It isn’t always the longest days with most climbing that are the hardest. That’s the main lesson from today. At “only” 105k and 2600m of climbing, it was shorter than the previous three stages, with a chunk less climbing and almost a third less distance than yesterday’s queen stage. It was also considerably cooler than recent days, particularly compared to Monday’s monster 40+ temperatures.
The stats for the stage on paper just show that you need to be careful when reading too much into the stats. Today was tough.
Many things can make a stage challenging. Injury, crashes, illness, mechanicals, dehydration – we’ve seen all of those in action this week, unfortunately. Sadly, the first two befell friends of Subaru-MarathonMTB.com, ladies team Bikemagic.com / Scott, yesterday, as Claire Beaumont was taken out on a descent by an unidentified MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra, for the uninitiated). Cue a visit to hospital, a dislocated shoulder, and the end to their race. Gutted for them.
It can affect the pros too – today we saw Swedish champion Emil Lindgren riding in his “Outcast” jersey, which is what the pros get if their team-mate drops out. His Rabobank-Giant team-mate Adam Craig looked like he was suffering yesterday, and obviously didn’t take the start today.
And we’ve seen plenty of the inevitable punctures. Once you tear a tyre and have to put a tube in, you can fully expect large numbers of punctures, as the thorns find their way through the tube. After stages 2 and 3, I pulled out somewhere in the region of 25 thorns out of my tyres.
Back to today’s stage. It started out innocuously enough – the usual “neutral” start on tarmac out of Caledon, and then on dirt roads. So far, so normal for the ABSA Cape Epic. So why was it so hard? Three reasons – rocks, sand and wind.
We saw a lot of the first two on the two big climbs around the middle of the stage. On the bike, pedal like crazy (but smoothly), heart rate through the roof just to keep some kind of forward momentum, jump off when you lose the back wheel or the guy in front stalls; run / walk / stagger a few steps, sweat dripping off the front of your helmet as you lean into the slope and try to guide the bike over the loose rocks and sand. The surface is hard to ride over, but it’s not even much easier on foot, as your feet slip and slide in the sand.
Then a long but largely flat section, but with added sand to sap the energy from the legs. What really did it for today though was the wind, which just goes to show again why it doesn’t really matter what’s written on the page in the race handbook – Mother Nature can just come and give you a slap in the face. And boy did she slap today. From the final water-point at about 75k, it was a net 300m gain to the finish. But add in a raging head / crosswind, and you’ve got a recipe for a tough 30k. Headwind; turn right, cross-wind; turn left again, head-wind; turn left… you get the idea.
To add injury to insult, Mike’s knee, in his words “felt like someone had inserted a red-hot poker underneath the kneecap”. Not fun when you’re grovelling along on the flat at 20kph into that headwind. I know few people who can suffer like Mike can, as he’s now unfortunately had the opportunity to prove two days in a row – stomach yesterday, knee today. We’re hopeful that an impromptu physio visit and some very funky-looking taping will produce good results in time for tomorrow’s stage.
We’re pleased with the result – 28th in category, and 32nd overall; and the first day that we haven’t been beaten by the leading ladies. The very impressive pairing of Esther Suess and Sally Bigham were with us shortly after that last feed, but with that wind, suddenly it was all about power rather than power to weight ratio.