Cape Epic Part 2: Stage 1 - Citrusdal
Following the Prologue we excitedly made the 2-hour drive north to Citrusdal, buoyed not only by the prospect of getting stuck into the first proper stage of racing, but also by the news that our efforts on the 23km time trial had been good enough to earn a slot in start group C, which was essentially the second wave.
That evening we gathered in the dining marquee to hear the pre-stage briefing. It certainly looked like an intimidating introduction to the race with 2,350 metres of ascent crammed into 96kms of racing, but perhaps the biggest indication of just how severe the day would be was subtly hidden in the maximum time allowance of 10 hours. We chose to ignore that, thinking instead that the organisers were probably being generous to enable as many riders as possible to make it to Stage 2*.
However, the crucial element which was slightly glossed over in the race briefing, or at least not perhaps given the weight it deserved, was how much sand we should expect. We were told that "a short section in the first 20km would be unrideable for all, including the pros". But that was fine. It would be early on and we'd be fresh. Nothing major. And if everyone was walking we'd all be losing equal time. Time for bed.
Astonishingly, considering the dense formation of tents, likely proximity to heavy snoring and nocturnal portaloo activity I slept amazingly well only to be woken abruptly by the 5am lone bagpiper. The morning air was cool, but not cold. Not for me at least. For many just the sight of breath in the air was enough to induce bizarre warm-up routines, full body rub-downs and embarrassingly exaggerated shivering. Still, the sun would be up soon, and then they'd be laughing.
Breakfast was immense. Every day. As much as nervous stomachs could eat and with enough variety to suit all the weird eaters. Yoghurts, coffee, tea, cheeses, scrambled eggs, bacon, tomatoes, sausage, toast, juices, fruit, porridge. It was a feast and set us up perfectly for the efforts which lay ahead.
At 7am the pros, along with groups A and B, disappeared into a tyre and helicopter induced dust tornado. We would be starting 10 minutes after, but with no wind the dust and grit still hung in the air as we raced through the first few kilometres. The first short section of road was a high-five fest, as school kids and town folk gathered to watch the Grand Depart of the 2013 Cape Epic.
Road soon transitioned into dusty fire track which climbed gently for a few kilometres before striking out into more open fields, brief sandiness and much rougher quad bike trails. Now we were climbing more steeply and the surface morphed from grass, to grit and into sand. Which became increasingly deep and sapping. One by one people began swapping pedal power for push. I'm not a fan of pushing and I fought bravely for as long as possible until it became clear that walking was more effective than riding. A few persisted further in the saddle, but were going no faster and seemed mostly to be riding in the bushes some distance from the trail. Eventually we were all in an ant-like precession up the hill side. Where the sand did finally end it was replaced with large angular stones, like trying to ride over endless rubiks cubes, and the gradient ramped up again. The pushing continued until we topped out.
Disappointingly the fist-sized stones continued for the steep descent. What I'd hope would be a joyous drop down the hillside instead had me locked into a battle with my own concentration span and the front wheel of the bike. A momentary lapse and I'd be on my arse/face and undoubtedly in significant pain. I wanted to relax, but couldn't, gaze fixed on the path of my tyres, sussing out every potential puncture or fall. Badly eroded trenches enticed the bike to go precisely where I didn't want it to and my forearms and shoulders ached as I fought to keep control and stay upright. It was not restful.
We rolled out onto smooth tarmac with thumbs barely capable of changing gear. Still, at least we had some 'free miles' until the first water point. Or not. A left turn and we were off the road and into vineyards. And then the sand kicked in. The going was flat but the intermittent sand traps laboured our progress. With enough momentum, and if the sand wasn't too deep, we could power through, but with tyres snaking and getting swallowed up it was hard work. There was a lot of running and significant swearing and it took almost two hours to reach the water point at 28km. Not exactly a morale-boosting stat.
After refuelling we had a sustained climb on slightly easier terrain and I again learned that trying to ascend whilst eating huge mouthfuls of food and breathing heavily is an excellent way to fill your lungs and not stomach with food. Coughing fits were common. We tried not to linger too long at the feed stations, instead grabbing food and shoving it in on the go. Consequently mouthfuls were bizarre recipes which in any other situation would certainly induce illness. Here though, with the need for sugar and salt quite evenly balanced I found myself able to chew down combinations of marmite sandwiches, muffins, jelly beans, potatoes, banana, crisps and coke.
With sand temporarily less frequent we climbed more comfortably, although Chris was caught out by one patch and despatched himself into the bushes. Hitting a sudden sandy section and losing the front wheel was easy to do and it was surprising not to come off more often. A nice flowing section of singletrack through rocks and sharp shrubs brought some much needed respite and great riding.
As we dropped off the hilltops and into some narrow valleys the wind died away and the sun became much more intense and, although we didn't know it yet, we were about to hit the crux of the days' riding.
Recalling the race briefing in my mind now, I can vaguely remember mention of false summits and a series of 'short' climbs. Perhaps I chose to ignore any talk of sand, but the 4km climb out of water point two was essentially a giant sand dune. It probably ranks quite lowly on a list of "attributes of a great mountain biker", but it turns out that Chris and I are pretty good at pushing and as others groaned around us, we made good progress. Sand filled our shoes and sweat stung our eyes, but I was again thankful for the Craft Arm Coolers which meant I wasn't a sticky suncreamed mess. The dust and grit sticks easily enough to sweat, let alone a thick layer of Piz Buin.
The next few kilometres followed a similar theme - tricky descent into hard push - and by now the field had thinned considerably and we found ourselves alone over the final climb out of a recently scorched valley.
Now I usually take advice from spectators and marshals with a pinch of salt, because they all like to say the things they think we want to hear. "It's just around the next corner" or "Just over this next rise" are particular favourites, but perhaps the most common is "It's downhill from here". Delirious, thirsty, hungry and slow-cooked, when we were greeted by a marshal sat astride a quad bike who said the magic words, "Well done boys, it's down hill to the drinks station from here", I could have hugged him. A short while later I considered walking back up the hill to explain quite why that wasn't the case. Essentially he was right though, it was downhill, just down a big sand hill. Like those frustrating days when you have to pedal downhill into a headwind, we were pushing hard on a downhill for very little reward. I was closing in on that final straw when at last the drink station arrived.
The large climbs were thankfully behind us, but in the scorching heat we hunted out every bit of shade we could find during the final undulating 25km. The punchy nature of the tail end of the profile just about finished me off and although I felt I should have been pushing much harder, my legs were feeling the strain and the power had dissipated over the earlier climbs.
Back in the tent village we crashed out in the meagre shade offered by our tents, cheered in the rest of the field and turned our thoughts to Stage Two, the longest day of the 2013 Cape Epic.
Stage One highlights from GoPro. Watch out for more insane helicopter skills and the poor guy who collides with a Buck on that first stony descent.
If you're interested in seeing our Strava statistics for the stage you can view those here - Cape Epic 2013 Stage One Strava Data
*If a rider fails to reach the finish line of a stage within the maximum time allowance they are allowed to start the next day, but are given a blue number board to indicate that they no longer qualify for an official finisher medal. Failure to complete a stage twice results in disqualification and removal from the race. Although a team event, riders are allowed to continue solo if their team mate becomes unable to ride.