By Nic Lamond in Calitzdorp, South Africa
Alison Sydor's hands are sore. No, she didn't fall, although that would be forgivable even for a mountain biker of her experience and class as many skilled riders fell victim to Cape Epic's stage two thanks to a treacherous course. Her hands ached from braking hard. And she wasn't alone.
Over 1,000 other riders still intent on finishing the this year's Absa Cape Epic were icing stressed fingers and knuckles Sunday evening after the loose, rocky climbs, traverses and descents that they were forced to negotiate on stage two. Having survived searing heat and brutal climbs for over 100km, the final 30km run into Calitzdorp included a heart-stopping descent that would have been appropriate on a World Cup downhill track, not a nine-day cross-country stage race!
But Sydor was also happy. She and Rocky Mountain team-mate Pia Sundstedt hold the Cape Epic women's leaders' jersey for the second day in a row, and now sit over half an hour ahead of second-placed Trek/VW's Susan Haywood and Jennifer Smith. Not only that, but they are ahead of the first-placed mixed team of Nico Pfitzenmaier and Ivonne Kraft from Team Joybike Guided by Vmt and Maloja. The significance of that achievement was not lost on the seasoned mountain bike racer.
"It's the first stage race that I've ever been involved with where the first women's team is ahead of the first mixed team. That I've never seen before!" said Sydor.
The Rocky Mountain team had a shaky start to this year's race, with Sundstedt and Sydor suffering mechanical trouble on the prologue stage on Friday, and then Sundstedt struggling with a knee injury on the opening stage one. But, according to Sydor, that is all behind them, "Her first couple of days were not good, but she's coming around today. It was a much smoother day with no mechanicals, so we're feeling better. But it was still a very hard, demanding day for everybody."
That's the truth. Conditions were very tough with temperatures in the mid-thirties [degrees Celsius - ed.] by noon. "Thank goodness we started early," confessed Sydor. "I mean, I'm not really a morning person; a 7:00 am start is not too appealing. But it was so nice to have a bit of the morning riding, before the heat kicked in the desert today and up that last climb, it was just an oven! But we won, and increased our gap in the overall so it went well for us."
"Pia is just a tenacious athlete, and we trust each other that way. Even though she's had her struggles. I know she's not going to give up. I also know she's going to give her best."
But the standout for the evergreen Sydor may be the stunning terrain – worth looking around at despite the pain. "You see a lot of variation, like today," said Sydor. "Starting at the base of the lush mountain in George, then going over the mountain and then all of a sudden you're in the desert. As we have gone through from Knysna to here, I have been chatting to Pia and equating it to the various states in the US -oh, this is like New Mexico, this is like Arizona, this part is like California, Hawaii and other places I've ridden.
"Of course none of it is like seven degrees and rain in Vancouver yet! Thank goodness. But it is amazing the diversity we've seen in the terrain, the vegetation and the climatic conditions. Everywhere we go, every corner we turn, there is some new stunning scenery. It is a really gorgeous race. You have to take advantage of the place you're in, I mean we're riding through terrain that people aren't even allowed to go through. It would be a shame if you don't lift your head and check these things out."