My heart rate is at 80 bpm, quite a bit higher than my usual 55. I'm at the start of stage 1 of the Cape Epic and the fog of apprehension that came with yesterday's prologue has not lifted. My teammate, Sven Thiele of HotChillee, and I are due to start at 7:20 am. We're about to embark on 93km of mixed mountain biking and 2,350m of climbing. Needless to say, everyone at the start is feeling a little uneasy.
We started and finished today in Citrusdal, a picturesque town in the shadows of the Cederberg Mountains. It was a hard stage. We knew it would be, but that doesn't soften the reality. No sooner than we started we were climbing. Climbing in itself isn't a problem; the Alpine stages in the Tour de France are hard and this first climb was okay. So far so good, though the heat in which we were cycling was not helpful.
The next part was to be one of the biggest challenges of the day. Once over the top it was a steep 600-metre descent over seven kilometres of very rocky terrain. This isn't for the faint-hearted and what happened next was a real test. On the way down my back brake overheated - badly! The wheel locked and it would barely move. My only realistic option was to continue; removing the brake pads would be suicide on that descent. In the valley, we stopped to instigate repairs. Team Absa Capital consisting of J & JC van Vuuren helped us - forfeiting time. A massive relief for us as it was a multi-person job! With just the front brake the easier gravel descents were hairy.
When we eventually got to the bottom - with my heart in my mouth - we got to the water stop and had the brakes replaced. This delayed us by 25 minutes - plus the earlier repairs cost us about 40 minutes - but gave us the chance to take on lots of water and fuel. Sven and I also decided to take extra water with us. The day was getting very hot and we didn't want to risk running out.
Next up was an 8km sandy climb. For those of you who haven't experienced the sensation (or rather frustration) of cycling on deep, soft, fine sand, let me tell you, it's no mean feat. Your wheels dig in and it's impossible to get any traction. Due to sand, and the gradients we faced, a good proportion of today's stage was completed pushing the bikes and walking. Even the fiercest of the mountain biker pros had to walk - or run - some of it. It's all part of the event.
After a brief break at water point two it was onwards and upwards with seven kilometres of climbing, a brief rutted descent and then a singletrack that tested even the best mountain biker's skills. The afternoon was hot. There were lots of tired bodies on the course, lots of walking and a lot of traffic (fellow mountain bikers, not motorised) slowing things down further. Having lost ground due to my earlier mechanical, we were riding - and walking - with a slower group. Even when you feel you can go faster, you're restricted by the traffic ahead on the singletrack. It's part of the Cape Epic and the atmosphere was good. Everyone was feeling just as fed up about the sand but the humour reigned supreme.
Once through the third water point, we wound our way across the farmlands in Olifants River Valley. This was undulating and although it was relief from the more extreme sections of the day, it didn't offer much respite. Then we faced the final challenge of the day: A 10km sandy ascent up the mountain. By this point we'd really had enough of the sand; never wanting to see another grain again! Sven and I stayed together to avoid any penalties for not riding with each other. If your teammate is just two minutes away you receive a one hour penalty. Sven stuck to my wheel but due to the sand I ended up sliding sideways and Sven went into the back of me and over the handlebars! No injuries. Not a great situation after so many gruelling kilometres, but once we were at the top we found ourselves on a fast, fun descent back to Citrusdal. And after 8:49:12 we were over the finish line.
Finishing was a fantastic feeling. My first thought was that we must rehydrate, so we headed to the hospitality tent and caught up with other riders who were also hungry and thirsty. It's such a fantastic atmosphere and a great mix of people doing this event. There's even a team on a tandem, who completed inside the cut-off with 45s to spare. I have nothing but respect for them! What a test of endurance. It was gut wrenching to see the riders who did not make the 10 hour cut-off, apparently around 82 riders.
Now it's time for more rehydration, but this time courtesy of Herman Coertze owner of Meerendal Wine Estate, venue for the Pprologue. It's not all hard work out here.