Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Cape Epic final instalment!

A view of imposing mountain ranges all round the town of Tulbagh greeted us as we woke on day three, and once again, it looked set to be a hot and sunny day’s riding. Today’s route was basically a figure of eight tour of the basin, traversing vineyards and farmlands, and skirting the surrounding mountains. The route profile showed there would be lots of ups and downs (no surprises there!), interspersed with flowing singletrack sections (yippee!), and at 94km, with easier climbing than the previous 2 days, it was the organisers idea of a recovery day!
I’d woken feeling good. Unlike on other races or big trips like my Land’s End to John O Groats ride, I hadn’t yet had a day where I’d woken feeling tired or stiff, or dreading the thought of getting on a bike and riding all day. I was raring to go, and combined with the fact I was actually going to get to ride a fully functioning bike for the first time in the race, I couldn’t wait to get started and be out riding fun trails in the sun.
Getting ready to start day 3

I really enjoyed the day…the hills were shorter than previous days, and the singletrack descents fun and flowy, and I never felt like I was working at any more than a leisurely Sunday ride pace…My bike felt amazing, my legs felt strong, and I whooped and smiled my way up and down the trails, chatting to fellow riders and taking in the fantastic scenery. 
Flowing woodland singletrack = big smile!
We rode through huge vineyards, past big estate houses with well-dressed spectators sipping sauvignon blanc and politely clapping us past (I even had a sip en route as I waited for Dave at the top of a hill J), through fruit orchards of pears, oranges, pomegranates and mangos to name a few (not the fruit you see growing on trees in the UK that’s for sure!), with fruit pickers singing as they worked and cheering us as we rode past. 
Riding past fruit orchards

...and vineyards

We saw local children and villagers stood at the side of tracks cheering us on too, with lots of the children running alongside us for as long as they could, or wanting a “High 5” as we passed.
The stark difference between the immaculate lawns and gardens and huge manor houses of the wine estates, compared to the very basic, small, tumbledown houses of the villagers living nearby was quite shocking, and a real eye-opener to me and I imagine quite a few racers who were taking in their surroundings and not just racing, heads down. We were seeing the real South Africa…not just the beautiful beaches and tourist hotspots of Cape Town, and I guess I naively hadn’t really thought that the inequality that the history of the country is so famous for, would still be so evident. It was really interesting, but at times made me feel quite uncomfortable…there we were, riding stupidly expensive bikes for fun, whilst being cheered by smiling families, who were probably living for a year, off less than the value of some of the bikes there…It was a good reminder that although I often feel life is very unfair when I think of losing Gareth, and the happy life we had and that I thought we were going to continue to share for years, there is a lot that I have to be very grateful for, and there are opportunities, circumstances and privileges I have had, that many people in the world will never have…

Although I was finding it was definitely a recovery day, Dave was, unsurprisingly, tired from the previous day. We’d adopted an easy pace from the start so he could recover from yesterday’s efforts, but he stubbornly refused any offers for me to take anything from his bag to even our pace out a little! He seemed to be riding at a steady comfortable pace on the hills though, and sensibly sticking to his own recovery pace, giving me some time to get ahead and take pictures as he came past. Unlike in Adventure Racing, where towing using a bungee cord is allowed, you cannot do this in bike racing. It might look a bit daft, but it’s actually a really sensible idea, as it keeps teams together, and evens out pace, by the faster person using some of their energy to assist the slower person and make their life easier. This wouldn’t have been possible anyway on the sandy, narrow tracks we were riding, and with the number of people around, but it would have stopped me getting ahead without realising Dave was no longer behind me, and then having to find a spot in the shade to stop and wait, and it might have been nice for Dave given in AR he’s the one always towing me uphill on the running sections!
Normally, although I'd have to stop and wait a while after a descent, or slow down until Dave caught back up, on climbs there wouldn't be much between us, especially non-technical ones....but every time I turned round today, despite the easier pace, Dave had dropped right back… combined with the hot temperatures it wasn't as much of a recovery for him as it was for me, and he looked uncharacteristically tired…yesterday’s effort to make the cutoff had really taken it out of him. We did however finish at a much earlier time than the previous two days, so I was hoping that would allow him more recovery time too!

During each stage, there were 3 water points, where an army of super friendly volunteers awaited, ready with water, coke, energy drink, salted potatoes, marmite sandwiches, fruit, nuts, sweets, cake, and allsorts of tasty food to grab, and liquid to restock drinks bottles with, as well as mechanics to fix bikes, people relubing your chain, and sunglass lens cleaners.
One of the daily water/service points
As you arrived at each water point, your names were announced, (which made you feel just a little bit like a pro!) and it was always a morale boost to find yourself at waterpoint 3 each day, knowing the next checkpoint was the finish line, roughly 25-35 km away…nothing compared to the distance already covered! Waterpoint 3 also had the friendliest commentator and volunteers, definitely our favourite waterpoint each day! We soon found our own routine at each stop, for me it was refilling my camelback, followed by a couple of beakers of coke (never drunk so much of the stuff or looked forward to the cold, tasty sugar rush of it quite so much as I did in this race!), a handful of salted potatoes, a marmite sandwich, and then washed down with another beaker of coke, before grabbing the bike, waiting for the chain to be lubed, checking Dave was ready, and getting going. By today’s stage this routine had become well established!

When we finished the days stage we learnt that lots of teams had dropped out today from injuries, fatigue, or just the heat. We had finished in 377th place overall out of the original 626 starters, and had moved up to 47th in the mixed class out of 61 starters….no longer the bottom team even after all our penalties and bike breaking!

Day 4’s stage, from Tulbagh to Wellington, was a day of contrasting riding, with smooth gravel roads to start, then rugged dirt tracks, a long tarmac climb up the National Monument of the stunning Bains Kloof Pass, a fast road descent, then beautifully manicured purpose built singletrack down towards the Cape winelands.
Self portrait whilst riding up Bains Kloof Pass!

Dusty dirt tracks out of Tulbagh and over towards the Cape Winelands

There were 3 big climbs and descents to tackle over the 120km distance, and the day was looking set to be another scorching hot one.
The gravel roads we had discovered by now, were not as smooth as you imagine. Instead they were an uncomfortable bumpy experience, where the hard packed gravel surface and the effect of vehicles driving over it, had combined to create endless small corrugations that I hated riding over. There were normally a couple of slightly smoother lines at the side of the roads that could be stuck too, and if there was a chain of riders to draft, then this is where the chains would be, but to overtake you were forced onto the rough stuff. I’m sure riding over these tracks is the reason that now, a month after finishing, I still have no sensation in either of my little fingers or that side of my hand!
Dave approaching on the dreaded corrugated roads

Those roads were also reaaaaaalllly dusty, especially at the start, when hundreds of riders in front were kicking up dust clouds that made it hard to see past your front wheel, and added an element of excitement when riding in a pack with people very close in front, behind and either side of you. I breathed in several lungfuls of dust I think, and for most of the week felt like I had a mild chesty cough, which I’m sure was purely from my lungs trying to clean themselves out!
I was hoping Dave was going to feel good to ride a bit harder after the recovery day the previous day, but our pace was not quite as well matched as I’d hoped...Dave still looked tired from his day 2 epic, whereas I felt full of energy, and like I wanted to raise the pace to feel like I was pushing myself rather than just cruising. I was gradually spending more time waiting at the top and bottom of hills, and was selfishly feeling a little bit frustrated as I wanted to race, and feel as exhausted at the end of each day as I’ve felt in other big challenges I’ve done, but I was riding well within my comfort zone the whole time. I tried to remind myself that this was a team race, and if I wanted to purely ride at my own pace I should have found a solo competition! We certainly weren’t the worse matched pair by a long way anyway, and it wasn’t spoiling my enjoyment of the race at all. I was able to stop and take in the view and take pictures frequently, something which had I been racing at my limits I wouldn’t have had chance to do.

Refreshing water crossing!

More dry dusty trails :)

Stage 5 was my favourite day of the race. The route was short, at 75km, with a third of it on handbuilt singletrack trails which were fantastic. 

The start groups were staggered over 1.5 hrs to ease congestion on the trails and ensure maximum fun could be had by all. This definitely helped, but there were still some frustrating queues behind people who were getting off to ride any technical sections. The temperature was also off-the-scale hot, and there was depressingly little shade especially on the climbs, but we were getting used to it by now!
Another hot and dusty day done

5 days down!
On day 6 we rode from Wellington to Stellenbosch, on the last long stage of the race, at 99km and 2950m climbing. There had been some rain and strong winds during the night, so when we awoke in the morning there were tents everywhere, but thankfully my earplugs had meant I’d slept right through it all! It looked like we were going to have to battle a headwind all day, but actually we  didn’t notice it much at all apart from the start, and the cooler temperature and less dusty trails were a nice change!
The first 20km were in forestry plantation on the slopes of Du Toitskloof, with pleasant, steady climbing followed by a loamy singletrack descent. The second climb then took us through orchards, leading up to mountain fynbos, with protea shrubs in bloom on the side of the tracks, as the trail began to turn more rugged. 

Dave climbing on stage 6

Lots of pushing and tired legs...

Sign at waterpoint 3 on stage 6!

There were a lot of tired looking riders on the climbs today, and it was at one point on a tough climb during the stage, that feeling fit and fairly fresh, I rode past a group of South African riders slowly pushing their bikes up the hill, cheerfully saying hello as I passed, to be greeted with groans of dismay, when they realised that they were being overtaken by a girl who was riding a track they were pushing, wearing baggy shorts (very un-pro like!), with a Camera clipped to the chest strap of a backpack like a proper tourist! I admit to feeling a little bit smug and pleased with myself at this point 
More fun riding = still smiling!
Flatter tracks then took us past the Drakenstein mountains and Freedom Hill, the hill that Nelson Mandela looked out at from his prison house at Victor Verster prison, during the last 3 years of his 27 years imprisonment. Another climb up trails hugging the steep slopes of Simonsberg mountain followed, but as we crested the pass, the incredible views onto Stellenbosch and the surrounding winelands made the previous hour’s efforts totally worthwhile.

The final day’s stage of just 54km saw us riding from Stellenbosch to the beautiful Lourensford wine estate. We climbed up through endless vineyards, to truly fantastic views at the top. 

Good, fast, fun descending followed, with TV cameras and crews out on the course, as well as loads of supporters. The route was all rideable if you had the energy, and the tracks were fast and flowy. 
Ready for the final descent...all downhill to the finish!
It felt like no time at all had passed before we saw the sign marking 5 km to go, and before we knew it we were crossing the line in the sun, joining the queue of other finishers waiting to receive our medals from some of the pro riders. The atmosphere was amazing, and there were thousands of people there watching and cheering us in, but in many ways the finish of these events is a bit of an anticlimax. It feels weird to have finished, and to think you’ll be waking up the following day no longer in “Cape Epic routine”, but back to reality. It’s a kind of “Right…that’s it then?” feeling. One minute you’re immersed in the race, and then it’s suddenly all over! It was brilliant to finish though, and the 15% team drop out rate, and number of people finishing as only one half of a team, showed it hadn’t been an easy event.

Riding across the line

We were rewarded with medals, t-shirts, and a huuuuuuge finishers picnic each, in its own insulated picnic bag with logoed fleece blanket. There was far too much food for one person, but it did keep me going for the rest of the week after the race! Then it was a case of bike dismantling and packing, showers, and then a taxi to the airport for Dave, and to the Afterparty for me!
We’d finished in 33rd place in the mixed, out of the 62 starters, and 416th overall, out of 626 starting teams, with a total time of 54 and a half hours riding over the 8 days (although some of that was a time penalty, and bike fixing time!).

Looking back now, almost a month later, it seems ages ago since we were in Cape Epic mode. It was a fantastic event, and one which I would love to do again at some point. The organisation, the scenery, the riding, the camaraderie amongst fellow riders, the volunteers, all of it just combined to make for a totally incredible experience.
I’d expected it to be one of the toughest things I’d done, but actually, it wasn’t at all. For me it was brilliant fun, and a chance to experience great riding in a different country, but it wasn’t “Epic” in the way I expected. Apart from a tough first day, I never really felt like I was pushing myself, it was more of a holiday experience than a challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed it, had a massive amount of fun, and saw so much and met so many people, but I didn’t have the sense that I’d accomplished something huge when I crossed the finish line…of course I was proud of our efforts and the fact we’d finished,  it just didn’t really feel that hard. Had I been racing or riding closer to my limits I suspect it might have done, but I was able to ride at a pretty comfortable pace the whole way, and never feel the pain, fatigue or exhaustion that I’ve felt on tough challenges before. A winter of riding every day, despite most of it being downhill!, had maybe given me more fitness then I'd expected to have and subsequently I wanted to be able to ride faster and push harder to get that feeling of working at my limits. Dave is a brilliant friend to ride with though, and even though our pace wasn’t quite as well matched as the week went on as I thought it would be, we didn’t kill each other by the end, and most importantly, we both finished together as a team, which had been our main goal at the start. That was despite breaking bikes and bits of bikes, a knee injury that looked only a month before the race that it might have meant Dave never even got to the start line, and no training or riding together for months before the race…..I think we can say we did ok given all of that, and I hope Dave enjoyed racing with me as much as I did with him J.
The finish line in Lourensford

No comments:

Post a Comment