Sharing the limelight with the start of the Cape Epic is always tricky for a regional event like the Cross-Country series. Still, a healthy and excitable 200-plus riders turned out to set new heart rate and core temperature records as the heat cranked well over the 30-degree mark in Paarl. This is the third visit to this location in the last 3 years but the organisers spruced things up for competitors with a new course layout that increased the lap length and hiked up the elevation per lap.
The new course
The vital statistics of the new course layout read like this: 4.8 km in length and 165 metres of climbing per lap. The new course also added 900 metres to the lap length but only a further 15 metres of vert. That doesn’t tell much of the story as the new layout ran in the reverse direction for much of the lap and incorporated a few more open spaces to overtake or find a bit of rhythm. The Paarl track offers a less rocky and technically tricky lap than the opener at Bloemendal but makes up for it with sections of very steep climbing and loose, off-camber corners that test front end traction and balance. You have to be hypersensitive on these ‘marbles’ and have a sixth sense for the grip level that can unexpectedly disappear in the blink of an eye.
There is great flow to this new track, with momentum being rewarded through the undulating singletrack sections. I for one, really enjoyed the new track layout, even if I lost my ability to see straight for the final laps of the race. The still heat in Paarl really tests your mettle, especially for the categories that start after 10am.
The lap is split up into two halves, the first being open with more dual track and steadier gradients. The major threat in this section was an A and B line choice that dropped down an embankment. The lead up became increasingly powdery as more and more wheels locked up on their way down. A few riders got caught up here getting wheels crossed up in the sandy trenches, thankfully that same sand acted as a cushion to land in although the tell-tale ‘sand caked’ face was a giveaway to onlookers that you’d had a lie down in the sand bath.
The second half of the lap threw up the real challenges starting with the murderous climb, cleverly named ‘Climb 2’ on Strava, that took you to the highest point of the lap. No shade to hide in here and even with my 50/34 combination I struggled to get my cadence into double figures up this cretin of an ascent. Even as you crested, the climb continued with an uphill stretch of singletrack where you had to keep your concentration up to make the tight switchbacks that followed.
A new feature took you through a cave, offering 3 seconds of blissful reprieve from the sun, refreshing you before the assault on the slithering singletrack that culminated in the most technical point of the lap.
It’s not quite Paarl Rock in terms of size or esteem, but it’s a decent slab on which you get to descend. From the top, it looked a lot more daunting than it actually was. It turned out to be quite grippy too and no more than a roll in and roll out with your weight perched behind the saddle. Each lap I got a little braver and improved my speed leading into this rock roll. A basic sequence of S bends took you to the end of the lap, which the fast kids appeared to lap in around 14 minutes.
Even with the heat, the turnout was acceptable across the age groups with the Sub Juniors and Youths making up most of the numbers. With school holidays having just started, they must have been amped to have some racing to do on their first day off.
Many of the regular Elite riders were no doubt stressing about the Cape Epic and not in attendance, but that only opened up the field to some first-time winners. With the 3 best out of 4 events counting towards colours, this will work well in their favour.