Cape Epic Part 3: The Dreaded Long Stage
Instinctively, when Cape Epic race stages are announced, eyes glance quickly to two important details - which day will be the longest, and which day will have the most climbing. With 2,350 metres of uphill, stage 3 wouldn't have the most climbing, but at 146km, from Citrusdal to Saronsburg, it was comfortably (or not so) the longest.
The day began with a solid 18km, 900 metre, climb which began on tarmac road, but which soon transitioned into dusty farm tracks, with a corrugated surface - a savage start for anyone who had suffered with saddle sores after the heat and sand of day one.
As we rode up into the glaring early morning sun I was struck by a couple of observations. Firstly, that in spite of suffering quite badly towards the end of stage one, I'd recovered pretty well over night to feel quite good, and secondly, the piercing sound of my whining, sticking front brake disc really was very annoying. Having put in a lot of training miles on the road bike, the climb suited us - a steady gradient, similar to an alpine col - so we began, with a couple of other teams, to put a bit of distance between the rest of our start group. The descent which followed was nervy. Not super steep, but we were soon engulfed by a dust cloud and the switchback turns on gravel were like cornering on marbles, so we certainly took less risks than others. The run in to the first drinks station was swift, so we wasted little time and raced on.
Gradually we were climbing, but not at a hugely noticeable gradient, besides the odd abrupt ramp, so we tucked into some 2-up time-trialling, for as long as the person at the back could bare the dust. Tracks were fairly smooth and it felt fast, until just before the halfway point when we hit a 4km climb on still drivable, but more rutted, terrain. It was steep in places with occasionally exposed bedrock which required more exhausting bike fighting. Not quite trials riding, but we were certainly expending more calories now.
We were rewarded after topping out and skirting the edge of a reservoir, with a few kilometres of singletrack riding, cut specifically for the race. Crudely made bridges enabled the narrow trail to snake through a network of trenches and sandstones formations. The riding was fun, but not technical and soon we were descending to the second feed station at 76km.
The toughest riding had definitely been saved for the end of the day. Farm tracks became quad trails with brick-sized stones, dried river beds and occasional sandy patches which sapped our energy, yet in the absence of serious climbs we still maintained decent progress.
The most interesting riding came in the last 30 kilometres, starting with a challenging wagon trail which had been cleared by local farmers. A tricky little descent through tight and brittle undergrowth led to a steep and rocky climb. Fighting the bike over exposed rock and tall steps was tiring, but the section was mercifully short and we moved quickly into a tortuous descent, taxing not for its technical difficulty, but for the depth of dust - as if thousands of people had emptied their hoover bags on the trail. Not so much sand, but super-fine, lung-clogging dust which, in the light wind, hung in the air.
There was just one major hill left, involving a wickedly steep (virtually a push) wagon trail and a technical 5km descent. The helicopters and live TV coverage hovered over us as we began the descent, like vultures hoping to capture a fall. Others were falling. Everywhere. Loose rocks, drop-offs, dust, trenches. My focus dialled into where my front wheel was heading. Forearms were burning and calves screaming from balancing on the pedals. We dropped 800 metres in just a handful of kilometres, but with the hardest riding behind us we rolled out into more gently descending fields for a final romp to the finish.
Our white Craft tops were exceptional in the heat, but we soon realised, after collecting our Stage One laundry, that they wouldn't stay white for very long.
If you're interested in seeing our Strava statistics for Stage Two you can view those here - Cape Epic 2013 Stage Two Strava Data.
Watch the GoPro Stage 2 highlights: