You heard from Mike yesterday that his knee pretty much gave up the ghost after a brutal few days. Hard stages at the ABSA Cape Epic, made harder by the conditions, and also by being raced aggressively. Go hard or go home, right?
It was a tough call for Mike to make, but the right one. A third of the way into a very cold and long stage, with an already painful knee, is not the time just to push on and hope for the best. Because from that point, the best is never going to be very good. And plans later in the season for Mike, some of which I’m pleased also to be involved in, mean that it makes sense not to trash that knee just for a top 40 finish here.
All that being said, it was still really disappointing. I spent the remaining 70k of a very cold, wet and muddy 120k stage venting both our frustration out on the trail. Painful, but the most satisfying thing possible in the circumstances.
So we arrived in Oak Valley with situations almost reversed from last year. I say almost because at least Mike wasn’t in hospital while I settled down in my tent (remember http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOyGfY8gcu4?). But our race was still over. One of the main attractions for me of this type of racing is the team element; so to mitigate the loss of Mike, I joined forces for the last two days with speedy and entertaining Frenchman Jeff Bossler, who had also lost his team-mate, only to terminal bike failure rather than knee failure. So far, so OK.
One further hitch was to come my way before the final stage, though. This race is exceptionally hard on bikes as well as bodies. Personal bike maintenance starts well at the beginning of the week, and tends to deteriorate as fatigue deepens. So it wasn’t until last night at about 5:30pm that Mike spotted a crack across my seatstay, about halfway down. Unknown cause – rock? Stick? Plenty of possible candidates. I’d probably been riding on it like that for a couple of days, but I was still pretty unexcited about riding it like that today. The consequences of catastrophic failure would not be pretty.
So what to do? I toyed with various kinds of reinforcing tape – after all, the crack wasn’t all the way round and would probably hold up with some help. But this was also on the day that everyone’s bikes had taken a mauling in the muddy conditions – tales abounded of people riding into Oak Valley after nine or ten hours in the rain, with their pistons being abraded by their disc rotors, as they had already gone through entire pads and their backing plates. Many of the mechanics at the shops and trade stands didn’t actually go to sleep last night, in an effort to keep riders moving today.
And in this spirit, help was at hand for me too. I’ve been accustomed to the wonders of riding a Scott at the Craft Bike Transalp, where the Scott boys take in tens of bikes each day and restore them to health by the next morning. So it was with some relief that I tracked down the Scott Sports Group Africa tent, home to super-mechanic Phillip, and marketing man Joggie (that’s approximately ‘Yochie’ to non Afrikaans speakers!). They are here primarily tending to the needs of Africa leaders’ jersey holders, and today’s stage winners, Kevin Evans and David George of the Nedbank / 360life team, but are also available to help mere mortals too.
I got there at about 8:30pm. Within ten minutes, Phillip and Joggie had conferred, assessed the problem, found a frame they could lend me, and assured me that by 5am, said frame would be in the bike park, with all the parts from my bike transferred across, ready to ride. Sure enough, by morning, less than eight hours later, all of which were in darkness, one frame had been stripped down, and another built up, ready to roll on today’s stage up and around Groenlandberg. Now that is what I call above and beyond the call of duty!
So with stand-in team-mate and stand-in frame, I set off for today’s stage, thankfully on a rather nicer morning than yesterday. After some hard climbing, from further back in the start chutes than I’d become accustomed to in recent days, we were only 20 minutes behind the leaders at the first water point. At that point, though, Jeff turned to me and queried what we were really racing for. Both of us had lost our team-mates and our true race finishes; wouldn’t it be better to ride and enjoy the amazing scenery and trails, rather than continuing to thrash ourselves? I had to agree with him. Quite apart from the fact that that the fight had been entirely knocked out of me – a combination of fatigue from racing, plus the accumulated stress of a hospital visit with Claire, a tough day with Mike’s dodgy stomach, then a day of pain from his knee, then his forced withdrawal, plus the apocalyptic conditions of yesterday. We settled down to take pleasure in the riding for the rest of the day.
All that remains is to make sure that Jeff and I both make it to the finish. Even though the race proper is over for me and Mike, I need to make Lourensford, after failing to do so last year. And that looked in doubt for this year, but for the intervention of the Scott boys – thanks chaps!