This is my kind of day’s riding. Almost 60km through some of the hardest, rockiest, sandiest single and double track that the area has to offer. The first 20 of which are directly into a jet stream (737, not 747 so that’s something), but I think it’s the windiest conditions I’ve ever raced in my life – and I’ve faced a lot of wind head on.
This party starts at 7:10am on Church Street in downtown Stellenbosch, which is a charming town in the heart of wine country. Bring your extra baggage allowance because you’ll need it hauling trinkets, art, souvenirs and wine away from here. I nearly miss the start by not having a letter seeding which means that I would be starting with the “slow” guys at 7:40am – instead I take a “B” slot (graded A-E) and take off about 15 minutes after arriving at the start line.
The race blasts off to a brass band rendition of the South African national anthem, the pelaton rolls through the town roads; past the traditional and modern bungalows hidden amongst the bougenvalias as a neutral lead out. As soon as we hit dirt, the gas goes on; the trail points up and away we go. I hold back casually, but not too casual to get lost pretty well for the first twenty minutes or so, just warming up.
Wind works hard and relentlessly at us all, so I am trying to stay tucked into a pack or at least behind one rider. We turn hard lefts and rights climbing up through the first of many vineyards and the wind gusts at the 90 degree turns almost knock me off my bike. Crazy dust devils and cross-winds are wreaking havoc with our need for speed, and my nearest allies settle in to a steady, teeth clenched grind.
We make a lot of elevation early in the stage, and the climbing weaves us up both double and single, the pinnacle of which is a gnarly 20 degree double track pitch to the first downhill section. It’s fun to watch riders around me who’ve been kicking my ass on the climb fall to the side on the technical descent – it’s rocky, stumpy, whoop-dee-doozy and it seems like every corner has been bermed. The kicker is that it’s tight and sandy mixed with punchy little climbs to make you take the weight back off your upper body for a moment before standing back up.
I’m riding a hardtail (ok, yes it is Carbon) but I have no problem with this, nor do I wish I had a dropper seat post. But many do and many are working hard on the descent. It’s fast, and there’s a lot of whooping going on.
At the bottom of the section, we hook up to more rolling double and single track before hitting the first feed zone. I have brought almost 4.5 litres with me in two bottles and a camelpack so I jam through. I’m already gobbling electrolytes because I can feel the cramp bitch ready to tell me off.
We hit the apex of the out and turn back towards Stellenbosch, this time on the other side of the valley. This is good, because now the wind is mostly at our backs which makes it possible to open the throttle. Some switch back sections are still super hard work, but otherwise it’s a relatively painless section to the second feed zone, but I have gone a bit hard here and worry about paying the price later.
The third section turns out to have the hardest technical climbing – a favorite ploy here is to send you up what was clearly designed as a downhill section and let you suffer it out. I dab out at the top of a super steep pitch for the first time in the race – not more than twenty feet but there it is. The course is littered with shelled out riders – we’ve caught the short track guy and some are clearly suffering on this technical section.
Oh yah, it’s hot too now, like smoking hot and the wind which I cursed only an hour ago would be really welcome right about now.
The downhills through some of the pine forests are world class, with wooden structures, berms and tight, technically demanding lines. I drop into one of the steepest, longest shoots of my life and once again am super happy with my choice of tires. They can handle the dust and sand, and I don’t lose my grip once.
After the third station, we’re on the home stretch and the pace picks up again. I’m riding more or less with a group that consists of two guys dressed with Minion helmets and a bunch of other team riders who talk non-stop in Afrikaans, which is ok for me, since I’m on the edge of cramping and just want to get done. It’s red-line the whole way for my legs, but my cardio feels upper level strong – no real problems with energy. Towards the end of the course I’m riding for while with some fellow North Americans, a friendly guy from Denver with a prosthetic leg is having more fun than many, and damn he can ride!
It’s back down through more vineyards and a short road section to the finish, which is thoughtfully placed in another vineyard – Blaauwklippen Estate. I steer clear of alcohol; instead grab a couple cokes, watermelon, take some pics and watch the finishers come over the line. They have a great set up at the race to chill but I’m on another program. I get my bike washed and then head back to town with some directions and company from a local rider.
An hour later I am back at Stellenbosch Sports Academy in the pool chatting to one of the Seven’s players about his sport and life, soaking my legs and thinking about day two tomorrow – this is my kind of set up. My massage later in the afternoon is one of the most brutal I think I ever received anywhere, the best part is that my masseur Angelo is smiling the whole time, which I guess sums up the day pretty well – we all suffered, but damn, we all loved it!
Note: Bad news is that my Go Pro didn’t capture any video from today (something like operator error)
Event website here: http://www.stillwatersports.com/event/pennypinchers-origin-trails/