The Epic's hottest day ever takes its toll

Crossing the line in one piece becomes first prize for most riders

By Nic Lamond in Swellendam

I'm not sure if it is by design that the Absa Cape Epic mobile media centre crammed with journalists from around the world adjoins the race medical centre. But you'll forgive me for thinking so – it makes a pretty dramatic snapshot of the day's happenings for anyone armed with a camera and a dictaphone. I climbed off my bike, just happy to be safely in Swellendam this afternoon, after over six and a half hours in the saddle from Riversdale. The first thing I'm greeted by is a man taking a pee carrying his own drip under his arm!

The medical centre looks more like an army field hospital and bears testimony to the demanding conditions competitors struggled through on the 121-kilometre route from Riversdale to Swellendam today. Dusty patients still wearing riding shoes lie draped across the beds, drips feeding their spent bodies as team-mates offer moral support alongside.

The tricky grass-covered and high-speed technical descents today resulted in nasty spills, some with pretty severe consequences. The slippery terrain showed no prejudice, claiming victims from the professional ranks through to the backmarkers. Even one of the off-road motorbike riders and photographer teams slid their BMW down the treacherous face of a slope towards the end of the ride.

But it's the heat that poses the biggest threat to a rider's health out on the course, according to the man heading up the crack team of medical support on the Cape Epic, Dr Basil Bonner. With the mercury pushing 40C out on the trail, and over a hundred kilometres between rider and rest at the finish the body can get into trouble pretty quickly.

Already 119 teams of the 598 that registered five days ago in Knysna have been forced to abandon their plans of completing the 2008 Absa Cape Epic. That figure represents just under 20% of the total field. Thankfully, race rules allow for fit riders to continue riding without their team-mate, but they are not recognised as official event 'finishers'.

Despite the alarming drop-out rate Dr Bonner is quick to point out that the Epic's reputation has meant that fitness levels among participants seems to be better each year, and this year is no exception. But speaking from personal experience the problem is that fine motor skill – essential to staying in control of your bike through the harsh terrain – seems to abandon riders as the day wears on and fatigue sets in. Just remembering to drink enough… and breathe, took all my powers of concentration over the last 15 kilometres of today's stage.

It wasn't easy for anyone

I caught up with a hot Susan Haywood of Team Trek VW after her stage win today in the ladies' competition. Haywood was sad to say good-bye to Swiss rider Fabienne Heinzmann today, after a neck injury sustained two days ago eventually put the Dolphin team out of the running: "It's really unfortunate that they [Heinzmann and team-mate Katrin Schwing] are out because that is who we were going to keep battling with."

Haywood and team-mate Jennifer Smith held off the leading women's team despite the oppressive heat but it was sure that Rocky Mountain's Alison Sydor and Pia Sundstedt were having a quiet day. "Today we saw them at the start. The other days we haven't been able to keep up with them – they start much faster than us. Plus, we have come to the start boxes a bit late the past couple days! They are really experienced road racers – and of course great mountain bike racers – and they really can get with the fast groups right from the go, and stay on them.

"We were riding with an interesting group because it was the women's leaders and us, as well as the mixed team leaders and the second-placed South African mixed team. So it was like a neutral bunch because the leaders didn't have to do any work, and the second-placed riders weren't ready to do anything yet because it was such a long day. So everyone rode together nicely and it wasn't a crazy pace."

With about 25 kilometres to go the bunch split up and just the two women's teams remained. "It seemed to me that Rocky Mountain wasn't riding as hard as they were the other days. But Jenni and I, we were racing. So they appear to be much stronger than us. I don't know if you'd call it a gentlemen's agreement but they said that they weren't going to attack us. Jenni got a bunch of grass stuck in her cassette, and Alison [Sydor] just said, stop, we'll all stop. That's just the type of sportsperson she is: she'll never attack when her competitor has a problem."

But it wasn't all plain sailing to the line as Haywood and Smith held on for a slim one-and-a-half second victory. "I lost my granny gear for all of the last climbing – that really hurt! I'd rather soft-pedal up that stuff, but I had to grind up it all. It will be interesting to see where my legs are at tomorrow!"

Tomorrow is the longest stage in the event's five-year history and will take riders 146 kilometres to Bredasdorp. Thankfully, it doesn't include the intense climbs and descents that have characterised the past few days, but 146 kilometres of off-road racing can hardly be called easy.

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