Sunday, 27 March 2016

Race to Cradock - Rhodes to Chesneywold.

I rode my first Cape Epic ten years ago. It was in the era of 'The Cape Epic presented by Adidas'. With the Adidas tag came a noisy German character who would yell at the riders in the start chute in order to gee them up for the task ahead. Waiting for the start in Knysna was horrible. The speakers were far too loud and compounding the problem was Mr Noisy yelling for everyone to "Put your hands up in the air..." I remember the sense of relief when the race finally got underway.

Mercifully, the start of the Race to Cradock was nothing like that. Glenn in his quiet mannered way simply announced, "Okay, it's 5 o'clock, I'm not going to start you, so you best be on your way." With that low-key send off, feet pressed against pedals and we started to reel in the first of the 574 km's that lay between us and the finish.

The roads weren't too squishy, but neither were they hard packed. We had to choose our lines carefully to avoid occasional slush. It was still dark and, riding in a bunch, the combined effect of our lights did a good job of illuminating the road ahead. The start was brisk. Anthony and Alex were up ahead at the start of the first climb. Casper and Janine were close on their wheels and I followed a short distance behind. Tim, Coen and Fjord brought up the rear.

Casper had asked me before the race if Janine was likely to tag on to us. I assured him that as far as I knew she wouldn't. She's the sort of rider who formulates a plan and sticks to it. It was highly unlikely that she would deviate from her plan to tag along with anyone. Besides, I added, I'm a stronger climber than her and we would open a gap on her on the first climb. I told Casper that he better make sure he was riding next to me at the top of the climb and not next to her. Hah! Janine topped out ahead of me and Casper was riding next to her. So much for me being the stronger climber. And it wasn't the last time that day that Janine was going to rub my face in the 'stronger climber' comment.

For the next 20 to 25 kilometres the three of us rode around each other. I fared less well than the other two on the wet road surfaces. They seemed unperturbed by the occasional wobble that resulted from skimming over snotty patches. These occasions had my fingers reaching for brake levers while they sailed on seemingly oblivious of the dreadful harm that was sure to befall them. The only harm that befell anyone was me falling behind and having to work harder on the climbs to catch up.

Soon after starting down the Sterkspruit valley we came across Anthony stopped next to the road. He had problems with one of his tyres not sealing properly. I must confess that it made me chuckle. Last year his race progress had stuttered due to tyre problems. He eventually threw in the towel in the Stormberg where he made his way to the closest tar road and thumbed a lift. What were the chances of the same thing happening this year? He wasn't even riding the same bike. He was riding his wife's bike this year. He had recently bought a new inflator and after a quick look I determined that it was faulty. I took mine out my bag and handed it to him before heading off after Casper who had pushed on. In no time at all Anthony was at my shoulder and handed back the inflator. Then, without obvious effort, he slipped ahead of me and was soon out of sight. I envied the ease with which he rode. I was already hurting.

By the time we reached the turnoff that would take us up the Bottlenek climb Casper and I had finally managed to open a gap on Janine. I stomped on the pedals eager to make good on that small advantage. We weren't too concerned about her in terms of the race. Not because she was a slower rider; clearly she wasn't. We simply wanted to stay ahead of her so that we knew we were travelling at a reasonable pace. Janine had already told us that she planned to ride a 60 hour race which meant she would be pushing for Kranskop that night before bedding down for a few hours. She would then push to Hofmeyr the next day and push for the finish on day 3.

Our strategy was to ride nonstop with a sub 56 hour ride in mind. We actually had three plans in mind. The first was sub 56. I have always wanted to finish both the Cradock and Rhodes races in fewer hours than my age in years. I have thus far failed to achieve that goal in either race. I am now 56 so that was our primary goal. We also thought the existing record of 48 hours was in reach. Our most optimistic plan was to finish in 45 hours - a plan I still think is possible in dry conditions.

The climb up Bottlenek went okay although not as easy as I remembered it being the previous year. After going over the top the distance to Chesneywold seemed to run on for a few kilometres too many. We arrived at the farmhouse to find Minkie about to head out to tend to her farm. I had reckoned on reaching Chesneywold by 09:30. It was 09:25. We had 5 minutes in the bag. First order of business was to get the kettle on. Nothing refreshes an Engelsman quite like a good cup of tea.

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