Due to a questionable decision by the organisers, today’s start took place with all seeding batches leaving simultaneously instead of with the usual two to five-minute gap between groups. The first 30 kilometres of the stage took place on flat district road, resulting in frenetic high-speed bunches forming.
Although we were quickly dropped by the lead bunches, we found ourselves caught up in a large group. About ten kilometres into the stage there was an implosion, as a rider somewhere ahead slid out on a patch of sand. I was lucky to avoid the ensuing pile-up of bikes and bodies but Nick was forced to perform an interesting emergency dismount onto a fallen rider.
After checking bikes and limbs and the state of the fallen we were on our way again. But now Nick had decided that he was done with bunch riding and made a solo breakaway for most of the remaining twenty kilometres of dirt road. Leaving me to spin hamster watts in his wake trying to keep up.
After heading through the first water point we were onto the legendary Houdenbek trails. It is not often that trails live up to the hype created at an event but these trails are very special. They wind through sandstone rock formations and pristine Fynbos in a way that is quite unlike anything else I have experienced. They split and rejoin at intervals so you can choose different options, and race your partner, or try and overtake other riders if you are feeling frisky.
After following a flowing loop, under, over and around sandstone boulders, a leg testing switchback climb took us out of the valley and onto more trails until the second water point.
We then faced another stretch of flat roads and jeep track, mixed up with a few rolling hills. Before too long our next adventure befell us. A rather long piece of barbed wire wrapped itself around Nick’s rear wheel at speed, making a spine-chilling grating noise as it gouged his carbon chainstay. Luckily no other damage was done and we managed to untangle the wire after some puzzling.
Fortunately, the remainder of the ride went smoothly, and we wound our way back onto the magical Kaleo trails for the last dose of sand, rocks, and good times before hitting the finish line.
This race has been one of the toughest but most rewarding events I have been lucky enough to participate in. The route is sublime, in almost every case a long climb is rewarded with a challenging and exciting descent, set against the backdrop of the striking Karoo landscape. The route is hard on bikes and bodies, as illustrated by the number of mechanicals, injuries and other war stories shared by riders at the end of each day. This makes finishing a real accomplishment to be proud of. I’m already plotting to come back next year, fitter and better prepared: I have a date with the Merino Monster.