It was great to receive a good seeding for this year’s 99er, even if it did mean an even earlier alarm call than usual, together with the chance of finding myself outclassed in too-fast a group in what is already a very difficult race to judge your pacing. The forecast was for rain mid-morning, so it was something of a shock to feel the first drops falling as I kitted up and wheeled the bike through the car park towards the start. By the time the group H chute was loaded a moody grey dawn was just breaking, and the slight drizzle had settled into solid sheets of rain. There was some comfort in seeing friendly Wannabee faces – Hendrik a couple of rows across in the group F chute, and Estea and Tom also in group H with me. Nice as it was to see them, it also underlined the worry about being seeded too high – both of them being faster riders than me.
A few minutes later and we were on our way, the smooth wet tarmac jetting streams of spray off the wheels of every bike in the bunch ahead. The first few sharp left and right turns were very nervy – one wheel carelessly placed on a road marking or manhole cover through the turn would not only bring your own bike down but also all of the thirty or more riders behind. As the pace of the bunch picked up to 35km/h and above, there was little left to do but concentrate, steel your nerves, and stick with the bunch.
The crossroads with the R304 came up quickly, and once over the first of the rollers started. The pace was fast, and the bunch starting to break up. Ahead I could see a small group of maybe 10 or so riders had opened a sizeable gap, or maybe it was some stragglers that had already been shelled from the G group ahead. In the middle I could see Tom riding solo in a bid to bridge to the gap – he was looking strong, and I’m sure over the next few kilometers he reached and possibly passed them. For myself, the early pace was starting to tell already. With barely 30km on the clock I could feel a tightening cramp in my inner thighs. Despite numerous calls of SHUT UP LEGS, I was slowly getting dropped from the small group of eight or so riders at the head of our bunch. I wasn’t alone though, and many small sub groups with a handful of riders gradually got stretched out along the last couple of kilometres before we swung left onto the R44.
With around 35km on the clock, I knew I’d pushed too hard too soon. I was soaking wet, the rain was harder than ever, I was battling an evil cross wind solo, and my legs were trashed. I came very close to quitting right there. The only thought which stopped me was realising that all I would achieve is swapping sitting on a bike in the rain, with standing by the road in the rain, with the added misery of giving up. So I pedalled on. What was a little strange, and rather encouraging too, was the few times I did look down at my Garmin, my average speed was between 25 and 35km/h, even with the rain, the wind, and the rolling hills. I began to wonder if it was an error – those kinds of speed are faster than I’d normally ride on a good day, so it seemed very odd to see them after backing off the pace to recover my legs.
One, or perhaps two more bunches came past on the long hard section from Voor Paardeberg back to the R304. I have a feeling that unknowingly, I’d been giving them a tow too. My head was down and I hadn’t looked around, but I’d definitely felt the presence of riders pacing behind me along that lonely stretch of wet and windswept road. Perhaps a kilometre or so before the junction, the groups that had passed seemed to coalesce, and we took the left turn and headed back to the Silos as one large bunch. The King of the Winds sign proved meaningless on the day, and the psychological lift from the unusually absent headwind was enormous. The bunch surged ahead, and a split immediately developed. Myself and a guy in an MTN Qhubeka jersey jumped past the riders in front of us and into the gap, determined to bridge up to the group of riders breaking away. By now, my legs were loose again and we sprinted at full tilt, gradually eating away the distance to the group ahead. It took all of the 5km to the silos to reach them, and I don’t think our speed dropped below 45km/h the whole way. It was a fantastic feeling to be flying along again, with the cramps and pains gone.
I realised just how much ground we had made up when I saw Estea on the rollers towards Van Schoorsdrift. She had passed me in the first bunch that had gone through after we turned off the R44. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to bridge back up to someone who has passed me, let alone a rider who is faster than me. It was an enormous lift, and came at just the right time as energy levels began to flag from 80km of hard riding.
We passed each other a couple of times, and also road along together and chatted for a short section, before she finally pulled away as we battled the starting slopes of Vissershok. I’d love to have had the power to keep up, but by that stage my sole focus was staying on the bike and refusing to give in to the gradient that had beaten me in every previous year.
My initial goal of 3:30 was already gone – an unrealistic target really, having been based on my average speed on Die Burger, which is a much easier ride. Rather more worrying was the snail’s pace I crawled up the fearsome slope ahead. I realised that I’d have to push hard to even make a sub 4 hour time. Cresting the top, I saw Hendrik again briefly – who proceeded to charge at the descent with far more bravery than I could muster. My approach was more measured, studying the shining slippery road for holes and bad surface sections. Even so, I still carried a decent speed down the slope, and was soon at the right turn into Odendaal Street. This is the 99ers real sting in the tail – a savagely steep final 1.2km to the finish line. You often hear talk of chewing on your stem in racing reports, but nowhere on any race in the cape is this line more apt. The cramp in my legs was severe. I thumped on the pedals, alternating standing and sitting until the top of the hill and the finishing mats crept into view. By some miracle, I’d managed to just scrape under 4 hours.
Finally managing to beat those last two climbs after three previous failed attempts was great, but oddly it didn’t feel like I’d had a good ride. It’s only in hindsight, looking at the ride stats, that I realised it was actually a pretty decent performance. Not only had I blown apart my previous best time for the ride, but according to Strava I had set an unprecedented 10 personal best times on segments of the ride. Not bad for a rainy Saturday at the races.
Due to the rain, very few photos have appeared. Headline photo courtesy of Wannabees website. Will update with additional photos if they become available.