Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Epic lives up to it's name....

A 5.15am wake up from a bagpiper (the first of many that week) was not what I had been expecting on Monday morning, but nevertheless, the volume certainly served as an alarm clock I don’t think anyone would be able to sleep through. 
Start chute crowd
Soon enough we were lining up in our allotted start chutes, based on our times from the prologue the previous day. Everyone was to go off between 7am and 7.30,  in a rolling start through the town, with the pro riders taking the front start chutes, down to the slowest riders at the back.

The route started pleasantly enough, with a steady climb up out of the valley on a relatively smooth track. Twelve hundred people riding bikes together means that unless you are at the very front (zero chance of that in a race like this!) then your speed is partly limited by the people in front of you, and they by the people in front of them. Concentration is important, as with that many people, holding your line and not wandering around is crucial so you don’t clip the wheel of another rider. We soon settled into a comfortable pace, chatting to fellow riders, and enjoying the cool early morning temperatures. With 99km and 2500m climbing ahead, and the first day of 7 further long tough days, there was no rush to push too hard, but we felt strong and relaxed and were both enjoying the start of the race. As the gradient flattened out, the field had been spread out a little by the climb, and was further separated by the sandy surface we now found ourselves on. Pretty soon everyone was off and pushing up a steep sandy slope. 
The first of many sandy pushing sections
Sand was to become one of the major themes of the day, but at this point, it was a novelty and there were lots of smiling faces and excited chatter. There were breathtaking views of the valley below as we crested the top of the climb, but it was the sight of a loose, rocky descent ahead as a reward for the climb that had made my eyes widen with delight.

It soon became apparent, even though the track was not too technical, that the vast majority of riders in the group we found ourselves in, whilst obviously very fit and who had climbed quickly, were not the most confident descenders. The start of the descent, rather than being a fast, wild, wind in your hair, grin inducing ride, was a cautious, slow, hands working too hard on brakes affair. It was frustrating in the extreme….this should have been a place for free speed and mileage covered with no effort! I tried to remind myself that spending a winter riding steep technical downhill tracks at speed, was a different background to most of the people around me, and to have more patience. I desperately wanted to shout “Speed is your friend!” to the people in front slowly rolling down the track, and remind them that the bike’s suspension would work better and the track would feel smoother if they let go of the brakes a bit….I felt like I was in Guiding mode. One particular Dutch pair, who were to become a dreaded sight for Dave and I over the following week, were riding on their expensive full-suspension 29 inch wheeled bikes, (that would have rolled over everything in our path with ease), like they were on rigid road bikes! Eventually, an opening appeared as everyone moved to ride on the slightly smoother side of the rutted doubletrack, and I took it, feeling relieved as I finally could ride at a speed that the track warranted, gleefully cruising past dozens of people braking behind each other on the other side of the track….this was fun J

I felt smug thinking how my trusty 4 year old 26 inch wheeled bike (definitely old-skool and in a minority in this event…26ers are sooooo old fashioned if you’re anyone who’s into XC racing), was deftly passing all its big-wheeled brothers, skipping over the loose rocky surface with delight, playfully jumping off little steps in the trail, doing what a bike should be allowed to do. And then disaster struck….

A sudden sound of metal hitting metal, and the back end of the bike dropping down brought me to an abrupt stop. I knew immediately that something on my bike was very broken, and looking down at the rear suspension confirmed it. The pivot bolts holding the suspension linkage to the frame had sheared completely….this was very bad. I stared in disbelief at the broken bike, trying to comprehend how in 12 years of riding I had never broken a bike, until the very point when it was least convenient…..all the last year of preparing and training, the cost of getting to the race, the time spent working towards the event, and it looked like it was going to be over in the first 18km. Riders flew past shouting “You OK? “ without stopping to wait for an answer….I’d have done the same….it’s not like they could do anything to help. Dave pulled up shortly after to find me looking helplessly at the bike, unable to think logically or practically because I was just trying to take in the fact of what had happened. The meticulous planning of what spares to carry with us could not help…the only thing we could do was somehow try and cover the 11km to the first water point where there would be a mechanic that could hopefully help us figure something out. Dave grabbed a big stick which we pushed between the frame and the rear triangle to at least enable me to slowly ride, as gently as possible, rather than push. People were streaming past us, a cameraman must have seen how distraught I looked and asked if I was ok….I started telling him what had happened, and started to cry…I was gutted, I thought the race was over L, and then he started filming! Just what I needed…

The temporary pipe/cable tie/wire fix to my broken bike
We eventually made it to the waterpoint, thankfully from where the bike had broken was mainly wide smooth tracks and road to get there, and I rushed over to the mechanic to see what he could do. Eyebrows were raised and heads shaken at the sight of the broken part. A few comments were made about how old the bike was (there were far too many people there with money to burn and a brand new bike every year….some of us live in the real world however!), and then the diagnosis was made that the bearing had collapsed, placing unintentional strain on the pivot bolt, which had in turn sheared. In other words I had no-one to blame but myself L I had made sure all the bearings were replaced in October before leaving for Tenerife, along with all other bike maintenance, as I knew I wouldn’t have time between arriving back from there and leaving for South Africa to do anything. I guess I’d probably then ridden it a few times (no doubt in wet, muddy conditions), and then it had sat, unused, all winter. Despite the bearings being new, they had probably seized, and I hadn’t even thought to check….schoolgirl error….Gareth would have been ashamed of such shoddy bike maintenance…he would never have allowed something like that to happen…..knowing that made me feel even worse…I’d let myself down, and him L

During all this stressing however, the friendly, calm, bike mechanic had picked up a piece of tough plastic pipe that was lying around, cut it to size, wrapped it in an inner tube, cable tied it to the frame, used some wire to hold the linkage to the rest of the frame, and declared the bike rideable! I didn’t know the guy, but he got a hug and a huge tearful thankyou anyway! With promises to ride slowly down anything rocky and rutted (damn it but those are the best bits! L ), we set off, riding extremely cautiously until I worked out the best way to ride it as smoothly as possible and put as little stress through the back of the bike as I could.

The miles passed slowly, and the temperature started to rise. A lot of the day is now a bit of a blur, but what I do remember is endless sand. At first, on tracks where it was a fairly level gradient, it was quite good fun, trying to balance and ride through deep, sandy sections to a firmer looking patch of track, and as the back end of a bike squirms around a lot on that kind of terrain anyway, it didn’t really matter that with a broken rear end, my bike felt even more wobbly. A winter of riding on sandy, gravelly surfaces must have prepared me well, because for a lot of the time, I was able to ride through, when other people were off and pushing. On the downhill sections, if you were prepared to ride fast, keep your weight back so the front wheel didn’t sink, stay off the brakes and just allow the bike to roll through where it wanted without trying to correct the steering too much, it worked a treat, and apart from when people stopped suddenly in front of me I could ride the majority of the flat and all the downhill parts. Dave was struggling a bit more to commit to my kamikaze technique of riding hard and fast into a patch of deep soft sand, and trusting that momentum would help you through it and not just bury the front wheel and pitch you over the bars (there were mutters of “it’s easier if you’re lighter!” and “I’ve got a higher centre of gravity so it’s harder to balance!”…ha!sorry Dave, all lame excuses!), but by the end of that section we were both sand riding masters, and due to the conditions, not really going any slower than we would have done had I had a fully working bike. Unfortunately, there then followed a lot of uphill pushing, through yet more sand, and no amount of technique could help with that.
Dave on another long, hot climb
Dave is possibly one of the few people in the world who likes pushing his bike. I am not one of these people. If it’s at all possible, I will stay on my bike as long as my legs, lungs and skill allow, to avoid walking…after all, if I wanted to go on a walk, I would do that without a bike, bikes are for riding. But for what seemed like several hours of torture, with a never-ending uphill sandy slog, painful feet where sand had seeped into our shoes leaving less room for toes, temperatures creeping above 40 degrees, and not a breath of fresh air, Dave actually smiled and chatted all the way up. When we finally crested a summit, and realised there was another, then another, still to go, I’m sure I actually saw him smile whilst I and everyone else around us let out a collective groan. If there was a World Championship for pushing bikes up horribly steep tracks, my money would be on Dave.
Long gravel road least this bit was rideable!
Anyway, somehow, 9 or 10 hours after starting (I don’t remember exactly, I’ve blocked it from my memory!), after a lot more climbing, energy-sapping sand and intense heat, we rolled across the finish line, hot, tired, sweaty and filthy with dust, but for me, relieved to still be in the race at all. The event was certainly living up to its name. On that day, a large number of riders failed to make the cut off time, there was talk amongst people who had ridden the event many many times, of how it was the hardest single day the organisers had ever thrown in, and even the pro riders had commented on how tough it was. And this was only day 1!
Look at that dust-tan!
What was also slightly worrying, was to discover after finishing that the mechanics couldn’t find a replacement part for my bike the following day. It appeared I was going to have to ride the next day’s stage of 145km, on a bike held together with cable ties, wire and plastic pipe…brilliant. I tried to look on the bright side and think that it had lasted the whole of today, but realistically, I knew it wouldn’t last the whole event as it was. Another friendly bike mechanic called Kyle promised he would be able to get hold of the part before stage 3 though, or else find me a replacement bike…those support guys were amazing, all going out of their way to try and help ensure I could continue the race.

Sitting in the dining marquee that evening, listening to former world champion cross country mountain biker Jose Hermida give his hilarious daily account of the race at the front of the pack, followed by former Welsh Rugby captain Colin Chavis give his account from the back (he had made the cut-off by 90 seconds!), it struck me how fantastic it was to think that we were all riding exactly the same course as the pros, meter for meter. Suffering the same sandy climbs, enjoying the same exhilarating descents. The Cape Epic is often considered by the pros as the Mountain Bike equivalent of the Tour de France, and we were there riding with them! (Well…just a bit further behind J). However, whilst the pros are finished each day after 4 or 5 hours of riding, and have a whole afternoon for recovery, people to fix their bikes, massage their legs, etc, to prepare for the following day, us mere mortals were riding for 7-10 hours or more, finishing late with much less recovery time, and having to sort our own bikes and kit. This is the brutal nature of stage racing. As the fastest guys at the front get stronger, due to always finishing early and having time to recover, the weaker riders get weaker as their cumulative riding time is much longer and recovery time gets less and less and they get more and more tired. There is a big difference between riding 30 hours in 8 days, and 60!
All quiet in the rider tent village
Stage 2, day 3, dawned bright and early again to the sound of bagpipes. The stage was to take us from Citrusdal and the rugged and remote Cedarberg region, to Saronsberg in Tulbagh, a fertile valley with quaint villages and big wine estates.

Once again we crowded into the start chutes, and the daily pre-start routine began to unfold…Two or three helicopters each day would hover above us all, ready to film the spectacle that is 1200 riders setting off in the cool, early morning light. There would be quad bikes and motorbikes with cameramen perched on the back again ready to take film or photo footage amongst the peleton, the MC would welcome us all, talk about the conditions, give any safety warnings, and then start the psyching up music. The songs were the same each day, but I’m still tapping my feet to the beat of them now, two weeks later, so they were certainly catchy tunes. In fact if I heard any of them at any point in the future, I know I would automatically be taken right back to the memory of waiting to start the stage each morning….it’s strange how music has such a strong and emotive effect on memory. The penultimate song was “chasing the sun”, during which you would see everyone start to stand over their bikes, clip one foot into a pedal, and start nodding heads in time to the beat, most people quietly preparing themselves for the task ahead. Then it would be “don’t you worry”, and there would be the last minute checks of helmet on, gloves done up, sunglasses clean etc etc, and slowly, we’d start to move…generally about 5 minutes after the start gun had sounded! That’s what the start is like from somewhere near the back of 1200 riders! The first few minutes would involve plenty of trackstanding and balance practice too whilst waiting for the bunch to get moving….there wasn’t much opportunity for racing off the line even if you’d wanted to!

We started comfortably enough, with a long steady climb gaining 900m in the first 18km, but mostly on tarmac then gravel roads. The hard-packed roads were full of small fast corrugations, which are uncomfortable to ride over at any time, but incredibly hard work on a bike with a broken back end. My hands suffered most from the lack of suspension, and even now, I am still waiting to regain sensation in my little and ring fingers on each hand! I was wishing I had a 29er to roll at least a little more easily over the bumps, or even just a fully functioning 26er! The other problem was dust. That many people riding fast over dusty roads that haven’t seen any water for a long time kicks up huge clouds of dust. At times it was hard to see even your front wheel, and my mouth felt constantly dryer than the Sahara.

Although not particularly easy to ride, my bike held up well, and it was probably good practice to try and constantly ride as smoothly as possible over everything. The route took us over the Middelberg pass, with a fast and loose gravel road descent down from the top, plenty of sharp bends to slow people down, but I was in my element….I’d been riding flat loose corners all winter and knew just how far I could push the bike and how fast I could take them whilst still keeping traction! It was great overtaking so many people…I can’t help but let my competitive side shine through at times like that…but then I got to the bottom, and when I started worrying a couple of minutes later that Dave hadn’t showed up, I had to remind myself this was a team event! Fortunately he was fine, just sensibly taking things steady on a surface he wasn’t used to with a high potential for crashes and injury!

Lots of smiling on fun descents :)
We traversed beautiful landscapes for hours, along farm roads and rolling double-track, taking us deep into the Koue Bokkeveld, known for its spectacular sandstone formations. A brilliant section of singletrack wound its way through some of these huge rocks and boulders, which although at times was frustratingly slow due to congestion and the occasional person getting off to walk through a technical section and causing everyone else to bunch up behind, was still great fun. However, it was shortly after this that things once again started to turn epic….

At some point during the tight, twisty, rocky section, Dave must have either caught his rear derailleur, or a rock had flicked up and hit it, and the metal cage housing the jockey wheels (that keep the chain running round as you pedal) had been broken. The chain therefore kept falling off, meaning Dave was having to stop every few minutes to put it back on by hand. We were 15km from the next waterpoint, and a further 30km from the end…we had no choice but to stop and try to fix it. The first attempts to use the universal fixes of cable ties and duct-tape failed, and soon it became evident we were going to need to remove the derailleur and Dave would have to ride the bike as a singlespeed to the waterpoint, and hope that the mechanics there had a new derailleur and chain they could fit for him. Unfortunately, the geometry and set-up of Dave’s bike meant the gear he would have to fix it in was the biggest one….not exactly ideal when you are faced with sandy tracks and undulating terrain for 15km like that L We tried various methods of making chain tensioners, altering the number of links in the chain to allow Dave to use an easier gear, and whatever we could think of, but other than damaging the frame of Dave’s brand new carbon bike, we had no success and were simply wasting valuable time.

Once we got riding I knew we had a problem…as well as the time we had lost from trying to fix the bike, our speed had slowed considerably, practically to walking pace…we were in serious danger of not making the stage cut-off time, and subsequently not finishing the race… The sandy nature of the tracks meant it was almost impossible for Dave to pedal in the gear he was in, I couldn’t push him because it was hard enough steering and pedalling through sand with both hands on the handlebars, and also he is over a foot taller than me, and was riding a 29er, so my arm wasn’t long enough to reach up and across and push his back. Dave had also been nursing a niggling knee injury and was worried about damaging it and not being able to continue the race, and I couldn’t lend him my bike as it was broken, and would have been far too small for him anyway…we were well and truly stuck, with Dave walking for a lot of the time L 
Dave pushing his now singlespeed bike on a flat sandy track
After 8 or 9 very slow km, with most of the back end of the field having passed us, I finally mentioned to Dave what I knew we’d both been trying to avoid thinking about. With such a huge amount of money, time and effort spent on getting to the race, neither of us wanted to not have the opportunity to count as an official finisher, but if we carried on at this pace, and the bike couldn’t be fixed at the waterpoint, we would both be in this situation. I felt terrible for thinking it, but I really wanted to finish the race as I didn’t know if or when the opportunity to do it again would arise. I tried to justify the thought by thinking that when my bike had broken yesterday, if it hadn’t been fixable, I would have told Dave to carry on without me so he could still finish and enjoy the race. As much as I  hated myself for doing it, this is a team event after all, I suggested to Dave that I go on, make sure the bike mechanics were ready for him if he got to the waterpoint in the cut-off time, and finish the stage, and if his bike could be fixed, he could still make the day’s stage time limit, and we’d just get a separation penalty of one hour, and if not, then at least one of us would still be able to finish the event, with the other counting as a “BlueBoard rider” someone who has missed a cut-off and won’t qualify as a finisher, but can still continue riding.

Dave swore….a lot, and that’s from a guy who I’ve rarely heard swear before. If it was me, I would have cried. This was not what we had envisaged when we set out riding the event a couple of days previously. We were both fit and feeling strong, but were being plagued with bike problems. I gave Dave a hug, wished him good luck, and set off riding quickly to try and make up the time lost, wondering for miles if I’d done the right thing. On reaching waterpoint 3 (my favourite one every day J) my hopes for Dave being able to finish the stage were raised by finding the mechanics had all the parts to fix Dave’s bike, and I was cheered slightly by the friendly guy announcing people as they passed through, and by Aussie volunteer Kate, who both agreed we had made the right decision in the circumstances….I continued to feel bad though….we were meant to be riding this as a team…

The rest of the ride was for me, spent riding fast, catching up time, and enjoying the final rough, technical singletrack descent on an old wagon trail (not sure I’d have taken a wagon on it but it was great for riding!). Even with a broken bike this was fun and my favourite kind of riding…steep rocky, narrow switchbacks, and some technical rocky features requiring concentration and good bike-handling skills…the roadies must have hated it and I passed plenty of people walking down.
I crossed the finish line and went to sit in the shade and recount our day’s story to the fellow riders I’d met and been chatting to over the last couple of days…and to wait and watch the clock with fingers crossed to see if Dave made it. Although it was a long stage, I’d actually had a pretty steady day, as Dave’s broken bike had meant I’d had quite a big portion of time where I wasn’t working very hard at all…unlike poor Dave. To our amazement and my delight, Dave crossed the finish line within the cut-off, with stories of having run/pushed for about 8km after I left him, his bike being fixed, and then a mammoth sprint over the next 30km to ensure he finished in time…an incredible effort! I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him looking quite as knackered as he did when he finished, and he promptly collapsed with several beakers of Coke, vast quantities of food, and groans as his leg muscles started to seize up!

Our fortunes continued to change for the better when my bike was fixed with a new part, obtained by Kyle the mechanic who’d driven for hours to collect it specially….after 225km, I was at last going to get to ride on a working bike again…whoop!

Our one hour separation penalty, added to Dave’s finish time, meant when the results were published for the day, we were lying last in GC (General classification – all teams in the event), but over the last 2 days, more than 60 teams had withdrawn with injuries or after failing to make cut-offs, or due to exhaustion, and many more were riding as individual riders after team mates had dropped out… so we were just glad to still be in. Unfortunately, unlike the Tour de France, there is no “Lantern Rouge”…the red jersey worn by the rider who is coming last, so we didn’t get to stand on stage with the other jersey winners (ha!), but we did wear red jerseys the next day anyway! Surely we were going to be allowed a straightforward day tomorrow…the event had certainly been Epic in more ways than we’d considered it might so far!

No comments:

Post a Comment