage") but also in its duration. We had a bit of tarseal to start, and then were soon on "district road" - basically tar seal, but not - very smooth, very wide, and very fast dirt.
Megan looked to be fairly comfortable in amongst it, and despite being so small, I didn't see anyone obviously not notice her presence in amongst our peloton of 300 riders (150 teams seeded into bunches C and D). A couple of times the road tipped up briefly, and each time I managed to tow Megan back onto the bunch with her hanging onto my camelbak waist-strap.
Any concern I'd had about the first major climb soon evaporated when I saw the state of it, and the endless stream of pedestrians pushing their bikes up it.
|Stage 1, Climb 1|
I realised the folly of the huge amount of food I'd organised for the event when we reached the first aid station at the bottom of a long descent. There was food... for Africa. Bananas, apples, muffins, marmite sandwiches (or vegemite, I never had one so I don't know which), lollies, salted boiled potatoes, and more. I stuffed about two muffins into my mouth, half by half, refilled my camelbak bladder with water and got ready to leave. This consisted of another muffin, and stopping for the "CHAIN LUBE, CHAIN LUBE" guy to apply liberal quantities of oil to my chain.
And then we were into the next climb. Megan really struggled, and I could tell that any physical problems she was having were minor compared to the psychological blow this took on her. Le Petit Brevet had been a self-proclaimed wake up call, and she was now faced with the reality that whatever changes she'd made to her training had not had the desired effect. I was of little help to her. While physically I could pull or push her up a small fraction of the climbs, I didn't feel like I knew her well enough to help her emotionally, and felt woefully inadequate. I tried various strategies of encouraging, instructing, and begging, but I could tell nothing I was saying was really helping us go faster.
The third major climb was up to "Tortoise Peak" and we'd been told at briefing that it was named after its residents, who we could expect to see on the ride. In the end, we didn't see a real tortoise, but we saw hundreds of riders impersonating one, ourselves included. It was super-hot by this stage, and I'd put on my sunsleeves in lieu of adding extra sunscreen to my sweaty arms. They were wet when I put them on, but didn't take long to dry out and get covered in dust.
Our bikes were lapping up the conditions, and far from my thorn-fears being realised, we were trouble-free after a bunch of pretty gnarly riding.
As we neared the end of the stage, the course opened up a bit, and we had an opportunity to pool resources for a bit. For a while Megan drafted me, but I had real trouble getting the pacing right. She was pooped, and with that and the wind rushing in my ears I was finding it impossible to hear her telling me to slow down.
While I had been frustrated at how difficult getting our pacing right had been for the first 100-odd-km, I was back in familiar territory in the run to the finish. Initially district roads, and then a bit of seal, there was a great opportunity for Megan to hang on to my back pack, and this she did most excellently. I fired up the diesel engine, and rode as hard as I could. It was exhilarating stuff, and particularly fun to blast past another Mixed team. We'd taken full advantage of the closed roads, and gone past hard on the other side allowing them little opportunity to swing into our ample slipstream. Despite making it hard for them, I was nonetheless surprised they didn't try.
Megan lead us into the finish, and looked for my hand as we neared the line.
As we would do in that stage and every subsequent one, we crossed the line together. We'd finished in just under 7-hours, improving one place on our Prologue finish for 12th Mixed Team. Our bikes were collected, and we were handed our post-raced chilled drink bottle. Then, we collapsed into the Woolworths tent with ice-cold wet flannels draped on our necks and a bag of food each.
We looked quite a sight - Megan, totally broken, both physically and mentally - and me not too dissimilar. I'd felt so damn strong, but also so powerless to help my poor team-mate. Perversely, I felt like I'd been her torturer rather than supporter, and I was nervous about doing it all again the next day.
We slotted into our post-race routine, but not before hearing reports of 44 degrees out on course! The next hours included showering and eating, and Megan got stuck into a blog of the day's events. I read it in private, and found it hard to read, despite knowing most of it already.
I struck the massage jackpot at 6, when I felt not one, but two pairs of hands on my legs. I walked out of the half-hour session feeling like I'd just had an hour-long massage, during which a new set of legs had been installed! Awesome!
Dinner was another jolly affair, and the moment the Stage 2 briefing had finished I was off in search of bed.
The start was identical to Stage 1's, though this time we'd moved up to Group C. In any case, we were off at 7:10am.
Despite being asked to ride through the early river crossing, and being about the only one in our vicinity not to do so, I managed to not make an ass of myself by falling in the water and getting "trampled" by hundreds! And, I basked in the glory of my still well-lubricated chain all the way to the first aid station.
This stage had the least metres climbed per kilometre ridden, so I was thrilled (as was Megan) when her legs seemed good. I decided to go with full on positive-reinforcement, and heaped praise on her, in the hope that this would fire her up.
|Go, you good thing!|
I hadn't left her any gap, and so she swung into me figuring the only alternative was rear ending the guy whose wheel I was carefully depositing her onto! We went down in a screaming heap, and for a while it looked like I was going to land on Megan to further add to her discomfort. I was glad to avoid that, but even gladder that all diagnostic checks, bikes and bodies, came back positive. It took Megan a while to get ready to go again, but eventually she did, and we were able to slot back into bunch -2. I laughed quietly to myself that it would have been a lot better to have ridden with this bunch all along, but didn't share the joke with my grazed team mate! She was in no laughing mood! But, there was fight in her, and soon enough she was back in the towing business, and hauling along with only one hand on her handlebars, once again putting an immense amount of faith in her partner and in her own skills.
She was also giving it her all whether I could help or not. The opportunity we had on this stage was not lost on her, and I think she hoped to make amends for the performance she herself had been so critical of the night before.
|No time to admire the view...|
Despite the crash, the stage suited us well. As we worked our way up the field, we were really able to ride to our strengths. The bunches we were bridging to were getting faster and faster, and so it made increasing sense to sit in. Megan would hide in the back, and I'd go to the front and push the pace, much to the delight of the dudes we'd slotted in with. The only major hill of the day was again an opportunity for progress, and we were able to ride away from our bunch with a bit of cross-subsidy on the power-front.
I was really enjoying myself, and I could tell Megan was having a much better time too. She did really started to wane though at the end, so the 5km sealed run to the finish came as a relief to us both. Today had felt much more like a race to me than the other two stages had, and I was pleased to keep my camera in my pocket.
Our finish line photo again captured the different experiences we were both having. I again wished I could have done more to help my team-mate, and she was simply broken from giving her all.
|A team of two halves|
In the end my garked knees, hip and elbow didn't need bandages, and I was prescribed only an underpants-free afternoon for my troubles. This necessitated a bit more walking than usual as I'd forgotten to pack some by the time I'd headed off for a massage.
The next day we were moving from Robertson to Caledon, so the morning was a bit more torrid than usual since we had to deliver our gear bags to the trucks ourselves (not before making sure we'd used everything we needed from them before handing them in). Unlike our shift to Robertson from Meerendal, only our bags would be transported, and we'd be making the journey ourselves via some of the area's finest district roads and jeep tracks, and even a bit of singletrack. To compound the extra job we had, we'd all be starting at 7am, so had slightly less time to play with between the bagpipes striking up at 5, and gun going off at 7.
I was in an incredibly foul mood, but the reason wasn't totally clear to me until after I'd re-read Megan's Stage 2 account later that evening. The upshot was I was astonished that I'd barely recognised the stage as I'd experienced it, and rather than raising it, I'd stewed on it.
I had managed a brief smile on the start line, finding myself behind a black African pairing, named Musawenkosi, which seemed totally appropriate, and Bruce, which did not!
The first 40km of Stage 3 was bunch riding, though not without its challenges. Megan had had to work so hard in the previous days that recovery was not happening as well as it might, and she was struggling to hold the pace of the bunches we found ourselves in off the line. My legs were good though, and I was as wide as ever so managed to draft or tow her back into shelter when necessary. She was really showing her competitive spirit in her blog, so I assumed she wanted us to try to collectively go as fast as we could, and these bunches were gold as far as I was concerned.
We passed a guy nursing what looked to be a broken collarbone just before turning off the district road and into our first climb. It turned out he'd done every inch of the Cape Epic up until that point - 8 completions in all 8 prior events - only to crash out on an innocuous bit of road.
The climb itself was a lovely stroll in the countryside, which afforded some great photo ops, with riders as far as the eye could see, and my short-legged team mate again cursing her genes!
The much-needed icebreaker came on the fast descent off the first hill - I was on point, but went into a shallow right-hander a bit hot. I didn't much rate my chances of cornering in the gravel at a little low point, so blasted straight through it, and out the other side found myself riding up the road cutting, and slowly but surely regaining road-level as my bike bucked beneath me.
It was quite a relief to get out the far-end of my impromptu wall-ride in one piece, and better still to learn that Megan, who'd followed my line, and the dude behind her who'd emulated us both, had also made it through. My apology and expression of relief was the first friendly words I'd uttered that morning, and it helped me get back to business.
We had a small climb to negotiate, which featured some of the worst riding conditions of the whole event - a recently ploughed field had a track across it, but the surface was far from smooth, and it was tough going. We were in the process of ditching a mixed team we'd passed on the district road below, but while riding fast over the lumps was better than riding slow, riding fast was difficult!
Not helping my mood much was the fact that I'd lost one of my sunglass lenses in the first 5km. I was nervous about developing a headache in the bright sun, but luckily it didn't eventuate.
We had a nice splash through a ford at one point, before hitting up a long climb through some spectacular country.
|Looking back over the top of a 500-m clinb|
I was enjoying the aid-stations, and the opportunity they brought to eat some nice food. Fruit and muffins were great, and I was really enjoying the salted boiled spuds too. At one point soon after we were riding alongside an orchard, and there were a bunch of kids offering me apples. Cute, but naughty, since the apples almost certainly weren't theirs to offer. It turned out a little less cute too - apparently the apples were to swap for our energy bars! Ha!
While the stage was long - not quite the 147km they'd published, but a tad shorter at 143km, and no longer the longest stage in history - it seemed to pass relatively quickly. The long climb had been a particularly good towing opportunity, and it seemed to allow Megan to raise her game a bit on subsequent sections, which was great. There was some fantastic fast riding to be had, though, as warned, the stage had a bit of a sting in its tail, with some slow-going to finish.
Again, I had my emotion written all over my face at the finish, and again, Megan looked totally wasted. As she wrote that night, we'd buttoned off a bit, and so I finished feeling like we'd underperformed.
Our new campsite was a nightmare to navigate that first evening - while Robertson had had a relatively square layout, Caledon was one looooong, narrow rectangle, and I found myself walking from the finish at one end to collect my gear bag at the other, only to return to the other end to take my bike to the mechanics and back to the far end for the extra food, and so on and so forth. I probably walked close to 5km that evening, and I was well over it! On the other hand, it was probably great for my legs after a long (8 hour 16 minute) day in the saddle.
I had to do something about my mood, and explaining it was the first step. I checked Megan's blog again, and confirmed my poor impression of it, and raised it with her when I next saw her. She was really upset by my admission, for which I felt bad, but I asked her to read it herself with the "benefit" of my own impression of our efforts. I was no stranger to flogging myself, and was totally happy to do it for this team. Consistent with my comments in our NZ Herald interview, I viewed myself as a support rider for Megan, and would happily do anything in my power to help her. This included towing, which seemed to be going well, and motivating, which wasn't going so well.
Our lack of experience riding together in simpler times was really showing through in this heated environment. It didn't help that Megan was so rooted and was suffering so much, while I had energy to burn, and simply didn't know how to use it. The stresses of the riding day meant we needed time apart in the evenings, and we were probably successfully avoiding the very team-meetings which might have been used to rectify our problems. Would've, should've, could've and all that.
Anyway, I'd cleared the air, to my relief and Megan's dismay, and I was pleased to see a familiar face flagging me down at dinner time. We ate together, and I wished her a mighty massage as she headed off to get her legs worked on. We were half way through in theory, but I don't think either of us would have agreed it would be all down hill from here.
The bagpiper had made the trip from Robertson, so as usual, we woke to the sweet sound of bagpipes. Breakfast was an unhappy affair for both Megan and I - our guts were in some distress, and neither of us could manage even half of our regular meal.
It was business as usual in all other aspects of the morning though, and we started at 7:10 in bunch C again. We blasted quickly through Caledon, its streets lined with supporters - impressive for the time of day and the size of the town! Soon enough we were walking up our first climb - a nice sedate way to start the day despite our feelings of unwell. Megan had shown no untoward signs in her start, so I assumed it was business as usual on the riding front.
By chance, Megan and I had ended up neighbours of a delightful father-son pairing: Chris and Nick, not only in Robertson but also in Caledon. We hadn't seen them on course though, so it was great to do some riding together in Stage 4. We chatted a litte on the first climb, and again through the rest of the stage.
We were both able to eat at Aid Station 1, which was a relief. I smashed back almost an entire apple, and carried some stuff away, feeling no further ill-effects of my bad morning. We hit some congested singletrack before passing a bunch of spectators spraying us with a hose and then getting our teeth into one of the most exposed climbs of the event. At the start of it, we passed a bike sculpture, and a few cow sculptures, which seemed totally out of place (though I suppose the bike didn't only because of the race we were doing!).
The hillside had recently burnt, and the riding line was through ashes which didn't seem to offer great traction. The sun was beating down, and the wind was blowing, so the conditions were challenging, and the area, while dramatic, was not exactly easy on the eye!
|Mid-way through the second climb|
Eventually though, we'd plummet back down to the valley floor, our arduous traverse making us very little progress in all. We could see the winds were picking up, and my bat-sense told me we'd be heading into it to get home.
After a few nasty bumps, we found ourselves riding alongside a railway line, which at least meant the climbing we'd do would be gradual. The head wind more than made up for it though, and it made towing out of the question. Megan and I again struggled to communicate clearly with one another, and time and again I'd look back to see her burying herself 20m back trying to not get dropped any more than she already was.
I don't suppose I handled it that well, because we didn't sort it, and suffered time and again through instances where we were both working harder than necessary for absolutely no gain. We were very close to town but the organisers managed to make a couple of kilometres add up to 10km, by way of some singletrack out behind the town. It was fun enough, but at the end of a long, frustrating day, I suspect there weren't many in the field who enjoyed it. That said, maybe I actually did - my expression would suggest so...
|Heading for home!|
|Another stage down...|
Despite being nearly 40km shorter than the previous day's stage, we'd only ridden half an hour quicker than the day before - our 7h50 netting us 13th place on this stage. With that much riding, the afternoon was short and passed quickly, our routines well and truly established.
My tent hadn't coped well in the wind, and a snapped pole which was threatening to puncture the fly meant I needed to move. Luckily there was a spare tent only one away (as the pawn captures). Shifting my gear was a pain in the arse, but essential. As the afternoon progressed, there were growing murmurings about rain, and by the time it hit at 5:47pm, I'd heard many predictions of 6pm. In the quest to keep my gear bag to a manageable weight, I hadn't brought my jacket, so made do with my towel over my head and managed to keep from getting too wet.
On the up-side, we were both able to eat normally, so hopefully we'd be back to "full form" for the next stage - another transfer, this time from Caledon to Oak Valley.
The next morning it was still raining, and I coveted the ex-mattress-containing plastic bags that a few folk were wearing to breakfast. The morning wasn't particularly cold, but I packed my woolen singlet - really my only option for cold-weather riding - and wore my sleeveless vest off the line. I was also glad I'd be riding with a camelbak on, which should keep a bit of the weather off me.
The start was gross, and as we got stuck into the stage, we knew we'd be in for a long day. About 20km in, we passed a farm house and a woman with a hose and I stopped and called Megan back - it turned out her husband was in the race, and she was happy for us to wash our bikes a bit. The two guys in front of us gave their whole steeds a once over, but Megan and I were satisfied with just the front and rear brake calipers, and the drive train.
Despite the scungy conditions, we had no issues with chain suck before the aid station at 44km, nor before we reached the second one at 77km. We'd seen the sun for a little while by that stage, and it had afforded us nice views over the ocean which we'd previously had no idea we were so close to!
The views fresh in our mind were little consolation for the terrible conditions we were now facing. Megan had opted to run a thermal top under her jersey, and hadn't had me carry her jacket in the camelbak (and nor had I thought to suggest it). So, she was wet through, and cold. I was wet through and cold too, but at least the vest and pack were keeping the wind off my chest and back. Megan's bike needed new pads, so it was a slow stop, but at least we had shelter from the deluge.
I watched a mixed couple from the Czech Republic make the decision to get moving again. She looked desperate and was in tears, but got on her bike and rode off. I put my woolen singlet on while I waited, to add to the sun sleeves I'd already donned.
We were both feeling pretty miserable, and I asked Megan what she wanted to do, half expecting her to say she wanted to stop. As her brakes were changed, we embraced, and at least trapped a little warmth between us that would otherwise have been lost. I still had no idea which way it was going to swing, and to be honest, I would have been happy with any decision on Megan's part at that moment. I just wanted to get going again, in the hope I might generate some heat!
Eventually Megan's bike was done, and the transformation across her face at that moment reminded me of one of those mimes entertaining children: they'd start with a sad face, and pass their hand across their face, to reveal a happy face out the other side. Such was the dramatic transformation of Megan's face. From scared and miserable, to strong and purposeful (with just a pinch of misery). Luckily, the downpour had eased so we didn't instantly regret being back out in it.
To an extent we were saved by the 13km climb we were now undertaking. We'd ascend only 350m, and gradually, but it was enough to warm Megan up. At the pace we were going, I was generating no heat, but at least I was not getting colder. My hands and feet were numb, but remarkably even my fingers were functioning well enough to change gears and brake when needed. As with earlier in the day, I was climbing everything standing in a tougher gear than I'd normally push in the vain hope of working hard enough to warm up. Far from the 44-degree heat we'd ridden in on day 2, the same devices would report a mere 6-degrees out on course for this ride.
The conditions were so dire, I suspect everyone was hoping for a shortened course. But, there was nothing of the sort. Luckily the next long descent was slow and on rooty singletrack, so the windchill was low and the effort required was high. I continued to be bemused by my fully-functional digits despite having no sensation in them. By the time we reached the third and final aid station, the sun had come out a bit, and we'd started to thaw out. The chain lube and our drive trains were performing beyond all expectation, and despite a huge amount of mud everywhere, we had no bike issues aside from Megan's worn pads. Unbelievable.
We had a good finish, with Megan showing the true grit that has surely paid a major part in her World 24-hour Solo racing. In hindsight this stage might have been our best one (apart from not carrying enough gear, particularly Megan's jacket). We'd made good use of my legs early in the stage and done some effective towing. And, we hadn't pulled the pin at Aid Station 2. And we'd ridden well beyond that in shitty conditions to finish in 10th in our grade.
We could have been a millionth, and I wouldn't have cared. With some degree of sincerity, I said to Megan over dinner, "I'm glad we didn't die out there today." And, I wasn't entirely joking. I think a puncture or broken chain near the top of that 13km climb would have had us in big trouble. My only real criticism of the organisers would be regarding that day - I reckon that if they'd organised hot soup or a hot drink at Aid Station 2, the risk of losing someone to hypothermia or worse would have been greatly diminished.
Our bikes were in a shocking state - dispatches over dinner included a snippet from the cleaning guys: one bike per minute in the previous stages had dropped away to one bike per 4-minutes at the end of this day. It was no surprise to hear that.
Our brand new camp was also a quagmire. The neatly manicured lawns had not coped well with 60mm of rain, and then repeated and concentrated trampling.
The tent I chose had a fair bit of water sitting in it, but I had plenty of wet gear with which to sponge it out. The mattress was all safely bagged up (inside my new full-body parka, should it start raining again). I dumped my camelbak and helmet, and then, learning from my Caledon experience, formed a plan of attack. Luckily the sun was out in force by now, and luckier still it was my laundry day!
I made my way to where our rider-bags were, which was just a hop, step and a jump away from the showers and laundry (literally a small truck with half a dozen washing machines in the back of it). After washing myself and then rinsing my gear I left my laundry bag full of the previous days' shorts and the day's entire ensemble, before slithering my way back to the tent.
Somehow my legs did not feel like they'd just been pedalling a bike for 8 hours, but my appetite sure was elevated. I bought a burger that Megan had recommended and it slipped down very nicely indeed! By the time I made my way from the massage tent to the dining hall, people were dropping barrow-loads of bark mulch to dry to get some dry and mud-free routes through the camp. It looked like an uphill battle, but at least they were trying.
The evenings were also a welcome opportunity to catch up with events from home. I tend to feel a bit out of sorts when away from Wellington, and getting online was a great way to offset some of the stresses of the event. The network tended to be patchy, so I kept my own writing to a minimum - I did a bit of lurking on vorb and facebook, and sent a few emails to my nearest and dearest. Tears would well up when I read their inevitably beautiful and settling responses. I did manage to post a few photos to our joint facebook page to complement Megan's thorough daily blog posts, and it was inspiring to realise we had so much support.
That night, despite the conditions outside and a bit of dampness in my pillow and sleeping bag, I slept soundly, and was pleased to suit up the next morning for our penultimate stage. We were done with 100km+ rides, and we were told in the briefing the night before that not only would a bunch of totally trashed singletrack be cut out of the first 20km, but that we'd have a delayed bunch start at 7:30. The piper got the memo, so we all enjoyed a bit of a sleep in and slightly lighter conditions to do our preparations in.
The start was great, and it was fast travel (and relatively flat) to the base of our first climb. We were a few kilometres and about 200m of climbing in credit too, which was great for motivation! The climb wasn't so flash for us though, and I struggled to find enough width to reliably tow Megan. It was no surprise to me that she was struggling so much after that very cold ride the day before. With such a small frame being so regularly and completely tapped out, I imagined it would be very hard for her to get enough food in to recover for the next day. I had the luxury of being able to ride well within myself, and I had a huge appetite with which to resupply, and lots of places to hide the fuel I ingested.
As promised in the briefing, the views today were off the hook, and I took full advantage of my legs to stop for regular photos.
Our towing-crash seemed long behind us, and Megan lacked neither the confidence nor skill to keep herself safe behind me. I'd sometimes mistake her hand against my hip for her handlebar, and half expected to be dragged off my bike as she fell, but I was always wrong about what I was feeling, and we always kept the bikes upright and moving along!
We were seeing a bit of Mark and Malcolm today, one of the two kiwi teams we'd been dining with, and at one point Malcolm grabbed on for a cheeky tow! After a few seconds of that, I felt quite relieved Megan wasn't as heavy (and did a lot more pedaling).
After Aid Station 2 we faced a long climb, and we cracked into it almost immediately. Not before I'd snapped Megan passing a cemetery - I'd taken it not in any poetic sense with our looming climb, but rather because it shocked me how close we passed to it without any demarcation of what ground was sacred and what not.
We were now overlooking a different valley, but the views were similarly glorious. By this stage I was getting a few comments about my regular stops followed by brief but rapid spells in the passing lane as I climbed back up to Megan, luckily all of them encouraging!
Despite Megan feeling lousy, and not being that happy with her climb, I thought it was one of her best. While she'd had some help earlier, this climb was long and narrow and it was all down to her. Her tenacity was impressive, and what she lacked in climbing speed, she more than made up for in determination, and willingness to suffer.
It was on this climb that I did have my first and only concerns about my legs. I'd kind of been waiting for things to catch up on me, so for a while I just figured they had. After about 10 minutes or so though, I looked down and noticed I was in middle chainring. Oh, how I LOLed. And then I shifted down, and then all was better!
The main summit never seemed to get closer until we were right there, I think due to the featureless nature of the hills and the associated difficulty of working out scale. We burnt off about half our elevation before a nifty sidle of almost 10km. It was trending downwards, and I think its in these slightly-gravity-assisted sections that Megan rode best in. Much steeper and she suffered from being so light, but with a slight downward gradient she was strong. I'd commented earlier in the event how I thought it was good to pass Mixed teams hard, and so it was with some pride I watched her pass not one, but two Mixed teams on this section. At least one of them I didn't recognize, so knew one of the teams above us on GC was having a bad day.
The stage ended really nicely with flowing single-track back into the vineyard. We got held up a fair bit, but there was really nothing for it than to preserve energy and sit in. I know Megan was gnashing at the bit to ride faster through here, but alas there was little we could do but sit behind slower teams. It was amazing to me that the track was so dry, but a discovery I was happy to make.
It was nice to find the campground had also had a good day, and dried out a hell of a lot in the sun. There were still some boggy bits, but moving around was a hell of a lot easier than it had been the previous night.
Megan had said to me a few times on the stage that she'd not have made it through with anyone else, and that was preying on my mind. She didn't raise it subsequently, so maybe its something she herself concluded was not the case, but in my opinion, she was wrong. There's absolutely no doubt that she'd have taken a lot longer with many other team mates, but I was so bummed I hadn't been able to provide the emotional support I felt she deserved. I felt like all I was doing was dragging her further up the field, and consequently further away from her comfort zone. I felt like I was her torturer, rather than the race, but she really seemed charged by the high placings, and I assumed she wanted to continue to flog herself.
Some relief came on the final day, when perversely I awoke with totally crook guts. The final stage was a short one, and in the context of our earlier races, looked very much like a half-stage - roughly half the distance, and half the climbing of our big days. The camp was a bit dark about the bagpiper, who unlike the previous day, had this morning NOT got the memo that we weren't starting at 7. So, his wake-up tune, and its encore, were at least an hour earlier than we needed for our 8:30am mass start.
I managed to drop my gear bag off without shitting myself, and on the way to the bike park was met by an oncoming mass of catering staff. There had been plenty of cultural treats in the event so far: the spectators, the local bands who'd played at the start of dinner, the bagpiper even, but this was the one I was glad I saw the most. The mass of bodies all moving in opposite directions, yet without falling over, and the chanting was a truly beautiful thing to behold. I stood my ground for as long as I could, before scuttling off with my trophy in hand.
Lined up on the startline we had one final treat before setting off: a rather spectacular aerobatics display which reminded us all of the scale of the event we were about to complete, as if we needed reminding.
Shortly after the plane had gone, we too had set off. The start was slow, with massive congestion on relatively narrow tracks. I did some towing early on, but sensed the fight had gone out of us both.
We'd had a premature debrief over breakfast that in hindsight would probably have been better left, perhaps entirely. The third climb of the day would have been perfect for towing, but I hadn't packed a clean pair of shorts, and Megan seemed much happier cruising, something reinforced by her account of the day. I was kind of sad that it had taken me so long to realise it, and that there'd be no opportunity to do the same thing subsequently, but I guess better late than never.
At the top of the climb we had a compulsory walk through a heritage site - described by the organisers as a "portage" which I must admit sounds cooler than walk. We walked (sedately of course) our bikes down a track which would have been neat to have a crack at on the bike - many large, smooth boulders to pick your way around and over. Megan was probably right when she said it would have been safer to ride than walk in our hard plastic-soled shoes, but I think there would have been a few offs down there for sure!
|I could have ridden all that, honest...|
Eventually we were back on our bikes and moving at a full clip again, albeit briefly. After a week of super-conservative, bordering-on-ridiculous hazard marking, the organisers neglected to point out that immediately following that cross-rut which could be so easily cleared at speed, was a huge hole which needed smaller folk particularly, to proceed through it with caution. I blundered my way out the other side, probably due to my mass and a bit of good luck, but poor Megan came a cropper, and howled blue-murder 30km from the finish of the 781km event.
I really did fear the worst, such was the bellowing, but by the time I got back to her, warning other riders to slow down as I did so, it was clear that nothing was broken, and we'd be good to go in a minute. Poor thing, she'd really hit the deck hard, but at least she was up and on her bike again.
Our pace already down a bit, we slowed further after Megan's confidence destroying crash. She soldiered on though, and we were within about 15km of the end when I heard a clunk, and my bike started to feel very odd. I stopped and checked out the rear triangle, but everything seemed in order. I remounted, but stopped again within a few seconds. Something was up! I finally diagnosed a lack of air pressure in the top half of the fork, so that the compression rebound was fully extending the fork, and it was topping out. The whole front of the bike was jacked up, and the metal-on-metal sounds emanating from the fork had me wondering if I'd make it much further. I slowed, and eventually it dawned on me that by locking the fork out, I could prevent the thing smashing itself to bits. It didn't help my arms much, or the handling of the bike, and I needed to make one more stop to let a bit of air out of the front tyre.
Megan didn't seem super-fussed about it, and I had to chase her pretty hard, almost putting the bike down in a bit of tight singletrack.
Nearing the end, there were a bunch of nasty but short granny-gear climbs. We established a pretty good system of me dismounting just ahead of Megan, then running alongside her as she passed with my hand on her lower back until the top of the climb. These short runs had me puffing and panting like an old man, but at this stage, it was the best way to get the whole affair over and done with.
Before too long, we passed the 5km and 1km to go markers. In contrast, the finish line seemed to take forever to appear, and when it did, I think our overwhelming emotion was relief.
Sadly, I didn't really feel any joy or satisfaction, but rather I was just very glad to be at the end. It was like I had finally finished a great big jigsaw puzzle that I'd been working on for almost a year and would soon have to break up and put away.
We joined a queue to pass across a stage to receive our medals from the first and second placed teams and it was nice to shake their hands and congratulate them on their success, even though (I think) the intent was for the congratulations to pass in the opposite direction.
|Well done guys.|
We had finished the 2012 Absa Cape Epic, something not everyone managed. We heard of at least one guy who broke an arm just after Megan's crash and could not complete. Our bikes were amazing, and never let us down. Through good preparation and good management, we looked after our equipment and bodies, and that took us all the way to the end.
On the other hand, I felt like I'd failed. I just don't think Megan and I ever really clicked out there as a team. I don't think I was able to find the right buttons to push, and subsequently don't feel like I helped her reveal her true strengths, nor to ride in a way that she could be proud of. When I offered her physical help, my fear was that it was striking a simultaneous and much more damaging emotional blow that the "rest" could never hope to offset. And it was not only taking its toll on poor Megan, but also on me, as I felt more and more guilty for tormenting her.
Perhaps my biggest failing was never asking for something back, at least not something Megan could offer me. I think she felt that all I wanted was for her to go faster, which wasn't the case. I did want her to order me around, take the bag when she wanted it and not wait for me to suggest it. I wanted her to tell me to slow down when I was going too fast, and to tell me to speed up when I was going too slow. I wanted her to unhitch some of the burden of driving this team through the event from me onto herself. I wanted her to take control, but I guess I hadn't provided her with an environment in which she was happy to do so. I myself was getting a massive boost from being an indispensable part of a team, but I was somehow denying my team-mate the opportunity to get that boost herself.
I didn't know how to do it then, and two weeks later I still have no clue as to what the solution was. Even now I realise I'm taking too much responsibility. Oh well, at least I no longer have to fear writing this blog...